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.

  • Add 2,300 years to 457 B.C., and you get 1843.

Miller arrived at this conclusion not long after his conversion, but he didn't tell anyone about it until 1831. Soon invitations to speak began to pour in, and Miller became a local phenomenon. He gained wider audience in 1838 by publishing Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, About the Year 1843 and partnering with pastor Joshua V. Himes, who would serve as his publicist. An estimated 50,000 people took the message to heart and prepared to meet their maker, while hundreds of thousands more at least casually turned an eye to the skies.

As the title of Miller's book indicates, he had not pinpointed a date for the apocalypse. Pressed for more specificity, he could only offer the span March 21, 1843 to March 21, 1844—the beginning and end of the Hebrew year. Unfortunately, March 1844 saw no lions lying down with lambs. Miller announced that he must have erred, but one of his followers dipped back into the Scriptures to adjust the calculations. After the "tarrying time" cited in Habakkuk 2:3 and Leviticus 25:9 was factored in, October 22, 1844, got the nod.

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Once again, nothing happened. Or did it?

A small group of Millerites determined that Christ had cleansed the sanctuary on that fateful day, but only in heaven. Earth, they claimed, failed to participate in this glory because the earthly church neglected the true Sabbath (Saturday). This group, led by James and Ellen Gould White, went on to become the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Pretty much everyone else deemed Miller and his prophecies pure folly. The October debacle became known as the Great Disappointment, and Miller died, lonely and broken, five years later.

In one sense, however, Miller's ideas won the day. Unlike most nineteenth-century American Christians, Miller believed that God's decisive intervention, not Christians' pious actions, would institute the millennial kingdom. Twentieth-century fundamentalists carried on this belief, in contrast to liberals who emphasized human progress and perfectability. Many evangelicals still await the cosmic interruption Millerites anticipated more than 150 years ago, though almost none go so far as to nominate a day or hour.

Elesha Coffman is the former managing editor of Christian History magazine and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in history at Duke University.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net.Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:

Timeline of the Spirit-Gifted | Before Moody, Finney, Edwards, and Mather came a long line of Catholic and Orthodox believers reputed to enjoy "the promise of the Father." (Oct. 11, 2002)
Do Non-Charismatics 'Do' Holy Spirit Baptism? | Ask D. L. Moody, Charles G. Finney, Jonathan Edwards, or Cotton Mather. (Oct. 7, 2002)
Standing Alone for Unity | The attempt to bring European Christians together forced one reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld, straight to the fringe. (Sept. 20, 2002)
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9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective. (Sept. 13, 2002)
Evangelicalism's Decades of Fire | New historical survey highlights twentieth-century evangelicalism's impassioned middle decades. (Sept. 6, 2002)
A Protestant Bishop Speaks Out on the Stakes of Public Education | Why concerned parents should read the 17th-century Moravian educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. (Aug. 30, 2002)
Spurgeon on Jabez | What history's most prolific preacher said, in 1871, about the Prayer of Jabez (Aug. 23, 2002)
History in a Flash | A new CD-ROM offers quick access to the facts of church history, plus interactive quizzes. (Aug. 16, 2002)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife (Aug. 9, 2002)
Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Emotions have historically run high as Christians have staked their claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Aug. 2, 2002)