The Great Disappointment

It is both ironic, and deeply appropriate, that in today’s sermon message our pastor would begin a message discussing prophecy with the example of the Millerite Great Disappointment in 1844. I am not sure that all of the people listening to the message understood how important this particular event was in the process of sect-building that our own religious background is a part of [1]. There are several takeaways that we can get from an honest understanding of the result of Miller’s disastrously failed prediction about the return of Christ on October 23, 1844. Hopefully we may be wise students of history and learn the appropriate lessons we can from the mistakes of others, particularly ones whose impact has survived for over 150 years, and become wiser as a result of studying history. After all, one of the major roles of history is to gain wisdom vicariously through the actions of others, so that we can learn from what others have done instead of having to make the same mistakes as others have.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that we should not set dates concerning prophecies, or think that we understand something about the Bible that others have not. Genuine understanding of the Bible does not consist of esoteric reading, but rather consists in matters that are accessible to humanity at large, even if they require effort. We can seek to study the languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so that we may better understand the text of the Bible, we can obey the Bible and read it and see the parallels and connections between passages where the same matters are discussed, and we can seek to understand the particular contexts in which the Bible was written. If we truly take the Bible seriously, we run up against texts like Matthew 24:36: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only,” which is considered important enough to be repeated in Mark 13:32. If the Bible says that no one knows this, not even the angels, who are we to think that we can somehow calculate this? Perhaps the biggest issue is that we do not know if the return of Christ is based on calculations at all, but is perhaps something to be undertaken when the precise conditions have been met that are themselves known in advance by those that matter, of which I must admit I am not a part. If so, it is entirely in vain to try to calculate dates and times in the first place, because what matters more are various conditions about either the Church of God or the world around, or both.

One of the consequences of the Great Disappointment was a variety of religious fervor among various groups of Millerites. Some founded Adventist groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists. Some founded a variety of Sabbath observing organizations, often with a high degree of interest in prophecy, including the Church of God Seventh Day and other groups that eventually flowered into the larger Church of God community of which my own background springs [2]. Still others drifted into the Shakers and other religious groups on the outer fringes of the religious world of the mid 19th century. What is striking is that so many of them felt unable to return to where they had come from. I have long pondered the proliferation of splits and bad blood between people, between the resentments that build between those who should be friends and brethren, but who find that they cannot come to terms with others and instead of wrestling with their own resentments and the need to apologize and seek forgiveness, they leave and feel that they cannot return, cannot lose face or admit fault. I find this thought to be deeply troubling, personally. I know that as a human being I error often, and sometimes spectacularly. I am, in general, not particularly skilled at conveying my own feelings to others or in understanding their own, with the result that I often find personal difficulties as a result of the lack of skillful emotional communication, much to my bafflement and frustration. If we are genuinely called, we will be called to admit a great deal of wrong, and to overcome, to show love not only to our friends but also to our enemies and those who hate us and act spitefully towards us. If we cannot admit an area of error that is obviously contrary to scripture and glaringly obvious to everyone around us, how are we going to be the firstfruits of God’s kingdom? It would be one thing to come to terms with a heritage of mixed truth and error, weighing and balancing and seeking to be fair-minded, appreciating the good and tossing aside the bad. But to avoid coming to terms merely because our own fragile egos were bruised by having erred spectacularly is not the way that one develops godly character.

A third consequence is that there was a lot of denial that the calculation had ever been wrong in the first place. For those who did not want to come to terms with having been so wrong, it is perhaps natural that many would seek ad hoc alternative explanations to answer their need to view themselves as right. Whether that is the Bahai belief that the prophecy referred to the teachings of their leader beginning in the Middle East, or the belief among various Adventist groups that this particular date began some sort of heavenly investigative judgment. In either case, the explanation came after the fact and did not clearly meet the original claims of Jesus Christ’s return. Rather than admitting that the calculation was unwise, and that believing it was incredibly foolish and embarrassing, which would cause an unacceptable loss of face and a questioning of one’s general spiritual wisdom and discernment by skeptical outsiders, this particular solution offers a doubling down on the original error, by having divorced it from any biblical teaching or instruction at all, but rather a speculative explanation that only adds to the speculation, and that satisfies no spiritual search for truth, but only our fragile egos.

How do we avoid this fate? It is easy, after the fact, to poke fun of prophetic speculations and setting dates, and to look down on those caught up in such enthusiasms. It is hard to admit that none of us is immune to being wrong, even spectacularly so, about the most important aspects of our lives or worldviews. For one, it is important for us not to exempt ourselves from biblical restrictions and pronouncements. If we base our beliefs on following the Bible, it is important, insofar as possible, to take a complete picture of it, and not to assume that some sort of insider status allows to ignore inconvenient commands or prohibitions. It is also of the utmost importance that we maintain a sense of humility and an understanding of just how much remains unknown. We are called into faith, not into total certainty where everything we might want to know can be nailed down for the sake of our convenience. Our lives are full of uncertainty, and we have to walk even without knowing all that we want to know, or even sometimes all that we need to know. We have to do the best we can with what we have been given, but God has promised to make everything right in the end, in the time and in the way of his own choosing. None of us can make things right, even for ourselves alone, given the limited strength and wisdom that we have. The task of developing the loving and gracious character of God is too important to be derailed by our pride and vanity, as it so often is.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Great Disappointment

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