Last summer my wife and I were driving through the Border South en route to Memphis. On the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky, we tuned into an evangelical Christian radio station, where the presenters were discussing the fallout from Harold Camping’s unrealised prophecy that the Day of Judgment would arrive on 21 May, 2011. In Oregon, they reported, workmates had teased one of Camping’s followers, who responded by turning a gun on an associate. For the Kentuckians, this near-tragedy served to illustrate the dangers of dating the End Times, yet while they gently chastised Camping’s heresy, they shared his belief that Christ’s reign on Earth was close at hand. Their disagreement with him rested merely on his attempt to pinpoint the moment of the Second Coming. Quoting Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, they reminded their audience that ‘the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.’ It would take humanity by surprise.
Camping’s calculations may have caused a stir in evangelical circles but they have a long history in a country one scholar has called ‘Hellfire Nation’. Nearly two centuries ago, on the border of New York and Vermont, another renegade Protestant by the name of William Miller turned to the Bible, and, like Camping, interpreted its mix of history and prophecy to arrive at an end date of sometime before 1843. By the early 1840s, aided by an active press, Miller’s teachings had spread across New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the West. The strange career of Millerism might tell us something about our contemporary obsession with the millennium.
Born in 1782, just a few months before the end of the Revolutionary War, Miller came of age in a nation going through the throes of the spiritual upheaval known as the Second Great Awakening. After years of scrutinising scripture, Miller found patterns in numbers, reading allusive passages in the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel for clues as to when the Second Coming would occur, and then matching these references to actual historical events. When he added dates ranging from the rise of papal supremacy to Napoleon’s dethroning of the Pope he kept on arriving at the same figure: 1843. In a nation fascinated by calculation, converts were impressed by his systematic approach. ‘I do not see how any person acquainted with the rise and fall of the kingdoms of this world,’ a follower declared, ‘can for one moment doubt that Daniel has given us a brief and faithful outline of the world’s history.’ 1
As the final year approached, the faithful strove to identify a precise day, but after the Lord failed to materialise on a series of dates between 1843 and early 1844, the frustrated rank and file eagerly embraced the claim of an erstwhile atheist, Samuel Snow, that judgment would finally arrive on October 22, 1844. One shopkeeper reportedly gave away his stock for free for the portents seemed auspicious: letters spelling out the Lord’s name had been spotted in the sky and a storm of meat and blood rained down on Jersey City (a herald of The Sopranos, perhaps?) 2
What happened next – or rather what did not happen – became known as ‘the Great Disappointment’. Some nonbelievers were briefly fooled by a fire in a Millerite refuge in Ithaca into thinking the end really was at hand, but contrary to Snow’s calculation, day broke as usual on the 23rd. 3 Miller, who had never been especially enthusiastic about predicting a precise date for the Second Coming, tried to rally the faithful, but many followers drifted off into other sects or rejected millennialism entirely. A few however, insisted they had been right about the 22nd all along: on that date, they insisted, Christ began the work of separating the righteous from the sinners, though he did so from Heaven rather than on Earth (Camping initially made a similar claim in 2011). This would become a foundation of the Seventh-Day Adventist church which flourishes worldwide today.
The series of failed prophecies offered rich fodder for satirists at the time, but historians have detected a note of anxiety in the mockery of non-believers who might just have wondered that if Miller was right, they would be meeting their maker on the 22nd. After all, most Protestant denominations then, as now, looked forward to the Second Coming of Christ, disagreeing only on when and how the Redeemer would return, and today the Left Behind novels and computer games – set in the days after true believers have been ‘raptured’ up to heaven – sell well. While Miller and Camping might be eccentrics, then, millennialism has often been much more than a fringe movement in the U.S. And when ‘preppers’ count the days of the Mayan Calendar, they are following a well-trodden, if error-strewn path: that numbers will lead us to the answers to the mysteries of the universe.