Sometime in the year ending March 21, 1844, the Second Coming would usher in Christ’s thousand-year reign on Earth. That biblical calculation by New York farmer William Miller won tens of thousands of adherents. When nothing notable happened on March 21, or April 3 or 18 (based on recalculations), Miller acknowledged his error and disappointment. The true date, he said, would be October 22.
Excitement rose among the Millerites. Some quit their jobs, abandoned their fields, and gave away their possessions. Thousands gathered in churches or hilltops the night of Tuesday, Oct. 22, 1844, to meet their savior. The “Great Disappointment” of an ordinary dawn on Wednesday brought weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
What fascinates me is how many people continued to believe Miller’s predictions, often at great personal cost, even though events proved him wrong again and again. Mere facts rarely inspire us humans to change beliefs that are central to how we understand ourselves or our world. Finally abandoning such beliefs can be painful. It’s not a mark of stupidity but a trait that must somehow have helped our prehistoric ancestors survive. And it’s as evident in public affairs today as in religion of an earlier era.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.