Saturday, December 27, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: God's Strange Work

Recently I read God's Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World by David Rowe (2008, Eerdmans). This is a well written work and a very even-handed treatment of the "Millerite turned Adventist" Movement which began in the 1830's and extended until some time past 1844 (the predicted end). Having spent sometime among the Seventh-day Adventists, as chronicled in my book on fundamentalism (you may read a sample chapter at www.therecoveringfundamentalist.com). SDA's have a certain "hagiography" surrounding Miller and the accuracy of his computations.

Miller was born in 1782 and, as the book demonstrates, was in many respects a product of late 18th and early 19th century America. He was raised in a (mostly) pious Baptist home and had early inclinations towards religion. As a young man, he was taken with the rationalism of the Deist writers and thinkers of his day. From this, he derived a strong preference for what could be reasonable and proven (hence his later attraction to heavenly arithmetic).

After serving in the War of 1812, Miller discovered that his Deism left him bankrupt when it came to the establishment of purpose and meaning in his life. Although he was raised in eastern New York, he had left for Vermont before his military service to escape the religiosity of his parents. When he found his life devoid of ultimate purpose, he resolved to return to his family farm in New York, which he did, wife and children in tow.

While living in New York, he became a prominent man of some means. He also held local political office. It was in New York through the study of the Bible (not quite as free from the commentary of others as his modern-day children might lead us to believe) that he embraced the principle-- one widely accepted by many writers of the day-- that in prophecy, one day was equivalent to one year. Approaching the 2300 day prophecy in Daniel he concluded it represent 2300 years and would culminate around 1843 or before (later changed to October 22, 1844). As Rowe points out, this conclusion was hardly unique to Miller, having been stated by many religious writers previous to Miller's discovery of the date.

At first (for years) he kept the belief to himself or shared it with only a few close associates. Then he seemed to sense God calling him to "tell it to the world." He was hesitant. Obviously, he knew that to many it would sound like a "crackpot" message. Nevertheless, in the early 1830's, Miller began his prophecy lecturing career. Much of it carried out when he was past 60.

It was actually popularizers, especially Joshua V. Himes, who "shepherded" Miller in such a way that the Millerite/Adventist message became a mass movement. It must be noted that there were many other "prophets" emerging in New England at that time-- especially Joseph Smith. In some ways, Millerism was a product of the same religious fervor that produced Mormonism. This must be said, however, Miller never applied the term "prophet" to himself, and except for his millenialism, he was pretty much an "Old School Baptist." He was decidedly a Calvinist. The Millerite Movement attracted tens of thousands of adherents (to one degree or another).

Of course, he missed the date. After the Great Disappointment, Millerites went on predicting dates for years to come. Some spiritualized the Second Coming, saying Christ came in some manner-- something happened on October 22, 1844. Miller vacillated on the many questions that perplexed bewildered followers until his death in 1848. Himes eventually returned to the Episcopal faith of his childhood. In the 1870's, he was ordained a priest. Millerites fractured into many splinter groups, always predicting or explaining, trying to make sense of the Movement and its failure of prediction.

All things considered, God's Strange Work is a worthwhile read. It gives many insights into the life of a complicated man-- albeit a man of his times.

NOTE: THIS POST IS PART OF AN "ADVENTIST MINI SERIES." THERE ARE (or will be) FIVE POSTS IN THIS SERIES. WHEN THEY ARE ALL "UP AND RUNNING" THEY SHOULD APPEAR ON THE FOLLOWING DATES 12/27, 1/2, 1/4. 1/6. 1/9. THE 12/27 POST IS REALLY A BOOK REVIEW. IT PROVIDES SOME BACKGROUND. THE OTHER FOUR POSTS COMPRISE THE ACTUAL MAIN CONTENT OF THE SERIES. THIS BLOG IS ABOUT FUNDAMENTALISM. THE ADVENTIST STUFF JUST SEEMED TO HAVE FOUND ITS TIME FOR TELLING. THE BLOG IS NOT MAINLY CONCERNED WITH ADVENTISM, EXCEPT HOW IT FITS INTO THE LARGER PHENOMENON OF FUNDAMENTALISM AS EXPERIENCED IN MY LIFE.


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