Latter-day Saint Reactions to the Millerite Movement, 1843–1844

Shawn Callihan, “Latter-day Saint Reactions to the Millerite Movement, 1843–1844,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2003 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003), 17–27.

Latter-day Saint Reactions to the Millerite Movement, 1843–1844

Shawn Callihan

Sometime toward the beginning of 1843, ministers of an up-and-coming religious movement known as the Millerites began preaching to the citizens of Nauvoo. [1] Although the Latter-day Saint newspaper Times and Seasons confidently claimed, “We are not afraid that these notions could in the least obtain among the Latter Day Saints [sic],” many subsequent articles concerned Millerite beliefs. [2] Who were the Millerites, and how did Latter-day Saints react to their movement? The answer to this second question highlights an important aspect of early LDS identity: the leadership of a living prophet. Latter-day Saints distinguished themselves from the rest of the world primarily as a people led by a modern prophet and modern revelation.

William Miller and the Millerites

William Miller founded the Millerite movement through his scriptural interpretations and preaching. Born in 1782, William Miller grew up in rural poverty as the eldest of sixteen children in upstate New York. Even in his youth William was an avid reader, and when he moved from home to Vermont with his new wife, Lucy Smith, he divided his time between farming and reading. His passion for philosophic literature led him to adopt a deist belief system: although he believed in God, he renounced the Bible and traditional piety. [3] In the aftermath of the War of 1812, William began to question deism and had a dramatic evangelical conversion experience. He accepted Christianity, and, after several years of intense personal study, Miller concluded that rational scripture study could reveal all truth. After almost ten years of unsuccessful countryside preaching, William Miller left the rural stage for the larger New England cities in December 1839. [4]

This move to the cities brought much more success to Miller and his rapidly growing vanguard of preachers. According to one scholar, their success lay in the mainstream appeal of their doctrines, their emphasis on a rational approach to scripture, and their revivalist methods. [5] Millerite preachers came from the ranks of Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other mainstream American churches. Their doctrines were, for the most part, typical—the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, the Millennium, and the Judgment were all common themes for American evangelical preachers in the 1840s. In addition, Millerites taught rationality as a universal way for any believer to access the truth of the mysteries of the Bible. This appealed to the American values of popular democracy and individualism. Finally, the Millerite message spread through the revival, which method had already became popular among the evangelical religions during the 1820s and 1830s.

Most Americans had many reasons to identify with this exciting new movement. But one particular teaching brought controversy and criticism upon an otherwise acceptable canon of doctrines: Miller and his disciples taught that the world would end and Christ would return sometime between April 1843 and April 1844 (the spring equinoxes and beginning of the Jewish year). Miller calculated this date using mostly Daniel’s prophecies and the concept that one day in the scriptures refers to one year. [6] Setting a specific date for the world’s end made Millerism an easy target for criticism, and many ministers raised their pens and voices in opposition to Miller’s prediction. [7] When Christ had still not come by April 1844, Millerites adjusted the prophecy to 22 October 1844. The predicted date came and went silently. Scholars now call this date “The Great Disappointment,” and the Millerite movement dwindled and eventually vanished after the date passed. This humiliating letdown became the subject of ridicule soon thereafter, and for many years Americans associated Millerism with insanity, superstition, and gullibility.

Millerite Critics

To better understand the Latter-day Saint reaction to Millerism, we will first examine some reactions from the rest of antebellum Christianity. In doing this, I do not claim these examples to be representative of one universal response to Millerism; rather, they serve to display the broad range of beliefs held by Evangelicals in the 1840s. On the other hand, we will see that Latter-day Saint criticism focused around one main issue—the Millerites’ lack of a living prophet.

One Boston critic, under the pseudonym, “A Cosmopolite,” issued a pamphlet that sought to discredit Miller’s calculations for the Second Coming and rescue the flocks of Christians from the ravages of a vicious wolf. [8] This anonymous minister based his passionate argument on Matthew 24:36: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” His pamphlet ended by calling William Miller to repentance: “Go home, sir, to your closet, fall on your knees, pray God to forgive you for all that you have charged upon better men than yourself. . . . You are, at present, in the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity.” [9] He implicitly extended this admonition to all of Miller’s dispersed followers.

Another type of criticism came from the rector of the St. Jude’s Episcopal Free Church in New York. Reverend R. C. Shimeall delivered a two-part sermon about Miller in February 1844 and later published it. [10] Although the reverend also criticized the Millerites and their arithmetic, he did not discount their methodology. Instead, he sought to replace Miller’s concluded date of the Second Coming rather than debunk his system. Like Miller, he believed the Second Coming to be “nigh at hand,” [11] but he was convinced that Miller’s prediction was twenty-four years off. Even though Reverend Shimeall was kinder in his criticism of Miller’s method, he was no less vigorous than others in his admonitions: “I now affirm that, should Mr. Miller live to witness the fallacy of his chronology on the 21st of March, 1844, . . . he will never be able to evade the imputation of a tendency of his scheme to INFIDELITY!” [12]

The last critic we will examine is Otis A. Skinner, who attacked Miller from a different perspective in his pamphlet titled, The Theory of William Miller, Concerning the End of the World in 1843, Utterly Exploded. He argued that Christ’s Second Coming had already occurred, rendering Miller’s calculations preposterous. After his historical interpretation of Daniel’s prophecies, Skinner wrote: “Here we have the plainest proof—proof that no man can put aside—that the second coming of Christ took place nearly eighteen hundred years ago. Now as Mr. Miller pretends, that the second coming of Christ is to happen in A.D. 1843, we have fully, completely, and utterly exploded his system.” [13]

Each of these criticisms attacked Miller for his predictions, but the reasoning in each case was different. As one scholar pointed out, “Evangelicals had a pretty good idea of what they were not in the 1830s and 1840s—not Millerites, also not Mormons, nor Universalists. They spoke less clearly to the question of what they were.” [14] Their criticism of Millerism was wide-ranging and plentiful. In light of these reactions, let’s take a look at the different way Latter-day Saints viewed the Millerite movement.

Mormonism Meets Millerism

Physical encounters between Latter-day Saints and Millerites escalated during 1843 and 1844. During these years, Millerite preachers and missionaries were especially active in light of the supposedly imminent Second Coming of Christ. Their arrival in Nauvoo became the focus of a great deal of attention from the Saints. The articles published in the Nauvoo periodical Times and Seasons told of many interactions and debates between the two groups. By early 1843, Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo already knew about Miller’s predictions and anticipated their failure. For example, in one article John Taylor wrote: “January 1843. We have now entered upon the year so anxiously looked for by many, as the year for the commencement of the Millennium. Mr. Miller’s numbers are now complete; and men’s heart’s are failing them for fear, (in many places) looking for those things they expect to come on the earth. The 2nd of April will soon arrive.” [15] Notice here that the parenthetical inclusion of “in many places” referred to places other than Nauvoo. In other words, Latter-day Saint leaders appeared confident that Miller’s persuasive doctrine would have no power to sway the Saints from the truth.

Still, the Millerite preachers drummed up enough support to attract large crowds in several Nauvoo sermons. Joseph Smith recorded in his journal that a “Millerite Lecturer” preached in Nauvoo on 29 January 1844, and the following day “a Millerite preached again in the assembly room to a full house.” [16] In March 1844 a short editorial mentioned the following: “The proselytes of Miller are also holding forth in this city [Nauvoo], as well as in the principal cities of the west.” [17] Judging by this high level of interactions, we can assume that nearly all Nauvoo Saints were to some degree familiar with the Millerites and their apocalyptic message.

The Unique Latter-day Saint Criticism: A Prophet People

Although the Nauvoo paper confidently claimed, “We are not afraid that these notions could in the least obtain among the Latter Day Saints [sic],” [18] many articles examined the Millerite doctrine. Looking at these articles shows that Latter-day Saint opposition to the Millerite beliefs came from the unique Latter-day Saint perspective—one that differed extremely from the majority of antebellum Christianity. Latter-day Saint commentary addressed many of the same issues as that of other critics, such as Miller’s calculations and methodology, but another element can also be found: the Latter-day Saints’ belief in a living prophet and the need for modern revelation set them apart.

Below is a 1 March 1843 critique by William Smith (brother of the Prophet) of a Millerite preacher’s sermon in nearby Springfield, Illinois. William Smith wrote, “Last evening I attended a meeting, held in the State House, where a Millerite was holding forth.” [19] Smith’s passionate letter to the editor focused on the lack of modern prophecy to guide the Millerite followers: “[The preacher] states that when prophecy is fulfilled we want no revelation to know it, forgetting, I presume, that Christ said—There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed, and hid that shall not be known.” [20] The Millerite emphasis on rationality and scriptural investigation did not necessarily conflict with Latter-day Saint belief, but in discounting the need for modern prophecy and revelation, the Millerites came into direct confrontation with the Latter-day Saints. Without a Prophet, the Saints wondered, how could the Millerites claim to receive any revelation concerning the Second Coming?

This same question appeared in John Taylor’s editorial a month and a half later. In the 15 April 1843 issue, Taylor included an excerpt from Midnight Cry, a prominent Millerite newspaper from New York, which denied the necessity or possibility of modern revelation: “The Old and New Testaments are two. They are claimed by Christ as his witnesses. . . . These two witnesses do testify the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth respecting Christ. They testify all that can be known of him until he comes again.” [21] This quote harmonized with other Millerite sermons that warned against spiritual fanaticism [22] and favored scriptural deduction and philosophical reason. This disdaining of revelation and prophecy elicited Taylor’s defensive rebuttal: “Mr. Miller introduces several quotations to show that it is not man, but the book that will prophesy. . . . Because Christ says to the unbelieving Jews, I receive not testimony from man! are we to say that God does not make use of man to testify of him; of his purposes, and designs, as these prophets will do! . . . The testimony did not come from man; it came from God, through man, the same as it will do when those prophets prophesy. . . . We will state, however, that it is a living principle, and not a dead let[t]er.” [23] Once again, prophets and revelation were central to Latter-day Saint criticism of Millerism.

Elder Noah Packard elaborated on the theme of an indispensable prophet in a pamphlet he published as a missionary in 1843. Apparently, Elder Packard found himself contending frequently with Millerite doctrines. In his pamphlet, Packard set forth a logical argument as a case for why Miller could not be a prophet. He wrote, “For it must be that Mr. Miller, Fleming, and others of the same stamp are making a false alarm without having received authority [i.e., priesthood] from a proper source.” [24] He also pointed out that, unlike Joseph Smith, Miller never had a Urim and Thummim. [25] Nor did Miller receive divine revelation: “But Mr. Miller, as well as almost all the rest of the world, are determined that they will not receive any more than what is contained in the Bible.” [26] Packard then included a copy of Joseph Smith’s narrative of the events leading up to the Restoration of the gospel, and he concluded with his own testimony of the Prophet Joseph and the truthfulness of the restored gospel. He left Miller and his followers with a question: “I ask Mr. Miller and his coadjutors whether they have been made Prophets and had the secrets of the gathering of the house of Israel revealed unto them? If not I set them down as imposters.” [27]

The Prophet Speaks

Most published Latter-day Saint commentary centered on this prophet issue. The Prophet Joseph Smith himself confronted the Millerite movement on several occasions. On 2 April 1843, while dining at his sister Sophronia McLeary’s house in Ramus, Illinois, Joseph Smith received the following revelation (now found in the 130th section of the Doctrine and Covenants) about the Second Coming:

I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following:

Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.

I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium of to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.

I believe the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time (D&C 130:14–17). [28]

This revelation most likely came in response to Miller’s calculations for the Second Coming. The very next day Joseph recorded in his journal, “Miller’s Day of Judgement has arrived, but tis too pleasant for false prophets.” [29]

Returning to the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 130, there was another very interesting item. Verse 4 asked, “Is it not the reckoning of God’s time, angel’s time, prophet’s time, and man’s time, according to the planet on which they reside?” [30] This appears to be a reference to a recent statement in the Times and Seasons, which said, “If Miller will importune God, and get the spirit of prophecy, which will teach him a little more than his philosophy, he may, perhaps, get to know what a prophet’s time is.” [31] The inclusion of this distinctive phrase by the Prophet reveals his interest in Miller. It also highlights the thematic tension between reason and revelation present in other Latter-day Saint criticisms of Millerism, emphasizing that Miller could not claim the gifts of a prophet.

Three days later, at a general conference of the Church in Nauvoo, the Prophet quoted from his recent revelation [32] and addressed the subject of the Second Coming and William Miller. Orson Pratt, the following day, spoke much more plainly on the subject to the brethren. The following statement is significant because it recognizes the Millerites for their positive contributions: “The 2d advent of the Son of God is a subject which occupies the attention of the people of this day. . . . Millerites believe he will make his 2d advent in a few months, but they will find themselves mistaken. Mistaken as they are, good will come out of the investigation. It will arouse the attention of Multitudes to the facts as they exist or will open the minds of the people to the truth when it shall be proclaimed by the Elders of Israel.” [33] Although highly complimentary, Pratt ended up on the same point as most other Latter-day Saint critics of Millerism: “Do the Millerites look for more revelation? No! They raise the midnight cry but does not tell the people what to do. . . . I had as [likely] worship a hors[e] or a stump as a God who gives no instructions to his people.” [34]

Joseph Smith was also sympathetic to Miller and avoided making any severe attacks. One day, seven or eight young men, some of them from New York—perhaps Millerites—visited the Prophet to ask him some questions. [35] His answers showed both comprehension and sympathy as he explained Miller was not entirely to blame for his incorrect predictions: “I showed them the fallacy of Mr. Miller’s data concerning the coming of Christ and the end of the world, or as it is commonly called, Millerism, and preached them quite a sermon; that error was in the Bible, or the translation of the Bible; that Miller was in want of correct information upon the subject, and that he was not so much to blame as the translators. I told them the prophecies must all be fulfilled; the sun must be darkened and the moon turn to blood, and many more things take place before Christ would come.” [36] These young men, wrote Joseph in his journal, treated him with great respect. [37]

The Saints had looked to their Prophet as the defining characteristic of their theology, the one thing that truly made them unique. With that prophetic authority, Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Saints, chose not to condemn or even criticize Miller for his error.

Conclusions: Prophets and Predictions

Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unique among Christian churches in claiming divine, revelatory guidance through a living prophet. Early Church members distinguished themselves from the rest of the world by emphasizing this aspect of their collective identity, as evidenced by their specific criticism of the Millerite movement. The Prophet Joseph Smith was a source of admiration and inspiration for these members, while at the same time he was an object of ridicule for many critics outside the Church. When another man also claimed to know the will of God and was bold enough to predict that Christ would come between 1843 and 1844, Church members reacted defensively. Although William Miller never claimed to be a prophet, he provided the Saints with an opportunity to express and strengthen their belief in a living prophet of God.

Notes

[1] Some important sources about the Millerite movement and early Latter-day Saint millenarianism include Everett N. Dick, William Miller and the Advent Crisis, 1831–1844 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1994); Ruth Alden Doan, The Miller Heresy, Millennialism, and American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); Dan Erickson, As a Thief in the Night: The Mormon Quest for Millennial Deliverance (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998); Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler, eds., The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); Grant Underwood, “Early Mormon Millenarianism: Another Look,” Church History, June 1985, 54:215–229; Grant Underwood, “The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism,” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1988).

[2] John Taylor, ed., “Millerism,” Times and Seasons 4 (15 Apr 1843): 171.

[3] See Numbers and Butler, eds., The Disappointed, 18.

[4] See Everett N. Dick, William Miller and the Advent Crisis, 1831–1844 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1994), 10.

[5] See Numbers 13.

[6] See also Daniel 9:2.

[7] See Doan, The Miller Heresy, 222.

[8] See A. Cosmopolite, Miller Overthrown or the False Prophet Confounded (Boston: Abel Tompkins, 1840), 10.

[9] Cosmopolite, Miller Overthrown, 31.

[10] See Reverend R. C. Shimeall, Prophecy, Now in Course of Fulfilment, As Connected with the 2,300 Days of Daneil VIII, 14: A Sermon, in Two Parts, Showing the Predicted Rise, Career, and Subversion of Millerism to Take Effect Between the Spring and Fall Equinoxes of 1844 (New York: Stanford and Sword’s, 1844), intro.

[11] Shimeall, Prophecy, Now in Course of Fulfilment, vi.

[12] Shimeall, Prophecy, Now in Course of Fulfilment, 31.

[13] Otis A. Skinner, The Theory of William Miller, Concerning the End of the World in 1843, Utterly Exploded: Being Five Discourses: With Some Other Essays on the Same Subject (Boston: Thomas Whittemore, 1840), 178–79.

[14] Numbers 133.

[15] John Taylor, ed., “Millerism,” Times and Seasons 4 (15 Feb 1843):103.

[16] See Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 444.

[17] John Taylor, ed., “Millerism,” Times and Seasons 5 (1 Mar 1844): 454.

[18] John Taylor, ed., “Millerism,” Times and Seasons 4 (15 Apr. 1843): 171.

[19] William Smith, “To the Editor of the Times and Seasons,” Times and Seasons 4 (1 Mar 1843): 114.

[20] Smith, “To the Editor,” 115.

[21] John Taylor, ed., “Millerism,” Times and Seasons 4 (15 April 1843): 168.

[22] Dick, 46–47.

[23] John Taylor, ed., “Millerism,” Times and Seasons 4 (15 April 1843): 169. See also John 5:28.

[24] Noah Packard, Political and Religious Detector: In Which Millerism is Exposed, False Principles Detected, and Truth Brought to Light (Medina, Ohio: Michael Hayes, 1843), 23.

[25] Packard, Political and Religious Detector, 26.

[26] Packard, Political and Religious Detector, 28.

[27] Packard, Political and Religious Detector, 26.

[28] See Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 340.

[29] See Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 341.

[30] Emphasis added. Grant Underwood also mused on the significance of this interesting phrase (see Grant Underwood, “Apocalyptic Adversaries: Mormonism Meets Millerism,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, 1987, 59.

[31] John Taylor, ed., “Millerism,” Times and Seasons 4 (15 February 1843): 105; emphasis added.

[32] See Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 349.

[33] See Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 352. Orson Pratt also read from Daniel 7 immediately preceding this statement.

[34] See Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 353.

[35] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, Vol. 5 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967): 271.

[36] Smith, History of the Church, 272.

[37] Smith, History of the Church, 272.