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William Miller Revisited: “God’s Strange Work”

Do we really need another book about William Miller, the student of Scripture who predicted the Second Advent in the 1840s? David Rowe, a professor history at Middle Tennessee State University, thinks so, and I agree. Rowe has filled the need admirably with his solid and well-written biography, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World.

Rowe takes his title from a statement that Miller made toward the end of his life when reflecting on the prophetic movement that carries his name: “this work,” he called Adventism, “this strange work.”

Miller was expressing awe over the work that he saw God accomplishing through his crusade, but others have attached different significance to the “strangeness” of Miller and his movement. To many contemporaries, Miller and his followers were divisive, deluded, and dishonest. Eighty years after the Great Disappointment, author Clara Endicott Sears solidified this attitude in a book about Millerism titled Days of Delusion: A Strange Bit of History (1924).

Sears described Millerism as a “strange religious hysteria.” She considered Miller’s followers “seemingly sensible people who suddenly accept preposterous theories and become fanatics and run hither and thither propounding vagaries.” Basing her book largely on tradition and the memories of participants, she depicted Adventists of the 1840s donning ascension robes, climbing roofs in preparation for liftoff, giving away their property, and going insane.

Miller’s spiritual heirs have viewed him and his movement more sympathetically. Joshua V. Himes, Miller’s colleague and publicist, published the earliest favorable book about him in the 1840s. Other positive treatments by Apollos Hale and Sylvester Bliss, James White, and Francis D. Nichol followed over the next century. Miller’s apologists depicted him as a courageous and powerful messenger of God who played a crucial role not only in the interpretation of biblical prophecy, but also in its fulfillment.

God’s Strange Work does not fit into either of these two categories. It neither holds Miller up for ridicule nor casts him as a theological hero. Instead, it contextualizes him, depicting him as a flawed human finding his way through an array of currents in society, thought, and religion that buffeted early nineteenth-century America. One reason Rowe can take this approach is the effort he has taken to study more sources on the subject in greater depth than any of Miller’s previous biographers. As a result, he meets Miller on his own terms and offers readers a more plausible and compelling portrait.

Rowe digs deeply into Miller’s family history and places him in the vortex of two major developments in early America. The first was the wave of immigrants from New England — many of them Calvinist Baptists, as was one branch of Miller’s family — that swept west into upstate New York shortly after the American Revolution. The second was the Enlightenment, which penetrated American culture and society in a variety of ways and found adherents throughout the country at all levels of society.

Rowe sees Miller climbing the ladders of local politics and society on the New York-Vermont border shortly after his marriage, falling under the influence of frontier deists, and experiencing a conversion that led him back to his spiritual roots while serving as a militia officer during the War of 1812. The fact that countless contemporaries could have come close to replicating Miller’s story suggests to Rowe that Miller was not atypical.

Nor was his spirituality. Rowe depicts Miller’s conversion leading him to study Scripture, as with other converts of the time, where he searched for evidence in support of Christianity and consistency within it, in keeping with his rationalist background. Of crucial importance, as well, were his exposure to popular prophetic literature, political discourse of the day permeated with millennial themes, and his own longstanding fascination with history.

“Miller did nothing to stand out from the crowd,” writes Rowe of Miller’s early spiritual growth. “[A]ll the evidence points to a religiosity that was conventional, private belief in the imminent second coming of Christ notwithstanding” (90).

According to Rowe, Miller also experienced personal shortcomings all too typical of fallible humans. In Rowe’s view, Himes and other publicists learned early in the 1840s that Miller could be easily manipulated. He could also be adamant, combative, forgetful, and indecisive. According to Rowe, Miller’s decision to prioritize the preaching of his message at the height of his popularity deprived his family of attention they needed and opened him to accusations of neglect.

Often stricken with illness, Miller periodically succumbed to erysipelas, a debilitating skin condition characterized by boils and rashes, which left him in agony for weeks and interfered with his preaching appointments. Rowe suggests a relationship between this condition and “[a] certain hypochondria . . . not unknown among people finding themselves thrust into public notice” (171). Perhaps the most telling evidence of Miller’s human fallibility came after the Great Disappointment as Millerism splintered into factions, partly as a result of its founder’s inconsistent response.

Readers of this book will be forgiven if they see similarities between its approach and that of Ronald Numbers in his controversial biography of Ellen White, Prophetess of Health. Rowe admits being interested in Miller since the 1970s, but he acknowledges a special intellectual debt to Numbers and thanks him for his friendship. The publishers also see parallels, and they have timed the release of Rowe’s book to coincide with their own republication of an updated version of Numbers’ study.

Both books are part of the Library of Religious Biography, a series of Eerdman’s Publishing edited by Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and Allen C. Guelzo. Other subjects in the series include Aimee Semple McPherson, Thomas Merton, Billy Sunday, Roger Williams, Charles Finney, and George Whitefield.

“The books in this series are well-written narratives meant to be read and enjoyed as well as studied,” claim the publishers. With Rowe’s book, they have succeeded, producing a study that will most likely be the standard biography of Miller for years to come.

Leigh Johnsen is the associate editor of Spectrum magazine.

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