The Midnight Cry

A LITTLE OVER A CENTURY AGO, in that mysterious way known only to God, devout men in different lands were simultaneously quickened to search the Scriptures on the subject of the Second Advent of Christ. The results of that study may rightly be described as an advent awakening of hope and belief that the great day of Christ's coming was drawing on apace. In no land was that awakening more clear cut, more definitely organized, or more dramatically brought to a climax than in America. In this country the most prominent spokesman was William Miller, and thus the advent movement in the Western Hemisphere is generally known as Millerism.

The purpose of this book is twofold: (1 ) to present the story of the life of Miller and the activities of the Millerite movement; and (2) to examine a series of charges against the Millerites. To present the first without the second would leave a number of questions unanswered, for virtually all well-read persons are acquainted with various charges of fanaticism that have been leveled at the movement. The very fact that the subject is controversial makes it difficult to present the story of the Millerites in proper perspective. Heat warps everything it touches, particularly the heat of controversy. The task of straightening out the record is the one we have here set for ourselves.

We traveled New England three times to visit historic places, to examine the records in historical society offices and libraries, and even to cheek case history records in asylums. On another trip (to Aurora College, Illinois), we had the opportunity of reading the correspondence of William Miller, a collection of more than eight hundred letters to and from him, and also other manuscripts of Miller. Most of this material has lain unused and quite forgotten since Sylvester Bliss wrote his biography of Miller, in 1853.

We thought, at first, of attempting to write a history. But according to the canons of history writing, which theoretically seem sweetly reasonable and easy to conform to, we would be expected to write in a detached style. We would be supposed to reveal only in the closing chapter, if at all, our personal judgment on the merits of the conflicting evidence. We finally decided not to attempt this, and for the following reasons:

1. We have spiritual kinship with the Millerites; We belong to a religious body (Seventh-day Adventists) whose roots go down into the soil of Millerism. Long-established judicial rules require a judge to disqualify himself from sitting on a case in which he has any personal interest. He may honorably act as an advocate for one side, but not as a judge between disputants.

We believe the same principle holds for an author. It is not necessarily a question of his sincerity, for even the most sincere person may be quite unconsciously affected by submerged premises fixed in his mind through long years. Particularly is this true in the field of religion, where our deepest feelings almost defy analysis. This handicap may be partly overcome by setting down the bare facts with studied objectivity. But such writing is likely to be more insipid than impartial.

2. We doubt whether it is possible even for trained writers to deal in a wholly dispassionate way with any subject that involves human passions and prejudices. We have read the story of the Revolutionary War, by able chroniclers who differed considerably in their accounts. Yet these divergent historians would doubtless insist that they were students of the objective school of history writing. Their thinking was unconsciously affected by whether they were writing at Harvard or at Oxford. [A]

Some keen students of the science of history writing declare that there is no truly impartial writing, or at least that few are capable of it. One of them observes: "Probably the recording angel is the only example of an historian who is both impartial and objective." [1] [B] He gives the names of certain men long known as great historians, and declares they were far from impartial, and quite possibly would have spoiled such historical and literary abilities as they possessed if they had tried to attain to the rare heights of absolute detachment. This leads him to remark, immediately, that "minds capable of this task" of writing impartially "are few." His counsel, therefore, is this:

"The beginner, who aims at impartiality and objectivity, will assuredly hamper himself and fail to achieve them; it is far better for him to put all such ideals on one side, and let his mind work freely on its own natural lines. Let him take lower levels and train himself to be an advocate before he attempts to play the part of the recording angel." [2]

Certainly the historians who have included in their encyclopedias or histories a discussion of Millerism have not written impartially. That, we believe, will be evident as the reader examines the charges in the latter part of this book. Whether this illustrates how difficult is the feat of impartial writing, or merely how befogged is the subject of Millerism, we shall let the reader judge. In either case it helps, at least, to reveal how bold and ambitious we would be to claim to set forth a wholly dispassionate account of Millerism.

3. We are not certain that a detached, delicately balanced presentation is needed at this juncture. To borrow a homely illustration from the playground: When a teeter board has seated on it a child at each end, then someone may be needed to stand in the middle, to throw his weight, first on one side and then on the other. But if one child after another sits down at the same end, the only hope of bringing the board into line is for someone to throw all his weight on the other end. Now during a hundred years a host of writers-one after another-have added their weight to one end of the board that constitutes the record of Millerism. They have rested heavily on a few eccentric incidents, and where they lacked any factual data they have been aided by hearsay and rumor, which have a way of growing weightier with the years. The result is that the reputation of the unfortunate Millerites has been quite literally up in the air for long years. Under such circumstances we believe that a heroic move must be made by someone in order to bring things into balance. It would never have occurred to us to stress certain of the facts in the record as we vigorously do, were it not that these facts deal with matters long emphasized in an opposite way. If the reader thinks we have walked far out to one end in our emphasis of the evidence for the Millerites, we invite him to remember the teeter board.

For these three reasons we have not attempted to write an objective history of Millerism. Instead, as the subtitle declares, this is "A Defense of William Miller and the Millerites." We think such a declaration has at least this much to be said in its favor: it is forthright and honest. However, some readers may be tempted to conclude that this must therefore be a biased work, so hopelessly prejudiced that it gives a grossly distorted picture. We think this conclusion does not necessarily follow. Contrary to the mistaken idea of some, a lawyer may plead for his client and still conform to the highest standards of fairness and honesty. The author we quoted as declaring that a writer in the field of history should "train himself to be an advocate before he attempts to play the part of the recording angel," adds:

"To do this he must possess the virtues of an advocate, including above all the virtues of fairness and honesty. The task of passing final judgment he may leave to those who essay it, and to the advocates of the other side. It is his part to practice honesty and fearlessness in expressing such opinions as he may form or possess; and for this purpose he will do well to observe two rules of conduct. The first rule is that the evidence for all conclusions must be stated as it exists in the source from which it is taken, avoiding any method of statement that may alter or impair its meaning or its emphasis. The second rule is that the writer must distinguish clearly between the evidence and any criticisms or inferences made by himself." [3]

In our writing we have sought to be governed, and are now willing to be judged, by these obviously fair rules. We have endeavored to give the charges and the arguments against the Millerites in the very language of the prosecution and at sufficient length to enable the full force of those charges to be felt. Likewise, we have given the reply of the Millerites in their own words, whenever they replied directly to a charge.

As an advocate we have invoked in behalf of the defendants a few of the most elementary rules employed for long generations in the courts to ensure a fair trial to an accused person. We are thinking particularly of such rules as these:

The accused is to be considered innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He has the right to bring in character witnesses. If the testimony of these witnesses clearly shows him to be a man of good character and reputation in the community in which he resides, that fact may rightly be stressed by counsel for the defense as a piece of presumptive evidence bearing upon his innocence. The accused has a right to be heard in his own defense, and if his character witnesses have established his standing as a reputable citizen, his personal testimony is entitled to great weight. Hearsay and rumor are inadmissible as evidence.

We believe that the writer in a controversial field such as Millerism will be more safely guided in penning a historical sketch if he follows rigidly such judicial rules as these than if he trusts wholly to his own powers of objectivity and impartiality. At least we are sure of this, that much of what has appeared in history books, encyclopedias, and similar works, regarding the Millerites, would never have been penned if these simple rules had been employed. We are thinking particularly of the rule that forbids the introduction of hearsay and rumor in the testimony of any witness. The reader of this book will be struck, we believe, with the frequency of such irresponsible phrases as "it is said," "it is reported," and even "it is rumored," in the introductions of newspaper stories of the 1840's regarding the Millerites. And yet it is on such stories that most of the charges against the Millerites rest and most of the colorful descriptions of them have been built. [C]

We have invoked fully the judicial rule that the accused has a right to be heard in his own defense. That is why we have quoted at length from Millerite writings. In fact, we believe their own testimony is their best defense. However, we have not invoked as fully as we might the judicial ban on hearsay and rumor, even though this is one of the most rigid of all rules regarding testimony. If we had, there would have been few charges to consider, and someone would complain that we were seeking to win the case by a legal technicality. [D]

Occasionally we have refused to dignify an absurd rumor with a serious refutation. Rumors and toy balloons have three things in common: both are mostly air, both can suffer heavy blows without permanently losing their original shape, but both collapse completely if given merely a sharp pinprick. Our English language, we believe, may properly be used at times to give a pinprick as well as a heavy blow. [E]

We began the study of this subject with the feeling that there was doubtless some truth to the array of charges against the Millerites-how much, we wished to discover. We ended our study fully convinced that these people, though imperfect as are other men, were so largely the victims of religious prejudice and fanciful rumor that we decided to write a defense.

We heartily ascribe to the principle that no matter what may be the writer's personal interest, he should diligently seek to have an open mind while investigating a matter, in order to gather everything that bears on the subject. But we believe that the moment should come when he finally closes his mind on a conclusion and takes up his pen. Robust old Chesterton was right when he said that the only excuse for an open mind is the same as that for an open mouth, to close again on something solid.

We believe that the best biographies are generally written by the children of the great men. Their writings may be tinctured with prejudiced thinking in favor of their own fathers; but despite this, the children seem best able to interpret the real viewpoint, purposes, and ideals of the characters being sketched. Even the most fair-minded stranger can hardly hope to enter the inner sanctum of motives and objectives as can a member of the family. And certainly an unfriendly writer can never catch the pulse of the great man. The same principle, we believe, applies in writing the record of a religious leader and the movement he raises up. One of his spiritual children can understand his motives, sympathize with his hopes, and follow his reasoning in theological areas in a way that a stranger never can. The sympathetic approach has much to commend it as a technique for discovering the real truth regarding a man or a movement.

We have stated that this work does not pose as a history. Perhaps it may best be described as simply a sympathetic approach to the people called Millerites. We willingly leave to the "few" "minds capable of" it, and to "the recording angel," the task of writing a history "both impartial and objective."

Washington, D. C. October 22, 1944.