The Midnight Cry

FOR MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS the "old farmer," as Miller picturesquely called himself, carried on his preaching mostly in small towns and villages in northern New England. He had gone from place to place wholly in response to direct invitations. He was a good preacher but not a good promoter. The idea of renting a large hall in a great city and employing the standard publicity methods for drawing a crowd, had probably never occurred to him. When he made the compact with God in the grove by his house that August day in 1831, he had agreed to go and tell the world. He was giving increasingly of his time and of his means to reach as many as desired to hear him. What more could he be expected to do? That was probably the way he reasoned. It is nothing against the man that his vision was limited. We marvel, not that he failed to do more, but that he accomplished what he did singlehanded at his own charges, and with no theological training. He had never lived in or near large cities. He was part of frontier America.

But the seed that he had sown during those eight years was soon to spring forth in a hundred places. The discussion of Miller's views had extended far beyond the literal range of his voice. Many ministers who might be skeptical of his particular views about the time of the advent were at least interested to hear him, particularly because his preaching uniformly resulted in a revival of religion, with all the stimulus of church life and activities that revival meant.

While traveling and lecturing in Massachusetts in October of 1839, Miller received an invitation to speak at the Chardon Street Chapel in Boston. The letter was signed by Joshua V. Himes, the pastor. Coming events may cast their shadows before, but there was nothing in this invitation that seemed different from scores of others Miller had been receiving. In fact, it was so routine, perhaps beyond his limit to accept, that it seems he had not even replied to the request when a few weeks later he met Himes, as one of a group of ministers who had come to hear him lecture at Exeter, New Hampshire. Though Himes had only a brief contact with him, he was sufficiently impressed to renew his invitation. Miller accepted, and on the eighth of December, 1839, he began his first preaching in the cultural center called Boston.

Little did Miller realize that as Himes listened day by day to the lectures, great thoughts were stirring in his mind. Miller did not know that this pastor was in some respects different from any other preacher whose church he had visited. Here was a man of action, a born promoter, a man whose name was soon to be linked with his in every discussion of Millerism throughout the country. It was Himes who made the Boston visit important. The quality of importance ever resides in personalities, in people. It is not multitudes in the abstract, nor buildings, nor organizations that accomplish great things, but men, individual men with vision, conviction, faith, and ardor. Himes was in the spiritual succession of those who long ago were accused of turning the world upside down.

So far as Himes was concerned, Miller's preaching was either true or false. He squarely confronted Miller with the question: "Do you really believe this doctrine? " That question was no sooner answered than it was followed with this: "What are you doing to spread or diffuse it through the world? "

In that initial question is found a true insight into the man Himes. For him there was only one question of importance. If this message was really true, then what steps should be taken to blazon it over the whole land? Action, and on a large scale and without delay–that was the spirit of Joshua V. Himes.

Miller assured him that he was doing all that was within his limited powers. Himes did not dispute this, but insisted that despite all Miller's faithful efforts, his great message for the world was hardly known over the land. To which Miller replied:

"What can an old farmer do? I was never used to public speaking: I stand quite alone; and, though I have labored much, and seen many converted to God and the truth, yet no one. as yet, seems to enter into the object and spirit of my mission, so as to render me much aid. They like to have me preach and build up their churches; and there it ends, with most of the ministers, as yet. I have been looking for help. I want help."

For Himes, who had now accepted Miller's views, there was only one response he could make: "I laid myself, family, society, reputation, all, upon the altar of God, to help him, to the extent of my power, to the end."

Himes could not understand why Miller had not been in the large cities before. Miller explained that he had gone only to those places where he had been invited. Himes inquired whether he would be willing to go with him "where doors are opened." Miller assured him he would. "I then told him he might prepare for the campaign," said Himes; "for doors should be opened in every city in the Union, and the warning should go to the ends of the earth! Here I began to 'help' Father Miller." [86]

An audacious declaration, indeed, for a young pastor scarcely thirty-five years of age to make. What resources, what connections, did he possess? What powers were his that enabled him to make so bold a promise? There is no answer to such a question, except as it may be found in those mysterious qualities of the human spirit–faith, courage, and an irresistible sense of duty–qualities which ever have been more valuable than gold or princely connections in enabling a man to accomplish a great work.

Some readers no doubt will see in all this, not a display of high faith by a courageous man, but simply the foolhardy decision of a deluded fanatic. We shall not here argue that point. The degree of truth and error in the Millerite preaching we shall consider later. Even if we were to agree that the whole cause to which he dedicated his life was a mistake, consistency would not necessarily call for us to dismiss him with a pitying look. Have not some very great men been identified with lost causes–causes which now stand revealed as having been reared on altogether false premises?

We would here remark only that the true appraisal of a man must be made in terms of the sincerity, moral courage, and sacrificial ardor with which he seeks to promote a cause he truly believes to be good. If the reader is willing to keep this simple criterion of values in the forefront of his thinking, he will be better able to understand Miller and the group of ministers and others who cast in their lot with him.

Himes did not take long to give concrete proof of the genuineness of his interest in the prophetic views preached by Miller. One of the matters discussed by them almost immediately was the need of a paper of some kind for a more rapid, widespread presentation of the prophetic message. On more than one occasion Miller had wished that he might begin a paper,

but he had "never been able to find a man who was willing to run the risk of his reputation and the pecuniary expense, in such a publication." [87]

There was a further reason why he desired a paper: "For a long time previous to this, the papers had been filled with abusive stories respecting my labors, and they had refused to publish anything from me in reply." [88]

In the light of what was to follow in the next few years in this respect, the "abusive stories" that had thus far appeared were very tame. But at least they were very effective in confusing the minds of a great many people who otherwise might have been willing to listen to what Miller had to say. He wanted an organ through which he might present the truth concerning these false charges.

Hardly had he described to Himes the need of a publication for the movement when this born promoter proceeded "without a subscriber or any promise of assistance" to issue the first number of a publication called the Signs of the Times. This paper was started early in 1840. It was published in Boston and continued uninterruptedly throughout the history of the movement as a representative and powerful organ. Frequent references are found in the newspapers of the day to the Signs of the Times and to The Advent Herald, the name it assumed early in 1844.

How very real and scandalous was the abuse heaped upon Miller is evidenced from this item that appeared in the first issue:

"Rev. Parsons Cook of Lynn (Mass.) asserts in the Puritan, that Mr. Miller's lectures are more demoralizing than the theater!!!

"We should be pleased to hear from those societies with whom Mr. Miller has lectured. Will they tell us whether this charge is true? What has been tire effect of Mr. Miller's labors among them? Brethren, please let us hear soon.'' [89]

Here is plain speaking; here is a display of a forthright endeavor to get to the roots of a libelous story. But this is only the beginning, a rather mild sample of what was to engage the attention of the Signs of the Times and other Millerite publications in their endeavor not only to present truth as they saw it but to meet the attacks of their adversaries. Anyone who may have been under the impression that the Millerites were simply a company of shouting enthusiasts who let amens substitute for arguments and warm exhortation for cold logic, ought to read the Millerite papers. Not infrequently these papers quoted in full the outrageous yet often plausible stories, and then cut them to pieces with logic, sharp and often unanswerable. But we must not run ahead of our story.

It may seem incredible to some that Himes, in the first issue of the paper he was publishing because he wished to help Miller, should even by inference be willing to admit there was truth in the charge made by Parsons Cook. But one who has read extensively in the Millerite papers finds nothing incredible in the inquiry Himes appends to Cook's charge. The freest kind of discussion characterized these papers. Millerite leaders were so confident the various charges made against the movement were false, or at best half- truths, that they consistently followed the daring policy of publishing the charges and asking friend or foe for comments, if the editors were not prepared to dispose of the charge at once with a few vigorous strokes.

About this time a prominent Boston publisher brought out a new edition of Miller's lectures. His preaching must have been producing some effect upon the public that was discernible to businessmen, for this publisher was willing to risk an edition of 5,000 copies.

After lecturing for a brief period in Boston and near-by cities Miller went to Watertown, Massachusetts, to lecture there for the first week in March, 1840. We pick up the thread of out story in a letter he wrote to his son from Medford immediately afterward.

"We are now in this town on our way to Portland, Maine. I closed my course of lectures in Watertown last evening. I have never seen so great an effect in one place as there. I preached from Gen. 19:17, last lecture. Between 1,500 and 1,800 present. More than 100 under conviction." [90]

He added this on the personal subject of his health: "My health is some better than when I wrote last. My lungs are yet affected."

Miller lectured for thirteen days at the Casco Street Christian church in Portland. How great was the interest aroused among the thoughtless and ungodly as well as among the pious, is well illustrated by the following incident:

"A young man, hardly out of his teens, residing in the city, heard of Mr. M's lecturing, and though unconverted he was so awakened he determined to hear for himself. He entered a rumshop, where he found twelve of his acquaintances playing cards. Said he, 'Friends, there is a man in the city preaching at the Casco Street church that the Lord is coming in 1843. I think you better leave your gambling and go and hear him.' They at once stopped their gambling, gathered up their cards and money, and accompanied the young man to the meeting. The result was that the entire company was converted; and this man lives today to testify to the saving grace of God in rescuing him through the influence of Mr. Miller's preaching." [91]

The powerful effect produced by Miller's lectures is further revealed in a letter the pastor, L. D. Fleming, wrote him the next month:

"Since you left, the good work has been progressing firmly. I should think somewhere near 200 have professed conversion in our meetings since you left and the good work is spreading all over the city and in the country all around the city. Such a time was never known here. A number of grogshops have been broken up and converted into little meetinghouses. One or two gambling establishments have been also broken up. Little prayer meetings have been set up in almost every part of the city...

"Many opposers begin to acknowledge that there is a work of God here. But some of them hate to own that Miller had any hand as an instrument in the matter." [92]

Enclosed with Fleming's letter was one from Thomas F. Barry, another minister who had accepted Miller's views, and who had seen some of the results of his preaching. Barry informed Miller that the same kind of results reported by Fleming were continuing also in Portsmouth, Rye, Exeter, and other places. But, added Barry:

"The Congregationalists through this section report that Mr. Miller has by his lectures prompted many to read the Bible and thus have been led to embrace religion. But say they, he has done nothing to commence or to aid the unusual revivals of religion among us. This appears to be strange and inconsistent reasoning? " [93]

It would seem that good men a hundred years ago found it as hard as do good men today to admit even an evident fact when it goes counter to their prejudices.

There were notable exceptions, however. Specifically, there was the striking exception represented by the editor of the Maine Wesleyan Journal, who wrote in his paper a report of Miller's visit to Portland. We quote at some length because it is written, not by a friend of Miller, but simply by an onlooker:

"Mr. Miller has been in Portland, lecturing to crowded congregations in Casco Street church, on his favorite theme, the end of the world, or literal reign of Christ for 1,000 years. As faithful chroniclers of passing events, it will be expected of us that we say something of the man, and his peculiar views.

"Mr. Miller is about sixty years of age; a plain farmer from Hampton, in the State of New York. He is a member of the Baptist church in that place, from which he brings satisfactory testimonials of good standing, and a license to improve publicly. He has, we understand, numerous testimonials also from clergymen of different denominations favorable to his general character. We should think him a man of but common-school education; evidently possessing strong powers of mind, which for about fourteen years have been almost exclusively bent to the investigation of Scripture prophecies. The last eight years of his life have been devoted to lecturing on this favorite subject.

"In his public discourses he is self-possessed and ready; distinct in his utterance, and frequently quaint in his expressions. He succeeds in chaining the attention of his auditory for an hour and a half to two hours; and in the management of his subject discovers much tact, holding frequent colloquies with the objector and inquirer, supplying the questions and answers himself in a very natural manner; and although grave himself, sometimes producing a smile from a portion of his auditors.

"Mr. Miller is a great stickler for literal interpretations; never admitting the figurative, unless absolutely required to make correct sense or meet the event which is intended to be pointed out. He doubtless believes, most unwaveringly, all he teaches to others. His lectures are interspersed with powerful admonitions to the wicked, and he handles Universalism with gloves of steel.

"He is evidently disposed to make but little allowance for those who think differently from him on the millennium; dealing often in terrible denunciations against such as oppose his peculiar views on this point; as he fully believes they are crying peace and safety when sudden destruction cometh. Judging from what we see and hear, we should think his lectures are making a decided impression on many minds, favorable to his theory." [94]

Himes reported that when Miller read this story he exclaimed, "I have found one honest editor I" [95]

A letter from Fleming to Himes throws further light on the effect of Miller's meetings in Portland:

"Being down in the business part of our city, on the fourth inst., I was conducted into a room over one of the banks, where I found about thirty or forty men of different denominations, engaged with one accord in prayer, at about 11 o'clock in the daytime!...There is nothing like extravagant excitement, but an almost universal solemnity on the minds of all the people. One of the principal booksellers informed me that he had sold more Bibles in one month (since Brother Miller came here) than he had in any four months previous." [96]

Even when Miller returned home from a series of lectures, he did not throw off the role of preacher. With him the earnest, fervent appeal made audible on the platform was but the outward expression of a deep conviction that was always with him. When he returned from Portland he wrote to Himes:

"Those souls whom I have addressed in my six months' tour are continually before me, sleeping or waking; I can see them perishing by thousands; and when I reflect on the accountability of their teachers, who say 'peace and safety,' I am in pain for them." [97]

Even Miller's bitterest enemies among the clergy were willing to admit that he was a powerful speaker, drew great crowds, and made a deep impression. For example, there is the comment on his tour of the Boston area that was made by the Trumpet, an organ of the Universalists. The editor explained to his readers who lived far from Boston why he was taking time to discuss "so wild a vagary" as that of Miller's views. He said that while "William Miller is a weak-minded, vain, and self confident old man," nevertheless he is making sufficient impression to demand some consideration. The editor charged that "certain societies and clergymen in different parts of New England have seen fit to make a tool of the old man, for the purpose of getting up excitements, and gaining converts for their churches...Miller has been in the vicinity of Boston, some two or three months. He is constantly giving lectures, on his theory, which are attended by immense crowds." [98]

This and similar attacks quoted in the Signs appeared under the department head, "Refuge of Scotters."

During the spring and summer of 1840 Miller continued his ceaseless round of lecturing. In May of that year he delivered his first series in New York City. The record is very meager. Occasionally there appear the names of ministers who have accepted his views, and were beginning to make themselves felt either in their own churches or from the lecture platform elsewhere. The opposition was growing. There began to take shape in Miller's mind the realization that he was not simply a lone preacher filling individual appointments, but was the leader of a movement for which he must speak, and against whose traducers, in either the realm of character or doctrine, he must wield his sword. Near the close of the summer he wrote to Himes:

"Day after tomorrow I begin a course of lectures at Fort Ann. The next week I go north, where I have three places, which will take three weeks at least. I do not know what to say to you about coming to Massachusetts again. I have more business on hand than two men like me could perform. I must lecture twice every day. I must converse with many–answer a host of questions–write answers to letters from all points of the compass, from Canada to Florida, from Maine to Missouri. I must read all the candid arguments, (which I confess are not many,) that are urged against me. I must read all the 'slang' of the drunken and the sober...The polar Star must be kept in view,–the Chart consulted,–the compass watched,–the reckoning kept,–the sails set,–the rudder managed,–the ship cleaned, –the sailors fed,–the voyage prosecuted,–the port of rest to which we are destined, understood,–the watchman to answer the call, 'Watchman, what of the night?'"[99]

The very fact that others besides Miller were beginning to preach the doctrine of the soon coming of Christ seemed naturally to call for a conference of some sort where they could exchange ideas and harmonize as far as possible any differences they might have in their views. No movement can develop very far without some kind of exchange of ideas and co-ordination of activity. Up to this point there had been no real need of co- ordination, for Miller had been virtually the whole movement. The activity of any other preachers who had accepted his views had been rather sporadic and almost wholly limited to the particular churches over which they presided.

In the late summer a group of ministers headed by William Miller signed their names to a call for "a general conference on the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ." The meeting was announced to open October 13 at Boston. Said they:

"The object of the conference will not be to form a new organization in the faith of Christ; nor to assail others of our brethren who differ from us in regard to the period and manner of the advent; but to discuss the whole subject faithfully and fairly, in the exercise of that spirit of Christ in which it will be safe immediately to meet Him at the judgment seat.

"By so doing we may accomplish much in the rapid, general, and powerful spread of 'the everlasting gospel of the kingdom at hand,' that the way of the Lord may be speedily prepared, whatever may be the precise period of His coming." [100]

In an editorial that followed this announcement in the Signs of the Times, Himes remarked:

"The proposed conference is a new thing, and those who are concerned in calling it, intend to make it a holy convocation, a blessed meeting of humble, faithful, pious souls, who fear God and devoutly cherish the glorious hope of His soon appearing, to make this earth which He has redeemed both 'pure and holy, the land of the living and not of the dead.'" [101]

Miller started for this meeting, but he had traveled only a few miles when it became evident that a fever had overtaken him, and he was brought back home. He was suffering from what is now a relatively rare malady in America, typhoid fever. His inability to be present at this important conference brought him a disappointment that may well be imagined. His preaching for nine years was now ready to bear fruit on a large scale, and he must languish at home. How a man meets disappointment of cherished hopes, how he faces the painfully intimate problem of sickness, provides a real measure of the man. Miller's feelings and thoughts because of his sickness and disappointment are reflected in the message he sent to the conference, which reads in part:

"Why was I deprived of meeting those congenial minds in this good, this glorious cause of light and truth? Why am I to bear this last affliction, and not enjoy this one pleasure of meeting fellow laborers in a cause so big with prospects, so glorious in its results, so honoring to God, and so safe to man? Why are the providences of God so mysterious? I have often inquired. Am I never to have my will? No, never, until my will shall harmonize with Thine, O Father! Yes, God is right; His providence is right; His ways are just and true; and I am foolish to murmur or complain...

"O, I had vainly hoped to see you all, to breathe and feel that sacred flame of love, of heavenly fire; to hear and speak of that dear blessed Saviour's near approach!...But here I am, a weak, a feeble, toil-worn old man, upon a bed of sickness, with feeble nerves, and, worse than all, a heart, I fear, in part unreconciled to God. But bless the Lord, O my soul! I have great blessings yet, more than I can number." [102]

The conference was held in Chardon Street Chapel in Boston, of which Joshua V. Himes was the pastor. Among the presiding officers and committee members of this conference are found the names of such men as Henry Dana Ward, Henry Jones, Joshua V. Himes, Josiah Litch, and Joseph Bates. We shall hear more of these men later in our narrative.

The printed report of the proceedings, which consists mostly of the addresses that were prepared and read, fills nearly two hundred pages. The publication of the report was made possible because Himes set out to raise five hundred dollars to defray publication costs. We are not informed how much actually was raised, but evidently it was sufficient to make possible the publication.

The really important resolution that was passed was the empowering of a committee "to call another general conference, as soon, and at such place, as they may deem expedient." [103]

During the next two years many sessions of the general conference were held in different cities. These served a very real purpose, co-ordinating the planning and thinking of what was otherwise a rather loosely knit movement. In our modern language we would probably describe it as an interchurch movement. Those who made the call for the first session of the general conference were very specific, as we noted, in announcing that they had no intention to set up a new sect.

The very fact that this movement did not immediately crystallize into a close-knit organization, with precise doctrinal formulas and strong disciplinary powers over its ministry and members, makes it difficult at times for a writer on Millerism to be absolutely sure he is following the main stream and not some eddying swirl or stagnant backwater when he is discussing the movement. Some of the markers that enable us to know where the main channel lies are the reports of the session of the general conference. Not infrequently at these meetings a broad declaration of beliefs and views was formulated for the advent believers and the public at large. This first general conference addressed a message to "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours." We quote briefly from this pronouncement:

"Our object in assembling at this time, our object in addressing you, and our object in other efforts, separate and combined, on the subject of 'the kingdom of heaven at hand,' is to revive and restore this ancient faith, to renew ancient landmarks, to 'stand in the ways, and see and ask for the old paths, where is the good way' in which our fathers walked and the martyrs 'found rest for their souls.' We have no purpose to distract the churches with any new inventions, or to get to ourselves a name by starting another sect

among the followers of the Lamb. We neither condemn, nor rudely assail, others of a faith different from our own, nor dictate in matters of conscience for our brethren, nor seek to demolish their organizations, nor build new ones of our own; but simply to express our convictions like Christians, with the reasons for entertaining them which have persuaded us to understand the word and promises, the prophecies and the gospel, of our Lord, as the first Christians, the primitive ages of the church, and the profoundly learned and

intelligent Reformers, have unanimously done, in the faith and hope that the Lord will 'come quickly,' 'in His glory,' to fulfill all His promises in the resurrection of the dead...

"Though in some of the less important views of this momentous subject we are not ourselves agreed, particularly in regard to fixing the year of Christ's second advent, yet we are unanimously agreed and established in this all- absorbing point, that the coming of the Lord to judge the world is now specially 'nigh at hand.' " [104]

Thus spoke the Millerite leaders in their first formal gathering.

It is not necessary to record the details of Miller's travels from one place to another in the months immediately following his recovery from the fever that had kept him from this first session of the general conference. In the very nature of the case there is a certain sameness to the reports of lectures in first one place and then another as he continued on his unremitting task of preaching the soon coming of Christ.

In the spring of '41 he explained in a letter to Hendryx why he had been slow in writing to him, and in this explanation is found a vivid summary of his labors during the preceding year:

"Could you see the applications made for me to lecture, and the distances I have to travel, you would make an excuse for me. I will just state for your edification, that for one year up to the first of October, 1840, I traveled 4,560 miles, preached 627 lectures–each lecture would average as much as 1 1/2 hours long. To sum up the number hopefully converted perhaps would be not an easy task; but from letters and other sources of information I speak within bounds to say 5,000 The majority are men between the ages of 30 and 50." *105

This same letter also gives us Miller's idea of how to bring conviction and conversion to the hearts of men. Remember he lived in a day when it was not uncommon for preachers to make a major appeal to the emotions, employing the mourners' bench and "anxious seats" to set off from the main assembly those who were in various stages of conviction. But, said Miller, "I make no use of anxious seats." He did not seem to feel the need of "this machinery." He preferred to rely rather on "the naked Word." Then follows his picturesque description of how to proceed in winning a battle for God in the hearts of men:

"Depend wholly on the power of the Spirit. Keep your sword the right side up, the edge to the heart, and your arm well nerved. Bring home the blow with an intent to kill. Be not afraid of hurting your hearers, wind no silk handkerchiefs around your blade, nor withhold one moiety of power when you make a thrust. Some are in the habit of hiding a part of the sword, for fear the enemy will dodge the blow; but this will never do. The moment your enemy discovers your cowardice or fear, they despise you. They rouse to action with redoubled vigor and ten to one if you are not overthrown. Never show any discouragement, or unbelief in the strength or power of your Commander. Let His name be your watchword, His armor your shield, and His cause your field. If the enemy roar and make a noise, take courage, double your diligence; it is a certain sign that your blows are telling home."

Here is the church militant; here is a blending of the captain and the preacher. It is not hard to see how Miller made headway and gained thousands of converts despite the increasing opposition and misrepresentation on every side, and despite the fact that he did not employ the technique of "anxious seats" in his public ministry.

The fact that he did not appeal primarily to the emotions but to the intellect through a reading of the Word, does not mean that there was no emotion in connection with his meetings. The records of the public meetings indicate that there were often strong cryings and tears, and men coming forward to kneel in contrition. If there had not been, we might well question the spirit in which Miller wielded the sword. The important point, however, is that he sought to bring the conviction through a forthright preaching and exposition of the Scriptures, and not by a maudlin appeal to the emotions.