In recent years, we have almost come to expect the well-publicized reports from Bible-belt Texas and avant-garde California of a self-proclaimed prophet announcing the end of the world. He attracts a large following or triggers a near panic—and ends up wrong. The most famous case on American soil, however, took place in the northeastern United States just before the Civil War.

The prophet of doom was no bug-eyed fanatic. He was a square-jawed, honest, church-going farmer named William Miller.

A former captain in the War of 1812, Miller converted from Deism in 1816. Excited, he began to "search the Scriptures" for the truth. After two years he was convinced he understood them—especially Daniel 8:14: "Unto 2,300 days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed."

The cleansing of the sanctuary, Miller believed, could only mean the purging of the earth by fire—in short, the end of the world.

By interpreting these prophetic days as years and beginning from the date of the prophecy (placed by James Ussher at 457 b.c.), Miller concluded that the end of the 2,300 "days" would fall in 1843: "I was thus brought to the solemn conclusion that in about 25 years from that time all the affairs of our present state would be wound up."

The millennial frontier

Miller had grown up in Low Hampton, New York, near the Vermont border. He married in 1803 and moved to Poultney, Vermont, where he farmed and served as a sheriff and justice of the peace.

The area, filled with homesteading farmers, was on one of the main routes from New England to the Midwest. From the settled towns of the East, thousands of adventuresome Yankees were streaming toward the new lands beyond the horizon.

Optimism filled the air. One anthem in the 1840s announced, "We are living, ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.