During the late 1830s and early 1840s there were many hundreds of ministers who united in preaching the first angel’s message of Revelation 14:6 and 7. In fact, some have claimed there might have been as many as 2,000. The message was preached in Great Britain, Europe, and America, as well as other countries and mission stations worldwide. The leading proponent of the doctrine of the imminent second advent in America was a farmer by the name of William Miller, who later received a license from the Baptist church to preach. So great was the interest that was aroused by this teaching that every mission station around the world heard the news. In some countries there was the greatest religious interest that had ever been seen since the reformation in the 16th century.
What They Believed
In Daniel 8:14 it says, “And he said to me, ‘For two thousand and three hundred days; then the sanctuary shall be cleansed.’ ”
William Miller was a keen student of Bible prophecy for some years, and he understood from Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel the fourth chapter that in a symbolic Bible time prophecy, a prophetic day equaled a literal year. With this understanding he began searching for the start of the time period, for once he knew that, he would also know when it ended.
Studying Daniel 8 and 9, he found that Daniel 9 was an explanation by an angel from heaven to Daniel the prophet concerning the vision he had of the 2300 days and that 490 days were cut off from that time period. He searched for the date of when the decree went forward to allow God’s people to restore and build Jerusalem and determined that the decree went out in 457 B.C.
Research by the best Bible scholars and historians have actually verified and established the date that William Miller came up with.
If you know the starting date for the 2300 days, you can determine the time when it would end. However, the initial calculation did not take account of the fact that there was no zero years. In going from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1, you only progress one year; so you need to add a year in any time calculation that spans that period of time. In their initial calculations, they did not take this into account; so it was first thought that the 2300 year prophecy ended in 1843. Later they figured out that it actually ended in 1844.
It was widely believed at that time by Christians of all different faiths that the sanctuary was the earth. If that were the case and the sanctuary was to be cleansed, they assumed that that would mean that at the end of the 2300 days, Christ would come to cleanse the world with fire. Many people were convinced and gave up everything in order to be a part of the reformation movement which was going through all the churches immediately prior to that time.
One of the prominent preachers of the judgment hour message—was a young minister of the Congregational church by the name of Charles Fitch. He designed a figure based on the description in Daniel 2 that could be taken apart, as well as the 1843 chart. He joined the second advent movement twice. He was one of the first ministers to take a public stand on Miller’s side, believing that Miller’s interpretation of Bible prophecy was correct. A short time later when he saw that he would not only have to endure opposition but that he would be deprived of his fashionable church in Boston, he backed away. Not too long after this when he moved to another parish in New Jersey, he had a true conversion experience when he discovered Jesus Christ for himself as his true and personal Saviour. When that happened, he gladly sacrificed his congregation in order to bring the good news about the return of Jesus and His righteousness to many other congregations.
Charles Fitch had six children, four of whom had died. As you can imagine, this gave him a heightened longing for the second coming of Christ. Not long before October 22, 1844 on a chilly day, Charles Fitch baptized three successive groups of converts outdoors. After the first group had been baptized and they were coming out of the water a second group arrived who also wanted to be baptized. Instead of going home to change out of his cold clothes he went back down and baptized them. As the second group were coming out of the water a third group came and down he went again into the cold water so they could be baptized. There were many people being baptized in those days. According to the records I have seen, James White was supposed to have preached and converted about 1000 people in the last six weeks before October 22, 1844. There were many who believed the judgment was at hand and they wanted to be ready for Jesus to come.
Apparently, as a result of the overexposure, shortly afterward, Charles Fitch became ill and on Monday, October 14, 1844, he died. The Millerite paper called The Midnight Cry reported on his death as follows: “His widow and fatherless children are now at Cleveland confidently expecting the coming of our Lord, to gather the scattered members of our family, in a few days. Sister Fitch is smiling and happy.”
They really expected to be reunited in eight days. You can imagine what would have happened on October 21. The two surviving children would be asking their mother, “When are we going to see Daddy again? Will it be tomorrow?” “Yes, dears” the mother would have said. “When Jesus comes back, He will wake up Daddy and your sleeping brothers and sisters and then we will be a whole happy family again forever.” But on Tuesday night, October 22, those two children would be sobbing to their weeping mother and saying, “Why didn’t Daddy come back today?” There were many other families in a similar situation on October 22. There were mothers and fathers who had lost children who were expecting to see, not only Jesus, but to be reunited with their children again. There were people who had lost their parents to consumption, tuberculosis, or some other common disease of those days that were expecting to see Jesus and be united with their families again on that day. But, Jesus did not return on October 22 and that day went down in history as the great disappointment.
One of the advent believers by the name of Hiram Edson wrote about it later. He said: “We confidently expected to see Jesus and all the holy angels with Him. And that His voice would call up Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the ancient worthies, and our near and dear friends which had been torn from us by death. Our expectations were raised high, and thus we looked for our coming Lord until the clock tolled twelve at midnight.” But as the clock chimed the hour, their hearts sank. Nothing could be heard except the doleful rhythm of the clock. They knew then that the day had passed and their disappointment became a certainty. Said Edson: “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 dawned.”
Edson had invited others to his house on October 22 to meet the Lord. He said good-bye to the people that refused the invitation, expecting never to see them again. In the wee hours of the morning as they were weeping, Edson began to think about his experience as an Adventist expecting the eminent return of his Lord. He thought of the peace and joy that he had had. He thought of the different people he had won to Christ and he believed that the Lord had been leading them. He then had doubts come into his mind. Was there no heaven? Was there no eternal life? Was there no New Jerusalem? Was everything about the Christian religion just a mirage? A battle raged in his mind.
Around the dawn of the day, some of the people slipped back to their desolate homes. But of those that were left, finally Hiram Edson said, “Let’s go out to the barn.” So they followed him out to the barn and went into an empty granary, closed the door and prayed. He said that they kept praying until they had the assurance that God was going to answer their prayer and He was going to explain to them what had gone wrong. Why hadn’t Jesus come? And when they had the assurance that God was going to answer their prayer and that He was in some way going to explain to them what had happened, they got up, opened the door, went back into the house and ate breakfast.
Shortly after breakfast Hiram Edson said to one of his friends that was with him, “Let’s go and visit some of the people we have won to Christ and some neighbors to encourage them.” The other friend agreed and they went. But they did not go by way of the road because the Millerites, or Adventists, were held in derision on October 23, 1844. They took a shortcut and went through a corn field. Edson said he was about midway across the corn field when, all of a sudden, as he looked up, it seemed to him that the heavens opened before him and that he saw Jesus Christ as his High Priest going into the most holy place of the sanctuary in heaven. His mind was impressed that yesterday, October 22, 1844, was not the day that Jesus would leave the sanctuary and come to this earth, but it was the day when He would go into the second apartment of the heavenly sanctuary, because He still had a work to do there for His people. Many things went across his mind in just a few seconds. He thought about Revelation 10 and he saw that there was an exact prophecy of the experience of the Adventist people. Meanwhile his companion was walking on across the field and after awhile he noticed that nobody was with him. He had also been absorbed in his own thoughts. He looked back and saw Hiram Edson some distance back, and called to him to ask why he was waiting so long. Hiram Edson answered, “The Lord has just answered our prayer.” That moment has truthfully been spoken of as the birth moment of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, of the second advent movement.
Later, Hiram Edson and a few friends got together and began to diligently search the prophecies again. They found out what the Bible teaches about the sanctuary. They found what the Bible teaches about the investigative judgment, as James White called it. The outgrowth was that the second advent movement was born again and became the Seventh-day Adventist church.
Adventists believe that we have far more light today than did those in 1844. We do have far more spiritual light than they did at that time. Ellen White had not yet received her first vision. However, as I have studied the beginning of the second advent movement, I have become strongly convicted that in some ways we are far behind where they were in our spiritual experience, and if we are ever going to surpass them in our spiritual experience, we are going to have to first reach the level that they had attained.
Ellen White talked about the experience these people had as they were expecting the Lord to come in 1844. She said, “I remember when we were looking for the Saviour to come in 1844, how great was the anxiety of each to know that his own heart was right before God. When we met together, the question would be asked by one and another, ‘Brethren, have you seen anything in me that is not right? I know that we are often blind to our own faults, and if you have seen anything wrong in me, I want you to tell me.’ Sometimes errors would be pointed out, and we would all bow before God and seek forgiveness. If any variance or alienation existed, we felt that we could not separate until all were in harmony. Sometimes brethren who had difficulty would be seen going away together to some secret place to plead with God, and they would return with their hearts knit together in love. The sweet spirit of peace was in our assemblies, and the glory of God was around us. The faces of the believers shone with the light of heaven.” Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists, 213.
I was born into a Seventh-day Adventist family. I have attended a Seventh-day Adventist church since babyhood. Unless I was sick in bed, I have always been in a Seventh-day Adventist church somewhere every Sabbath. I have never seen what I just described. I have never seen anything like that in my lifetime. We lost what they had in 1844 and have never recovered it. We are going to have to recover it if we are going to be ready for the Lord to come.
I want to be right with my God. I want to be right with my fellow men. If you see anything in me that is not right, please tell me, I want to know. Ellen White wrote, “If any variance or alienation existed, we felt that we could not separate until all were in harmony.” Ibid.
I have never seen anything like that in Adventism in all of my life. She also said, “… brethren who had difficulty would be seen going away together to some secret place to plead with God, and they would return with their hearts knit together in love.” Ibid. I have never seen this love between the brethren.
We have much more theological information than these pioneers had; we understand many things about theology that they did not understand, but they had something that has been lost that we have never yet recovered. If we had what they had, we would not see Adventist churches and institutions splitting up all over the world.
Here is another statement Ellen White wrote about their experiences:
“With diligent searching of heart and humble confessions we came prayerfully up to the time of expectation. Every morning we felt that it was our first work to secure the evidence that our lives were right before God. Our interest for one another increased; we prayed much with and for one another. We assembled in the orchards and groves to commune with God and to offer up our petitions to Him, feeling more fully in His presence when surrounded by His natural works. The joys of salvation were more necessary to us than our food and drink. If clouds obscured our minds, we dared not rest or sleep till they were swept away by the consciousness of our acceptance with the Lord.” Testimonies, vol. 1, 55.
Ellen White also says in The Great Controversy, 401: “Of all the great religious movements since the days of the apostles, none have been more free from human imperfection and the wiles of Satan than was that of the autumn of 1844. Even now, after the lapse of many years, all who shared in that movement and who have stood firm upon the platform of truth still feel the holy influence of that blessed work and bear witness that it was of God.”
“Like showers of rain upon the thirsty earth, the Spirit of grace descended upon the earnest seekers. Those who expected soon to stand face to face with their Redeemer felt a solemn joy that was unutterable. The softening, subduing power of the Holy Spirit melted the heart as His blessing was bestowed in rich measure upon the faithful, believing ones.” Ibid., 402.
Do you want to be ready for Jesus to come? Are you getting ready for Jesus to come? Notice what Ellen White says about these people. In The Great Controversy, 424, she says, “But the people were not yet ready to meet their Lord. There was still a work of preparation to be accomplished for them.”
Is that work of preparation taking place in your life? Remember, we cannot surpass the experience that they had until we get up to the experience they had. They had an experience of brotherly love. They had an experience in Christian unity and harmony and working together that I have never seen anywhere in Adventism during my lifetime. But it is going to happen again. Notice what it says in The Great Controversy, 464: “Before the final visitation of God’s judgments upon the earth there will be among the people of the Lord such a revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times.”
There is going to be a revival of primitive godliness that will go even beyond what they had in 1844. But we are not up to that yet. There will be a revival of primitive godliness that has not been seen since the time of the apostles. When Jesus returns there is going to be a group of people that are described by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:25–27 KJV: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, That He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
The church is going to triumph before Jesus returns. If you and I do not develop the primitive godliness that we just read about in The Great Controversy, 464; if we do not develop the character that is described in Ephesians 5:25–27, we may make any claim we want, such as that we are just part of the church militant, as though that gives us an excuse to maintain our character deficiencies and deformities and think that we are going to be saved some way.
God never gives us instruction that is not needed. He never gives us a warning that we do not need. He never tells us something that is not absolutely the truth. One of the things that we should all be convinced of, if we have studied Bible history and spiritual history since the time when the Bible was written, is that God never tells a lie. God always says exactly the truth.
When Jesus was with His disciples, He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me” (John 13:21). When He said that to His disciples, they were in perplexity and they began to look at each other. They began to say, “Lord is it I?” They said that because they had been with Jesus long enough to find out that anything that Jesus said turned out to be exactly the truth.
God will have a church that is spotless and without blemish. The devil says this will never happen and does his best to prevent it. Many people today do not believe it possible and also say, “Well, I am not perfect and you are not perfect and nobody will ever be perfect in this world.” It may appear impossible, but the apostle Paul said that the Lord was going to cleanse His church. Jesus cleansed the temple two times when He was here, once at the beginning of His ministry and once at the close. In the same way, in the final period of earth’s history, the Lord will cleanse His people at the beginning and again at the end. In 1844, the Lord did cleanse His people. This was the first cleansing of the temple, or God’s church in this world. Before October 22, 1844, there were between 50,000 and 100,000 people in the United States alone that said they were expecting the Lord to come. But after the great disappointment there were few who hung on to their faith like Hiram Edson, who turned to the Lord pleading for God to show where they went wrong—to show them the truth.
Just as the church was cleansed once at the beginning of the second advent movement, the church will be cleansed at the end. Are we in that cleansing now? After the church was cleansed in 1844, instead of there being 50,000 to 100,000, there were only a few dozen people left. There is coming a time when God will have a cleansed and purified church that is without spot or wrinkle or any type of blemish (Ephesians 5:27)—the people will be holy. There is no question about that because God said it will happen. The question to ask yourself is, “When God does cleanse and purify His church, will I still be part of it?”
Sometimes I feel like quaking when people claim with great self-confidence, “we are the remnant church.” I do not argue about that statement, but the word remnant refers to what is left at the end and we are not quite there yet. There are many people who are part of the church today who will not endure to the end. Only those who submit to the cleansing and purifying process will be able to stand at the end of the period of the investigative judgment. The course chosen now, day-by-day, enduring daily tests, will determine how we are going to come out in the great crisis that we are all facing.
I would suggest that we take time each day to pray and ask the Lord to reveal those character traits that need to be removed. Ask for the eye salve to be able to see the flaws and wrinkles that need to be straightened out so that we will be ready for Jesus to come.
Pray to experience the brotherly love that the Adventist pioneers had who were part of the Philadelphia church. They had something that we must regain if we are going to be ready for Jesus to come. There will be some who will regain this experience. This question is, “Will I be one of them?”
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church of Free Seventh-day Adventists in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.