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Our Millennial Heritage

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Archives / 1972 / January

 

 

Our Millennial Heritage

N. Gordon Thomas
-Associate Professor of History, Pacific Union College, at the time this article was written

 

SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS should be proud of their millennial beliefs. The second advent of Christ and the coming millennium have been the hope of Christians throughout the hundreds of years since Jesus promised that He would come again. Since this promise is sure, Adventist believers need not be ashamed to accept the heritage of our faith from the great Disappointment of the Millerites in 1844. In retrospect, that America was divinely chosen and used by God to further His cause in world history seems quite obvious; that Americans, on the whole, rejected this calling seems equally clear. And the signal turning point of this rejection occurred in the 1840's with the repudiation of the ancient premillennial faith by the major denominations.

New England preacher William Miller worked in a God-given atmosphere of millenarian thought and acceptance. The pre-Civil War era was above all else in American religious history a period of intense millennial hope among all Protestant denominations, from the Presbyterians to the anti-Calvinistic Universalists. As Whitney Cross has written in The Burned-over District, "No critic from the orthodox side took any serious issue as basic principle with Miller's calculations." The serious is sue among churchmen, as Miller well understood, concerned the event rather than the time. Was Christ to return in spirit or in person? All groups readily accepted the signs of the times and the prophecies that the end was near. But the question was, the end (or beginning) of what?

In Michigan the millennial impulse was a strong drive behind nearly all Protestant activity. The desire to establish Christ's reign of righteousness on this earth, either pre- or postmillennial, provided the impetus behind the Protestant Society and its reforms during the period 1830-1860. Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian promotional literature used the millennial promise to spur evangelical Christians on to greater activities. Orthodox ministers, who certainly did not consider themselves Millerites, openly preached the Second Coming.

Premillennialist Witnesses

George Duffield, the most prominent clergyman in Michigan and pastor of the First Presbyterian church of Detroit, was an ardent premillennialist. Although he was a nationally-known figure and the head of the largest single congregation of Protestants in Michigan, he did not hesitate to voice his admiration for William Miller and to admit that he had read all that Miller had published "for many years past." He did not agree with Miller, however, on the precise time for the Second Advent. Yet, Duffield's published sermons, Dissertations on the Prophecies Relative to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (1842), were hardly distinguishable from Millerite publications in most respects. Despite George Duffield's influential position and his power in the State, many in his own congregation preferred the postmillennial view that Christ would spiritually reign for a thousand years before His personal, visible coming.

The millennial hope likewise permeated the literature of the Universalists in Michigan. In their Utopian community called Alphadelphia, founded in 1844 at Galesburg, Michigan, the Universalists founded and conducted a millenarian experiment. The short cut to the millennium, according to the Universalists, was through Utopian socialism and particularly through the teachings of the French socialist philosopher, Charles Fourier.

The adventism of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints found ready support in Michigan, and many converts departed for the Mormon kingdoms in Jackson County, Missouri, or Nauvoo, Illinois, where the "gathering" to await the Lord's return would take place. Joseph Smith himself proselytized in Michigan and predicted Christ's return during his own lifetime. After Smith's assassination, James J. Strang, one of the claimants to the apostolic succession, founded a millennial kingdom on Beaver Island, Michigan. Until his death in 1856, Strang maintained his "Stake of Zion" on Beaver Island, kept the seventh-day Sabbath, and preached the imminent, personal second advent of the Saviour.

Meanwhile, the popular evangelical crusades against intemperance and slavery gained strength from the millennial effort to abolish evil and establish the kingdom of righteousness on earth. Michigan re formers shared the convictions of national temperance and anti-slavery leaders that the abolition of alcoholic intemperance and Negro slavery would hasten the coming of the millennium. Predicting that God's wrath would be poured out on a nation that deliberately thwarted the divine millennial plan, many a Michigan abolitionist and temperance worker accepted the millennium as a literal expectation, not just a metaphor for moral or social progress.

Premillennialism Commonly Held

In sum it appears that many inaccuracies have been written into popular history books concerning nineteenth-century American millennialism. The movement was neither fanatical nor hardly atypical, but was based upon a hope that a promise would soon be fulfilled. Today, from a twentieth-century viewpoint, it is plain that millenarian activity reached its peak during the 1840's. William Miller's mistake was in accepting, even if reluctantly, a precise date for the return of Christ. While it is true that Miller was God's instrument to arouse the nation and the churches to a millennial expectancy never before achieved in our history, after the great delusion of 1844 he was used as a convenient scapegoat for those who wished to disclaim any responsibility for now unpopular premillennial doctrine. No doubt the failure of Miller's predictions stampeded many Adventist believers toward postmillennialism; the fact remains, nevertheless, that Millerism was not an isolated phenomenon, but simply the most immediate and dramatic demonstration of premillennial belief that was a commonly held American religious doctrine. The times of the early nineteenth century were on the side of the postmillennial view. The general optimism, the faith in progress of science, education, and democracy, naturally tended to turn men's minds toward the building of a postmillennial world.

Growing Confirmation

Even the Civil War could be looked upon as a purification process in American religious history. But now, after two world wars, the optimism of postmillennialism has largely disappeared. Atheistic Communism, the bomb, racial tension and violence, brush-fire wars, and a malignant nationalism in many areas of the world, have produced some of the fears that destroy the postmillennial hope that "the world is getting better and better." It must appear impossible now to even the most naive churchmen that the kingdoms of this world can ever "become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ" through the reign of Christ's spirit for a thousand years on earth. If anything, Christ's spirit seems to have been withdrawn from the nations.

Seventh-day Adventist doctrine is respected today as never before in our country's history. In contrast to Mormonism, we have not settled down to an indefinite postponement of prophecy. Adventist success, from a purely historical analysis, can be attributed to the fact that we teach some thing definite and specific, that we have a sense of continuity with historic Christianity, and that we have refused to conform to many dominant cultural pressures. Our premillennial faith, today as much as in William Miller's time, is a specific, historic, and nonconforming hope in the imminent, personal, visible appearing of Christ on this earth. We should be proud that our church carries the banner "Adventist" in its name, and proud to complete the charge given to William Miller over a century ago.

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