Sunday, October 22, 2006

October 22

wt0012.1s-thAccording to the rigorous 17th century calculations of James Ussher, the former Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, the creation of the Universe commenced late in the evening on this date, 4004 years before the birth of Christ; much of the initial work, Ussher figured, was completed by the following day. In his massive Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (1650), Ussher meticulously reconstructed Biblical chronology, matching it to the Julian calendar in an exercise that was not uncommon for Renaissance and early modern theologians -- especially those who, like Ussher, despised Catholics and dedicated his scholarly life to proving that Protestant intellectual practice was superior to that of the heretical and idolatrous "papists." (While Ussher is often cited as the chronologist who pinpointed the universe's creation at 9:00 in the morning, that claim actually appeared six years earlier in a work by Sir John Lightfoot.)

According to The Gallup Poll, nearly half of all Americans continue to believe -- as James Ussher did -- that the universe is less than 10,000 years old.


By more or less sheer coincidence, the followers of the American prophet William Miller awoke on the morning of 22 October 1844 with the joyous expectation that Jesus would return to earth at some point that day. Miller, a Baptist who spent years of his life in the effort to discern the exact moment of the Second Coming; relying on the Book of Daniel and the Karaite Jewish calendar to guide his calculations, Miller published a 64-page series of lectures in 1834 that predicted the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary would begin sometime between March 1843 and March 1844. Asking his audience and readers if they were prepared to believe the "signs of the the times," Miller -- who was especially disgusted by the popularity of Unitarianism in New England -- warned that the unfaithful would not be spared on the day of Christ's return. As it attracted adherents over the next decade, the Millerite movement swelled to include tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans who -- groaning under the weight of a depression that began in 1837 -- looked with hope to a day on which their agony might be swept away.

Jesus Second Coming-05When March 1844 passed with no sign of the Son of Man, Miller's colleague Samuel Snow readjusted the date. In what became known as the "seventh-month message" or the "true midnight cry," Snow insisted that the actual return would take place later that year, on October 22 to be precise. As the "Great Anticipation" of October 22 gave way to the "Great Disappointment," followers of Miller awoke on October 23 to the realization that Jesus had not arrived as expected -- or, worse, to the unthinkable possibility that he had returned without telling the true believers who accurately guessed the date of his return. "Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted," wrote Hiram Edson, "and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before . . . . We wept, and wept, till the day dawn." Disillusioned and heartbroken, most Millerites drifted away from the movement; undeterred, a faithful remnant remained and formed the basis of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which currently boasts nearly 15 million members.