William Miller, for instance. He predicted that the end of the world would occur in 1843, in what proved to be the greatest second-coming anticlimax in American history. To this day the Miller fiasco is known as The Great Disappointment, and well, who’d want to be known for that? Not me, thank you very much.
The seeds of the travesty we sown many years before when Miller, then a farmer in upstate New York, began his great exegesis of the Bible. Once a Deist, he’d converted to the Baptist faith after the War of 1812. It was around about that time that he discovered this passage in the Book of Daniel (8:14 to be precise):
He said to me, “It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.”
Miller saw this as a code for the approach of Armageddon. In his interpretation, based on various other clues in Biblical text, the number 2,300 stood not for days but years. Considering that Irish Archbishop and biblical scholar James Ussher had set the date of the writing of the Book of Daniel at 457 B.C., it meant that the second coming of Christ would happen in the year 1843. Miller began to spread the word.
Here I should say that average people in New England at that time were not unusually gullible. Even considering that the Second Great Awakening was underway, people were not especially inclined to believe the religious rantings of a nobody farmer from New York. True, Miller was quite charismatic and had an exceptional command of scripture. But what really got people’s attention was a set of astronomical phenomena, the first of which occurred in 1833.
In November of that year a meteor shower unlike any that had ever been seen before in North America occurred. It was an incidence of the annual Leonid shower, but with a once-in-a-millennium intensity. Thousands of meteors fell per hour, creating a heavenly glow so bright it was said that a person could read a newspaper by it. It impressed the faithful greatly, for indeed the “falling of the stars from heaven” is a sign of the end times, so said by John in Revelation (6:13) and by Jesus himself in the Gospel of Matthew (24:29).
Miller’s words suddenly had weight. But lights in the sky, Joe? Would that really make enlightened people believe the end of the world was coming? Don’t under underestimate the power of heavenly signs, friends. Astronomical events have portended great events in all the major religions on Earth. New stars coincided not only with the arrival of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but with that of Buddah and Zoroaster. Seeing those stars fall — en masse — would have rattled any religious person, anywhere.
So Miller began a national speaking tour. It’s estimated that “Millerites” numbered as many as 50,000 by 1843, which by coincidence was the year that more odd things were seen in the skies. Strange perihelia (or “halos”) began to appear around the sun. The rings have yet to be explained scientifically, but were documented across North America. They whipped Miller’s followers into a near frenzy.
Then something really weird happened. Nothing. All of 1843 went by with no sign of the Messiah. Miller went back to his books and realized he’d made a mistake in his calculations. Arriving at the correct year was not simply a matter of starting at -457 and adding 2300. According to the astronomical calendar, when B.C. went over to A.D., there was a “year zero” between the Year 1 B.C. and the Year 1 A.D.. That added an extra year to the equation and pushed the whole timetable forward to 1844. Miller made the announcement and for good measure set a precise day for the Apolcalypse: October 22nd.
With a firm date in hand, the Millerites began to divest themselves of their worldly belongings. Dairymen took down their fences and released their livestock. Farmers let their fields fall fallow. Shop keepers gave away their goods and followers of all stripes either gave their money away or literally let it blow away in the wind. As the appointed day approached they collected a few meager belongings and headed off for hilltops and meadows to await the rapture.
Its failure to occur was a communal cataclysm that’s still talked about, especially on the eastern seaboard where family bibles, letters and journals record the days of weeping and depression that followed. An estimated hundred thousand Millerites had to find ways to pick up their lives again. The merely depressed were the luckiest. Others were taunted or pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables when they returned to their homes. In the savage land of Canada, some Millerites were tarred and feathered.
Fortunately none of the poor cultists in the French Corbieres hills — or at any other site around the globe — have that to look forward to nowadays (though I’d be leery of Canada if it were me, I’m just sayin’). Still, more than a few will experience the same sort of letdown as they try to figure out what they’re going to do with themselves going forward. My heart goes out to them, truly. Though for my part I can say I’m relieved to get past this day. I wasn’t nervous, but I remember as a child being scared to death by a movie about the mysteries of the ancient world produced by Sunn International Pictures (they produced all sorts of 70′s Sunday matinee fodder like In Search of Historic Jesus and In Search of Noah’s Ark). Afterward I spent many terrified days and near-sleepless nights contemplating the Irwin Allen-esque end of my middle-aged existence. Save me Santa!
Traces of those sorts of frights can linger even when you become a rational adult. So while I never really thought that aliens would come back, or whatever those Sunn Pictures goofballs predicted, I can say that the echo of an anxiety that’s been part me for 35 years is finally gone. It feels good. Long live all of us!