American farmer and Baptist preacher who announced the imminent coming of Christ and founded the movement popularly known as Millerism, or the Millerite Movement, characterized by a distinctive type of premillennialism and giving rise to a group of denominations classed as the Adventist bodies. Miller was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and was reared in Low Hampton, in northern New York, almost on the Vermont line. As an ambitious frontier boy with an unquenchable desire for knowledge, he was largely self-educated. Upon his marriage with Lucy P. Smith in 1803, he moved to Poultney, Vermont. Through friendship with several prominent citizens who were deists, Miller abandoned his religious convictions and became an avowed skeptic.
In the War of 1812 Miller served as a lieutenant and captain. At the close of the war he moved his family to Low Hampton, where he hoped to live quietly as a farmer through his remaining years. At various times he served his community as a deputy sheriff and justice of the peace. But Miller was not at peace with himself, for he was at heart a deeply religious man. In 1816 he was converted. Concerning this he wrote in 1845: “I saw that the Bible did bring to view just such a Savior as I needed; and I was perplexed to find how an uninspired book should develop principles so perfectly adapted to the wants of a fallen world. I was constrained to admit that the Scriptures must be a revelation from God; they became my delight and in Jesus I found a friend” (Apology and Defence, p. 5).
Challenged by his skeptical friends, he set out to study the Bible: “I commenced with Genesis….Whenever I found any thing obscure, my practice was to compare it with all collateral passages, and by the help of Cruden[‘s Concordance] I examined all the texts of Scripture….Then by letting every word have its proper bearing on the subject of the text, if my view of it harmonized with every collateral passage in the Bible, it ceased to be a difficulty” (ibid, p. 6).
Miller concluded that Scripture “is its own interpreter,” and that the words ought to be interpreted literally, that is, in their ordinary historical and grammatical sense, except in those instances where the writer used figurative language. In this Miller simply was following the path of conservative theologians. In his studies of the prophecies he reached the conclusion that the writers pointed to his day as the last period of earth’s history. Specifically, he put his first and greatest emphasis on the prophetic declaration, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed” (Dan. 8:14) from which he reached his conclusion in 1818, at the close of two years’ study of the Bible, that “in about twenty-five years [that is, about 1843]…all affairs of our present state would be wound up” (ibid, p. 12). Seeking to criticize his own conclusions and to examine all objections, he “was occupied for five years” (ibid, p. 15) more in examining and reexamining the arguments for and against his beliefs.
Convinced of “the duty of presenting the evidence of the nearness of the advent to others” (ibid.), he tried to excuse himself on the ground that he was not a public speaker. He was “very diffident and feared to go before the world” (ibid, p. 16). He wrote an extended statement of his beliefs to a minister friend named Andrus, in 1831, but he could not free his mind from that impelling sense of duty.
Finally in August 1831 he covenanted with God that “if I should have an invitation to speak publicly in any place, I will go and tell them what I find in the Bible about the Lord’s coming” (ibid, p. 17). What he did not know was that even as he was making such apparently safe terms with the Lord, there was traveling down the highway a young man bearing an invitation for him to preach the following day. The tumult that this unexpected invitation produced in Miller’s soul sent him to a nearby grove where he could pray. Into that grove went a farmer; out came a preacher. After dinner Miller left with the youth for nearby Dresden.
Invited to remain during the week, Miller found himself engaged in a revival. The preaching of the soon coming of Christ seemed naturally and inevitable to lead men to seek make ready for that solemn event. Miller was soon to find himself in the position of having to turn down more requests than he filled simply because he could not be in more than one place at once, or because he had to spend some time on the farm.
In 1832 Miller published a series of eight articles in the Vermont Telegraph, a Baptist weekly. In 1833 he incorporated these articles into a 64-page pamphlet entitled Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ About the Year A.D. 1843, and of His Personal Reign for 1,000 Years. In that year he was given a license to preach by the Baptists, and by the close of 1834 he was devoting his whole time to preaching. During 1836 he brought out his “lectures” in a book, which was later reprinted several times and enlarged from 16 to 19 lectures, with a supplement containing chronology and charts.
From October 1834 to June 1839 Miller’s manuscript record book lists 800 lectures that he had given. He accomplished this single handedly at his own expense, and with no theological training, wholly in response to direct invitations.
Miller was a good preacher, not a good promoter. However, help in the area of promotion soon came. In December 1839 he was invited by Joshua V. Himes, of the “Christian Connection” (now part of the Congregational Christian Church and the United Church of Christ), to speak in Boston. For Himes there was only one question of importance. If this message was really true, then what steps should be taken to blazon it over the whole land? Convinced of its correctness, he assured “Father Miller” that “doors should be opened in every city in the Union, and the warning should go to the ends of the earth” (Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller, p. 141). Himes, a born promoter, immediately began publication of The Signs of the Times. Thus was launched the extensive publication activities of the Millerites, which later included other periodicals and a series of booklets called the Second Advent Library, composed of writings of Miller and others.
In 1840 Miller began lecturing in New York. In the late summer he, with a group of other ministers, signed a call for the first “general conference on the second coming of…Christ,” though he was prevented by illness from attending and several subsequent conferences.
From 1840 onward Millerism was no longer the activity of one man primarily, but of a great and increasing group of men. Miller kept closely in touch with the activities of the movement, even when he was absent from the lecture platform because of illness. No other lecturer could take his place. In spite of the increasing tension between church organizations and the Millerite movement, there were still churches late in 1843 whose members were ready to go on record with their signatures by the score, urging Miller to come and preach.
What type of man was Miller that he could persuade preachers of different denominations to accept his teaching? Even his friends painted a rather modest picture of his platform ability. There must have been a certain force and appeal not only in the earnestness of the man but in the logical way in which he marshaled his arguments. True, there was patently an error somewhere in his reasoning, for Christ did not come “about the year 1843,” but that error was not immediately discernible. He lived in a day when it was uncommon for preachers to make a major appeal to the emotions, yet he did not appeal primarily to the emotions, but to the intellect through a reading of the Word. There were often strong crying and tears in his meetings, and men coming forward to kneel in contrition, but he sought to bring the conviction through a forthright preaching and exposition of the Scriptures, not by a maudlin appeal to the emotions.
In connection with a camp meeting at Newark in 1842, the New York Herald reporter gave this word picture of Miller: “In person he is about five feet seven inches in height, very thick set, broad shoulders’ lightish brown hair, a little bald, a benevolent countenance, full of wrinkles, and his head shakes as though he was slightly afflicted with the palsy. His manners are very much in his favor; he is not a very well educated man; but he has read and studied history and prophecy very closely; has much strong common sense, and is evidently sincere in his belief” (New York Herald Extra, composed of articles of Nov. 4-15, 1842).
Said a daughter of a Millerite preacher: “His power was in his strong mellow voice and earnest manner, making his most cultivated hearers to forget his homely phraseology and provincial pronunciation” (Jane Marsh Parker, “A Spiritual Cyclone,” Magazine of Christian Literature, September 1891, p. 325).
Miller’s counsel to a preacher friend might properly have come from a seasoned instructor: “Lead your hearers by slow and sure steps to Jesus Christ. I say slow because I expect they are not strong enough to run yet, sure because the Bible is a sure word. And where your hearers are not well doctrinated, your must preach Bible. You must prove all things by Bible….If you wish them to believe as you do, show them by your constant assiduity in teaching, that you sincerely with it” (letter to Truman Hendryx, Mar. 26, 1832).
Although Miller repeatedly declared that his prophetic views were not new, he insisted that he came to his conclusions exclusively through a study of the Bible and reference to a concordance. According to a colleague, Southard, he never had a commentary in his house, and did not remember reading any work on the prophecies except Newton and Faber.
Miller used the general phrase “about the year 1843” to describe his belief as to the time of the Advent until in January 1843 he set forth the time as sometime “between Marc 21st, 1843, and March 21st, 1844.” He never set a date or day within this period. Writing from Washington shortly before Mar. 21, 1844, he said: “If Christ comes, as we expect, we will sing the victory soon; if not, we will watch, and pray, and preach until He comes, for soon our time, and all prophetic days, will have been filled” (Advent Herald, Marc. 6, 1844, p. 39).
After the passing of Oct. 22, 1844 – a date that Miller did not set, but accepted at the last moment – Miller wrote to Joshua Himes: “Although I have been twice disappointed, I am not yet cast down or discouraged….My hope in the coming of Christ is as strong as ever. I have done only what after years of sober consideration I felt to be my solemn duty to do….I have fixed my mind upon another time, and here I mean to stand until God gives me more light. – And that is Today, TODAY, and TODAY, until He comes, and I see HIM for whom my soul yearns” (letter, Nov. 10, 1844, in The Midnight Cry, Dec. 5, 1844, pp. 179, 180).
He believed that perhaps a small error in the reckoning of chronology might still explain the Lord’s delay in coming. He was at first still confident that Providence had overruled in the preaching of the definite time, Oct. 22, and that Christ would probably come before the end of that Jewish year. Not until the spring of 1845 did he affirm that the 1844 movement was not “a fulfillment of prophecy in any sense,” and declared himself in opposition to “any of the new theories” that developed immediately after Oct. 22 in an endeavour to explain the disappointment. He disclaimed the doctrine (taught by some of the prominent Millerites) that the wicked will finally be annihilated, and that the dead lie unconscious in their graves until resurrection.
Miller’s hope and confident belief to the last were that some minor error in the chronology explained the disappointment. He died in December 1849, in the literal expectation of the immediate coming of Christ.