Say what you will about western Pennsylvania, but it was a location fairly safe from natural disasters. My hometown was too far inland for hurricanes to cause much damage. A little too far east for Midwest tornadoes to touch down (mostly). Adequate-to-too-much rain, so wildfires didn’t occur. Not on any fault-lines that invited earthquakes, and volcanoes only thousands of miles away. We did get floods along the rivers during spring, but if you lived up the hill they weren’t much of a personal threat. It felt safe from the big news items of today. Leaving home for the sake of finding work moved me into Tornado Alley for many years, and currently, in New Jersey, in the range of hurricanes now and again. Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey and lack of effective national leadership, Irma is devastating lives, and Jose is in her wake. Then a massive earthquake rocks Mexico. It feels like the apocalypse.
Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Ironically, many people read the Bible as a linear story from the creation of the world in Genesis to the end of the world in Revelation. They make an obvious set of bookends. Unlike western Pennsylvania, Israel lies on a fault-line that means earthquakes are not uncommon. Droughts occur. And being right on the path between major empires, it was frequently subject to human disasters such as invasions. It was not the most secure place to write a book that would change worldviews for millennia thereafter. What is so fascinating about this is that the message (or more properly, messages) of the Bible gets lost in the conceit that this is somehow a story of the history of the world with lots and lots of pages of preachy stuff between the exciting bits at the beginning and the end.
In times of natural disasters, people turn to the Bible for comfort. There are verses, often pulled from context, that do a fine job of that. Nevertheless, the Bible is an enormously complex text. Of its many books, Genesis and Revelation have had disproportionate influence on society. Any natural disaster big enough can be called “biblical.” Since the time of William Miller and John Nelson Darby, such disasters have been interpreted as heralding the end of the world. It is scary to see the devastation a single hurricane can cause. When it is followed closely by a second, one can’t help feeling a bit like Job. The apocalypse, however, is a misreading of Revelation. The book ends with Heaven on Earth. And if you can find a quiet place to read, you’ll find plenty of unexpected stuff tucked away in the middle. Just don’t take it too literally since that too leads to disasters.
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.