The Great Disappointment
After service in the War of 1812, one William Miller, having been exposed to Deism, felt the need to reconnect with the faith of his earlier years. He began to study the Bible with great care, and by 1818 he had convinced himself of an interpretation of the Bible that demonstrated that Christ would return in 1844. Miller kept quiet about his interpretation of scripture until 1831, when he began to present public lectures on his ideas. Miller began to build a following, his ideas were called “Millerism,” and his followers were called “Millerites.”
Two earlier predictions for the Second Coming — for 21 March and 18 April of 1844 — had already passed without event, but the Millerites persisted in their beliefs. The “Second Advent” was still to come, and a new date was set for the event: 22 October 1844. This was to be a special moment in the history of the world — a non-Copernican moment in history — when the otherworldly chronology of salvation history would coincide at one point with the chronology of actual human history. Yet the Copernican principle (as applied to history) held good in this case: no privileged moment was vouchsafed on this occasion.
Tuesday 22 October 1844 came and went and, for the Millerites, it was a big, fat “nothingburger.” There was no Second Coming; the promised revelation failed to materialize. One Millerite, Hiram Edson, wrote, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before… We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”
The disappointed community of believers no doubt engaged in some soul-searching after the event. Some probably passed through all five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — and, with acceptance, moved on with their lives. Others turned to ex post facto rationalization, seeking to prove that Miller was right after all. Henceforth, if true believers were to continue to believe not merely in the absence of confirmation of their beliefs, but even in the face of countervailing evidence, they would have to retain their belief through faith in things unseen.
Hume once formulated a famous definition of faith as follows:
“…the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.”
Though Hume is famous as a skeptic, it should be noted that some philosophers of religion and some fideists (absolutists in regard to faith) have quoted Hume with approval on the idea of faith as a continued miracle in the person of the believer. It was just this kind of faith that the Millerites who went on to form the Seventh Day Adventists had in the Miller’s interpretation of the Bible. Though the memory of the Great Disappointment lingered, they did not allow the Great Disappointment to shake their faith, but rather they doubled down and continued to believe despite the absence of a Second Advent.
It is interesting to reflect on how some religions (and religious surrogates) come to grief over decisive events of this kind, while other religions (and religious surrogates) are born in such events. The Christian denomination that we know as the Seventh Day Adventists was born from the Great Disappointment. It would not be too much to say that, without the Great Disappointment, there would be no Seventh Day Adventists.
Other nascent faiths are destroyed by failed prophecies. Where there are insufficient numbers to maintain a mass movement, or insufficiently fervent belief, failed prophecy means the dissolution of the community of believers. The various prophecies of doom for 2012, supposedly based on the Mayan calendar, failed to materialize, and those who had coalesced around this idea scattered, though it should be pointed that that any group that made an apocalyptic prediction that did come true would also experience dissolution in the realization of the prophetic event. Since this latter scenario hasn’t ever come to pass, we are left only with a few disappointed believers.
One imagines that the prophets who predict apocalyptic events, if they are honest men (most of them probably are not), would be at least a bit embarrassed by the failure of their prophesy. One “solution” to this dilemma (and I hesitate to call it a solution) is the mass suicide of true believers in an apocalyptic prophesy. While this assures that the faith will die with its believers, it also insulates apocalyptic prophets from the consequences of their failure. The mass suicide of the People’s Temple followers at Jonestown followed this model in some respects, and the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide followed the model even more closely.
I would not expect any dispassionate historical account of the Millerites to change anyone’s mind about something as consequential as their faith, which, as we have seen, is an ongoing miracle, so I expect rather that there will be more apocalyptic prophesies and more Great Disappointments. For the rest of us, there is something to be learned here about the dynamics of faith in human society. The rational principles and social institutions we have built up over thousands of years of civilization are the only things that we have between ourselves and destructive mass movements that appeal to those whose need to believe is stronger than than their desire to understand. We should cherish and defend reason and its institutions, even at the expense of being the outsiders looking in on a mass movement of which we are not a part.