It’s a common name. You might know one yourself: William Miller. Indeed, for many years of my own life I borrowed that surname from my stepfather before returning to my birthright after seminary. But the ordinariness of the name alone doesn’t explain it. Joseph Smith, a fellow creator of a new religion, also bore an innocuous name, and he was a Junior. While many people might have trouble placing William Miller among religious founders, they would likely know of Seventh-Day Adventism, a religion that sprang from the root of his teaching. During his lifetime the preferred title was Millerite, but Adventist also worked. David L. Rowe presents a sympathetic, but not hagiographic account of this somewhat remarkable life in God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World. For Miller, you see, predicted the year Jesus would return.
A self-taught farmer, Miller became convinced that the Bible indicated 1843 would be the end. This idea was based on calculations derived from cryptic books such as Daniel and considering their days to be years. A touch of math and before you know it, it’s all gonna burn. During the intense period known as the Second Great Awakening upstate New York was perhaps the most religiously creative place on the planet. New ideas bumped into each other and, as if the bounds of Christianity were too constraining, flew out into new forms of belief. People grew convinced that the world might indeed end in 1843. When it didn’t, they called it the Great Disappointment and carried on. Adventism is still with us today.
Rowe also makes the point that for being such an obscure individual, Miller influenced the great religious movements that would give us modern day Fundamentalism as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These groups trace their spiritual ancestry to the convictions of a not-so-simple farmer who could fill an auditorium with his plain speaking and clear exposition of the scriptures. He devised his end times scenario with the use of only a Bible and concordance. No seminary or advanced theological reading was necessary. Millerites did not reach the numbers of Latter-Day Saints. They were disowned by the Baptist Church that gave them birth. They got the date of the end of the world wrong. Yet they persisted. It is a curious story with a long afterlife that still helps elect extremist presidents to this day. William Miller, ever unassuming, managed to change the very world that he was certain would end even before the midpoint of the nineteenth century.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Adventists, David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World, Great Disappointment, Joseph Smith, Millerites, Second Great Awakening, Seventh-Day Adventists, William Miller
Ezekiel was an odd character, even for a prophet. He’s become a kind of patron saint to ancient astronaut theorists, and his name in fiction often denotes someone slightly off balance. In his defense, he believed that God was demanding his many strange actions. A priest in a period of exile from the “one true temple,” Ezekiel lived an existence as a captive in a foreign land and came to some radical conclusions about the nature of Israel’s god. His visions and actions were considered the original weird, even by his contemporaries. Since Ezekiel believed Babylon would conquer Jerusalem, the people there would have to go on starvation rations. In chapter 4 of his book, Yahweh tells the prophet to try to make a bread out of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt. This odd mixture is to be eaten in very meager portions to symbolize the coming privation for 390 days (during which time he is to lie on his left side). His bread is to be cooked on dung.
I eat breakfast around 4 a.m. My bus to the City comes before 6:00 and there are no restrooms on NJ Transit buses. Many New Yorkers eat breakfast in the office, but I’m just too Episcopalian in sensitivity for that to really be an option. I don’t like really sweet cereals, but granolas are often quite sugary unless you want to pay top dollar (and most of my dollars are bottom dollars) for some organic, European blend. Then I spied Ezekiel 4:9. Knowing full well the context of the reference should’ve given me pause, but it was two dollars less a box than some of its competition—downright exilic prices—and my curiosity was roused. What would Ezekiel eat?, I asked myself.
Most people don’t realize that so many of us eat breakfast cereals due to the efforts of our Seventh-Day Adventist friends. Adventists, in addition to being literalistically inclined, advocate healthy living. Will Keith Kellogg, a faithful Adventist, believed that eating cereal for breakfast was healthy and widely promoted the idea through the company he founded to produce cereals. Kelloggs does not produce Ezekiel 4:9. Food for Life, an organic bakery, are the purveyors of this organic breakfast. Their religious convictions, if any, aren’t evident from their website. Just about the time I’m climbing aboard the bus, I know that even as Ezekiel saw the wheel, I’m in for a moving experience. Isaiah-os or Jeremiah Flakes may be difficult to imagine, but with Ezekiel nothing really surprises. Today’s Bible lesson may be as close as the larder shelf. I just skip the cooking on dung part.
Posted in Bible, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged Bible, Exile, Ezekiel, Ezekiel 4:9, Food for Life, New Jersey Transit, New York City, prophet, Seventh-Day Adventists, Will Keith Kellogg
It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. As a student of religion I early found myself drawn to the question of where religions begin. In the case of many religions we have an identifiable founder. Frequently that founder ends up being a god him (or more rarely) herself. In order for any putatively revealed religion to attain any credibility, the ultimate source must come from on high; God himself. So it is that we look askance at any religion that has appeared in the last couple of centuries, when, as we knew at the time, the earth was no longer the center of the universe and science had taught us to know better than to accept the old-timey stories of a god in the clouds. We can accept the ancient, time-honored stories, venerated as they are by centuries. If someone today tells us that God has spoken to him or her, we refer them to psychiatrists first, and then to the mind-altering drugs.
Jenkins, writing in the shadow of the tragedy of the Branch Davidians at Waco and the ritual suicide among the members of Heaven’s Gate (one of the members’ sons was one time a student of mine in seminary), tries to demonstrate that such groups are part of the fabric of religion. What is new in such movements is not the fact that they suddenly come into existence, or that society reacts violently to them, but that we now have a concept of “cult” to label them. Jenkins convincingly illustrates that fear of new religions stretches back for centuries. Even in the seventeenth century people experimented with new religions. When they survive, they become “churches.” Consider the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Pentecostals. They all began as “cults” and are today considered just another variety of Christianity. Most adherents to religions do not inquire too closely as to the origins of their brand. Historically we know that the three denominations mentioned above are well under two hundred years old.
In a fascinating twist, Jenkins describes how the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century was ripe for such developments. One of the sources, ironically, was the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His weird stories often invoked cult-like groups devoted to unusual practices that sometimes turned deadly. Also during that same time period, Christian Fundamentalism began as an effort to sort out what was “fundamental” to Christianity that set it apart from the cults (including Pentecostalism, now one of the most dominant Fundamentalist sects). As Jenkins points out, when these new sects become mainstream, they vehemently seek to destroy all new comers. Christianity began as a cult in the eyes of both Jews and Romans.
Religions are inherently conservative. As we will see in the approaching election, the religious background of a candidate plays a major role in public acceptability. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, but only to a point. Jenkins should be required reading for every religious believer. Tolerance would be the only proper and reasonable response.
Posted in Bibliolatry, Books, Current Events, Posts, Religious Origins, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Branch Davidians, cults, Fundamentalism, H P Lovecraft, Heaven's Gate, Mormons, Mystics and Messiahs, Pentecostals, Philip Jenkins, psychiatry, Seventh-Day Adventists