Days of Delusion - A Strange Bit of History

Chapter 3

By Clara Endicott Sears, 1924

"Nature in wild amaze
Her dissolution mourns;
Blushes of blood the moon deface,
The sun to darkness turns."
Old camp-meeting hymn

Man is used to looking up at the starry firmament with confidence and a sense of boundless security. He watches the planets rise and set. He knows where to look for the glittering group of the Pleiades, and for the pointed angles of Cassiopea's Chair. He can rely upon finding the exact position of the North Star, and knows the hour to watch for the Constellation of Orion. When, therefore, some time before dawn on November 13, 1833, thousands upon thousands of brilliant stars were seen falling toward the earth, and strange, shimmering lights shot upward against the background of a cloudless sky, and balls of fire blazed in the zenith and exploded in the air, it can hardly cause astonishment that intense alarm was felt in many places. With acute concern some recalled another agitating demonstration of Nature's power which had occurred fifty years before and was recorded by scientists as the "Dark Day," when the sun, to all appearances, neither rose nor set, and darkness covered the earth, as in the nebulous days before light was. Linking that terrifying event with the present one, many hurriedly searched the Scriptures, comparing what they found there with what was happening in the skies above them, and they tremblingly believed that the hour had come when one of the Biblical prophecies was being fulfilled right before their eyes. Throughout the districts where William Miller had been sounding the alarm of approaching doom, the excitement was intense, and wherever his word had spread, this awe-inspiring spectacle produced a profound sensation, and brought many heretofore scoffers to join those who believed in his prophecy.

The following letter addressed to the editor appeared in the "Baltimore Patriot" of November 13, 1833, and gives a vivid account of this famous phenomenon:

"Mr. Munro:

" Being up this morning, I witnessed one of the most grand and alarming spectacles which ever beamed upon the eye of Man. The light in my room was so great that I could see the hour of the morning by my watch, which hung over the mantle, and supposing that there was a fire near at hand, probably on my own premises, I sprang to the window and, behold, the stars, or some other bodies presenting a fiery appearance, were descending in torrents as rapid and numerous as ever I saw flakes of snow or drops of rain in the midst of a storm.

"Occasionally a large body of apparent fare would be hurled through the atmosphere which without noise exploded, when millions of fiery particles would be cast through the surrounding air. To the eye it presented the appearance of what might be called a raining of fire, for I can compare it to nothing else. Its continuance, according to my time from the moment I discovered it, was twenty minutes, but a friend, whose lady was up, says it commenced at half-past four - that she was watching the sick-bed of a relative and therefore can speak positively as to the hour of its commencement. If our time was correct, it rained fire fifty minutes. The shed in the yard adjoining my own was covered with stars, as I supposed, during the whole time.

"A friend at my elbow who also witnessed it and in whose veracity I can place the most implicit reliance, confirms my own observation of the phenomenon, and adds that the fiery particles which fell south descended in a southern direction, and those north took a northern direction. He thinks it commenced earlier than at the period at which I first witnessed it, and that it lasted longer - that when the clock struck six there were still occasional descents of stars.

"I have stated facts as they present themselves to my mind. I leave it to the philosophers to account for the phenomenon.

"Yours truly "'B.'"

Startling as this description is, there are many others written at the time that are equal to it. Henry Dana Ward's account sent to the "New York Chamber of Commerce," is one of them. He writes as follows:

"In your paper this morning some notice is taken of the phenomenon of yesterday. It comes so far short of the view taken of it by myself, and a number of friends who gazed upon it with me, that I send you the story of that eventful scene, as we witnessed it.

"One of the family rose at five o'clock A.M. to prepare for leaving the city in the seven o'clock boat. He threw up the window to see whether the dawn had come, and behold! the east was lighted up and the heavens were apparently falling. He rubbed his eyes in doubt, but seeing on every side the starry firmament as it were broken up and falling like flakes of snow and whitening the skies, he aroused the whole family. At the cry, 'Look out of the window!' I sprang from a deep sleep, and with wonder saw the east lighted up with the dawn of meteors.

'The zenith the north and the west also showed the falling stars in the very image of one thing and of only one I ever heard of. I called to my wife to behold, and while robing she exclaimed, 'See how the stars fall!' - and we felt in our hearts that it was the sign of the last days. For truly 'the stars of Heaven fall onto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs when she is shaken by a mighty wind."'

This same idea was ex-pressed in an article in the " Connecticut Observer of November 25, 1833, which was copied from a paper called the "Old Countryman." It reads as follows:

"We pronounce the raining of fire which we saw on Wednesday morning last, an awful type, a sure forerunner - a merciful sign of the great and dreadful day which the inhabitants of the earth will witness when the Sixth Seal shall be opened. The time is just at hand described, not only in the New Testament, but in the Old. A more correct picture of a fig tree casting its leaves when blown by a mighty wind is not possible to behold."

A correspondent of the "New York American" at Acquackanonk seems to have had a peculiarly trying experience. He states that the shooting stars varied in size from the bulk of a pea to that of a walnut, and were varied in colors - red, blue, yellow, and white! "Several," he writes came within a foot of the writer's person, and one exploded close to his face, and instantaneously disappeared without any particular odor!"

In a publication called "Last Day Tokens" (1843) several newspaper reports of this phenomenon of the falling stars were reprinted, one of which reads thus:

"The Sussex papers described the exhibition in their vicinity as having been somewhat singular. The people seem to have been much alarmed. They thought that the stars had in reality shot madly from their spheres, and that the whole economy of Nature was returning to its original chaos. One person said that he kept his eye upon the morning star, resolved that if that departed he should give up all hope!"

The "Rockingham (Virginia) Register" called it "a rain of fires - thousands of stars being seen falling at once; some said it began with considerable noise!"

The "Lancaster Examiner" declared that "the air was filled with innumerable meteors or stars - hundreds of thousands of brilliant bodies might be seen falling at every moment."

The " Salem Register" stated that "some attributed them to stones ejected by volcanoes on the moon."

After these graphic accounts it is interesting to note the opinion of a scientist. In commenting upon the extraordinary spectacle, Professor Olmstead, of Yale College, made the following statement, according to the aforesaid paper, "Last Day Tokens" (1843):

"Those who were so fortunate as to witness the exhibition of shooting stars on the morning of November 13, 1833, probably saw the greatest display of celestial fireworks that has ever been seen since the creation of the world, or at least within the annals covered by the pages of history."

After this, as his following grew in numbers, William Miller's enthusiasm and faith in his own prophecy increased accordingly. In a letter to good Brother Hendryx that same year he burst forth into a Walt Whitman-like flow of language that is bewildering. Yet this style was peculiarly his own and the following is an interesting example of it:

"I wish I had the tongue of an Apollo, and the mental powers of a Paul!" he writes in this exuberant letter. "O may the Bible be to us a rock, a pillar, a compass, a chart, a statute, a directory, a polar star, a traveler's guide, a pilgrim's companion, a shield of faith, a ground of hope, a history, a chronology, an armory, a storehouse, a mirror, a toilet, a closet, a prayer-book, an epistle, a love letter, a friend, a foe, a revenue, a treasury, a bank, a fountain, a cistern, a garden, a lodge, a field, a haven, a sun, a moon, a star, a door, a window, a light, a lamp, a luminary, a morning, a noon, an evening, an hour-glass, a dayman, a servant, a handmaid!

"It is meat, food, drink, raiment, shelter, warmth, heat, a feast, fruit, apples, pictures, wine, milk, honey, bread, butter, oil, refreshment, rest, strength, stability, wisdom, life, eyes, hands, feet, breath; it is a help to hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling, understanding, forgiving, loving, hoping, enjoying, adoring, and saving; it teaches salvation, justification, sanctification, redemption and glorification; it declares condemnation, destruction and desolation; it tells us what we were, are, and shall be; begins with the beginning, carries us through the intermediate and ends only with the end; it is past, present, and to come; it discourses the first great cause of all effects, and the effects of all causes; it speaks of life, death, and judgment, body, soul, and spirit, heaven, earth, and hell; it makes use of all nature as figures, to sum up the value of the gospel; and declares itself to be the word of God. And your friend and brother believes it. "William Miller."

But he had to suffer for this change of faith. His former associates were indignant at it. They termed it an audacity for him to be preaching to others that he had denied as a fallacy in the past. Other friends, remembering his scathing ridicule of themselves and their faith in former days, could not resist casting his own taunts back into his face.

From this he suffered keenly, and at times he felt his courage sorely tried. Like many who indulge in casting ridicule upon the religious faith of others, he felt the sting of it to be almost beyond endurance when he found it turned upon himself. But he was too deeply in earnest to be led into swerving away from the path he was now following, and he continued to plod from place to place, carrying his message and sounding his warning.

The Baptist Church had by this time accorded him a license to preach and in a letter to Brother Hendryx dated February 23, 1834, he refers to this:

"You have undoubtedly heard that I have been trying to preach (as some call it) about in this vicinity (Low Hampton). I have been laboring, it is true, in my weak manner, in Dresden two or three months…. You laugh, Bro. Hendryx, to think old Bro. Miller is preaching! But laugh on: You are not the only one that laughs; and it is all right. I deserve it. If I could preach the truth, it is all I could ask."

In reply to a letter addressed to him as Reverend he again writes to Brother Hendryx:

"Dear Bro. Hendryx:

"I wish you would look into your Bible and see if you can find the word Rev. applied to a sinful mortal like myself, and govern yourself accordingly…. Let us be determined to live and die on the Bible. God is about to arise and punish the inhabitants of the world. The proud, the high, the lofty must be brought low; and the humble, the meek, and the contrite be exalted. Then, what care I for what the world calls great and honorable? Give me Jesus, and a knowledge of his word, faith in his name, hope in his grace, interest in his love, and let me be clothed in his righteousness, and the world may enjoy all the high-sounding titles, the riches it can boast, the vanities it is heir to, and all the pleasures of sin; and they will be no more than a drop in the ocean."

Again he writes:

"After haying and harvesting are over, I shall go forth again. If I am correct, how important is time! Nine years will pass soon; and then, dear brother, you and I must render our account before the solemn bar of our omnipotent Judge."

Evidently Brother Hendryx, while agreeing with his friend's views on many points did not wholly subscribe to his belief in the coming destruction of the world, and this was a source of great trouble to William Miller; in fact this attitude of neutrality on his part and on the part of many others of the clergy regarding the subject was one that tried his patience exceedingly.

"The evidence is so clear," he writes to him on October 28, 1834, "the testimony is so strong that we live on the eve of the present dispensation, towards the dawn of the Glorious Day, that I wonder why ministers and people do not wake up and trim their lamps. Yes, my brother, almost two years since you heard the news, 'Behold the bridegroom cometh!' - and yet you cry, 'A little more sleep, a little more slumber.' Blame not your people if they go to sleep under your preaching. You have done the same. Bear with me, my brother. In every letter you have written me you have promised to study this all-important subject, and in every letter you confess your negligence. The day draws near. More than one sixth of the time is gone since my Brother Hendryx promised, and is yet asleep! Oh, God, forgive him! Are you waiting for all the world to wake up, before you get up? 'Where has your courage fled?' Awake! Awake! O Sluggard! Defend your own castle, or take sides with the word of God; destroy, or build. You must not, you cannot, you shall not be neutral. Awake! Awake! Tell Deacon Smith to help wake you. - Tell him, for me, to shake you, and not give up shaking until Bro. H. will put on the whole armor of light.... In every church where I have lectured on this important subject, many, very many, seem to awaken, rub open their eyes, and then fall asleep again. But the enemy is waking up. In one town (North Beekmantown) I received a letter the day after my first lecture from bullies and blackguards, 'that if I did not clear out of the State they would put me where the dogs could never find me!' - The letter was signed by ten of them. I stayed and, blessed be God! He poured out his spirit, and began a work which gainsayers could not resist.

"Some ministers try to persuade their people not to hear me; but the people will go, and every additional lecture will bring an additional multitude, until their Meeting Houses cannot hold them. Depend upon it, my brother - God is in this thing!"

As William Miller said, some of the clergy took a definite stand and tried to prevent their flocks from listening to him, but there were others who took a different attitude toward him, though they, like Brother Hendryx, remained indifferent to his prophecy that the world was soon coming to an end.

Before this time a sort of spiritual lethargy had been prevalent in some of the churches, and the preacher standing in the pulpit wilted under the discouraging display of nodding heads in full view every Sabbath morning while he discoursed upon some mooted point in theology. It did not add to his inspiration to see the sexton go up and down the aisles, as was the habit of those days, flicking the noses of snoring old gentlemen, and stout heavy-breathing elderly ladies, with a weapon resembling a feather duster, as a means of awakening them. Their bewildered expressions on being aroused did not tend toward kindling oratorical fervor on the part of the preacher!

Many of the clergy, especially among the Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists, contended that any harm which might come from the alarm excited by his prophecy was greatly outweighed by his power to arouse even the oldest down to the youngest in their congregations into a whirl of religious enthusiasm. When they witnessed those habitual Sabbath morning sleepers jump to their feet shouting, "Glory! Glory!" or else melting into tears under the influence of Prophet Miller's exhortations, they felt themselves justified in giving him their support.

One of the compelling factors in this drawing power which William Miller unquestionably possessed was his variety of moods. Sometimes he would give out the impression of a typical farmer using quaint phraseology, and revealing a certain amount of real old Yankee shrewdness; at other times he appeared as a somber and serious man, demonstrating his undisputed knowledge of the letter of Scripture, by quoting with accurate memory front even the most obscure passages; at other times he would burst into a flood of dramatic and often poetical prose as if possessed by a fever of enthusiasm and religious ecstasy; and then again his listeners would sit for hours intent upon his explanation of those intricate calculations that brought out the startling deduction that some time between 1843 and 1844 the world would be destroyed by fire.

This natural and unstudied manner of speaking out his thoughts as they came to him, without hesitation and according to his mood, instilled pulsating life into the long explanatory lectures he was now being called upon to deliver day after day, almost without cessation.

The following February (1835) he wrote again to Brother Hendryx:

"The Lord opens doors faster than I can fill them. Tomorrow I have an appointment at Whiting which will occupy a week. The next week I shall be in Shoreham; the last week in this month at Bridgeport; the first week in March in Middletown, the second in Hoosac. I have calls from Schroon, Ticonderoga, Moriah, Essex, Chazy, Champlain, Plattsburg, Peru, Mooretown, Canton, Pottsdam, Hopkinton, Stockholm, Parishville, and other places too numerous to mention."

The result of these lectures was a formal announcement made by a large number of Baptist clergymen to this effect:

"This may certify, to whom it may concern, that we whose names are hereunto affixed - being ministers in the denomination of regular Baptists - are personally acquainted with Bro. William Miller, the bearer of this certificate; that he is a member, and licentiate in good regular standing, in the particular Baptist Church, in Hampton, N.Y.; that we have heard him lecture on the subject of the Second Coming and Reign of our Lord Jesus Christ; and that we believe his views on that particular subject, as well as others pertaining to the Gospel, are worthy to be known and read of all men. . . .

[Signed] "J. SAWYER, Jr., South Reading
"E. HALPING, Hampton
"EMERSON ANDREWS, Lansingburgh."

Below this is written: "Having heard the above-mentioned lectures, I see no way to avoid the conclusion that the coming of Christ will be as soon as 1843." And to this is affixed a list of thirty-eight names of men from New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

His public lectures during the winter of 1835 were interrupted by his preparation of sixteen lectures which were published the following spring in Troy, New York, by Elder Wescott, with the arrangement that the copies held by William Miller should be purchased by him at the market price. The desire to reach broader fields and to spread his doctrine among all classes was so great that when the proposition was made to him, he accepted it eagerly. The public accused him of trying to reap a fortune from his publication being ignorant of the terms made concerning it.

The following summer his friend Brother Hendryx received another letter from him dated July 21st.

"I have been confined at home for three weeks past by a bilious complaint," he writes. "I was taken unwell while lecturing at Lansingburg, N.Y., but I finished my course of lectures and returned home, and have not been well since. My lectures were well received in that place and excited attention. The house was filled to overflowing for eight days in succession. I feel that God was there, and believe that, in His glorified kingdom I shall see the fruits.... Infidels, deists, Universalists, and sectarians were all chained to their seats in perfect silence for hours - yes, days - to hear the old stammering man talk about the Second Coming of Christ, and show the manner, object, time, and signs of His Coming."

That a distinct uneasiness and apprehension regarding the prediction of the approach of the Second Advent troubled the public mind was strikingly apparent from the fact that while Prophet Miller was lecturing to great crowds in the smaller towns and rural districts upon his interpretation of the prophecies, Harriet Livermore, who viewed the manner and object of the coming of our Saviour from a totally different standpoint, was preaching in the Hall of Congress in Washington before President Madison and many of his Cabinet, and a vast concourse of people. Moreover, a new prophet had arisen in England, a Captain Saunders, of Liverpool, who was predicting the Second Advent would occur in 1847, agreeing with Joseph Wolff, who was awaiting it in Jerusalem. From this time on Prophet Miller labored incessantly, delivering as many as eighty-two lectures in the fall of 1836. People were now beginning publicly to acknowledge themselves as his followers, and an incident of this sort happened when he visited Shaftsbury, Vermont, on January 1837, where he gave his full course of sixteen lectures.

"At the close of one, lecture a Baptist clergyman arose and stated that he had come there for the purpose of exposing the folly of Mr. M., but he had to confess that he was confounded, convicted, and converted. He acknowledged that he had applied various unhandsome appellations to Mr. Miller, calling him 'the end of the world man' - 'the old visionary' - 'dreamer' - 'fanatic,' and for which he felt covered with shame and confusion. That confession, evidently so honest, was like a thunderbolt on the audience." [Sylvester Bliss, Life of William Miller.]

No sooner did he lecture in one town or village now than all the neighboring towns and villages wished to hear him, and space does not admit of the long list of places covering a wide territory where he gave forth his solemn warning to the bewildered inhabitants.

He had little time for farming in these days - all his strength was given to what he considered to be his mission.

His family now consisted of a wife and ten children - seven sons and three daughters; some of them grown up by this time and able to care for the farm. Little reference is made to them in his biography, but he frequently wrote to his eldest son and one of his letters written to him from Montpelier, Vermont, shows on November 17, 1838, how the agitation produced by the nature of his prophecy was taking hold of the imagination of the public.

"There was great excitement on the subject in this place," he states. "Last night we had a solemn and interesting meeting. There was a great breaking down and much weeping. Some souls have been born again. I can hardly get away from these people. They want me to stay another week. . . . Montpelier is quite a considerable village, and contains some very intelligent people who appear to listen with much interest. This afternoon I meet the citizens, and am to give them an opportunity to ask questions and state objections. ...May God help me to give His truth! I know my own weakness, and I know that I have neither body nor mind to do what the Lord is doing by me. It is the Lord's doings and marvelous in our eyes. The world does not know how weak I am. They think much more of the old man than I think of him."

Again he writes to him in January, 1839:

"There has been a reformation in every place I have lectured in since I left home and the work is progressing in every place rapidly. The meeting-houses are crowded to overflowing. Much excitement prevails amongst the people. Many say they believe; some scoff; others are sober and thinking."

There is a quaint description of William Miller as he appeared at this period which is worth mentioning. Elder T. Cole, pastor of the Baptist Church at Lowell, had been hearing of the great revivals that resulted from Prophet Miller's lectures as he traveled through the State of Vermont, and he, as well as the people of Lowell, was exceedingly curious to see him, and to find out what he had to say on the subject of his prophecy. Accordingly he wrote a letter to him urging him to come to Massachusetts and to stop at Lowell and explain his doctrine from the pulpit of the Baptist Church. Evidently Elder Cole had formed a very definite picture of him in his mind and looked forward to seeing a commanding figure, such as could sway the emotions of a crowd through the force of his personality. Now William Miller was in reality a perfectly simple and unpretentious sort of man, in many ways very ingenuous, and probably never gave as much as a thought to his personal appearance. He was very plain and ordinary in his dress, being attired more as a farmer would be than as a preacher. Elder Cole seems to have expected him to look "like some distinguished doctor of divinity," according to Miller's biographer, and though he had heard that he always wore a camlet cloak and a shaggy white beaver hat, he apparently assumed they would be made according to the fashion of the times.

When the day came for him to arrive at Lowell, the Elder went to the station to meet him. He carefully inspected each person that alighted from the train, but he saw no one that answered to his mental picture of Prophet Miller. Soon he saw an old man, shaking with palsy, with a white hat and camlet cloak alight from the cars. Fearing that this might prove to be the man, and, if so, regretting that he had invited him to lecture in his church, he stepped up and whispered in his ear, "Is your name Miller?" Mr. M. nodded in assent. "Well," said Elder Cole very much disturbed "follow me."

"He led the way, walking ahead, and Mr. M. keeping as near as he could till he reached his house. He was much chagrined that he had written for a man of Mr. M.'s appearance, who, he concluded, could know nothing respecting the Bible, but would confine his discourse to visions and fancies of his own. After tea he told Mr. M. he supposed it was about time to attend church, and again led the way, Mr. M. bringing up the rear. When they entered the church he showed him to the desk and he himself sat with the congregation.

"Fifteen minutes after the text had been given out, Elder Cole was wholly disarmed. On that occasion William Miller spoke quietly and impressively, and the arguments he put forth seemed so convincing that he was urged to stay and lecture at greater length to the people. This ended in 'a glorious revival' and Elder Cole embraced his views in full, continuing for six years a devoted advocate of them." [Sylvester Bliss, Life of William Miller.]

From Lowell he went to Groton and from there to Lynn, and a memorandum in his diary states that from October 1, 1834, to June 9, 1839, he delivered eight hundred lectures.

The editor of the "Lynn Record" wrote an article which appeared in that paper immediately after William Miller had lectured in that place. It was named "Miller and his Prophecies," and it also gives a description of him which is interesting. It reads as follows:

"We took a prejudice against the good man when he first came among us, on account of what we supposed a glaring error in interpreting the Scripture prophecies so that the world would come to an end in 1843. We are still inclined to believe this an error or miscalculation. At the same time we have overcome our prejudice against him by attending his lectures, and learning more of the excellent character of this man, and of the great good he has done, and is doing. Mr. Miller is a plain farmer, and pretends to nothing except that he has made the Scripture prophecies an intense study for many years, understands some of these differently from most people, and wishes for the good of others to spread his views before the public. No one can hear him five minutes without being convinced of his sincerity, and instructed by his reasoning and information. All acknowledge his lectures to be replete with useful and interesting matter. His knowledge of the Scriptures is very extensive and minute - that of the prophecies especially, surprisingly familiar. We have reason to believe that the preaching or lecturing of Mr. Miller has been productive of great and extensive good. Revivals have been following in his train. He has been heard with attention wherever he has been.

"There is nothing very peculiar in the manner and appearance of Mr. Miller. His gestures are easy and expressive, and his personal appearance every way decorous. His Scripture explanations and illustrations are strikingly simple, natural, and forcible, and the great eagerness of the people to hear him has been manifest wherever he has preached."

Evidently the editor of the "Lynn Record" felt differently from Elder Cole in regard to the camlet cloak and white beaver hat! But the personal appearance of William Miller, rough and old-fashioned or otherwise, seems to have made no difference, for wherever he went the crowd gathered to listen to him. He wrote to his son after lecturing at Stoughton and then going on to Canton to this effect: "Lectured three times on the last day to a house jammed full!" - and so it was at one place after another.

Then came a change - Prophet Miller was no longer to be a roaming country preacher. Destiny had something else in store for him. He was suddenly to find himself facing the sophisticated crowds of big cities - to be challenged by the pulpit and press regarding his belief, to be surrounded by followers and detractors, friends and enemies, believers and scoffers.

This great change began the twelfth day of November, 1840, when he chanced to meet the Reverend Joshua V. Himes, a man of indomitable energy, who took Prophet Miller out from the simple, peaceful, rural districts and placed him in the lime-light of city thoroughfares, there to sound his note of warning above the din of countless noises and the clamor of innumerable voices.

It will be seen how this change was like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind as regards the simple-minded old prophet, who was fast aging under the stress of the situation he had created, and that now threatened to overwhelm him.

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