The Adventist Movement
The Midnight Cry
But at midnight there was a cry, “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”—Matthew 25:6
By Charles Ryba
CHRISTIAN history can be a profitable study. The views and experiences of those preceding us provide lessons for our profit. Two significant examples are the advent movement (1830-1870) and the early Bible Student movement (1870-1890). Most of our questions today have their roots in these times. How long until the kingdom comes is foremost among them. Time is the issue. The kingdom of God is the goal.
Intense scriptural searching and examination were the mark of many individuals within this time frame. Second advent speculations generated new Christian fellowships crossing old denominational lines. This precipitated new movements not dominated by trained theologians, though many came from the ranks of mainline Protestant ministers. “Laymen” became capable of intelligent inquiry as biblical scholarship became more accessible through Bible societies and missionary efforts. Circumstances in that era shaped theological currents and millennial expectations. The signs of the times were being noticed. (See Redeemer Nation, E.L. Tuveson, ; When Time Shall Be No More, Paul Boyer, ; The Rise of Adventism, E. S. Gaustad, ed, ; and The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers, L. E. Froom, vols. 3 and 4 [1946, 1954].
William Miller became one of the lightning rods for much intense prophetic interest in America during the 1830’s. His message was simple. The return of Christ was very near. He even assigned a date, 1843, as the time when it would happen. Then current events brought new focus to biblical prophecies. Items of note included Daniel’s time of the end, the Antichrist, Palestine (Ottoman rule would fail, Jewish restoration was imminent), but specially the personal, visible coming of Christ to establish an earthly Millennial kingdom. The prophecies of Daniel and Revelation were distinctively favored.
William Miller was a Baptist preacher, but his message went well beyond that. He utilized Daniel and Revelation as keys to the Bible’s prophetic outline. His arguments for Christ’s return focus largely on the time of his return; the manner and object were visible and awesome. Time elements that Miller considered biblical encompass the days of Daniel (1260, 1290, 1335 and 2300), the Times of the Gentiles, the Jubilee cycles, and the 6000 years of human history. He reckoned them (except the 1260 at 1793-98) to a terminus of 1843.
Historic Prophetic Interpretations
The historic interpretive school of Daniel and Revelation was widespread among European and American scholars of that era. Building upon the earlier works of Sir Isaac Newton and Thomas Newton, persons like J. A. Brown, William Cunningham, T. R. Birks, John Cumming, and E. B. Elliott were prominent exponents of a historically fulfilled Apocalypse. In spite of impressive biblical arguments, most Christian leadership at the time believed the second coming to be post-Millennial, that is, after the gospel age of world conversion. Many agreed with the historical general time interpretation, they differed only on when and what the Millennium or the second advent would be like.
The Futurist view originated by a Jesuit priest, F. Ribera [ca 1590], was hardly mentioned by serious prophetic students of the time. With this view, placing most of the book of Revelation (after 6:11) into a future seven-year tribulation period, many insurmountable problems were recognizable. These anticipated the present day quarrels among Futurists, pre, mid-, and post-tribulationists. Birk’s volumes titled First Elements of Prophecy and Visions of Daniel are pointed essays in defense of the historical school approach. These writings, among many others, provided vital resources for the early advent believers of the 1840’s as well as renewed growth among later Advent Christian believers in time prophecy. Nelson H. Barbour described examining these in European libraries during the 1860’s.
Unfortunately, historic pre-Millennial positions were often abandoned during the mid 1800’s. Competing theories swept most Christians into conflicting winds of futurism and preterism (fully past views, also of Jesuit origin.)
Wide ranging discussions about prophecy in general, and the second coming in particular, took place within Millerite camps and with contemporaries. It encompassed journals, conferences, camp meetings, books, pamphlets, speaking tours, and debates. Miller himself devoted years to public speaking on the advent to whoever would listen. Many others joined in. Of note are Joshua V. Himes, Charles Fitch, Josiah Litch, Joseph Bates, and George Storrs. Advent journals included The Signs of the Times, The Bible Examiner, and The Midnight Cry among many others. Use of charts to illustrate God’s prophetic plan was noteworthy. Based on Habakkuk 2:2, they endeavored to make the vision plain. Tabernacle and temple symbolism was prominent, especially in connection with the vision of the 2300 days in Daniel 8. Christ as antitypical high priest would return soon to cleanse and restore his spiritual temple. Much of later Seventh Day Adventist revisions was based on this imagery.
Henry Grew wrote booklets concerning the nature of man. That, in turn, spurred George Storrs to spread the view more widely. Grew also wrote The Divine Testimony Concerning The Son of God, delineating a Christology later adopted by Charles Russell and others. Of special interest are thoughts concerning the nature of God, the nature of man, and eternal torment. George Storrs was one of Miller’s able supporters. Through the vehicle of his book and journal (of the same name) The Bible Examiner, compiled essays known as Six Sermons on the Inquiry: Is There Immortality in Sin and Suffering?, and in numerous other booklets and tracts he injected among Adventists a strong argument for conditional immortality. Miller himself did not accept these ideas but tolerated them for the greater good of awakening the people to the near advent and judgment.
Second Advent Focus
The greatest focus of the advent movement was the nearness of Christ’s return. All else in life was to be left behind in preparation for the bridegroom’s return. In the period of about 1840 to 1844 the advent interest greatly increased throughout the northeastern, mid- Atlantic, and mid-western states. It never took root in Europe. But the original 1843 date provided a first shock to the hopeful—nothing happened.
Re-examination twice led to six month adjustments, culminating in the Seventh Month Movement of 1844, spearheaded by Samuel S. Snow. His conviction was based on the high priest (Christ) in the day of atonement picture. He interpreted the leaving of the temple to bless the people as corresponding to Christ’s second coming. This was to be on the tenth day of the seventh month, October 22, 1844. Correspondence to the “proper” figuring of the Jewish year justified altering the earlier 1843 view. He revived the faint-hearted advent movement in the spirit of the wise virgins of Matthew 25. Miller himself was reticent to accept this after the earlier disappointment, but joined in as the time approached.
Again there was great puzzlement and disappointment. Explanations based on the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins sought to rationalize the mistakes. The time of delay of the parable was compressed into the first (1843) and repeated (1844) experience of the watchers. Search for fulfillment led to spiritualization or collective prophetic tests. Was the door shut? The controversy would flare at every date since. In 1844 and 1878-81, 1914, and beyond. Several times many would regard themselves as true heirs to the dates: 1844 (Seventh Day Adventists and the “cleansed sanctuary”), 1873-1874 (N. H. Barbour and Charles Russell, with the view of Christ’s invisible presence), and 1914 (Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses divergent claims as to what really happened). After each date, prophecy had to be reconciled with reality.
The Aftermath of Disappointment
Following the 1843-1844 disappointments, Storrs continued to preach the advent without dates. He drifted into an extreme position during the 1860’s with the group known as Life and Advent Union. It was analogous to the unsaved non-resurrection position of Christadelphians. In later autobiographical sketches he recounts his encounter with books of the English writer Henry Dunn about the ransom doctrine and the restitution of all things. One book was titled The Destiny of the Human Race. He then reactivated The Bible Examiner in 1871 (after a lapse of about eight years) and reworked it to incorporate the thoughts of the ransom for all and restitution of all things. The masthead verse was 1 Timothy 2:5, 6. His conclusion: the plan of God extended beyond the few faithful to the entire human race. The Abrahamic promise applied to all men during a soon-to-come earthly kingdom. The general concept of God having a plan was popular among contemporary Advent Christian writers like I. C. Wellcome and Clarkson Gould in their The Plan of Redemption of 1867. But Storrs incorporated much more of the “wider hope” than they would allow. On the other hand he avoided the modernism and speculation rampant among Universalists in their great social tolerances. God provided reasonable provision for mankind’s recovery, unlike Universalism’s unconditional salvation.
Parallel movements also arose during this period. Relatively mainstream Protestant dispensationalists were inspired by men like John Darby and Edward Irving. They restructured prophetic timetables into futurist patterns. In the long run they would become more influential than the Adventists in the minds of most Protestants. More diverse movements like the Christadelphians and Church of God (Abrahamic Faith) sprung out of a common pool with those of Alexander Campbell’s Disciples of Christ. Their earthly millennial hope was more distinct than that of many Adventists. They placed less emphasis on date setting (although 1866 was of significance to some) and tended to have “closed” fellowships, believed in water baptism for salvation, believed in conditional immortality, and developed non-trinitarian theologies (the last two concepts traceable to F. Socinus of the 16th/17th century Polish Brethren). They shared with Campbell a prophetic remnant assumption for the recovery of lost early church teachings. Benjamin Wilson, author of The Emphatic Diaglott, was a member of the Church of God (Abrahamic Faith). The remnant concept was shared by Charles Russell and N. H. Barbour, who may have been influenced by their perspectives in their thoughts concerning the gospel age harvest.
Seventh Day Adventists
The largest prophetically based movement was of course the Seventh-day Adventists. Having a common derivative in Miller, they had solidified their thinking along much more exclusive lines than other advent groups. A novel doctrine of an 1844 heavenly cleansing of the sanctuary was fostered by reliance on the prophetic “gift of prophecy” claimed for Ellen G. White. Sabbath keeping became an outward distinction which shaped much of their views on prophetic events. Their prophetic point however was a novel concept of the millennial reign of Christ. It was to be in heaven while the earth lay desolate, earth being restored after 1000 years. No hope was held out for the unsaved of this or previous ages, so their view of restitution was narrowed to match that of prophetic Babylon from which they had separated. Only Christians would be saved. The same can be said for their trinitarian position, after some debate within their ranks.
The general historic prophetic interpretation was bolstered in several important areas during the interim of 1840 through the 1870’s. The Ottoman empire was in decline, fueling expectations about a Jewish restoration. The Papacy was also losing ground in its temporal power, reinforcing the view that Daniel’s time of the end had indeed been entered. The American Civil War of the 1860’s also focused people’s attention on the fragility of earthly governments as well as on the need for true, but unattainable, justice for all peoples. These were the signs of the times that influenced the interpretations of Adventists like N. H. Barbour.
Charles Taze Russell
Charles T. Russell was not alone at the beginning. He had the able help of several seasoned elder Christian brothers to shape the nascent Bible Student movement. They were reaping the fruits of those before them. George Storrs’ Bible Examiner would soon cease publication at his death in 1880. Charles Russell contributed a few short items as early as 1877 to those pages. The mature Nelson H. Barbour and John H. Paton were early collaborators in sorting through the prophetic charts. Barbour’sHerald of the Morning (Paton and Russell were assistant editors) reawakened hopes in many advent believers that the return of Christ was near at hand (though originally set at 1873). It also presented thoughts to those of Storrs about restitution similar. Thoughts about a harvest separation also renewed an earlier Millerite call to separate from that Christianity which was merely nominal and sinful. In the early period they also faced opposition from their parent movement, the Advent Christian Church, publishers of The World’s Crisis. Later, many early collaborators in turn would set off in their own directions, including Barbour, J. H. Paton, A. P. Adams and A. D. Jones. By then young Russell was well under way in his publishing efforts of Zion’s Watch Tower and the Millennial Dawn studies.
C. T. Russell built on the Miller movement as a prophetic prelude, but also as a test and lesson learned by faithful Christians. Barbour had constructed an ingenious concept of first and second advent parallels, as can be seen on each cover of his journal. It included the delays and missed opportunities for the true and false wheat of each age. The tarrying bridegroom was so near in time as to be actually present. As a divine spirit being Christ had no need to be seen literally. The coming was real and personal, in the same sense as it was with Miller, but invisible in the same sense as those holding to a secret rapture. Charles Russell’s first publication, The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return; [H/M Pub. 1877], was in line with this theme. Also of note is the cooperative publication of The Three Worlds, also in 1877.
The opening prophetic steps in Palestine were coming to pass in 1878 with the Berlin Congress of Nations. The first Jewish immigrants were returning to Israel as the Russian pogroms began in the early 1880’s. The harvest had begun. The kingdom to come was beginning to affect the world. Optimistic missionary activities and post-Millennial expectations were fading in the face of bloody 19th century wars, social revolutions, economic and political instabilities. The time for harvest had come. The call to come out of Babylon was renewed. The saints were to be gathered to be with the Lord in 1878, later by 1914, and then at an indefinite future point. Charles Russell always maintained his belief and conviction that the kingdom of God must continue to be preached until the Lord said it was time to stop during the gathering troubles of earth.
Restitution for All
Realistic interpretations of scripture concerning the state of the dead, the place of common sense beliefs, and a strong moral call for justice that all might receive salvation were crucial in the early Millennial Dawn movement. The age to come was accompanied by a unique concept, known as the permission of evil, which was illustrated by charts. Restitution was to all men who have ever lived. Christ had an object to his return beyond the confines of orthodox theology. Distinguishing the work of the Christian age from the Millennial age was pivotal in rightly dividing a host of scriptures. The tabernacle was brought to a valued place in God’s plan illustrating salvation. It was not left as part of some 1844 prophetic jigsaw puzzle.
The environment of exploration and exchange between various leaders, journals, and local groups began to fade. Adventist remnants, Christadelphians, Conditionalists, and Universalists built walls to stifle their controversies. Sadly many of these separated sincere Christians into specialized, often mutually antagonistic, groups.
Heirs of William Miller
Tracing the Miller movement past 1844 leads the author to suggest that the truest heirs of his movement belong to the Bible Students, initiated by Pastor Russell and his associates. One of the few leaders of the original movement to retain and build on the original advent faith was George Storrs. He anticipated (founded) central points of Bible Student thinking. Most other of the Advent leaders mentioned earlier had nothing to do with the innovations introduced by Hiram Edson’s visions to be promulgated by Ellen and James White in the late 1840’s foundation of the Seventh Day Adventists.
The advent doctrine was augmented by explaining the manner and object of Christ’s return in new terms. It extended the horizons of that imminent, but somehow remote, second coming. Bible Students determined a progressive series of events which fit into a prolonged invisible parousia, or presence. The real innovation was for devoted Christians to live on a continuing basis at the threshold of the millennium. Hope and watchfulness were enlivened to those who heard the spirit speaking to the churches. The bride endeavored to make herself ready (Rev. 19:7, 8).