George Knight, Millennial Fever

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m heading up to Walla Walla, WA, Sunday morning to take a week long intensive course on “The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Theology” with George Knight. He had us to a lot of reading in advance (some of it in his own books), and I thought I’d post some of my reflections on that reading here.

George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World: A Study of Millerite Adventism (N.p.: Pacific Press, 1993).

Millerism ultimately succeeded as a movement, argues Knight, because it was mission driven; “they saw themselves as a prophetic people with a message that the world desperately needed to hear” (p. 10). Seventh-day Adventism, the largest child of Millerism by far, is the only one to share that prophetic identity and mission. The most important challenge facing Adventism today, Knight suggests, is whether it will retain that identity—that “millennial fever” (p. 342). He writes, I think, to help us do just that, and to kindle it anew.

Knight sets Millerism within the broader context of the period. First, it should be seen not only as part of, but indeed as the climax of the period of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening (pp. 21ff). Second, it was part of a particular trend within American Christianity known as Restorationism, which sought to get away from the creeds, confessions, symbols and traditions of Protestant orthodoxy in order to rediscover and restore primitive Christian doctrine and life (38ff; cf. the Stone-Campbell movements and the Christian Connexion).

Another feature of the period was a growing interest in the millennium, starting in the late 18th century. This was due to a combination of natural and human events, including the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the French revolution, and the capture of the pope by Napoleon’s forces in 1798. This latter event, which seemed to provide a firm date for the terminus ad quem of the Biblical prophecy of the 1260 days, led prophetic interpreters to take a closer look at other prophetic periods, including the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14. Eventually, according to Froom, some 65 expositors on four continents would calculate it as ending in the 1840s (15-16).

Miller’s primary innovation was not the preaching of definite time (which he long resisted), but teaching that Christ would come before the millennium, contrary to the postmillennialism that was dominant at the time (17). Whereas postmillennialism had an optimistic vision of a world tending towards betterment and a bright future, Miller proclaimed that it was heading to destruction (20).

Miller left Deism behind when he converted to Christianity, but he retained its rationalism, as can be seen in his evangelistic method of calm appeal to reason through carefully laying out the evidence (39, 103). While the movement also had its charismatics, such as S. S. Snow and George Storrs (who would dominate the movement in its final year), and moderates, such as Charles Fitch, this rationalistic approach was shared by the key leaders, including Himes and Litch (113).

Miller preached mainly in small towns prior to linking up in 1840 with Joshua Himes, who “transformed a one-man show into a genuine movement” (75). Himes was more than a promoter, but helped to create a sense of “self-consciousness and community” through publications and general conferences (78ff). Josiah Litch would add camp meetings (95ff).

In the next couple of years, growing tensions between Millerites and their churches forced Millerites to take further steps in organization. They could no longer meet in many churches, many were subject to discipline in the churches in which they held membership, and many ministers were removed for their adherence to Adventism (148-149). As a result, Millerites increasingly pulled away from the existing denominations to find fellowship with like-minded Christians; they had a larger sense of community through conferences and publications such as those Himes founded; they built tabernacles of their own for meetings—and they called and ordained ministers (151-153). The culmination came when Charles Fitch provided “a theological rationale” for separation in his July 1843 call to “Come out of her, my people” (154-155). 50,000 were to answer this call by October 1844 (p. 157).

Himes’ role as organizer was even more critical following the disappointment in 1844 (219). Where Miller was initially able to transcend denominational line (and saw no reason why Christians of all denominations shouldn’t be able to embrace the Bible’s teaching on the premillennial return of Christ), further rejection after October 22, coupled with the fact that the Adventist doctrine occupied the center of their hope in a distinctive way, ultimately led to the formation of denominations (229).

Differing interpretations of the significance of 1844 shattered the unity of the movement, however. The first interpretation, that the door of probation had shut on October 22, was originally accepted, indeed “actually … fathered” by William Miller (227; 237); it was the logical conclusion to teachings that appeared in Evidence from Scripture and History that there would be a close of probation (Rev. 22:11), and a shutting of the door, prior to the return of Christ. Influenced by Himes, Miller gave this up in short order, along with the belief that anything happened in 1844 (241-242). Driven by Himes, these “open door” Adventists organized at Albany in 1845, separating themselves from all who held to the shut door. They accepted a doctrinal platform, developed an evangelism plan, provided for ordinations, and spelled out their differences with other groups which they believed had wrong ideas (postmillennialism, as well as the idea of a return of Israel) or “unseemly practices” (p. 271-272). These Albany Adventists would later split over the issue of the state of the dead (285).

Others thought the problem was not with the time, but the event expected (230-231), and continued to speak of a door being shut. Apollos Hale and Joseph Turner wrote a seminal article in January 1845 in the Advent Mirror, saying that on Oct. 22 the bridegroom, Jesus, entered spiritually into the marriage feast (using imagery from Matthew 25:10); they connected this with the picture in Daniel 7 of the Son of Man coming before the Father in judgment (238; 304-305). One group would go with the bridal imagery and say Christ had returned to earth spiritually (some would enter the Shakers; others would engage in varieties of fanaticism). Another group took the judgment imagery and said Christ had entered a new phase of ministry (242). This is the group from which Sabbatarian Adventists arose (295).

Separation from the “fanatics” was a difficult process, and took time in the confused period following 1844 (266). Thus we see oddities like Ellen Harmon associated with Israel Dammon (arrested for disturbing the peace), and her visions appearing in Enoch Jacobs’ Day-Star, in which he published his own tendencies toward Shakerism, as well as O. R. L. Crosier’s articles on the sanctuary (296). The group that became Sabbatarian Adventists would achieve distinct identity through the rise of new leaders (esp. Joseph Bates, and James and Ellen White), new doctrines that explained their experience (the sanctuary and the Sabbath), and their own publications and organizational structure (298).

The key doctrines, or “pillars,”  of Sabbatarian Adventism were in place by 1848. They affirmed that God was leading in the Advent movement, that the prophetic timetable was correct, only the event was misidentified; instead of Christ coming to cleanse the earth by fire, he had entered into the final phase of his high priestly ministry, akin to the jugdment role of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. They saw they had a continued mission to proclaim the third angel’s message of the eschatological meaning of the Sabbath (and its connection to the sanctuary) (pp. 306-312; 314-315). To these were joined other distinctives, including conditional immortality, baptism by immersion, and the belief that the gift of prophecy was manifested in Ellen White (313).

Knight’s book is concerned with the Millerite movement as a whole, and is not a history of Seventh-day Adventist theology. He just takes us as far as the formation of a distinct Sabbatarian Adventist group. But he leaves us with that tantalizing question–as the church has developed in theology and in institutional life, has it retained that original, dynamic, “millennial fever”? And if we’ve lost it, how do we recover it?