Adventism In The Immediate Wake Of The Disappointment

The great disappointment struck the Millerite movement with all the force of an atomic bomb and the fallout was a gigantic mushroom cloud of mixed emotions that ranged from humiliation to confusion to doubt to unutterable grief. Many fell away from the movement in discouragement but there were those that chose to hold fast to the blessed hope they had come to tenderly cherish in their hearts. The hardest part of the aftermath was facing the jeering mobs who lurked in street corners to hurl their taunts at known Adventists.

“What?” haven’t you gone up yet” they catcalled across crowded thoroughfares to Adventists who were trying their best to melt inconspicuously into the crowd. Most hurried on trying their best to hide their embarrassment but there were others who were spunky enough to give as good as they got. One such pithy rejoinder was “and if I had gone up, where would you have gone?” It was an interesting time to live through regardless of the kind of personality you possessed.

By the end of October, the Advent Herald and the Midnight Cry both bounced back and resumed publication. Joshua Himes wrote to Joseph Bates on the 30th of October saying “I never felt happier or more reconciled to His will, the late work has saved me, it has been a blessing to us all. Now let us hold on!” And so it was while the faith of some waxed dim and flickered out altogether, the faith of others glowed strong.

What was William Miller’s response in all of this? “Although twice disappointed,” he wrote, “I am not yet cast down and my hope in the coming of Christ is as strong as ever!” And so it was that Miller and most prominent Millerite leaders believed that the experience they had gained as a result of the seventh-month movement had been precious. Miller pointed to the experience of Jonah who had preached a specific date for the destruction of Nineveh at God’s direct command only to be proven wrong and yet as it turned out God’s hand was at work behind the entire experience.

However, though the faith of the leaders was strong they all began to cast about to find some explanation as to what had happened. This led to a whole host of divergent views regarding not only the reason behind the disappointment but also how to proceed in its wake. This dissension caused the movement to begin to slowly erode and in an attempt to keep it from completely falling apart or descending into fanaticism Miller and Himes called for an Advent conference in April of 1845 in Albany, New York.

Figuring Out What Happened

As early as November 7th, 1844 Joseph Marsh stated in “The Voice of Truth”  that he believed the prophetic date was correct but that the Millerites had mistaken the event. Later in January of 1845 Apollos Hale and Joseph Turner began to advance what came to be known as the shut door theory which basically put forward the idea that probation had closed on October 22nd, 1844 and that from that point forward those who believed in the Advent should only encourage each other to be patient and faithful as they waited for Jesus to return. They felt no burden or desire to preach the gospel to those who had not accepted the Advent message.

Soon the diversity of ideas began to border on just plain looney and fanaticism began to gnaw at the ranks. The Albany Conference attempted to weed out many of these fanatical ideas and pull the movement together in a bid to keep it from sinking into oblivion. But the disputes began to get sharper and shaper and in an attempt to make sense of what had happened many of the Advent leaders began to deviate further and further away from the original teachings of the movement. This led more and more Adventists to either adopt the views of those who accepted to the validity of the 1844 date or return to their former churches.

By 1852 there were four groups that had sprung out of the Millerite movement;

  1. Sabbatarian Adventists who later became Seventh-Day Adventists led by Joseph Bates, James and Ellen White, Hiram Edson and others
  2. Evangelical Adventist who were led by Joshua Himes, Apollos Hale, and Sylvester Bliss and were geographically centered around Boston.
  3. The Advent Christian Church led by Joseph Turner and geographically centered in Hartford Connecticut. Joshua Himes later joined this group.
  4. A fourth group that opposed organization and was led by Joseph Marsh with geographical roots around Rochester, New York.

Who’s Afraid Of Rachel Oaks?: The Shaping of Sabbatarian Adventism

It was probably in the early Spring of 1844 before the great disappointment and even the seventh-month movement that Frederick Wheeler started to keep the Sabbath. Wheeler was a Methodist farm minister from Hillsboro, New Hampshire who had become an Advent believer. He occasionally ministered to a congregation in Washington, New Hampshire and it was here that he met the formidable Rachel Oakes.  

Rachel Oakes was a Seventh Day-Baptist laywoman who had moved to Washington to live with her daughter who was a local school teacher. One day when Wheeler paid her a home visit she challenged him about a sermon he had recently preached about the obligation of all men to keep God’s commandments. She told him that if he was going to preach sermons like that he had better keep all God’s commandments himself, including the seventh-day Sabbath.

Rattled and somewhat convicted Wheeler went home and did a thorough Bible study on the fourth commandment and was convinced that God wanted His people to keep the Sabbath holy. Around the same time, several members of the Washington congregation came to a similar conclusion and they all started to keep the Sabbath. And so it was that the first permanent Sabbath keeping Adventist congregation came into existence even before the great disappointment.

Towards the end of the summer of 1844 T.M. Preble, an Advent minister who had been a former Baptist discovered and accepted the truth regarding the Seventh-day Sabbath. However, since both Wheeler and Preble believed that Jesus would come in a few short months they didn’t really bother with trying to convince people to change their day of worship.

The great disappointment didn’t crush out Wheeler’s or Preble’s faith in the soon coming of Jesus and it was at this point that Preble decided that the time had come to present the Sabbath to his fellow Adventists. He first published his findings in Joseph Turner’s paper “Hope of Israel” in February of 1845 and the next month he published an extended version of the article in the form of a pamphlet which was distributed among Advent believers.  

Bates and Andrews Accept The Sabbath

Joseph Bates came across Preble’s tracts and after earnest Bible study was convinced of his duty to keep the Sabbath. When he found out that there was a group of Sabbath keeping Adventists in New Hampshire Bates decided to venture out to meet them. Virtually penniless, having spent all his money on spreading the Advent truths prior to the great disappointment. he nevertheless managed to get himself to the home of Frederick Wheeler in May 1845.

He arrived at the Wheeler home unannounced at 10 pm at night and was soon engaged in an all-night Bible study session with Wheeler. The day after he returned home he met his longtime friend, neighbor, and fellow Adventist James Hall. Hall greeted him with a customary “What’s the news Captain Bates?” to which Bates replied “the news is that the Seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord our God”. Needless to say that sucked Hall right into a Bible study on the subject and he soon joined Bates in keeping the Sabbath.

About a year after Preble published his tract a copy made its way into the hands of 15-year-old Marian Stowell. The Stowell family had sold their farm in anticipation of Jesus coming in October 1844 and were living with the Edward Andrews family in Paris Hill, Maine. Marian showed Preble’s tract to her brother Oswald and after studying the subject for themselves they were both convicted regarding the Sabbath.

A few days later Marian shared the tract with John Andrews who was 17 at the time. Andrews was extremely intelligent and was considering a career in law and politics. The truth about the Sabbath captured his mind and soon both families were united in keeping the Sabbath and became Sabbath keeping Adventists.

New Light On The Sanctuary

 

 

Around the time that the Sabbath was gaining traction among various New England Adventists a group of laymen in Western New York began developing a new interpretation of the cleansing of the sanctuary that was to take place at the end of the 2300 day prophecy. The point man of this movement was a Methodist farmer from Port Gibson, New York by the name of Hiram Edson.

Edson became an Adventist in 1843 and his initial reaction to the great disappointment was to question God and the Bible. Edson gathered a small group of fellow Adventists together for a prayer meeting in his barn on the morning of October 23rd, 1844. He came out of this season of prayerfully convicted that God would send them light regarding what had happened on October 22nd, 1844. Together with his friend O.R.L. Crosier, Edson set out across a cornfield on a mission to encourage other Adventist friends. As they walked Edson abruptly halted in front of Crosier and stood stock still while he had a special revelation from God. He later described it as having heaven opened before him and distinctly seeing Jesus moving into the Most Holy place of the heavenly Sanctuary at the end of the 2300 days. He was also reminded of the experience of John the Revelator in Revelation 10 with regards to the little book and of the angels charge that John should prophesy again.

Meanwhile, Crosier had nearly run into his back and after taking a moment to regain his bearings called out to him. Snapped out of his reverie by Crosier, Edson explained to him that God was just beginning to answer the prayers they had raised to heaven that morning. Over the next few months, Edson, Crosier and Dr. F.B. Hahn carried out intensive Bible studies on the Biblical Sanctuary and sacrificial system and were convinced that the key to understanding what happened on October 22, 1844, lay there. They revived the defunct Millerite paper they had been publishing and ran a few extra numbers of the paper in order to disseminate what they were learning. Crosier, the younger and better educated one of the trio, was tasked with writing out their findings which he did in time for the paper to be circulated by April of 1845.

Enoch Jacobs, the editor of another Millerite paper in Cincinnati saw the material and agreed to publish an expanded and refined version of the article as a special extra edition of his paper which would give the information a wider reach. Part of Mrs. Edson’s wedding silver was sold to help finance the venture and soon the paper was circulating among Advent believers.

Sometime between late 1845 and early 1846, Joseph Bates picked up Crosier’s ideas and engaged himself in careful independent study and correspondence with Edson. He then accepted Edson’s invitation to visit Port Gibson for an exchange of views. Edson had been aware of Preble’s Sabbath tract for some time but had not been fully convinced of his need to keep the Sabbath.

When Bates got to the Edson farm in Port Gibson he began to share his convictions regarding the Sabbath with Edson who upon hearing his testimony was deeply convicted of his need to keep the Sabbath. He immediately committed to keeping the Sabbath. Crosier, on the other hand, was more cautious and took a while to accept the Sabbath only to abandon it altogether a few months later. For his part, Bates accepted the Edson-Crosier-Hahn view regarding the cleansing of the sanctuary.

The Gift of Prophecy

 

 

As the Advent believers struggled to hold to their faith and make sense of what had happened in 1844 God offered them support, encouragement and new evidence that His hand had been at work in the Millerite movement. This evidence came in the form of a young woman, called by God to be His messenger. Ellen Harmon was a frail, sickly 17-year-old girl from Maine when God called her to be a prophet. She along with her family had been removed from their local Methodist congregation because of their belief in Miller’s teachings.

In December 1844 Ellen Harmon was given a vision by God. In this vision, she was shown the small group of Advent believers traveling toward heaven on a straight and narrow path high above the world. She was shown a bright light at the beginning of the journey which helped light the entire path. The angel told her that the light was the midnight cry. As the vision continued she was given a glimpse of the second coming of Jesus and the triumphal entry of the saints into the heavenly Jerusalem.

About a week later she was given a second vision encouraging her to go and share what she had seen with others. The call seemed too great for Ellen to bear. Her health was in a deplorable condition and she was also very young and naturally timid. Added to this was the deep-seated suspicion of all supernatural manifestations among the Millerites in general as a result of several bad experiences relating to the fanaticism that the movement had experienced.

This opposition had, in fact, strengthened the reluctance of two others whom God had called prior to Ellen Harmon. The first was William Foy of Boston, a Baptist studying to be an Episcopal minister. As early as 1842 he was given two visions that detailed the second coming of Jesus and the reward of God’s people. Foy was reluctant to share the visions publicly not only because of the existing prejudices of the Millerites but also because he was of African-American descent and acutely aware of the prejudice that ran deep against of his race. 

He did manage to overcome his initial reluctance for a short period of time and share some of his visions but he soon gave up. Then there was Hazen Foss of Portland, Maine who was given visions very similar to Ellen Harmon’s first vision. Foss balked at the opposition he was sure he would encounter and refused, point blank, to accept the call. After his refusal, he was impressed that he had grieved away the Spirit of God which terrified him to such an extent that he hastily convened a group of people to share the vision with but he couldn’t remember it. Foss later warned Ellen Harmon against refusing the calling. After the entire experience was over Foss never again expressed an interest in religious matters.

Bearing Testimony: The Labours of James and Ellen White

 

 

Regardless of Foss’s experience and warnings, Ellen’s reluctance was not easily overcome. Her list of fears was long and chief among them was the fear of pride and self-exaltation which God promised to keep her from through trial and affliction.

Once during a special season of prayer on her behalf, one of the older Adventists present at the time saw a ball of fire strike her directly above her heart. She collapsed and when she revived John Pearson promised to support her in the work that God had called her to do from that time forward.

James White was convinced of Ellen’s calling after seeing her in vision during a visit her made to Orrington, Maine in early 1845. He later traveled with Ellen and her regular traveling companions, her sister Sarah and her dear friend Louisa Foss. Rumors and gossip began to circulate about the two young Adventists and though there was initially no romantic interest between the two love blossomed soon enough.

They both believed in Christ’s soon coming and were convinced that marriage was a blatant denial of their faith in that fact but love and practicality won out especially as James became determined that nothing should bring disrepute to Ellen or her work. So in the Summer of 1846 James proposed and Ellen accepted and on August 30, 1846, they were married by the Justice of the Peace in Portland, Maine.

Ellen’s visions were primarily for the purpose of encouraging the little group of Advent believers in the wake of the great disappointment and also to steer the fledgling movement away from the pitfalls of fanaticism.

In the Spring of 1846, Ellen Harmon met Joseph Bates. He was skeptical of her visions and she was skeptical of his views regarding the Sabbath. However, both parties changed their minds and came to accept the views of the other.

Soon after they were married, in the Autumn of 1846 the Whites prayerfully studied Bate’s tract on the Sabbath and were convicted by it. Bates was convinced that Ellen’s visions were of God on an occasion when she was shown planets. Bates had studied astronomy and recognized some of the planets that Ellen described in vision. He knew that she had no knowledge of astronomy and was fully convinced that her visions were not springing out of her own head.

Although Ellen’s visions were primarily for encouragement, she was also given confirmation of doctrinal truths that were being studied out by the Sabbath-keeping Adventists. For example, she was instructed to endorse Crosier’s long exposition of the Sanctuary which had been published in  “The Day Star-Extra”.

Also, in April 1847, several months after the White’s had started keeping the Sabbath Ellen was given a vision confirming this new belief. She was shown the ten commandments in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary and she saw a halo encircling the fourth commandment. She was also told that the Sabbath would play an important role in the time of trouble that the people of God were to encounter just before Jesus second coming.

The Sabbath Conferences

 

 

Although James and Ellen White, Joseph Bates and Hiram Edson were the primary agents engaged in propagating many of the new truths that were been uncovered after the great disappointment there were scores of other Adventists throughout New England and Western New York who were becoming more and more convicted about the same truths.

By 1848 these scattered believers felt the need to pull together and decided to organize small conferences that were reminiscent of the early Millerite conferences. Such conferences presented them with the opportunity for mutual encouragement and also provided a forum which could be used to nut out theological beliefs as well.

The first of these conferences, later known as the sabbath conferences were called by E.L.H Chamberlain of Middletown, Connecticut and took place from the 20-24th of April 1848 in the home of Albert Belden in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. The meeting was such a huge success that plans for similar conferences were soon laid out. Since these Advent believers had no central organization that could fund the meetings they had cough up the money themselves which they did at great personal sacrifice. James White mowed hay for five weeks in order to make enough money to fund the travel expenses for himself and Ellen to attend the next two conferences in Volney and Port Gibson, New York.  

The second conference was smaller but there was a wider range of diversity and dissension. The discord was so heated that Ellen White began to feel oppressed by it and she fainted. As they were praying over her she went into vision and was shown that there were actually a great number of errors being promoted at the conference. She was then asked to instruct the attendees to lay stop majoring in the minors and to focus instead on uniting on fundamental truths that made up the Three Angels’ Messages of Revelation 14. Her appeal was taken on board and the conference ended on a triumphant note.

The six sabbath conferences helped to define and unite this fledgling movement and provided consensus on eight specific points of doctrine that made up its fundamental theological framework. These points were;

  1. The soon coming of Jesus which would take place before the Millenium.
  2. The dual nature of Christ’s ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary and the fact that the cleansing of the sanctuary had begun in 1844.
  3. The validity and importance of the Seventh Day Sabbath
  4. The importance and role of the Gift of Prophecy as manifested in the ministry of Ellen White.
  5. The duty to proclaim the Three Angels’ Messages
  6. Conditional immortality and death as a sleep
  7. The timing of the seven last plagues
  8. The final and complete extinction of the wicked after the millennium.

And so it was that out of the ashes of the great disappointment a new and exciting movement slowly began to take shape and rise.

Further Reading and Citations

  • Schawrz, R.W. and Greenleaf, F. (1979) – Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Revised Edition)
  • Knight, G.R. (1999) – A Brief History of Seventh-Day Adventists (3rd Edition)
  • Burt, M.D. (2011) – Adventist Pioneer Places (New York and New England)