A Brief Introduction to Millennial Zeal in the Nineteenth Century
Abstract: With the end of the 20th century rapidly approaching, there is an upsurge, fuelled by speculation in the media, of interest in millennial zeal. Individuals posting to religious news-groups on the Internet have been caught up in this upsurge and many messages are predicting the return of Christ in the near future. But what of the past? Millennial zeal is far from new. Ever since Christ's ascension, Christians have awaited His return. This text investigates one major upsurge in this zeal and why it happened.
1. Setting the Scene
"...and lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind." [Rev:6:12-13, The Holy Bible, 1813]
The Lisbon earthquake
In the year 1755 there occurred the most terrible earthquake ever recorded in history; it was known as the Lisbon earthquake, although it affected over four million square miles of the earth, from Greenland to Africa, and from Sweden to America. In Lisbon itself, 60,000 people perished in the course of just six minutes, much of the city was destroyed and a new quay in the harbour disappeared entirely, with all those who were on it at the time. The tidal wave caused by the quake was estimated to have been sixty feet high.
The dark day of North America.
In May, 1790, many of the eastern states of North America were enveloped in such absolute darkness that the day became known as the "Dark Day." Hershel, the astronomer wrote: "The morning was clear and pleasant, but at about eight o'clock there was observed an uncommon appearance in the sun. There were no clouds, but the air was thick, having a smoky appearance, and the sun shone with a pale, yellowish hue, but kept growing darker and darker, until it was hid from sight."
The impenetrable darkness lasted, with only a slight relaxation in the early evening, until one o'clock the following morning. No definite reason for this phenomenon has ever been established.
The star-fall of 1833
The third event which stoked the fire of millennial zeal was the amazing spectacle of tens of thousands of shooting stars filling the heavens with light over a period of several hours (from 2am until broad daylight in North America). Such were the numbers of stars that it was possible, at times, to read a book by the light they gave off. The display was seen over much of the earth and at its peak, it was estimated that some 34 000 meteors fell in an hour.
These three apparently isolated occurrences were joined in the minds of the people by the mention, in Chapter 6 of Revelation, THAT the the return of Christ would be preceded by an earthquake, the darkening of the sun, and the falling of the stars to earth. Also, in Matthew 24, Christ Himself is reported as saying:
"...shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken."
One other aspect worth mentioning is the prophecy in Matthew 24:13-14 where Christ is reported as having said,
"...and this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall come the end time."
I shall return to this in Chapter 5.
2. The Advent of Millennial Zeal
The turn of the century
The Bible refers to the Return of Christ many times, in both the Old and New Testaments, such as in the Books of Daniel, Numbers, Matthew, Luke, and Revelation. At the turn of the 18th century, as the result of the study of the prophecies in these books, many biblical scholars were of the opinion that the Return of Christ was imminent. The work of these scholars inspired a renewed religious zeal greater even than that of the Reformation of the 16th century or at other times in the past.
Many people made their mark during this period, most of whom are now forgotten. Amongst them were Bengel (Germany), Gaussen (Switzerland), Lacunza (South America), Mason (Scotland), Leonard Kelber and Joseph Wolff (Germany) and, in North America, Andrew Jackson Davis, Joseph Smith, William Miller. In addition, there were many priests and ministers throughout the world teaching the second coming.
Bengel, a Lutheran minister, saw in the text of Revelation 21 clear references to the Return and his teachings were well received throughout Germany, some of his followers even moving to Russia to set up colonies which awaited the second coming well into the early 19th century. Gaussen based his work on Daniel, chapter two and, again, had a great following, of young and old and especially of men of learning. Lacunza, using the name of Rabbi Ben-Israel, published a book announcing the imminent return of Christ. And, increasingly, the date being referred to in the publications and sermons of these Adventists was 1844.
3. Wolff and MillerAmongst the many scholars and churchmen announcing the imminent return of Christ, two stand out above all the others. These were Dr. Joseph Wolff, the son of a Rabbi, who at the age of eleven left his home to study Christianity and who eventually embraced the Protestant faith, and William Miller, son of a captain in the American army at the time of the Revolution, who spent his life in detailed study of the Holy Bible.
Joseph Wolff became a Roman Catholic at an early age, much to the displeasure of his Jewish father, and travelled extensively under the protection of the Church until his independent though and free speech caused him to be labelled a heretic and incorrigible. As a result, he embraced the Protestant Faith while on a visit to England.
Wolff studied the Bible extensively, but especially the Book of Daniel and became firmly convinced that Christ's return was near at hand. To those that would doubt him, saying, "Of that day and hour knoweth no man", he would reply, "Did the Lord say that the day and hour should never be known? Did He not give us signs of the times, in order that we may know at least the approach of His coming...? Are we never to know that period, whilst He Himself exhorteth (us) not only to read Daniel the prophet but to understand him? And in that very Daniel where it is said that the words were shut up to the time of the end [which was the case in Wolff's time], and that 'many shall run to and fro' [a Hebrew expression for observing and thinking on that time], and 'knowledge' [regarding that time] shall be increased...." We would not be given the exact time of His coming but enough to know when it was approaching, and to be able to prepare for it as Noah was able to prepare the ark.
Wolff also commented on the popular system of interpretation (which he called misinterpretation) of the time in which the greater part of the church would ignore the plain sense of the Scripture, turning 'Jews' into 'Gentiles,' 'Jerusalem' into 'the church', 'the coming of the Lord' into 'progress of the missionary societies,' and understanding 'going up the mountain of the Lord's house' as signifying a 'grand class-meeting of Methodists.'
Wolff spent 24 years (from 1821 to 1845) travelling extensively with his message of the Return. In 1833 he came to America where he preached in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington – the latter in the Congress Hall, at invitation of the Congress, all of the members being present. He was also able to address the governments of New Jersey and of Pennsylvania, at their requests.
Wolff suffered incredible hardship in bringing his message to the peoples of the world. He was starved, bastinadoed, sold as a slave, robbed and, three times, condemned to death. But all through his travels he declared his life safe under the protection not only of God Himself but of his Bible which he carried with him always.
The American, William Miller was probably the prime teacher of the Second Coming. From his mid thirties, when he discovered a deep faith in Jesus Christ, he studied the Bible, chapter by chapter and verse by verse. His studies convinced him that not only had the prophecies of Daniel and of Revelation been fulfilled, but that they had been fulfilled literally. This lead him to realize that he was living in 'the last days.'
Miller was fascinated by the chronology of the scriptures, the periods of time mentioned in various books of the Bible and this lead him to the belief that he could calculate the year of the Return. Two years of intensive study, ending in 1818, with the conclusion that Christ would return in about 25 years time. After a period of checking and preparation Miller finally gave the world his message in 1831.
Fifty years of age, and unaccustomed to public speaking, Miller's preaching was an amazing success. In every town he visited, scores, or even hundreds, of people were converted to his cause. Churches were thrown open to him and, eventually, he had so many invitations to speak that he had to start turning some of them down. He rarely asked for any payment for what he was doing, supporting himself from the income from his small farm, though eventually this was not sufficient to support his expenses.
Two years after he started preaching, the star fall of 1833 added extra impetus to his work, as did the fulfillment of a prediction (based on prophesies in Revelation 9) by another minister, Josiah Litch, that the Ottoman empire was about to fall. This brought many academics and prominent people into Miller's following.
Inevitably Miller also made many enemies and at one time there was even an attempt on his life. He was ridiculed in the press and many churches turned against him. But throughout all these trials he remained steadfast in his conviction that the year of the Return would be 1844.
4. Beginnings"Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth, but they are hidden from the minds and understanding of men." What was the drive that made men like Miller and Wolff pursue so assiduously the daunting task of predicting the Return of Christ? They had no conception of how the Return would be realised. If the second coming were to manifest itself on a descending cloud, as many people believed, there was the problem as to where on earth the cloud would appear. The reality was that no-one knew what to expect.
Religion has been an integral part of society since time began, and even now the basic rules of our western civilisation have their roots in the Old and New Testaments. Religion is rich in variety; it knows no boundaries, it changes from age to age and from region to region. It belongs to no one class, privileged or otherwise. But if one looks, unbiased by tradition, at the great religions of the world, one cannot but note that they appear to be progressive.
As new religions appeared over the centuries, each brought a new flowering of human achievement, each facilitated a great advance in civilisation.
By the mid-nineteenth century, it was popularly believed, a belief encouraged by many scientists themselves, that science had reached the end of the road as far as new inventions were concerned. This theory was swept away by the rapid pushing back of scientific horizons and a flood of new inventions totally unimaginable just a few years earlier. Who would have believed 150 years ago that within two life spans, man would be able to fly, travel to the moon, or converse at the speed of light with fellow men around the world?
Until the year 1844 a graph of scientific achievement against time was almost horizontal, but after 1844 the graph it rises steeply. The year 1844 was a turning point in human achievement.
On 24th May 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first official telegraph message. His choice of words could not have been more significant; "What hath God wrought!" (Numbers 23:23) It could have been any date, but as we shall see, it was one of the most significant dates in history.
5. ProofsWe have read in previous chapters about the events that triggered people like Miller and Wolff into studying the Holy Bible in order to discover exactly when the Return of Christ would be manifested. But these events did not point to a particular date and, in themselves, were no proof of the imminent Return. In fact, it would be easy to say that with so many years separating them that it was pure coincidence that they had occurred at all.
So, what was it in the Bible that convinced Miller that the Return was imminent and enabled him to calculate, if not the exact day, at least the year in which the second coming was due.
Before describing the thinking behind Miller's calculations it must be understood that in Biblical prophecy, it is generally accepted that one day in biblical prophecy is equivalent to one year (based on Numbers 14:34, or Ezekiel 4:6, where it is written, "each day for a year") and that the mention of a year in prophecy is equivalent to 360 years (being based on 12 months of 30 days each).
The main source of information used by Miller was in the Book of Daniel. For instance, Daniel 8:14 reads, "...unto 2300 days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed." This, Miller concluded, pointed to a date well after the end of the Jewish dispensation and, therefore could not be referring to the coming of the Messiah, especially as it was generally understood that sanctuary in the Christian age was the entire earth. The cleansing of sanctuary, in Millers time, was understood to refer to the purification of the earth by fire at the second coming of Christ.
Miller reasoned that, if he could find the starting date for the 2300 year period, then he could calculate the date of the second coming. However, he was frustrated by the fact that even Daniel himself did not understand the prophecy. However, in Daniel 9:24-27 we find,
"Seventy weeks are determined upon they people and upon Thy holy city ... know therefore ... that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks and threescore and two weeks.... After threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off ... and He shall confirm the Covenant with many for one week."
Miller concluded that these 70 weeks (490 years) were part of the 2300 days mentioned in the earlier prophecy, in fact that the two periods started concurrently, and that they started from the date of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.
Chapters 8 to 12 of Daniel cover the subject in detail. The time between the decree to rebuild and the crucifixion of Christ are thus defined firstly as 70 weeks and then as 7 plus 62 plus 1 weeks. Each add up to 490 days (years). Miller decided that the relevant command to rebuild the city was that of Artaxerxes in 457 BC. From 457BC to the year of the crucifixion was 490 years. This left 1810 days of the 2300. From 34CE this gives the year 1844. Thus the time of cleansing the sanctuary would commence in 1844.
In addition to the prophecies mentioned above, there was also the number 1260 which appears in Revelation Chapter 11, where it is written,
"... and the holy city they shall tread underfoot for forty and two months. And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they shall prophecy a thousand two hundred and three score days clothed in sackcloth."
Counting back 1260 years from 1844 gives us 538CE, a year in which nothing, apparently, happened. However, the year 1844 is the year 1260AH (the Islámic calendar). The Christian calendar is a solar calendar, unlike the Islamic lunar calendar in which each year is slightly shorter (at 354 days). In Shi'i Islám, Muhammad was succeeded by 12 Imáms, the last of whom disappeared in the year 260AD. His return was promised after 1000 years as a great deliverer on the Day of Judgement. It was, of course, quite possible that Miller, as a devout Christian, would have been unaware of the Islamic support for his announcement of the year 1844 (1260AH) as the year of the Return.On a completely different aspect of prophecy, in Matthew 24:13-14, Christ is reported to have said,
The British Foreign Bible Society was formed in 1804 and its American equivalent in 1816. In 1842, the Bible was finally brought to China's treaty ports and to the African interior. And, in 1844 it was finally possible to obtain a copy of the Holy Bible just about anywhere in the world. The organisers of the great push to bring the Christian to the whole world were well aware that they were fulfilling one of the conditions for the second coming. Gratton Guiness, founder of the East London Institute for training missionaries, wrote,
"...the time for evangelising the nations, and gathering in the church of the first-born is speedily to expire.... if we be right in believing that scarcely a single prophecy in the whole Bible, relating to event prior to the second advent of Christ, remains unfulfilled."
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that all the other great religions have prophecies about a return and in some cases point to a period in the mid 19th century.
Daniel wrote his words in Elam, which was part of ancient Persia; he not only spoke of when the Promised One would appear where, naming Elam as the place of vision and the end times; the prophet Jeremiah spoke similarly, as did the sacred scriptures of Islám, which state unequivocally that, "the upholders of His faith shall be of the people of Persia."
6. The Realization
Persia, once the glory of the east had become, in the mid 19th century, a country of superstition and bribery, controlled by a fanatical clergy and a corrupt government, riddled with nepotism. Islám brought only despair and fear to the common people. However, as in the Christian world, an air of expectation began stirring.
In 1783, a mujtahid named Shaykh Ahmad founded a movement based on the mysteries of Divine Revelation. After his death in 1826, he was succeeded by Siyyid Kázim who urged his followers to renounce their material lives in order to advance their spiritual development. Siyyid Kázim died in 1843, leaving an instruction to his followers to spread out and seek for the Promised One. One of these followers was Mullá Husayn, who decided to dedicate his life to this task, encouraged by the prophecies regarding the year 1260 (1844CE).
Mullá Husayn devised a test for determining the validity of any claim to be God's Messenger. The claimant was to write, unasked, a commentary on the Súrih of Joseph, one of the most difficult passages of the Holy Qur'án, a task that Siyyid Kázim himself had been unable to do.
In the evening of 22nd May, 1844, Mullá Husayn arrived at the gate of the city of Shiráz, in Persia, where he was greeted by a young man who appeared to be waiting for him and who invited him to visit his home in order to refresh himself after his long journey. On being told that Siyyid Kázim had instructed his followers to go out and search for the Promised One, the young man asked if the Siyyid had left any indication as to what they should look for in the person they were seeking. Mullá Husayn proceeded to list all the distinguishing features, including age, lineage and height. However, when the young man declared, "Behold, all these things are manifest in me," Mullá Husayn answered politely that it was not possible as the one sought would be a being of vast knowledge and unsurpassed holiness. As soon as he had made this statement, he was overcome by a sense of fear and remorse, so decided to test the claim by presenting the young man with a treatise which he had with him in which he had written of the deep, hidden teaching of Siyyid Kázim and Shaykh Ahmad; if the youth could unravel these mysteries then the final test would be the Súrih of Joseph.
Mullá Husayn was astounded at the knowledge and insight of the youth, even more so when He announced, unprompted, that the time had come for the commentary on the Súrih of Joseph to be revealed. In Mullá Husayn's own words,
"He took up His pen and with incredible rapidity revealed the entire Súrih of Mulk, the first chapter of His commentary on the Súrih of Joseph. The overpowering effect of the manner in which He wrote was heightened by the gentle intonation of His voice, which accompanied his writing. Not for one moment did He interrupt the flow of the verses which streamed from His pen. Not once did He pause till the Súrih of Mulk was finished. I sat enraptured by the magic of His voice and the sweeping force of His revelation...." [Dawnbreakers, Part II, Chapter III]
The young man's name was Siyyid 'Alí-Muhammad, later known as the Báb [Herald, or Gate]. The date was 22nd May, 1844. The following day Samuel Morse sent his historical message, "What hath God wrought."
7. And into a new age"Let your vision be world embracing...."
On the 9th July, 1850 ten thousand people crowded into the barrack square of the city of Tabríz, in Persia, and onto its surrounding roofs, to witness the execution of Mirzá Ali-Muhammad, the Báb. The Báb and one of His followers, named Anis, were suspended by a rope from one of the pillars surrounding the square and were waiting for Sám Khán, the colonel of an Armenian Christian regiment, to carry out the orders of the Persian authorities to execute them. At the colonel's command, 700 rounds were fired, in three waves, at the two prisoners, filling the square with smoke so thick that it blotted out the sun.
Before the execution, Sám Khán had expressed to the Báb his uneasiness at being responsible for His death and wished to be relieved of the burden. The Báb assured him that if that was his real desire then he need have no fear. And it soon became clear that Sám Khán's wish had been granted, for when the smoke finally cleared, the Báb was nowhere to be seen and Anis was standing there bewildered but unhurt. The ropes had been shattered by the bullets yet the two men were untouched.
Sám Khán immediately withdrew his regiment, refusing to have any more to do with anything that would hurt the Báb, Whom he admired and respected. After a search, the Báb was found back in His cell, finishing off a conversation with His secretary that had been cut short earlier. He was, once again, suspended, with Anis, from the pillar in the barrack square. A Muslim regiment took over the task of executing them and this time the two bodies were riddled with bullets, though the two faces were left untouched and were serene.
As the shots rang out, a ferocious gale swept over the city and a whirlwind of dust obscured the sun, enveloping the city from noon till night. Within a few years the instigators of the execution were both dead, two thirds of the members of the regiment were executed, the remaining third having been killed in an earthquake near Shiráz.
The years both previous to and following this event saw the extraordinary fulfillment of prophecy as sought by such visionaries as Miller and Wolff; their great misfortune, and that of all those who so eagerly followed them, was that they were unable to see it for themselves.
But the Báb, like John the Baptist and others before him, had declared Himself to be the Herald of One even greater than Himself, of Whom He wrote,
The Person to Whom He referred was Bahá'u'lláh, Who also came out of Persia, and Whose life completed the fulfillment of prophecy.
The declaration of the Báb in the evening of 22nd May, 1844 signalled the birth of a new age for humanity everywhere, millennial zeal ending where the new age began. It is ironic that, due to poor communications at that time, those who were seeking were unable to find and that the very event they sought happened as their search ended. Reports of events were generally restricted to the area where they occurred, unless the were about war or the rumours of war. Modern communications, if even imagined were no more than flights of fancy. And so, the year 1844 passed into history as the year of the Great Disappointment, leaving millennial zeal behind it in books and papers.
In Persia, the despotic clergy and corrupt government had no idea that by endeavouring to erase the new born Faith, they had helped to fulfil prophecy, letter by letter. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives while unnumbered others risked theirs in order to become followers.
This is a story of such magnitude that all who learn of it are affected by it in one way or another – the choice is theirs. It has changed the course of history despite its apparent quiet presence, for it is, without doubt, the best kept secret of our age.