A Visit To The Phrenologist

The storefront looked fairly nondescript in the pale light of the chilly day. The sign above it creaked gently in the wind, alerting passers-by of its presence. “Licensed Phrenologist” it declared in bold cursive letters gathering an array of gawkers and talkers from the curious to the truly phrenologically converted into it’s brightly lit interior.  

The two gentlemen who were walking down the street in front of the store paused underneath the sign. “Well, Father Miller?” one of them asked the other “Will you give it a try?” William Miller sighed “I’m still not quite sure” he demurred. He had been preaching in Medford, Massachusetts not far from Boston when one of the new Adventist believers had asked him a special favour. He had a friend. A friend who was a Phrenologist.

A little strange? Yes perhaps. Possibly a little gimmicky?  Yes, maybe even that.

But this Advent believer wanted Father Miller to pay his Phrenologist friend a visit. Given that it was 1842, he may well have wanted William Miller to give him a Bible study on the second coming of Jesus in exchange for his services in that most intricate art of Phrenology.

Would Father Miller be willing?

William Miller had sighed. Phrenology was the new craze to hit America in the 1840s. The work of a Phrenologist was to examine the shape of his customer’s head for the purpose of determining his character.

Riveting stuff.

William Miller looked at his Adventist Brother warily. Did he really want to go to a Phrenologist to get his head examined?

Well if it resulted in the man being saved, then why not? And so here they were standing in front of the pedestrian looking storefront about to walk in.

The Quaint Little Shoppe

The little shop was packed to capacity with a queue of eager customers jammed against the far wall of the small space waiting to have their heads examined. One by one they took a seat in front of Mr Phrenologist who proceeded to carefully run his hands over their heads before making his grand pronouncement. At the end of it all, he would record their names in his register.

When William Miller’s turn came he followed suit. Taking off his hat, he offered Mr Phrenologist a friendly smile before sitting down in front of him.

“Oh, my” the phrenologist said as he gently prodded Mr Miller’s head. “Here is a fine specimen of a well developed and well-balanced skull”.

“Mmmmm” he continued nodding appreciatively “I’ll bet that William Miller would have a hard time making a convert out of this man”

William Miller froze in his chair and no doubt his Adventist Brother stiffened a bit as well. “Have you heard of William Miller” the Adventist brother inquired

“Oh yes I have!” the Phrenologist said as he cheerfully continued to poke the head in front of him. “He’s that preacher that’s doing the rounds and spouting all this nonsense about the second coming of Jesus”

By this point, the entire shop was watching the little tirade with undisguised amusement on their faces. Enthused by the reaction of his audience the Phrenologist continued to make a few distasteful jokes at Mr Miller’s expense before exclaiming “Why if I had the opportunity to examine William Miller’s head, I’d give it a good squeezing”. He grinned egged on by the loud guffaws coming from along the far wall “Why just see here” he said pointing at what was known as the lobe of fanaticism “Why I am sure that old William Miller has a lobe of fanaticism on his head as big as my fist!” By now the chortles and grunts of laughter filling the shop had reached an open crescendo.

Finishing up his examination of his hapless customer’s head, the Phrenologist then turned to his chart. “May I have your name please sir?” He asked smiling gaily at the man sitting in the chair in front of him.

What’s In A Name?

“Oh I don’t think my name is of any consequence sir” the man replied as he rose from his seat in an attempt to beat a hasty retreat. William Miller felt worse for the man than he did for himself as he thought of revealing his identity.

“But sir” the Phrenologist pressed insistently “I really would like to attach a name to a head as fine as yours and besides I need it for my records”

“Very well” William Miller conceded reluctantly “You may write me down as Miller”

“Miller” the Phrenologist murmured as he scratched the name out on his chart  “And your first name”

“William Miller” came the quiet and gentle reply.

The Phrenologist looked up gaping and in the silence that ensued, you could hear the deafening roar of the proverbial pin clattering to the ground.

“William Miller” the Phrenologist finally managed to gasp “the preacher who lectures on the prophecies?”

William Miller placed his hat back on his head and nodded “Yes sir” he said “the same one”

The Phrenologist sank into his chair in dismay as his customers began to studiously examine their shoelaces and shuffle as far back into the wall as they possibly could to allow William Miller and his friend to pass.

The two gentlemen walked out into the chilly March air and made their way down the street while the rickety sign above the storefront waved gently at their retreating backs.

Citations and Further Reading

  • Collins, N.J. (2005) – Heartwarming Stories of Adventist Pioneers (Book 1)

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.