Special History Issue – The Adventist Movement

The Midnight Cry

Charles Ryba

At midnight there was a cry, Behold, the bridegroom! Come ye forth  to meet him.—Matthew 25:6, ASV

Christian history can be a profitable study. The views and experiences herald history issueof 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). Many of today’s questions have their roots in these times including when the kingdom would be fully established. Time is the issue, the kingdom of God is the goal, the salvation of all mankind is the hoped-for result.

Intense scriptural searching and examination were the mark of many individuals during this time. A surge in prophetic studies and speculations resulted in new Christian fellowships forming across 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. Among those signs were the American and French revolutions, the declining influence of the old monarchies in the face of wide-spread revolutionary unrest, and the increase of technology spawned in the industrial revolution. Lastly the “eastern question” dramatically underscored the prophetic predictions that the declining Ottoman empire bode well for potential Jewish immigration to the holy land.

William Miller

William Miller became one of the lightning rods for much intense prophetic interest in America during the 1830s. His message was simple. The return of Christ was 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 interest included Daniel’s time of the end, the Antichrist, Palestine (Ottoman rule would fail, Jewish restoration was imminent), but specially the personal coming of Christ to establish an earthly Millennial kingdom. The prophecies of Daniel and Revelation were distinctly favored.

William Miller was a Baptist preacher, but his message went well beyond Baptist theology. He utilized Daniel and Revelation as keys to the Bible’s prophetic outline. His arguments for Christ’s return focused largely on the time of his return; the manner and object were to be visible and awesome. Time elements that Miller considered biblical encompass the days of Daniel (1,260, 1,290, 1,335, and 2,300), the Times of the Gentiles, the Jubilee cycles, and the six thousand years of human history. He reckoned them as all ending in 1843 (except the 1,260 which he said ended in 1793-98).

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, during the 1840s people such as James Bicheno, T. R. Birks, John Cumming, George Duffield, and E. B. Elliott were prominent expositors of a historically-fulfilled Apocalypse. In spite of their impressive biblical arguments, most Christian leadership at the time believed the second coming to be post-Millennial, that is, it would happen after a golden age of world conversion to Christ. But many did agree with the historicist’s general time interpretation, differing mainly on when and what the Millennium and the second coming would be like.

A competing view known as Futurism had originated from a Jesuit priest, F. Ribera [circa 1590]. His writings were discovered by several prophetic students in the 1820s, Edward Irving being one of the earliest. This was popularized by John Darby and rapidly became a dominant view among pre-millennialists. This view placed most of the book of Revelation (after chapter 6, verse 11) into a future seven-year tribulation period. (Conflicting biblical verses later became the source of the present day quarrels among Futurist dispensationalist believers, breaking into pre-, mid-, post-tribulationist and pre-wrath branches.) Birk’s volumes titled First Elements of Prophecy and Visions of Daniel are pointed essays in defense of the historical school. H. Grattan Guinness was the last of the great historicist defenders. These writings, mostly from Europeans, provided vital resources for the early American advent believers, as well as stimulating continued activities among later Advent Christian time believers

Wide-ranging discussions, about prophecy in general and the second coming in particular, took place within the growing Millerite camps and among Christian contemporaries. It encompassed journals, conferences, camp meetings, books, pamphlets, speaking tours, and debates. Miller himself devoted years to public speaking on the advent to whomever 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 common. Based on the words of Habakkuk 2:2, they endeavored to make the vision plain. Tabernacle and temple symbolism was prominent, especially in connection with the vision of the 2,300 days in Daniel 8. Christ as antitypical high priest would return soon to cleanse and restore his spiritual temple. Later Seventh Day Adventist claims centered on this imagery.

A parallel awakening in concerns about the ultimate fate of humanity also became common. Henry Grew wrote booklets concerning the nature of man. That, in turn, spurred George Storrs to spread the view more widely. As was common among the Christian connection movement, Grew also wrote The Divine Testimony Concerning the Son of God, delineating a Christology later adopted by Charles Taze Russell and others. Of special interest are thoughts concerning the nature of God, the nature of man, and eternal torment. George Storrs was earlier one of Miller’s able supporters. Through his book, his journal The Bible Examiner, a compilation of essays known as Six Sermons on the Inquiry: Is There Immortality in Sin and Suffering?, and 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 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 in the U.S. 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 because nothing significant happened in that year.

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” computation 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. The search for fulfillment led to spiritualization or collective prophetic tests. Ironically the one who sparked the last wave of enthusiasm in the Seventh Month movement, Samuel Snow, later published an indictment of the whole lot of Adventist leaders in his book The Book of Judgment. Was the door shut? The controversy would flare at every date since—in 1844, 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 (Nelson Barbour and Pastor Russell, with the view of Christ’s invisible presence), and 1914 (Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses differ as to what really happened in that year). 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 1860s 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 titledThe 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 Scripture 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 belief in unconditional salvation.

Parallel Movements

Relatively mainstream Protestant dispensationalists were inspired by men like John Darby and Edward Irving. Unfortunately, under the influence of John Darby, historicist pre-Millennial positions were often abandoned during the mid-1800s. Competing theories swept most Christians into conflicting winds of futurism, dispensationalism, and preterism (fully past views, also of Jesuit origin). The pinnacle of futurist expositions was The Theocratic Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ by George N. Peters in 1888, which built a solid pre-millennialist basis for the expected millennial kingdom on earth without the radical speculations of later dispensationalism.

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) sprang 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). They 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 sixteenth-seventeenth 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). Charles Russell and Nelson Barbour, who may have been influenced in their perspectives by their thoughts concerning the Gospel age harvest, shared the remnant concept.

Nelson H. Barbour described his in-depth examination of many historicist prophetic writings in his research at European libraries during the 1860s. His book The Coming of the Lord in 1873, published in 1871 along with William Thurman (The Unsealed Book in 1870), provided the locus of the 1873-75 time movement.

Seventh Day Adventists

The Seventh Day Adventists became the largest prophetically-based movement. 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 a thousand years. No hope was held out for the unsaved of this or previous ages, so their view of restitution matched that of prophetic Babylon from which they had separated. Only Christians would be saved. The same can be said concerning 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 1870s. 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 1860s 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 such as Nelson Barbour.

Charles Taze Russell

Charles Taze 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’ The Bible Examiner would soon cease publication at his death in 1879. Pastor Russell contributed a few short items as early as 1876 to those pages. The mature Nelson Barbour and John H. Paton were early collaborators in sorting through the prophetic charts. Barbour’s Herald of the Morning(John Paton and Pastor Russell were assistant editors) reawakened hopes in many advent believers that the return of Christ was here (though originally set at 1873). It also presented similar thoughts to those of Storrs about restitution. Thoughts about a harvest separation also renewed an earlier Adventist call to separate from Christianity which was considered merely nominal and now sinful (though Miller opposed the call). In the early period they faced opposition from their parent movement, the Second Advent Church, publishers of The World’s Crisis. Later, many early collaborators including Nelson Barbour, John Paton, A. P. Adams, and A. D. Jones would, in turn, set off in their own directions. By then young Charles Russell was well under way in his publishing efforts of Zion’s Watch Tower and theMillennial Dawn studies.

Charles Taze Russell

Charles Russell built on the Miller movement as a prophetic prelude, but also as a test and lesson learned by faithful Christians. Nelson 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. Since he was a divine spirit being, Christ had no need to be seen physically. 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. Pastor Russell’s first publication, “The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return” (Herald of the Morning, 1877) was in line with this theme. Also of note is the cooperative publication ofThe Three Worlds in the same year.

Israel Regathered

The opening of Palestine to European travelers, explorers, and missionaries was enabled by the invasion of Egypt and Palestine by Napoleon in 1798-99. While he didn’t retain control of Palestine for long, the breach was made, and the holy land ignited the imagination and passions of Christians and Jews. Accompanying that was a renewed interest in Jewish evangelism and prophetic possibilities in Palestine and those Jews who were immigrating there. One society which formed to conduct missionary efforts towards Jews was the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, founded in 1809. The well known Prussian Jewish convert Joseph Wollf, as a member of that society, combined his interest in Jewish evangelism with his passion concerning the imminent premillennial coming of Christ. He was instrumental in building great interest in budding Zionism and of Bible prophecy. His experiences were widely reported in Protestant millenarian journals including those of the Adventists’.

The opening prophetic steps in Palestine were coming to pass in 1878 with the Berlin Congress of Nations. Within the historicist movement, amazingly accurate expositions outlined the long anticipated return of the Jews to Palestine. One of the earlier was James Bicheno who in 1800 printed The Restoration of the Jews. The Ottoman empire was rapidly declining in competition with the great powers of England, France, and Russia. The first Jewish immigrants were returning to Israel because of the Russian pogroms in the early 1880s. The kingdom to come was beginning to affect the world. Optimistic missionary activities and post-Millennial expectations were fading in the face of bloody nineteenth-century wars, social revolutions, and economic and political instabilities. The time for harvest had come and 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. A unique aspect of his approach to the Jews was his clearly stated principle that Jews should not be evangelized since their national restoration and reconstitution as a people would carry them into the millennium under the new covenant.

Restitution for All

The idea of future probation formed in the mix of conditionalist, traditionalist, and universalist debates in the early 1800s. Individuals like Henry Dunn produced excellent arguments in favor of salvation, restitution, and the kingdom of God; these combined millennial concepts with biblically-reasoned arguments for redemption in the afterlife on earth. His volumes titledThe Destiny of the Human Race in 1863 defined a new millennial vision. In some ways he reinforced the earlier treatise of Dunbar Isidore Heath’s The Human Kingdom of Christ, although Dunn appears to have originated his main arguments independently. Jacob Blain and George Storrs in America provided the conduit for spreading this teaching among Adventists. Storrs’ reactivation of The Bible Examiner in 1871 came with the subheading highlighting 1 Timothy 2:4-6 that “Jesus was a ransom for all.” His book Vindication of the Government of God in 1874 provided a pointed argument for earthly millennial probation. Likewise Jacob Blain published Hope for Our Race in 1871. He there made an impassioned plea and apology for his newly adopted millennial restitution views. Along with Charles F. Hudson, the great American conditionalist, Storrs and Blain energetically circulated the works of Dunn in America.

As a background to this pointed millennial proposal there was also a higher-level theological discussion which widely debated the virtues of future probation. The Rainbow, a Journal of Prophecy published by William Leask in England, began entertaining this view during the 1870s. Evangelical theologians Hermann Cremer, Isaac Dorner, along with F. W. Farrar, Edward White, C. A. Row, G. G. Stokes, and L. C. Baker were a few prominent people who promoted this view. The Homiletic Review published a debate on the topic in book form titled Future Probation published by Nisbett. Professors at Andover stirred up controversy among American churches with their essays published as The New Orthodoxy.The 2004 Ph.D. dissertation of Sharon Taylor, That Obnoxious Dogma: Future Probation and the Struggle to Construct an American Congregationalist Identity, provides a valuable historical background. Of the few people outside the immediate controversy, she highlighted the prominence of C. T. Russell on the American Adventist scene (see pages 72-74).

These realistic interpretations of Scripture concerning the state and fate of the dead were placed into scriptural contexts, using the best of critical thinking and a strong moral call for justice for all people in this life and the next. The age to come was explained in connection with a unique concept, known as the permission of evil, which provided the moral argument for present day suffering and evil. Restitution was to be for all who have ever lived; it was to remedy evil, it was to provide opportunity for eternal life to all who would then possess a beneficial knowledge of sin. 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.

The environment of exploration and exchange between various leaders, journals, and local groups stimulated innovative thinking. Sadly, many of these separated sincere Christians into specialized, often mutually antagonistic, groups. Advent Christians rejected concepts of future probation while the newly forming Millennial Dawn and allied people such as John Paton, A. P. Adams, and John G. Wilson promoted an earthly restitution, resurrection, and probation for all. Among Seventh Day Adventists some were rumored to have presented such concepts as well, in the face of their general theme of other-worldly investigative judgment. Some Age-to-Come Adventists are also said to have entertained such views.

Heirs of William Miller

As we look at the Miller movement after 1844, we find that three main branches developed having the spirit of that movement. These are the Seventh Day Adventists, the Advent Christian Church, and the Bible Students founded by Charles Taze Russell and his associates. The Bible Students were the only branch to retain and build on the mature advent faith of George Storrs. He anticipated (founded) central points of later Bible Student thinking. The greatest point of contention in 1850-60s Adventism concerned the innovations introduced by Hiram Edson’s visions, which were then promulgated by James and Ellen White before they founded the Seventh Day Adventists.

The Bible Student advent doctrine was augmented by explaining the manner and object of Christ’s return in new terms. The concept of future probation, national restoration of Israel, an earthly millennial kingdom, all combined into a coherent view of the coming kingdom of God. It extended the horizons of that imminent, highly anticipated second coming. Bible Students, in line with historicist principles, defined a progression of events which fit into a prolonged parousia, or presence, of Christ in which that kingdom would change the entire world scene. The new problem for devoted Christians was to live on a continuing basis at the threshold of the millennium. Events continued to unfold in harmony with the spirit if not the exact timing of that hope. Hope and watchfulness were awakened in those who heard the spirit speaking to the churches. The “bride” was making herself ready (Revelation 19:7,8).

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