The message of Jesus’ soon return in the early 1840s was heard by millions of Americans. In the minds of many, it was the closest experience in American history to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

How did this great revival begin? And why is it so little known?

This is the first part in a series of four in which we will consider the answers to these questions. Our journey will begin with a man named William Miller. We will discover striking similarities between his life story and experiences and those of biblical revivalists such as Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself.

Let’s now consider three of these similarities.

1 — William Miller's Early Years

Miller was raised amid poverty in a rural setting. His father was a farmer who moved to eastern New York state in 1786. Unable to purchase land, he rented a 100-acre farm, building a humble log cabin for his family.

We find similar conditions in the early years of Biblical revivalists.

Moses, whose parents were slaves, was certainly raised amid poverty (Exodus 1:13; 2:1-10). Little is known about Elijah’s early years. John the Baptist was raised in the rural, hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39, 40). Jesus Himself was raised amid poverty as is indicated by His parents only being able to afford two pigeons or doves at His dedication in the temple (compare Leviticus 12:1-8 with Luke 2:22-24). Also consider Jesus’ humble birth (Luke 2:7).

2 — William Miller's Education

A second striking similarity is found in Miller’s education. He was taught at home by his mother. He craved reading material, but his father’s library consisted of only three books — a Bible, psalter, and an old hymn book. No formal education was available to him. The local school was only open during the winter months and the teachers themselves were poorly educated. Three notable politicians with substantial libraries did, however, allow Miller to borrow their history books, which he devoured. After marrying his wife, Lucy, Miller chose to move to Poultney, Vermont where he was able to extend his knowledge with books from a local library.1

Again, we find similar experiences in the early education of biblical revivalists.

Moses received his first instruction from his mother (Exodus 2:1-10) and later the best education in all Egypt (Acts 7:22). Again, we know little of Elijah’s early education. John the Baptist did not attend a formal school, but was in the deserts receiving his education for ministry (Luke 1:80). Likewise, Jesus did not receive a formal education (see John 7:15). It is very probable that He was taught by His mother from the Old Testament scrolls. Jesus thrived on this home education as Luke 2:47, 52 reveals: “And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers… And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”

3 — William Miller's Leadership Qualities

A third striking similarity is seen in Miller’s leadership qualities. As an honorable member of the community, he served as sheriff, tax collector, and justice of the peace. When he volunteered to serve his country in the ongoing struggle for freedom, many of his acquaintances signed up to serve under his leadership. Even while disclaiming the inspiration of the Bible, Miller was asked to read the sermons in the local Baptist church.

And once again we find similar qualities of leadership in the lives of biblical revivalists.

Moses, in the eyes of all the people in Egypt, was very great (Exodus 11:3). Elijah likewise reveals the authority of a great leader on Mount Carmel. King and people alike followed his commands (1 Kings 18:20-46). John the Baptist not only held a strong influence over his disciples (John 1:35, 36) but over those living in Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding area (Matthew 3:5). Just as Miller was asked to read the sermons in church, Jesus was asked to read from the Old Testament scroll in the Jewish synagogue (Luke 4:16-17). Although Jesus did not accept any titles or hold prominent positions of leadership, the report was that everyone was following Him (John 3:26). Even His enemies declared, “The world has gone after Him” (John 12:19).

In Miller’s earlier years, he was unaware of God’s providence in his life. Yet, he was being prepared to lead a national revival.

Next month, in part two, we will consider three additional similarities between the life and experience of Miller and that of these biblical revivalists.

Call to Remember

Those of us who desire to be a part of God’s end-time, worldwide revival have much to learn from those He has chosen in the past to bring about revival. By learning from the past, we will more clearly discern how God is working now in these last days.

All scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

  1. William Miller, Miller’s Works (Joshua V. Himes, 1842), vol. 1, 7-8.

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