The Oxford History of The United States series has won two Pulitzer Prizes, a Bancroft and a Parkman Prize. The newest addition, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe, looks at the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War. Howe’s narrative history shows how drastically America changed in thirty years. Below Howe, Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus, Oxford University and Professor of History Emeritus, University of California, looks at how October 22nd resonated throughout America.(Editor’s Note: When this post was published last October we could only dream that Howe’s book What Hath God Wrought would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize! Now that it has though, some information in the introduction is incorrect. The series has won three Pulitzer Prizes, a Bancroft and a Parkman Prize. Whew!)
On October 22, 1844, somewhere between twenty-five and fifty thousand people gathered in groups all over the United States to watch the sky. They stayed up until after midnight, straining to see Jesus Christ coming out of the heavens. A Vermont farmer named William Miller, undeterred by his lack of knowledge of Hebrew or Greek, had applied his naive ingenuity to biblical study. Calculations based on prophecies in the Book of Daniel had convinced him and his disciples that the long-awaited Second Coming of Christ would occur on this day.
How would people behave if they were convinced the world was coming to an end on a known day only months away? In 1844, many paid their debts, quit their jobs, closed their businesses, left their crops unharvested in the fields. Some who felt guilty about past frauds and cheats turned over money to banks or the U.S. Treasury. Others simply gave away money keeping no accounting of it. There was a rush to get baptized. On the appointed night, thousands gathered in many locations outdoors to watch the sky. But Jesus did not appear to them, and October 22d became known among Adventists as “The Great Disappointment.” The legend that Miller’s people had donned ascension robes for the occasion was one of the many humiliations heaped on the Adventists over the next year by a laughing public that had not quite dared risk scorning them until after the fact.
William Miller had never formed a denomination while expecting Christ, for there would have been no point in any long-term planning. But after the Great Disappointment his followers, many of them were expelled from their previous churches, kept their movement alive by differentiating themselves more sharply from mainline evangelicalism. The largest group organized as the Seventh-Day Adventists, under the new leadership of Joseph Bates, who declared Sunday observance an unwarranted innovation and restored the Jewish Sabbath, and Ellen Harmon White, an inspired visionary who instituted dietary reforms opposing tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and meat. The denomination re-interpreted Daniel’s prophecy and decided that Christ had entered a new “heavenly sanctuary” on 22 October, 1844 in preparation for an early but unspecified return to earth. Miller himself never got over his great embarrassment and retired quietly, but the Seventh-Day Adventists survive to this day.
William Miller’s prophecy was only one of many manifestations of the millennial belief widespread in the America of his time. Others include the picturesque Shakers, who called themselves the Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, and the much more potent Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly knows as Mormons. The “latter days” refer to the Mormon belief that the Second Coming of Christ will occur soon, bringing history to an end. The Mormon prophet, seer, and revelator Joseph Smith was assassinated by an Illinois mob in June of the same year that Miller’s people searched the skies for Jesus. The leader of the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, Nat Turner, a literate religious visionary who listened to “the Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days,” heard that Spirit tell him the day of judgment was at hand, when “the last would be first.”
Many Americans of that time and since have believed in their country’s special destiny to help prepare humanity for the Second Coming of Christ. Faith in democratic progress, in equal human rights, and even in economic and technological improvement have all been expressed in terms of paving the way for Christ’s return. The same year that William Miller was disappointed and Joseph Smith murdered, Samuel F. B. Morse publicly demonstrated his electric telegraph, its wires strung from the Supreme Court Chambers in Washington to Baltimore forty miles away. Morse transmitted a message of portentous religious significance: “What Hath God Wrought.” As Morse later commented, the message “baptized the American Telegraph with the name of its author”: God. America’s self-image was bound up with millennial expectation. In some significant ways, it still is.