The legacy of Miller and the Adventist movement continues with American Exceptionalism and Christian Reconstructionism.
The Millerite movement of the 1830s and early 1840s characterized the revivalist nature of American religion toward the end of the Andrew Jackson presidency. The Millerites, like other groups at the time, were Adventist in orientation, believing in the imminent return of Christ. William Miller, the founder, even set a specific date. These premillennialists, however, differed from the post-millennialists that saw the age moving toward Utopian perfection. For them, Christ’s return could not be deconstructed to an exact hour and day. Nonetheless, the Millerites represented widely accepted beliefs within the revivalist atmosphere and influenced contemporary views of American Exceptionalism.
William Miller Founds a New Denomination
William Miller, a farmer from New York, began his religious odyssey as a deist. He became a Baptist and began to study the Bible. These studies, notably his reading of prophetic Old Testament books like Daniel, contributed to his understanding of the imminent return of Christ.
Miller was self-taught; he had never received any formal education, unlike, for example, Charles G. Finney, a leader in the Second Great Awakening. In this, Miller was like other itinerant preachers of the time who attempted to interpret the Bible. Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Mormons, is another example.
Setting a Date for the Return of Christ
Miller’s predictions of Christ’s return were widely received. His followers urged him to give a specific date. Based on numerical calculations taken from prophetic clues in Daniel, he set the date of Christ’s return on October 22, 1844. Many of his followers sold their possessions or gave them away as the day approached.
While some followers were disappointed when the day passed without incident and turned to other denominations, ardent supporters formed themselves into a number of Adventist groups, the most enduring of which is the Seventh Day Adventist church.
Adventism and Social Reform Following the Panic of 1837
The Panic of 1837 had left many middleclass Americans as well as the working poor disillusioned with a system that revivalist preachers told them was based on corruption and greed. Adventism or millennialism played a key role not only in redefining the personal nature of man’s relationship to God as well as man’s anticipation of the building of God’s kingdom on earth, but helped spark other social reform movements such as prison reform, better conditions in asylums, and abolitionism.
Both William Lloyd Garrison and Angelina Grimke Weld, prominent leaders in the abolition movement, took inspiration from the Millerite message. The fact that Christ’s physical kingdom was associated with the United States validated the conclusion that Americans were a chosen people.
One faction of Mormons, for example, believed that Christ’s New Jerusalem would be built at Independence, Missouri, one of the early Mormon communities. The fusion of a specific and unique American destiny based on millennial expectations has been linked to religious nationalism or, as historian Page Smith writes, “Extreme nationalism.”
Exceptionalism and Christian Reconstructionism
Closely connected to the millennial and Adventist beliefs that were so prominent in the early 19th Century is the belief in American Exceptionalism and Christian Reconstructionism. These views have become entrenched in 21st Century conservative American political ideology. On September 13, 2008, CBS News reported that Sarah Palin referenced American Exceptionalism several times during a rally.
More recently, in an interview with Politico (August 20, 2010), Baptist minister and GOP presidential nominee in 2008 Mike Huckabee stated that, “to deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.”
Nevada GOP Senate Candidate in the 2010 mid-term election, Sharron Angle, has frequently been accused of Christian Reconstructionism, the idea that the state must reflect Biblical principles, even in matters of civil law. Thus, homosexuality would not be lawful nor would abortion, profanity, or any other infraction of strict Biblical injunctions. This would amount to the Christian version of Shar’ia law which, ironically, conservatives like Angle decry.
The Legacy of William Miller in American Religious and Political History
The debate over millennial expectations raged on after the Millerite movement faded and continues into the current century. Combining Adventist principles with political ideology continues to fuel the culture wars. The legality of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, being tested in the federal courts, has renewed the social debate regarding homosexuality.
During an October 21, 2010 Senate debate in North Carolina, Democratic challenger Elaine Marshall attacked GOP incumbent Senator Richard Burr for suggesting that homosexuality was a choice, something Colorado GOP candidate Ken Buck said a week earlier, stunning many viewers. There may be a Constitutional separation of church and state, but there is no separation of church and politics.
William Miller left more than the fragments of a movement, discredited by his 1844 prediction. He, along with other religious leaders preaching similar views of Adventism and millennialism, laid a strong foundation for the notion of American exceptionalism, an ideal that can be traced back to John Winthrop’s Puritan “City on a Hill.”
Brian J. L. Berry, America’s Utopian Experiments: Communal Havens From Long-Wave Crises (University Press of New England, 1992)
Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992)
Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years, Volume Four (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)