by Paul A. Gordon

Beyond question, William Miller was the leading Second Advent preacher of the middle 19th century. Sylvester Bliss, publisher of the Advent Herald, a leading periodical that promoted Miller's views, has written a biography of Miller that is especially interesting to us. In the preface of this book, Elder Joshua V. Himes, one of Mr. Miller's close friends and a fellow laborer in the preaching of the second coming of Christ in the 1840s, wrote:

"The name of William Miller, of Low Hampton, New York, is too well known to require an extended introduction; but while well known, few men have been more diversely regarded than he. Those who have only heard his name associated with all that is hateful in fanaticism, have necessarily formed opinions respecting him anything but complimentary to his intelligence and sanity; but those who knew him better, esteemed him as a man of more than ordinary mental power, a cool, sagacious, and honest reasoner, a humble and devout Christian, a kind and affectionate friend, a man of great moral and social worth."

Though Miller was the acknowledged leader of a movement that went through disappointment, he was actually right about three of his four major points. (1) He preached that Christ would come the second time, before the thousand-year millennium spoken of in Revelation 20. This is right. (2) He was correct in applying the prophetic symbols of Daniel and Revelation. (3) His exposition and explanation of the prophetic periods we still generally accept as being accurate. (4) He was mistaken, however, about the event that was to occur at the end of the 2300 days - he believed that the earth was to be cleansed by fire at the second coming. Today we believe the sanctuary in heaven was to be cleansed at that time. This is represented by the Old Testament service known as the Day of Atonement. After this work is finished, then Christ will return personally to earth.

William Miller was largely self-educated. There was not a highly organized public school system in his time. Because he was the oldest of 16 children, five sons and eleven daughters, his father was unable to provide the education he so much desired. But young William, when possible, developed his own personal library and was an avid reader with a great thirst for knowledge.

There was a Doctor Smith in the community, who had a large fortune. He was known to be very liberal. William decided to compose a letter, telling this doctor of his intense desire for more education. William prepared the letter and it was nearly ready to be sent, when his father entered the room, picked up the letter, and read it. The reading of the letter moved his father to tears, and from this time on, he encouraged William in his desire for knowledge. The letter, however, was never sent.

By his teens, William had become distinguished among his associates as one who was above the average in education. In his home community he was known as the "scribbler general." For example, he was asked to compose verses and letters of proposal for his young men friends to send to the ladies who were the object of their affection.

In 1803, at age 21, he was happily married to Lucy Smith. The home of William and Lucy became a favorite gathering place for the young people of Poultney, Vermont. He and his wife became the central focus that drew them together and kept things going.

Soon after his marriage, a religious struggle began for William Miller and he became what is known as a deist. A deist is one who believes that God made the world, put it in motion, and then abandoned it to take care of itself.

As he entered deism, he wrote the following brief poetic words:

Come, blest religion, with thy angel's face,
Dispel this gloom, and brighten all the place,
Drive this destructive passion from my breast;
Compose my sorrows, and restore my rest;
Show me the path that Christian heroes trod,
Wean me from earth, and raise my soul to God.

It has been suggested that there are two things that are essential to beginning a genuine Christian experience. The first is a knowledge of our condition as sinners. The second is a knowledge of the grace of God. Miller had learned the first in early life, but he had not yet become acquainted with the grace of God. Three choices were before Miller: (1) He could accept and take the narrow path. (2) He could blaspheme God and turn away. (3) He could mock religion and those who were religious. He chose the latter of the three.

Two family members especially became the object of his jokes: his grandfather Phelps, who was the Baptist pastor of Orwell, Vermont; and his uncle, Elihu Miller, who was the Baptist pastor of Low Hampton, New York. He began to imitate their words and tone of voice and gestures, their fervency and grief for such sinners as himself. He did this to entertain his skeptical associates. Little did he realize that he would later receive the same mocking as an Adventist preacher, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.

William Miller joined the American Army in 1812, and at the age of 30 received a captain's commission. It was clear at an early age that he was a leader of men. Though he was a deist with a wrong concept of God, he did have compassion for those soldiers who were under his direction. It is obvious that he had their respect and confidence as well. After the war, two members of his company who lived as neighbors in Vermont had some business difficulties that grew so serious that they could hardly live on speaking terms as neighbors. These men thought of their former captain; and though they were much older than he was, decided to submit to his consideration their differences, agreeing to abide by his decision. It was a long way to his residence, and the time and cost of the journey was considerable.

They arrived at Captain Miller's home at nearly the same time. Arrangements were made for a hearing. Each told his story. The decision was made, after all the facts of the case had been carefully considered, and it was received in good faith by both men. They took each other cordially by the hand and spent a little time with their former captain, then returned to their home as friends.

An incident took place during Miller's time of army service that had a profound effect upon him. He writes about it in his Apology and Defense, published in 1845:

In 1813 I received a captain's commission in the United States Service and continued in the army until peace was declared. While there, many occurrences served to weaken my confidence in the correctness of deistical principles. I was led frequently to compare this country to that of the Children of Israel, before whom God drove out the inhabitants of their land. 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.

I was particularly impressed with this view when I was in the Battle of Plattsburgh, when, with 1500 regulars and about 4,000 volunteers, we defeated the British who were 15,000 strong - we being also successful at the same time in an engagement with the British fleet on the lake. At the commencement of the battle, we looked upon our own defeat as almost certain; and yet, we were victorious. So surprising a result against such odds did seem to me like the work of a mightier Power than man.

When he retired from the army, Miller moved to Low Hampton, New York, and built his home there. This home still stands, and is the object of our special interest as plans are going forward to restore it to its original appearance. William Miller also began farming about 200 acres. In addition, he served as justice of the peace until the early 1830s. In 1987, several hundred documents relating to this work were discovered in an antique barrel in a little-used attic of his home.

Less than a mile down the road from his farm, there was a small Baptist meeting house. Miller became a regular attendant, and contributed liberally to its support. Because Miller’s home was so close, it became the unofficial headquarters for preachers who would come from a distance. Even though Miller attended regularly, he liked to ridicule their faith and make their opinions a subject of joking with his infidel friends. It was a strange mixture.

William Miller's mother, who was a member of the congregation, noticed that when preachers were not there, he would not attend. He excused his absence on the ground that he was not edified by the way the deacons read printed sermons. He intimated that if he could do the reading, he would always be present. When his mother suggested this arrangement to the officials of the church, they were pleased with the idea; and after that, when a regular preacher was not able to be there, Miller would read the sermon, even though continuing to believe in deism.

This situation left him personally under deep conviction and troubled by uncertainty regarding his religious faith. On September 11, 1816, a special celebration was planned as an anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh. This was the battle that Miller had participated in and where he had received such a strong impression that God was involved with the success of the American forces.

A special dance, or ball, across the state line in Fairhaven, Vermont, was planned. William Miller eagerly participated in the planning for the celebration. On the evening previous to the ball, it was announced that there would be a sermon preached at the Baptist church by a visiting minister. Captain Miller and some of his skeptical friends decided to attend, more from curiosity than anything else. They headed out in rather high spirits. It was noted by family members that when the young men returned, they all seemed deeply thoughtful, especially William Miller. As a result of this meeting, the ball was postponed. The next day, which was a Sunday, William Miller, as was usual in the minister's absence, was asked to read the sermon. It was on the importance of parental duties. Soon after beginning the sermon, Miller was overpowered by emotion and took his seat. He wrote about his feelings at the time:

Suddenly, the character of a Saviour was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed that there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to Himself atone for our transgressions and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin. I immediately felt how lovely such a Being must be, and imagined that I could cast myself into the arms of, and trust in the mercy of, such an One. But the question arose, "How can it be proved that such a Being does exist?" Aside from the Bible, I found that I could get no evidence of the existence of such a Saviour, or even of a future state. . .

I saw that the Bible did bring to view just such a Saviour as I needed; and I was perplexed to find how an uninspired Book should develop principles so perfectly adapted to the wants of a fallen world. I was constrained to admit that the Scriptures must be a revelation from God. They became my delight, and in Jesus I found a friend. . . . The Bible now became my chief study, and I can truly say I searched it with great delight. I found the half was never told me. I wondered why I had not seen its beauty and glory before, and marveled that I could have ever rejected it. I found everything revealed that my heart could desire, and a remedy for every disease of the soul. I lost all taste for other reading and applied my heart to get wisdom from God.

This remarkable conversion was a joy to his relatives and other members of the nearby Baptist church. His infidel friends regarded his departure from them as a loss of their standard-bearer, but his future course was set. He would commit his life and all there was to it to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. At age 34 he had embarked on a path that would lead him to become the great preacher of the Advent Message in a few years.

Excerpted from The Life of Miller, James White.