The Millerite tradition is a diverse family of denominations and Bible study movements that have arisen since the middle of the 19th century, traceable to the Adventist movement sparked by the apocalyptic teachings of William Miller.
Miller was a profitable farmer, a Baptist layman and amateur student of the Bible, living in northern New York, in the region of that state which has come to be known as the Burned-over district. Beginning with a strictly literal reading of the ages of people mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis and the dating of other events mentioned in the Bible, Miller believed that precise calculations were possible, full of prophetic importance. Setting these calculations alongside the prophetic numbering systems that appear in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation, by 1830, Miller became fully convinced that the dates of the birth of Jesus and the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem were foretold in prophecy, and that the date of the return of the Messiah could be known with precision. The following assumptions figured prominently in Miller's calculations:
- In prophetic writings, a "day" always represents a year.
- The 70 weeks of Daniel 9:24 and the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14 began at the same time.
- Based on Bishop Ussher's chronology, the countdown starts at 457 B.C.
- Daniel 8:14 speaks prophetically of Christ's return to earth, when it refers to the cleansing of the sanctuary.
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2 Apocalyptic tendencies
Jesus did not appear as expected. Following this Great Disappointment, although many adherents returned to their traditions, a number of followers continued to believe in the accuracy of Miller's date, or recalculated to arrive at a new date. Sometimes with the help of visions and visitations by angels, or reformers whose message was identified with Bible prophecy, post-Disappointment Millerites arrived at various reinterpretations of the meaning of the Disappointment, often constructing alternative history, theology, politics and science, sometimes showing openness to rejected knowledge and conspiracy theories; and to the extent that these developed in a particular group, a concomitant tendency toward withdrawal also developed.
The Millerite movement originally had adherents across denominational lines, especially from Baptist, Prebyterian, Methodist and Campbellite churches, forming distinct denominations only after the Great Disappointment. Some modern Millerite branches identify themselves as Evangelical Protestant Christians, although others teach that their latter-day church is the only faithful remnant, and the replacement of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Jewish Israel. Typical of the post-Disappointment Millerite perspective is the belief that genuine Christianity had been lost to the world through a Great Apostasy, but is restored in these last days by a new outpouring of prophecy or spiritual insight. Therefore, traditional teachings provide no reliable help, and it should be no surprise if a traditional doctrine such as the Trinity would be corrected by the spirit of prophecy. For this reason, Millerites have professed or have tolerated profession of some form of Unitarian belief, denying the Trinity. Seventh-day Adventists, however, were established with fully Trinitarian beliefs, articulated through early associates of the ecstatic visionary, Ellen G. White, soon after the founding of the church. A significant number of other Millerite branches are unitarian or non-trinitarian. Nearly all Millerites speak of "present truth" and "new light", by which the faithful are called out from the less enlightened or apostate traditions of Christianity. Some such groups place particularly strong emphasis on some element of lost truth, such as dietary laws, the conditional immortality of the soul (nonexistence of a disembodied soul), special ordinances concerning the cutting of hair or the wearing of special clothing, or in the case of the Identity movement, fidelity to the pure Israelite race. By no means are all of these distinctives typical of all post-Disappointment Millerites. For example, racial doctrine is fundamental to the theory of British Israelism found among several Millerite offshoots; however, doctrines hostile to other races are peculiar only to the Identity offshoots of the Church of God, such as Aryan Nations. Others are very self-consciously and religiously multi-racial.
The return of Christ is believed to signal the inauguration of the Millennium, rather than the conclusion of the Church age and the end of the world. The Second Great Awakening was generally productive of very optimistic ideas of progress and eschatology, expecting the kingdom of God to be realized through an historical process. In contrast to this optimism, Millerites anticipated that the coming of Christ would be cataclysmic, replacing the old order of things. Even among those Millerite groups which continue to believe that the Parousia actually occurred in some spiritual sense, in 1844 or at some later time, the present time is seen as full of impending wonder and imminent catastrophe prior to the full dawning of the new age, the final stage of which is the personal and visible return of Jesus. The Book of Revelation continues to have a prominent place in nearly all segments of the Millerite movement, and the differences between the sects often resolve to differences in the interpretation of passages which Christians generally would consider more obscure and therefore less important to understand.
Several branches believe that a world-wide conflict is approaching, when the antichrist will appear or has appeared, in order to lead the world and the world's religions into a great deception, an era marked by disastrous wars and calamity. The Civil War, the two great World Wars, the Great Depression and New Deal, and modern events in the Middle East, are commonly interpreted in this light. Only those who discern the true prophetic message from among many counterfeits that will multiply in the latter-days, will be survive deception and final ruin. According to the diversity of teachings, Millerite sects have different ideas of what the distinguishing marks are, of the true message for the true church of the last days. The majority of Adventists believe that the seventh-day Sabbath is a key to understanding and faithfulness, and that worship on Sunday is idolatry and the Mark of the Beast, warned of by the third angel of the Apocalypse, in Revelation 14:9-12.
These churches and groups generally claim to adhere to a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, with distinctively strong interest in the present fulfillment of prophecy, sometimes with emphasis on sciences, health practices and philanthropic ventures based on the Bible. Their non-traditional beliefs and practices typically motivate particularly strong commitment to the separation of church and state. The prophecies of Scripture are generally regarded as having historical, as well as future significance; and some regard themselves specifically as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. In addition some teach that special, miraculous visions or divine insight are needed in order to understand the present significance of the Bible. The largest Millerite group at the present time is the Seventh Day Adventist General Conference (the Seventh-day Adventist Church), with approximately 11 million members, world-wide - although, some Jehovah's Witnesses materials claim for themselves many times that number of adherents throughout the world, which would make them the largest Millerite group.
Distinguished from other groups and movements
The "Adventist" or "Latter-day" churches arose during the same period as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and share some comparable features of doctrine and history, but there is no conclusive evidence that the Millerites and Mormons directly influenced one another. The two movements do have in common some connection with the Restoration Movement. Many Millerites and Mormons including prominent Millerite and Mormon leaders, were Campbellites or belonged to other Restoration Movement sects before converting. Still, there are radical differences between all of these groups. Mormons are never regarded as Evangelical, while several Campellite and Millerite groups are. Non-adherents may account for similarities between the movements by pointing to the cultural forces at work in the post-Revolutionary United States, and the folk-religious spirituality that typified the Burned-over district of New York at the time, where both of these religious movements were born. Coincidentally, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was shot in a confrontation with a lynch-mob in 1844, the same year invested with cosmic meaning by the Adventist movement. Earlier that year, in March 1844, Smith organized a governing council (The Council of Fifty) to serve as the official beginning of the Kingdom of God on the earth.
Similarly, dispensational Premillennialism is a trans-denominational movement, that is sometimes mistakenly connected directly with the Millerites. Dispensationalism arose during the final third of the 19th century, and unlike the Millerites interprets prophecy in a primarily futurist fashion. This movement developed independently, borrowing heavily but indirectly from earlier Millerites, with radical re-interpretation, so that dispensationalists rarely if ever display unitarian tendencies. Sabbatarianism is excluded, along with British Israelism, and in general end times Dispensationalism is considered protestant and mainstream evangelical, being a very common belief among Christian fundamentalists. Some dispensationalist groups, upon venturing to calculate the date of Christ's return or interpreting the signs of the times, take on many of the apocalyptic characteristics of Millerite pioneers, but strictly speaking none of them are part of the Millerite Adventist movement.
The followers of the self-proclaimed prophetess, Englishwoman Joanna Southcott, are frequently listed in the Millerite tradition, for lack of a similar place to put them, chiefly because of interesting parallels in the careers of Ms. Southcott and the Adventist Ellen G. White. Ms. Southcott is believed by her followers to be, in fact, the woman clothed with the sun, in the Book of Revelation. She prophesied that she herself was pregnant with the true Messiah, who was to be born on October 19, 1814 - these particular beliefs have no representation among Millerites. Ms Southcott died of dropsy in December of that year, but her followers continued to believe in the truth of her published prophecies and in the soon coming of Shiloh (a prophetic name for the Messiah). Her visions beginning in 1792 have strong affinity with Adventism, but are stylistically very unlike the writings of Mrs. White. The post-Disappointment Adventist Movement is frequently compared to the followers of Ms. Southcott, and there are some superficial resemblances of language and theme. The leaders of some branches of Southcottites are believed to have been post-Disappointment Millerites. Swedenborgianism and The United Order of Believers (Shakers), two other earlier millennial movements begun by ecstatic visionaries, have comparable similarities to the Millerites, and like the Mormons these groups had some influence on the religious climate of northwest New York state and territories to the west - but direct borrowing is not acknowledged, and after all, they are distinct movements. It is notable that a number of post-Disappointment Millerites joined the Shaker communities.