John Bicknell

The Day the World Didn’t End


On Oct. 22, 1844, thousands of people gathered in small groups across the country in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. These followers of a humble, self-taught preacher named William Miller were convinced that the Bible’s
Book of Daniel laid out a chronology that ended with this day. Many had sold their farms, closed their shops and quit their jobs in anticipation, although Miller had never urged anyone to do this.

“I have never taught a neglect of any of the duties of life, which make us good parents, children, neighbors, or citizens,” he wrote. “Those who have taught the neglect of these … acted in opposition to my uniform teachings.” Still, the faithful were so sure that the end was nigh that many surrendered their earthly possessions.

They gathered in churches, in homes, on hilltops, waiting through the day and into the night.

But Christ did not come, and Miller’s followers were bewildered. They suffered considerable scorn from their neighbors. The press of the day ridiculed them. Even other religious leaders had a field day in deriding the Millerites.

Many of the disappointed left the movement, but others listened to the calls of leaders such as Joshua Himes, Miller’s right-hand man, and remained true to the idea of the soon coming of Christ — without the deadline of a specific date. Over several years, structures evolved that resulted in the formation of several adventist churches with their roots in the Millerite movement, including the Seventh Day Adventists, which today rivals the Mormons as one of the largest American-born religious sects.

Oct. 22, 1844, came to be known as the Great Disappointment, but it spelled the end neither for the Adventist movement in particular nor the notion of end-of-the-worldism generally. Somewhere today, somebody is manning a street corner with a sandwich board, claiming the end is nigh. One of these days, somebody will be right.