William Miller: The Early Years

The warm orange glow from the fireplace bathed the quiet room with light and warmth. Young William Miller lay on his torso, feet in the air, tucked as close to the fireplace as possible leafing through the pages of a well-worn book. This had become a little bit of a routine for him. He was obsessed with reading but growing up on a farm as the eldest of 16 children meant that he had precious little time to spend with his books.

His parents were deeply spiritual members of the local Baptist church and his grandfather and uncle were both Baptist ministers. Their home, a modest farmer’s dwelling in Low Hampton, New York boasted three books. A Bible, a psalter and prayer book. After William had read over and over again he began to forage for other reading material. Soon he was scouring neighbours homes in search of any books he could lay his hands on. He read anything and everything he could find.

In order to keep up the pace of his reading, William began to read well into the night after his entire family had gone to bed. He would collect pine knots during the day, whittle them down to just the right size and stash them away in a special hiding place he had secured for himself. Then at night when silence wrapped its arms around the sleeping Miller homestead, William would quietly pick his way down the stairs and into the living room. Using his stash of pine knots he would get the fire going and then sit huddled by it drinking the warmth and the words of the pages he poured over.

Despite his love for reading and the daily round of farm work to take up his time William found growing up in Low Hampton to be a lonely and isolating experience. One summer William found a job in Poultney, Vermont which was a few miles away and while there he met Lucy Smith. Suddenly he began to find every excuse he could think of to run down to Poultney and Lucy found herself as eager for him to come. They married not long after and set up home in Poultney which, to William’s delight had a decent public library.

The library soon became William’s second home and his appetite for reading began to become voracious. For her part, Lucy quite liked the idea of her farm boy gaining the kind of mental culture that reading offered and she encouraged William’s habit as much as she could, even taking on more than her fair share of work on the farm just so he could immerse himself in his reading.

William began to assimilate the thought leadership and philosophical leanings of men like Voltaire, Hume, and Paine and soon found himself adopting Deism as a worldview. The idea of a distant, disinterested God, who like an ancient watchmaker thoughtfully and intelligently wound up the world and then gently left it to wind down on its own steam satisfied the need for both intelligent design and humanistic reasoning.

William soon found a group of Deists in Poultney and opened his home to them, hosting them every chance he got and slowly drawing on their ideas to sharpen and hone his own. This led him to reject the Bible as a book of fables slapped together by a bunch of artful men. He soon had little time or interest for anything that smacked of Christianity.

And then he got drafted into the army. Called upon to render his services to his country as Captain William Miller of the Vermont Militia in the revolutionary war of 1812. Little did Captain Miller realise what a pivotal moment the war would be, not only in the history of America but also in his own personal history as well.

The Turning Point

The tell-tale high pitched whistling that signalled the approach of a shell snapped Captain Miller to attention. He looked up just in time to make out the blur of the projectile as it whizzed towards the ground and exploded not two feet from him. The force of the blast injured three of the men who stood around him but he managed to walk away without a scratch.

He was engaged in the Battle of Plattsburg on the shores of Lake Champlain on the 11th of September 1812. The British forces numbered 15,000 men on land and a small but well equipped naval fleet out on the lake. By comparison, the American troops numbered 5,500 with a smaller naval fleet on the lake for support. The odds were heavily stacked against the Americans but as it turned out they walked away victorious.

After he returned from the war, Miller sold his farm in Poultney and moved back to his boyhood hometown of Low Hampton to be closer to his ageing mother. The events that occurred during the war and especially during the Battle of Plattsburg began to haunt his mind. He began to turn each particular over and over in his mind trying to make sense of how the pieces fit with his current worldview of Deism and none of it seemed to match. Everything about the encounter seemed to point to a personal, all-knowing God which threatened to shatter the carefully constructed house of cards he had built and nurtured for the last 12 years of his life.

The Final Straw

William Miller shifted uncomfortably in his seat and edged his fingers over his collar to loosen it a little. The atmosphere inside the little Baptist church seemed unusually oppressive and warm that Sunday morning and he couldn’t seem to get comfortable. Finally, unable to bear his fidgeting any longer his wife Lucy leaned over and whispered in his ear. “William dear, are you alright?”

“Hmmm?”

He looked down at her distractedly taking a moment to process what she had just said.

“Yes…yes I’m fine” he finally said with a sigh.

“Well you don’t look fine” Lucy continued a little impatiently “what is the matter?”

William sighed again and spoke quietly “I’m supposed to read the sermon this morning?”

“The what?” Lucy wasn’t sure she had heard right. Her deist husband who frequently had a good laugh at the expense of his ministering uncle and grandfather was about to read the sermon this morning?

“The sermon Lucy” William’s tone became impatient “I mentioned to mother the other day that I didn’t like to attend church whenever uncle Elihu or grandfather Phelps are away because the deacons just don’t do a good enough job at reading the sermons” William shook his head slightly wishing he had just kept his mouth shut. “And” Lucy prompted “And I told her that if I were to given the chance to read the sermon then I would gladly come to church and do it”

Lucy pressed her lips together to suppress the smile that was threatening to break out over her face “And they asked you to read the sermon this Sunday?” she guessed. William glanced over at her and frowned as he caught sight of the humour dancing in her eyes “yes” he said looking away. “They did”

William Miller stood up to read the sermon that Sunday morning with equal parts of consternation and resolve. He wasn’t really sure how he had managed to get himself into this situation but he was determined to manfully wade his way through. Halfway through the sermon, he began to falter. The words began to gnaw at him painfully. It was a sermon about the responsibility of parents to set a proper example for their children. Each word seemed to slice through his heart an inch at a time. Finally, he broke down in tears and was unable to finish the sermon. The entire congregation sat shell-shocked. Wasn’t this William Miller, the passionate deist? Yes, it was and he was well on his way to become an equally passionate Christian.

William went home that day in despair over his sins, with a heart longing for help. The idea of a Saviour came vividly to his mind. A being so good, so kind, so pure that he could not only take away sins but also provide the help and support needed for continual advancement and victory. He needed a Saviour, of that much he was certain and perhaps the world needed a Saviour too. But where could he find such a being?

He found what he was looking for as he read the Bible and later wrote “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.” It was one of the most significant turning points in his life and William Miller the Deist became William Miller, the friend of Jesus.

This turning point marked the beginning of perhaps the most significant period of Miller’s life. A period which saw him combing through the Bible meticulously determined to study it for himself and to satisfactorily answer every single one of his deistic philosophies and ideas. When he got to the book of Daniel he was completely fascinated by what he found there. Over and over he read through the prophecies, carefully comparing scripture with scripture in his quest to decipher the mysterious beasts and horns that wove their way through the gripping stories of faith and courage.

As he took apart Daniel 8:14 he came to the conclusion that the cleansing of the sanctuary was the second coming of Jesus and that it would occur in the spring or 1844.

Being a quiet New England farmer Miller wasn’t too taken enchanted with the idea of making waves but he did want to share what he was learning. He began to share his findings with a few close friends and colleagues and then widened his reach to include letters to local community leaders and clergy. His penchant for deftly organising and eloquently presenting ideas captured the attention of his audience opening up avenues for him to broaden his circle of influence. But this was as far as he was willing to go in sharing the truths he was learning. He was not a showman and was happy to content himself with a quiet round of sowing the truth.

But God had other plans for William Miller.

He was soon deeply convicted by a sense that he needed to publicly preach the messages he had been given but fear of ridicule held him back. Finally, unable to silence the persistent promptings of the Holy Spirit he made a desperate bargain with God. On a warm Saturday morning in August 1833 he promised God that if someone were to invite him to preach he would go.

Having prayed that prayer in the quiet seclusion of the maple grove that stood just off the side of his homestead he made his way back to the house for breakfast.

The odds of someone asking an aged New England farmer to preach on the prophecies of Daniel and the second coming of Jesus were slim to none and as William sat down to breakfast he felt fairly certain of his safety. He had no idea what awaited him in just thirty short minutes.

Tell It To The World

The sharp rapping at the kitchen door roused the Miller family from their lazy morning sequence. Father Miller went to the door and stopped short in surprise as he saw who was standing on the other side. “Irving!” he exclaimed, staring at the flushed face of his nephew for a long moment before standing aside and motioning him to come inside. “What brings you to these parts so early on a Saturday morning?” “Morning Uncle William” Irving panted out a little breathlessly, his eyes sparkling with excitement “I came to give you a message from father” “well it must be a mighty important one” William mused, “go on then, sit down and have some breakfast with us” he continued motioning to a chair at the table. “Before I do that, I need to give you the message” Irving insisted, continuing to stand.

“Alright then, out with it” by now the whole Miller family was gawking at Irving in open curiosity. “Well, the preacher’s taken ill and won’t be able to preach at church tomorrow morning, father sent me to ask if you’d be willing to come down and preach about what you’ve been studying of late” Irving paused and looked at William expectantly. When he received no response he continued in a rush “You know, the prophecies about the second coming of Jesus”

Suddenly a terrible tense silence descended on the entire room. Irving sucked in a breath as he felt the palpable tension envelope him. “Uncle William?” he finally asked hesitantly, unsure if his uncle had heard what he had said.

Without a word William Miller brushed angrily past Irving and stalked out of the house, allowing the kitchen door to bang shut behind him. Irving rushed to the little window completely mystified at his uncle’s response and was soon joined by his cousin Lucy. Together they watched as William Miller made his way up the hill to the little maple grove that was just beyond the house. Once there they watched him stalking, gesticulating and shouting at the sky partially hidden behind the cover of the maple trees. “Mama”, Lucy said anxiously, turning away from the window towards her mother “something’s terribly wrong with father”. Mrs Miller smiled and slightly shook her head “It’ll turn out alright Lucy” she said quietly “Come now” she continued motioning to Irving and Lucy “come away from the window and finish up your breakfast”.

Here I am Send Me

The next day found William Miller comfortably ensconced in a recliner in the Guildford kitchen in Dresden addressing an eager audience who sat scattered throughout the room on chairs and crates. Soon he began to get invitations to preach in small towns to modest crowds of people throughout New England.

But God had still greater plans for the retiring farmer turned scholar.

Enter Joshua V. Himes. Proverbial dynamo, a charismatic powerhouse of innovation and public relations genius extraordinaire. Himes discovered Miller preaching in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1839 and immediately gravitated towards him. He invited him to preach in his church in Boston. An invitation which Miller somewhat hesitantly accepted.

“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. They were having dinner at Himes’ home after one the conclusion of one of Miller’s rousing sermons at the Chardon Street Chapel in Boston.

Miller looked up from his plate and paused hesitantly. “I do” he finally said in a quiet firm voice

“Well then” Joshua’s expressive face broke into a wide grin “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 New England, 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?” he gesticulated excitedly, his voice rising with every city he articulated.

“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 warily eyeing the charismatic ball of energy that sat beside him, taking in the excited sparkle that danced in Himes’ eyes. “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!”

As it turned out 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.

The Great Disappointment And Beyond

As the clock slowly ticked towards 1844, Miller’s message began to polarise the spiritual community in America. Public sentiment began to turn against Miller in 1842, and yet hundreds of people still flocked to hear him preach. When Samuel Snow put forward his argument regarding October 22, 1844, as the date of Christ’s Second Coming Miller accepted it though he did not engage in publicly championing it.

After the great disappointment Miller wrote “I have fixed my mind on another time, and here I mean to stand until God gives me more light, and that is, today, today, today until he comes” William Miller’s faith did not wax low in the aftermath of such a great and trying experience instead he held on to it with a tenacity that belied his weakening mind and body. He passed quietly to his rest on December 20, 1849, and was buried in Low Hampton Cemetery.

On his gravestone is the inscription “But go thou thy way till the end be, for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of days” (Daniel 12:13)

Citations and Further Reading

  • 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)