Ruminations about the End of the World on May 21: Howard Camping and William Miller

The final return of Jesus Christ on the last day is an article of Christian belief, but the track record of those who have predicted the day is not good.  In fact, so far, they are batting .000.

And while the predictors were scouring their Bibles for clues they must have missed these texts:

“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. . .  You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”  (Matthew 24:36,44)

“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.”  (Mark 13:32)

So now California evangelist Howard Camping is predicting that this Saturday will be the day. Perhaps he would be well served by the example of William Miller as a cautionary tale.

Who was William Miller? He is not remembered by many these days, but he was once the leader of a huge religious movement. As a long-time resident of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I have seldom if ever heard his name come up when the famous sons and daughters of our city are listed.

But, yes, he was born here on February 15, 1782, and moved to Low Hampton, New York when he was four, which may be partly why he is not owned as one of our famous native sons. The other reason may well be because he failed in his big life project, for he is best known as the founder and leader of the Millerites, a millennial sect that predicted the end of the world and the Second Advent of Christ in the mid-nineteenth century.

Miller himself never set an exact day for the Second Advent, saying, “My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.” When that time frame came and went, a new date was discerned, April 18, and when that date went by without incident Miller publicly said, “I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.”

That same summer at a camp meeting in New Hampshire one of Miller’s followers, Samuel Snow, delivered a message that the real date had been determined to be October 22. Thousands prepared for this day and when it too came and went (in what became known as “the Great Disappointment”) the movement lost steam, although Miller himself continued to wait for the second coming until his death in 1849.

So now Howard Camping is predicting that this Saturday, May 21, will be the day, and again thousands believe him. But I am still going to mow my lawn and prepare my sermon for Sunday just in case he’s wrong.

Let me end with some “end of the world humor”:
“If your contractor gets raptured, how would you know?”

And this one from my friend Andy Lang: “What do you call a person who sells hats and believes in the imminent end of the world?”
“A premillennialist millenarian Millerite milliner.”

4 thoughts on “Ruminations about the End of the World on May 21: Howard Camping and William Miller

  1. As a former Advent Christian, one strain of the spiritual descendants of Mr Miller, I appreciate your mention of William Miller. A deep hope in the return of Christ is at the center of my eschatology in particular and it informs my theology in general. The Adventists gave us some real gifts. A more gracious view of a loving God through their understanding of conditional immortality for one. There is a tendency to snicker in mainline circles when it comes to discussions of the Second Coming. If we truly believe that Christ has died, and Christ is risen, why would we not be quite certain that Christ will come again. Revisit the rich texts of Advent. They are about so much more than preparing for something that has already happened.

    • Steven,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree that mainline Christians often neglect the promises. I wasn’t raised in an Adventist church, but i was raised on the historic creeds and they are part of my DNA. “He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.” Come Lord Jesus.

      Did you know Miller was from Pittsfield?


  2. I did know Miller was from Pittsfield but hadn’t thought about him for a long time. I’ve been UCC since I joined First Church Pittsfield in 1978. The SDA college near us in Lancaster has a William Miller chapel and most of the teaching tools he used.

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