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The Midnight Cry

IT WAS A SUMMER'S MORNING IN 1831. Breakfast was finished, and Miller went to his study to "examine some point." There was only one subject of all-consuming interest to him. True, he was a farmer interested in his crops, and a justice of the peace interested in the lawful handling of community affairs; but he was above all else a Bible student absorbed in his investigation of Scripture, particularly of prophecy.

Suddenly he was overwhelmed with the conviction that he should go out and tell the world what he had learned. The conviction was deep, but his objections and protests were as real as ever, even though the year was now 1831 and his knowledge was more full than when the impression first came to him that he should go out. But all the excuses he could muster failed to silence the voice that so clamorously demanded, "Go and tell it to the world." Said he, in relating the experience:

"My distress became so great, I entered into a solemn covenant with God, that if He would open the way, I would go and perform my duty to the world. 'What do you mean by opening the way? ' seemed to come to me. Why, said I, if I should have an invitation to speak publicly in any place, I will go and tell them what I find in the Bible about the Lord's coming. Instantly all my burden was gone; and I rejoiced that I should not probably be thus called upon; for I had never had such an invitation: my trials were not known, and I had but little expectation of being invited to any field of labor." *48

Miller simply did what more than one good man before him had done–tried to strike a compact with God on such terms as he thought would protect him against carrying out a distasteful task. What he did not know was that even as he was making such apparently safe terms with the Lord, there was traveling down the highway from the near-by town of Dresden a young man bearing an invitation to him to preach the following day, for this was a Saturday morning.

The youth entered Miller's study and announced that there was to be no preaching in the church at Dresden on the morrow, and that his father wanted him to come and talk to the people on the second advent of Christ. Miller was too astonished even to reply. He walked out of the room "angry with myself," said he, "for having made the covenant I had; I rebelled at once against the Lord, and determined not to go. *49 Through the house and out the back door he went. Following close behind was six-year-old Lucy Ann. Lucy was father's favorite child. When he started out of the house in the morning, it was her custom to run along with him. But little did she know of the tumult in his soul, or that he was headed, not for the barn or the field for routine labor, but for a near-by grove where he could pray. The inner conflict was so great that it was soon evident on his countenance and in his walk. Lucy did not have to be told that all was not well; it was evident. Hurrying back into the house, she announced in frightened tones to her mother, "Something's the matter with daddy."

There was. He was at the great turning point in his life. There went into that grove a farmer; there came out a preacher. No man makes so mighty a change suddenly in his life without a tremendous upheaval. In the quietness of the grove his conscience insistently demanded, "Will you make a covenant with God and break it so soon? " There was only one answer that a man of Miller's character could return to such a question. Could an army officer who came of a family of fighting men go back on his word? He promised the Lord that if He would give him words to say and stand by him, he would go out and speak. When he returned to the house the youth was still waiting for his answer. After dinner Miller left with him for Dresden. It was probably the longest sixteen miles he had ever traveled.

The next morning, Sunday, he found a well-filled house of attentive people waiting for his message. *50 His experience he recorded thus:

"As soon as I commenced speaking, all my diffidence and embarrassment were gone, and I felt impressed only with the greatness of the subject, which, by the providence of God, I was enabled to present." [51]

Evidently his maiden speech, or lecture, as he described it, must have made a real impression on those in charge of the service, for he was invited to remain during the week and lecture. People gathered from near-by towns. Miller found himself engaged in a revival. He had not planned it that way, but the preaching of prophecy, he discovered, produced a profound effect upon the listeners. The preaching of the doctrine of the soon coming of Christ seemed naturally and inevitably to lead men to seek to make ready for that solemn event. This experience was to be repeated many times.

When Miller returned home from his week of lectures he found a letter waiting for him from Elder Fuller of Poultney, Vermont, asking him to come and talk to his church on the second advent. The old adage about a prophet's not being without honor save in his own country found an exception here. Miller traveled the six miles to the town where he had lived for years, and delivered a series of lectures.

Miller wrote later that Elder Fuller was the first convert he made to his prophetic views from the ranks of the ministry. He did not have to go far afield among strangers in order to secure a hearing or to gain converts. That in itself is significant. Whether it was the character of the man or the cogency and fervor of his preaching that produced immediate results, no one can now say with certainty. Probably it was a combination of both. A reading of the lectures which he finally put in print reveals that there was both force and fire in the man, and that he presented his views of prophecy in a manner exceedingly persuasive.

But Dresden and Poultney were not the beginning and the end of his public life. They were only the introduction. He was soon to find himself in the position of having to turn down more requests than he tilled simply because he could not be in more than one place at once, or because he had to spend some time on the farm. In his own brief summary of his life he covered the decade from 1830 to 1840 in about three pages. Fortunately, we are not confined to this terse record, nor even to the more extended story that his biographer left for us in 1853. Miller carried on a considerable correspondence. In one series of letters particularly–those to a fellow minister, Truman Hendryx–is found a rather clear picture of his expanding activities, interests, and views.

Miller's first letter to Hendryx was written in the summer of 1831. At the top margin in Miller's bold handwriting is a notation: "No. 1." It was written in reply to a letter received from Hendryx the day before. After an introductory paragraph Miller came to the point of his letter:

"You say, Brother Hendryx, you want 'more light.' I wish that you might receive it, and I shall be willing to assist you with what little I have at every convenient opportunity. Do not be discouraged. When you have studied fourteen years, if you do not find 'more light,' then you may complain" [52]

Miller, of course, was alluding to the fact that he had been studying for that length of time himself. The remainder of the letter consists wholly of an exposition of prophecy as Miller understood it, the "light" which he believed he had both for Hendryx and for the world. Unquestionably the very act of writing out his views, as he did for Hendryx and for others, explains in no small degree the immediate and unexpected ease with which he found himself orally expounding his views at Dresden and elsewhere.

This particular letter was written only a few days before the Dresden meeting.

The friendship between these men, born of a mutual interest in Bible study, grew rapidly. Early in 1832 Miller addressed Hendryx in this direct fashion:

"I want to know how you progress in Scripture, and what you preach. You promised me a visit this winter. Do not forget. At any rate you can write." [53]

He wrote of a "Brother Sawyer" who had adopted some of his views, but who had "not improved so much in Bible knowledge as he might" because, added Miller, he "was afraid of being 'a Millerite.'" Here is the first reference to the idea of converts as followe'rs of a particular man. The word "Millerite" was soon to be heard over the whole land, and was generally employed by the user as a term of contempt. [54]

Miller remarked to Hendryx concerning Brother Sawyer, "I pity him, for he has some fetters on." Also in this letter Miller mentioned for the first time, so far as we have been able to discover, his having written for publication "a few numbers on the coming of Christ." They were written in the form of "letters to Elder Smith of Poultney," to whom Miller had given "liberty to publish." He thought that they "may appear in the Vermont Telegraph, if not in pamphlet form." *55

Miller continued, with this fervent praise of the Book of God:

"I am more and more astonished at the harmony and strength of the Word of God, and the more I read, the more I see the folly of the infidel in rejecting this Word."

Then, fearing that perhaps Hendryx had become afraid of being known as "a Millerite," though he evidently had nothing on which to base his fear, he thus ended his letter:

"But, Brother Hendryx, have you been ridiculed out of your belief or not? Tell me, kind sir, and believe me ever yours in the bond of Christ."

Hendryx was not the only one who had heard of Miller's unusual views of Scripture. In a letter to him two months later, Miller told Hendryx that he would have replied earlier to his letter, but he had been occupied at home for several days in deep study with a young preacher who had come to his home. He said that this youthful minister came "on purpose to learn these strange notions of 'crazy Miller's' or at least to save Brother Miller if possible from going down to the grave with such an error." Miller explained that his visitor was a stranger to him. What happened "after he introduced himself," Miller described in this vigorous language:

"We went to work, night and day, and he has just left me, Monday, 3 o'clock P.M. He has got his load, and as he says, he never was so loaded before. You may say this is boasting. No. No. Brother Hendryx. You know better. I only made him read Bible and I held the concordance. No praise to me; give (God the glory. At any rate he will find it hard to resist the truth. He wants me to let him come and board with me two or three months to study BIBLE. He is a young man of brilliant talents." [56]

Here is William Miller in action in terms of personal ministry for an audience of one. You can feel the vigor of the man, the drive, the earnestness. You see him seated close beside his inquirer, in whose hand he has placed the Bible. In Miller's hand is the concordance with all its connected references to any particular word, classified for ready reference. We do not have to accept all Miller's beliefs regarding the Bible in order to agree that here was no airy speculator dreamily sitting on a mountaintop

and out of the fullness of his own mystical speculations spinning a philosophy of things that were and are and are to be. Instead, Miller turned his mind and all his thoughts to searching the one Book which all Christendom has declared is the true source of knowledge and revelation.

The visit of this young preacher was not a lone instance of interested inquiry by someone. Miller went on to tell Hendryx:

"I have somebody to labor with almost daily. I have been into Poultney, and some other places to lecture on the coming of Christ, and in every case I have had large assemblies. There is an increasing anxiety on the subject in this quarter."

Then he offered a little counsel to his preacher friend, counsel that might properly have come from a seasoned instructor in pastoral training. In speaking of some of the problems of preaching to those with differing views on salvation, he counseled:

"I would therefore advise you to lead your hearers by slow and sure steps to Jesus Christ. I say slow because I expect they are not strong enough to run yet, sure because the Bible is a sure word. And where your hearers are not well doctrinated, you must preach Bible. You must prove all things by Bible. You must talk Bible, you must exhort Bible, you must pray Bible, and love Bible, and do all in your power to make others love Bible too. One great means to do good is to make your parishioners sensible that you are in earnest and fully and solemnly believe what you preach. If you wish your people to feel, feel yourself. If you wish them to believe as you do, show them by your constant assiduity in teaching, that you sincerely wish it. You can do more good by the fireside and in your conference circles than in the pulpit."

No truer observation was ever made on the fine art of bringing spiritual conviction to others. He immediately explained his statement more fully by remarking that pulpit preaching "has long been no more considered than a trade," and that people remark, "Why, he is hired to preach." But when a man goes out of his way to use his time in private conference, seeking to expound the Word, people "will say he expects nothing for this, surely our salvation is his anxious desire."

At this point the letter was laid aside and the remainder written under date of May 20. Miller started this second section of his epistle by remarking, "I ought to make some apology for my long neglect. But I hate apologies, for we never tell the whole truth." Quite direct, quite frank. That was typical of William Miller.

He told Hendryx that he would probably see even before he received this letter, "two numbers in the Telegraph," and explained that "a number more will soon follow." He anticipated that they would start "some queries if nothing more." Then comes this ominous line: "There is much opposition expressed, by some who ought to have taught the same things." Here is a report on the first stirrings of that opposition that was finally to display itself in a veritable flood of opposing arguments, both oral and written, some serious, many scurrilous.

Six months later he wrote to Hendryx, expressing an ardent desire to see him. And why? "So that we can sit down and have a good dish of Bible together." Though Miller brought all his study to a focus in the doctrine of the second advent, he saw it properly as a climax to a plan God had devised for the salvation of men. Listen to the next line of his letter:

"The light is continually breaking in, and I am more and more confirmed in those things of which I told you, when you were here; to wit, redemption by grace, the efficacy of Christ's blood, justification by His righteousness imputed to us, sanctification through the operation of the Divine Spirit, and glorification by our gathering together unto Him at His coming and His appearing." [57]

The series of steps in salvation here set forth sounds very orthodox. It is.

The next month he again wrote to Hendryx, and told of hearing a certain minister preach on the second coming of Christ: "He is a 'Millerite' and knows it not. But from what I could learn Brother Hendryx made him a 'Millerite,' and will have to answer for it, to the craft (the modern ministry)." [58]

By this time Miller was meeting with sufficient opposition from certain ministers to lead him to caution Hendryx in whimsical fashion. He warned him that he did not realize how much he was "to blame, for endangering the sale of the modern shrines of Diana. Take care of your head."

The Baptist church at Low Hampton at the time was needing a minister. A young preacher located near Hendryx had been suggested for the place. Miller asked for Hendryx' comment on him and proceeded to express his own views on the proper qualifications for a good pastor:

"You had better hear him yourself, and then if you think he will be the one for us, send him on. We do not want one who thinks much of his own gifts and is lifted up with pride. Neither do we want a novice, I mean a fool, one who knows nothing about the gospel of Christ. We want one good to stir up our minds, to visit, etc. And one who is good to learn, apt to teach, modest, unassuming, pious, devotional, and faithful to his calling. If his natural talents are brilliant, with these qualifications they would not hurt him. If they are only middling they may do well enough for us. But you can tell better than I can write. Some of our people want a quick gab. But I had rather a quick understanding."

It would be difficult to disagree with Miller's analysis of what makes a good preacher. And that analysis gives an insight into the mind of Miller as to his sense of values in spiritual things.

Miller's traveling, preaching, and correspondence were rapidly increasing, even though it was little more than a year since he had delivered his first public lecture and only about eight months since his initial article had appeared in print. Probably the first letter he received in the opening days of 1833 was one signed by a stranger, Henry Jones. Miller was to receive many letters from him in the future, for Henry Jones became a rather important figure in the Millerite movement. Because he was a total stranger he introduced himself by stating that when he was traveling in New York State the previous June, he fell in company with a minister, and "heard him converse on the subject of the millennium." He explained that this minister had "been led to a particular and careful inquiry on the subject from peculiar views which he had heard advanced by yourself in private conversation, some of which," he said, "you had published in the Vermont Telegraph over the signature 'W. M.'" Jones continued:

"After this, in my travels as agent for the circulation of temperance newspapers, by inquiry I found and purchased the several Telegraph papers which contain your first eight numbers on the subject or subjects now mentioned, and read them with much interest." [59]

Then follow pages of discussion of prophetic passages, with this frank comment in the closing paragraph:

"I am aware that most of our Bible men would consider you very visionary or fanatical were they to be informed of your views. And though I know not but you are truly so, and running wild, I should be very glad to see you and talk with you several hours, as I was told that you had made the subject

your great study for many years and now stand ready to talk upon it and to defend it against all plausible objections."

The letter ends with a request that Miller write him a letter explaining certain points of his belief. We do not have Miller's reply. From Jones' further letters we can discover that he was increasingly coming to the same viewpoint that Miller held. We will have more to say about him in a later chapter devoted to Miller's associates. We refer to this letter here only to show that very early in his public life Miller was attracting the serious attention and interest of fellow ministers–for Jones was a minister.

A little later, in writing to Hendryx, Miller referred to his correspondence with Henry Jones and remarked:

"So you see, my brother, the Lord is scattering the seed. I call now reckon eight ministers that preach this doctrine more or less besides yourself, and whether you do or not, your letter does not state. I know of more than one hundred private brethren that say they have adopted my views as their belief. Be that as it may, 'truth is mighty and will prevail.'" [60]

We may rightly conclude that Miller really believed Hendryx agreed with his teaching, for he inquired in the next sentence, "If I should get my views printed, how many can you dispose of in pamphlet form, say between thirty and forty pages? " [61]

Miller seemed to take a matter-of-fact attitude, sometimes even a slightly humorous one, toward his critics. In this same letter he referred to two men who had apparently made some rather noisy, boastful thrusts at him. "But do not be alarmed on my account Brother Hendryx," he said, "I have heard lions roar, and jackasses bray, and I am yet alive."

Miller's reputation as a preacher must have been growing in his own community as well as abroad, for he informed Hendryx, "Our people are about giving me a license to lecture."

The thought of this troubled him greatly. "I hardly know what to do," said he. "I am too old, too wicked, and too proud. I want your advice; be plain and tell me the whole truth." In between these various letters written from his home Miller was making one trip after another to lecture on the prophecies. One day on a steamboat on the Hudson he was thrown in company with a group of men who were discussing the marvelous discoveries and inventions of their day, expressing wonder at what the future might hold, for in 1833 the steamboat was still considered quite marvelous. Miller remarked that the discussion made him think of the prophetic statement, "Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." Daniel 12:4.

He then proceeded to discuss at some length the prophecies of the Bible in their relation to the last days of earth's history. After rather extended presentation he excused himself and withdrew to the other end of the boat, not wishing to impose his ideas further on a company of strangers. But the whole group followed and requested that he continue. As the boat made its way mile after mile down the Hudson, he proceeded from one chapter to another in the book of the prophet Daniel and gave them what he believed was the true interpretation. He had with him copies of his recently published sixty-four-page pamphlet to hand out to them in response to their inquiry for something to read on the prophecies. [62]

In the spring of 1833 Low Hampton was still without a Baptist preacher. Miller had been called upon to occupy the pulpit. Here is the way he described himself and his preaching:

"We have no preacher as yet, except the old man with his Concordance. And he is so shunned, with his cold, dull and lifeless performance, that I have strong doubts whether he will attempt again. But hush–not a word of what I tell you. Send us a minister if you can." [63]

He mourns because he does not feel gifted:

"I wish I had the tongue of an Apollos, the powers of mind of a Paul; what a field might I not explore, and what powerful arguments might not be brought to prove the authenticity of the Scriptures, but I want one thing, more than either, the Spirit of Christ and of God, for He is able to take worms and thrash mountains."

The letter closes with an extended eulogy of the Scriptures.

Miller had been correct in his forecast, in a letter to Hendryx a few months previously, that his church was about to give him a license to preach. The original license is still preserved and is dated September 14, 1833. It gives evidence of being well worn. Presumably it was carried around by Miller for years.

This was only two years and one month from that Saturday in August, 1831, when Miller struggled with his own soul in prayer in that grove near his home and came forth a preacher. The church may not have known it, but they were simply giving formal ratification to the transaction Miller had made with his God in that grove.

From various references in his letters, and other sources, we are to conclude that in the twelve months following his receipt of a license Miller simply continued doing what he had been doing for two years previous, traveling here and there as he could find the time. He had not yet turned over the operation of his farm to his growing family, which finally numbered eight, nor had he yet resigned his office as a justice of the peace. We have records that show him serving as a justice as late as February, 1834. Though not poor, Miller was not a rich man. He had to provide for his family with the labors of his own hands and head.

Early in 1834, in another of his letters to Brother Hendryx, he wrote that he had been very busily engaged in preaching:

"I have forgotten whether I answered your last letter or not. I have been so much engaged for a few months past, that I have had no time to keep up a correspondence with the best friend on earth. This must be my apology...You laugh, Brother Hendryx, to think old Brother Miller is preaching. But laugh on. You are not the only one that laughs, and it is all right. I deserve it. But if I could preach the truth, it is all I could ask. Can you tell me how old Noah was when he began to preach? And Lot, Moses, etc.? " [64]

Perhaps it was Miller's rather poor health that made him unusually conscious of his years, for he referred to his age quite frequently. At the time of writing this particular letter he was only fifty-two years old. He actually began to preach when he was not quite fifty. Though hardly old in terms of a lifetime, fifty is rather a ripe age at which to begin preaching. The ease with which he moved into this new field, the ability which he soon displayed in holding audiences spellbound–an ability which even his enemies freely admitted–reveals a rather remarkable adaptability.

This letter deals largely with Miller's views concerning the Negro and the abolitionist movement that had recently been formed, and which was meeting with the most violent opposition and misrepresentation. If we were setting out to write a story of Miller that was as hopelessly one-sided on the good side as enemies' stories have been on the bad, we would pass by this letter. His remarks are complimentary neither to the abolitionist nor to the Negro. He wrote on this subject with the same vigor as he wrote on everything else. To a greater or lesser extent we are all creatures of our age and of our times, and our minds are clothed in the fashions of thought of our particular day, even as our bodies are robed in the dress of the times. The great majority of people thought abolitionists were dangerous disturbers of the peace and likewise believed that the Negro ought rightly to be kept in bondage because he was little, if anything, better than the beast.

Miller held what was then considered a very charitable view. He believed, with others, that the Negro should be sent back to Africa. The letter reveals, however, that he is not quite sure that his view of the whole matter is correct. He wants Hendryx to help him clarify his thinking and fortify him in his position against the disturbing abolitionists. Here is the vigorous way in which he wrote his closing paragraph:

"Do write and help me, brother, for as long as I have one shot I will fight: for these fire-skulled, visionary, fanatical, treasonable, suicidal, demoralizing, hot-headed set of abolitionists are worse, if possible, than Antimasonry, and if they go on in this way they will set our world on fire, before the time."

There was nothing halfway about Miller. He reminds one a little of the apostle Paul. He thought and acted intensely. He used in abundance those handmaidens of the fervid–colorful adjectives and superlatives.

But we must not turn aside further to discuss abolitionism or any other of the forces that were working on the body politic. We shall later devote a chapter to the discussion of the kind of world in which the Millerite movement lived.

Although we are most fortunate in having a series of letters that Miller wrote to his bosom friend, Hendryx, we do not have the letters that Hendryx wrote in reply. It seems that when Hendryx wrote to Miller after he had received his license he addressed him as the Reverend William Miller. This provoked from Miller a protest in the first lines of his letter: "I wish you would look into your Bible and see if you can find the word 'Rev.' applied to a sinful mortal as myself and govern yourself accordingly. Otherwise, I received your friendly epistle and hasten to answer." [65]

There is no reason to believe that this was feigned humility. There was no smirking, simpering pretense of piety, rather a forthright expression of an innermost feeling; it was simply William Miller speaking from his heart. It is interesting, however, to note that the address on the letters which Miller wrote to Hendryx both before and after this date begins thus: "Rev. Truman Hendryx." Some may consider this inconsistent. In a sense it probably was; yet Miller doubtless reasoned that while he himself could not honestly accept the title he would not deny it to others who did feel free to use it.

Miller was busy during the summer of 1834. This is evident from a letter to Hendryx which tells of various trips he had taken, in which he said: "After haying and harvesting are over, I shall go again." [66]

In the autumn he wrote to this fellow preacher, opening his letter with this play on words:

"I now have seated myself at the northeast part of my room, at the old desk, to answer a new letter from an old friend...It is an old man who is writing and the good old Book that he is writing about, and an old way of expressing himself...

"I have had good success since I wrote you before. The Lord has been with me. I have been into a number of towns in Vermont. Some old hardened rebels have been brought to plead for mercy, even before I got through a course of my lectures. Blessed be the holy name of God; He has given me even more than I should have dared to ask. How good, my brother, it is to preach, having God for paymaster. Oh, I would not be a hireling to the sheep and the world He pays down; He pays in souls." [67]

He cannot assure Hendryx of "coming into your country, for I find doors opening in this vicinity to last one year at least."

He then added this postscript:

"I devote my whole time lecturing, spend about a week in a place, have very crowded assemblies, generally more last day than preceding. Many say it looks rational and go to reading; some scoff and ridicule; others believe it is true. Ministers generally are the hardest to be convinced; yet they say 'they can bring no argument but what the old man will remove.' You know Estee.

He happened in one evening where I was lecturing (though he laughed and jeered before); next day sent me an invitation. Case, of Cornwall, laughed and ridiculed. I went and lectured four nights, five ministers present. Case was first to believe."

Here is a brief, staccato record of the groundwork Miller was beginning to lay, that provides the real explanation for the rather impressive monument of a movement that was reared in the early 1840's. Estee and Case were just two of an increasing number who listened to the "old man" and were convicted.

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