Days of Delusion - A Strange Bit of History

Chapter 8

By Clara Endicott Sears, 1924

"Now despisers look and wonder,
Hope and Sinners here must part,
Louder than a peal of thunder
Hear the dreadful sound 'Depart!'
Lost forever!
How it quails the Sinner's heart!"

The summer was drawing to a close, and as yet no sign of the end had come. Certain things had happened which had seemed to be of supernatural import to the expectant believers in the prophecy. There was the great comet flashing in the night skies; there was the jeweled Crown which some one claimed to have seen in the heavens, and the bloody moon, and the bloody sickle; and there had been a catastrophe at Rochester which had caused a great stir when a terrific gale of wind had caught up the huge Tabernacle tent into the air and had dropped it upon five hundred persons assembled there to hold a meeting, and not one of them had sustained serious injury, and this had been tabulated as a manifestation of special divine protection and an assurance of the approaching end; - but day after day passed by, and eager, anxious faces grew wan with waiting. Then a fluttering of doubt and hesitation became apparent in certain communities, but soon those were dispelled when it was recalled that as far back as 1839 Prophet Miller had stated on some occasion, which had been forgotten in the general excitement, that he was not positive that the event would take place during the Christian year from 1843 to 1844, and that he would claim the whole of the Jewish year which would carry the prophecy over to the 21st of March, 1844. An announcement to this effect was sent broadcast and by this time the delusion had taken such a firm hold upon the imaginations of his followers that any simple explanation, however crude, seemed sufficient to quiet all doubts and questionings. The spell of the prophecy was drugging the natural perceptions of its victims.

Having accepted this lengthening of the allotted time, the brethren who had assumed the responsibility of sounding the alarm entered into their work with renewed energy and outdid themselves in their efforts to terrify the army of unbelievers into a realization of the horrors that awaited them and to strengthen the faith of those already in the ranks. But the months slipped by, one by one, and winter came, with its whirling snowstorms and blinding sleet, and fierce north winds - but still the "vision tarried."

The voices of the Millerites were heard singing and shouting and exhorting each other to stand firm, and to see to it that their lamps were trimmed and burning, ready for the awful moment whenever it might come. Still - nothing happened!

Little by little the days lengthened as the old earth rotated toward the vernal equinox, unmindful of man'' prophecy of coming destruction; the sunshine grew warmer and buds began to swell; then the exaltation grew feverish and hectic, and the shouts grew strident.

Prophet Miller had been awaiting the end for weeks in his home at Low Hampton when the last day came - the 21st of March, which ended the Jewish year. Worn out by ill health and premature infirmities of age, he waited in breathless suspense; reading and re-reading the Book of Daniel and consulting his chart; alert, and listening for the blast of the terrible trumpet which would awaken the sleeping dead. His confidence in the prophecy was unshaken; he looked for a final victory over the scoffers and detractors that had beset his path and flouted his doctrine, and he believed his reward was near - but the suspense was overpowering!

With Elder Joshua V. Himes it was different. He was working with indefatigable energy up to the end. The very morning of the 21st a large edition of "The Midnight Cry" was sent broadcast. In it he announced with startling inconsistency the arrival of the first number of a new paper called "The World's Crisis" in which were the following words of exhortation:

"Standing on the verge of the World's Crisis, in the very last moments of the period that is to witness the grand termination of all earthly things, we earnestly implore your prayerful perusal of these pages, as they contain some of the reasons for our faith that the present Jewish Year will close up the drama of this earth, and usher in the scenes of eternity."

After quoting some of these reasons Elder Himes makes the following cautious announcement:

"To the Readers of The Midnight Cry.

"We have no new light on the prophetic periods. Our time ends this Jewish year. If time be continued beyond that, we have no other definite period to fix upon, but henceforth shall look for the event every hour till our Lord shall come. Others can give their views on the termination of periods on their own responsibility. If it be necessary, we shall give ours on this point.

"Let us be ready, having our loins girt about and our lamps burning, that when the Master cometh we may open to him immediately.

"J.V. Himes, New York City."

Hour after hour through the day and through the night groups of deluded men, women, and children stood gazing heavenward watching the clouds, watching the sun, and later the stars - looking for the sign of the coming end. Some were terror-stricken; others worked themselves into a state bordering on frenzy, shouting Hallelujah! Hallelujah! - and some were dazed and could not speak.

But the dawn of March 22nd crept over the sky, lighting up the pallid faces of the watchers. Once again the time had passed and the prophecy still remained unfulfilled; the end had not yet come.

Doubtless many even among the faithful inwardly rejoiced, but there were earnest souls among them to whom the realization of the cold fact was overwhelming!

How face the world now? How face the scoffers?

Prophet Miller, enfeebled by the suspense and strain, and overcome by the shock of failure, remained in seclusion in his home at Low Hampton. After four days of semi-prostration, he aroused himself as from a stupor and wrote to Elder Himes:

"Low Hampton, March 25th, 1844

"My Dear Brother Himes:

"I am seated at my old desk in my east room, having obtained help of God until the present time. I am still looking for our dear Saviour, the Son of God from heaven… The time as I have calculated it is now filled up and I expect to see the Saviour descend from Heaven. I have now nothing to look for but this glorious hope. I am full in the faith that all prophetic chronology, excepting the thousand years of Rev. 20 is not about full. Whether God designs for me to warn the people of this earth any more or not, I am at a loss to know… I feel almost confident that my labors are about done; and I am with a deep interest of soul looking for my blessed and glorious Redeemer… This I can truly say is my chief desire… It is my meditation all the day long. It is my song in the night. It is my faith and hope. I still believe the time is not far off!"

The world made merry over the old Prophet's predicament. The taunts and jeers of the "scoffers" were well-nigh unbearable. If any of Miller's followers walked abroad, they ran the gauntlet of merciless ridicule.

"What! - not gone up yet? - We thought you'd gone up! Aren't you going up soon? - Wife didn't go up and leave you behind to burn, did she?" The rowdy element in the community would not leave them alone.

Finally, on May 2nd, Prophet Miller had recovered sufficiently to issue a statement which appeared in "The Midnight Cry." It was as follows:

"To Second Advent Believers.

"Were I to live my life over again, with the same evidence I then had, to be honest with God and Man, I should have to do as I have done. Although opposers said it would not come, they produced no weighty arguments. It was evidently guesswork with them; and then I thought, and I do now, that their denial was based more on an unwillingness for the Lord to come, than on any argument leading to such a conclusion.

"I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door; and I exhort you, my Brethren, to be watchful, and not let the day come on you unawares. The wicked, the proud, and the bigot, will exult over us. I will try to be patient… I want you, my Brethren, not to be drawn away from the truth."

Prophet Miller's attitude in meeting this humiliating situation was noticeably different from that of Elder Joshua V. Himes. The former made no attempt to evade the responsibility of his miscalculations; he frankly admitted his mistake, and this very fact served to strengthen the confidence which his followers accorded him. The public also was not without appreciation of this when the Annual Conference met during the last week in May at the Tabernacle in Boston. The building was crowded to the doors by an audience that showed some sympathy for him, especially when, at the end of the Conference, he arose and, facing this great concourse of friends and foes, he spoke feelingly of his great disappointment. The "Boston Post" of June 1st gave an account of this occasion under the heading of "Father Miller's Confession." It reads thus:

"Many people were desirous of hearing what was termed 'Father Miller's Confession,' which, according to rumor, was to be delivered at the Tabernacle on Tuesday evening last, when and where a large concourse assembled, myself among the number, to hear the conclusion of the whole matter; and I confess I was well paid for my time and trouble. I should judge also, by the appearance of the audience, and the remarks I heard from one or two gentlemen not of Mr. Miller's faith, that a general satisfaction was felt. I never heard him when he was more eloquent and animated, or more happy in communicating his feelings and sentiments to others… He confessed that he had been disappointed, but by no means discouraged or shaken in his faith in God's goodness, or in the entire fulfillment of His word, or in the speedy coming of our Saviour and the destruction of the world. 'If the vision tarry, wait for it,' he said. He remained firm in the belief that the end of all things is near at hand, even at the door. He spoke with much feeling and effect, and left no doubt of his sincerity." (Signed "D.")

There were many even among the scoffers who felt a certain sort of pity for the poor old Prophet on account of the frankness with which he admitted the error of his calculations, and the evident genuineness of his disappointment. Elder Joseph Litch went to see him on the 8th of June.

"That he is greatly disappointed in not seeing the Lord within the expected time," he wrote of him, "must be evident to all who hear him speak; while the tearful eye and subdued voice show from whence flow the words he utters. Although disappointed as to time, I never saw him more strong than now in the general correctness of his exposition of Scripture, and in the faith of our Lord's speedy coming." [Sylvester Bliss, Life of William Miller.]

But in spite of the failure of the prophecy the fires of fanaticism increased. The flames of such emotions cannot be quenched at will; like all great conflagrations they must burn themselves out. And so it was in 1844. Instead of decreasing, the failure seemed to excite even greater exhibitions of loyalty to the expectation of the impending Judgment Day. Even before these deluded followers had wholly waked up to the situation, Brother Storrs, Brother Southard, Brother Snow, and a number of other preachers of the doctrine had consulted the great chart and the calendar of Jewish time, and the Books of Daniel and John, and the Apocalypse, and they made a discovery that the tenth day of the seventh month of the current Jewish year, which was the time of the barley harvest at Jerusalem, was the real and most probable time for the end to come. The instant this discovery was made, it was given out to the faithful, and though Prophet Miller refused to endorse it, they received it joyfully and greeted it with acclaim. With one accord and with feverish enthusiasm they drew themselves into a renewal of preparation for the end - poor souls! Elder Luther Boutelle described this period that led up to the final tragic disillusionment.

"By July," he states, "there was such a concentration of thought among the strong ones on time that it was called 'the Midnight Cry.' Thus a new impetus was created, and the work of holding meetings and preaching was increased. As we fell one after another into the current belief that the fall would witness the coming of our Lord, it became in faith a certainty - we believed with out whole souls… The time argument made the end in the fall of 1844, Jewish time, tenth day of the seventh month, supposed to be October 20th - 21st - or 22nd. This brought us to a definite time, and in coming up to it the works of Adventists demonstrated their faith and honesty, not to be questioned. As they moved on with this point of time before them, all grew more enthusiastic. Crops were left unharvested, their owners expecting never to want what they had raised. Men paid up their debts. Many sold their property to help others to pay their debts, who could not have done it themselves. Beef cattle were slaughtered and distributed among the poor. At no time since the day of Pentecost was fully come had there been the like - a day when that Pentecost was so completely duplicated as in 1844.

"There was a great stir and talk in many places about putting the Millerites under guardianship. But this did not cause any to go back on their faith. They were firm and held fast, believing they should speak and act. As the time to which all looked drew near, the Bible was studied even more, and a fuller consecration made."

This differs widely from Lydia Maria Child's caustic comment on the Millerites to the effect that she had heard of very few instances of "stolen goods restored, or of falsehoods acknowledged, as a preparation for the dreaded event." [Daniel M. Treadwell, Reminiscences.]

In spite of her opinion, however, there were many more than would seem possible in this day, who, like Elder Boutelle, were earnest, sober, God-fearing men, notwithstanding their delusion. This good man belonged to a group of the prophet's followers whose minds were filled with the devotional aspect of the experience; and that there was one (in spite of the scoffers) lends a note of pathos and tragedy to what from the outsider's viewpoint seemed only foolishness. These were the real Millerites, but in addition to these were two other groups, one of them composed of hysterical, terrified, heedless men and women, and the other counting those who merely craved excitement and morbid exhilaration.

The public at this time, seriously deploring the increase of insanity and fanaticism, gravely censored the actions and the influence of Elder Joshua V. Himes. The majority of those against the doctrine distrusted him, and there were some among Miller's followers who at times questioned his sincerity. In July an article signed "Delta" appeared in a paper called the "New Sun" protesting against the sale of his publications. "I learn from a notice in the 'Christian Reflector,'" this article states, "that this Unitarian editor, Joshua V. Himes, instead of endeavoring to repair the almost incalculable mischief that he has caused among the churches of Christ for the last two or three years, by advocating a scheme of prophetical interpretations which time has shown to be false, has recently come out with a new speculation upon the credulity of his followers in the form of a quarterly pamphlet of 144 pages which he sells at 37½ cents per number. The following extract from the notice referred to will give an idea of the object, spirit, and contents of this pamphlet: 'The tenor and object of the whole work,' it asserts, 'is to keep alive by vigorous fanning the flames which gleamed so fiercely one or to years ago.'"

This was copied into "The Midnight Cry" of July 4, 1844, and scornfully reviewed by the editor, but that he was now beginning to be looked upon as the chief fomenter of trouble, owing to the tone of his publications, was very evident. Popular caricatures are apt to reveal the trend of public sentiment, and one which was published about this time and which is now in the possession of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in Boston, demonstrates the prevailing estimate of the two men, namely, William Miller and Elder Joshua V. Himes. This one in question depicts the Tabernacle Building in Boston in the act of being caught up in the air, from the roof and windows of which, miserable sinners, both men and women, can be seen falling through the space to the place of torment, while serene and secure upon the peak of the roof sits Prophet Miller, his famous chart spread out beneath him. Below on earth is Elder Joshua V. Himes, his arms reaching upward in a frantic effort to catch hold of the building so as to ascend with it, but Satan holds him back with a firm grip, uttering the cryptic words: "Joshua V., you must stay with me!"

The fact that Elder Himes and Prophet Miller remained in the Middle West during the summer of 1844 left the field clear to the Eastern States for leadership on the part of some of the lesser lights among the Brethren, and that these took occasion to promulgate theories of their own is perhaps an explanation for some of the symbolism which became rampant during this period, certain manifestation of which will always be associated with the Millerite excitement of 1843 and 1844. Owing to the ridicule which was hurled at them on account of these acts of symbolism by a merciless public that kept it up for a long time after the wave of fanaticism had subsided, the exasperated and humiliated followers of the Prophet turned upon their persecutors after some years had passed, and declared that those things which excited their ridicule had never happened and were fabrications of their own brains. To be sure, there were many impossible stories current at the time which were entirely false, but there remained too many proofs of the truth about this period of undue agitation, from letters, and from recollections of those still living, and from authentic accounts of it, passed on from the generation then living to the next in line, and from writings of the Millerites themselves in the columns of their various publications, to admit of any uncertainty as to what really happened. Moreover, the kind of fanaticism that seized hold of Miller's followers resembled in almost every instance that indulged in at all similar outbursts when the end of the world had been looked for at intervals during preceding centuries. In almost every case the expression of this fanaticism was symbolic, except where mesmeric influence veered it off into morbid channels. Seeking the hilltops, the tree-tops, and the house-tops; the donning of white robes as the time of the expected end approached; the washing of each other's feet, greeting each other with a kiss - all these acts had esoteric meanings which had come down through the ages fraught with solemn beauty, but when performed by the unenlightened and the ignorant they seem like acts of meaningless absurdity. Now climbing into the tree-tops, which was much resorted to by the Millerites, undoubtedly had its origin in the natural and spontaneous act Zaccheus in the New Testament who, we are told in St. Luke's Gospel, climbed up into a sycamore tree so as to catch a glimpse of the Master when he was passing through Jericho on his death journey to Jerusalem. It is safe to say, however, that most of Miller's deluded followers performed the act without knowledge of its origin, thinking only of the advantageous elevation secured from which to ascend when the end came. But to illustrate how such waves of religious hysteria wherever they vibrate will generate the same impulses, the Reverend C.V.A. Van Dyke, an Episcopal clergyman, who met the beautiful Harriet Livermore during her pilgrimage in Jerusalem, wrote in regard to her fanaticism to the Reverend St. Low Livermore: "I remember hearing Miss Livermore say that she had spent the preceding Sabbath in an olive tree on the Mount of Olives."

The hillsides and the summits have ever been regarded in the East as a refuge for meditation and prayer; and all through the eventful summer of 1843 and 1844 long processions of Millerites could be seen wending their way up the green slopes of some hill back of their town or village, there to await or watch out for the coming of the Lord. The habit of repairing to the roofs of houses to await the end was in accordance with the habit of the Eastern peoples who resort tot he house-tops to recite their prayers at the rising and setting of the sun. As their roofs are flat, they are considered a fitting retreat for contemplation.

"Let him which is on the house-top not come down… and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back." These words of warning in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew were literally followed in many cases, and poor deluded men and women crouched as best they could on the gutters of our slanting roofs - when they thought the end was near. But here again the scriptural application was in most cases lost sight of in a desire to get where they could be caught up in the air unimpeded by obstructions; at least it was surely so amongst the country folk. The symbolism of the white robes is, of course, very evident, as being emblems of purity.

"And lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands." [Rev. VII 9:13.]

"And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? And whence came they?"

They were also looked upon as the wedding garment spoken of in the parable of the marriage feast.

"And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: and he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servant, Bind him hand and foot,… and cast him into outer darkness." {Math. XXII 11-13]

An explanation of this, written by J. Hamilton, of London, in a Millerite publication called "The Morning Watch," is as follows:

"You will observe that a welcome from the King depends entirely on what the Gospel parable calls a 'wedding garment.' This robe, according to the custom of old and Eastern times, is provided by the lord of the house, and is put on every guest as he enters - of course only if he be willing; but no one who is willing need want it, for it is gratuitously given to all. The robe is Righteousness - not man's, but Jehovah's."

And so the Millerites, fearing to offend the Almighty, and longing to belong to that great company about the throne, made white garments for themselves - "ascension robes," they were often called - and they wrapped themselves in them when the end seemed near, just as other fanatics did before them in preceding centuries. Here and there in country districts black robes were used, but this was very unusual. These symbolized humility.

This explanation is an important one at this point, as from now on various accounts from authentic sources are full of references to these observances.

Now all through the summer, while Prophet Miller and Elder Himes were away in Ohio, the cry went up, "Tenth day of the seventh month, year of Jubilee!" It became a sort of slogan among believers as well as unbelievers of the doctrine. Even the "scoffers" took it up. Among the faithful, however, it stirred emotions such as they had never experienced before. Little did it matter to them now whether Prophet Miller or Elder Himes gave countenance to the new date settled upon. Every other self-elected Millerite preacher was shouting it so that all could hear, and the followers tool it up in ringing tones, in defiance of reason, in defiance of the jeers of unsympathetic crowds; in defiance of those attempting to steady them, entreating them to keep balanced; in defiance of everything and everybody. When Prophet Miller and his co-worker Elder Himes turned their faces homeward and arrived in Philadelphia on September 14, 1844, they found their followers in a turmoil of excitement preparing for the end, every one of them repeating with burning conviction: "Tenth day of the seventh month, year of Jubilee!"

It was the same upon their arrival in New York on September 19th. The cry of "Tenth day of the seventh month" rang in their ears wherever they went. Exhausted by lecturing throughout Ohio, by illness and advancing years, the poor Old Prophet was agitated and troubled. Elder Himes was worried. It was easy enough to see that during their absence the reins had been shifted into the hands of those who were now driving the Millerite chariot down a steep descent at breakneck speed. With practically only a month to wait before the arrival of the expected final day of earth, many were giving away their property, or selling their farms and possessions, urged on by some of the preachers who had worked themselves into such a condition of mental chaos that any attempt made to reason with them was useless. When Prophet Miller reached his home at Low Hampton, he found his courage almost failing him. He wrote to Elder Himes on September 30th:

"Dear Brother:

"I am once more at home, worn down with the fatigue of my journey, my strength so exhausted and my bodily infirmities so great, that I am about concluding I shall never be able again to labor in the vineyard as heretofore. I wish now to remember with gratitude all those who have assisted me in my endeavors to awaken the Church and to arouse the world to a sense of their awful danger… Many of you have sacrificed much - your good names, former associates, flattering prospects in life, occupation and goods; and with me you have received scorn, reproach, and scandal from those whom it was our soul's desire to benefit. Yet not one of you to whom my confidence has ever been given, has, to my knowledge, murmured or complained… There have been deceivers amongst us, but God has preserved me from giving them my confidence to deceive or betray."

Elder Boutelle describes this period thus: "The 'Advent Herald,' 'The Midnight Cry,' and other Advent papers, periodicals, pamphlets, tracts, leaflets, voicing the coming glory, were scattered broadcast and everywhere like autumn leaves in the forest. Every house was visited by the… They were angels of mercy sent in love for the salvation of man. Everything now began to converge to a point. October was the closing time of probation; the judgment and rewards! A mighty effort through the Spirit and the word preached was made to bring sinners to repentance, and to have the wandering ones return. All were awake to this great end - salvation. The tenth day of the seventh month drew nigh. With joy all the ready ones anticipated the day. Solemn, however, were the last gatherings. Those of a family who were ready to meet the Lord, expecting an eternal separation from those who were not ready. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brethren and sisters, separated, and that forever!"

The camp-meetings were now so crowded that they were no longer orderly as they had been. If there had been a time when an undesirable element could be kept out, it was now impossible to do so; and as a matter of fact the world was so near its end, as they claimed, whatever precautions were taken before seemed hardly worth while any longer. Brother Stoddard, who was preaching at a camp-meeting at Litchfield, Connecticut, wrote about his experiences there which were typical of what was happening at all such meetings in greater or lesser degree.

"On Saturday evening," he states, "the great enemy of our doctrine sent out about three hundred believers that the Lord delays his coming. They began to defend their doctrine by throwing apples and tobacco at the preachers in the stand, and after that engaged in mocking and blasphemy, and at a convenient time stoned to pieces the chandeliers and put out the lights, and after that broke the stand to pieces, and began to burn the boards; when the high sheriff and one of his deputies, being present, began to advise them to desist, with a little degree of earnestness, but were careful not to threaten them. We have learned the civil authority was under foot, and could not restrain the wicked even in Connecticut. We attended to our work, continued the meeting as long as we intended, and not a hair of our head was hurt." [The Midnight Cry, October 3, 1844.]

Brother E.L.H. Chamberlain in the same paper writes of this meeting: "It was a time of great power; much good was done. I don't think there was one preacher on the ground that did not come out fully on the seventh month. Awful moments these - and it is so, yes, the word and the Spirit agree, Glory to God!… I think I shall have to close my store, and let it, and preach the Lord is coming. This will be a heavy cross, indeed! My son is now in the store and wants me to warn the people!"

Now there were many whose inconsistencies were as glaring as Brother Chamberlain's, who like him were cautious enough to let their stores even if they believed the end was near. It is difficult, after all, for some thrifty Yankees to become wholly oblivious to the advantage of making a good trade on the chance of needing it.

Mr. John Whitcomb, of Amesbury, Massachusetts, now in his eighty-seventh year, wrote to the author on November 28, 1921, of being taken to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, when a small boy.

"We went to Fitchburg to see some of father's folks, and Mr. Miller's folks had a big tent out of town, and they held meetings for a week, and some lived there, and the boys bothered them nights. One night they went up and they got a small boy and gave him a sharp knife and told him they would throw him to the top of the tent, and when he got there to stick his knife through and it would hold him and he could hear all they said. So they threw him and he stuck his knife in the tent and down he came, knife and all, and slit the tent from the top to the ground. The wind blew in and blew out the candles, and when the lights were out they threw a pig in, and some had pork under them, and some over them for a while! It broke up the meeting for that night."

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