Days of Delusion - A Strange Bit of History

Chapter 2

By Clara Endicott Sears, 1924

"My thoughts on awful subjects roll:
Damnation and the dead."
Dr. Watts

There were two incidents that occurred during William Miller's military career, just as he was about to return to civil life, that swept his thoughts into new channels. The first was during a night in camp, and at an hour when he was making his rounds to see that all was quiet and that his men were in their tents. While performing this duty, he espied a light gleaming in one of them and he heard a low voice speaking in tones of great intensity. He stopped short and listened. Presently he heard other voices, also lowered, and he was on the alert in a moment. There had been great difficulty in preventing the men from gambling in camp, and strict rules had been given out against it. For a moment he thought he had caught some transgressors red-handed. Drawing nearer to the tent, he stopped and listened again. There was a pause, and then the voice he had heard at first began to speak again - this time in tones of apparent supplication. He realized now that the man was praying. Shrugging his shoulders impatiently, he strode off. Life in the Army has not lessened his miserable habit of ridiculing all religious observances, and in thinking over what he had heard, he made up his mind to play a joke upon this young soldier the next day, and to give him a good fright regarding the sound of voices that had issued from his tent during the night. Accordingly, when morning came, he summoned him and stood awaiting him with an ugly frown upon his brow.

"Sergeant Willey," he said, addressing the young man as he approached him, "you know that it is contrary to Army regulations to have any gambling in the tents at night. I was sorry to see your tent lip up for that purpose last night. We cannot have any gambling at such times. You must put a stop to it at once. I hope I shall not have to speak to you again about it."

The young soldier, taken completely by surprise, flushed to the roots of his hair. "We were not gambling, Sir," he stammered, lowering his eyes.

There was something in the boyish, candid face before him and in the tones of his voice that touched Captain Miller in spite of himself. He cast the impression away from his mind and went on with his joke. He believed he could enjoy forcing Sergeant Willey to confess what he had been doing and he then planned to ridicule it.

"Yes, you were gambling!" he cried, contradicting him with added severity, "and it won't do! What else could you have your tent lighted up for all evening if you were not gambling?"

The young soldier drew himself up to his full height, and, squaring his shoulders, looked Captain Miller in the face. "We were praying, Sir," he answered, very quietly and simply.

There was so much dignity and truth in the answer and the manner of delivering it that Captain Miller suddenly found himself abashed and humiliated. Without another word he turned on his heel and walked away. The brave and earnest eyes that had met his so fearlessly troubled him. He had indulged in gambling himself at times, and he recalled this, and that fact now shamed him as he thought over the joke he had tried to play which had failed so lamentably. He was more disturbed than he cared to admit. He sat up the following night to try to shake off the impression the occurrence had made upon him, but it would not leave him. He pondered over the courage displayed by the group of young soldiers whose voices he had heard in the tent, and their fearless independence in uniting together right in the rough and brutalizing atmosphere of the camp to pray for the safety of their souls. He felt shaken by it, and he thought of his own soul - what was its condition? Had he drugged it into so deep a sleep that it could not awaken? He remembered that sometimes - indeed often - he, like those about him, had made free use of the name of the Almighty. This also troubled him now.

"One day," he states in his "Memoirs," "I detected myself in the act of taking the name of God in vain - a habit I had acquired in the service; and I was instantly convicted of its sinfulness."

Now, in spite of all William Miller's much-vaunted deism, it needed but little probing to discover an ingenuous, simple, kindly nature hidden under the outer coating of his heart. The following statement made by his biographer who was his personal friend will show this:

"All who have any knowledge of the question will confirm that his personal integrity and official honor were such throughout his connection with the Army as to command in an almost unexampled degree the respect and affection of all who were under him as an officer, and the hearty confidence and esteem of his official associates.

"For years after the war closed, it was a common thing for his brethren in arms to turn aside from the great route of travel five or six miles to enjoy a short interview with one to whom they were strongly attached; and some of the less provident, feeling sure he would receive them with a sort of fatherly sympathy, which a poor unfortunate soldier seldom finds in the world, were accustomed to tarry with him some days or weeks at a time." [Sylvester Bliss, "Life of William Miller".]

The second incident which made a deep impression upon him was when a friend of his named Spencer died of fever in camp. During the latter's illness, Captain Miller had a long talk with him of which he wrote an account to his wife. It is evident that this conversation, followed by the death of his friend, again touched the chord within him that had long been lying dormant. Watching the life forces wane and finally pass out from the body of one who had been a trusted comrade seems to have stirred him to the depths his being, and to have started questions in his mind regarding the existence of the soul after death that bewildered him and caused poignant distress and apprehension.

"But a short time," he wrote to his wife, "and like Spencer I shall be no more. It is a solemn thought. Yet could I be sure of another life there would be nothing terrific; - but to go out like an extinguished taper is insupportable - the thought is doleful. No! Rather let me cling to that hope which warrants a never-ending existence; - a future spring where troubles shall cease and tears find no conveyance; - where never-ending spring shall flourish, and love, pure as the driven snow, rest in every breast. Dear Lucy do write to me, and let me know how you pass your time. Good evening - I am troubled. Wm. Miller."

It can be seen that his mind was tossed over these questions when he received his discharge from the Army that same year and returned to the humble occupations of a farmer. During his absence of seven or more years, his father, whose home had been for some time in Low Hampton, had died, and in order to be near his mother he left Poultney and moved his family, which now consisted of his wife and a young son, to a farm near hers, comprising about two hundred acres. Here he built one of those typical New England farmhouses, painted white with green blinds, that are so familiar to those who know the country, and began to farm in earnest. But the manual labor did not suffice to quiet his troubled spirit. He was facing now a battle worse than any he had been engaged in during his military career, but it was no bodily conflict this time - it was a mental experience, fraught with distress and anguish of mind; - fears and doubts assailed him on one side, and a yearning for faith and the joy of peace and the security of a quiet conscience on the other. Even his devoted wife could do nothing to help him. She was forced to stand aside and watch his misery in silence and pray for relief to come.

In referring to this unhappy period in his "Memoirs," he says: "I thought to seek for that happiness which had always eluded my pursuit in my former occupations, in the domestic circle. For a little space, a care and burden was taken off my mind; but after a while I felt the need of some active employment. My life had become too monotonous. I had lost all those pleasing prospects which in youth I expected to enjoy in riper years. It appeared to me that there was nothing good on earth. Those things in which I had expected to find some solid good had deceived me. I began to think man was no more than a brute, and the idea of hereafter was a dream; annihilation was a chilling thought; and accountability was sure destruction to all. The heavens were as brass over my head, and the earth as iron under my feet."

Whether he was working in the hayfields or hoeing in his garden, he could not escape from his tormenting thoughts.

"Eternity!" he cried, "what was it? And death, why was it? The more I reasoned, the further I was from demonstration. The more I thought, the more scattered were my conclusions. I tried to stop thinking, but my thoughts would not be controlled. I was truly wretched; but did not understand the cause. I murmured and complained, but knew not of whom. I felt there was a wrong, but knew not how or where to find the right. I mourned, but without hope." [J.V. Himes, "Memoirs". Published 1841.]

It sometimes happens that a drastic statement will stir a sense of opposition in the listener that is salutary, and this occurred in a conversation he had with an acquaintance of his - Judge Stanley by name, who was evidently a confirmed deist.

"I asked him his opinion respecting our condition in another state," Miller says in his "Memoirs." "He replied by comparing it to that of a tree, which flourishes for a time and turns to earth; and to that of a candle, which burns to nothing. I was then satisfied that deism was inseparably connected with, and did tend to the denial of a future existence. And I thought to myself that rather than embrace such a view I should prefer the heaven and hell of the Scriptures, and take my chance respecting them."

This condition of mind lasted for some time and caused acute suffering. Just when all seemed darkest to him, however, a light broke in upon his misery. It happened in the little Baptist Church at Low Hampton, and he gives the following account of it:

"Suddenly," he says, "the character of a Saviour was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed to me that there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to atone for our transgressions, and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin. I immediately felt how lovely such a Being must be, and imagined that I could cast myself into the arms of, and trust in the mercy of such a One. I saw that the Bible did bring to view just such a Saviour as I needed. I was constrained to admit that the Scriptures must be a revelation from God. They became a delight," he goes on to say, "and in Jesus I found a friend. The Saviour became to me the chiefest among ten thousand; - and the Scriptures, which before were dark and contradictory, now became the lamp to my feet, and light to my path. My mind became settled and satisfied. I found the Lord God to be a rock in the ocean of life."

With what prayers of thanksgiving did Lucy Miller watch her husband coming out from the valley of shadows where he had suffered the poignant suffering of spiritual and mental conflict!

"The Bible now became my chief study," he goes on to explain, "and I can truly say I searched it with great delight. I found the half was never told me. I wondered why I had not seen its beauty and glory before, and marveled that I could have ever rejected it. I found everything revealed that my heart could desire, and a remedy for every disease of the soul. I lost all taste for other reading, and applied my heart to get wisdom from God."

Every other thought was now subservient to this one great, absorbing question of immortality, and the assurances he found expressed in the Bible regarding it. But in studying this book of revelation, he refused to be guided by the great weight of opinion that has accumulated through the centuries, nor would he accept the interpretations given by a long line of enlightened minds to some of the obscurer passages. He decided to be his own interpreter.

According to his biographer (Elder Sylvester Bliss was a member of the Historical and Genealogical Societies of Boston, Mass.), "he resolved to lay aside all preconceived opinions and he received with childlike simplicity the natural and obvious meaning of Scripture. He pursued the study of the Bible," we are told, "with the most intense interest, whole nights as well as days being devoted to that object. At times delighted with truth, which shone forth from the sacred volume, making clear to his understanding the great plan of God for the redemption of fallen man; and at times puzzled and almost distracted by seemingly inexplicable or contradictory passages, he persevered until the application of his great principle in interpretation was triumphant. He became puzzled only to be delighted, and delighted only to persevere the more in penetrating its beauties and mysteries."

It caused a tremendous stir among his friends and former associates in Poultney when he made his change of belief known to them. "His infidel friends," his biographer says, "regarded his departure from them as the loss of a standard-bearer" - but the rejoicing among his own people was deep and sincere. He soon, however, began to specialize in his researches and to focus his attention upon the mysterious prophecies of Daniel, and strove to penetrate the symbolism of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream and to connect them with other prophecies found largely in the Old Testament. He accepted them literally, refusing to recognize the Hebrew custom of using metaphor, and it was not long before he became enmeshed in an intricate system of hypothetical periods of dates, all pointing toward the destruction of the world by fire, preceded by the Second Advent of our Lord.

For upwards of fourteen years William Miller's whole time was spent thus - working on his farm and in his leisure hours drawing up charts covered with a network of mathematical calculations, all tending to prove the accuracy of his system of interpreting the prophecies according to his own personal methods. And all these calculations showed that the year 1843 would usher in the Millenium. The more he worked out his theory, the more convinced he became of the truth in it.

"Various difficulties and objections," he states, "would arise in my mind from time to time; certain texts would occur to me which seemed to weigh against my conclusions; and I would not present a view to others while any difficulty appeared to militate against it. I therefore continued the study of the Bible and to see if I could sustain any of these objections. My object was not merely to remove them, but I wished to see if they were valid.

"In this way I was occupied for five years - from 1818 to 1823 - in weighing the various objections which were being presented to my mind.

"With solemn conviction that such momentous events were predicted in the Scriptures to be fulfilled in so short a space of time, the question came home to me with mighty power regarding my duty to the world, in view of the evidence that had affected my own mind. If the end was so near, it was important that the world should know it."

Later he says: "The duty of presenting the evidence of the nearness of the Advent to others - which I had managed to evade while I found the shadow of an objection remaining against its truth - again came home to me with great force. I had previously only thrown out occasional hints of my views. I then began to speak more clearly to my neighbors, to ministers and others. To my astonishment I found very few who listened with any interest. Occasionally one would see the force of the evidence, but the great majority passed it by as an idle tale.

"I supposed it would call forth the opposition of the ungodly; but it never came into my mind that any Christian would oppose it. I supposed that all such would be so rejoiced, in view of the glorious prospect, that it only would be necessary to present it for them to receive it." [Sylvester Bliss, "Life of William Miller".]

This temporary setback depressed him not a little, but it did not last long. As time went on, this desire to give out his warning took possession of him again. He seemed to hear distinct voices telling him to go out and make his discovery known to the world.

"When I was about my business," he writes, "it was constantly ringing in my ears - 'Go and tell the world of their danger.' . . . I felt that if the wicked could be effectually warned multitudes of them would repent." But in spite of a peculiar assurance in regard to his convictions, William Miller was a diffident man in many respects. Though he had formerly freely indulged in ridiculing others, he shrank from the shafts of it himself, and he dreaded criticism, and feared being misunderstood.

"I did all I could," he states, "to avoid the conviction that anything was required of me; and I thought that by freely speaking of it to all I should perform my duty; but still it was impressed upon me, 'Go tell it to the world.'

"The more I presented it in conversation, the more dissatisfied I felt with myself for withholding it from the public. I tried to excuse myself to the Lord for not going out and proclaiming it to the world. I told the Lord that I was not used to public speaking; that I had not the necessary qualifications for gaining the attention of an audience; that I was very diffident, and feared to go before the world; that I was slow of speech and of a slow tongue. But I could get no relief."

According to his own accounts, he resisted these inward promptings for nine years more. He was fifty years old by then, and his life of constant mental struggle and physical labor, together with the lasting effects of his illness contracted in the Army, had aged him beyond his years, and he appeared much older than he was. He was inclined to be over-stout and he felt the effort of making unusual exertion.

It was in the autumn of 1831, however, that he finally started his lecturing, and it came about in this way:

After breakfast one Saturday morning, he was sitting down to work upon his calculations of Jewish time and to review his interpretation of the prophecies when a voice seemed to say to him louder than he had ever heard it before - "Go tell it to the world!"

"The impression was so sudden," he writes "and came with such force that I settled down in my chair, saying, 'I can't go, Lord.' 'Why not?' seemed to be the response; and then all my excuses came up - my want of ability, etc.; but my distress became so great I entered into a solemn compact with God that if He would open the way I would go and perform my duty to the world. 'What do you mean by opening the way?' seemed to come to me. 'Why,' I said, 'if I should have an invitation to speak publicly in any place, I will go tell them what I find in the Bible about the Lord's coming.' Instantly all my burden was gone, and I rejoiced that I should not probably be called upon, for I had never had such an invitation."

About half an hour after this, so he states, a young man called at the door. He was the son of a Mr. Gifford, of Dresden. He explained that there was no preacher to fill the pulpit of the church there the next day, and such being the case his father had thought it would be a fine opportunity for the congregation to hear Mr. Miller's views on the near approach of the Second Advent and the attending destruction of the world, and sent him to ask if he would come and give a lecture on the subject.

It came as a great shock to William Miller. He found himself regretting his compact with God, but he felt bound by it, and sent back the answer that he would come. It was his first experience of the kind, and he was too much agitated to make any real preparation. As he mounted the steps of the pulpit the following morning, he felt almost unequal to filling his part of the compact. Standing before the little Baptist congregation at Dresden, he hesitated for a brief moment and then he began to speak. Immediately, it seemed to him that a new talent was born in him of which he had never been conscious before. As he explained his reasons for believing, in the near approach of the Day of judgment - as he pictured the sudden appearance in the heavens of the Saviour in clouds of glory, which they must be prepared to watch for any time between 1843 and 1844 - when he found a sudden flow of words to depict the consternation and confusion of the wicked - their unavailing cries for mercy - the earth shriveling in flames - the victorious shouts of the redeemed while being caught up into the air, safe from the fiery destruction beneath them - his listeners sat upright in their pews as though spellbound.

As a spark from a passing engine is sufficient to start a forest fire, so William Miller's first lecture in the little Baptist Church at Dresden started a conflagration that the opposing clergy of the Orthodox churches, the newspapers, lecturers, and the more normal and sane-minded of the public could not quell.

After this the country folk flocked from the neighboring villages, curiosity bringing them at first, but as the news of his prophecy spread a revival commenced, accompanied by great enthusiasm, and "in thirteen families all but two were happily converted" according to the accounts of the time.

Immediately invitations came pouring in to him to lecture at various places. The town of Paulet came next, and after that it was one continual travel from place to place. In writing of this time he says:

"The churches of the Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists were thrown open. In almost every place I visited, my labors resulted in the reclaiming of backsliders and the conversion of sinners. I was usually invited to fields of labor by the ministers of the several congregations whom I visited, who gave me their countenance, and I have never labored in any place to which I was not previously invited. The pressing invitations from the ministry and the leading members of the churches poured in continually from that time during the whole period of my public labors, and with more than one half of which I was unable to comply. I lectured to crowded houses through the western part of Vermont, through the northern part of New York, and in Canada East."

By now he had acquired an unerring capacity for claiming the attention of his listeners at all times and he gave the following advice to Elder Hendryx, a Baptist friend of his who had evidently written asking the secret of this art:

"One great means of doing good," Miller explains in answer, "is to make your parishioners sensible that you are in earnest, and fully and solemnly believe what you preach. If you wish your people to feel, feel yourself. If you wish them to believe as you do, show them, by your constant assiduity in teaching, that you sincerely wish it."

The following year requests that he should publish his views began to reach him. As usual, he wrote to Elder Hendryx on the subject. His letter is dated January 23, 1832: "I have written a few numbers on the coming of Christ and the final destruction of the Beast, when his body shall be given to the burning flame. They may appear in the 'Vermont Telegraph; - if not, in pamphlet form. They are written to Elder Smith of Poultney, and he has liberty to publish."

By this time William Miller had acquired a style and manner of preaching that gave his sense of dramatic values free rein. This can be seen in a letter which he wrote to Elder Hendryx, dated May 30, 1832 :

"I am satisfied that the end of the world is at hand. The evidence flows in from every quarter. -'The earth is reeling to and fro like a drunkard.' . . . Is the harvest over and past? If so, soon, very soon, God will arise in his anger, and the vine of the earth will be reaped. See! See! - the angel with his sharp sickle is about to take the field! See yonder trembling victim fall before his pestilential breath! High and low, rich and poor, trembling and falling before the appalling grave, the dreadful cholera.

"Hark! - hear those dreadful bellowings of the angry nations! It is the presage of horrid and terrific war. Look! - look again! See crowns, and kings, and kingdoms trembling to the dust! See lords and nobles, captains and mighty men, all arming for the bloody, demon fight! See the carnivorous fowls fly screaming through the air! See - see these signs! Behold, the heavens grow black with clouds; the sun has veiled himself; the moon, pale and forsaken, hangs in middle air; the hail descends; the seven thunders utter loud their voices; the lightenings send their vivid gleams of sulphurous flames abroad; and the great city of the nations falls to rise no more forever and forever! At this dread moment, look! The clouds have burst asunder; the heavens appear; the great white throne is in sight! Amazement fills the Universe with awe! He comes! - He comes! - Behold the Saviour comes! - Lift up your heads, ye saints - He comes! He comes! He comes! "WILLIAM MILLER."

One can easily see why the little Baptist congregation at Dresden sat spellbound!

Now Brother Hendryx delighted in a letter of this kind with a good revivalist flavor to it, and this was one reason why William Miller found a special enjoyment in his society. During the following March he wrote again to him and expressed himself thus: "I want to see you more than ever, and when we have less company, so that we can sit down and have a good dish of Bible together. The light is continually breaking in and I am more and more confirmed in those things which I told you."

He then goes on in a chatty sort of way to give him the local news, an item of it being that a pastor was needed for the church at Low Hampton and that every one was expressing himself freely as to the kind of a man most fitted for the place. " Some of our people want 'a quick gab,"' he writes. "But I should prefer a quick understanding!"

Now it was about this time that strange signs appeared in the heavens and with such frequency as to cause great uneasiness. They were the precursors of the famous phenomenon of the falling stars of 1833 which produced terror and consternation among those who had heard of William Miller's prophecy. As it was, these precursors of that phenomenon were causing much comment not only from the general public, but scientific men were watching them with unusual interest.

The author was fortunate enough to find a quaint account of one of these appearances in an old Shaker journal written at that time. It reads as follows:

"Remarkable lights seen at the Second Family - Watervliet, December 2d, 1831.

"On Saturday night, December 2d, just after I retired, being still awake and looking towards the wash house, I saw it was on fire as I thought. I called to Asaneth Harwood to come and see what the matter was. She came, and on seeing the same, she said, 'Oh - that is spiritual light!' Then, two Sisters got up and came to the window and saw the same. One of them told me I had better call up the Sisters in the front room 'for it may be fire,' said she.

"I went and called up Polly Bacon and Ellen Brandet. They looked out and thought the South House barns were on fire.

"Polly then went and called up Joel Smith to go and see if the barns were really on fire. While Joel was dressing, we kneeled and prayed that if it was a fire it might be put out.

"Then I went into the hall and met William Seeley and asked him to go and see. He went, but neither he nor Joel could see anything of the light or fire.

"I saw two large lights - then there appeared to be two dozen large sheets of light; then they all appeared to turn into little stars spreading out to great extent; and then they would seem to be gone, except the two large lights which remained when all the rest were gone. The stars would then appear again.

"I went to bed and laid as much as an hour, and saw them all the time. I fell asleep, woke again, and saw then the same as before.

"After laying awake some considerable time, I again fell asleep, and when I awoke they had disappeared. [Signed] "PERMILIA EARLS."

"Note: Permilia further said that it appeared as though the light gathered into sheets that came up one behind another. When they had gathered up in this way, one large star would shoot out to the west, and then a great many would shoot upward like sparks from a blacksmith's chimney.

"Then they would collect again as before, and shoot out again in like manner, repeating the same a great many times.

"The light was of a silvery color. The other Sisters say it appeared to them in the same manner.

"Permilia also says that as she closed her eyes it appeared to her that somebody came and brushed them open two or three times, and then the room was filled with lights."

It was two years after this, and just when the belief in William Miller's prophecy was rapidly gaining ground, that the night skies to all appearances began to fall to earth. Nothing could have happened so to promote the acceptance of his prophetic calculations as the awe-inspiring sight of this strange phenomenon. The newspapers were full of it and speculated upon the causes at length.

"Surely" people exclaimed, "the prophecies of the Bible are being fulfilled! These are the signs in the heavens spoken of !" - and many trembled with fear. Some of the accounts that appeared in the newspapers are so extraordinary and reveal so clearly the tenor of the public mind at that time that a few of them must be included in the next chapter.

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