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Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Prophet from Pittsfield

In a previous column installment, I discussed the curious Hebrew phylactery found in Pittsfield in 1815, and its role as a possible influence on Joseph Smith and the origins of the Book of Mormon. It is perhaps doubly curious then, that Pittsfield also has a major tie to the murky origins of the other major homegrown American religious movement of the 19th Century: Adventism

It used to be remarked that one couldn’t walk far in Pittsfield without seeing a Revolutionary War vet or a clergyman’s daughter (dead cat swinging was not yet a common practice, so there’s no real way of gauging the proportion). Suitably, William Miller was born in Pittsfield, in 1782, to a retired Continental Army captain of the same name and the former Paulina Phelps (daughter of Elnathan Smith, who was instrumental in forming the First Congregational and First Baptist church of Pittsfield, along with a number of other churches in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York).

His mother’s upbringing was a major influence on William, and his childhood diaries are full of references to Biblical passages and theological writings. While serving as an officer in the War of 1812, William became even more devout in his study of the Bible, becoming particularly absorbed with the Old Testament prophets, especially Daniel, and the book of Revelation. Over the following years, Miller came to the conclusion that coded references in the Bible foretold the timing of Christ’s Second Coming. Using his own interpretive system, he believed he could even narrow it down to an exact year: 1843.

Millers logic rested on the assumption that the 2300 days before the cleansing of the sanctuary, referred to in Daniel 8:14, could be taken to mean the world would end in 2300 years. A vague passage in Ezekiel [Chapter 4, verse 6] shored up his belief that in prophecy, one day was equal to one year. Of course, there’s also the equation of a day to a thousand years in Gods time [2 Peter 3:8], but I suppose the Seeker finds what the Seeker is aiming to find. In any case, if one begins counting, as Miller did, from 457 B.C., the ostensible date of Artaxerxes’ decree to rebuild Jerusalem, one gets 1843.

Beginning in 1831, Miller took to the road, traveling from pulpit to pulpit and tent to tent to spread the word of Jesus impending Advent, gaining large numbers of converts throughout the country, primarily in highly rural areas. Every storm, mishap and tragedy was said to be a sign of the impending end of the world. Millerites, as they became called, began going up on hilltops and buildings in white ascension robes to look for signs in the sky. One large faction of Millerites caused a stir when they were believed lost on West Stockbridge Mountain during a bad storm.

With their heretical beliefs and peculiar white robes, Millerites quickly became not only objects of derision, but also suspicion. Rumors of sex orgies, insanity, murder and suicide among the white-robed Millerites became prevalent. On top of this hysteria, there existed the very real problems arising from many followers quitting their jobs, removing their children from school, and generally removing themselves from worldly functioning, in preparation for the imminent apocalypse. In Shaftsbury, a Millerite meeting was raided on suspicion that the group was subsisting on vegetables stolen from nearby farms.

As 1843 neared a close, with no sign of the predicted parousia, Miller announced that he had made a small error in his calculations, and set the new date for October 22, 1844.

When this new anticipated day arrived, Millerites everywhere donned their white robes, clustering in homes and churches to pray and wait. Many climbed hilltops or trees to be closer to Heaven when it opened to them. In Rutland, one man constructed wings and attempted to fly up it from the top of his barn, and in another Vermont town the smiling corpse of Mrs. Young, a devout Millerite who had died on the 15th, was left in her bed assuming she would be raised from death.

When night fell on October 22, 1844, and the dawn followed, thousands of lives were destroyed.

A large number of followers -how many is unclear- committed suicide. Miller retired to Low Hampton, NY, where he went blind, senile, and died five years later, still genuinely believing that there was merely some small error in the historical dating and the End was still near. The remaining Millerites went on to form various other Adventist sects, of which the Seventh Day Adventist Church, formed in 1863, is the largest today,with more than 15 million members in 203 countries.

Most modern Adventist movements decline to set any specific dates for the end of the world.

Joe Durwin is a Pittsfield native who sometimes suspects the world did end already, and the apparently real world is just syndicated television. Send strange stories and eschatological forecasts to, or write to him care of the Advocate.


Anonymous said...

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