Imminence, meaning a characteristic of that which is likely to happen without delay, has always been the dominant thrust of Adventism—not just the belief that Jesus will come "one day," but rather that He will come almost immediately, that His coming is "at the door!" There is nothing unique in believing that Jesus will come eventually. The world Christian community today generally believes that Christ will come some day. Most of the Christian churches in William Miller's day believed in the glorious appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ someday. However, the fires of revival burned across America in the 1840's because thousands became convicted of the imminence of that great event. Miller preached that Jesus would appear in that generation! Here is uniqueness! It was imminence that gave birth to the great second advent movement!
If and when Adventism finishes God's great work of preparing a company of redeemed ones to inherit this kingdom; if and when revival seizes the church in one final, resplendent blaze of pentecostal renewal, there will surely be a revival of imminence. Without this attitude of urgency and the flood of prophetic light that followed in its train, it is doubtful that Adventism would have been born, or been necessary.
This truth poses some serious questions to Seventh-day Adventism. (1) Have we lost the sense of imminence that characterized Miller and all the early pioneers? (2) Can revival occur without a revitalized sense of imminence? (3) Dare we believe and teach a similar quality of imminence as did our Millerite forefathers or as did the Adventists of the 1880's?
It can be argued that inasmuch as the Millerite attitude of imminence rested upon a date-setting mechanism (even, .admittedly, a mistaken one) such a sense of imminence dare not characterize Adventism today. And indeed the church must use caution here. On the other hand, the importance of these questions cannot be overemphasized. For if we have lost our attitude of imminence, then we must confess that we have lost the central thrust of our unique message to the world, and our existence can justly be challenged. Without this thrust we have little or nothing to offer the world beyond the majority of Christian denominations. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge a deep crisis over our understanding of the return of Jesus.
However, if we do not intend at all to profess an attitude of imminence, and if we have indeed left behind the sense of urgency that sparked the original Adventist revival, then we must clearly set forth a rationale for ourselves, and for those who look on, to explain why we have come to believe differently from our spiritual forefathers.
One such rationale, of course, is that God has deliberately postponed the coming of Jesus. If the church is to set forth this explanation as her apology for being in the world so long, she must accompany it with a logical explanation of what God is waiting for, how it will come about, and how long it will take. We cannot have both an attitude of imminence with a Millerite kind of urgency and also a belief that says that Jesus really isn't coming for a while yet; the two theories destroy each other. Indeed, the latter concept may already have be come partially responsible for allowing us to lose the sense of imminence that we have always professed to have.
The last of the three questions given above is the most practical. Dare we believe in an imminent return? Dare we be so bold as to teach imminence with as much assurance as did Miller and our early pioneers? If so, on what basis? Short of the ability to set a date, or even an approximate time, for the Advent, as Miller did, how can we convince our selves or our hearers that Jesus is coming, and that this event is indeed "at the door"?
At the age of 32 William Miller re turned from serving as an Army officer during the war of 1812. He had recently moved to Low Hampton, New York, and it was here in the fall of 1816 that a number of events led to his conversion.He embarked most earnestly upon an exhaustive study of God's Word, with nothing but the Bible and Cruden's Concordance. He emerged from his study two years later with a conviction that governed the rest of his life that Christ would return in premillennial glory within twenty-five years. This sense of imminence became Miller's raison d'etre, and in fifteen years was to propel him into world prominence as a humble farmer-turned-preacher. That sense of imminence became the dynamic main spring of Adventism.
Miller's very life and fortune were poured vigorously into telling the world that but a few short years remained be fore the Lord of glory would appear, bringing life or death for every living person! Speaking of his feelings when the impact of this conviction fully came to him, he wrote: "I need not speak of the joy that filled my heart in view of the delightful prospect, nor of the ardent longings of my soul for participation in the joys of the redeemed. . . . With the solemn conviction that such momentous events were predicted in the Scriptures to be fulfilled in so short a space of time, the question came home to me with mighty power regarding my duty to the world." —Quoted by E. G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 329, 330.
Miller remained a farmer, content with giving a layman's witness as he went along. He showed no desire to speak in public; however, the burden of so great a vision found frequent expression in groups and to individuals so that he be came known as a specialist in the startling prophecy of the Advent. Finally, on a Saturday morning in 1831, after fifteen years of deepening conviction that Christ's return was imminent, he received the call from God to begin a public ministry. The next Sunday, he filled the pulpit of a nearby Baptist church during an absence of the pastor. This first public presentation lit the revival fires that consumed Miller's highest energies from that time forth, and for thirteen years the flames increased into a crescendo of revival power that prepared some 200,000 people to expect the appearance of Christ during 1843-1844. In 1844 the population of America was 19 million, thus one in 95 persons pro fessed Millerism! By comparison, it took the Seventh-day Adventist Church until 1911, or about sixty-five years, to achieve its first 100,000 adherents, while Millerism totaled twice this many in thirteen years!
Miller himself never made extravagant claims for his movement. When asked, he stated that he could account for "some 50,000 believers, in a thousand Advent congregations." But Dr. David T. Arthur, chairman of the Division of Humanities, Aurora College, Aurora, Illinois, a recognized authority on the Millerite movement, estimates 200,000 followers in 1844. Miller estimated that 200 ministers left their pulpits to preach Adventism, joined by some 500 public lecturers. 1 An example of Miller's devotion can be seen in a diary entry he made in 1839: "Thus ends my tour into Massachusetts, making eight hundred lectures from October 1, 1834, to June 9, 1839 four years, six months, and nine days." 2 Be tween 1832 and 1844 Miller gave 3,200 public lectures. In four months during 1842. 31 camp meetings were held; in 1843. 40; and in 1844, 54. During these great meetings at least a half-million people heard the message of imminence through the preached word. The "great tent," purchased for the Concord, New Hampshire, meetings, and used in a number of additional series, seated 4,000 and was the largest tent that many people had ever seen.
The flames of revival have never burned more brightly in Adventism than when a belief in the imminent return of Jesus was taken so literally that a great multitude were prepared for the coming within an actual time frame. Imminence triggered awesome spiritual renewal, under the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit. Wherever the coming of Jesus was preached kindred prophecies were preached with power. Armed only with the Scriptures and a concordance, this unpretentious scholar forged link by link the great lines of prophetic truth, using as his hammer.the heavy urgency of an imminent return of Jesus.
But we know that he did have an accomplice! "God directed the mind of William Miller to the prophecies and gave him great light upon the book of Revelation."—E. G. White, Early Writings, p. 231. "God sent His angel to move upon the heart of a farmer who had not believed the Bible, to lead him to search the prophecies. Angels of God repeatedly visited that chosen one, to guide his mind and open to his under standing prophecies which had ever been dark to God's people." E. G. White, —The Story of Redemption, pp. 356, 357.
The prophetic lines of interpretation that Miller taught were, with very few exceptions, what the Seventh-day Adventist Church has taught ever since the 457 B.C. date for the beginning of the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:14; the interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27; identification of the antichrist; the year-day principle; the millennium; and other prophetic truths. 3
As these prophetic concepts were preached in the framework of imminence, thousands were converted. En tire families responded to the spiritual appeal. Among the Millerite converts were the Harmon family, of which Ellen Harmon (later Ellen G. White) was a member. This family was expelled from the Methodist Church for espousing Millerism and teaching that Jesus would shortly return to earth. The young Ellen Harmon's reactions to Miller's lectures in her hometown, Portland, Maine, reflect the profound revivals that occurred among the townspeople. As remembered by her in later years, "Mr. Miller's manner of preaching was not flowery or oratorical, but he dealt in plain and startling facts, that roused his hearers from their careless indifference. ... A convincing power attended his words, that seemed to stamp them as the language of truth. . . . Sometimes a solemnity so marked as to be painful, pervaded his meetings. A sense of the impending crisis of human events impressed the minds of the listening crowds. Many yielded to the conviction of the Spirit of God. Gray-haired men and aged women with trembling steps sought the anxious seats; those in the strength of maturity, the youth and the children, were deeply stirred. Groans and the voice of weeping and praise to God were mingled at the altar of prayer."—E. G. White, Life Sketches, p. 27.
Ellen White also spoke eloquently of the year just prior to the October 22, 1844 date and of her personal expectancy of the Lord's return: "This was the happiest year of my life. My heart was full of glad expectation; but I felt great pity and anxiety for those who were in discouragement and had no hope in Jesus. We united, as a people, in earnest prayer for a true experience and the unmistakable evidence of our acceptance with God." —Ibid., p. 59.
Nor was the great Disappointment it self able to shatter completely the attitude of imminence. The beliefs and practices of those who maintained their Advent faith during the decades immediately following 1844 were marked by an undiminished sense of imminence. It remained the mainspring of their faith.
Especially do we see a heavy emphasis on the imminent return of Christ during the 1880's. The publications of that decade, and through the 1890's, spoke with great assurance that the Lord was coming immediately. F. E. Belden's hymn (1886), still resonant in our churches, declares:
"The coming King is at the door,
Who once the cross for sinners bore,
But now the righteous ones alone,
He comes to gather home.
"At the door, at the door,
At the door, yes, even at the door; He is coming,
He is coming, He is even at the door." 4
Statements from those who wrote and spoke and led in those years give confirmation of the attitude of imminence that prevailed. "We may know that our Lord is coming, that He is near, and more, He is 'even at the doors.' . . . The judgment is upon you. Christ is coming; He is at the door. O, get ready to welcome the dear Saviour!" 5 "The gospel day is almost over. The 6,000 years are nearly past. . . . The glorious jubilee will soon begin. . . . Reader, prepare to meet thy God." 6 "The pilgrims are about to leave this dreary wilderness. . . . Sell your poor farms in this barren waste, and buy one that is incorruptible and undefiled ... in the New Earth." 7
In 1886 Ellen White agreed with the waiting and watching believers, that they were living in the "third watch" of the night. "The waiting ones were represented to me as looking upward. They were encouraging one another by repeating these words: 'The first and second watches are past. We are in the third watch, waiting and watching for the Master's return. There remains but a little period of watching now.' . . . The coming of the morning ... is right upon us." —Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, pp. 192-194.
She said further: "I saw that the time for Jesus to be in the most holy place was nearly finished and time can last but a very little longer. What leisure time we have should be spent in searching the Bible, which is to judge us in the last day." —Early Writings, p. 58.
"The return of Christ to our world will not be long delayed. Let this be the keynote of every message." —Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 406.
In addition, the servant of the Lord made at least eight "ere this" statements between 1880 and 1905, in which she clearly stated that it was the plan of Heaven for Jesus to return to earth, and that had the people of God lived up to His expectations they would have been "ere this" in the kingdom. 8 A study of these statements leads one to believe that it must have been God's plan to finish His work sometime between 1844 and 1883, but His people were not ready.
Imminence likewise characterized the Adventist Church in the first half of the twentieth century. Our camp meetings rang out with "Lift up the trumpet, and loud let it ring: Jesus is coming again!" Other musical expressions of faith undergirded the powerful preaching of the leaders of this church. Many of us vividly remember the great preaching of the clarions of this message H. M. S. Richards, F. D. Nichol, W. H. Branson, R. A. Anderson, C. B. Haynes, and others, proclaiming the imminent return of Jesus.
Arthur S. Maxwell, long-time editor of the Signs of the Times, in an address to the SDA Bible Conference held in Takoma Park, Maryland, September 1-13, 1952, said on the subject of imminence, "Seventh-day Adventists are irrevocably committed to belief in, and proclamation of, the imminent second coming of Christ. Should we for any reason whatever repudiate this truth, or cease to proclaim it with sincerity, we would destroy ourselves. Openly or secretly to deny the nearness of our Lord's return would be to invite the disintegration of our cause. . . . Without this conviction there would have been no Seventh-day Adventists or any Seventh-day Adventist movement. . . . Belief in the imminence of Christ's second coming was the spark that fired the engine of this vast missionary enterprise. In every heart dwelt the conviction that there was but a short time for the work to be done; that it must be accomplished here and now, in fulfillment of prophecy, before the time should run out. This fundamental link between what we have and what our pioneers believed should never be for gotten. Every building we own, though bearing no visible name, is stamped with the invisible inscription, 'This was built by men who believed in the soon coming of Jesus.' " 9
But here we are, in the eighth decade of the twentieth century. Surely no Adventist serious about his spiritual heritage has ever conceived of the church's lingering on in this world until the year 2000! Yet today scientists and sociologists are actively preparing for the challenges of that society, and with less than twenty years remaining between us and that reality, perhaps even some modern Adventists are also making their plans.
Against such a background, is an attitude of imminence still the mainspring of Adventism? If not, then it has been replaced by other urgencies, and one must conclude that Adventism is strangely changing to adapt to "necessities" of the times in which we live. Today the church remains challenged with repeated calls from our leadership, dating from recent Annual Councils, and from the 1975 world session in Vienna, that we experience revival and a finished work in our generation. Most certainly we have tramped this weary wilderness long enough. The delay of our Master's re turn is a frightening crisis to His church, and if both the prophetic gift of the 1880's and the godly leaders of that time knew what they were teaching that Jesus might have come "ere this" then it follows that He will soon be a century overdue! The entire mission of the church is involved with this question, because as we have demonstrated, an imminent return of Jesus was, and still is, the mainspring of Adventism. It can not be replaced with some substitute. The church must react to the matter of His coming. We must react to His delay; we must react to His imminence; we must react to our Laodicean condition and the absence of the attitude of imminence among us.
Let us assume that every Adventist minister and member wants in his life and experience the kind of certainty of an imminent return that our forefathers expressed. The question then must be answered, Dare we speak today with that same degree of certainty, or is there no way for today's Adventist to have it? In the next article we will attempt to deal with this crucial question.
1 Robert Gale, The Urgent Voice (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1975), pp. 48, 49.
2 Ibid., p. 61.
3 William Miller, Evidence From Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ (Boston: B. B. Musey, 1843).
4 The Church Hymnal (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1941), p. 546.
5 James White, in The Review and Herald, Oct. 28, 1852.
6 G. W. Holt, Ibid., March 28, 1852.
7 Ibid., June 23, 1853.
8 L. E. Froom, Movement of Destiny (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1971), pp. 561-603.
9 Our Firm Foundation (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1953), vol. 2, pp. 186-188.