“Follow the fascinating, expanding course of a tiny rivulet. Fed at first from a single spring, it wends its solitary way down the broad valley from the highland. Soon it is joined by other brooklets, and is fed by streamlet after streamlet, until it expands into a modest river. This, in turn, is joined by other streams and rivers, large and small. And these are augmented by melting snows and swelled by drenching rains, until a giant continental waterway results—growing wider, deeper, swifter with each passing mile, and flowing resistlessly onward until it pours its impressive volume into the mighty ocean. Mill wheels are turned and power is developed on its banks, and sizable ships sail on its bosom. Such is the life story of a great river like the Mississippi.
“And thus it was with what became the great Millerite or second advent movement of America, starting in the early nineteenth-century. Perhaps no phenomenon in the history of American Christianity is comparable to aspects of the great nineteenth-century second advent, or Millerite movement. Without question it made a greater impress upon the consciousness of the American populace within the short space of thirteen years than any other religious development in the annals of the nation.” The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 4. 443.
The founder of the Millerite or American Advent movement was William Miller, born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in February 1782. “He possessed a strong physical constitution, an active and naturally well-developed intellect, an irreproachable moral character. He had enjoyed the limited advantages of the district school but a few years before it was generally admitted that his attainments exceeded those of the teachers usually employed.” The Great Second Advent Movement, 118. By J. N. Loughborough.
He had an insatiable desire to read and spent many hours by the light of candlewood (splinters of pitchy wood and pine knots) reading books. This made an impression upon several men in Miller’s community, including Judge James Witherill, Congressman Matthew Lyon and Alexander Cruikshanks of White Hall, formerly of Scotland, and they offered him free access to their libraries. His parents had warned him not to stay up late reading but he persisted in reading before the fireplace after the family had gone to bed.
“He was blessed with a strong mind and a remarkably retentive memory, and earnestly longed to obtain an advanced formal education. But that was not to be, despite his earnest attempts. He was, nevertheless, fitted for vigorous living and became a leader among his fellows. He was unusually well read and self-educated, and conspicuously methodical in all his ways. He came to be recognized as on a parity with the best-trained minds of the community, with whom he constantly associated. He was also a kind of community scribe, an excellent penman and versifier.” The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 4, 456.
At the age of 23, in 1803, he married Lucy Smith and they set up housekeeping in Poultney, Vermont. There was a large library in this town and Miller spent much time there. His ability to write verse made him popular at public occasions. He joined the Literary Society and also became a Mason. The men with whom he associated were deeply into deistic theories and principles. They rejected the Bible as the standard of religious truth and attempted to make this acceptable by referring to such writers as Voltaire, Hume, Volney, Paine and Ethan Allen, among others.
Voltaire’s concepts were built around the false idea of the ruin of human nature which completely ignored God’s redeeming love and provisions. Volney’s philosophy was concerned with the ruin of human habitation, not realizing that God did not design that man be in his present state or to leave him there forever. Paine argued against the supernatural, using pagan mythology.
Because of his keen mind and ready wit, Miller enjoyed philosophical discussions. He was perturbed over the inconsistencies he observed among professing Christians. He was even more perplexed over the seeming contradictions in the Bible, as asserted by his deist friends.
To solve these problems, Miller sought the counsel of various preachers, but he became more confused by their various conflicting and irreconcilable opinions. He studied writings of Voltaire, Hume and Paine, among others, and eventually declared himself a deist. But the study of these atheistic writers only brought more confusion to his mind. He came to look upon life as a gamble and the Bible as “a creation of crafty fabrication rather than a system of revealed truth.” Ibid., vol.4, 457. He continued in this vein of thinking for twelve years, beginning in 1804. In spite of all this he still believed in a Supreme Being that manifests Himself in providence and nature.
“Despite his playful mimicry of the devotional mannerisms and the very tones, words, and gestures of the preachers—and all done with the utmost gravity—Miller sought to be good and to do good, and gave liberally for the support of Christian objectives. He was honest, truthful, and clean. Even in the days of his greatest devotion to Deism he always desired something better. Despite his difficulties he could not rationally abandon his belief in the existence of God. At the outset of this conflict of soul, in 1803 he had expressed his outcry after God in a touching strain. It was in a bit of verse entitled ‘Religion’:
‘Come, blest Religion, with thy angel’s face, Dispel this gloom, and brighten all the place; Drive this destructive passion from my breast; Compose my sorrows, and restore my rest; Show me the path that Christian heroes trod, Wean me from earth, and raise my soul to God!’ ” Ibid., 458.
Having served as constable and justice of the peace, and sheriff from 1809-1811, he became familiar with the baser side of human nature, making him distrustful of all men. In spite of these experiences Miller still had a desire for good character more than for fame and money. He thought this could be attained by patriotic service so he joined the army, receiving the rank of captain, and served from 1812-1814.
By now he had become disillusioned with Deism and its principles and became disgusted with the sinful character of men. He was horrified by the deistic doctrine of total annihilation for everyone at death. Soon Miller was discharged and he returned to Poultney with a comfortable income. In 1816 he moved to Low Hampton, New York, following the death of his father, to take care of his mother and begin life as a farmer. Now he had more time to read and study the things which he had desired to for so long.
One day Miller found himself taking the name of God in vain, in an oath, and he was convicted that it was wrong. He pondered how a just being could save the violators of law and justice. The answer did not appear in nature or in providence. Only the Bible professed to be a revelation from God, and to offer a solution.
He said, “Annihilation was a cold and chilling thought, and accountability was sure destruction to all. The heavens were as brass over my head, and the earth as iron under my feet. Eternity! What was it? And death! Why was it? The more I reasoned, the further I was from demonstration. The more I thought, the more scattered were my conclusions. I tried to stop thinking, but my thoughts would not be controlled. I was truly wretched, but did not understand the cause . . . Soon after, suddenly the character of the Saviour was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to Himself atone for our transgressions, and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin. I immediately felt how lovely such a Being must be; and imagined that I could cast myself into the arms of, and trust in the mercy of such a One.” The Great Second Advent Movement, 118, 119.
William Miller’s home was only a quarter of a mile from his uncle’s Baptist church, which he attended on a regular basis when his uncle was there. He excused his absence by saying that he was not edified by the faulty way in which the sermon was read by the substitute. He suggested that if he could read sometime he would attend, and the church elders agreed to this. That was the beginning of Miller’s public religious life. All the while he was groping for light and rest of soul.
One Sunday a visiting clergyman preached a sermon that made a profound impression on Miller. On the following Sunday, in the absence of his uncle, he was asked to give the sermon which the leaders selected for him. The selection was taken from Proudfit’s Practical Sermons, on Isaiah 53. “In the midst of the presentation he was overwhelmed by the sense of God’s goodness and His loving provision for lost sinners. The redemptive character of the Saviour as an atonement for sin was vividly impressed upon him. He was soundly converted, and accepted Christ as his personal Saviour. His mind was now satisfied, and his heart found rest.” The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 461.
“I saw that the Bible did bring to view just such a Saviour as I needed; and I was perplexed to find how an uninspired book should develop principles so perfectly adapted to the wants of a fallen world. I was constrained to admit that the Scriptures must be a revelation from God. They became my delight; and in Jesus I found a friend . . . The Bible now became my chief study, and I can truly say, I searched it with great delight. I found the half was never told me. I wondered why I had not seen its beauty and glory before, and marveled that I could have ever rejected it.” The Great Second Advent Movement, 118, 119.
“He at once erected the family altar and publicly professed the Christian faith, joining the Hampton Baptist church and becoming one of its staunch pillars.” The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 461.
“This right about-face was, of course, much to the chagrin of his former deist friends who began to assail his new faith and allegiance. He became the butt of sharp ridicule and the subject of their mirth. But all this proved a blessing in disguise. He came to know their mode of attack and their processes of thought, as well as their arguments. This doubtless accounts for his later skill in successfully handling deists. He had considered every conceivable objection, more than his opponents were able to muster, and was unable to find one really valid objection to the Christian faith. Thus it was that his faith was established.” Ibid., 461.
“Miller publicly professed his faith in the religion which he had despised. But his infidel associates were not slow to bring forward all those arguments, which he himself had often urged, against the divine authority of the Scriptures. He was not then prepared to answer them; but he reasoned that if the Bible is a revelation from God, it must be consistent with itself; and that as it was given for man’s instruction, it must be adapted to his understanding. He determined to study the Scriptures for himself, and ascertain if every apparent contradiction could not be harmonized.” The Great Controversy, 319, 320.
For the next two years the Bible became the center of his studies and meditation. He had discovered that God was a Being that he could trust. His unbelieving friends accused him of being blind in his faith, just as he had done to others while he was involved in Deism. He had gained great joy in propounding perplexing questions to Christians and triumphed over their discomfiture. Now he received the same and must meet the issue. His answer was to ask for time and he would harmonize the apparent contradictions. It was the challenges of the deists and his own desire to know the truth which drove him to earnestly study the Bible for himself.
Miller now began his study by laying aside all commentaries and preconceived opinions and using only the Bible, Cruden’s Concordance, marginal notes of the Bible and history books. His studies were so intensive that he would often spend all night followed by whole days in study. His determination was to methodically and systematically examine the Bible to find the answers to his questions. So he began at Genesis, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and proceeded no faster than the meaning became clear.
“At times Miller was delighted with truth that soon became apparent. At other times he was puzzled by the imagery of the prophecies, and was still troubled by seeming contradictions. This prolonged study eventuated in the formulation of a set of rules to be noted later. Symbols and metaphors became clear, and parables and similes were satisfactorily defined. He became profoundly and intelligently convinced that the Bible is ‘a system of revealed truth.’ ” The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 462.
As Miller studied the prophecies, he became convinced even more of the inspired origin of the Bible. Though they were expressed symbolically, they were obviously fulfilled literally and could be proven from history. He reasoned that the past fulfillments were the guarantee of the integrity of the portions of the prophecies not yet fulfilled. He was sure that the Second Advent was near. He said: “Finding all the signs of the times and the present condition of the world, to compare harmoniously with the prophetic descriptions of the last days, I was compelled to believe that this world had about reached the limits of the period allotted for its continuance. As I regarded the evidence, I could arrive at no other conclusion.” Ibid., 463.
The next time we will continue with the story of William Miller: his methods of study, his findings and his preaching experiences.