Written by Michael W. Pursley
It is one thing to talk about the inherent ills and evils of a church or cult and to discuss some of its embedded heresies and heterodoxies, but it is quite another to understand where a particular group headed off of God’s path, and the tensions that seemingly drove them thus. My prayer is that God will let us see the Gospel more deeply and discern error, with its baleful effects, more clearly. .
“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.…”
–Matthew 24:23-24. .
And o’er thy Church established on the floods
The lurid cloud, e’en now, portentous broods.
Rude schism yawns, and error’s baleful breath
Spreads wide and far the sickness unto death.
–Ecclesia Anglicana .
It is hard to see in modern times constructive parallels to the decades just prior to the “final” formation of Adventism.
Not only do the times speak to us of their singularity, but so also do the people, the thinking, and the moods of countries and of states. As there are periods of history that are like the oppressive calm before the storm, where the trees and people seem to stand still, and almost motionless. Yet beneath the surface of it all, the impact of heat breeds a profound tension; a tension which bespeaks of an ending.
While there seems to be in the heart of man that impulse which softly whispers to us the knowledge of a storm which is about to break; this impulse at once consoles us and at the same time terrifies us. It consoles us, because it portends to us an ending of the tedium of our labors, and yet it terrifies us because it opens before us the yawning chasm of the darkness unknown, and threatens us with non-being.
So too, during these periods in the history of mankind, as in dry Summer weather, there comes those swift and sudden stirrings of people, as a burst of wind, a squall, that seemingly comes out of nowhere, and suddenly trees are flattened at the onslaught, and the presentiment of an ending is replaced by an anticipation and realization of movement. Thus it was in the early to mid-nineteenth century.
For the first time in history of the world, religious and spiritual events were happening in rough tandem world-wide; driven largely by increased communications and speculations concerning end time events which were propounded by people freshly looking into Biblical prophecy. Christians around the world, both inspired and encouraged each other. Feeding off of each others excitement while not having the benefits of self-corrective checks and guidance in real time; religious excitement and fervor often grew to such a pitch as to be nearly uncontrollable.
But even if we were to only examine or survey the United States out of all the nations in the world, and even if we to only look at the institutions and people in that country and do so from solely a religious context, and to that, from a personal life perspective, a “weltanschauung,” of a spiritual and religious nature, we would find a certain continuity of perspective that could indeed be construed as definitive for the period; namely, that the Second Coming of Christ was near at hand. And not just that it was near, but that Christians everywhere had the responsibility and a specific and definitive part to play in the final scenes ushering in this momentous occasion.
It is with deep tenderness that we must view Millerite convictions, just as we must view with reverential awe their tenacious commitment.
If it were possible to briefly sum-up their stance, it might be:
Their call: “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?”
Their answer: “The morning cometh, and also the night” -Isa. 21:11 (The morning here was the Second Coming, and the night, was believed to be the eternal second death as referenced in Revelation 20:14.)
Their commission: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…” Matthew 28:19
The consequences for refusal: “When I say to the wicked, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” -Ezekiel 3:18
It is not to be wondered at that this part of history is often described as the “Second Great Awakening.”
And it cannot be questioned that this particular “Great Awakening” was gravely distinctive in its nature and character from the first. Whereas the “First Great Awakening,” was championed by great leaders and thinkers such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards who were Calvinistic therefore “Confessional” by nature, so too the “Second Great Awakening” was rigorously “Evangelical,” and tended to be more led by the strong convictions of lay popular thinking which tended toward pietism; as such it can be seen to be championed by the Wesleys. But where the First Great Awakening had its emphasis on inward personal piety and ones personal relationship with God, the latter placed its emphasis on outward evangelism and the conversion of the lost.
However, it was as a result of this new emphasis, spurred by the text and thought of Ezekiel 3:18, that many good and wonderful things occurred: Bible societies flourished and blossomed, missionary boards were filled with people looking to be used in the “mission fields”. Temperance Societies were formed. And a strong stance was once again taken against the pervasive creep of Liberalism that had wormed its way into the mainline churches. As a result, there was a turning back to scripture, and there was a turning of hearts to the Lord.
With all that being said, statistics show that the Second Great Awakening was really a Baptist and Methodist movement. For while older mainline and confessional denominations remained largely static in their church membership, the congregations of Baptists and Methodists exploded. As never before, church members were motivated towards personal evangelism. True, there were many more females to males that were converted, but what was more important was that young people as never before, were often the first to join. And while things may not have been perfect, there was a spirit and a fervor not largely seen elsewhere.
Because of the large numbers of lay people that felt called to the ministry, there were also large diversity of Biblical thought and interpretation. And as one may guess, herein lies the rub. Because of the lack of oversight of the Clergy, and because of the lack of education on the part of so many of the rural, self-taught, pastors, many of whom were circuit riding throughout the vast reaches of the American wilderness, divergent views of theology sprang into being, and with them new and strange denominations began to form.
It is from one of these “self-taught roots,” the old Methodist, “Millerite root,” that Adventism sprang. Numerous books have been written on this particular movement, for of all of them it was one of the most spectacular. A casual student might call it spectacular because of its overwhelming and public failure, but in reality that falls far short. Rather, I believe it is stunning in terms of movement’s tenacity to unswervingly interpret biblical prophecy, the commitment of its followers, and the excitement that it generated. To finish this post, and to demonstrate the excitement and devotion of this unhappy group, let me leave with you the following story.
“Most of the towns and villages in western Massachusetts were hot-beds of Millerism, and each had its own experience while awaiting the end of all things terrestrial.
Westford, perched upon a high ridge of granite boulders, holds a most poignant memory of the last night of the great delusion. Mr. John Fletcher, a member of one of the oldest families there, gave the author a vivid account of it, which he had heard from childhood up from his father, who was not a believer in Prophet Miller’s doctrine, but was deeply interested as an onlooker, and was a witness of all that happened to his followers in Westford.
The principal meeting place of the Millerites there was in a fine old mansion facing the green on the site of which now stands the Fletcher Memorial Library. It was owned by a man named Bancroft, and he and his family were held in high esteem by the townspeople, and it caused much comment that they and a family of Leightons and also one named Richardson, all well-to-do people with a certain amount of education, should have fallen so completely under the spell of the delusion, but they did so with great enthusiasm and faith, and the Bancroft house was filled to overflowing with large numbers of persons as deluded as themselves. Every believer in the prophecy in Westford was an ardent one – there was not a lukewarm soul among them. According to Mr. Fletcher’s father, many of them had white robes ready, and each one prayed loud,and sang loud, and shouted loud; and on this last night the unbelievers who were not up to see what was going to happen, lay awake listening to the tumult of sound that issued forth from the Bancroft mansion.
Now there was a man who lived near by who was generally known by the name of “Crazy Amos.” He was somewhat addicted to drink and was one of those queer characters sometimes found in country districts. He was the possessor of a very large horn, and it so happened that, as he lay in his bed listening to the sound of voices that rose and fell like the waves of an incoming tide, a sudden thought flashed through his befuddled brain, and jumping out of his bed he hurriedly dressed himself, and seizing his horn he rushed out upon the village green and blew a terrific blast upon it. The poor deluded fanatics, now congregated in the Bancroft house to await the awful summons of the Holy Angel Gabriel, heard the sound and for a moment a death-like stillness came over the assembly; then, uttering a great shout of exaltation, they rushed tumultuously in a body out of the house and on to the green, hustling and jostling each other in a frantic attempt to secure an advantageous position from which they might easily be “caught up into the air.”
When they gained the green, they gazed about in bewilderment, scanning the heavens, looking first at the east, then at the north and south, then at the west, and to their astonishment they could see nothing unusual in the night skies. Then of a sudden came another terrible blast from a horn – loud and clear – awaking the echoes!
With one accord a great shout went up – “HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! GLORY! GLORY!” and believing the fulfillment of the prophecy to be at hand they strained their eyes upwards, searching the heavens again, expecting any moment to see the angelic hosts appear, and they raised their arms high above their heads in an attitude of prayer and supplication. Then a regular fanfare rang out, and one of them espied their neighbor “Crazy Amos” blowing as though for dear life upon his horn.
A muffled exclamation of dismay, mixed with anger and resentment, escaped from the lips of the humiliated enthusiasts, who retreated into the house again in dire confusion, exhausted and trembling from the high pitch of ecstasy which they had reached for the space of a few supreme moments, and from the sense of shame at having been so duped, while they clasped their hands over their ears so as to deaden the sound of the gibes and taunts of “Crazy Amos,” who shouted after them: “Fools! Go dig you potatoes – for the Angel Gabriel he won’t go a-digging ’em for ye!” —“Days of Delusion – A Strange Bit of History” by Clara Endicott Sears, 1924; Chapter 10.