New-York Historical Society

End of the World As We Know It

After much publicity and anticipation, a predicted rapture in which believers were supposed to ascend into heaven with the coming of Jesus did not materialize. Instead, the preacher and his followers insisted that they had miscalculated and that the real end of world would instead happen that October. Sound familiar? This predicted end of the world was 1844.

Broadside depicting the chaos of the end of the world, 1844. (SY 1844 no. 63 Oversize)

Baptist minister William Miller predicted in the 1830’s that Jesus would return sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844 using a complex set of estimations based on the book of Daniel. When this failed to happen one of his followers, or Millerites, reinterpreted the calculation and postponed the date of the rapture to October 22, 1844. When this date also came and went uneventfully, the disillusionment that followed was termed the “Great Disappointment.” While many of Miller’s followers went back to their old faiths others became the foundation for the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

Line from Broadside from 1844. (SY 1844 no. 63 Oversize)

The Henry Van Der Lyn diary in the Manuscript department (MS 2590) remarks on the growing popularity of Millerism in the area of Oxford, New York. His entry from February 14, 1843 states, “Some few of our people have joined them, viz. old Benjn Dudley & wife & the two Preston girls who are or were Milliners.” Unimpressed he comments, “The preachers of the new Doctrine are Daily at work making converts & disturb the Equilibrium of many an ignorant & nervous person, in some instances the conversion is followed by derangement of the Mind.”

Despite Van Der Lyn’s view of believers as being unintelligent, expectations of Christ’s imminent return were popular and not limited to the uneducated. In his book What Hath God Wrought, historian Daniel Walker Howe analyzes the transformation of America from 1815-1848 and examines Millerism. He states that even intellectuals such as Timothy Dwight, president of Harvard, and John Livingston, president of Rutgers subscribed to the general idea of Christ’s return. Howe estimates Miller had between twenty-five to fifty thousand followers, mostly located in New England and upstate New York. He attributes the popularity of Miller’s apocalyptic message to this commonly held doomsday belief as well as new forms of communication that helped publicize his message.

It is an easy leap to draw comparisons between Miller’s prophesies and the recent failed rapture theories of Harold Camping. There, of course, have been many other predicted raptures throughout time that failed to happen. History has demonstrated that apocalyptic ideas become more popular in times of change and unrest and our time is no exception.

Portrait of William Miller estimating the end of time from the book of Daniel. Portrait File (PR 052)

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