What Was The Great Disappointment?

“Do you really believe what you have been preaching?” Joshua Himes asked leaning over the table towards William Miller and fixing him with a probing stare. Miller looked up from his plate and returned Himes’ stare evenly. “I do,” he said quietly. “Well then” Joshua grinned widely “what have you been doing to spread the news abroad?” Miller shrugged and dabbed at his mouth with his napkin “I’ve preached in quite a few of the towns and villages in these parts, whenever I have received an invitation to preach I have accepted it”

Joshua sat back aghast “You mean to tell me that you have only been preaching in small towns and villages in New England?” he asked in shock “well, I’ve accepted every invitation I’ve received” the old farmer reiterated a little defensively “besides what else can I do? I am just a farmer and I’m not really used to preaching” he added with an air of defeat. “But what about the big cities?” Himes pressed his tone intensifying “What about Baltimore, Rochester, New York, Philadelphia? Indeed what about the Florida territory and even beyond?” Himes gesticulated excitedly “What about the seventeen million people that make up these United States? Must they not have the same opportunity as every little village you have preached in has had?”

William Miller sat quietly eyes Joshua Himes as his eyes danced and sparkled with new found zeal and excitement. “This Father Miller” Joshua continued excitedly “this is the cause to end all causes and I will lay all I have on the altar to make sure it spreads like wildfire!” Joshua Himes had the tenacity, personality, and wherewithal to make good on his promise and indeed to a great extent he did. The message of Christ’s soon return soon began to spread, zigzagging across the East Coast of America, with its greatest concentration of followers found in the northeastern part of the United States.

A Global Phenomenon

But the great second advent awakening was by no means confined to the United States of America. In England, Edward Irving began to preach the soon return of Jesus and his message was echoed by Joseph Wolffe, a rabbi, turned Catholic priest turned fervent protestant Adventist preacher. Wolffe traveled all through Africa, Asia and India taking the news of a soon coming Saviour with him on his travels. In South America these truths were discovered and preached by Manuel LaCunza, a Jesuit turned protestant Adventist preacher and in Germany, the second Advent was preached by Johann Bengell. The news of Christ’s soon return began to slowly seep through every nation and territory on the planet, electrifying thousands and urging people to turn their eyes heavenward. The revolution sparked by the Reformation was continuing but on a far larger scale.

Back in America, the second Advent awakening was gaining momentum in a remarkable way. Charles Fitch, a second advent preacher spent so many hours baptizing people in the middle of a chilly New England autumn that he came down with pneumonia and died. Joshua Himes arranged for a large tent meeting ordering the largest tent ever pitched in America at that time. The tent was ready and pitched within 30 days of being ordered. In every town it was pitched it was filled to capacity. The sense of urgency that surrounded these meetings was palpable. There was no time to lose, Jesus was coming soon!

The movement came to a head at a camp meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire in August of 1844 when Samuel Snow presented his findings. Snow had studied the prophecies of Daniel in conjunction with the Sanctuary and its services and based on his understanding he concluded that Jesus would return to earth on October 22, 1844, which happened to be the Day of Atonement, the same day on which the Sanctuary was cleansed once a year in the Jewish ceremonial system. Snow’s findings galvanized the movement into warp speed. If he was right and based on what he had shared many believed his thesis was sound, Jesus would come back in two short months!

When October 22nd dawned every single Adventist was looking with fervent longing towards the skies. But as the hours slowly ticked past and Jesus still had not appeared many felt their faith begin to falter. When the hour struck midnight the terrible reality of their situation washed over them like the pall of death. Writing about the experience Hiram Edson penned these words “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept and wept, till the day dawn”

What made the Millerite movement so powerful was the two main tenants upon which it was built. The first was the absolute certainty of the Bible as a source of truth and the second was the reality of Jesus as Saviour and Friend. The former made the Second Coming a certainty, the latter made it the blessed hope of every heart. The great disappointment threatened to strike down in one fell swoop both these pillars of faith. Hiram Edson highlighted this when he wrote about the questions they asked themselves and the doubts that plagued them in the wake of the disappointment. “Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God, no heavens, no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable? Is there no reality to our fondest hope and expectation of these things? And thus we had something to grieve and weep over”

The pain of their disappointment proved to be unbearably sharp but in the midnight of their darkest hour, the hope and comfort of Jesus would soon shine brighter than the brightest shooting star.

Citations and Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Maxwell, C.M. (1976) – Tell it to the World: The Story of Seventh-Day Adventists
  • Knight, G.R. (1999) – A Brief History of Seventh-Day Adventists (3rd Edition)
  • Collins, N.J. (2005) – Heartwarming Stories of Adventist Pioneers (Book 1)
  • Burt, M.D. (2011) – Adventist Pioneer Places (New York and New England)