Volume 13, Issue 6: Eschaton
Rise of Premillennialism
Jack Van Deventer
In Parts three and four of this series, we saw how modern premillennialism had its controversial rise in the 1820s particularly in Edward Irving's church in England, where the frenzy over Christ's anticipated imminent return led to an outbreak of "tongues." In many respects Irving is credited with the rebirth both of premillennialism and the modern charismatic movement. When Irving was tried for heresy and died shortly thereafter in disgrace, it fell upon J.N. Darby and the Plymouth Brethren to develop premillennialism, using a "literal" approach that eventually led to the doctrines of dispensationalism, as the foundation for modern premillennialism.
Premillennialism in America had very different, but no less controversial beginnings. William Miller, a self-taught farmer from New York, became fascinated with the subject of biblical prophecy. His exegetical studies took place in isolation, but in many ways paralleled innovations by some of the British millenarians. He began speaking in local Baptist churches where his message generated such interest that by 1834 he left farming and began speaking full-time.
Miller's success was phenomenal. Like Darby, Miller claimed his message came from a
"literal" interpretation of the Bible. Miller's main message was that Christ was coming soon to judge the wicked, and that the world would be cleansed by fire around 1843. The personal and imminent return of Christ was emphasized. Miller differed from the British millenarians on two points: he denied the return of the Jews to Palestine, and he denied that nonbelievers would survive Christ's coming.
He took his premillennial message to the masses through camp meetings and revival services held in large tents. As interest grew, Miller created an amazing organizational body to develop and distribute huge volumes of literature. Within five years, Miller's followers numbered 50,000. The Millerites began forming a denomination. They began a series of ministerial conferences and eventually communion was served at the conference.
Clearly, the Millerites (also called the Second Adventists, and later simply Adventists) were the largest and most influential premillennial group of the early 19th century. They marketed their doctrines through their own newspapers, magazines, and their own hymnal,
The Millennial Harp. As the date of Miller's projected millennial climax approached, two things happened: the movement grew rapidly and so did antagonism from other denominations. Just as Darby had attacked the mainstream Christian churches as apostate, many Millerite preachers
did the same. They preached against Roman Catholicism as the apostate whore of Babylon, but eventually Protestant churches were so designated as well.
The Millerites ultimately settled on the date of October 22, 1844 as the date of Christ's Second
Coming. When that date came and went, the failed prophecies of William Miller served as a devastating blow to his followers and to the credibility of premillennialism in general. For quite a period afterwards no one dared make claims about the "imminent return" of Christ, lest they be quickly and mockingly compared with William Miller.
In the meantime, the success of Miller's message did not escape the notice of others. A plethora of other premillennial groups quickly sprang up, such as the Campbellites, the Mormons, and the Shakers. A quick overview of these groups will help underscore the point that America in the
19th century was, as one historian put it, "drunk on the millennium."
Alexander Campbell and his father created a premillennial following which became known as the
Campbellites. This group was eventually called the Christian Church, or Disciples of Christ. Beginning in 1830, Alexander Campbell promoted his views for decades through a journal called the
Joseph Smith taught his followers a premillennial message and led them to believe they were living in the "latter days." Thus, the official name of the Mormon church is "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints." As with modern premillennial publications, the Mormon periodical Millennial Star had a column called "Signs of the Times" in which current events, such as wars, disasters, and natural calamities, were described in a way
that emphasized the nearness of Christ's imminent return and judgment.
Another group, the Shakers (officially the "Millennial Church of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing") believed that the Second Coming had taken place in the person of Ann Lee, a female complement to Christ. As with the Irvingites, they claimed to have visions, tongues, and direct revelations from God.
In summary, the development of premillennial doctrine in America in the early 1800s was just as
controversial as the premillennial doctrines development in England during the same period. Historian Ernest Sandeen writes, "In both Britain and America, the millenarian revival was led by a man whose calling ultimately brought near ruin to the cause. Edward Irving, though his foray into tongues speaking brought great disrepute to the millenarian cause, did less damage. William Miller's misconception about the date of the second advent lay at the heart of his millenarian doctrine. The failure of his predictions disillusioned most of his followers and marked the whole millenarian cause, rightly or wrongly, with the stigma of fanaticism and