In the early 1800s, really in the years right after the Revolutionary
War, there's a massive new expansion of the country, the great push
westward. And this period sees a number of new developments happening,
especially on the religious front. And many of them have apocalyptic overtones
to them. In fact, this is the period that gives rise to what is known as the
Second Great Awakening. Like the first, it's a period of revival. But
it's being put forward as a sense of the great expansion of the country as
White is Professor of Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas
at Austin, and served as historical consultant for "Apocalypse!"|
One of the interesting things about the Second Great Awakening is, it gives
rise to a number of new religious sects within the American cultural
experiment. This is what some people have called the rise of a free market
religious economy in America. But new groups are popping up all over the
place. We hear of utopian groups that move to places like Amana and
Oneida. New York itself is known as the "burned over district" because so many
revivalist preachers come from that area. And in fact, it gives rise to
several other groups that still exist to this day, including the Mormons, the
Seventh Day Adventists, and others who came out of that revivalist temperament
of the early 1800's.
One of the most significant figures to come out of this revivalist spirit of
the Second Great Awakening is a farmer from upstate New York by the name of
William Miller. Miller begins to read the Bible, and he undertakes a new sense
of understanding of how to interpret prophecy and the Book of Revelation
itself. The most important thing that William Miller brings to the
discussions of the Book of Revelation is his new sense of how the events are
going to unfold. In contrast to earlier interpreters, Miller argues that the
Book of Revelation is completely unfulfilled. All of the events described
there are things that will occur at the end of time, whereas earlier
interpreters had seen events unfolding throughout Christian history in the
past. ... The crucial change in Miller's interpretation of the Book of
Revelation is that he sees all of those events as still to come in the future.
Nothing there-- maybe the first chapter alone, but nothing in the rest of the
book has been fulfilled. ...
Now, what Miller thinks is going to happen is that the prophecies of
Daniel will be fulfilled in the end that's just about to come. This is
when the Second Coming of Christ will occur, what he begins to call the Advent.
In fact, that's what his movement comes to be known as: the Adventists'
movement. But the Advent or the Second Coming of Christ will occur in 1843.
And then, in a significant twist in interpretation of the Book of Revelation,
he says that's when the thousand years, the millennium, will commence. So he
places the events in the Book of Revelation and all of that expectation as a
coming event after the return of Christ. This new interpretation, where all of
the events in the Book of Revelation begin to occur only after Christ returns,
and the Millennium, the thousand year reign, is a reign on earth after the
return of Christ, that kind of interpretation comes to be known as
pre-millennialism. And it's one of the important new developments in American
religious history. And of course it still survives to this day, and is very
Read more about the Seventh Day Adventist background of cult leader David Koresh in David Valdes Greenwood's article, "Waco:The Fire Next Time"
What are the key passages in Revelation that are meaningful to
For William Miller, most of the Book of Revelation has not yet come to pass.
But in particularly, he really looks at the section between chapters 12 and 21,
commencing with the great beast, the Antichrist, who arrives. And then the
war, the battle of Armageddon in chapter 20. And in chapter 21, the New
Jerusalem. These are the things that he thinks are going to be fulfilled at
the Second Coming of Jesus and with the establishment of the millennial kingdom
How does the Miller movement gain momentum? . . .
The Millerite movement gained momentum by utilizing the latest technologies of
the day, of mass communication. The high speed printing press, for example,
was very important in promoting pamphlets and newsletters and newspapers and
colored charts that illustrated Miller's system. Miller himself was not a
great preacher. He was not a great evangelist. His meetings were more like
lectures. He was a teacher, and he would turn people to the Book of
Daniel, and he would walk them through his system. And he was very
fortunate in his lieutenants, particularly a man named Joshua Himes in Boston,
who was a very skilled promoter and really turned the Millerite
movement--helped do it, at least--into a mass
Did Miller see himself as a prophet? Or did he just feel he found the
I don't think Miller saw himself as a prophet. I don't think he believed that
he had received some special revelation from God. Miller was a Bible student,
and he believed that through careful analysis of the texts, particularly in the
Book of Daniel, it was possible to develop a chronology that would lead you
inevitably to the moment of Christ's Second Coming. So he was in the tradition
of biblical interpreters, rather than in the tradition of prophets who receive
a special vision.
Do you know the circuitous, complicated math he's doing?
The details of Miller's system are extremely complicated. They're difficult to
follow. He drew upon passages in the Book of Daniel that refer to 1,260 days,
and translated the days into years, and used as his beginning point the command
to rebuild the Jewish Temple after the Babylonian captivity, moved forward from
that, and by a really very elaborate and somewhat circuitous system, came up
with the year 1843. It was an interpretive system that he found convincing,
and that evidently many thousands of Americans of his day did as well.
Does that put him on the absolute cultural fringe, or does he represent more
of the mainstream?
We tend to marginalize prophecy believers as cranks, people on the cultural
fringe. The Millerite movement is a good antidote, I think, to that
marginalization, because it's very hard to find how the Millerites were
different from other Americans. They were ordinary Americans. Many of them
were involved in other reform movements. Joshua Himes in Boston, for example,
was also involved in the abolitionist movement. Sarah Grimke was involved in
the women's rights movement and the anti-slavery movement. People were drawn
to Miller out of a larger cultural climate of the moment. And they were not
cranks. They were not fringe people. They were ordinary Americans who found
his interpretation compelling. ...
As March 1843 approaches, how is the movement covered in the news? How does
the greater society view them? There were some circulation wars built around
this idea, weren't there?
Well, of course, inevitably the Millerite movement attracted a great deal of
attention. Some of it was skeptical. Some of it was in the tone of ridicule.
Others took it rather seriously. I think everyone recognized its importance,
not only religiously but economically. These rallies were attracting many
thousands of people. The Millerites really pioneered mass journalism in many
ways, in getting the message out through their publications. ...
So what happens when the first disappointment comes?
When the first disappointment came in 1843, they went back to the drawing
board, and they realized that they had made an error of one year by neglecting
to take into account the transition from BC to AD, and because of that,
they had gotten it off by a year. So they simply moved it forward one year to
1844. So that extended the excitement for one more year. But then at that
point came the Great Disappointment, and the movement simply fragmented for the
How do they prepare for that final day? Tell me about the Great
After the Great Disappointment, we have very poignant accounts of believers who
describe the dismay, the weeping, literally the disappointment they felt. They
had anticipated that they were going to be carried into heaven. It didn't
happen. The world went on as before. Life went on as before. And it was a
very traumatic experience for those who had been caught up in the movement.
What then becomes the lesson about date setting that people learned from
People learned from Miller a very important lesson: the dangers of date
setting. There are warnings in scripture about date setting. Jesus tells his
disciples, "No man knoweth the day nor the hour of my coming." But that lesson
had been lost by the Millerites. After the Great Disappointment, prophecy
interpreters for the most part avoided date setting. The argument that was now
made was: We must look at the signs of the times. We know the end is near,
because all the signs are coming together, but we don't know the exact date.
We must be ready at any moment for the end to come. And that creates a
powerful psychological dynamic of expectation, but expectation of an event
whose precise date is unknown. And the inherent tension in that mindset is
very, very great. But the avoidance of date setting was a very powerful lesson
that emerged from the Millerite movement.
Was there skepticism about prophecy belief after Miller?
After the Great Disappointment, there was a great deal of skepticism about
prophecy belief. I think there was a period when it was really discredited.
And it was at that point, in the mid-19th century, that John Nelson Darby, a
brilliant British theologian and preacher, emerged with a new system,
premillennial dispensationalism, in which he offered an interpretation of the
prophecies that was really quite different from Miller's. Miller saw the
prophetic scheme unfolding over historical time and ending at a certain point.
Darby sees a series of dispensations, which will culminate in a dramatic
moment, the moment of the Rapture, when true believers will be taken from the
earth. And at that point, the prophetic clock will begin to tick again, and a
series of events will then inevitably follow: the Great Tribulation, the second
coming, the battle of Armageddon, and so on. ...
John Darby's prophetic scheme really, in some ways, echoed that of Joachim
of Fiore, centuries before. Joachim had also seen human history unfolding
in a series of stages or dispensations. In Joachim's case, it was three great
stages, based on the Trinity. And the millennial stage, the Age of the Spirit,
still lay in the future. With Darby, again, he sees human history segmented
into a series of stages, in each one of which God deals with humanity in a
different way--the means of salvation differ: the period of the Garden of Eden,
the period before the Flood, the period after the Flood, the era when Christ
walked on earth, and then the Church Age. And that was the dispensation that
we were in, and in fact are still in, according to this system. The next
dispensations lay in the future. Darby called the Church Age the Great
Parenthesis, because this was a period when, in a sense, the prophetic clock
had stopped. With the coming of Christ, the first coming of Christ, a key
prophetic stage had been fulfilled. Then Christ is crucified and ascends to
heaven, and the Church Age begins. And the Church Age, he called The Great
Parenthesis, because while Christian effort is going on and so on,
prophetically it is not a dispensation full of great significant events. But
toward the end of the Church Age come a series of events that signal that the
end of that dispensation is near. And the key dividing point that would mark
the beginning of the next dispensation, was an event that Darby derived from a
passage in the Book of Thessalonians, describing the Rapture, the moment when
the saints will be taken, snatched from the earth. ... And here is where Darby
and his followers paid great attention to the signs of the times. Wars and
rumors of war, increasing wickedness, new technologies, the age of steam, the
age of electricity, the coming of the telephone and the telegraph. These are
all signs that the end times are being prepared, and the Rapture could come at
any moment. ...
Ages and Dispatches, by charles larkin
(copyright clarence larkin estate. reproduced with permission)
Explain Darby's scenario for the end. What exactly happens?
Darby's scenario for the end is a very dramatic one. The first event that will
happen is the Rapture, the saints taken to heaven. Then a 7-year period, the
Great Tribulation: the Antichrist arises, tremendous persecution; the number
666 is emblazoned on the forehead and the hands of his followers. Then the
battle of Armageddon. Christ returns from the skies with his saints, as the
Antichrist and his army gather at Armageddon. Antichrist and his armies are
destroyed. Christ establishes in Jerusalem the Temple, and the thousand year
reign of justice and righteousness, the Millennium. At the end of that period
on earth comes the Last Judgment: all those who have ever lived will be
consigned either to heaven or hell. And essentially then human history ends.
The great drama that began in the Garden of Eden comes to its close. A new
heaven, a new earth are created, and essentially the great prophetic scheme has
been fulfilled. ...
How did the Rapture end up solving the problem of date setting? What does
that mean about how Christians would have to live?
... I think the doctrine of the Rapture is a tremendous breakthrough in the
history of prophetic teaching, because with it Darby avoided the problem of the
Millerites, the problem of date setting, but at the same time the doctrine of
the Rapture holds believers in a state of constant readiness. They could be
snatched from the earth literally at any moment. So one must always be
observing one's behavior. What would happen if the Rapture occurred at this
moment? ... But on the other hand, it may be far in the future. So one must
live a responsible life; one must be a good citizen; one must obey the laws.
It avoids the other risk of irresponsible behavior, because if the end could
come at any moment, who cares about keeping my house in repair; who cares about
buying life insurance, or educating my children? So it provides both that
sense of readiness for a dramatic breakpoint in history, but also provides for
the possibility that life may go on very much as it always has.
Tell me about the Tribulation, and the role of Jews.
The Great Tribulation in Darby's scheme will be a 7-year period. Initially a
figure will arise, a man of peace. ... But halfway through the Great
Tribulation, this person will reveal himself as the Antichrist, the enemy of
righteousness, and will bring a period of horrendous persecution and suffering
to the earth. Historically, many prophecy believers have taught that the
Antichrist will be a Jew. And it makes sense logically, because the Antichrist
will be a mirror of Jesus. Jesus was Jewish, therefore the Antichrist will be
Jewish. So we have, for example, the televangelist Jerry Falwell very recently
announce that he believes that the Antichrist is a young Jewish male who is
probably alive today. That got a lot of attention, but in fact it was very
much in the tradition of this strand of prophetic belief that the Antichrist
will be a Jew, and that the end could come at any moment. ...
Why have Darby's views come to dominate prophetic belief in our time?
I think Darby's views have come to dominate prophetic belief, certainly in
America in our era, because first of all it's such a powerful and appealing
system in terms of the drama of the events that are described. In Darby's
system, human history takes on meaning, and it has an end point. Events are
leading toward a final culmination. And also, his system is very appealing
because it avoids date setting. It avoids that risk of pinning the system down
to a precise date, and therefore it's not falsifiable. There's literally no
way to prove Darby's system false, because it involves events that lie in the
future. Combine that with the tremendously powerful engine of American mass
culture, with paperbacks that can be sold by millions of copies,
televisions, videos, movies. There's just a tremendous coming together, it
seems to me, of theological and cultural forces propelling this belief
book of revelation ·
primary sources ·
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation