Days of Delusion - A Strange Bit of History

Chapter 1

By Clara Endicott Sears, 1924

"A youth to whom has given
So much of earth, so much of heaven."

"What kind of a man could William Miller have been?" is the wondering question often asked when the Millerite excitement of 1843 is spoken of.

Well - he was what one might call a character. If he had been told in his youth that some day he would be prophesying the near approach of the Day of Judgment and the destruction of the world by fire, he would have been as surprised as anybody. The paths of Destiny sometimes lead into unexpected pastures.

To begin with, in his childhood William Miller was the kind of a boy who would creep downstairs with as little noise as possible after his parents and all his brothers and sisters had gone to bed and thrust some pitch-wood into the embers smouldering in the depths of the broad brick chimney in the kitchen so as to get light from the flames, and then stretch himself at full length upon the hearth and read with trembling ecstasy of the thrilling adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Robert Boyle, and all those heroes of fiction so dear to the heart of every normal lad who conceals within him a touch of romance, of poetry, and chivalry. Then, too, the difficulty of procuring the precious volumes enhanced their value to him. It was only when he could earn money chopping wood "out of school hours" that he could ever buy one, and each book added to his meager store was loved as a friend. He was the oldest of sixteen children and the only one of them that cared for books. His parents, who were quiet, respectable people in humble circumstances - good Baptists both of them and firm adherents of that faith - were troubled by the desire he showed to read whatever he could lay his hands on. The father was just a typical farmer such as can be found anywhere in our country districts - a God-fearing, industrious man, able to feed and clothe his family upon the resources of his farm, but unable to give them more than country villages provided in the way of education.

So William Miller went to the district school as all the country children did, but he was better than any of his comrades at his lessons, and after a while it became a matter of comment that he was likely to outstrip his teacher in knowledge if he persisted in reading outside of school hours, and it was not approved of by some. But there happened to be several well-to-do men in the neighborhood who looked upon it differently, and they became enough interested in him to lend him books that were far beyond his means to buy, and these he poured over with a joy that was incomprehensible to his parents, who looked upon this desire for literature on the part of their eldest son with a good deal of disapproval and suspicion as well as apprehension. But this did not deter him; in spite of their admonitions he still kept on, and as he grew older a longing for a real education beset him with such intensity that, as he afterwards expressed it, "it seemed almost essential to his existence"; but it was not to be - work in the fields and helping out on the farm claimed all his spare hours. So he had to get what learning he could through his own efforts - reading all that he could with so much perseverance and tenacity that when he had acquired the age of manhood he had left his associates far behind him in matters of book lore and was accorded a degree of consideration by his fellow townspeople that was unusual in one so young. By this time his parents had changed their view in regard to him. They deplored the fact that they could not help him to get the knowledge that he longed for. The best they could do was to let him have more time for his reading and they gave him a room to himself - a luxury unlooked for in so large a family - and there he absorbed a heterogeneous mixture of history, poetry, fiction, etc., with no instructor or guide to point the way other than his own inclination.

For the young people of the place "he became a sort of scribbler general," and his biographer tells us, "If any one wanted verses made, or a letter to send, or some ornamental or symbolic design to be interpreted by the tender passion, or anything which required extra task or fancy in the use of the pen, it was pretty sure to be planned if not executed by him." [Sylvester Bliss, "Life of William Miller".]

He was married a few months after his twenty-first birthday to Miss Lucy Smith, of Poultney, Vermont. The wedding took place on June 30, 1803, and there they started life together on a small farm.

It so happened that there was quite a sizable library in the village which especially attracted young Miller, and whatever time he could spare from his farm work was given to poring over the books he found there. It must be said that he was extremely fortunate in his choice of a wife. Instead of trying to draw him away from the bookshelves, the young woman encouraged him to indulge his craving for knowledge, realizing that his spare time was limited. It was not long before some of the superior men of the place - those with bigger farms and broader outlook - began to notice him and to watch him with some interest. It was unusual to find a young man newly wedded poring over the old musty volumes in the village library instead of keeping out in the sunshine with his bride during his spare hours, and their curiosity was stirred.

It was just about a year or two after the young couple had started farming in Poultney that exceptional preparations were being made in the village to celebrate the Fourth of July, and every one was entering into the spirit of it with great enthusiasm, including, of course, young Miller and his wife, and while the former was hoeing in his cornfield he felt inspired to write a patriotic hymn for the occasion. That evening, after he had finished his farm work and attended to the chores, he sat down and wrote verses that could be sung to the tune of "Delight" - an old song familiar to every one in those days.

Now the appointed marshal for the day was Squire Ashley, a near neighbor of his, and, being somewhat diffident in regard to his poetical effusion, the young man took some time to consider how he could bring it to this gentleman's attention without appearing presumptuous. He thought it over during the night, and the next morning he walked over to Squire Ashley's farm, and, catching a glimpse of Mrs. Ashley sitting sewing close to the sitting-room window, he managed to slip his manuscript on to the window sill without attracting attention and hurried away. When the good lady looked up from her sewing, her eyes fell upon it, and, thinking it was something belonging to her husband, she took it to him and he opened it and read what was written inside.

"Why, what's this? - what's this poem?" he asked his wife.

"I thought it was something belonging to you," she replied, opening her eyes wide with surprise - "I found it on the window sill."

"Well - that's certainly strange! - why, but these are fine words that express fine sentiments! - and the footnote states it cane be sung to the tune of 'Delight' - We'll sing it at the celebration - it's just what we need!"

The Squire immediately sought ought several friends and deputed them to make numerous copies which could be distributed among the village people and thus enable all present to join in the signing. There was great curiosity expressed as to who the mysterious author could be and it created quite a stir.

When the hour came for the celebration and the people had assembled, they were told to form in line and apply in turn for one for the copies so as to sing this newly acquired patriotic hymn with a good big volume of sound. Mr. Kendricks, the Baptist minister, stood where he could watch the face of each person as he came forward to receive a copy, and, seeing young William Miller's countenance flushed with embarrassment as he put his hand out, he became convinced that he was the one they all were looking for. Consequently, he questioned him closely and drew forth an admission from him regarding the authorship of the hymn which they were preparing to sing, whereupon all lifted up their voices and sang it with enthusiasm. It was declared to be a great success, and perfectly suited to the occasion.

The verses are as follows:

"Our Independence dear, Bought with the price of blood,
Let us receive with care, and trust our Maker God,
For He's the tower to which we fly;
His grace is nigh in every hour.

"Nor shall Columbia's sons forget the price it cost,
As long as water runs, or leaves are nipped by frost,
Freedom is thine; Let millions rise,
Defend the prize through rolling time!

"There was a Washington, a man of noble fame,
Who led Columbia's sons to battle on the plain;
With skill they fought; the British host
With all their boast soon came to naught!

"Let traitors hide their heads and party quarrels cease;
Our foes are struck with dread, when we declare for peace.
Firm let us be, and rally round
The glorious sound of liberty!"

"This production with other prose and poetry," so says his biographer, "made him at once notable in the community and secured for him a wide circle of friends. The young folks made his house a place of common resort to which they gathered to spend their leisure hours, while he and his wife became the central unit which drew them together and kept all in motion." Things were looking bright for them; the farm was prospering, and young William Miller had become a member of the Masonic fraternity in which "he advanced to the highest degree which the lodges then in the country, or in that region could confer." [Sylvester Bliss, "Life of William Miller".] More than that, he was soon appointed to the position of Constable, and in 1809 to the office of Sheriff, and he was well on the road to the promotion of High Sheriff when, to the amazement of his friends, he became bitten with an overwhelming desire to enter the Army.

"What strong impulse could have turned him off in that direction?" asks his biographer; "already the business of his office had placed him in easy circumstances. Such was the amount of his business that he kept two horses, one of which he drove, while the other was kept up to rest week by week, alternately. He enjoyed the respect and unbounded confidence of the public. His preference for the Army, so far as we know, sprang from two motives: first, he desired to participate in the glory which rested on the memory of those he held most dear in the history of his country and his family (his father had fought in the Revolution); secondly, he hoped to enjoy a more inviting exhibition of human nature in the scenes of military life than experience or books had afforded in civil life. He was satisfied with the trial of what was around him and wished to try a new field." This is stated by himself in his published "Memoirs." "In the mean time I continued my studies," he writes, "storing my mind with historical knowledge. The more I read, the more dreadfully corrupt did the character of man appear. I could discern no bright spot in the history of the past. Those conquerors of the world and heroes of history were apparently but demons in human form. All the sorrow, suffering, and misery in the world seemed to be increased in proportion to the power they attained over their fellows. I began to feel very distrustful of all men. In this state of mind I entered the service of my country. I fondly cherished the idea that I should find one bright spot at least in the human character as a star of hope - a love of country - Patriotism."

This tone of pessimism and depression which was beginning to tarnish the brightness of his outlook was due to two things, the influence of the men with whom he had daily intercourse, and the books that he had been reading. A course of study of the works of Voltair, Hume, Volney, Paine, Ethan Allen, and others in the same line of thought, had borne fruit after their kind. Now these friends of his were respectable, moral men, and good citizens as well, but they did not trouble themselves about spiritual matters, they cared only for the material world, and most of them were avowed deists - men who in an offhand way admitted the existence of a Creator, but repudiated all belief in the revealed religion of our Saviour - and in their ignorance they ridiculed and made fun of William Miller's strict ways and religious belief, and twitted him for going to church. The Millers were all Baptists, by nature devout, and looked upon religion with reverence; but this perpetual scoffing on the part of his friends proved to be more than William could stand and he turned about and declared openly that he had become a deist. His biographer describes the deplorable effect of this change upon his character:

"During this period the effect of deism upon him was such as to make him treat the Bible and all sacred objects with pitiable levity. He seemed to take a sort of defiant pleasure in banishing from his memory the impressions of his early life, and he gave to his sceptical associates an assurance that he had mastered his superstition, as they deemed it, by performing for their sport the devotions of the worship to which he has been accustomed, and especially by mimicking the devotional peculiarities of some of his own family relations. One of these was his grandfather Phelps, pastor of the Baptist Church at Orwell; the other was his uncle, Elihu Miller, who was settled as pastor of the Baptist Church at Low Hampton. These honorable ambassadors of Christ, and other pious relatives, often visited Mr. Miller's house at Poultney, and although he received them with affection and respect, and entertained them in the most generous manner, he was in the habit of imitating with the most ludicrous gravity their words, tones of voice, gestures, fervency, and event he grief they might manifest for such as himself, to afford a kind of entertainment for his sceptical associates, which they seemed to enjoy with peculiar relish."

"Little did he think," his biographer pertinently remarks, "that he was measuring to these faithful men what was to be measured to him again - pressed down, shaken together, and running over!"

His wife and parents were almost prostrated with grief at the revelation of this phase of his character, as opposed to all that he had been before, and which was so alien to their simple and serious faith.

"There was more than one heart that was almost inconsolably afflicted by this conduct of Mr. Miller," his biographer continues. "His mother knew of it, and it was as the bitterness of death to her. Some of her pious sisters witnessed with tears his improprieties, and when his mother spoke of the affliction to her father Phelps, he would console her by saying; 'Don't afflict yourself too deeply about William. There is something for him yet to do in the cause of God.'"

Such was the state of his mind when he entered the Army as a Lieutenant. His commission is dated July 21, 1810, and is signed by Jonas Galusha, Governor of Vermont. A copy of his oath written on the back of his commission is as follows:

"I, William Miller, solemnly swear that I will be true and faithful to the State of Vermont; that I will not directly or indirectly do any act or thing injurious to the Constitution or Government thereof as established by Convention. So help me God. I also swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States.

"William Miller, August 13, 1811."

"The foregoing oaths were taken and subscribed to before me, Caleb Handy, Jr., Brig. Gen."

All this happened a year before the declaration of war between the United States and England.

"On the 18th of June, 1812, the declaration was made in due form; and the first note of preparation found Mr. Miller with hundreds of his hardy and patriotic Green Mountain neighbors ready to take the field. A very short time after, it was announced that he would take his place at the head of a company of State Volunteers. On the day after the date of the act of the State Government of Vermont, which authorized the raising of such a body, his captain's commission is dated." [Sylvester Bliss, "Life of William Miller".]

It was expected that the fighting would take place in the direction of Burlington, and Captain Miller's company was ordered there, as well as all the other volunteers who came from that part of the country. An accident happened to him while on the march to Burlington which not only came near being fatal to him, but which left its mark upon him, and it is a question whether it did not make deeper inroads upon his health than were recognized at the time. He described his unfortunate experience to his wife in the following letter:

"Camp at Burlington, June 13th, 1813

"Dear Lucy:

"I am now at this place after a fatiguing march. My feet are all worn out, and my body is very sore. On our march from Bennington to this place I met with an accident which almost deprived me of life. The last day of our march, my feet and ankles being very lame, I hired a passage in a wagon with four or five of my brother officers. Capt. Clark and myself got into the hind part of the wagon, and while fixing the seat the horses started and threw me out. I fell on the back of my head, and they have since informed me that I lay as if dead for fifteen or twenty minutes. They put me into the wagon and carried me five or six miles before I came to my senses.

"I have not much of consequence to write. We expect the British in at Burlington every hour. There were about a thousand men came in yesterday from Bennington and Windsor, and we are ready to meet them with any force they can bring against us. I have nothing more to write but to subscribe myself

"Your ever loving husband, William Miller"

On the very day that he wrote this letter he received notice that he had been transferred from the Volunteers of the State of Vermont to the rank of Lieutenant on the Regular Army of the United States, as the following order will show:

"Encampment Burlington, June 13, 1813

"Sir: You are hereby commanded to repair to the County of Rutland, and there attend to the Recruiting Service for the 30th Regt. Infantry in the U.S. Army. You will govern yourself by the laws of the United States, and return to this post when commanded.

[Signed] "Mason Ormsbie, Maj. Inf'ry

"To Lieut. Miller, U.S. Army."

In remarking upon this change his biographer says: "Such a transfer is considered honorable in the military sense; and the change of service, which allowed him to enjoy the comforts of home and the attention of friends while suffering from his late accident, must have been very acceptable." [Sylvester Bliss, "Life of William Miller".] But he had not been there a month when he received an imperative command from Headquarters as follows:

"Cantonment Burlington, July 7th, 1813

"Lieut. W. Miller, at Poultney,

"You are hereby commanded to join your regiment at Burlington immediately, and report yourself to the Commanding Officer.

"Elias Fasset, Col. 30th Infantry."

Again came the hurried good-byes and the departure, and fortunately he little suspected what awaited him at Burlington. Shortly after joining his regiment the dreaded army fever broke loose and spread rapidly among the troops, and the fatalities were so numerous that orders were issued to remove the bulk of the army to higher land. But Lieutenant Miller, who succumbed to the fever quickly, owing to his health being weakened on account of his accident, was too ill to be removed, and he and a few other severe cases remained to fight their way back to health where they were.

When autumn came he had practically recovered with the exception of a terrible sore upon his arm. As he suffered very much from it, an operation was advised. The following anecdote regarding it reveals a very human quality in his character which is worth noting and which his biographer relates: "He was somewhat displeased by the rudeness of the thoughtless medical students or surgeon's mates, who too often seemed to think that a disabled soldier is good for nothing but to cut up for experiments. As they handled the diseased limb one day somewhat roughly, and spoke very lightly of its amputation as a matter of course, he reminded them that his sword arm was still sound; and putting his hand on the hilt of his sword before him, gave them to understand that whatever might be advised in the case, he should not submit to any unnecessary pain for their amusement. They understood him and it ended their rudeness. He managed to keep his arm, and was able to join his regiment which was now in active service, searching for the enemy on the Canadian frontier."

The year 1814 came at last, which was to be the crucial period of the war. In August of that year Lieutenant Miller was promoted to the rank of Captain in the Regular Army. He received the following summons that same month:

"Burlington, August 12, 1814

"To Wm. Miller, Capt. In the 30th In'y.

"Sir: You are ordered to report yourself to the Commanding Officer of said regiment without delay at Plattsburg. I am, Sir, with respect, etc., etc.

"Elias Fasset, Col. 30th and Comd. Recruiting."

It was close upon the heels of his arrival at camp that the thrilling moment for which our army had been waiting, and an extract from the following letter to his wife, dated September 4, 1814, reveals the suppressed excitement under which Captain Miller was laboring:

"The British are within ten miles of this place and we expect a battle tomorrow; and I think they must be d----d fools if they do attack us, as they are ten or eleven thousand strong, and we are only fifteen hundred, but every man is determined to do his duty. It may be my lot to fall; if I do I will fall bravely. Remember, you will never hear from me if I am a coward.

"I must close, as it is almost eleven o'clock.

"Remember your William Miller."

How vividly these few lines reveal the suspense and excitement that were beating in every one of those fifteen hundred courageous hearts!

They had to wait a week, but at last the looked-for moment came on the 11th of September,

It was a beautiful mild morning and our warships rode quietly at anchor, while all about them sparkled the blue waters of Plattsburg Bay in the early autumn sunshine. Suddenly the lookout boat gave a sharp warning of the approach of the enemy, and presently the British fleet could be seen passing Cumberland Head, while at the same moment the firing of the royal salute shook the air and echoed from shore to shore.

Immediately every sailor on our ships and every soldier in the forts bordering on the lake sprang to their posts. The battle had begun.

History has eloquently recorded Commodore Macdonough's victory and described the precipitous retreat of the British land forces, commanded by Sir George Provost, with a loss of twenty-five hundred men killed, wounded, and missing after the naval defeat.

The following jubilant letters written by Captain Miller paint a vivid picture of that memorable day. The first was written to Judge Stanley, of Poultney, and read as follows:

"Fort Scott, Sept. 11, 1814, 20 minutes past two o'clock P.M.

"Sir: "It is over! It is done! The British fleet has struck to the American flag! Great slaughter on both sides! They are in plain view where I am now writing. My God! The sight was majestic, it was noble, it was grand!

"This morning at ten o'clock the British opened a very heavy and destructive fire upon us, both by water and by land; then congreve rockets flew like hailstones about us, and round shot and grape from every quarter. You have no idea of the battle! Our force was small, but how bravely they fought! Sir Lord George Provost feels bad. His land force may expect to meet their fate if our Militia do their duty; but in time of action they were not to be seen. The action on water lasted only two hours and ten minutes; the firing from their batteries has just ceased - ours is still continuing; the small arms are now just coming to action. I have no time to write any more; you must conceive what we feel, for I cannot describe it. I am satisfied that I can fight; I know that I am no coward; therefore call on Mr. Loomis to drink my health, and I will pay the shot. Three of my men are wounded by a shell burst within two feet of me. The boat from the fleet, which has just landed under our fort, says the British Commodore is killed.

"Out of three hundred on board their ship twenty-five remain alive. Some of our officers who have been on board say the blood is knee-deep.

"Their force we have taken consists of one ship, thirty-six guns, one brig of eighteen guns, and two sloops.

"Huzza! Huzza! Twenty or thirty British prisoners taken by our Militia have just arrived in fort! I can write no more, for the time grows dubious.

"Yours forever, Wm. Miller.

"Give my compliments to all, and send this to my wife."

A horse and rider galloping through the village of Poultney shouted the news of the victory, and William Miller's wife, waiting with an anxious heart, was one of the first to hear his coming. It seemed not the space of a moment when the bells pealed forth; the people shouted and sang for joy, and the greatest excitement prevailed.

Captain Miller's letter to his wife gives a graphic account of that memorable September 11th which is worth reading. It not only describes the battle, but between the lines one gets glimpses that reveal something of the character of the man:

"Fort Scott, Sept. 12, 1811, 7 o'clock, morning

"Dear Wife: Yesterday was a day of great joy. We have conquered! We have drove them! About nine o'clock A.M. yesterday the British fleet fired a salute as they passed Cumberland Head; it was a token for a general engagement. About twenty minutes after they hove in sight. How majestic! How noble! Our fleet lay in Plattsburg Bay; and like a saucy Yankee paid no attention to their royal salute! The British fleet still bearing down upon us, bold as a lion - in a moment we were all prepared for action. The British had thrown up a number of batteries on all sides of us. The next minute the cannon began playing - spitting their fires in every quarter. What a scene! All was dreadful! Nothing but roaring and groaning for about six or eight hours. I cannot describe to you our situation. The fort I was in was exposed to every shot. Bombs, rockets, and shrapnel shells fell thick as hailstones. Three of my men were wounded, and one killed, but none that were from Poultney or that quarter.

"In one hour and forty-five minutes the enemy's fleet was conquered. My God! What a slaughter on al sides! Out of three hundred on board of one ship, twenty four alone remained unhurt! I cannot describe to you the general joy!

"At sundown our forts fired a national salute, accompanied by a tune called 'Yankee Doodle,' and each gun was loaded with an eighteen-pound shot. This soon frightened our foe to that degree that this morning at daybreak not a soul was to be seen; and they went off in so great a hurry that not one article of their baggage could they carry away. Some they burnt, and some they left behind. Their loss in killed and wounded is immense, besides one hundred taken prisoners, and three or four hundred deserters. Our loss was not so great, but considerable. Every officer and soldier is now singing for joy, and there is nothing now heard but the 11th day of September, and Lord George Provost retreating for Canada. You may well conceive by my unconnected mode of writing that I am as joyful as any of them. A naval and land engagement within the compass of a mile or two, and fifteen or twenty thousand engaged at one and the same time, is superior to anything my eyes ever beheld before. How grand! How noble, yet how awful! The roaring of cannon, the bursting of bombs, the whizzing of balls, the popping of small arms, the crackling of timbers, the shrieks of the dying, the groans of the wounded, the commands of the officers, the swearing of the soldiers, the smoke, the fire - everything conspires to make the scene of a battle both awful and grand!

"The fort I was in was on the bank of the lake and in plain view of everything which passed. Remember me to all my friends; and in the mean time accept of me as I am

"Faithfully yours, Wm. Miller."

One of the incidents that gave him the greatest satisfaction as a culmination of that never-to-be forgotten day, and in which he was deputed to take part, was preparing the body of the English Commodore for burial. To quote from his biography: "The honor paid to the dead by the Americans was as worthy of remembrance as the bravery with which they fought."

[Sylvester Bliss, "Life of William Miller".]

Thus ended the military career of Captain Miller. He retired from the Army in June, 1815, and sought the little farm in Poultney once more, where his devoted wife and a little son now awaited him. Once again he systematically planted his crops and in the fullness of time harvested them. Again his neighbors wondered to see him spend his spare hours poring over a large, ponderous volume - not in the library this time, but in the seclusion of his own home. Nor was it Voltaire, no Hume, nor Volney, nor Paine that absorbed his interest. A change had come over William Miller. Now it was the Book of books - the Bible, with its magnificent interpretations of Life and Death - its mysterious prophecies, its glorious promises, its inspired diction that held him spellbound.

Who can tell how and why such changes come?

The following chapter will attempt to trace the mental processes that turned the retired soldier into the man known far and wide as "Prophet" Miller, with a newly awakened power to sway mighty gatherings of people, with a gift of vividly pictorial language - with a personality that baffled even those bitterly opposed to his convictions - chastened in spirit; more or less broken in health; repentant of past scepticism, and calling upon those spiritually asleep to awaken and repent, for the end of the world was at hand!

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