The Midnight Cry

DEVOTE MY WHOLE TIME, LECTURING." These words to his friend Hendryx near the close of 1834 reveal the rising tempo of Miller's program. Preaching was no longer an avocation. A diary he kept of his travels for a period of years carries this line at the top of the first page: "Beginning October 1st, 1834." The diary records the date and place of each lecture for a period of four years and eight months, and gives the book, chapter, and verse that he used in each lecture. He calls this little diary a "Text Book."

The early months of 1835 showed an expansion of Miller's activity and success. Writing to Hendryx in the spring, he said:

"In every place I have visited, the Lord has given me some fruits. Oh! Brother Hendryx, this is marvelous in our eyes that He should take such an old 'dry stick' as I am, and bring down the proud and haughty infidel. Yet blessed be His name, He can and will work by whom He will. Pray for me, my brother, that I may be kept humble, for I am exceeding jealous of my proud heart...I now have four or five ministers to hear me in every place I lecture. I tell you it is making no small stir in these regions." [68]

Then he added this news item: "Old Elder Fuller is preaching this same doctrine in Connecticut and writes me that it has a powerful effect." This is perhaps the first record of definite activity in the preaching of Miller's views of the prophecies on the part of any other minister, with definite results.

The edition of the sixty-four-page pamphlet printed in 1833 must have been exhausted early in 1835, for the publisher, Isaac Wescott, wrote that he had decided to get out another edition.

"I shall get 1,000 copies for myself which can be done for $100. If you want 500 copies I can get 1,500 for $135. Do you wish to revise the work or make any addition? If so, write or come and see me immediately. The latter would be best." [69]

We do not know the exact size of any of these early editions. But even an edition of 1,500 may be considered quite impressive when it is remembered that up to this time practically the only stimulus to the sale and circulation of this literature was the preaching of one man. And most of that preaching was done in villages and small towns.

We pick up the thread of Miller's travels again in a letter written to Hendryx at the end of the summer of 1835. He opened his letter with this comment on his delay in writing:

"More than two months and my letter not answered, you will say. Yes, and if I did not hate apologies abominably I would make one; but as they always contain lies and are the child of vanity or pride, I shall only say, I have now sat down to my old-fashioned desk, in my east room, to have a few minutes' conversation with Brother Truman...I am yet engaged in my occupation in warning the inhabitants to be prepared for the great day of God Almighty, and am endeavoring to prove by the Scriptures that that day is near 'even at the door.'...Then I pray God to direct the arrow to the heart, the seat of life. But in the first place I ask God through Jesus Christ to nerve the arm that pulls the bow, to sharpen the arrow that twangs from it." [70]

Miller, fearing that such speaking might sound too vain, added immediately that he thought he heard his friend Hendryx saying, "Brother Miller smells a little of egotism, great I." A true revelation of his heart is disclosed in the next sentence:

"But I will confess more. I sometimes feel as though I can do all things 'through Christ strengthening me,' and sometimes the shaking of a leaf is terror to me. Now laugh as much as you please, if it does you any good, my brother; it will do me no hurt."

Even a brave soldier has to admit fear at times, and Miller by his own testimony was not always the bold, poised, confident man that his listeners may have thought him to be.

He gave a long recital of the different cities in which he had recently lectured, and ended on this hurried note: "Shall be under the necessity of starting in a few minutes I shall be absent until about the first of October."

The year 1836 saw a further significant development in his work. Up to now he had had only his sixty-four page pamphlet to leave with those who requested reading matter But increasingly he was asked why he did not put his lectures in a permanent book form. Writing to Hendryx in the spring, he said: "I have, when at home, been engaged in writing and preparing forthe press eighteen lectures on the second coming,...as I have been strongly solicited for a copy of the lectures for publication." [71] He stated that the book would be about 200 pages in length and sell for about fifty cents, and that it would "be much more full than the pamphlet." [72] He also remarked that another edition of the pamphlet had been brought out, "but by whom I cannot tell." In those days it was quite a common thing for a not too scrupulous publisher to bring out an edition of a work without the knowledge of the author or the first publisher. However, no publisher would engage in this morally doubtful procedure unless he was certain that the publication would have a good sale. This is simply another way of saying that the interest in Millerism must have become quite real and evident by then.

Miller told his Baptist preacher friend, Hendryx, of eight Baptist ministers who "are now preaching" his views. He gave the name of each and added, "Many others believe but dare not preach it." On this point he was very specific, for he named ten preachers, concluding the series with this rather pointed remark: "And may I say Hendryx belongs to this class."

While Miller may have had rugged speech, he did not have a rugged constitution. The labors of his later years were to be greatly hampered by periods of illness. One of the first mentions we have of sickness is in a letter to Hendryx in the summer of 1836. Miller wrote of having been "confined at home for three weeks past by a bilious complaint." [73] The doctors today might diagnose the case differently, but the important point is that Miller was already beginning to be troubled with those spells of illness that broke into the cycle of his lecturing. He related that he was "taken unwell while lecturing." "Yet I finished my course of lectures," he added. There was a stimulus to keep him going in the fact that the meeting place was "filled to overflowing for eight days in succession."

There were many clergymen attending. They seemed not to be confined to any one denomination, for he mentioned Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Universalists. That such men came out night after night, listening attentively, never failed to astonish Miller. Said he:

"I can only account for it by supposing that God is supporting the old man, weak, wicked, imperfect, and ignorant as he is, to confound the wise and mighty...It makes me feel like a worm, a poor feeble creature, for it is God only that could produce such an effect on such audiences."

Remember that this statement, in common with similar ones already quoted, is not the platform utterance of a man who is seeking to create the effect of humility before an audience of strangers. These are the quiet, confidential thoughts expressed by one intimate friend to another.

There is a good reason for calling particular attention to different statements in Miller's correspondence at this period of his life. In the first place, it is during this period that we have the best collection of personal letters that reveal his character. From 1840 onward Millerism was no longer the activity of one man primarily, but of a very great and increasing group of men. The distinctive features of his character are then not so clearly evident, nor do we have so many of his letters from which to draw. Second, in those later years the Millerite movement, and most particularly Miller, came under heavy fire from every kind of critic. Much of the criticism impugned the personal motives of Miller and his close associates. It will help us later in evaluating these numerous character indictments if we keep in mind what his personal letters reveal in this decade from 1830 to 1840.

At the close of the year he was able to tell Hendryx that the book of lectures had been published and that there was already a large market for it. "I sold 300 in three towns in St. Lawrence County this fall." [74] He had spent eight weeks in that area and had delivered "82 lectures" during the fall. He expected the next week to leave home again for another tour. His "Text Book" shows that he lectured some in every month of the year 1836 except November and December. This little "Text Book" contains something else very interesting. Beside the entry for June 20, 1836, is this notation in the margin, "$4." Someone had given him four dollars to pay his transportation to Lansingburgh, New York. This, along with a "$2" entry of September 3, 1835, apparently represented the total of gifts he had received since he began his public labors in 1831. [75] In the margin of his entry for October 3 is found the notation ".50," and then under October 16 is the notation "$3." After that there is no further financial item recorded until February 10, 1837, which carries the notation "$1.50." Thus the record reads in small change, scattered sparsely over the months and years. As a financial venture Millerism was not paying large dividends.

When Miller wrote to Hendryx early in 1837 he had something new to tell of successes attending his lectures. He had just delivered a series of sixteen lectures on the second coming. As usual there were ministers present, but in this case one of the ministers arose to confess his belief in Miller's preaching. Here is the way he describes it in his letter:

"Elder Mattison got up at the close of my last discourse, and in a most solemn and impressive manner told the congregation that he 'had been convicted, confounded and converted,' and confessed he had written and said things against the speaker of which he was now ashamed. He had called him 'the end of the world man' and 'the old visionary,' 'dreamer,' 'fanatic,' etc. 'And,' said he, 'I came to meeting with a determination to not believe, and to expose him and his folly to the people who should be present. -And have therefore watched with a close attention and a jealous eye.'" [76]

But he found no occasion to object. "If you will believe me, brother," continued Miller, "this honest confession was like a thunderbolt in the assembly."

So the number of those who accepted his teachings grew. Not simply unlettered laymen but ministers were being steadily added to the total. What manner of man was this William Miller who could persuade preachers of various denominations to accept his teachings? Preachers are not in the habit of changing their religious views. Laymen may and do change beliefs at times, but ministers rarely. This is a simple statement of fact and only gives point to the question, What manner of man was this William Miller that he could persuade even ministers to believe teachings that could result only in their being called visionaries and fanatics, even as Miller was being called? The answer cannot be found in the personality of the man. He was anything but prepossessing. Even his friends painted a rather modest picture of him as regards his platform ability. His language was often colloquial and occasionally ungrammatical. His word pictures help to explain why he could hold an audience for an hour or two at a time. But even such oratory does not fully explain his success. We believe it does not even go to the heart of the matter. While an emotional fraction of the population can unthinkingly be carried away by colorful adjectives and dramatic perorations, the clergy are not thus swept off their feet. The ministers who came to listen to him were accustomed to using adjectives and dramatics themselves.

There must have been a certain force and appeal not only in the earnestness of the man but in the logical way in which he marshaled his arguments. True, there was patently an error somewhere in his reasoning. Christ did not come "about the year 1843," but that error was not immediately discernible to the ministry who came to listen. Later we shall devote a chapter to a discussion of the controversy that raged between Miller and certain of the ministry who sought to demolish his teachings. For the present we need only remark that the force and effectiveness of Miller's preaching lay in the kind of argument and evidence that he brought forth in support of his teachings, and not in any dramatics or tricks of publicity.

This conclusion finds strong support in the fact that many became converts to Miller's views without ever having met him. They simply read what he wrote. Take this letter, for example, that was written to him from Boston early in 1838:

"I am a stranger to you, but I trust that through the free sovereign grace of God I am not altogether a stranger to Jesus Christ, whom you serve. I am the pastor of an orthodox Congregational church in this city. A few weeks since, your lectures on the second coming of Christ were put into my hands. I sat down to read the work, knowing nothing of the views which it contained. I have studied it with an overwhehning interest, such as I never felt in any other book except the Bible. I have compared it with Scripture and history, and I find nothing on which to rest a single doubt respecting the correctness of your views...

"There is a meeting of our ministerial association tomorrow, and as I am appointed to read an essay, I design to bring up this whole subject for discussion, and trust that I may thereby do something to spread the truth."

[77]

Here is no illiterate layman expressing himself under the spell of Miller's preaching. This is a minister who had studied at Brown University telling of the effect produced on him by merely reading Miller's book of lectures. His name is Charles Fitch. We shall hear more of him later as a prominent spokesman of the Millerite movement in the early 1840's.

In midsummer of 1838 Miller wrote to Hendryx: "I have been absent from home more than three fourths of my time." Hendryx had written, urging Miller to come over into Pennsylvania to his church. Miller replied:

"You speak of my coming there, and the house being crammed. I need not go there to see a house, not only crammed, but jammed. Last Sabbath I preached in Benson and saw the house jammed full, lobby and all. But, my brother, there is no pleasure to me particularly in that. The multitude may today cry Hosanna, and tomorrow 'Crucify him.' Lord, what is man? " [78]

He told of having received a letter from an Elder West, who had charged him in vigorous language with holding certain wrong views on salvation, and of having received a letter from an Elder Claflin, charging him with holding exactly the opposite views on salvation. Observed Miller: "They both quote Bible."

Miller felt hopeful, however, that something could be done for these two preachers who assailed him on different sides and in such an unchristian spirit. Here is the picturesque way he believed they could be helped:

"I think if we could take Elder West and Elder Claflin and boil them well over the fire of persecution, stir them well together with the rod of Christian experience, cool them off in the kettle of practical godliness, and strain them both through the sieve of electing love, then stir in a little leaven of Christian piety, then let them stand in a by place until suppertime, when the blessed Saviour should come they would be fit for use."

The reading of the West and Claflin letters with their opposite theological views and their equal appeal to Scripture aroused a serious line of thought in Miller's mind, hardly the line of thought that any irrevocably fixed fanatic would entertain:

"Since I read Father West's letter, I have had some strong jealousy of old Brother Miller. Thinks I to myself: If as good a man as you say Father West is, can twist the Scriptures to accommodate his views, as he does the parable of the ten virgins, why may not old Brother Miller do the same and neither of us know it? He thinks he had got the truth on one point, and therefore bends all the Scriptures to his point. When in fact and truth, there are more points than one in Scripture. Brother Claflin has a different point, and does the same. And who knows but that old Brother Miller has the same fault? He sees, he thinks, clearly both of them in this fault, but not his own fault. So do they. 'Lord, what is man.'"

Could anyone be asked to make a more penetrating criticism of himself than that? Or could any man find a more reasonable way out of the dilemma that such musings generate, than the forthright plan Miller suggested when he wrote the next sentence?

"I have finally come to this conclusion that I must read the Bible for myself, try all that in me lies to divest myself of prejudice, judge with candor, get rid of self, preach what I believe to be truth, try to please God more than man, and then leave all in the hand of my divine Master and wait for His decision."

Addressing himself to his friend, he asked, "Will this do, Brother Hendryx? or can you give me some better advice? If you will, I will listen."

In November, Miller wrote to his son from Montpelier, where he was holding a series of lectures. He told his firstborn, William S., of the "solemn and interesting meeting" being conducted. "The minister has come out on my side. He is a good man."

Even in this personal letter to his own son Miller could not refrain from expressing a tremendous sense of duty to preach a message:

"Oh may God help me to give the truth! I think God has helped me thus far. I am more and more convinced that God is speaking through me. I know my own weakness, and I do know that I have neither power of body or mind to do what the Lord is doing by me as an instrument. It is the Lord's doings and marvelous in our eyes. The world do not know how weak I am. They think more, much more, of the old man than I think of him. Therefore I know it is God that is warning men of their danger. How often I think of Hampton–of the people–of my children. Why will they not believe? Why will they not hear! Why not be wise? O God do awake the people of God in Hampton, and those who are sleeping over the volcano of God's wrath. Do, my Father, convert my children!" [79]

His "Text Book" shows 1838 bristling with a record of appointments, many of them, in every month of the year. And with rare exceptions, when on a speaking trip, the record shows two lectures delivered daily.

The year 1839 found Miller lecturing in Rochester, Vermont. With the exception of the seventh of January he preached every day that month. There were two lectures each day, and as if to make up for his failure to lecture on the seventh, for he had been traveling to a new place on that day, the "Text Book" shows that he preached three times on the fourteenth. One sermon must have been before breakfast in the morning, because on the fourteenth he not only lectured three times but traveled to a new place. Of the difficulties of travel he wrote this home to his son William:

"There has been a great freshet in this place [Gaysville] and vicinity, so much as to sweep off almost all the bridges, and of course I shall not be able to come home until next Thursday. I will if God permit be at Castleton [a town near Low Hampton] on Thursday evening in the Rutland stage, and if I can be met there I shall be glad." [80]

However, despite inclement weather, success had attended his efforts throughout the month:

"I received the box of books [on January 18 his son had written saying he was sending a box of sixty books as requested], and they were all sold in two hours. If I had as many more I could dispose of them immediately."

No advance agents had preceded him to create a stir in each community. He traveled as any other mortal. From the stagecoach or the train stepped "the old man with his concordance," who had a series of lectures to deliver. That was all. There might not even be anyone at the station to meet him. How unimpressive he appeared is revealed in an incident recorded by his biographer, Bliss. Before Miller went down to Massachusetts in the spring of 1839 on his first trip to that State, Timothy Cole, who knew of Miller only by reputation, had written inviting him to lecture in his church in Lowell. The arrangement was that on a certain evening Miller would arrive at the railway station. Cole knew only that Miller "wore a camlet cloak and white hat, but expected to see a fashionably dressed gentleman." Let Bliss tell the story from this point onward:

"On the arrival of the [railway] cars, he went to the depot to meet him. He watched closely the appearance of all the passengers as they left the cars, but saw no one who corresponded with his expectations of Mr. M. Soon he saw an old man, shaking with the palsy, with a white hat and camlet cloak, alight from the cars. Fearing that this one might prove to be the man, and, if so, regretting that he had invited him to lecture in his church, he stepped up to him, and whispered in his ear, "'Is your name Miller? ' "Mr. M. nodded assent. "'Well,' said he, 'follow me.'

"He led the way, walking on ahead, and Mr. M. keeping as near as he could, till he reached his house. He was much chagrined that he had written for a man of Mr. M's appearance, who, he concluded, could know nothing respecting the Bible, but would confine his discourse to visions and fancies of his own.

"After tea, he told Mr. M. he supposed it was about time to attend church; and again led the way, Mr. M. bringing up the rear. He showed Mr. M. into the desk, but took a seat himself among the congregation. Mr. M. read a hymn; after it was sung he prayed, and read another hymn, which was also sung. He felt unpleasant at being left in the pulpit alone, but took for his text: 'Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.' This he sustained and illustrated by apposite quotations of Scripture, proving a second personal and glorious appearing of Christ. Elder C. listened for about fifteen minutes, when, seeing that he presented nothing but the word of God, and that he opened the Scriptures in a manner that did honor to the occasion, like a workman who needeth not to be ashamed, he walked up into the pulpit, and took his seat. Mr. M. lectured there from the 14th to the 22d of May, and again from the 29th to the 4th [81] of June. A glorious revival followed, and Elder C. embraced his views in full, continuing for six years a devoted advocate of them." [82]

It was in connection with these meetings at Lowell, so Bliss recorded, that Miller first met Josiah Litch, a minister who had recently accepted his views on prophecy and was soon to join him in a greatly enlarged work of preaching.

The aftereffect of Miller's preaching in Lowell was set down by Cole in a letter to Miller the next month:

"We have seen a good day here in the things of the kingdom. Since you left us I have baptized about forty, and sixty in all have joined the church, and there are yet some who are seeking the Lord. Our brethren most of them stand fast in the faith which they have received and are looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing." [83] Then follows an item of rumor which by itself might have meant little: "Brother Miller, there is rumor here that you have published to the world that you had made a mistake of 100 years in your calculation and that Christ will not come till 1943 or thereabouts. Now, I do not believe it, but I want you to write me on this subject immediately and let me know, for our enemies are busy in circulating the report that you have acknowledged your mistake."

This was only one of many rumors that soon were in circulation regarding Miller's teachings and the Millerite movement. One reason why it was difficult even for well-meaning people to see the movement in the right light was the heavy fog of rumor and false stories–a synthetic fog generated by the hot breath of gossip and ridicule condensing in the chilly atmosphere that increasingly enveloped the Millerites.

This particular hundred-year error story was repeatedly denied and as repeatedly arose again, for a "good" story need not be true in order to survive denial–it need only be "good." That story grew, as all "good" stories grow, so that it was not long before the word was abroad that Miller had admitted an error of a thousand years in his reckoning. This is not the only instance, as we shall discover, where stories quickly grew to ten times their original size.

However, so far as Cole's church was concerned, the rumor seemed not to have proved very disastrous to the convictions of the members, for he said this in a closing line:

"Your son sent me eighty books. I sold them all in a week and could have sold eighty more."

A further light on the growth of Millerism in terms of the circulation of his book of lectures, is indicated in a letter from the publisher, Isaac Wescott, to Miller's son: "Saturday evening I received your letter saying that your father would take the 1,000 Miller's lectures provided 600 could be sent to Boston in 15 days from date of your letter." [84] Wescott assured the son that the books would be sent.

Miller's first [85] "Text Book" ends with June 9, 1839, carrying this line near the bottom of the page: "Here ends my tour into Massachusetts."

Immediately below is a summary: "Making 800 lectures from October 1, 1834, to June 9, 1839, four years, six [eight?] months, nine days." This summary speaks for itself as to the time and nervous energy spent by Miller to promote the doctrine of the "advent near" in those few brief years.