During the early 19th century, diligent study of the Scriptures led to a worldwide religious awakening. At the same time, scientific research laid the foundation for a similar revolution in the practice of medicine. In both medicine and religion, men of determination and character questioned tradition, carefully considering old and new ideas. They dared to stand alone, even to endure ridicule for the new truths they discovered. From this reexamination of Scripture there grew an unprecedented interest in the Second Coming of Christ, which led in turn to the simultaneous development of "Second Advent" movements in many countries.
The Millerite movement was one of these. It flourished in North America during the 1830s, then died when its widely publicized date for Christ's return, October 22, 1844, passed and the morning of October 23 saw the sun rise as usual. But from this movement, seemingly discredited and lifeless, arose a new Protestant denomination. Its continued belief in the imminent Second Coming of Christ was based on an intense study of the prophecies of Scripture, and it was characterized by a unique life-style and philosophy of healthful living. To make man whole, physically, mentally, and spiritually, was the unusual threefold thrust of the little group who emerged from the Millerite movement, disappointed, but full of faith in the reliability of Scripture and its Author. They began to share a message of vitality and power which was destined to benefit the health and enlarge the spiritual vision of millions. The spiritual awakening of the 19th century, of which they were a part, grew not only from the spirit of individualism and personal investigation but also from certain timely and unprecedented events in the natural world.
Signs of the Second Advent
In the 1830s and early 1840s God's Spirit kindled in the hearts of Christian ministers and laymen of many faiths an interest in Christ's return. As they carefully studied various prophecies of Scripture and observed in the events of history how each had been fulfilled on schedule, they became convinced that the final event in God's prophetic timetable--the Second Coming of Christ--would also take place on schedule. They saw that Scripture focused on and culminated in Christ's return. They saw that the Scriptures prophesied in detail the events that were to precede Christ's Second Advent. They discovered that most of these events or conditions that were prophesied to be "signs" that His Coming was "near, even at the doors," had--after a 1,700-year wait--been fulfilled, within the past century! They saw these signs were given to focus man's attention on the nearness of Christ's return, to waken him to prepare to meet his Creator.
Through the prophet Joel, God had said, "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come."a And during His First Advent, Christ added certain details: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken."b John the Revelator added more: ". . .and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind."c
In these three prophecies three notable signs heralded the Second Advent: a great earthquake, followed by a darkening of the sun and moon, followed by a falling of the stars. Those predictions were fulfilled, in precisely the order predicted.
The Lisbon earthquake, November 1, 1755, was one of the most severe and widespread (4 million square miles) ever recorded. It was felt in Africa, continental Europe, Great Britain, Greenland, America, and the West Indies.
The great Dark Day, May 19, 1780, was a dense darkness, beginning between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m., lasting for 15 hours. A standard reference work published in 1881 said that it was "the most mysterious and as yet unexplained phenomenon of its kind, in nature's diversified range of events, during the last century, . . . a most unaccountable darkening of the whole visible heavens and atmosphere in New England. 1 "It was observed at the most easterly regions of New England; westward, to the furthest parts of Connecticut, and at Albany; to the southward, it was observed all along the sea coasts; and to the north, as far as the American settlements extended. It probably far exceeded these boundaries, but the exact limits were never positively known."2 Birds returned to their nests and cattle returned to their stalls. The Connecticut legislature almost adjourned, the terrified members thinking that the day of judgment had come.3 That night, as prophesied, the moon was blood red.
The "falling of the stars," November 13, 1833, was a meteoric shower so thick, so extensive, so long-lasting, that thousands feared the planet was doomed, "the whole firmament, over all the United States, being then, for [eight] hours in fiery commotion!'4 " . . . an incessant play of dazzlingly brilliant luminosities was kept up in the whole heavens. Some of these were of great magnitude and most peculiar form . . . the first appearance was that of fireworks of the most imposing grandeur, covering the entire vault of heaven with myriads of fire-balls resembling sky-rockets. On more attentive inspection, it was seen that the meteors exhibited three distinct varieties, as follows, described by Dr. Olmsted:5 [of Yale College, Massachusetts, who was known as "America's greatest meteorologist"6] "First, those consisting of phosphoric lines,...the most numerous, everywhere filling the atmosphere, and resembling a shower of fiery snow driven with inconceivable velocity Étransfixing the beholder with wondering awe.
"Second, those consisting of large fire-ballsÉ. This kind appeared more like falling stars, giving to many persons the very natural impression that the stars were actually falling from the sky....
"Third, those undefined luminous bodies which remained nearly stationary in the heavens for a considerable period of time; these were of various size and form."7
"One, of large size, remained for some time almost stationary in the zenith, over the Falls of Niagara, emitting streams of light which radiated in all directions . . . no spectacle so terribly grand and sublime was ever before beheld by man as that of the firmament descending in fiery torrents over the dark and roaring cataract!"8 W. J. Fisher, writing in The Telescope, October 1934, said the phenomenon was "the most magnificent meteor shower on record."
On a typical night, when there is no meteor shower, the average observer will see only ten "falling stars" per hour. But on that night the same observer could have seen 60,000 per hour.9 "Arago computes that not less than two hundred and forty thousand meteors were at the same time visible above the horizon of Boston!"10 That night more than a billion shooting stars appeared over the United States and Canada alone.11
A More Impressive Sign
The signs12 in the heavens and the earth warned man to prepare for the Second Advent. But there was an even more impressive sign of the approaching Advent. Suddenly in the 1830s thousands of preachers and laymen throughout the world began to teach the nearness of the event.
Some of the most prominent of these men were Manuel de Lacunza of Chile; Edward Irving of England and Scotland; Louis Gaussen of Switzerland; and Brugel and Leonard Kelber, Joseph Wolff, and John Albert Bengel of Germany. The Advent movement also spread from Europe to Russia. Joseph Wolff, at frequent personal peril, spread the Advent message in Asia and Africa. He even spoke before the United States Congress and various state congresses and in a number of U.S. cities. He found isolated Christians who through their own study had concluded that Christ would return between 1840 and 1844.
A dream led Hentzepeter, keeper of the Royal Holland Museum and one of the country's most able ministers, to study the Second Advent and in 1830 to publish a tract on the subject. Eleven years later he printed a larger tract warning of the end of the world. These men and thousands of others carried the Advent message to their countrymen.
In Sweden the law allowed only priests of the state church to preach. So, in many parts of Sweden and some parts of Norway, children were the leaders of the Advent movement. They were moved by God's Spirit to explain the prophecies which they themselves were often too young to understand--prophecies regarding the soon-coming Saviour. People traveled long distances to hear God's tiny spokesmen, many of whom could not yet read or write, call their listeners to repentance and reformation. It was a work of Providence.
In 1896 a man who had preached the Advent message in Sweden when he was a small boy remarked, "Preached! Yes, I had to preach. I had no devising in the matter. A power came upon me, and I uttered what I was compelled by that power to utter.''13
Two thousand years ago, children, compelled by the Spirit of God, waved palm branches in the temple courts and proclaimed Christ as the promised Son of David. During Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem and into its temple, the children continued to praise Him after the adults, fearing the priests and rulers, grew silent. When the jealous Pharisees demanded that Christ silence the children, He answered that their praise was in fulfillment of prophecy.d And just as God used children to proclaim Christ during the First Advent, did He also use them to proclaim the message of the Second Advent?
The 19th-century child-preacher phenomenon was reported as first occurring at the parish church of Hjelmseryd, Sweden. There, in December 1841, four young peasant girls announced that the end of the world was approaching and that all must repent and prepare to meet God. Almost simultaneously, a large number of "prophetesses of ten to twelve years of age" appeared in adjoining parishes.14 And in the village of Hornborga, six boys from eight to 18 years of age were led to give the same message of warning. Reports of these child preachers permeated the Swedish press for several years.15
The children were sometimes called "repentance criers." Some said that they were afflicted by the disease of "preaching sickness," and authorities tried to isolate the children lest the "disease" be "contagious and the epidemic spread to other children." Some were punished severely. Those affected seemed to be normal except when moved by an unseen power to call for repentance. Thousands thronged to hear their stirring messages. On February 6 and 7, 1842, one peasant girl preacher was visited by 3,000 to 4,000 people.16
Many who listened to these messages were prompted to denounce sin. Within two weeks of hearing the call for repentance, 70 distillers closed their businesses.17
In 1843 Dr. Sven Erik Skoldberg (government medical officer for the province of Jonkoping from 1834 to 1864 and later medical director of the famous Serafimer Hospital in Stockholm) published a scientific report on the phenomenon. According to Dr. Skoldberg, the children "opposed all immoral life, drunkenness, dancing, and all kinds of vices, and asked people to judge themselves in the light of the Ten Commandments. The voices claimed that they were not preachers, but that they were sent by the Lord to call people to repentance, and that no one, not even the angels, knows the exact time of the day of judgment.É
"The calls to repentance which I heard were so pure that no one,É Bible in hand, could criticize them, much less say they were heresy.''18
One of the evidences that a person is under the special control of the Spirit of God and is being used as His spokesman is that on some occasions he may not breathe. The Bible prophet Daniel did not breathe when he was "in vision."e Nor did these child preachers breathe when they preached, according to Dr. Skoldberg's observations, though he could scarcely believe what he saw. He said, "Breath cannot be observed, although they doubtless must breathe." He challenged the greatest theologians and doctors to explain the phenomenon by natural means; he himself had originally "had a prejudice, an abhorrence for all these voices and considered them heretical and fanatical spirits...." But he was finally "convinced that not a single word . . . is dependent on their own choosing--for then the message gushes from their breast like a bubbling spring--I repent of all my harsh opinions and stand in amazement....19
The great earthquake of 1755, the darkening of the sun and moon in 1780, the shower of falling stars in 1833, and the worldwide preaching of the Second Advent, all in the brief period of 85 years, produced a religious awakening that moved hundreds of thousands of men and women around the world. Many trembled, searched the Scriptures, and abandoned their ungodly ways to follow Christ.
In Europe this interdenominational awakening was primarily among ministers and biblical scholars from the learned clergy of the major Protestant denominations. By 1844 seven hundred ministers of the Church of England, as well as the ministers of 20 other leading nations, were preaching the Advent message.
The North American Advent Movement
In the United States this awakening included not only ministers but at least 50,000 lay persons. Here the dominant figure preaching the Advent was a Baptist layman (in 1833 a licensed minister) named William Miller. At the age of 34, and for the next six years (1816 to 1822), Miller devoted his full time to Bible study. Avoiding Bible commentaries and, as far as possible, all preconceived ideas, he began a thorough investigation of Bible teachings, using only the Bible, its marginal references, and Cruden's Concordance. The longer he studied, the more confidence he had in the Bible. He also found himself farther from some of the popular theology of his day. He reached the conclusion that Christ would return soon. For the next nine years, Miller in private conversations and letters, told of his expectations.
By August 1831, when he was nearly 50 years old, Miller became convicted that he must help warn the world. "I can't go, Lord," he said. "I'm too old. And I'm not a preacher." But the conviction persisted. One day, to soothe his conscience, he made a promise that he would share his discoveries if he received an invitation to do so. Within a half hour his nephew, Irving Guilford, invited him to speak at the Dresden Baptist Church in the pastor's absence.
After Miller's first sermon, his listeners insisted that he continue his studies with them through the week. When he returned home he found an invitation to speak in Poultney, Vermont, a few miles away. By invitation, sermons followed by the hundreds throughout New England, eastern Canada, as far west as Ohio, and south to Maryland. In 1834 he devoted his life to preaching, and during the next nine years he preached 4,000 sermons in 500 cities and towns and had twice as many speaking invitations as he could meet.
Until 1840 Miller was almost a lone voice in proclaiming the Advent message in North America. But then 300 Protestant ministers joined him and traveled the country lecturing on Bible prophecy and the end of the world. By the spring of 1844, one of these ministers had delivered more than 3,000 Advent lectures. Because of Miller's leadership, his fellow ministers and the 50,000 laymen who accepted the Advent message became known as "Millerites." As a loose-knit, interchurch movement, they believed Christ's Second Advent would be a literal and personal return. However, unlike most Protestants of the time, they believed that the Second Advent was imminent and that mankind dare not put off till some distant century the revival and reformation necessary to meet Christ.
With this fervent message bringing revival wherever it was heard, the Millerite preachers were at first welcomed into the pulpits of the Protestant churches of America. And many, after all, held credentials as ministers in their respective Protestant denominations. However, the concepts of the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world were not in harmony with the beliefs of their former associates. Soon tensions arose, and by mid-1844 many of the Millerites had been disfellowshipped from their churches.
"The Great Disappointment"
In Miller's careful study of the "time" prophecies in Daniel and Revelation and of related Scriptures--focusing on Daniel 8:14--he discovered a prophetic time period. This period spanned 2300 prophetic "days" (literally, years).f It began in 457 b.c.20 and it was to terminate 2300 years later in a great event, the cleansing of the sanctuary.g Miller believed the prophetic period would end "sometime between March 21st, 1843, and March 21st, 1844''21 (the year 1843 in the Jewish calendar). Additional Scriptures which were brought to his attention convinced him (in early October of 1844) that this cleansing of the sanctuary would take place on October 22, 1844--the annual holy day on which the ancient Jewish sanctuary had been cleansed, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But the event on October 22, 1844,22 could not be the cleansing of the Jewish sanctuary/temple: It had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. However, instead of then studying the Scriptures to see what the "cleansing" would be and what the sanctuary" was, Miller assumed (as did his contemporaries) that God's "sanctuary" in the Christian era was this earth.23
When Christ did not come on October 22, many unbelievers ridiculed Millerism and its preaching of the prophecies of Christ's soon return and declared the movement to be false. After the Great Disappointment of October 22, Millerism began to fragment. While some believers picked a new date for the Second Advent, others, overwhelmed by ridicule, abandoned their belief in the Advent altogether. Still others were caught up in various new movements.
Another group decided to restudy intensively the prophecies--and all Scriptures--to see if they could discover why Christ had not returned as expected. They reexamined the Scriptures which pointed to October 22, 1844, as the date for "the cleansing of the sanctuary." They too had accepted the popular opinion that the earth was God's sanctuary and had assumed that this "cleansing" must refer to Christ's return to cleanse the earth by fire on the Day of Judgment. Their restudy of all the Scriptures related to the chronology of the text assured them of the correctness of the date. However, in examining Scriptures relating to the words "sanctuary" and "cleansing," they discovered an exciting relationship between the sanctuary or tabernacle on earth described in the Old Testament books, Exodus and Leviticus, and a "heavenly" sanctuary described in the New Testament book Hebrews.
The group restudying the prophecies saw in Hebrews 8 and 9 (especially Hebrews 9:23) that the cleansing of the earthly sanctuary by the Jewish priests of ancient times (Leviticus, chapter 16) pointed forward to and symbolized the work of Christ as man's High Priest in the sanctuary in heaven, and that He began a special phase of His work in 1844, preparatory to His return to earth."h
Thus they became even more firmly persuaded that the Bible must be permitted to be its own expositor, that every related Scripture must be allowed to add its interpretation to the verse being studied. They concluded that every assumption, every belief, must be tested against Scripture and laid aside if it did not measure up.