Monday, July 7, 2008

More Eschatological Musings

Back in the mid-sixties, while helping a teacher map a layer of slate in upstate New York and adjacent Vermont, we came upon an old building in a clearing, bearing the sign William Miller Chapel. It was obviously an old building that hadn’t been used for years, but it was still in good shape. The roof, shingled with the native slate of the area, had withstood well over a century of frigid winters and hot summers.

Later I learned that the old chapel and nearby farm had been the setting of a notable event, the "Great Disappointment" of 1844. Miller was a Baptist preacher who developed a theory based on his study of the Book of Daniel that the Second Coming would occur between 1843 and 1844. When it didn’t happen at the appointed time, Miller recalculated this prediction, saying that the actual date would be October 22, 1844. Thousands of his followers, known as Millerites, assembled to await their ascension. Obviously it didn’t happen.

The Great Disappointment is still studied in college psychology courses, as an example ofthe phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. According to this theory the failure of Jesus’ reappearance in 1844 led believers to develop a variety of explanations to reduce the inward tensions resulting from the fact that the prediction was just plain wrong. Imagine a family sitting in a farm wagon with all their possessions, looking around in the cold October daylight! Now what are we going to do? The Millerites split into many groups. Some, having sold their farms and belongings, headed west. The largest group eventually became today’s Seventh Day Adventists, who later restored the chapel and the Miller farmhouse, now a museum.

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