"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
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
"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,
"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,
"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,
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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!