In this article, Jefferson Vann highlights some historians’ evaluations of the 19th century Millerite movement, and draws some possible implications for present day adherents to conditional immortality.
There is no direct theological connection between the Millerite movement of the mid nineteenth century with conditional immortality. Yet, many of us who hold to conditionalism have connections with churches and denominations which are descendants of Millerism. That movement, stressing the soon coming of Jesus Christ, fizzled out after some of their specific predictions about the second coming were proven to be mistakes. But the movement itself has left a number of lasting marks on the Christian landscape. Understanding how Millerism influenced us helps us to understand ourselves.
Many of our organisations have been cautious about describing themselves as churches. This has partly to do with Millerism’s view that traditional organised churches are generally corrupt and not worthy of representing the true invisible kingdom of God on earth. As a result, historians have found that church denominations emerging from Millerism have been reluctant to embrace the title, and generally careful not to associate with other denominations.
“Millerism fostered an anti-church attitude which many conservative Christians maintain today. It was a Millerite manifesto in 1843: ‘If you are a Christian, come out of Babylon [the traditional religious denominations].”1
This has resulted in a strange “love/hate” relationship among our churches. Independence has been valued to the point that even if our churches are members of denominations, they also tend to have their own agendas and programs quite separate from those denominations, and see little reason to submit to any authority outside the local church. While many of our churches have strong missions programs, those are often tied to individual connections of members, not necessarily to denominational mission agencies. Some of our churches are large and successful, other small and needy, but there is little cross-pollination between the two types, because cooperation between churches is not seen as a priority.
From an historical perspective, it is easy to see how this has happened. Most of the adherents of Millerism had been part of the traditional denominations which rejected them after they began believing in the soon coming of Jesus. After the Great Disappointment of 1844, many did not feel welcomed back into those churches and denominational fellowships. The churches they did join and form tended to be fiercely independent.
Conditionalism also fostered this general mistrust and disconnect with other churches. Since we challenged the traditional view of hell and the doctrine of human immortality, traditionalist churches were very reluctant to embrace us, and we did not feel the love. The proverbial line in the sand was drawn.
In many respects, the historians are correct in their negative evaluation here. Not all other churches and denominational groups are inherently evil just because they think and act differently. In fact, some of our churches have found that relationships and cooperation with other church groups is both possible and healthy.
The direct descendant of Millerism was adventism, and although it created a number of denominations, most people associate that movement only with the Seventh-day Adventists. While historians are split on the question of identifying that church as a cult, the general impression among average Christians from other denominations is that it’s theology is questionable.
“By reinterpreting the significance of October 22, 1844, they enshrined the date and Miller’s movement as an important episode in salvation history. It was on that date, Adventists came to believe, that the judgment of saints and sinners began in heaven. The Second Advent, meanwhile, was expected to take place at some unspecified but imminent time after the judgment had been completed (sic).”2
Some, however simply brand the whole organisation as a cult, and paint both Millerism and any suspect group even loosely tied to Adventism with the same broad strokes. Notice, for example, how Boggs draws a direct link between Millerism and the Branch Davidian cult.
“This cult gave birth to the Seventh Day Adventists, who later produced a split-off group called the Davidians, out of which the Branch Davidians were formed under the stewardship of Ben Roden. Following Roden’s death in 1978 his wife Lois formed the Mount Carmel Commune and entered into a relationship with Vernon Howell, who soon changed his name to David Koresh and then proclaimed himself the new Messiah, using his charisma to take over the organization in the early 1980s.”3
In my own experience, I have found most Seventh-day Adventists to be Bible believing Christians. They have some beliefs which I do not particularly adhere to, but the same could be said of a number of traditionalist groups. I disagree with any Seventh-day organization because I am not sabbatarian. But I feel no reason to brand all sabbatarian organizations and their adherents as cults.
On the other hand, I have to admit that I have met members of my own denomination whose personal theologies I can only describe as deplorable. When a person prides himself on the fact that he is fiercely independent, he runs the risk of not only getting his interpretation of scripture wrong, but also passing along that wrong interpretation as bad doctrine.
Millerism taught us to always be cautious when it comes to proclaiming some unproven belief, because it is possible to be sincere and wrong at the same time. We have learned (I hope) to defend our beliefs from scripture but also to be open to correction from that same scripture.
Although the Millerites were cautious not to tie themselves to any traditional organisations, that does not mean that they were disorganised. In fact, their tremendous success in getting the message of the soon coming of Christ out to the masses in the 19th century was partly due to the remarkable structure and logistical genius of the Millerites.
“The power of the Millerite message increased in tandem with its immediacy. The promise and threat of meeting the Lord at any moment brought audiences to a pitch of excitement. Fervor was matched by resources – a good number of Millerite lecturers, a centrally directed campaign of camp meetings, and a developed structure of prayer meetings, conferences, and publications stood ready to reinforce and build on successes. The result was an astounding impact that has led historians to consider the great revival wave of 1843-1844 as essentially inspired by Millerism.”4
In Miller’s day, the way to reach the masses quickly with a message was not yet the internet, but the newspaper. The Millerites used that tool efficiently, and also took advantage of many other means to spread their message and their movement. Today, conditionalists have a tremendous opportunity to get the word out about life only in Christ via the internet. What we are working on is the “centrally directed campaign” which is still lacking among us. Time is yet to tell whether we will prove to be as successful in getting our message out as the Followers of William Miller were with their message.
In the early nineteenth century, Christians in America had bought into the dream of a nationalised Christianity. They believed that they were part of the greatest nation on the face of the earth, and that if God was going to do anything in that generation, it was going to be through their nation, which they believed was specially appointed by God to change the world.
Enter William Miller, who had been a Captain in the US Army, but who had come to believe that if God was going to intervene in history, it would have to be personally, through the literal second coming of Jesus Christ.
“With their concept of an earthly conflagration, the Millerites flew in the face of the prevailing thrust of American religious tradition which asserts that the United States has a special place in God’s plan as the center for spiritual and moral progress toward the Kingdom of God on this earth [sic].”5
Most of nineteenth century Christianity was enamoured with a political gospel, and Millerism challenged that. They taught that God had a plan, and that he would change the world on his terms. They emphasized the need for people to respond to the gospel as individuals, and get themselves ready for the return of the Saviour. So, although there were many within the ranks of the Millerite movement who were passionate for political change (from abolitionists to prohibitionists), they felt that the most immediate need was for people to hear the midnight cry because Christ was returning, and any socio-economic gospel campaigning would have to take a back seat to getting that gospel of the soon return out to the masses.
Also, because of the immediacy of the return, the movement felt no need to segregate half of its population into secondary roles. Ladies were welcomed, not just as adherents to the Millerite teaching, but also as teachers. Unfortunately that did not survive much past the movement itself.
“…during the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Christian Connection, the Freewill Baptists, the Methodists, the African Methodists, and the Millerites allowed more than one hundred women to preach, but as they grew from small, marginal sects into thriving, middle- class denominations, they began to rewrite their histories as if these women had never existed.”6
If present day organisations want to see the successes that our forebears had, we will have to be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to use whomever he wills to proclaim the message. We are living in an age when he calls both our sons and our daughters to prophesy, and we interfere with that call when we refuse to accept that fact.
Miller prided himself on his mastery of the Bible, and his use of the Bible to answer the questions that people had about the future. He “compiled a lexicon of biblical symbols and their meanings, his ‘Explanation of Prophetic Figures,’ in which he provided an alphabetized list of figures from scripture and their decoded meaning along with the scriptural passages which held the key to this interpretation. ”7 The movement produced many such biblical scholars, who were willing to go back to the Bible to judge every major theological statement made in history.
We have many fine young proponents of conditional immortality today, but one wonders whether today’s crop of teachers are as seasoned as they are skilful. We need people who can not only convince others of the correctness of conditionalism, but who can also demonstrate how conditionalism is taught in the Bible.
evaluations which are a bit of both
Most of the historians’ evaluations of Millerism are not weighted either on the negative or positive side, but are a bit of both. That is, the historians see that some things have developed after Millerism which have both positively and negatively impacted the atmosphere of religious life.
the liberalising aftermath
One such evaluation sees a pendulum swing in American Christianity back to more emphasis on the social and sociological implications of the gospel as a result of the fact that Jesus did not return when they suggested he would.
“Millerism forced the center of American religious orthodoxy to examine its assumptions and more clearly articulate its beliefs. In so doing, a new orthodoxy was formulated – a liberalized evangelicalism: God worked through human beings and their churches to progressively bring on the millennium (sic).”8
Of course, that emphasis was already present in mid 19th century America before Miller. So, what Millerism actually did was serve as a marker for the church to go in one direction instead of the other. That is positive, because much good has come of a church focused on writing the wrongs in its society. But it is also negative, because the message of Christ’s second coming has now been somewhat trivialised by Millerism’s failure to get the message exactly right.
attraction of the marginalised
Millerism attracted people who had given up on the traditional approaches to changing the world because they had failed to see the success they wanted. When you are down and out, the message of a coming Saviour who can change things is a welcomed message.
“Drawing their adherents from the most desperate classes in postrevolutionary society (debtors, landless laborers, homesteaders and migrants, the flotsam of the early industrial revolution), the millenarian sects of the 1830s and 1840s tapped into a deep well of economic frustration and social alienation. Failure was the common denominator in the lives of antebellum prophets, almost all of whom were men and women of truly marginal existence, and failure was the bond they shared with their followers. The eighteenth-century faith in the uplifting power of reason shriveled in the face of such intractable poverty—poverty of body and soul (sic).”9
Many who came to Christ under the influence of Millerite preaching went back to their original denominations afterwards. These had been convinced of the gospel message through Millerism, and now took their place as part of a new work force within the traditional denominations.
A new theological place card was developing as a result of what the Millerites call millennialism. It is known today as premillennialism, and contrasts with the enlightenment influenced postmillennialism. It teaches that much of the righting of wrongs that we hope for will take place during an earthly reign of Christ after his return.
“Even as the Social Gospelers advanced their cause in largely postmillennial terms, premillennialists were creating yet other forms of Christian community. Especially as allied with John Nelson Darby’s dispensationalism, with its teaching about distinct ages/dispensations in Christian history and distinct divine injunctions for each, premillennialism became a major movement in American Protestant culture.”10
The now fully emerged premillenialism has served as a correcting emphasis for those who are inclined to get so caught up in the work of changing the world that they forget that God himself has a stake in that game too. But it can also wrongly lead people to believe that our God does not want us to be salt and light, and positively influence this world for his kingdom.
It can be helpful to take a look back every now and then, and see where you came from. As conditionalists, we have a legacy because of our association with movements like Millerism. May God give us the wisdom to adopt the positive aspects of that movement, while avoiding its mistakes.
More Church History Articles
- A brief tour of Reformed Conditionalism
- Soul Sleep of the Swiss Brethren
- Conditional Immortality in the 19th Century
- David S. New, Christian Fundamentalism in America: A Cultural History. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012), 76.
- Malcolm Bull, Keith Lockhart. Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 7.
- Carl Boggs, The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere. (New York: The Guilford Press, 2000), 139.
- Ronald L. Numbers, The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), 122.
- David S. New, Christian Fundamentalism in America: A Cultural History. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012), 76.
- Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 8.
- David Morgan, Protestants & Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture and the Age of American Mass Production (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 367.
- David S. New, Christian Fundamentalism in America: A Cultural History. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012), 77.
- Susan Juster, Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 263.
- Catherine A. Brekus, W. Clark Gilpin, eds., American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity. (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 50.