Last Sunday featured a look at the Millerites, a group that grew rapidly through the 1830s based around predictions that the Second Coming would occur in 1843 or 1844. The most definitive prediction was that judgment would fall on 22 October 1844, a day on which many Millerites donned robes and gathered to wait for the end. Then came 23 October...
For a moment, they stood at the edge of eternity, hands outstretched to God and eyes fixed on heaven. Then the day was over.
Many Millerites were left aching with disappointment and unsure how they could return to the humdrum day to day concerns. Some were so downhearted that they took to bed for days. Creditors were unimpressed by farmers who had failed to bring in a crop, and those who had given up a lifetime's possessions found that the bitterness of the day was compounded by a realization of lasting poverty. Their return to the workaday world wasn't helped by widespread mocking of those who had been part of the movement. Millerites were chased through the streets, asked to produce their robes, made the subject of cartoons and jokes, and pelted with both insults and stones. In several towns, Millerites were brutalized and their worship places burned to the ground.
In the wake of what was soon known as the "Great Disappointment," many Millerites left the movement for good. Only a fraction held on and tried to make some sense of events. Some of these die-hards soon became convinced that Christ had returned – but in some way that could not be easily defined. Others searched the Bible for fresh interpretations and produced dates in 1848 or 1873. One group would become convinced that the event predicted for 22 October 1844 was actually a heavenly event, a cleansing of God's own temple. This group would go on to become the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which boasts 16 million members today. An offshoot of another group would produce the Jehovah's Witness, which has upwards of 7 million members. The Millerite movement would also be the source for a group called Shepherd's Rod, which would eventually change their name to the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association. Out of this group would emerge a small splinter faction called the Branch Davidians.
The wonder isn't that some Millerites held on to their faith in spite of the Great Disappointment. The real question is: what made them take up Miller's idea in the first place? Why should Americans from diverse backgrounds suddenly reshape their lives around a biblical interpretation that seems anything but clear cut? Why would thousands gather in churches, in homes, on rooftops and hillsides in response to a speculation made by a farmer?
To see what happened, it's helpful to look at some ideas that originated half a century later and half a world away. In 1897, an Indian-born British doctor named Ronald Ross fell ill from malaria. At the time, the spread of malaria was something of a mystery. Others had suggested that mosquitoes might be distributing the disease, but tests of captured bugs had failed to find malarial parasites. Ross was able to determine that malaria was carried only by a specific species of mosquito. He proved that when these Anopheles mosquitoes fed first from an infected person, and then from a person who was not infected, they could pass along the disease.
Ross's work would eventually earn him a Nobel Prize. It would also become part of epidemiological research that allowed for mathematical modeling of disease vectors. There are many different models in use today, tailored to fit different situations, but basically it comes down to this – if an infectious agent has access to enough susceptible people that people are added to the infection pool faster than they are leaving, there is a chance that the number of people with the disease can grow. The more infectious the disease and the more access to susceptible people, the greater the chance of an epidemic.
The number of new infections kicked off by each infected case is called the basic reproduction number. When this number is less than 1, the infection will die out on its own. When this number is greater than 1, the infection will spread. As it turns out, ideas can act much like germs. An idea, no matter how good or bad, will not spread without access to people who are ready to accept it. For Miller's idea to spread into a national movement, it needed two things: susceptible people and a means of transmission. Luckily, or unluckily, both of these things were present in abundance. The basic reproductive number for Miller's end time predictions was well above 1.
The Revolutionary War had taken place in the Age of Enlightenment. This period wasn't marked by the dominance of any one particular philosopher or philosophy. Instead, it represented a growing willingness to look past the limits that had long been in place around traditional institutions. In particular, people turned to reason and science as a means of solving questions that only a few decades before would have fallen solidly inside the realm of religion. This movement had its beginnings in publications in the later half of the 17th century and by the time John Hancock was placing his over-sized signature, the worlds of mathematics, natural history, and philosophy were hugely transformed. In fact, natural history and the interpretation of the world through the lens of scientific rationality was a product of this age.
The effect on religion was extreme. Clerics lost their fixed place at the center of academic and social life, the Bible was no longer looked on as the only source of wisdom, and increasingly supernatural explanations of events were dismissed. Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, only one was employed as a minister (no matter what Mike Huckabee might say) though two others had at one time or the other acted as either chaplains or church leaders. Many enlightenment thinkers became deists or (especially in America) Unitarians. Some believed that God existed, had started the universe in motion, and had gifted man with reason. But they also believed that God took no interest in day to day affairs and that our gift of reason and self-determination meant that we were responsible for our own actions. Many Unitarians, such as Jefferson and Adams, did not necessarily believe in this distant "unmoved mover" God, but were unclear about how the creator acted in the world. Adams believed that God's influence was still present. Jefferson scoffed at miracles, believed that Christianity had been "usurped" by Paul, and famously created his own abbreviated version of the New Testament. Like many others of their day, their beliefs were unique. Personal. New.
For many involved in the bracing period of the Enlightenment, all this was heady, satisfying, and exciting. However, a large number of people also found it frustrating, difficult, and frightening. The structure of society and familiar answers were being overturned all around them and no tradition seemed safe. Especially in America, where the young country lacked for the fixed institutions and social hierarchy found elsewhere, many people felt adrift. Old boundaries had been peeled away, yes, but so had old foundations. For many, the god of the Enlightenment felt cold, analytical, and wholly unsatisfying. There was an outcry for what was called a "more primitive" view of religion.
By the time the 18th century ended, this desire for a more involving version of religion was propelling America into the Second Great Awakening. This was the period in which many of the religious denominations we know today either got their start (such as Mormons) or were transformed nearly beyond recognition (as happened with Shakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians). Religion became more personal, more focused on faith, and more mystical. As with later Christian fundamentalism, there was a great deal of discussion about returning to a form of religion that had been practiced in the past, but the actual theology introduced was at least as radically new as anything put forward by the deists. What we now view as evangelical Christianity was crafted in this period as ideas such as "baptism in the holy spirit" were introduced and the first "revival meetings" took place.
This period also marked a rebound for the influence of religion in the nation's political life. While the founders had operated out of an Enlightenment mindset that de-emphasized the role of religion in building institutions, Awakening politics promoted more emphasis on bringing religious considerations to the problems the nation faced. This may sound like a complete setback when you consider the political positions of today's "conservative Christians." However the questions that the pragmatic thinkers of the Enlightenment period had been willing to set aside in favor of political unity included slavery and the oppression of women. Movements for both abolition and women's rights were directly connected to the new religious expression of the Great Awakening.
One aspect of the Second Great Awakening that did point back to the Puritan past was a focus on reading and interpreting the Bible by individuals. This led to rapidly changing and dynamic public debates over theology. Many of the ideas that shape churches today were formed in this period, but far more groups and ideas formed than survived. There was also a widespread emphasis on decoding "clues" in the Bible about upcoming events. This search for hidden meanings became a popular pastime, not just among Baptist farmers, but across a large swath of the public – sort of like a "Bible Sodoku" fad.
So when Miller introduced his ideas in 1832, he did it into an America that was religiously revved up. There was openness –eagerness – for new ideas in religion. The number of people susceptible to his ideas was high.
But if Miller's idea was contagious, it took another vector to act as the mosquito. The early 19th century press was a very different animal than the one we see today. In a lot of ways, the newspapers Miller and his followers were familiar with had more in common with the "underground press" of the 1960s than the New York Times. Few of these papers had anything we would recognize as a "reporter" (in fact even looking at the more professional papers of the day, you'll find that a great number of stories start with "we have been told" or "it has been reported to us," indicating that the stories were based on second hand knowledge rather than paid journalists), and many were at least as "partisan" in their discussions as any web site today. A single town might have a Baptist paper, a Millerite paper, and even an atheist paper – sometimes sharing the same press.
These newspapers were quick to set up, cheap to operate, and often unconcerned with making a profit. Most operated on donations. In addition individuals would often print "tracts," as Miller did, to distribute their ideas. Letters published in both papers and tracts became part of an ongoing public discussion. Just because they didn't have the Internet doesn't mean there was no means of rapid and widespread dissemination. Within weeks of his first publication, Miller was being flooded with letters asking for more details. Combined with the early revival meetings that brought people together from wide areas, the papers and tracts allowed Miller's idea to "infect" many thousands, and these individuals quickly spread the idea to more. In just over a decade, the Millerites became an influential denomination. While the movement itself would never again hold the prominence it obtained before the disappointment, their advent-focused theology and social focus would help to reshape the beliefs of most Americans over the next century.
However the embarrassing failure of the Millerite prophesy helped mark the end of the Second Great Awakening. Not only did the Millerites themselves become objects of ridicule, but the Great Disappointment seemed to be a signal to many that things had gone too far; that they had been too eager, too credulous.
As the Millerites packed away their soiled robes, the nation packed away the fervor of the Awakening. When Americans next looked for the end of the world, it would be with a different emphasis, one that also drew on biblical roots, but with a flavor that had been touched by the fire of war.