The Midnight Cry

IF YOU HAD LIVED IN THE UNITED STATES in the early 1840’s you would have heard the startling news that the world was soon to come to a fiery end. From the rostrum and through the printed page the awesome announcement was made that the personal second coming of Christ would take place “about the year 1841” A well-defined religious movement was created through this preaching of the “advent near,” as the distinctive teaching was described.

The movement was launched by William Miller, whose name became a household term in most of America. Those who believed his views were soon known as Millerites. The comment offered by skeptical onlookers was generally critical, sometimes even defamatory. Strange were the stories told about the preachers and laity who constituted this religious movement. They were pictured as fit for the asylum and as sending many there by their preaching. They were accused of strange, fanatical acts. People today are even more sure than was the public a hundred years ago that the Millerites were guilty of every kind of irrational act, for stories have a way of growing with the years.

Who was this man Miller that stirred all America and beyond with his preaching? And what kind of religious movement did he create?

William Miller was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, February 15, 1782. [A] When he was a small child his parents moved to the hamlet of Low Hampton, in Washington County, New York, almost on the Vermont line. He was reared in a religious atmosphere, for his pious mother had obediently woven into her life the religious instruction received in a minister’s home.

Thus early William came under the potent influence of religion. But he was no queer lad with strange experiences or abnormal reactions to life. He grew up as a healthy young American, living in what were then the western edges of civilization.

Young William, in those early years, lived up to the best American traditions of an ambitious boy undaunted by pioneer hardships. He was determined, despite all handicaps, to better his lot and to secure a training of mind as well as of body. School facilities in the sparsely settled community of his childhood were very limited. He enjoyed the luxury of three months’ formal education in a schoolhouse each winter. We have no records of how he performed in reading and writing, but we do have his arithmetic notebook. The pages are foolscap size. The handwriting is clear and of a much better grade than that of the average grammar school child who grows up in our modern educational institutions.

In common with most early settlers, Miller lived in a home blessed with poverty. Every dollar that could be secured must be placed against the mortgage. There was no money for books. They might be desirable, but they were luxuries. Even candles could be used only in a sparing way. If the eldest son of the house had been content, along With the other children, to believe that something accomplished, something done, had earned him his night’s repose and nothing more, we would not be writing this story today.

But William had an unquenchable desire for knowledge. He collected a store of pine knots to provide illumination. When all the family were asleep he would silently make his way to the fireside, stir the embers, light a pine knot, and begin his reading. One night his father, awakening from slumber and seeing the cabin aglow, thought it was on fire. Whatever lurking admiration he may have had for his son’s ambition was lost in that first great fear that fire was about to devour their home. He chased William to bed with the threat, “Bill, if you don’t go to bed, I’ll horsewhip you!” There is no reason to believe, however, that this one outburst of paternal wrath retarded for long William’s studious inclination.

In his teens he began to keep a diary. This simple fact in itself is revealing. What farmer’s son in those frontier days would set himself to the task of keeping a diary? Here is one of the earliest indications not only of Miller’s methodical mind but also of his bent toward writing. This diary, to be sure, is brief and rather spotty. The date on the title page is “July 10th, 1797.” In obviously boyish handwriting, for he was only fifteen, we find this heading to the diary, “The History of My Life.”

That first page contains the statement: “I was early educated and taught to pray the Lord.” That is the only descriptive statement that he gave concerning himself in the introduction. Evidently he thought it important and quite the most distinguishing statement that he could make.

The first of his day-by-day entries is dated “11th day of March, 1798.” The entry is brief but revealing: “Sunday grandfather preached at our house from Psalms 23, 4th verse, from Colossians 3, 1st verse. I lay at home. Rainy day.”

Grandfather, Elnathan Phelps, brought religion home to William in the ‘most literal sense of the word. Evidently it made an impression on his youthful mind, for he records chapter and verse of the Scriptural passages on the subject of the sermon.

As William grew, his thirst for knowledge increased, and the few books that the meager funds of the family permitted were not sufficient to satisfy that thirst. Combining resourcefulness and courage he went out to see some prominent citizens near by to ask for the loan of books. Thus did this resourceful youth seek to store his restless mind with the treasures that ever have been found in books.

William’s literary leanings did not find sufficient expression’ in keeping a diary and reading borrowed books. He soon became a kind of community scribe. Sylvester Bliss, who wrote a biography of him in 1853 and to whom we are greatly indebted for a number of the incidents in Miller’s early life, calls him a “scribbler-general.” Bliss states that if anyone wished “verses made,” a letter written, “or anything which required extra taste and fancy in the use of the pen, it was pretty sure to be planned, if not executed, by him.” [10]

A youth who possessed the initiative and resourcefulness William Miller displayed even in his teens, might easily be expected to have early success in the field of matrimony. In the near-by village of Poultney, Vermont, lived a young woman, Lucy Page Smith. In his diary, under date of “January second, 1803,” Miller wrote:

“Be it remembered that on this day, it being a Sunday in the afternoon of the aforesaid day, I did bind myself and was bound to be, the partner of Miss Lucy Smith, of Poultney. And by these presents do agree to be hers and only hers till death shall part us (provided she is of the same mind). Whereunto I here set my hand and seal.”

January 2, 1803, was a high day in William Miller’s life. It appears that on that day he pledged his troth to Miss Lucy. His reading must have included some law books, for this diary -entry has a distinctly legal flavor. Miller sought to make the diary record of this high moment in his life sure and certain, and legal language seemed most impressive. He may have been desperately in love, but he did not lose his head or his balance. He remembered the simple principle that a marriage is a contract and that it takes two to make a bargain. Hence his parenthetical clause, for our delighted reading today: “Provided she is of the same mind.”

She was of the same mind, for his diary states that they were married on Wednesday, the twenty-ninth of June. And they continued of the same mind for almost fifty years, until death broke the contract.

Upon his marriage he moved about six miles to Poultney, Vermont, his wife’s home town. There he soon became known in the village as one who spent his spare hours at the little library in the community. He naturally sought out those kindred spirits who also liked to pore over books. Evidently within the first few years in his new home, he joined some kind of literary or cultural society, for he has left on record in his handwriting a manuscript which opens thus: “Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: -Though I feel myself inadequate to the task. Yet I will endeavor to surmount all difficulties and give the society a short dissertation on calumny.” [11]

Little did Miller realize when he delivered that address in his twenties, within the circle of warm and trusting friends, that he was forecasting his own distressing experiences with calumny. He was to live to see the day when his name would be maligned, or at least held up to ridicule, by enemies in every part of the country.

Miller’s reading of books and his discussions with literary friends were not confined to such fields as history, poetry, and the like. Philosophy in its most subtle, skeptical form soon made its appeal to his mind. Deism, that halfway station on the road to atheism, which viewed God as a sort of absentee landlord far removed from and wholly uninterested in His created works, had been a blight on the religious life of England in the eighteenth century. The infection had been brought across the waters by skeptical books and papers, and among Miller’s friends were several prominent citizens who were deists.

Miller, who up to this time had evidently lived on the spiritual momentum of his pious mother and other churchly relatives, soon found himself in this new community and among these new and impressive friends, with no firsthand personal conviction to immunize him against the virus of infidelity. The youth who had inscribed on the title page of his diary that he was “early educated and taught to pray the Lord,” and who noted in his first entry in that diary his listening to Grandfather Phelps preach, had become an avowed skeptic. Those who before had been objects of respect and veneration, became, instead, objects of mirth. To the delight of his skeptical friends he would caricature the tones of voice and the actions of the pious in the community, including among them his own clerical grandfather.

Miller entered public life in the capacity of a deputy sheriff in the year 1809. Soon after he added the duties of a military officer, following closely the steps of his fathers before him. In 1810 he was appointed a lieutenant in the militia of the State of Vermont. The formal order was signed by Governor Jonas Galusha, July 21, 1810. If the international relations of the United States had remained peaceful, this military office would probably have meant little in Miller’s life. But in 1812 war was again declared between the United States and Great Britain. On November 7, 1812, Lieutenant Miller was made a captain of militia. No draft system, no selective service, was in operation in 1812 in the United States. The country relied on volunteers, and the officer who could, by his personality and standing in the eyes of those who knew him, succeed in enlisting volunteers for the Army, was a man of great value and importance. Miller was such a man. Framed in the law office of a great-grandson [12] of Miller’s in Fair Haven, Vermont, is a faded but important military document that bears eloquent testimony to the standing of William Miller in his own community. This document was signed at “Poultney, November 16, 1812.” In the very legible handwriting of William Miller it reads: “We, the under signers, feeling it an indispensable duty for us, in the present situation of our national concerns, to step forward in the defense of our rights, our country, and friends, do voluntarily tender our services to the President of the United States agreeable to an act passed by the legislature of the State of Vermont, November 6, 1812, and do therefore enlist ourselves into a company of infantry to be commanded by William Miller, to hold ourselves in readiness to march at a moment’s wakening until the first day of May next 1813.”

The remainder of the document consists of two parallel columns of signatures of the men who enlisted, with the “place of abode” and the date of enlistment following. There is a total of forty-seven names, most of them from near-by communities such as Fair Haven. William Miller did not long remain an officer in the Vermont State militia. In the spring of 1813 he was appointed a lieutenant in the United States Army. [13]

The military history of his ancestors might be considered a sufficient explanation of why he accepted a commission as an officer in the Army. But there was another reason also. It may have been the chief one. Years afterward, in writing a very brief sketch of his early life, Miller told of his descent into the dismal swamps of deism, and of the hopelessly pessimistic view of mankind and of history that fastened upon him:

“I could discern no bright spot in the history of the past. Those conquerors of the world, and heroes of history, were apparently but demons in human form. All the sorrow, suffering, and misery in the world, seemed to he increased in proportion to the power they obtained over their fellows. I began to feel very distrustful of all men. In this state of mind I entered the service of my country; I fondly cherished the idea, that I should find one bright spot at least in the human character, as a star of hope, a love of country-PATRIOTISM.” [14]

An insight into Miller’s, feeling at this time is found in a letter he wrote in the spring of 1814 to “Friend Robins,” an officer in the United States Navy in the area of Lake Champlain. Miller told his friend how his spirits were depressed by the way the war was going:

“Could I be as certain of [our] conquering the land forces; could I see that busy industry, bravery, and skill in our commanders as we do among our naval heroes (could I believe our Government was determined on the taking of Canada). That unanimity and patriotism among our citizens which is necessary to reap advantages from our successes-then I should be satisfied, and willingly would I devote the remainder part of my life for the Government that I wish to leave uncontaminated by the finger of aristocracy or hand of monarchy.” [15]

This letter shows how deeply and personally Miller viewed the whole subject of service to his country, and how his disillusionment regarding mankind, that had come to him through deism, now seemed to be well substantiated. Here was no soldier of fortune speaking, not even a professional soldier, but an ardent citizen with a deep love of country. He was really hoping against hope that the world was not quite as bad as his skeptical philosophy would lead him to believe.

In the early part of 1814 Miller was raised to the rank of captain in the United States Army. In August of that year we find him with his regiment, the 30th Infantry, at Plattsburg on the west bank of Lake Champlain, where an important army camp had been set up. [16]

On the lake and in sight of the fort where he was stationed was soon to be fought the decisive Battle of Plattsburg. The United States forces might well be apprehensive as they anticipated the engagement. They were outnumbered on land and sea. The battle was joined by an engagement between the opposing naval forces September 11, 1814. In writing of this experience in connection with a sketch of his life and beliefs, Miller declared, “At the commencement of the battle, we looked upon our own defeat as almost certain, and yet we were victorious.” [17]

Lying before us as we write is a faded letter dated “Fort Scott, September 11, 1814. Twenty minutes past two o’clock, Page M.” [18] It gives an eye witnesss account of the engagement, written by a man whose ears were ringing with the sounds of exploding shells. It opens in a staccato tempo. Wrote Miller:

“Sir: It is over, it is done. The British fleet has struck to the American flag. Great slaughter on both sides-they are in plain view where I am now writing.... The sight was majestic, it was noble, it was grand. This morning at 10 o’clock the British opened a very heavy and destructive fire upon us, both by water and land. Their congreve rockets flew like hailstones about us, and round shot and grape from every quarter. You have no idea of the battle. Our force was small, but how bravely they fought.

I have no time to write any more. You must conceive what we feel, for I cannot describe it. I am satisfied that I can fight. I know I am no coward. Therefore call on Mr. Loomis and drink my health, and I will pay the shot. Three of my men are wounded by a shell which burst within two feet of me. The boat from the fleet which has just landed under our fort says the British commodore is killed; out of 300 on board their ship 25 remain alive.

“Yours forever,
“Wm. Miller.

“Give my compliments to all and send this to my wife.” [19] [20]

In spite of his skeptical views, which left no room for a superintending God with His providence, much less a future life, Miller was deeply impressed that the victory of the United States troops and fleet against overwhelming odds could be explained only as an act of Providence. Said he:

“It seemed to me that the Supreme Being must have watched over the interests of this country in an especial manner, and delivered us from the hands of our enemies. So surprising a result against such odds, did seem to me like the work of a mightier power than man.” [21]

His release from the Army came on June 18, 1815. Thus ended an exciting chapter in William Miller’s life. But more stirring days lay ahead.

Sign Up for our Newsletter