Days of Delusion - A Strange Bit of History


By Clara Endicott Sears, 1924

Meteorologists record atmospheric perturbations as scientific facts, as well as electrical disturbances, cold waves, heat waves, magnetic currents, and other invisible forces influencing man's physical nature. There are also scientists who are discovering and interpreting the mysteries of sound waves, light waves, radio waves, and their direct influence upon his well-being.

Will they discover some day that far back of all these marvelous phenomena sweeps a force of infinitely rarer, more tenuous, more rapid vibrations that under certain conditions directly affects the mental and spiritual sides of man's nature - stirring them into extreme and even supernormal as well as abnormal activity?

It would account for those strange periods in history when geniuses, poets, reformers, orators, idealists, revivalists, as well as those the world calls "cranks," spring up suddenly on every side - each one responding according to individual capacity and degree of development, as though under the spell of a compelling agitation.

At such times some reach great heights of thought - some are moved to heroic action; pure and highly sensitive natures repudiate the world and its pleasures and turn their thoughts beyond the veil of flesh into the regions of the Spirit. There are also enthusiasts who venture from the beaten track of thought and get bewildered in labyrinths of their own making. There are seemingly sensible people who suddenly accept preposterous theories and become fanatics and run hither and thither propounding vagaries. The voices of orators, preachers, statesmen, can be heard exhorting the emotional masses. There are respectable and well-meaning persons of limited vision who become hysterical - and some of them even go mad.

Just as from the strings of some aeolian harps the wind will bring forth harmonies of transcendent beauty, so others lacking resonance will give out only discords. Thus the minds and souls of men and women respond in inverse ratio to undercurrents of mental and spiritual agitation.

Such periods come and go mysteriously. The pages of history are dotted with them. They will return again and yet again as long as human beings inhabit the earth. They are marked by a vital impulse toward breaking away from existing conditions. Restlessness and a sense of change are prevalent - there is a straining upward after ideals that are seemingly unattainable; the public at large is unaccountably stirred and shaken - something unseen and intangible possesses it.

Now in 1843 and 1844, within the recollection of some who are still living, the crest of just such a wave as this was reached. It was a time when the invisible currents found vent through innumerable types of personalities. The reverberation caused by the inspiring public utterances from lips of men now famous rang through the length and breadth of the land. Daniel Webster, Wendell Philips, Garrison, Emerson, and our poets Whittier and Longfellow, and others of that notable group were giving out powerful flashes of light as though suddenly illumined from within. Transcendentalism was rampant. New sects were springing up like weeds in every direction. There was unrest in the churches. The Unitarians had already come out from the Congregational Church; now the Universalists were coming out from the Baptist denomination; these were called "Come-Outers"; and this was causing much excitement and discussion. Theodore Parker had broken away from the Unitarian faith and was filling Tremont Temple in Boston to overflowing - hundreds of persons being unable to gain admittance to hear him lecture on his radical views upon religion. In the midst of this confusion of ideas a voice was heard coming from the rural districts - faint and indistinct at first, but continually increasing in volume as it gave out its strident warning: "Behold, the end of all things is at hand!" The credulous masses paused and listened with blanched faces.

"Who is saying that?" they asked askance. "A man named William Miller," some one answers - "'Prophet' Miller they call him; he's going from village to village and from town to town and thousands are flocking to hear him."

"Who is he?"

"Why, he's a farmer - born up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It seems he lived for some years in Poultney, Vermont, but now his home is in Low Hampton in New York State; - an earnest good man they say, and seems to know what he is talking about. He says the Day of Judgment is at hand and the earth is going to burn up like a scroll, and all the wicked that are on it. He's warning people to wake up and look out for what is coming."

Some shrug their shoulders and laugh derisively; others look serious - but some go home nervous and troubled.

It did not take long for the prophecy to spread; - it seemed to fit in with the times. From one country village to another the word leapt like a tongue of fire until it reached the cities, and then it could not be ignored. Hundreds, and in some places thousands, of people fell under the spell of it; not only the ignorant, but men and women with good minds and erstwhile sound judgment ran breathlessly to and fro - some in terror, others rejoicing, watching for the heavens to open and for the appearance of the Saviour in clouds of glory. The clergy of all denominations were force to preach vehement sermons, to write and distribute pamphlets, to address meetings, in an attempt to stem the tide of the fanatical tendencies that were only too evidently ready to spring forth and spread far and near as William Miller's intricate calculations and interpretations of the scriptural prophecies were made known, and his method of deciphering the symbols in King Nebuchadnezzar's dream and the prophecies of Daniel and John, including the mysteries of "the ten-horned beast," "the ram and the he-goat," "the little horn," and "the beast rising out of the sea, having seven heads," and "the exceeding Great Horn!"

Edward Everett Hale says, in his biography of James Freeman Clarke: "Meanwhile the idolatry of the letter of Scripture bore legitimate fruit in the proclamation of William Miller that the world would end in the year 1843, on or about the 20th of March. The mathematical instincts of New England especially approved of the additions and subtractions of figures which were found in the Book of Daniel and the Revelation, which, beginning with the dates in Rollin's History, came out neatly by the older calendar at the beginning of 1843."

The Reverend Abel C. Thomas, in his "Autobiography" (published in 1852), says: "It required analysis and confutation of every branch of the notion, including both its principles and details of chronology, to stay the progress of the delusion. Despite even multiform demonstrations of its falsity, there were multitudes who clung to it until the last subterfuge of modification was exploded by time."

It must not be supposed, however, that William Miller and his followers were the only ones under the influence of an undue agitation; - 1843 was also a year of great revival among the Shakers. Elders and Eldresses, Brethren and Sisters, were all discovering mediumistic powers within themselves, and were continually conversing with those long dead, and with prophets, martyrs and scriptural characters, even in public meeting - the accompanying exaltation resulting frequently in extreme demonstrations of hysteria. Emerson, who wrote and article in the "Dial" in July of that same year on the "Convention of Friends of Universal Reform," says of that gathering: "If the assembly was disorderly, it was picturesque. Madmen, Madwomen, Men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-Outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-Day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers - all came successively to the top."

It is rather impressive to note the comment of Margaret Fuller Ossoli upon this occasion: "Amid all these wild gospelers," she writes, "came and went the calm figure of Emerson, peaceful and undisturbed." [Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Life of Margaret Fuller Ossoli"]

Again, referring to this period, Octovius Brooks Frothingham speaks of it in his biography of Theodore Parker as "a remarkable agitation of mind," and adds that "it did not seem to be communicated - to spread by contagion; but it was rather an intellectual experience produced by some latent causes in the air. No special class of people were affected by it. While in Boston the little knot of transcendentalists - Channing, Ripley, Margaret Fuller, Emerson, Alcott, Hedge, Parker - were discussing the problems of philosophy at the Tremont House and elsewhere, the farmers of the country and the plain folks of Cape Cod were as full of the new spirit as they."

It was the farmers of the country who were first to respond to William Miller's cry of warning, but it soon spread into the industrial centres and among tradespeople, until finally some of every class were numbered among his followers.

But it must not be supposed that the part of his prophecy that dealt with the Second Coming of our Lord in clouds of glory belonged exclusively to William Miller at this time. A converted Jew in Palestine, named Joseph Wolff, who was well known in England, was predicting the Advent would be 1847; but his theory regarding it differed wholly from that of our New England prophet, inasmuch as he claimed that the Saviour would appear from the Mount of Olives - enter Jerusalem, and there reign for a thousand years over the twelve tribes of Israel. Then there was also the beautiful but eccentric Harriet Livermore, daughter of a member of Congress from Massachusetts, and one of the characters represented in Whittier's poem "Snow-Bound," who had been preaching the near approach of the Second Coming for several years, in many different parts of the country, as well as on four different occasions in the Hall of Representatives at Washington where great crowds gathered to hear her. Her views coincided with those of Joseph Wolff, only she went a step farther and claimed to have convincing proof that the American Indians were descendents of the lost tribe of Israel, and urged transporting them to Palestine so that they might take their rightful place in the Millennial Kingdom. [Harriet Livermore's father, Judge St. Low Livermore, was originally from New Hampshire, but he moved to Lowell early in his married life and lived there until he was sent to Congress. His first wife's name was Mehitable Harms, and after her death he married Sarah Crease Stackpole, of Boston, who was Harriet's mother. He died in 1832 and was buried in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston. The tomb is No. 77, adjacent to Tremont Street, and has a costly bronze coat of arms set in the wall separating the wall from the street. He had three nephews who were prominent in their times: the Right Reverend Charles Grafton, Bishop of Fond du Lac; Father Edward Welch, a great preacher in his day at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Boston; and Mr. Guerney Grafton, an art connoisseur who lived in Paris. Judge St. Low Livermore had two daughters, Harriet and Caroline; the latter married Josiah Abbott, of Lowell, who moved to Boston and was well known as a prominent lawyer.]

There was also Lady Hester Stanhope, a niece of William Pitt, and a granddaughter of the great Lord Chatham, who had installed herself in a home on Mount Lebanon in order to be ready for "the Coming." In "Snow-Bound" she is referred to as "The Crazy Queen of Lebanon," and no wonder, for the poor lady was so deluded that she actually kept two rare and beautiful white Arab horses in her stable ready and waiting for the great event. On one of these she planned that our Lord would enter Jerusalem and she intended to follow Him on the other!

Whittier positively asserts, in a letter written to the Reverend Abel C. Thomas on September 18, 1879, that Harriet Livermore told him of a visit she made to Lade Hester Stanhope while she was on one of her pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and he adds that these two quarreled on account of the former claiming the right to be the one to ride the spare horse when the Great Day should come, instead of the owner. The Reverend C. V. A. Van Dyke, who had frequently met Harriet Livermore in Syria, doubts, however, the fact of the two women having met, but in a letter written to the Reverend S.T. Livermore he says: "Had there been a meeting I would have given my little finger to have witnessed it - it would have been diamond cut diamond; - the haughty aristocratic English woman, and the fearless republican. I doubt not there would have been some sharp passages between them." [Rev. S. T. Livermore, "Harriet Livermore - The Pilgrim Stranger".]

(N.B. - Poor deluded thing! May they be forgiven!)

This bears out an assertion made by Margaret Fuller Ossoli, that "One very marked trait of the period was that the agitation reached all circles." [Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Life of Margaret Fuller Ossoli".]

Now William Miller's views differed widely from those of these three self-made prophets. He not only predicted the date of the Second Coming of our Saviour, but he also predicted the destruction by fire of the earth and the wicked that were upon it. To sum it up, his belief was as follows: "That Christ would appear a second time in the clouds of heaven some time between 1843 and 1844; that He would then raise the righteous dead and judge them together with the righteous living, who would be caught up to meet Him in the air; that He would purify the earth by fire causing the wicked and all their works to be consumed in the general conflagration, and would shut up their souls in the place prepared for the Devil and his angels; that the saints would live and reign with Christ on the new earth a thousand years; that then Satan and the wicked dead would be raised, this being the second resurrection, and, being judged, would make war upon the saints, be defeated and cast down to hell forever"; or, as the Reverend John Henry Hopkins, D.D., describes it, in a pamphlet published in 1843 refuting Miller's theory: "and consign them together to the Lake of Fire, and the smoke of their torment shall ascend forever and ever."

Such were the conditions in 1843 and 1844, when the strange religious agitation swept thousands away from the path of normal reasoning here and throughout the Eastern States only one generation ago! To many it seemed like a sort of religious farce; to others it was comedy - pure and simple; some were grievously shocked and troubled; many jeered; but to the misguided and deluded ones most closely involved the end was tragedy - overwhelming disappointment and tragedy.

Just as delirium rages before a fever breaks, leaving the patient limp and scarcely breathing, so the pitiful, simple, credulous souls who followed William Miller up to the Great Day of his prophetic calculation were left prostrated and dazed by their shattered hopes.

The years 1843-1844 - years of exaltation - of transcendent visions - of beatific aspiration - of idealistic impossible experiments - of high and balanced thoughts and strange unbalanced ones; at the end of which the dreamers awoke and the velocity of the mysterious invisible currents slowed down and gradually subsided.

As for William Miller, despite all that his detractors have said of him, he was a truly earnest and devout man, but self-hypnotized into believing in his own method of calculation and his presumptuous powers of interpretation. He failed as all must fail who venture to attempt to crowd into a space of finite days and years the sum of infinite incalculable mysteries. The pathos, the assumption, the foolishness, the ignorance of poor blind human nature, with its pitiful inconsequence and its inconsistencies! - the humor of it, and here and there the beauty of it will be found in the following meagre scraps that remain to tell the tale of this extraordinary episode in our religious history.


THE author desires to thank the following persons for sending or giving her personal or family anecdotes of the religious excitement of 1843-44:

Mr. Phineas Harrington, Groton, Mass.

Mrs. Ellen A. Barrows, Groton, Mass.

Mr. Charles H. Waitt, West Acton, Mass.

Mr. Henry Clare, New Bedford, Mass.

Mrs. Ellen G. S. Wood, Springfield, Mass.

Miss Helen Bartlett Hamill, Worcester, Mass.

Miss Mary E. Hurley, Clinton, Mass.

Mrs. C. W. Spring, Cambridge, Mass.

Mrs. W. P. Walton, Lynn, Mass.

Mr. Henry Kittredge, Lowell, Mass.

Mrs. Susan L. Harris, West Millbury, Mass.

Mr. F. Rodliff, Pigeon Cove, Mass.

Mrs. George R. Peabody, Fitchburg, Mass.

Mr. Charles E. Foster, Manchester, N.H.

Mrs. J. K. Turiot, Washington, D.C.

Mr. John Whitcomb, Lunenburg, Mass.

Mr. B. H. Savage, Townsend, Mass.

Miss Jane S. Hall, Washington County Historical Society, Pa.

Miss Ellen K. Stevens, Clinton, Mass.

Miss Annie Montague Winslow, Danvers, Mass.

Mr. H. T. Boyington, Prentiss, Maine.

Miss Helen Nescott Noyes, Lowell, Mass.

Mr. M. F. Plimpton, Fitchburg, Mass.

Mrs. Ellen M Davenport, Worcester, Mass.

Mrs. W. S. Dudley, Harvard, Mass.

Miss Julia M. Warner, Philadelphia, Pa.

Mrs. M. J. Warner, Boylston Centre, Mass.

Mrs. George U. Lass, Worcester, Mass.

Miss Marion R. Sawyer, Rockville Centre, L.T.

Mrs. Hattie A. Robinson, Littleton Common, Mass.

Mrs. Delia E. Dalrymple, Millbury, Mass.

Mrs. J. K. Barker, Longmeadow, Mass.

Mr. Charles E. Keyser, Philadelphia, Pa.

Miss Laura Davis, Fitchburg, Mass.

Mrs. M. J. Taber, New Bedford, Mass.

Miss Eugenie J. Gibson, Woodsville, N.H.

Mrs. Thos. H. Berry, Philadelphia, Pa.

Mr. S. J. Marsh, Manchester, N.H.

Mrs. Estella Cone Fanning, Westfield, Mass.

Mrs. Horace T. Smith, West Springfield, Mass.

Miss Ida M. Wing, New Bedford, Mass.

Mrs. L. J. Sanderson, Winchester, Mass.

Mr. B. Treadwell, Grand Lake Stream, Maine.

Mr. Daniel Kinsley, Worcester, Mass.

Mr. Edwin D. Thompson, West Brookfield, Mass.

Mr. William Clough, Lowell, Mass.

Miss Bertha Simpson, Lowell, Mass.

Mrs. E. M. Bowen, Lowell, Mass.

Miss Catherine A. Severy, Chelmsford Centre, Mass.

Miss Adelaide Baker, Lowell, Mass.

Miss Marietta R. Jefferson, Lowell, Mass.

Mr. J. S. Bragdon, Westbrook, Maine.

Mrs. M. C. Owen, West Buxton, Maine.

Mr. Frederic J. Laughlin, Portland, Maine.

Mr. Augustus S. Thayer, Portland, Maine.

Miss Mary Ann Carroll, South-West Harbor, Maine.

Mr. Robert Haines, Island Falls, Maine.

Mrs. Mabel L. Quinn, Levant, Maine.

Miss Lucy Bigelow, Fairfield Centre, Maine.

Mrs. A. H. Walker, Ashland, Maine.

Mrs. George L. Hussey, Dover, Maine.

Mr. A. W. Kelley, Indian River, Maine.

Mrs. S. E. Morrison, Bangor, Maine.

Miss Phylis E. Rapelje, Far Rockaway, N.Y.

Miss Issie Crabbe, Troy, N.Y.

Mr. Dennis E. Wheeler, North Leominster, Mass.

Mr. Francis A. Mason, Caldwell, N.J.

Mrs. H. E. Walton, Eastport, Maine.

Mr. James C. Newland, Vineland, N.J.

Mr. Milton G. Brown, Ocean View, Norfolk, Va.

Mr. A. S. Dalton, Ashland, N.H.

Mrs. Grace M. Weston, Manchester, N.H

Mrs. Ellen G. S. Wood, Springfield, Mass.

Mrs. L. G. Maranville, Rutland, Vt.

Mr. Henry Williams, Fair Haven, Vt.

Mr. John Hamilton Wilson, Chelmsford, Mass.

Miss L. D. Sanderson, Winchester, Mass.

Mrs. Annie Gohl, Germantown, Philadelphia, Pa.

Mrs. S. A. Noble, Rutland, Vt.

Mrs. Henry C. Mallory, Sudbury, Vt.

Mrs. Frederick A. Hastings, Lancaster junior College, Lancaster, Mass.

Mrs. Emma Upham Alney, East Brookfield, Mass.

Mrs. Philip H. Loughlin, Westminster, Mass.

Miss Mabel Lillian Warren, Worcester, Mass.

Mr. Henry A. Goodrich, Fitchburg, Mass.

Miss Angela Boutelle, Townsend, Mass.

Mr. H. R. Lloyd, Springfield Republican, Springfield, Mass.

Mrs. Annie Page, Boxboro, Mass.

Mr. William J. Hathaway, New Bedford, Mass.

Miss Angelina Dalton, Salem, Mass.

Miss Mary B. Nichols, South Lancaster, Mass.

Mrs. Daniel N. Wight, West Berlin, Mass.

Miss Anna R. Kittredge, Leominster, Mass.

Miss Emily Brigham, Groton Inn, Groton, Mass.

Mr. Edward C. Gettigan, Philadelphia, Pa.

Mr. Thomas Craighton, Philadelphia, Pa.

Mr. William H. Kettler, Camden Free Public Library

Mr. John Lenni Sheldon, Delaware Co., Pa.

Mr. William Fochr, Philadelphia, Pa.

Mrs. W. J. Thomas, Fairhaven, Vt.

Mrs. Lucy G. Haselton, Hampton, N.H.

Miss S. H. Parker, Lancaster, Mass.

Mr. John F. Wilson, Rutland, Vt.

Mr. George Newhall, Swampscott, Mass.

Miss Elizabeth P. Evans, Salem, Mass.

Mr. Frederick L. Avery, Ayer, Mass.

Mr. A. J. Wilcox, Fall River, Mass.

Mr. Thomas E. Mack,, New Bedford, Mass.

Mrs. Grace E. Smith, Springfield, Mass.

Mrs. L. M. Hill, Warren, Mass.

Mrs. E. T. Stephens, Springfield, Mass.

Miss Carrie A. Galloupe, Springfield, Mass.

Mrs. T. C. Parsons, Agawam, Mass.

Mrs. Eliza M. Colburn, New Boston, N.H.

Mr. B. F. Spalding, Springfield, Ohio.

Mrs. A. H. Bigelow, Harvard, Mass.

Mrs. Caroline F. Austen, New Bedford, Mass.

Miss Catherine White Grant, Leicester, Mass.

Miss Lydia Porter Warner, Boylston, Mass.

Miss Mary Gerrish Higley, Castleton, Vt.

Miss Honora Harrison, Castleton, Vt.

Miss Sarah N. Harrison, Castleton, Vt.

Mrs. E. R. Parmelee, Brandon, Vt.

Mr. F. E. Gilson, Groton, Mass.

Mrs. J. G. Bradley, Harrisburg, Pa.

Mrs. Alice E. Sargent, Fitchburg, Mass.

Mrs. Lydia D. Waitt, Saugus, Mass.

Messrs. A. Ilsley & Co., Lowell, Mass.

Mrs. Carrie Sprague Sawyer, Dunstable, Mass.

Mr. William W. Brown, Erving, Mass.

Mrs. Paul Ruggles, Carmel, Maine.

Miss Katherine L. Lawrence, Still River, Mass.

Mrs. Mabel P. Robbins, West Acton, Mass.

Miss Kate C. Hennigan, Belmont School, Malden, Mass.

Mrs. Elizabeth Day Totten, Reading, Mass.

Mrs. J. L. Keyes, Still River, Mass.

Capt. C. F. Winch, Georgetown, Mass.

Mrs. Harriet E. Sawyer, Clinton, Mass.

Mr. William H. Graham, South Lancaster, Mass.

Mr. L. Clark, Wilmington, Pa.

Mr. Leonard G. Pells, Cataumet, Mass.

Miss Lillian V. Wilson, New Bedford, Mass.

Mrs. Hannah W. Huston, New Bedford, Mass.

Mrs. Laura A. Underhill, Marshfield Hills, Mass.

Miss Ethel B. France, New Bedford, Mass.

Mrs. E. M. Flint, West Peabody, Mass.

Mrs. W. N. Shipley, East Lynn, Mass.

Mrs. Emily Huston, New Bedford, Mass.

Mrs. Carrie E. Newton, Bangor, Maine.

Mr. Leon A. Goodale, Worcester, Mass.

Mr. Alden Smith, Holden, Mass.

Mr. L. C. Simon, Philadelphia, Pa.

Mr. Frank Stevens, Stow, Mass.

Mr. and Mrs. Jerome Dwennell, Stow, Mass.

Mr. Eliphelet Tenney, Stow, Mass.

Miss Sarah Houghton, Bolton, Mass.

Leominster Public Library.

Miss Clara Hutchens, Groton, Mass.

Mrs. William C. Endicott, Boston, Mass.

Mr. G. Augustus Peabody, Danvers, Mass.

Mr. Chauncey M. Depew, New York City, N.Y.

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