Roots Of The Great Awakening

In many ways, the second coming of Jesus was the blessed hope of the early church. To the early Christians, the thought of seeing their Friend and Saviour coming in the clouds to take them home was a vision that inspired them with hope and drove them forward. So potent was this hope that its force was felt even by historians who watched the movement of Christianity through the empire with a cold and calculating eye. Edward Gibbon attributed it to be one of the major factors that spurred the unprecedented proliferation of Christianity throughout the Empire.

But Jesus did not return as soon as the church had expected Him to and as the years stretched into decades and then decades into centuries many Christians began to embrace Origen’s view of a spiritual second coming which took place when an individual was first converted and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Augustine added to this doctrine in the 5th Century by arguing that the millennial reign of Christ had begun with the establishment of the early church just after Jesus’ death.

As time wore on scholars like Joachim Floris began to take an interest in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation and saw here the evidence that a literal, physical Second Advent was not only a reality but a potentially imminent one as well. Regardless of this interest, however, it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century that the doctrine of Christ’s second advent really began to gain traction.

However this hope didn’t materialize into reality and once more, like the early Christians before them, the Christians of the Reformation found themselves floundering to find a viable theological explanation.

By the turn of the 18th Century, most Protestant theologians were beginning to put forward a new view of the second coming. Leading among them was Daniel Whitby, who was only too happy to put forward a theory which essentially reinforced Origen’s theory about a spiritual second coming. However, Whitby buttressed his theory by adding on the concept of a Millenial reign in which first Protestants and then Catholics, Jews and Muslims would embrace Christianity and be converted. He then placed the literal physical second coming of Jesus at the end of this Millenium.

Whitbyanism, as it came to be known, soon began to gain traction among Protestants of all shapes and sizes. It was especially beloved among English and American Protestants who became leading proponents of it.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars strengthened millennial speculation and heightened interest in the time prophecies of Daniel, especially the 1260 days. Many believed that the 1260 days or years of Papal supremacy had ended in the 1790s and so attention began to shift toward the fulfillment of the 2300 days of Daniel which was the longest specific time prophecy in the Bible.

A Global Awakening

As early as 1768 German Calvinist pastor Johann Petri began to dabble in interpreting the prophecies of Daniel and provided a key to dating the 2300 day prophecy. It was Petri who discovered the link between the 70-week prophecy of Daniel 9 and the 2300 days prophecy of Daniel 8. Around the same time, a deeply spiritual Irish layman by the name of Hans Wood began to reach similar conclusions to those that Petri was drawing.

About 50 years before Petri, Johann Bengel, another German pastor made a major impact on Protestantism by developing the theory that the Bible was a progressive revelation of God’s plan for man’s salvation. Bengel put forward that Christ was the central figure of that plan and his first and second advents the most important events within that time plan. Bengel also believed that all prophetic time periods were tied to and pointed to the second coming of Christ.

Years after Begnel, in the early 19th century, Manuel de Lacunza made waves by publishing his somewhat controversial manuscript “The Second Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty”. Lanunza was an exiled Jesuit who had been expelled from his homeland of Chile by Charles III who banned all Jesuits from his realm. Lacunza traveled to Italy where he ended up settling in a small monastery near Bologna. Ensconced here he devoted nearly all his time to studying the second coming of Jesus. The result was his widely celebrated manuscript which he published under the pseudonym of Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra in order to stay under the radar of the Inquisition.

In 1824 Pope Leo XII officially forbade the publication of Lacunza’s manuscript and banned its circulation which was really like pitching a neon sign recommending the book to every Protestant in sight. Circulation of the “The Second Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty” ratcheted up the theological bestseller list of the early 19th century Europe and Latin America. Unlike Whitby, Lacunza believed in a premillennial second coming and the concept of two resurrections from the dead which were separated by the millenium.

Lacunza’s manuscript became the catalyst that launched the Advent awakening in England on a grand scale. Prior to Lacunza, John A. Brown had introduced the discussion of the 2300 days into the columns of a popular Anglican journal. These articles piqued the interest of men like William Cunninghame, Henry Drummond and Lewis Way.

Drummoned and Way went on to set up a week long conference for all interested ministers to come together and study the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation intensively. The event, known as the Albury Park conferences, ran from 1826-1839 annually. Among those who attended the conferences were Joseph Wolff and Edward Irving.

Wolff was a Jew of German descent who became a Catholic priest but ended up defecting, settling in England and embracing Protestantism. While in England he began to accept the teaching regarding the second advent of Jesus and soon became one of its greatest missionaries. No other advent believer spread the good news of Jesus soon coming over a wider area than Wolff did. He was proficient in 14 languages and took the good news through India, Central Asia, South America and Europe, preaching to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Parsees.

Edward Irving made a similar impact in his native Scotland, sometimes preaching to crowds of 12,000 in open-air venues. Other men who were proponents of this movement on the continent and beyond were Francois Gaussen in Geneva, Johann Richter in German, Leonard Kebler and Johann Lutz, Thomas Playford in Australia and Daniel Wilson in India to name just a few.

Interestingly Europe and the rest of the world didn’t witness the kind of unified behemoth of a movement that drew in the masses in the same way that America did. There were possible reasons for this;

  1. The major proponents of the European movement couldn’t agree on a single date. They all came up with different dates and so the movement lacked the consensus it needed to galvanized them into a unified whole.
  2. They didn’t focus on a single prophetic time period either. While they dabbled extensively in interpreting the 2300 day prophecy they also divided their time between it and the other time prophecies of Daniel as well.
  3. The European movement focused quite significantly on the conversion of non-Christian religious groups like Jews and Muslims.
  4. They didn’t have a strong publishing mechanism in place to spread their teachings.

All of this meant that they had their fingers in too many different pies to gain the kind of momentum they needed to become the kind of full-blown crusade that the Millerite movement became in America.

The Awakening of America

America showed no interest in the second advent until about a decade after the Albury Park conferences. Prior to that period men like William C David, Joshua L. Wilson and Alexander Campbell had made short forays into mining the prophecies of Daniel but their explorations hadn’t turned into anything significant.

And then along came William Miller and shook up the entire scene irrevocably and perhaps, to a certain extent, irretrievably. Miller and his associates, like Josiah Litch and Joshua Himes catapulted the second advent movement into the stratosphere and garnered such a considerable following that it left a deep and indelible impression on 19th-century American society.

Citations and Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • 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)