The Midnight Cry

AFTER TWO YEARS OF ACTIVE MILITARY SERVICE the close of the war found William Miller, like any other normal man, happy to forget battlefield and army camp and to return to the quiet of home. He moved his family back to Low Hampton once more. There he built for himself a two- story frame house. The building still stands and is occupied after nearly one hundred and thirty years. William Miller now found himself in the center of the little community he knew so well and in which he hoped to live quietly as a farmer through his remaining years. But this was not to be.

There were restless stirrings in the soul of this man that cannot be fitted into the typical picture of the peaceful farmer cultivating his crops by day, sitting contented by the fireside after supper, and retiring early to a well-deserved rest. The inquiring, questioning, restless mind which had begun to reveal itself in early youth was as active as ever. By his own testimony he entered the Army with the hope of finding in patriotism one bright spot in a seamy, sinister world. "But," said he, "two years in the service was enough to convince me that I was in error in this thing also. When I left the service I had become completely disgusted with man's public character." [22]

Of course, the trouble lay primarily in himself. A man who has acquired a skeptical outlook on life sees everything in the wrong light. This has ever been so. The Good Book declares that as a man thinks in his heart so is he. Miller was paying a dear price for his deism. Into the depths of his naturally restless and inquiring spirit he had poured this disturbing ferment of skeptical discontent. Normally he had every reason to be at peace with the world. But peace with the world outside seems largely to be dependent on whether there is peace within. And Miller was not at peace with himself. He did not realize it, but he was really at heart a deeply religious man. He belonged to that class–too rare in the world –who can find no inner calm until they have thought through to a satisfactory conclusion in their own mind the problem of the mysterious ways of God toward man.

Though he had caricatured religion for a time, and though in two years of army life he must certainly have heard almost every brand of profanity, he gives this revealing incident that stands in sharp contrast:

"One day in May, 1816, I detected myself in the act of taking the name of God in vain, a habit I had acquired in the service; and I was instantly convicted of its sinfulness." [23]

But this thought and conviction forced him, whether he would or no, to the next step in his thinking:

"I was then led to inquire how a just Being could consistently save those who should violate the laws of justice. The works of Nature or of Providence, could give no answer to this question; and I was almost led to despair. In this state of mind, I continued for some months." *24

Though conscience-smitten by the sound of his own voice in blasphemy, he could not easily shake off skeptical thoughts. He had heard the still small voice speak to his conscience in rebuke, but it was while he was standing confused in the fogs of doubt and cynicism. He had quite resigned himself to the idea that man is "no more than a brute," that the idea of the hereafter is "a dream."

"Annihilation was a cold and chilling thought, and accountability was sure destruction to all. The heavens were as brass over my head, and the earth as iron under my feet. ETERNITY What was it? And death, why was it? The more I reasoned, the further I was from demonstration. The more I thought, the more scattered were my conclusions." [25]

Up to this point in thinking many a man has come, but too often men never go beyond it. They find the thought too troublesome or too deep for them. They decide that such questions must be left to the preachers and a few saints, and proceed to quiet their minds by immersing themselves more actively in business or pleasure, or both. But Miller, as we have remarked, belonged to that rare group who think through to a conclusion.

"I tried to stop thinking, but my thoughts would not be controlled. I was truly wretched, but did not understand the cause. I murmured and complained, but knew not of whom. I felt that there was a wrong, but knew not how, or where to find the right. I mourned, but without hope." [26]

This sounds not unlike the account of Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; in fact, not unlike the experience of many good men in the flesh who have left revealing records of their struggles of spirit and their gropings of soul before they moved out onto a high tableland to walk in the light of heaven.

The inner tension was rapidly coming to the breaking point. Some release had to be found. Miller described that release in simple yet mysterious language. Though he knew it not, he was really borrowing the language men have used through long centuries to describe that singular experience called conversion, by which a man turns about, as the word literally means, to see all life from a new angle, and to travel a new road. "At length," said he, "when brought almost to despair, God by His Holy Spirit opened my eyes. I saw Jesus as a friend, and my only help, and the Word of God as the perfect rule of duty.'' [27]

That is how he described the experience of transition when he was writing many years later, in 1842. In the summer of 1845 he described it thus:

"Suddenly the character of a Saviour was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed that there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to Himself atone for our transgressions, and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin. I immediately felt how lovely such a Being must be; and imagined that I could cast myself into the arms of, and trust in the mercy of such an One." [28]

The average student of religious experience who has read the records men have left of their conversions would say with little hesitation that the conflict in Miller's soul was resolved, that he had entered the fraternity of those who may genuinely be called Christians. Probably the tension in his soul was ended at that moment of spiritual insight when "the character of a Saviour was vividly impressed" upon his mind. But Miller was the kind of man who wanted to support his feelings with facts, his intuitions with evidence.

In a moment of spiritual exaltation there had been pictured in his mind the Saviour, gracious and forgiving. The natural response of his heart and of his will was to turn to such a being. "But the question arose," said he, in analyzing his own thoughts in connection with that experience, "How can it be proved that such a Being does exist? '' [29]

Here was no emotionalist speaking. Here was a man calmly and analytically looking at the whole subject of the Christian religion, and asking the most pertinent question that any man could ever ask who examines the claims of Christianity.

Miller immediately followed his question, as to how it can be proved that such a being exists, with this conclusion: "Aside from the Bible, I found that I could get no evidence of the existence of such a Saviour, or even of a future state." [30] In that conclusion he was absolutely right. Christian leaders through all the centuries have held that the Bible is the revealed will of God to man, and that in it is to be found the one great revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Wrote Miller:

"I felt that to believe in such a Saviour without evidence, would be visionary in the extreme. I saw that the Bible did bring to view just such a Saviour as I needed; and I was perplexed to find how an uninspired book should develop principles so perfectly adapted to the wants of a fallen world. I was constrained to admit that the Scriptures must be a revelation from God; they became my delight, and in Jesus I found a friend." [31]

But Miller was not to be allowed to enjoy his peace of mind, his Saviour, and his newly found inspired book without challenge. He still had his skeptical friends in the neighborhood, and the news of his conversion immediately became a subject of discussion. The very arguments which he himself had so recently employed against the Scriptures were now turned against him. He was placed in that most perplexing of all situations–he was called upon to refute the very things he once affirmed, and to answer questions which he had declared were unanswerable. Let him describe his embarrassing situation in his own words. We quote, beginning at the very next sentence after the one in which he told of how the Scriptures became his delight and Jesus, his friend:

"Soon after this, in the fall of 1816, I was conversing with a friend respecting my hope of a glorious eternity through the merits and intercessions of the Saviour, and he asked me how I knew there was a Saviour? I replied that He was revealed in the Bible. He then asked me how I knew the Bible was true? and advanced my former deistical arguments on the inconsistencies, the contradictions, and the mysticisms in which I had claimed it was shrouded. I replied that if the Bible was the word of God, everything contained therein might be understood, and all its parts be made to harmonize; and I said to him that if he would give me time, I would harmonize all these apparent contradictions, to my own satisfaction, or I would be a deist still." [32]

The task Miller set for himself was rather breathtaking. He could hardly have known in advance what any careful student of the Bible soon discovers, that certain things in the Scriptures are "hard to be understood." But we must honor the transparent honesty of the man and his resolute decision to go forward in sincerity to justify his new-found faith. In this very statement he made to his deist friend is found one of the best insights into the character of Miller. So far from being a man with an emotional temperament, or one given to jumping to conclusions and hurrying off to broadcast them to the world, he was the kind of man who asks for time, that he may study, examine, and prove. We may not agree with all the conclusions he reached. Even great theologians and great saints have differed widely–and sometimes in unsaintly fashion–over the meaning of the Scriptures. But any unprejudiced mind will surely agree on this, that in his search for truth and in his endeavor to find a rational basis for his faith, he proceeded on the sound principle of searching the Scriptures.

He leaves us in no doubt as to the specific methods he employed in his examination of the Scriptures.

"I then devoted myself to prayer and to the reading of the word. I determined to lay aside all my prepossessions, to thoroughly compare Scripture with Scripture, and to pursue its study in a regular and methodical manner. I commenced with Genesis, and read verse by verse, proceeding no faster than the meaning of the several passages should be so unfolded, as to leave me free from embarrassment respecting any mysticism or contradictions. Whenever I found anything obscure, my practice was to compare it with all collateral passages; and by the help of Cruden is concordance], I examined all the texts of Scripture in which were found any of the prominent words contained in any obscure portion. Then by letting every word have its proper bearing on the subject of the text, if my view of it harmonized with every collateral passage in the Bible, it ceased to be a difficulty." [33]

Miller explained that he thus pursued the study of the Bible "for about two years," with the result that he was "satisfied that it is its own interpreter." This was no new, strange conclusion he reached; rather it was a conclusion that all conservative Bible students have reached through the centuries. It is true that reaching such a conclusion, and proceeding upon it, is no guarantee that the finite mind will always interpret rightly each passage of scripture. But this much is certain, that only by proceeding on the conclusion that the Bible is its own best interpreter, is there any hope of finding our way safely through the deeper or more obscure passages of the Scriptures.

Miller also concluded from his study of the Bible that it should be understood literally unless there is clear proof that figurative language is being employed by the inspired writer. That is, the words of Scripture ought to be understood in their ordinary historical and grammatical sense, even as with secular writing, except in those instances where the writer used figurative language. In thus viewing the Scriptures literally Miller was simply following the path of conservative theologians from the very beginnings of Protestantism. He was announcing no new arbitrary rule for understanding the Bible. The Protestant Reformers declared that the medieval practice of giving mysterious and varied spiritual meanings to Scripture texts, really gave to the Bible a nose of wax by which it could be turned in any direction that the unbridled fancy and spiritual imagination of the theologian might wish to turn it. Now, the employment of the rule that the Scriptures should be viewed literally unless an obviously figurative language is employed, will not in itself assure us fallible mortals a correct understanding of the Holy Word. But of this we can be sure, that only by following faithfully this rule can we hope to walk in the path that leads toward a correct understanding. Miller chose at the very outset to walk that path.

As Miller concentrated month after month for those two years in his reading and comparing of scriptures, he made a further discovery. He noted that while prophecies are generally couched in figurative language, they are fulfilled literally. He observed this not only by comparing scripture with scripture but also by comparing scripture with history. With this conclusion any conservative theologian agrees. Unquestionably the Bible prophecies regarding the first advent of Christ were most literally fulfilled, even though those prophecies themselves were framed in symbolic language.

From this deduction he moved logically to a final conclusion which was to launch him ultimately on his lifework. He reasoned that if the prophecies which have been fulfilled in the past provide a key to understanding those yet to be fulfilled, then we should look for a literal second advent of Christ.

He argued cogently that if the Bible is truly a revelation of God's will to man, it is not presumptuous to seek to understand the prophecies that are a part of the revelation. He explained that in his study of the prophecies he examined one line of prophetic statement after another, reaching each time the conclusion that the prophets pointed to his day as the very last period of earth's history. To phrase it in his own words:

"Finding all the signs of the times and the present condition of the world, to compare harmoniously with the prophetic descriptions of the last days, I was compelled to believe that this world had about reached the limits of the

period allotted for its continuance. As I regarded the evidence, I could arrive at no other conclusion. " [34]

Specifically, he put his first and greatest emphasis on the prophetic declaration, "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed." Daniel 8:14. Believing that the "cleansing" of the sanctuary involved the purging of this earth by fire, that "days" in symbolic prophecy stand for years, and that this time prophecy began about 457 B. C., he reached this final conclusion:

"I was thus brought, in 1818, at the close of my two years' study of the Scriptures, to the solemn conclusion, that in about twenty-five years from that time all the affairs of our present state would be wound up." [35]

Now, "about twenty-five years from" 1818 would be "about the year 1843." Let Miller tell in his own language of the effect produced upon him, an effect that was to be reproduced in many thousands of others in the years to come:

"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 a participation in the joys of the redeemed. The Bible was now to me a new book. It was indeed a feast of reason: all that was dark, mystical, or obscure to me in its teachings, had been dissipated from my mind, before the clear light that now dawned from its sacred pages; and O how bright and glorious the truth appeared...I became nearly settled in my conclusions, and began to wait, and watch, and pray for my Saviour's coming." [36]

Did Miller immediately rush forth from that northeast front room of his house, which had been his study for two years, to announce to the world his conclusions? If he had been a notoriety-seeking adventurer who wished to make money from prophesying, as was so often charged in the public press in later years, any delay in going forth to capitalize on such a discovery would seem inexplicable. Why delay? Even if we eliminate the idea of mercenary adventure and think of Miller simply as an excitable fanatic–as some of his critics indulgently described him–we are equally puzzled to know why he should not have hastened from his home in 1818 to begin proclaiming to all the world his conclusions about the second advent of Christ. Miller actually waited thirteen years. And why? To the person who wishes to find the true measure of the man the answer to this question is of great importance. Let him speak for himself:

"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 in view of the evidence that had affected my own mind. If the end was so near, it was important that the world should know it. I supposed that it would call forth the opposition of the ungodly; but it never came into my mind that any Christian would oppose it. I supposed that all such would be so rejoiced in view of the glorious prospect, that it would only be necessary to present it, for them to receive it. My great fear was, that in their joy at the hope of a glorious inheritance so soon to be revealed, they would receive the doctrine without sufficiently examining the Scriptures in demonstration of its truth. I therefore feared to present it, lest by some possibility I should be in error, and be the means of misleading any." [37]

How carefully he sought to criticize his own beliefs and conclusions is revealed in the next sentence:

"Various difficulties and objections would arise in my mind, from time to time; certain texts would occur to me, which seemed to weigh against my conclusions; and I would not present a view to others, while any difficulty appeared to militate against it. I therefore continued the study of the Bible, to see if I could sustain any of these objections. My object was not merely to remove them, but I wished to see if they were valid." *38

In thus examining and re-examining the arguments for and against his belief, he "was occupied for five years."

"I was then fully settled in the conclusions which seven years previously had begun to bear with such impressive force upon my mind; anti the duty of presenting the evidence of the nearness of the advent to others–which I had managed to evade while I could find the shadow of an objection remaining against its truth–again came home to me with great force." [39]

Up to this time, he explained, he had thrown out only occasional hints of his views. He "then began to speak more clearly" his opinions to "neighbors, to ministers, and others." He was astonished to find "very few who listened with any interest." How could this combination of farmer and soldier, who possessed no theological training, have any ideas worth serious attention in the field of religion? This probably was the way the neighbors reasoned.

Had they not known William since he was a small boy on the farm?

Though disappointed in this response, he "continued to study the Scriptures" with the increasing conviction settling upon him that he had "a personal duty to perform respecting this matter." He wrote that when he was about his business there was continually ringing in his ears the command, "Go and tell the world of their danger."

And why did he delay still longer after having spent more than seven years in intensive study and critical examination of his conclusions? We read:

"I tried to excuse myself to the Lord for not going out and proclaiming it to the world. I told the Lord that I was not used to public speaking, that I had not the necessary qualifications to gain the attention of an audience, that I was very diffident and feared to go before the world." [40]

Thus we have the full answer to why he waited thirteen years before going out to preach. Here was no cocksure enthusiast making a snap judgment or jumping to a conclusion; rather, the opposite. Keenly aware of the limitations of the mind, of the dangers of error in reasoning, he gave to all these dangers great weight. Far from being an irrepressible person seeking an excuse to stand in the limelight, he was so diffident about assuming the role of public lecturer that it took eight years for him to bring himself to the point of speaking publicly even after he had reached a final and fixed conclusion as to the validity of his beliefs. Captain Miller who had stood bravely at Fort Scott while men fell close beside him, quailed at the thought of becoming Preacher Miller who would have to stand before the public. More than one brave man has had a sinking of heart at the thought of looking into a sea of faces.

Miller's study of the Bible, which is best remembered for the arresting conclusion he reached regarding the time of the end of the world, was not confined to this one line of thought. He evidently studied the Scriptures with a view to formulating for himself a clear-cut belief on every Bible doctrine that affected his salvation. In a small notebook, still preserved, is found a statement of belief in his own handwriting. It is dated "Hampton, September 5th, 1822." There is nothing startling about most of the articles in this creed. *41 Any Calvinistic Baptist would probably subscribe to all except one of them, with scarcely a change of a word. In fact, if we eliminate from his creed Calvin's dour doctrine of predestination, and the Baptist statement on the mode of baptism, virtually all conservative Protestant bodies would subscribe to the views he set down. He had no theological training and had sat down alone with the Bible in one hand and the concordance in the other. But the results of his years of study, as revealed in his creed and in his basic rules of interpretation, speak eloquently of the straightness of his thinking.

The one article of his faith which not even a Calvinistic Baptist would have been ready to accept was that numbered fifteen. It reads, "I believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty- one years, or on or before 1843."

Of his life during this period of study we know little. In fact, we have been able to find only one letter written during that time. This letter was written in 1824. It is addressed to Elisha Ashley, Esq., of Poultney, Vermont. He told "Brother Ashley" about the "fractured arm" he had suffered, and how he was detained in Newhaven and thus would be unable to attend a missionary meeting at which Brother Ashley was to be present. The fervent missionary zeal that controlled Miller is revealed in this letter:

"While the Lord gives me breath I hope I shall feel anxious for the cause and willing to do all that our duty requires. Do try to raise a missionary spirit in our brethren. Oh! that they might feel the importance of being co- workers with God–for the time is at hand when the captivity of Zion shall return and her walls will be built up." [42]

Miller's biographer has preserved for us a letter he wrote to his sister and brother-in-law in the summer of 1825, in which he reveals the same ardent religious feelings and exhorts his sister to live a life acceptable to God. This letter contains an interesting postscript dated June 30. It tells of his having gone to Whitehall, about five miles from Low Hampton, to see Marquis de Lafayette, who had endeared himself to America at the time of the Revolution. Lafayette was making a tour of the States in his old age. Here is Miller's firsthand comment on the marquis:

"He has suffered much; yet he retains a good constitution. He goes a little lame, occasioned by wounds he received in the Revolution. He deserves the thanks of Americans, and he has received a general burst of gratitude from Maine to the Mississippi. He has visited every State in the Union and almost every important town. I had the pleasure of dining with him; and after dinner he took a passage for New York." [43]

On this occasion he, with others, had dinner with the marquis. Captain Miller must have been considered a leading citizen in the area in which he lived.

During his postwar, studious years Miller was busy with the many tasks that belonged to the farmer. Most of the time, however, he held also the office of justice of the peace. [44]

If during the week Miller was busy with his farm, or with jotting down the important matters concerning the cases that came before him, he also took time on Sunday to record important statements he heard in sermons. How long he followed this practice is not known. There is preserved a small book in which he wrote out briefly the salient facts of the weekly sermons with the names of the ministers who spoke. [45] Sometimes the outline of a sermon is quite lengthy. Miller must have paid very close attention in order to write so specifically. Probably he did not then realize that he was taking a very practical course in sermon preparation. His own sermon outlines in later years reveal that he had profited well by this course.

The time was drawing near when Miller would no longer be the worshiper in the pew but the preacher in the pulpit. An Elder Andrews, whose sermons Miller outlined in his "Text Book," as he called it, quite possibly was one of those to whom Miller spoke of the soon coming of Christ. At least we have in Miller's handwriting a statement of certain of his beliefs addressed to Andrus, which begins–"The first proof we have, as it respects Christ's second coming as to time, is in Daniel 8:14: 'Unto two thousand three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.' By days we are to understand years, sanctuary we understand the church, cleansed we may reasonably suppose means that complete redemption from sin, both soul and body, after the resurrection when Christ comes the second time 'without sin unto salvation.' " [46]

Into the details of his explanation of this prophetic statement we need not here go. The manuscript fills eight closely packed pages and moves from one line of evidence to another in the series of reasons which, according to Miller, established the belief that the Lord would come "about the year 1843."

But writing even an extended statement like this to a ministerial friend did not quiet the clamorous command that kept ringing in his ears: "Go and tell the world of their danger." He could not free his mind from that impelling sense of duty. If he remained silent, the blood of the lost would be on his garments. Thus he reasoned.

His conviction, his sense of duty, was real, constant, and insistent. But the reader would be mistaken if he now pictured Miller as a man with a strange glint in his eye, so completely obsessed with a sense of duty and destiny that he was no longer quite human like the rest of us. The evidence is clear that this man, who was soon to mount the public platform, always kept his feet on the ground, and strange as it may seem to some who think of a crusading religionist as being rather devoid of normal emotions, Miller actually displayed a delightful sense of humor. God gave us that sense; we did not acquire it with the forbidden fruit. Its judicious, wholesome use has saved more than one man from tense nerves and helped him to maintain his balance. We would not be presenting a full picture of Miller if we failed to quote from a letter he wrote to "Dear Brother and Sisters, Emily and all," in 1831. A few lines down in the letter we read these solicitous words to Emily:

"Emily, I thank you for writing, and if it was possible for me to find you a husband I would do it. But that is doubtful you know. But my prayers are that you may not be an old maid. Therefore you see I have your welfare at heart." [47]

In a later paragraph he returns to this sensitive subject:

"Emily, I must tell you some news. The gossips say Pardy is going to be married to an old maid that keeps house for him. Her name is McCotter.

She is about your age and not half as handsome...I beg of you, Emily, not to be an old maid if you can buy a man for love or money. And if there is none that will be sold or given for love, do beg one, old or young, big or little...and take off the curse."

This was William Miller speaking in 1831, only a few months before he began his life's work. The counsel he gave is whimsical, perhaps even banal, but it shows better than any reasoned argument ever could that Miller's fervent conviction of religious duty had not made him less human. Within the circle of his family–and the letter was written only for their eyes–there was no doubt that he was considered a very normal man.

But "Brother and Sisters, Emily and all," were not left with a one-sided humorous view of him, pardonable as that might be in a family letter. In the very next sentence after he had pleaded with Emily to "take off the curse," Miller declared with simple fervor, and with no apology for the swift transition in thought, "The Lord is pouring out His Spirit in this region in a miraculous manner." Then follows in detail a description of revivals being held in that area. This was William Miller–both fervent and human. This was the man whose voice was so soon to be heard in the pulpit, proclaiming the second coming of Christ "about the year 1843."