Brain Pain—Part 2: The Great Disappointment

This blog entry is second in a series documenting the application of
the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
to a variety of issues throughout American History.
See the introductory entry “Dealing with Dissonance” for
a detailed overview explaining the background and basics of the theory.

Cognitive Dissonance:
The feeling of mental discomfort and agitation in your brain
created by attempting to hold two contradictory beliefs
inside the same brain at the same time


The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance was first used in the 1957 social psychology book When Prophecy Fails.  The theory was developed based on historical studies of groups throughout history that had predicted some version of the “End of the World,” noting how the members of such groups had dealt with their confusion, disappointment, and disillusionment when the predictions failed. The book describes an experiment in which a small team of researchers, guided by the book’s authors, infiltrated a contemporary group that was predicting just such an apocalyptic event.


Apocalypse: From the Greek word translated Revelation in the common English title for the last book of the New Testament. Thus The Apocalypse is often used as both the title of that book, and as a label for the series of events described in that book.

Apocalyptic: An adjective for a description or prediction of the destruction of the world; momentous or catastrophic; resembling the scenario of the book of Revelation.  Synonym: doomsday, as in “doomsday predictions” or “doomsday prophets.”

snowmen prophets

In this Brain Pain installment, we will examine the Millerites, one of the historical movements whose experience provided input in the development of the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The Millerite Movement of the mid-1800s was the Great Granddaddy of all American-born apocalyptic movements. As you might guess, it was named after a man named Miller.

William Miller, 1782-1849


If you’ve heard about the Millerite movement in the past, you may have envisioned its founder, William Miller, as a wild-eyed fanatic, coming “out of nowhere” onto the world scene, dressed in robes with a scraggly beard, standing on street corners shrieking “The End of the World is Nigh.” Most brief descriptions of the movement don’t share much if anything on Miller’s background.

But the wild-eyed prophet persona doesn’t fit Miller at all. He didn’t start out in life to become what people these days call a Doomsday Prophet. He didn’t start out even caring much about the Bible and religion at all, let alone about speculative prophecy. Growing up in rural New York state, his mother was a devout and pious Baptist, who used the Bible, a hymnal, and a prayer book to teach reading to her children. His father was a skeptic, not much interested in religion at all.

Shortly after his marriage to Lucy Smith in 1803, Miller abandoned any connection with his Baptist upbringing and officially became a “Deist,” a popular position at the time among many who considered themselves to be led by “reason” rather than emotion. Deists tended to accept the proposition that there was a Creator God, but were convinced that He does not involve himself with interaction with the Creation.

Miller threw himself into working diligently to establish a reputation as a landowner, a responsible citizen, and a person led by logic. He was well-respected in his community and was elected to several civil offices including Constable, Deputy Sheriff, and Justice of the Peace.

He also served in the New York militia, and in 1812 became part of the US Army, fighting in the War of 1812 against the British.

He saw his first action at the Battle of Plattsburgh, where vastly outnumbered American forces overcame the British. “The fort I was in was exposed to every shot. Bombs, rockets, and shrapnel shells fell as thick as hailstones”, he said. One of these many shots had exploded two feet from him, wounding three of his men and killing another, but Miller survived without a scratch. Miller came to view the outcome of this battle as miraculous, and therefore at odds with his deistic view of a distant God far removed from human affairs. He later wrote, “It seemed to me that the Supreme Being must have watched over the interests of this country in an especial manner, and delivered us from the hands of our enemies… So surprising a result, against such odds, did seem to me like the work of a mightier power than man.”  [Source]

And thus began his journey away from Deism and back to the Baptist faith of his youth. His frightening war experiences, along with the deaths of his father and sister shortly after, forced him for the first time to face his own mortality, and think deeply about the questions of death and the possibility of an “afterlife.”

Miller apparently felt that there were only two options possible following death: annihilation, and accountability; neither of which he was comfortable with.

… Miller took tentative steps towards regaining his Baptist faith. At first he attempted to combine both, publicly espousing Deism while simultaneously attending his local Baptist church. His attendance turned to participation when he was asked to read the day’s sermon during one of the local minister’s frequent absences. His participation changed to commitment one Sunday when he was reading a sermon on the duties of parents and became choked with emotion. Miller records the experience:

“Suddenly the character of a Savior was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed that there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to Himself atone for our transgressions, and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin. I immediately felt how lovely such a Being must be; and imagined that I could cast myself into the arms of, and trust in the mercy of, such a One.”

Miller’s father had remained a Deist, and when Miller began sharing his renewed beliefs, his father challenged him to defend them, especially in light of what his father saw as many discrepancies in the Bible. Miller took up the challenge with a great intensity of purpose.

He did so by examining the Bible closely, declaring to one friend “If he would give me time, I would harmonize all these apparent contradictions to my own satisfaction, or I will be a Deist still.” Miller commenced with Genesis 1:1, studying each verse and not moving on until he felt the meaning was clear. In this way he became convinced firstly, that postmillennialism was unbiblical; and secondly, that the time of Christ’s Second Coming was revealed in Bible prophecy.

Postmillenialism (“post” means “after”):

Postmillennialism holds that Jesus Christ establishes his kingdom on earth through his preaching and redemptive work in the first century and that he equips his church with the gospel, empowers her by the Spirit, and charges her with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) to disciple all nations. Postmillennialism expects that eventually the vast majority of men living will be saved. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of men and of nations. After an extensive era [a “millennium”] of such conditions Jesus Christ will return visibly, bodily, and gloriously, to end history with the general resurrection and the final judgment after which the eternal order follows.

Postmillenialism was a dominant theological belief among American Protestants who promoted reform movements in the 19th and 20th century such as abolitionism and the Social Gospel. [Source]

Miller instead came, through his personal study, to believe in premillennialism:

Premillennialism, in Christian eschatology, is the belief that Jesus will physically return to the earth to gather His saints before the Millennium, a literal thousand-year golden age of peace. This return is referred to as the Second Coming. The doctrine is called “premillennialism” because it holds that Jesus’ physical return to earth will occur prior to the inauguration of the Millennium. It is distinct from the other forms of Christian eschatology such as postmillennialism or amillennialism, which view the millennial rule as occurring either before the second coming, or as being figurative and non-temporal [not existing in human “time”]. For the last century, the belief has been common in Evangelicalism according to surveys on this topic. [Source]

As he slogged through the Bible verse by verse, Miller’s analytical mind began to see what he believed to be pieces of mathematical evidence that could be strung together to establish a firm scenario and schedule of how The End of the World would come.

Basing his calculations principally on Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed”, Miller assumed that the cleansing of the sanctuary represented the Earth’s purification by fire at Christ’s Second Coming. Then, using the interpretive principle of the “day-year principle”, Miller (and others) interpreted a day in prophecy to read not as a 24-hour period, but rather as a calendar year. Further, Miller became convinced that the 2,300 day period started in 457 BC with the decree to rebuild Jerusalem by Artaxerxes I of Persia. Simple calculation then revealed that this period would end in 1843. Miller records, “I was thus brought… to the solemn conclusion, that in about twenty-five years from that time 1818 all the affairs of our present state would be wound up.”  [Source]


But even then, in 1818, he didn’t put on Bible-times robes and go wandering the streets with a sign proclaiming “The End is Nigh!” This was an intellectual understanding, and his approach was one of intellectual persuasion, not wild-eyed ranting.

Although Miller was convinced of his calculations by 1818, he continued to study privately until 1823 to ensure the correctness of his interpretation. In September 1822, Miller formally stated his conclusions in a twenty-point document, including article 15: “I believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years,–on or before 1843.” Miller did not, however, begin his public lecturing until the first Sunday in August 1831 in the town of Dresden.

In other words, he calmly plodded through 13 more years of study and reasoning and laying it all out carefully in writing, before he ever even approached others with his convictions. By 1830 or so he was trying to privately present his findings to local area preachers, hoping that one or more of them would be excited enough about them to begin preaching about them. He did not consider himself a public speaker at all, and would have much preferred to have others spread his information. But he found no one who shared his enthusiasm. So …

In 1832 Miller submitted a series of sixteen articles to the Vermont Telegraph, a Baptist newspaper. The Telegraph published the first of these on May 15, and Miller writes of the public’s response: “I began to be flooded with letters of inquiry respecting my views; and visitors flocked to converse with me on the subject.”

In 1833 he published his first official pamphlet on end-time prophecy. And in 1836 his book Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ about the Year 1843 was published. According to his calculations, the Second Coming of Christ—often referred to as the Second Advent—would occur sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. He evidently chose those dates because they were the spring equinoxes.

This was back before “Power Point Presentations,” of course, but in the 1830s Miller made good use of the 19th Century version of “infographics” in a series of lectures given in small towns throughout New England.

miller preaching

The modern “artist’s concept” painting above, from Seventh Day Adventist literature, gives the feel of what it might have been like to be in Miller’s audience. A poster-sized original of the actual 1843 colored chart shown in that painting is reproduced below, so that you can see the biblical reference sources of much of Miller’s number crunching efforts., with which he persuaded his audiences of the validity of his declarations that the Second Coming was almost upon them.


Prior to 1840, Miller’s efforts to spread his warning about the imminent advent of Jesus were limited. He could only do so much as one man, traveling a circuit of churches mostly in New York state and nearby areas. And then he met Joshua V. Himes.


Himes was the prominent pastor of the First Christian Church in Boston, and was an active part of numerous reform movements of the day, including in the areas of abolition, peace, temperance, and education.

He was also a publisher and an extremely adept early practitioner of modern methods of publicity and public relations.

Himes met William Miller in 1839 at Exeter, New Hampshire. Impressed, he invited Miller to speak at the Chardon Street Chapel [in Boston]. From these lectures Himes became convinced of the imminent return of Christ, and sought opportunities for Miller to preach.

In 1840 he published and edited the first Millerite newspaper, the Signs of the Times, in Boston. He led in organizing general conferences and camp meetings, and published hundreds of pamphlets as well as the second and third editions of Miller’s lectures.

He organized extensive lecture tours for Miller and himself as far west as Cincinnati, brought about the manufacture of the “great tent,” at that time the largest tent in the United States [it held 4,000] for use on these tours, and established a network of agents, book depots, and reading rooms from Boston to St. Louis. [Source]


The tent started out at 120 X 120 feet, and held 4000 seats. That one, shown above, was quickly outgrown, and a section patched into the middle, making it 120 X 160 feet, holding 6000 or more. It was such a unique, impressive sight in those days on its own account that people would come out just to have a look at it, and end up staying for Miller’s lecture.

He [Himes] also published the Thayer lithograph of the first Millerite prophetic chart, designed by Charles Fitch and Apollos Hale. In 1842 he started a second newspaper, the Midnight Cry, in New York City.

Himes’ promotional work brought Millerism to the attention of the world.



Conservative estimates indicate Miller and his associates presented his theory ultimately to hundreds of thousands of people in America (Miller himself claimed to have spoken to over 500,000 people, in over 4,500 meetings), along with large numbers overseas, particularly in English-speaking countries.

Many main-stream church leaders strongly criticized his teachings. Many newspapers ridiculed his ideas as fanaticism and his supporters as fanatics, while at the same time appreciating the fact that sensational stories about his meetings increased the sales of their papers.


For the first several years of his preaching efforts, Miller encouraged his supporters to remain in their local church denominations and just attempt to share their beliefs about the prophecy with their brethren there. Toward the approach of the predicted dates, it became obvious that the beliefs such supporters embraced from Miller’s teachings left them more and more estranged from the religious mainstream.

And thus in the final years and months before the expected Advent, many left their former congregations and formed independent fellowship groups based on their distinctive beliefs.

Outsiders usually referred to such groups as “Millerites,” but their preferred designation for themselves was “Adventists,” because the focal point of their beliefs was an absolute conviction that the Second Advent was very near.

Since there was no specific “organization” that such individuals and fellowship groups could “join,” it is impossible to accurately estimate their numbers. But it seems likely from various records of the time period that from 25,000 to 50,000 people were ultimately strongly committed to various levels of involvement, beyond just attending a lecture out of curiosity, in the Millerite movement by 1843.

When both March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, passed without the Return, Samuel Snow, one of Miller’s followers, suggested that a prophetic principle regarding “tarrying” in Habbakuk 2:3 might be used to extend the expected date to October.

For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.

Putting this together with some other passages, Snow had concluded the actual date of Jesus’ Return would be the “tenth day of the seventh month” of the “biblical calendar,” the holy day of Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) which he believed fell on October 22 in 1844. (The Jews in America in 1844 actually observed Yom Kippur in September that year, but Snow’s theory was based on what he believed to be a restoration of a more “biblically correct” calendar.)

News of Snow’s theory spread quickly through the Millerite movement throughout the land, and was enthusiastically received and believed by many. It took Miller himself an extended time to embrace this new idea, but as the date approached, he finally endorsed it, and joined the majority of his followers once again to wait in anticipation.


Popular representations of the Millerites then and in later years often showed them all putting on white robes and standing on rooftops or tops of hills on the anticipated date, waiting to be “taken up,” as seen in this cartoon from the PUCK magazine in 1901.


Although perhaps a handful of zealous folks did so, this was mostly an antique version of an Urban Legend. Most first-person descriptions from that time period describing the activities of the Millerites across the country in the days leading up to and including October 22 mention nothing of the kind.

Newspaper editorial cartoonists could be very harsh in their ridicule of what they considered utter nonsense.The cartoon below from a Boston newspaper shows the Boston Tabernacle, where Miller had been preaching,  being ripped from its foundation and “raptured” to the heavens. Miller sits on the roof, on top of one of his Great Charts. Various followers cling onto the building. Down below, many raise their arms…in amazement, or perhaps hoping to be taken up also–although it looks like most will be “left behind.” That would include Joshua V Himes. He is standing on piles of moneybags in the midst of the building’s foundation, with a “demon” holding him back who declares “Joshua V you must stay with me.” The names of three of the Millerite magazines Himes published are plastered on the side of the platform. The implication was that the cartoonist is accusing him of “being in it for the money.”


In the last week or two before October 22, some, but not all, did quit working at jobs or harvesting crops, and some, perhaps many, gave away money and goods, tried to make amends with old enemies, and generally set their affairs in order. wanting to have a “good report” for themselves when they stood before Jesus.

But that date too, passed. Here’s how one of the Millerite leaders, Hiram Edson, described his own reaction to that Great Disappointment.

“Our expectations were raised high, and thus we looked for the coming of the Lord till the clock tolled 12 at midnight. The day had then passed and our disappointment became a certainty. Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.

I mused in my own heart, saying, My advent experience has been the richest and brightest of all my Christian experience. If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my Christian experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God- no heaven- no golden home city- no paradise? Is this all but a cunningly devised fable? Is there no reality to our fondest hopes and expectation of these things?”

The circumstances provided a perfect storm of Cognitive Dissonance. The varied ways in which individual Millerites and groups of Millerites responded to that dissonance provided Leon Festinger and his associates with plenty of input in the creation of their theory in the 1950s.

The next blog entry in this series will examine the record of the various ways Disappointed Millerites dealt with the reality they faced after the End didn’t come when they expected.

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