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I was in eighth grade, Mrs. Pasyanos's English class to be exact, when I stared at the clock and waited for the world to end. That was the year Hal Lindsey had pegged for Christ's Second Coming, and someone else had gone a step further, identifying a date and time. Other than a 5-minute break in a lecture on parts of speech, nothing happened. The hapless prophet probably had some statement for the next day's papers, and everyone moved on.

The rapture scare of 1988 ranks quite low on the all-time list of would-be apocalypses. The year 1000 might top the European charts, though some scholars aver that hardly anyone knew what year it was at the time. Here in America, the Millerite mania of 1843-1844 takes the prize.

In an age with more than its share of raving revivalists, incendiary abolitionists, spooky spiritualists, and self- proclaimed messiahs, William Miller seemed an unlikely striker of panic. He tended a farm in Vermont, fought in the War of 1812, and served as a justice of the peace. His religious life, however, had not been so steady.

Early in life, Miller followed Deism, the rationalistic faith of many American intellectuals (and several founding fathers). He converted to Christianity in 1816, then began assiduous study of the Scriptures. He found the prophecies of Daniel especially compelling and used a few key numbers from the text to calculate the date for Christ's return. The formula went something like this:

  • Daniel 8:14 says that after 2,300 days, the sanctuary will be cleansed.

  • "Day" actually means "year," and the cleansing of the sanctuary means the eradication of evil on earth—in other words, the End.

  • According to James Ussher, an influential Anglican bishop with a passion for dating biblical events, Daniel recorded that prophecy in 457 B.C.

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