We have been reviewing a little-known national revival in American history. As previously learned, this revival commenced with the preaching of a man named William Miller. In the final segment of this four-part series, we will consider one last similarity between the experience of William Miller and those of biblical revivalists such as Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself.
William Miller experienced disappointment as he shared the blessed hope of Jesus’ soon return. Years before he began his public preaching ministry, he was communicating this hope with local and visiting Baptist pastors. He disclosed his joyful expectation with his neighbors. Miller gave the following description of this experience:
To my astonishment, I found very few who listened with any interest. Occasionally, one would see the force of the evidence; but the great majority passed it by as an idle tale. I was, therefore, disappointed in finding any who would declare this doctrine, as I felt it should be, for the comfort of saints, and as a warning to sinners.1
Miller was again destined to disappointment as he eagerly watched for Jesus to appear in 1844. The time passed without incident. His sorrow is poignantly expressed in the following poem penned in 1844:
Moses was no stranger to disappointment. Convicted that God had chosen him to deliver His Israelite people, Moses determined to use his military might and genius for the overthrow of the Egyptians. However, his murder of an Egyptian slave master only led to ridicule from his own people and a death sentence from Pharaoh. In haste, Moses fled for his life, leaving not only Egypt but his hope of being Israel’s deliverer (see Exodus 2:11–15).
As Miller was disappointed in not being able to see Jesus come in his lifetime, so Moses was disappointed in not being able to enter the promised land. While journeying to Canaan, the Israelites had, once again, found themselves without a source of water. They complained to Moses, who turned to God. Moses was told to speak to a nearby rock and water would flow from it for the people. However, with pent-up anger and frustration, Moses struck the rock twice with his rod. Water immediately flowed from the rock and satisfied the thirst of Israel, but Moses was told by the Lord that he would not be allowed to take the Israelites into the promised land (see Numbers 20:8–12).
Sometime later, as Israel stood on the shores of the Jordan River, Moses pleaded with the Lord for permission to cross over and see the good land. But the Lord refused any further discussion. Instead, He directed Moses to the top of Mount Pisgah from where he could look beyond the Jordan to the land of promise (see Deuteronomy 3:23–28).
Elijah had prayed for years that revival might come to Israel. Following the great victory on Mount Carmel, with ardent hope he looked for Israel to turn to the Lord. Yet, he was also destined to disappointment. In discouragement, he fled for his own life from an angry queen (1 Kings 18, 19). Years passed and the expected revival did not come. Instead, Israel was eventually taken captive and scattered throughout the Assyrian kingdom (2 Kings 17).
Witnessing Jesus’ growing popularity, John the Baptist described his emotions as the joy a friend of the bridegroom feels at a wedding (John 3:29). But it was John’s lot to be thrown in prison. As the months passed and Jesus made no attempt to deliver Israel from Rome or him from prison, John became discouraged and disappointed. He even questioned whether Jesus really was the Messiah (Matthew 11:2–3). Because of his enemy, Herodias, John died without ever seeing his hopes realized (Matthew 14:1–2).
Throughout history, God’s messengers, as imperfect humans, were often disappointed and discouraged when things did not go as expected, even though they were following God’s plan and holding expectations inspired by God Himself. They were tested and tried. Thankfully, by God’s grace, the faith of Miller and the biblical revivalists remained steadfast unto the end, and they overcame their disappointments. Most importantly, God’s unsearchable purposes and His ways which are past finding out were accomplished through them (Romans 11:33–36).
We must not forget that Jesus Himself experienced disappointment. After giving repeated evidences of His Messiahship, His own people rejected Him as their Deliverer from sin. The story is told of Jesus approaching a fig tree in the hopes of finding fruit. When he found nothing but leaves, He pronounced a curse on the tree (Mark 11:12–14). This experience typifies the disappointment Jesus experienced when He found His own people to be unfruitful. Jerusalem refused to accept Him as their King (Matthew 23:37–39). He wept over the city He loved (Luke 19:41–42).
We may never know until heaven the full purposes of God in calling William Miller, in the 1800s, to preach of Jesus’ soon return. However, the national revival that resulted must be seen as a movement ordained by God. Millions of Americans were called to seriously consider events related to their eternal destiny and their readiness for those events.
The experience of Abraham, who was called by God to Canaan, sheds light on God’s purposes for this national revival. God had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants. However, after arriving in Canaan he was told by God that it would be another 400 years before his descendants would inherit the land. We can imagine Abraham’s disappointment in not being able to see God’s promise fulfilled in his lifetime.
God declared that the time had not yet come for those nations currently dwelling in Canaan to be driven out (Genesis 15:12–16). For reasons only God knows, He chose not to reveal this to Abraham until he had already arrived in Canaan. Perhaps it was to test His servant. Or God may have called Abraham and his descendants to be His witnesses in a foreign land. As Israel would later be given 490 years to prepare for the Messiah (see Daniel 9:24), so God, through Abraham and his descendants, gave the Canaanite nations 400 years to turn from their sins and serve Him.
So it may be with William Miller, who was called to prepare a people to take possession of the heavenly Canaan. The faith of God’s people was indeed tested. Americans in the 1800s were given a decisive call to prepare for the return of the King of kings. Is it not also God’s plan that this witnessing of His soon return should continue in our generation?
Through this four-part series, we have considered ten ways in which Miller and his work were of the same mold as biblical revivalists and some possible purposes God may have had in mind for this national revival. Yet, like many, you may have never heard of Miller. Or perhaps you have classified him as just another false prophet who mistakenly set a date for the end of the world. History tells a different story. An avid student of the Scriptures for decades, a man of earnest prayer, a humble servant of God, Miller was a true reformer. His preaching awakened people to the reality of eternity.
Even the obscurity of this revival reveals an important lesson. Significantly, Miller’s vision was not to create a new sect or denomination after himself. The Baptists of his own denomination criticized his non-sectarian evangelism.3 Miller’s calling was to prepare a people for a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one. In this, he was like his Lord who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Years after his death, six denominations would eventually be formed as a result of Miller’s preaching. But their value is only equal to their ability to carry forward the work Miller started, that of awakening people to prepare for Jesus’ soon return.
Perhaps you would like to learn more about William Miller and this national revival by taking a tour of his farm, which is now maintained by Adventist Heritage Ministries as a national historic site in upstate New York, USA. Just visit the website at www.adventistheritage.org.
Call to Action
More importantly, determine to be ready for Jesus’ soon return. For He has said that He will come when you are not expecting Him (Matthew 24:44). His coming will bring an end to all suffering, loneliness, and death. It will usher in an eternity of joy and peace with our Creator in the home He is preparing for you (Psalm 23:6; John 14:1–3).
- Bliss, Sylvester, Memoirs of William Miller (Eugene, Oregon: Adventist Pioneer Library, 2014), 83
- Bliss, 262.
- Bliss, 283.