Skip to main content

William Miller and the Great Reckoning

By Thomas D’Agostino

On October 22, 1844, over a million people gathered on hills, mountaintops, and inside cemeteries singing hymns and praying out loud, waiting the midnight tolling. It was that moment they were told that the Great Reckoning would commence. The sky was to burst open and all the true followers were to be whisked up to heaven while the rest would die by fire.

These ardent followers sold all their belongings, destroyed their homes and threw their money and valuables aside for the greedy and the “damned” to gather. They were known as “Millerites” led by one man who proclaimed to have received a message from God directing him to tell the world of the second coming.

William Miller was born in Massachusetts in 1782. He became a bright young lad, learning much about many things, including religion. He later joined the army, where he received a leg injury. While riding to the hospital, he fell out of the cart onto his head, suffering a brain trauma. This would perhaps play a role in his destiny that was to come. During and after his tenure in the military, he studied the Bible enthusiastically, looking for the exact date of Judgment Day. Basing mathematical calculations with scriptures, he concluded that Judgment Day would occur between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.

His first message came in 1831, where he claimed God told him to let the world know. Having no way to tell the masses, he was told, “That will be arranged.” As if some miracle had transpired, a messenger arrived at his door informing Miller the local preacher had taken ill and requested he perform the Sabbath sermon in the morning.

He began his crusade warning the populace about the Day of Reckoning. He instructed the congregation to look for four signs.

  1. Wonders would be seen in the skies.
  2. The earth would tremble and shake in various places throughout the world.
  3. There would be war among man.
  4. Man would show marked intelligence in earthly progress.

Either by coincidence or divine intervention, the signs began to appear. On November 13, 1833, thousands of brilliant lights fell from the sky and balls of fire could be seen in the north for almost an hour. Soon it was reported that earthquakes had taken place in England, India and the West Indies. Industrial expansion and inventions were now taking place and of course, there were wars and revolutions.

Millerites spread across the nation and William Miller traveled everywhere, delivering speeches and sermons to the crowds of followers. Time was drawing nearer to the hour when another spectacular show took place in the skies. The people feared their time was then. They gathered in camps, taking loved ones who had recently passed with them, so they may ascend to heaven as well. Some killed their whole families and then committed suicide believing that the dead would enter heaven first. Women refused to marry as they wished to enter heaven as virgins. One woman declared she was in personal contact with the Savior and was instructed to walk across a river in proof of his association with her. She drowned. A man claimed he had the powers of flight and drove his buggy over a cliff where he met the most awful fate as he crashed into the rocks below.

When the Great Comet of 1843 passed overhead, even the stoutest Christian began to doubt his faith and turned into a Millerite. Miller published an announcement in the New York Herald that the Day of Judgment was April 3. Flocks of followers gathered in droves, singing and praising their savior while waiting for their glorious moment of ascension. April 3 came and went without fire and brimstone. The Millerites, undaunted, concluded that the day would still fall between March 1843, and March 1844. When March 21, 1844, arrived, the flock once again took their positions on the hilltops, chanting and praying, many again committed suicide or burned all their earthly possessions. Slowly the sun rose as the day of March 22 began without fanfare. The Millerites, with nowhere to go, were crushed by their foolish behavior but William Miller had one more consolation for them. He confided that he had used the Gregorian calendar instead of the Jewish one; therefore, his calculations were off by several months. A message was sent to all the churches stating, “I humbly announce as a faithful Disciple, that the Second Advent of Christ will occur October 22, 1844. Prepare yourself for this Great Day!”

The Millerites reconvened, adding more to their numbers. The new date came and once again the faithful millions gathered in high places, awaiting their ascension. A farmer in Chester, Vermont, had special “Ascension” robes made for his best cows with the notion that they would be “mighty handy up there” as the children would need milk after the long journey.

The night came and went like any other previously, and the morning found the groups still awaiting their ascension into heaven. This time, they would walk off the mountains and hills complete paupers, as they had destroyed or sold all their worldly possessions. Thousands of suicides took place. In many cases, whole families took their own lives. Hospitals and asylums were overrun by the distraught and depressed. Despite the suffering Miller caused, he lived comfortably on his stately farm until his death in 1849. The man who saw the end gave it to many people but not the way they had hoped. They had come to believe they would hear the triumphant voices from beyond, calling them to heaven but instead only heard one man’s crazed prophecy.