Days of Delusion - A Strange Bit of History

Chapter 6

By Clara Endicott Sears, 1924

"I am bound for the kingdom,
Will you go to glory with me?
Hallelujah, O Hallelujah!
I am bound for the kingdom,
Will you go to glory with me?
Hallelujah, O praise the Lord!"
Old camp-meeting hymn, 1843

Now, when the spring opened the camp-meetings began. A general feeling had prevailed for some time that the end would come in April, and, though there is no proof of any fixed date in that month having been given out by Prophet Miller, there is no doubt whatever that among his following many preached that the Great Day would come before the first of May. As soon as the weather permitted, therefore, the great Tabernacle tent was pitched, first in one place and then another, and the stir and excitement of the exhortations and the praying and singing drew crowds of frightened human beings as well as a host who went from curiosity to the Millerite Camp-Grounds. To one of these meetings went our New England poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote afterwards an interesting account of his impressions. Some of them are as follows, written in such descriptive language as to bring the scene vividly before the reader's eyes. We will follow the country road with him and hear him tell of what he saw:

"'Stage ready, gentlemen! Stage for camp-ground, Derry! Second Advent camp-meeting!'

"Accustomed as I begin to feel to the ordinary sights and sounds of this busy city, I was, I confess, somewhat startled by this business-like annunciation from the driver of a stage, who stood beside his horses swinging his whip with some degree of impatience: 'Seventy-five cents to the Second Advent camp-ground!' The stage was soon filled; the driver cracked his whip and went rattling down the street.

"The Second Advent - the coming of our Lord in person upon this earth, with signs, and wonders, and terrible judgments - the heavens rolling together as a scroll, the elements melting with fervent heat! The mighty consummation of all things at hand, with its destruction and its triumphs, sad wailings of the lost and rejoicing songs of the glorified! From this over-swarming hive of 'industry - from these crowded treadmills of gain - here were men and women going out in solemn earnestness to prepare for the dread moment which they verily suppose is only a few months distant - to lift up their warning voices in the midst of scoffers and doubters, and to cry aloud to blind priests and careless churches, 'Behold, the Bridegroom cometh!

"It was one of the most lovely mornings of this loveliest season of the year; a warm, soft atmosphere; clear sunshine falling on the city's spires and roofs; the hills of Dracut quiet and green in the distance, with their white farm-houses and scattered trees; around me the continual tread of footsteps hurrying to the toils of the day; merchants spreading out their wares for the eyes of purchasers; sounds of hammers the sharp clink of, trowels, the murmur of the great manufactories subdued by distance. How was it possible, in the midst of so much life, in that sunrise light, and in view of all-abounding beauty, that the idea of the death of Nature - the baptism of the world in fire - could take such a practical shape as this? Yet here were sober, intelligent men, gentle and pious women, who, verily believing the end to be close at hand, had left their counting-rooms, and workshops, and household cares to publish the great tidings, and to startle, if possible, a careless and unbelieving generation into preparation for the day of the Lord and for that blessed millennium - the restored paradise - when, renovated and renewed by its fire-purgation, the earth shall become as of old the garden of the Lord, and the saints alone shall inherit it. . . .

"I do not, I confess sympathize with my Second Advent friends in the lamentable depreciation of Mother Earth even in her present state. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend how it is that this goodly, green, sunlit home of ours is resting under a curse. It really does not seem to me to be altogether like the roll which the angel bore in the prophet's vision, 'written within and without with mourning, lamentation, and woe.' September sunsets, changing forests, moonrise and cloud, sun and rain - I for one am contented with them. They fill my heart with a sense of beauty. I see in them the perfect work of infinite love as well as wisdom.

"It may be that our Advent friends, however, coincide with the opinion of an old writer on the prophecies, who considered the hills and valleys of the earth's surface and its changes of seasons as so many visible manifestations of God's curse, and that in the millennium, as in the days of Adam's innocence, all these picturesque inequalities would be leveled nicely away, and the flat surface laid handsomely down to grass!

"As might be expected, the effect of this belief in the speedy destruction of the world and the personal coming of the Messiah, acting upon a class of uncultivated, and in some cases gross minds, is not always in keeping with the enlightened Christian's ideal of the better day. One is shocked in reading some of the 'hymns' of these believers. Sensual images - semi-Mahometan descriptions of the condition of the 'saints' - exultations over the destruction of the 'sinners' - mingle with the beautiful and soothing promises of the prophets. There are, indeed, occasionally to be found among the believers men of refined and exalted spiritualism, who in their lives and conversation remind one of Tennyson's Christian knight-errant in his yearnings toward the hope set before him:

"'To me is given
Such hope I may not fear;
I long to breathe the airs of heaven,
Which sometimes meet me here.
I muse on joys that cannot cease,
Pure spaces filled with living beams,
White lilies of eternal peace
Whose odors haunt my dreams.'
"One of the most ludicrous examples of the sensual phase of Millerism, the incongruous blending of the sublime with the ridiculous, was mentioned to me not long since. A fashionable young woman in the western part of this State became an enthusiastic believer in the doctrine. On the day which had been designated as the closing one of time, she packed all her fine dresses and toilet valuables in a large trunk with long straps attached to it, and, seating herself upon it, buckled the straps over her shoulders, patiently awaiting the crisis - shrewdly calculating that, as she must herself go upwards, her goods and chattels would of necessity follow!"

Here the poet tells of a visit he made during the previous autumn to a camp-meeting in East Kingston.

"The spot was well chosen," he says. "A tall growth of pine and hemlock threw its melancholy shadow over the multitude who were arranged upon rough seats of boards and logs. Several hundred - perhaps a thousand people - were present, and more were rapidly coming. Drawn about in a circle, forming a background of snowy whiteness to the dark masses of men and foliage, were the white tents, and back of them the provision-stalls and cook-shops. When I reached the ground, a hymn, the words of which I could not distinguish, was pealing through the dim aisles of the forest. I could readily perceive that it had its effect upon the multitude before me, kindling to higher intensity their already excited enthusiasm. The preachers were placed in a rude pulpit of rough boards, carpeted only by the dead forest leaves and flowers, and tasseled, not with silk and velvet, but with the green boughs of the somber hemlocks around it. One of them followed the music in an earnest exhortation on the duty of preparing for the great event. Occasionally he was really eloquent, and his description of the last day had the ghastly distinctness of Anelli's painting of the End of the World.

"Suspended from the front of the rude pulpit were two broad sheets of canvas, upon one of which was the figure of a man, the head of gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly of brass, the legs of iron, and the feet of clay - the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. On the other were depicted the wonders of the Apocalyptic vision - the beasts, the dragons, the scarlet woman seen by the seer of Patmos, Oriental types, figures, and mystic symbols, translated into staring Yankee realities, and exhibited like the beasts of a travelling menagerie. One horrible image, with its hideous heads and scaly caudal extremity, reminded me of the tremendous line of Milton, who, in speaking of the same evil dragon, describes him as

"'Swindging the scaly horrors of his folded tail.'

"To an imaginative mind the scene was full of novel interest. The white circle of tents; the dim wood arches; the upturned, earnest faces; the loud voices of the speakers, burdened with the awful symbolic language of the Bible; the smoke from the fires, rising like incense - carried me back to those days of primitive worship which tradition faintly whispers of, when on hilltops, and in the shade of old woods, Religion had her first altars, with every man for her priest, and the whole universe for her temple.

"Wisely and truthfully has Dr. Channing spoken of this doctrine of the Second Advent in his memorable discourse in Berkshire a little before his death:

"'There are some among us at the present moment who are waiting for the speedy coming of Christ. They expect, before another year closes,… to hear His voice, to stand before His judgment seat. These illusions spring from misinterpretation of Scripture language. . . The Christian, whose inward eyes and ears are touched by God, discerns the coming of Christ, hears the sound of His chariot wheels and the voice of His trumpet, when no other perceives them. He discerns the Saviour's advent in the dawning of higher truth on the world. . . . Christ comes in the conversion, the regeneration, the emancipation, of the world."' [John Greenleaf Whittier, Prose Works. Published, 1866, Ticknor & Fields, Boston.]

This visit of Whittier's to the camp-meeting at East Kingston was in 1842, when a great solemnity prevailed and held back much of the manifestations of hysteria which came later. The late Daniel M. Treadwell describes a visit to a camp-meeting that same year, in a book called "Reminiscences of Men and Things on Long Island," published in 1917. It must be said that he had little patience with Miller's doctrine, but the earnestness of his followers evidently impressed him. The contents of the book are taken from his journals which he started early in life, therefore he did not have to rely upon his memory.

"Sunday, August 14, 1842. Went this day to see the great Millerite encampment in Petit's woods, about one mile south from the village of Hempstead. We believe they have been encamped here about a week. This piece of primeval woods is charmingly adapted and is held for purposes of this kind. The grounds are fenced, or stockaded, and can be closed at night against intruders. The encampment does not in any essential differ from an ordinary Methodist camp-meeting. There is a large shelter, or stand erected from which sermons axe preached or lectures delivered.

"There were seats erected sufficient to accommodate two thousand people; besides, there is a large tent capable of holding a great many people to be used in the emergency of bad weather. The private tents, of which there were a great many, were arranged about the grounds much as the ordinary camp-meeting. . . .

"There was a vast number of people on the grounds today, the greater portion of whom were attracted there out of curiosity, and the novelty of the occasion....

"While the great crowd on the camp-ground who were not worshippers nor neophytes maintained a marvelous decorum, it was quite the reverse on the outside of the grounds; for a fourth of a mile north and south of the main entrance every conceivable traffic in bibulous fluids was carried on, and noisy vagabond crowds occupied booths on the highway. There was a constant stream of pedestrians going and coming from the village of Hempstead.

"The most attractive speaker during the day was Joshua V. Himes, chief saint and prophet. He spoke twice during the day from the outside stand. One Amasa Baker held forth from within the big tent. He was a fire-eater. He enunciated emphatically that all the saints who accepted the teachings of the prophet, and were prepared, would enter with Christ the kingdom in April next; - all others would be burned to a cinder by an avenging God. Many others preached, but the principal method for proselytizing was through the circulation of books and pamphlets, not only -for the camp-ground, as was being done at the present time, but for years previous the country had been flooded with Millerite literature, pamphlets and books. No household on the South Side escaped this affliction. Many of the pamphlets were made up of labyrinthian diagrams and signs, with a muddle of mathematics, chronology, and Scripture references - entirely beyond the comprehension of any sane man. The devotion of these deluded people to their cause, and their absolute faith, transcends anything we have ever seen in the way of religious enthusiasm. In all their prayer-meetings, in their singing, and their conversations, there was an earnestness marvelous for so weak a cause.... Many proselytes were made in Hempstead from the sturdy, hardworking yeomanry of the South Side, who had successfully resisted the appeals of all other sects."

The two following letters written to the author's maternal grandmother, Mrs. George Peabody, of Salem, Massachusetts, give an account of a camp-meeting held in that city when it was at the height of its culture, distinction, and prosperity, and when William Miller's prophecy was one of the great points of discussion all over the country. It so happened that Mr. George Peabody and his family were in Europe when the great Tabernacle tent was pitched in North Salem and they received many interesting letters from relatives and friends at home telling of the religious excitement that was sweeping the land. The first letter is as follows:

"Charles M. Endicott to his cousin, Mrs. George Peabody

"Salem, Jan. 5, 1843.

"We are in the midst, dear Clara, if not of a revolution, at least of a great excitement upon the subject of religion. Your previous letters from home have no doubt informed you that the Millerites have held a camp-meeting in North Salem, near Orne's Point, for upwards of a week, and our little city was daily about deserted. Large crowds were seen wending their way in that direction, and the roads were literally blocked up with carriages of all descriptions, conveying passengers to and fro from the place of meeting. I doubt if even Paris itself often presents a more busy scene. Their success in making converts was, I understand, quite satisfactory, and they proved, as conclusively as the Signs of the Zodiac multiplied by the seeds in a winter squash can prove anything, that this mundane orb of ours - the great 'Moulin Joly' on which we reside - will be extinguished, utterly destroyed, totally annihilated in April, 1843.

"Next came the great religious agitator, Elder Knapp, to what he was pleased to call 'this stronghold of Satan,' [N.B. There were a great many Unitarians in Salem at this time; most of them very antagonistic to Miller's doctrine] and the way he dealt with his subtle Majesty, and the familiar terms on which he appeared to be with him, made many of his hearers feel more sensibly his immediate proximity than perhaps they had ever felt before; - the very brimstone flavor of his person was apparent to the olfactory nerves of many, and they involuntarily shuddered when they looked over their shoulders, lest they should encounter him with his pitchfork, ready to toss them into endless torments. Next to him and following close upon his footsteps came the more refined Mr. Kirk - with his persuasive eloquence and ornate rhetoric - administering to us in a more insidious manner, and in smaller doses at a time, the same kind of medicine, but more suited to those whose delicate stomachs refused the powerful potations of his predecessor; but having gained for himself considerable renown for his success in opening the eyes of the blind, particularly among the fashionables in Boston, he was of course much sought after, and much admired. However, we being a perverse and wicked generation, it did not last long - or, in other words, it was a total failure so far as those were concerned against whom this imagery was intended to operate: namely, the Unitarian denomination. At the same time with this polished divine, our city was favored with a visit from the erudite Mr. [Theodore] Parker, the transcendentalist, who had been delivering a course of sermons in the Mechanics Hall, to overflowing audiences. I humbly hope some good will come out of all this commotion, or awakening, as it is usually called, yet I cannot help having my misgivings that many pious and good resolutions will pass away with the occasion that called them forth. There has ever been in the world too much of that religion which Rebecca, in 'Ivanhoe' said 'was forever on the tongue, but seldom in the heart, or in the practice.'

"I am, etc., Your Cousin, C.Y."

Another letter describing this same camp-meeting in more detail was received by Mrs. George Peabody from her brother, Mr. William P. Endicott:

"Salem, December 30, 1842.

"…During the last fall and this much of the winter, signal and desperate efforts have been made for the conversion of sinners. First, Miller, the 'Prophet,' pitched his tabernacle in our neighborhood and mighty was the struggle with Satan. The public exercises were unexceptionable, as I thought, but the family, or private, directions of his ignorant disciples, were inconceivably revolting. From attendance on these latter no one was excluded until the tent was full. I will give one instance of their general character. I was at the door of one of their tents, where a furious, ignorant fellow was praying for the sinners present in this wise: 'Oh, Sinners, the end is at hand and ye believe it not! Oh, repent before it is too late for the end is coming! - and if He find you in your sins, better for you had you never been born, for He will swallow you in his wrath, and as you are fit for nothing but a vomit for Jehovah, when He has swallowed you He will spew you right up into hell!' - This is verbatim the language used, and, strange as it may seem, these impious ravings had the effect to add largely to the number of his followers. Scarcely had Miller blown his blast, when Elder Knapp, of Boston notoriety, took up the cry, and is now laboring night and day - not in my opinion to reform, but to proselyte, and well does be succeed. I cannot give a detailed account of the various machinery which is called into action. The most prominent, however, is the 'Anxious Seat,' to which many of the convicted sinners daily resort, and having gone through the purgation in such cases provided come out inexpressibly happy in the delusion that their work is done. Some, I doubt not, are truly benefited by the process; but is it not to be feared that many, if not most of them, sadly mistake in supposing that a few days of frantic consciousness of sin can atone for an ill-spent life? I have listened to this preacher, and can see much in him to explain the wonderful power he holds over the minds of the ignorant. He is a bold, unscrupulous denouncer of God's vengeance on all of a different faith. He excels in terrific descriptions of hell and torture; he opens the abyss, and his graphic language points the mind's eye to material torments and their infliction by the Devil, who, with his horn, hoof, and tail, rises to their terrified view, and so intensely horrible does he make the picture that many have, after a yell of despair, swooned away. His prayers are, in my opinion, blasphemous for their familiarity. For instance, he says: 'Send down, O Lord, the showers of thy grace upon this assembly, like unto a shower of fifty-sixes!' Of the Episcopalians he says: 'Their worship is so cold and formal, that a few of their prayer-books thrown into hell would freeze it over, so that the Devil would have good skating.' Of the Unitarians he says: 'Their steeples should point downwards, in order to give a correct idea of where the people are bound.' "So you see if we are not all made better by the time you return to us, 'twill not be through want of rousing preaching. Mr. Kirk is here; - a different man altogether, etc., etc.

"Your affectionate brother, W. P. E."

It is evident that Prophet Miller's health was still impaired at this time, as no reference is made in either of these letters to his preaching other than that after he had "blown his blast" he was succeeded by Elder Knapp and the more refined Mr. Kirk, both of whom seem to have made a definite impression, to say nothing of the fire-eating brother from the slums. That these men of such different caliber should be preaching in the same tent and almost at the same time to crowds of equally varying types shows how quickly and unerringly a definite and strongly worded suggestion will take hold of the imagination of the educated and uneducated alike - at least exciting curiosity if nothing else. At the age of ninety-three Mr. Daniel Kinsley, of Worcester, gave the author an account of a meeting he went to in Fletcher, Vermont, where William Miller preached. Mr. Kinsley was fifteen years old at the time. The meeting took place in a wood outside the village. It was a very fine day in June and a great crowd gathered there, arriving from all the neighboring towns and villages in traps and wagons.

When Prophet Miller mounted the platform, he appeared to be a little under medium height. Mr. Kinsley described him as being " a serious, earnest man with a wonderful power of holding the attention of his audience and of bringing them round to his belief. He did not shout or rant the way so many revivalists do; he made his impression by his earnest manner and his serious way of addressing his listeners. When he talked, people had to sit right up and listen - they couldn't help it."

Mr. Kinsley also said that many men who one would never suppose would be influenced by him or his theory would often be converted at once and get completely under the spell of the delusion.

Another account of a meeting where Prophet Miller preached was received by the author from Mrs. Susan L. Harrisy of West Millbury, Massachusetts.

"I am eighty-two years old" she wrote "and at that time only five years of age; but hearing my mother in after years tell of it, it seems as though I remember it for myself.

"My mother at that time was living in Chicopee, near Springfield, in the western part of the State. Miller himself came there and held quite a number of meetings, and interest in the Second Coming of Christ ran fever heat.

"My mother, hearing so much said, attended some of the meetings herself. I remember of her telling of going to one, and while excitement ran high, ladies stripped ear-rings from their ears (they were quite fashionable in those days), and rings from their fingers, and sitting beside my mother was my oldest sister wearing my mother's gold beads, and she began to unfasten them to put in the collection when a timely nudge from my mother, and a hint to let her beads alone, stopped the programme.

"I remember, too, of hearing her say on the day appointed they assembled on a high hill near at hand robed in white, expecting to be of that class who are to meet the Lord in the air, but I think they must all be sleeping quietly in cemeteries by this time."

"But in what awful sounds
The wicked are addressed!
Heaven with their groans resounds
As on his left they're placed -
'Depart, ye cursed,' the judge exclaims,
'To be destroyed in burning flames!"'
From The Millenial Harp. Published by Joshua V. Himes, 1843.

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