William Miller: Second Advent Preacher
The public preaching of William Miller dates from the autumn of 1831. He continued to be distressed regarding his duty to go and tell the results of his study to the world. One Saturday morning, after breakfast, he sat down at his desk to examine some Bible point; and, as he rose to go out to work, it came home to him with more force than ever: “Go and tell it to the world.” He writes about this experience as follows:
The impression was so sudden, and came with such force, that I settled down into my chair, saying, I can’t go, Lord. Why not? seemed to be the response; and then all my excuses came up—my want of ability, and so forth; but my distress became so great, I entered intoa 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 wha tI 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.
In about half an hour from this time, before I had left hte room, a son of Mr. Guildford, of Dresden, about sixteen miles from my residence, came in, and said that his father had sent for me, and wished me to go home with him. Supposing that he wished to see me on some business, I asked him what he wanted. He replied that there was to be no preaching in their church the next day, and his father wished to have me come and talk to the people on the subject of the Lord’s coming.
I was immediately angry with myself for having made the covenant I had; I rebelled at once against the Lord, and determined not to go. I left the body, without giving him any answer, and retired in great distress to a grove nearby. There I struggled with the Lord about an hour, endeavoring to release myself from the covenant I had made with Him; but I could get no relief. It was impressed upon my conscience, Will you make a covenant with God, and break it so soon? And the exceeding sinfulness of thus doing overwhelmed me. I finally submitted, and promised the Lord that, if He would sustain me, I would go, trusting in Him to give me grace and ability to perform all He would require of me. I returned to the house, and found the boy still waiting. He remained till after dinner, and I returned with him to Dresden.
There is a fact about this request to preach that is remarkable. It would take more than an hour to travel by horseback from Dresden. That means that the Guildford boy started on his trip to request Miller to preach before he made the covenant with the Lord.
William Miller tells us what happened the following day which, of course, was Sunday, though he refers to it as Sabbath:
The next day, which as nearly as I can remember, was about the first Sabbath [Sunday] in August, 1831, I delivered my first public lecture on the second Advent. The house was well filled with an attentive audience. 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. At the close of the services on the Sabbath, I was requested to remain and lecture during the week, with which request I complied. They flocked in from the neighboring towns; a revival commenced, and it was said that in thirteen families all but two persons were hopefully converted.
This proved to be the opening of a floodgate of requests. Miller continues his account this way:
On the Monday following, I returned home, and found a letter from Elder Fuller, of Poultney, Vermont, requesting me to go and lecture there on the same subject. They had not heard of my going to Dresden. I went to Poultney, and lectured there with similar effect.
Thus began a ministry that was to continue for 13 years, leading to the expectation of the second coming of Christ in 1844. Though he was a Sunday-keeping Baptist, remember that his call to the preaching ministry came on the Sabbath just prior to his first preaching appointment.
From 1832 to 1844, William Miller kept a log of his preaching. He included in this log the texts that were used for each presentation. During this period he preached over 3200 times, or an average of more than 266 times every year.
One incident that took place in the year 1842 is of special interest. It suggests some of the opposition that Miller faced from those who did not know him well. He was near the city of Boston; and a friend took him to a phrenologist in Boston, with whom he was himself acquainted, but who had no suspicion whose head he was about to examine.
The so-called science of phrenology was quite popular at that time. It was thought that by examination of the shape of a person’s head, you could get a clear idea of the character of the person.
The phrenologist commenced his examination of Miller by saying that hte person under examination had a large, well-developed and well-balanced head. While examining him, he said to Mr. Miller’s friend, “Mr. Miller could not easily make a convert of this man to his harebrained theory. He has too much good sense.”
He thus proceeded making comparisons between the head he was examining and the head of Mr. Miller, as he fancied it would be.
“Oh, how I should like to examine Mr. Miller’s head,” said he. “I would give it one squeezing.”
The phrenologist, knowing that the gentleman was a particular friend of Mr. Miller’s, spared no pains in going out of his way to make remarks about him.
The others present laughed at the joker; and he heartily joined them, supposing they were laughing at his witticisms on Mr. Miller.
He pronounced the head of the gentleman under examination the reverse in every particular of what he declared Mr. Miller’s must be. When through, he made out his chart and politely asked Mr. Miller his name.
Mr. Miller said it was of no consequence about putting his name upon the chart, but the phrenologist insisted.
“Very well,” said Mr. Miller, “you may call it Miller if you choose.”
“Miller? Miller?” said he, “What is your first name?”
“They call me William Miller.”
What? The gentleman who is lecturing on the prophecies?”
“Yes, sir, the same.”
At this, the phrenologist settled back in his chair, in astonishment and dismay, and spoke not a word while the company remained. His feelings may be more easily imagined than described.
Miller traveled extensively, as already noted, throughout the eastern United States, speaking to, in many cases, large and attentive audiences. Sometimes his messages were readily received; other times they were ridiculed and mocked by a large percentage of those who came to listen. The result of his preaching over the next 12 years called together a group of people preparing for Christ’s coming, estimated between 50,000 to 1000,000.
This number does not seem large in today’s society, but at that time it represented a sizeable group of people. Among those who heard Miller preach, of course, was young Ellen Harmon in Portland, Maine. She first heard him preach there in 1840 when she was but 12 years of age. With her family, she accepted his preaching; and, because her church opposed the Advent message, she and her family were disfellowshipped from the Methodist church of which they were members, just prior to the expected return of Christ.
In the book, Early Writings, Ellen White speaks about William Miller and his work:
"Angels of God repeatedly visited that chosen one, to guide his mind and open to his understanding prophecies which had ever been dark to God’s people. The commencement of the chain of truth was given to him, and he was led on to search for link after link, until he looked with wonder and admiration upon the Word of God.
"Angels of God accompanied William Miller in his mission. He was firm and undaunted, fearlessly proclaiming the message committed to his trust. A world lying in wickedness and a cold, worldly church were enough to call into action all his energies and lead him willingly to endure toil, privation, and suffering. Although opposed by professed Christians and the world, and buffeted by Satan and his angels, eh ceased not to preach the everlasting gospel to crowds wherever he was invited, sounding far and near the cry, “Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come."
Ministers who would not accept the saving message themselves hindered those who would have received it. The blood of souls is upon them. Preachers and people joined to oppose this message form heaven and to persecute William Miller and those who united with him in the work. Falsehoods were circulated to injure his influence; and at different times after he had plainly declared the counsel of God, applying cutting truths to the hearts of his hearers, great rage was kindled against him, and as he left the place of meeting, some waylaid him in order to take his life. But angels of God were sent to protect him, and they led him safely away from the angry mob. His work was not yet finished.
The most devoted gladly received the message. They knew that it was from God and that it was delivered at the right time. Angels were watching with the deepest interest the result of the heavenly message, and when the churches turned form and rejected it, they in sadness consulted with Jesus. He turned His face from the churches and bade His angels faithfully watch over the precious ones who did not reject the testimony, for another light was yet to shine upon them. (Pages 229, 232, 234, 235.)
Surely there is significance in Ellen White’s words; for she herself was one who was called at the age of 17 to be “another” light to the world and, more specifically, to the small group of disappointed Millerites who did not know which way to turn after Christ did not return on October 22, 1844, as they had hoped.
Ellen White gives us some further, rather unusual, insights about Miller. She points out that after the disappointment in 1844, he was pulled in different directions. He would hear of the advancing light that was opening to our early pioneers. And then he would be drawn away by his former associates in the preaching of the second coming of Christ. He had exhausted his energies in preaching, and “was not as accountable as those who kept him from the truth. They are responsible; the sin rests upon them.” She continues:
If William Miller could have seen the light of the third message, many things which looked dark and mysterious to him would have been explained. But his brethren professed so deep love and interest for him, that he thought he could not tear away from them. His heart would incline toward the truth, and then he looked at his brethren; they opposed it. Could he tear away from those who had stood side by side with him in proclaiming the coming of Jesus/ He thought they surely would not lead him astray. (Ibid., 258.)
Then we have this beautiful insight as to God’s mercy in regard to William Miller:
God suffered him to fall under the power of Satan, the dominion of death, and hid him in the grave form those who were constantly drawing him from the truth. Moses erred as he was about to enter the Promised Land. So also, I saw that William Miller erred as he was soon to enter the heavenly Canaan, in suffering his influence to go against the truth. Others led him to this; others must account for it. But angels watch the precious dust of this servant of God, and he will come forth at the sound of the last trump. (Ibid.)
Perhaps the most significant final testimony we might consider from William Miller is found in a letter he wrote from Low Hampton, New York, on November 10, 1844, to one of his closest associates in the preaching of the second coming, Elder Joshua V. Himes. It would seem that he might be terribly discouraged about the fact that Christ had not come. Just the opposite is true. This letter, full of positive hope and encouragement, contains the following interesting and revealing comment form his pen:
I have fixed my mind upon another time, and here I mean to stand until God gives me more light—and that is Today, TODAY, and TODAY, until He comes, and I see HIM for whom my soul yearns. (Life of Miller, page 303, 304.)
Surely we could take this as our goal – that we are ready for Christ to come, Today, TODAY, TODAY.