176 years since ‘The Great Disappointment’ - Jesus didn’t come as predicted, but something happened
COVID-19 is not one of the last-day plagues predicted in that prophetic book of Revelation, but it is playing a role in the rapid unfolding of what Seventh-day Adventists (SDAs) call ‘last-day events’. So says Dr Robert Wright, the director of the Ellen G. White Research Centre at Northern Caribbean University, an SDA institution based in Mandeville, Manchester, Jamaica. And who better to speak to these events than Adventists, who last Thursday commemorated 176 years since an event so cataclysmic that it is simply known as ‘The Great Disappointment’?
It was on Tuesday, October 22, 1844, that the forefathers of the church predicted that the world would come to an end and Jesus would return on that day to purify the earth. Well, clearly, this did not happen. Reports dating back to 1844 say that the bulk of people who waited with bated breath for this prophetic occurrence were located in northeastern United States. Over 100,000 faithfuls were ready for their Saviour’s return. They had sold their houses and all other earthly possessions, given up their jobs, paid up all their debts and endured the jeers from the sceptics, confident that they, as it were, would have had the last laugh.
But their wait was in vain. Hiram Edson, one of the set of believers who were known then as Millerites, 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.”
Of course, it begs the question, what exactly led these Millerites to embrace with such unwavering confidence and courage, the notion of Jesus’ second coming on that fateful day, October 22, 1844?
According to Dr Robert Wright, it had its genesis in the preaching of William Miller, a Baptist layman who felt called to preach. “Miller got converted after listening to a sermon on Isaiah 53, and started studying the Bible. He studied the 2,300 days prophecy of Daniel 8 which speaks to the cleansing of the sanctuary. But at that time it was believed that the sanctuary was here on earth, not in heaven,” he said.
Wright further explained that Miller used the Bible and the Cruden’s Concordance, and between 1816 and 1818, he immersed himself in the study of the scriptures and came to the conclusion that the world was coming to an end. He again went back in study between 1818 and 1822, and again for another nine years. But Miller was afraid to share his revolutionary findings regarding the imminent second coming of Jesus. That is, until he had a conversation with the Holy Spirit one day in 1831, and, to hear Wright recount the conversation, it is hard to believe that he wasn’t actually privy to it.
“Miller heard the Holy Spirit saying to him, ‘Go and tell others what you have learnt from the prophecies’ and he was reluctant. At the Holy Spirit’s insistence, he relented and said, ‘Okay, give me a sign.’ The Spirit asked, ‘What do you mean?’ Miller said, ‘Okay, if I get an invitation, I will go,’” Wright said.
After that, Miller felt relieved because he was confident of not getting any such invitation. But, his relief was short-lived. “His nephew knocked on his door half an hour later with a request for him to share what he had been studying with a group of people. Miller was angry. He went out into his field and rallied against God,” Wright said. And the Holy Spirit asked him if was going to break his promise to God so quickly. Ashamed, Miller decided to do as he was bid.
Wright shared the themes of William Miller’s sermon, but, honestly, they sounded more like stuff one would encounter in an apocalyptic movie. So, there were four beasts of the book of Daniel, the little horn, the persecution of the saints, the 2,300 days prophecy, and the fact that Jesus’ return would take place between 1843 and 1844. No wonder Miller’s audience was spellbound!
He got several invitations to give public lectures and went on to preach more than 4,000 sermons in over 500 cities across America, Wright said. He pointed out that other theologians were studying independently and had come to similar conclusions as Miller, but the Millerite movement was the most prominent in America. However, it was not Miller himself who declared a specific day, it was Samuel Snow, a sceptic turned Millerite preacher. He told a small gathering that Daniel’s 70-week prophecy meant that Christ would return on October 22, 1844.
The Adventist Review archives state, “Many were excited at the news that Jesus would return in about two months, but others were terrified. At first, even the foremost leaders of the Millerite movement did not endorse the October 22 date, though as the groundswell of acceptance grew among the laity, eventually most of the leadership came to accept it.”
And when Jesus didn’t return, “The believers were terribly disappointed, they were embarrassed, and people were mocking them,” Wright said. Some went back to their churches, another group became fanatics and held on to the belief that Jesus came in a spiritual sense. They took the scripture about humbling yourself as a child literally.
“They started creeping around on their hands and knees,” Wright said soberly.
The third group, the smallest, decided to study the scriptures again. And, it was Hiram Edson, who, while on his way to comfort some of the believers, had a vision of the sanctuary in heaven. That was the missing piece of the puzzle. Their calculations were right, but their interpretation of events was wrong.
Seventh-day Adventists believe that, on October 22, 1844, Jesus entered the Most Holy Place in the Heavenly Sanctuary to begin the work of the investigative judgement. This “cleansing of the sanctuary”, Adventists say, was the start of Jesus’ final work of atonement, and this was similar to the priest’s job in the earthly sanctuary on the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Seventh-day Adventists today are just as convinced as their forefathers were that the world is coming to an end and they cling to that “blessed hope” of Jesus’ return. But, no prophetic date exists beyond 1844, and with texts which state that no man knows the hour of the Lord’s appearing, the only date they give is “soon”.