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THE APOCALYPTIC BACKGROUND OF THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH
Zoroaster to William Miller
PLEASE NOTE: While some conservative Christians may object to what follows, in this and other pages on this site it is not my intention to attack the Seventh-day Adventist Church or any other religious organization. I have no interest in arguing with those individuals who are happy in their beliefs and may be made uncomfortable by anything that seems to poise a threat to what they believe. As a former Adventist and psychotherapist with academic training in religious studies , I am fascinated by the history of apocalyptic religious movements. This article is an attempt to share what I have learned about the historical origins and development of the end time beliefs that are such an important part of Adventist teachings.
This essay is based on historical documentation and thus differs from the way a conservative Christian who believes that the Bible is the literal and inerrant Word of God would approach its subject matter. For conservative Christianity, the Bible has primary authority that by definition cannot be contradicted. For the historian of religion, scripture is only one among many sources of information, and is not necessarily the most reliable witness.
A useful distinction can be made between historical fact and matters of faith. That Jesus was a religious teacher in first century Palestine who was executed is a historical fact that few reputable scholars would dispute. That Jesus was the Son of God who rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and will return to redeem those who believe in him is a matter of faith that historical inquiry can neither prove nor disprove. While it is important to keep this distinction in mind, there are instances when the facts of history and matters of faith clash. Nowhere is this more the case than in apocalyptic tradition with its claim that history itself will soon end with the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is first and foremost an apocalyptic movement. Most of the teachings that set it apart from mainstream Christianity are derived from Daniel and Revelation, the only apocalyptic books to be included in the Bible (see below for apocalyptic books that were excluded). The word "apocalyptic" comes from a Greek word meaning "to uncover or reveal."(1) Originally it referred to a type of Judeo-Christian literature, most of which was written between 200 BC and 100 AD. In richly symbolic and enigmatic language, apocalyptic texts describe history in terms of an unfolding divine plan that is about to culminate via supernatural intervention in the course of worldly affairs. God's people will be vindicated, and evil forever eradicated from the cosmos. Many apocalyptic writings were attributed to famous legendary or historic figures to whom the hidden meaning of current and historical earthly events was said to have been revealed via visionary experience.
Jewish apocalyptic tradition, well established by the time of Jesus, had a strong influence on early Christianity (2) which in turn produced an apocalyptic literature of its own. While many apocalyptic texts are known to have existed in the early Christian era (one first century AD source mentions seventy Jewish apocalypses most of which have been lost), only two, the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Revelation (or The Apocalypse), are included in the Protestant canon of the Bible. There are, however, some other apocalyptic texts that other Christians accept as scripture. Second Esdras is part of the Apocrypha which is included in Roman Catholic Bibles. Enoch (also known as First Enoch and Ethiopic Enoch) and the Book of Jubilees are apocalyptic books that are included in the scriptures used by some Eastern churches.
Ancient Persian Origins of Apocalyptic Thought
Many historians of religion trace the roots of apocalyptic thinking to ancient Iran and the Zoroastrian religion founded by the Persian prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra in Greek) some time between 1200 and 600 BC (the date is disputed). Most ancient traditions, including earliest Judaism, regarded time as essentially static, with little or no significant change occurring beyond that of the continually repeated cycles of nature. Tension between creation and the chaos from which it had, according to creation myths, emerged was represented as an ongoing conflict between the two realms. Chaos in the form of a universal flood, consuming fire, or terrible monster (such as Leviathan mentioned in Job) periodically re-emerged to threaten the created realm. Some traditions, most notably in India, extended the naturally occurring cycles of light and dark, birth and death to make the cosmos in its entirety subject to eternally repeated cycles of destruction and recreation. Mythic heroes and gods of various sorts defended the ordered world by holding the agents of chaos at bay. Traces of such combat myths, as scholars have labeled them, can be found throughout apocalyptic writings as in the war between Michael and the dragon depicted in Revelation 12 and 13.(3) But most ancient traditions of primal conflict between chaos and order contain little suggestion of a final resolution of the conflict.
Zoroaster was apparently the first religious figure known to have described time as linear, with a singular beginning and an equally singular end. Some scholars believe that he was also the first monotheist. In teachings based on his visionary experience, Zoroaster elevated Ahura Mazda, one of many deities in the ancient Iranian pantheon, to supreme status as the one and only preexistent god, the creator of all that is good in the universe. Opposing Ahura Mazda, actively seeking to destroy good, was Angra Mainyu. Zoroaster saw history as the manifest struggle between the primal forces of evil and good as personified by these two beings. Time in the Zoroastrian schema is neither static nor circular, but a dynamic process moving continually towards a final end. The struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu takes place within "limited time." The predestined triumph of good will mark the end of limited time, and the beginning of a blissful eternity in a universe forever free from even the possibility of evil. The culminating events of history, according to Zoroaster, will include the appearance of a savior born of a virgin, resurrection of the dead, and divine judgment.(4)
By the sixth century BC, Zoroastrianism, which was initially persecuted as a threat to established polytheistic religion, had become the state religion of the Persian empire that ruled most of the peoples of the ancient Mideast, including Israel. Many religious studies scholars see Zoroastrian influence in many aspects of Judaism as it coalesced in the post-exilic period. It is no coincidence that the ancient Zoroastrian account of a "great controversy" between the forces of good and evil has parallels with Seventh-day Adventist teachings.
Prophecy in Judaism
The oldest Hebrew prophetic tradition was not apocalyptic. Prophets like Elijah, Samuel, Nathan and the mysterious "sons of the prophets" are depicted in the Old Testament as "men of God" who, through ecstatic trance states, gained special access to the divine. They served as divine messengers conveying instruction and warning to individuals as well as to the nation of Israel. Sometimes they acted as social reformers in opposition to wicked rulers. These early prophets, who appear throughout the books of Samuel, Kings, and, Chronicles, left no writings that have survived. The earliest extant prophetic writings date from after the division of ancient Israel into two kingdoms, and are primarily concerned with punishments visited on a wayward Israel in a time when God's supposedly chosen but unfaithful people repeatedly found themselves at the mercy of more powerful nations.(5)
After the death of Solomon about 926 BC, internal strife split Israel into northern and southern factions. By the end of the eighth century the northern kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, with the Israelite ruling class deported to various parts of the Empire to be absorbed into the local population.(6) A few decades later the southern kingdom, Judea, suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Neo-Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.
In 587 BC Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple built by Solomon. The Judean social and intellectual elite along with their families were deported to Babylon to serve their new rulers. Israel's existence as an independent nation blessed by God had apparently come to an end. The first Hebrew apocalypse, contained in Ezekiel, dates from this time. In richly symbolic visions the prophet is shown that the national disaster was a divine chastisement for a people who had turned away from the one true God. But their troubles would soon come to an end, with a repentant Israel, "in the latter days," resurrected and a terrible vengeance visited upon its heathen enemies.(7)
The writer of Isaiah chapters 40-55 (8) depicts the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, as God's "shepherd," "his anointed" ("messiah") (9) divinely appointed to deliver the exiles from their Babylonian captivity. The Northern Israelites who had been carried away by the Assyrians would return to join their southern kin in a reunited nation. A gloriously restored Israel and its God would thereby be vindicated in the eyes of all other nations.
This prophecy was based on what seemed to be promising developments. In 538 BC Cyrus, in the course of establishing an empire greater than all its predecessors , overthrew the Neo-Babylonians. Following the Persian imperial policy of allowing subject nations a high degree of autonomy, the Israelite exiles were allowed to return home with funds allocated for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Many scholars believe this second exodus marks the beginning of Judaism as a firmly monotheistic religion with no tolerance for the previously extensive polytheistic practices repeatedly referred to in biblical texts and evidenced in archaeological data.
It seemed for a while as if God's chosen people would finally receive the reward that had long been promised them. But while the temple was rebuilt amid strife with polytheistic peasants who had not been deported by Nebuchadnezzar, the ten northern tribes failed to reappear as foretold, no other nation acknowledged the supremacy of Israel and its God, and the majority of the exiles chose to remain in Babylon which, contrary to prophetic predictions, was not laid waste by Cyrus. In addition, a number of other Jewish colonies were established outside of Palestine. Many Jews, in and out of the Holy Land, made compromises with the dominate culture. Far from becoming the prophesied center of the cosmos, Judea remained a tiny impoverished and powerless province in a vast empire ruled by idolaters. Yet its prophets continued to foretell a glorious future when God would rule from Jerusalem over an earth "full of the knowledge of the Lord" where "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid."(10)
About two hundred years after the fall of Babylon to the Persians, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. Greek culture and colonization followed in the wake of Alexander's armies, with the boundaries of the Hellenistic world extended eastward all the way to India. After the early death of Alexander, his empire was divided between four continually quarreling dynasties of Greek descent. While Greek rulers, like the Persians before them, were for the most part tolerant of local customs, the inevitable intrusion of foreign rule and culture was widely resented by native peoples. This resentment found expression in many subjugated cultures via pseudonymous writings that claimed to have been written in ancient times to foretell future events which always involved overthrow of the alien oppressor. Egyptian prophecies of political emancipation were back dated to the reigns of pharaohs long since dead. A Persian prophecy foretelling the downfall of the foreign ruler was supposedly authored by a contemporary of Zoroaster. Jewish prophetic writings went beyond political liberation, depicting history as an ongoing manifestation of conflict between God's plan for his chosen people and evil opposing forces. The present world would soon come to an end in a cosmic upheaval ushering in the eternal reign of God, and the long suffering people of Israel would at last be vindicated.(11)
Persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes
Meanwhile Judea struggled along as a vassal kingdom caught between rival Hellenistic dynasties, making and unmaking alliances in a desperate attempt to survive as a semi autonomous state. With the division of Alexander's empire, Judea initially came under the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty based in Egypt. Then in 198 BC, Antiochus the Great of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty wrestled control of Judea away from the Ptolemaics. Taxes were increased and temple treasures seized to pay for the cost of Antiochus' war. In 174 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes gained the Seleucid throne through murderous intrigue, and created an even worse nightmare for the Jews.
Antiochus, nicknamed "Epimanes" or "the madman" by the Jews, broke with the usual Greek practice of non-interference with local religious traditions by taking advantage of factions within the Jewish power structure that were friendly to Hellenistic culture. He deposed the hereditary high priest who presided over the temple in Jerusalem, replacing him with a Hellenized Jew who had bought the office. The new high priest built a Greek gymnasium where men, following a Greek custom that was an abomination to traditional Jews, exercised in the nude. Some Jews identified with the dominant culture, going so far as to attempt to reverse their circumcisions to blend in with Gentiles at the gymnasium. Others were outraged and rejoiced when false reports of Antiochus' death while campaigning in Egypt were circulated. Emboldened by the rumor, the deposed high priest attempted to regain power. Antiochus, who was issuing coins stamped with his image and the inscription Antiochus Theos Epiphanes - "Antiochus God made manifest," responded by pillaging Jerusalem. Forty thousand Jews were said to have been slaughtered, and many more sold into slavery. The temple was plundered for its remaining treasures.
In 167 Antiochus was humiliated when Roman intervention forced him to give up his designs on Egypt, and seemingly took out his anger on the Jews. The Jewish religion was outlawed, the temple profaned, and the sacred scrolls destroyed. Jerusalem was burned with its city walls demolished. Many Jews managed to flee to the desert. Those who remained and refused to forsake their religion were killed or sold into slavery. Worst of all, the image of a pagan god was installed in the temple, and swine were sacrificed to it. This was the gravest crisis for Judaism since the Babylonian captivity, and would not be matched until the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
While many Jews did give up their beliefs and unique identity, others chose to fight back. A revolt was led by a father and his five sons, members of a priestly family who fled Jerusalem after killing a Hellenized Jew who was performing a sacrifice on the pagan altar in the temple. One of the sons, Judas, nicknamed Maccabaeus - "The Hammer", proved to be an outstanding battlefield commander. The revolt is remembered in history as the Maccabaean rising. Seemingly blessed by God, the Jews won one victory after another against the far stronger Seleucid state. In 164, three and a half years after its desecration, the temple was liberated and Jewish sacrifice restored. About the same time Antiochus died, apparently insane, in far off Persia. Descendants of the Maccabees, the Hasmonaeans, ruled Judea amid internal as well as external strife, with constantly shifting political alliances and compromises with Hellenism, until Pompey made it a Roman province in 63 BC.(12)
The Book of Daniel
Most Biblical scholars not bound to a literalist interpretation of the Bible, agree that the book of Daniel, which is of huge import in Adventist eschatology, was written in its present form sometime around 167 BC as a response to Antiochus' persecution. By combining traditional, likely already extent, stories of faithfulness to Jewish practices during earlier persecutions by the Babylonians with prophecies of better times to come, the writer of Daniel provided reassurance that the present time of trouble would soon come to an end, the faithful would receive their due reward, and the enemies of Israel would be forever destroyed.
This view of Daniel will come as news to most Seventh-day Adventists who, like many conservative Christians, have been taught that it was written by a man of that name who was, as depicted in the narratives of the book, a Jewish exile active in the Babylonian, Median, and Persian courts prior to the return to Jerusalem. In Adventist teaching, the visions of Daniel symbolically depict historical events from the time of the Babylonian captivity to the Second Coming of Christ, with an emphasis on events yet to come that will herald the culmination of history. This reading, however, does not hold up very well under scrutiny.
There are a number of compelling reasons for assigning a second century BC date to Daniel. (13) The court narratives included in the book make many mistakes in recounting historical events, mistakes that someone active in the royal court during the Babylonian captivity, as the author of Daniel is said to have been, would have been unlikely to make. Daniel's accounts of the dynasties and empires with which the prophet is supposed to be officially associated differ from what is known from other sources, including other books of the Bible. The Medes, who Daniel has succeeding the Babylonians as a world empire, were actually contemporaneous with the Neo-Babylonian empire and were conquered by the Persians a decade before the fall of Babylon to the Persians. Darius the Mede, described in Daniel as the conqueror of Babylon but otherwise unknown to history, seems to be confused with Cyrus the Persian who actually overthrew both the Median and Neo-Babylonian empires. Daniel's apparent invention of Darius may represent an attempt to bring the account into harmony with Isaiah 13:17-19, 21:2 and Jeremiah 51:11 which predict that the Medes will destroy Babylon.
In the Jewish arrangement of Hebrew scriptures, which differs from the way Christians arrange the order of the Old Testament books, Daniel is put in the Hagiographa or "Writings" rather than with the Prophets. This seems to indicate a late date for Daniel, as Jewish tradition considers that the prophetic books closed in the fifth century BC with the composition of Malachi. The apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, written about 180 BC, contains a long section (chapters 44-50) in praise of "famous men" from Jewish history that does not include Daniel. However I Maccabees, composed about 100 BC, repeats much of that list with the addition of Daniel and the three youths in the fiery furnace, leading to the conclusion that these stories were most likely added to Hebrew literature sometime after 180 BC.
Other Jewish Apocalyptic Writings
While parts of I Enoch also seem to reflect the persecution by Antiochus, the book is represented as the composition of Enoch, the antediluvian who, according to Genesis 5:21-24 "having walked with God, . . . was seen no more, because God had taken him away." I Enoch was well known in the centuries before and after Christ, and seems to have been regarded as scriptural by many in the early church. Although not included in the official canon of Hebrew scriptures as established towards the end of the first century AD, I Enoch was widely quoted by early Christian writers, including the author of Jude. Only in the fourth century, largely due to the influence of the Catholic fathers Jerome and Augustine, was it officially excluded from the canon of the Western Church. The Eastern Church, however, continued to hold it in high esteem. Before the discovery of eleven fragmentary manuscripts of I Enoch among the the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, the oldest and still most complete manuscript was an Ethiopic translation made sometime between the fourth and sixth century AD for the Ethiopian Christian Church.
The mystical figure of Enoch also appears in the Book of Jubilees as a prophet to whom events preceding the Last Judgment were revealed. Jubilees claims to be a secret revelation given to Moses by angels on Mount Sinai. While the narrative is primarily a midrash or amplification of events from Creation through the Exodus as recorded in the Torah, prophecies of an impending end are interwoven with accounts of the past. Events such as the Flood are represented as foreshadowing the destruction soon to come. Unlike I Enoch, which appears to be a compilation of several works composed between the fourth century BC and the first century AD, Jubilees is regarded by many scholars as the work of a single author writing sometime between 175 and 140 BC. Jubilees was also revered by the Ethiopian Church, in whose Bible it still appears, and is known primarily through an Ethiopic translation. It too was included in the Qumran library, and is cited as authoritative in the Qumran sect's own writings.
I Enoch and Jubilees, more than canonical Hebrew Scriptures, present a clear picture of a Last Judgment as the culminating event of world history. God's Law is represented as a universal, all embracing order by which the actions of angels as well as humans, Jew and Gentile alike, will be judged. This is something that goes well beyond the concept of the Law as depicted in the Hebrew Bible, but closely resembles ideas that would appear in Christian tradition.(14) The Messiah, clearly the human agent of God in earlier Hebrew writings, is depicted in 1 Enoch as a transcendent supernatural being who is the central figure in the destruction of the wicked and subsequent purification of the earth. But as the "Son of Man" he is also in some mysterious way human.(15)
It is not a coincidence that apocalyptic literature was included in the library of the Qumran group. The discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as the collection found in caves near the ancient ruins of Qumran is popularly called, gave scholars a new window into Judaism as it existed in the inter testament period. While scholars continue to debate about the nature of the community that collected and in some cases apparently authored the scrolls, most scholars see parallels with the Essenes, an ascetic group known to have been active in Judea at the time. The Qumran sect claimed to be the "remnant" of Israel. Their strict adherence to the Law led them to separate from the Jerusalem religious establishment which in their eyes had compromised the purity of Judaism by making alliances with "the ungodly." The group was clearly apocalyptic in its expectation of a fast approaching end time when the "rule of righteousness" in the temple would be restored through the final triumph of "the sons of light "over "the sons of darkness." But, in a pattern that would be tragically repeated by many other apocalyptic groups from ancient to modern times, they came to a unexpected and disastrous end in 68 AD at the hands of the Roman army on its way to Jerusalem to begin the siege that would end in the destruction of the Temple.(16)
Jesus and Early Christian Apocalypticism
While they were contemporaries of the Qumran sect, there is no real evidence that either Jesus or his predecessor John the Baptist had any direct connection with that group. The exact nature of Jesus and the Jesus movement, as scholars have titled earliest Christianity, continues to be the focus of controversy among historians of religion. As seems to have been true from the very beginnings of recorded response to the enigmatic figure of Jesus, (17) people tend to project their own preconceptions onto a figure that historical documentation has left dismayingly vague. The scholarly establishment once tended to view apocalyptic tradition with some disdain as a very minor, fringe element in Judeo-Christian tradition. But the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among other things, has brought about a shift in perception to the point that it is now widely recognized that "the apocalyptic communities of the last centuries B. C. were a major force in the complex matrix in which both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism were born. . . . In (an) interval of more than five hundred years, Jewish apocalypticism was a mainstream of religious life as well as speculation. . . . There can be no doubt that the apocalyptic movement was one of the ancestors of both Pharisaic Judaism and Jewish Christianity, as well as of the Gnostic syncretism that characterized both movements in the first century of the Common Era."(18)
As represented in the gospel accounts, Jesus' and John the Baptist's proclamation of a soon coming Kingdom are plainly apocalyptic in nature. The earliest extant Christian literature, the epistles of Paul, intermingle apocalyptic expectancies with concerns for the earthly well being of a rapidly expanding Christian community. The earliest written gospel of Mark, in the "little apocalypse" of the thirteenth chapter, describes a time of "distress such as never has been until now since the beginning of the world" when false messiahs will appear and "celestial powers will be shaken," all of which will lead up to the coming of the "Son of Man in clouds with great power and glory (to) gather his chosen from the four winds." This was to happen while the first generation of Christians was still alive to be taken directly to heaven without tasting death.
But time went by with neither Jesus' return nor the end of the world occurring. Eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus began to age and die, perhaps giving impetus to the long delayed writing of the gospel narratives. The gulf between Christianity and its Jewish origins grew. After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, many Jewish sects, like the Essenes, disappeared as Judaism consolidated into a distinctly orthodox form. Other forms of Judaism, including those Christians who continued to identify themselves as Jewish, were denounced as heretical.
The Revelation of John
As Christianity, or "The Way" as its followers apparently referred to it, (19) spread beyond Palestine, it began to attract official notice, and opposition. While the Jewish rebellions of the first and second century brought down the wrath of Rome on Jerusalem, Jews had long been officially recognized as monotheists exempt from the nominal acknowledgment of the Roman pantheon required of the Empire's subjects. As Jews, the earliest Christians could safely avoid making token sacrifices to pagan gods and the cult of the emperor. But as the gulf between Christianity and Judaism grew, Christians, with no official recognition of their monotheistic beliefs, lost this protection. While the date of the first organized persecution of Christians by the Romans is disputed by historians, (20) there was a well developed antagonism in place by the end of the first century.
Some scholars believe that parts of Revelation were written shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem, with the rest of the book completed by the end of the first century. Some think that it may originally have been a Jewish work that was revised by a Christian. Certainly many passages of Revelation are clearly lifted from Hebrew scripture and reworked to fit a Christian perspective. In any case, Revelation as we have it depicts Rome as the enemy of God's people, the new spiritual remnant of Israel formed by the believers in Christ. God's cosmic order is repeatedly contrasted with the worldly and satanic rule of Rome which would shortly undertake a terrible persecution of the saints. As in the second century BC, when Daniel's Babylonian oppressors stood in for Antiochus, so in Revelation Rome, as the antagonist of Christianity, is represented by Babylon. Oppressed peoples often resort to coded language. It was safer for the authors of Daniel and Revelation to substitute an enemy from the past for the all too present current foe. Romans would be unlikely to see any harm in obscure references to a long vanished nation. But Christians, still closely connected with their Jewish roots, would have immediately recognized what was really meant.(21)
Revelation describes the final struggle between God and Satan, with Satan and his earthly agent, Rome, doing their best to destroy those who resist the hegemony of evil. Fantastic beasts like those from the visions of Daniel represent the demonic foes, and the temporal course of events is described using enigmatic numbers again similar to those found in Daniel. In the end, of course, God prevails. The kingdom of Satan, "Babylon the Great," is finally and completely destroyed with "Death and Hades thrown into the lake of fire." In one of the most stirring passages to be found in scripture, the New Jerusalem is described as descending from heaven to an earth, restored to Edenic splendor in which the righteous will dwell with God "forever and forever." Unlike Daniel who is instructed to "seal up the vision, for it pertains to many days hence," John is told, "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near."(22)
Almost from its inception, Revelation has been the most controversial book of the New Testament canon. It has repeatedly gone in and out of favor in parallel with shifts in Christian attitudes between hostility to the established worldly order and accommodation. Extant second century Christian writings, written during a time of escalating antagonism between the pagan Empire and its Christian subjects, cite Revelation more often than any other New Testament book. But several early church fathers questioned whether it was worthy of inclusion in the canon. Many objected to Revelation's representation of Christ's millennial reign on earth as something that appears nowhere else in scripture. Reservations were expressed about Revelation's authorship, which some claimed could be traced to a Gnostic heretic.(23)
Extensive use of Revelation by the adherents of the late second century Montanist heresy led to further doubts about its suitability for inclusion in the canon. Montanus, accompanied by two women who claimed to be prophetically inspired by the Holy Spirit, traveled about Asia Minor announcing that the Second Coming would soon occur with the millennium to follow. The New Jerusalem would descend from heaven to a place not far from the city of Philadelphia (where the local church had been commended for its zeal by the writer of Revelation). Montanism quickly grew into a mass movement, with multitudes of people abandoning worldly affairs to prepare for the world to come. Spirit possessed Montanists spoke prophetic utterances over which they claimed to have no conscious control. Unlike the orthodox church, Montanists recognized women as clergy as well as prophets. As would repeatedly be the case with apocalyptic-prophetic movements throughout Christian history, the orthodox clergy denounced the Montanists, who promptly formed their own church which flourished for some time in Asia Minor outside of the urban settings in which orthodoxy was firmly established.(24)
Despite all the reservations, the (questionable) tradition of John the Apostle as its author eventually won Revelation a place in the canon. A number of other early Christian apocalyptic works were attributed to figures such as Peter, Paul, John, and Mary. In addition, several Jewish apocalypses were edited to fit Christian teaching. While some of these works were included in early lists of books regarded as scripture, Revelation was the only apocalyptic work included in the final form of the New Testament as it was established in the fourth century.
Augustine to the Enlightenment
In the fourth century Roman persecution ceased, and Christianity was well on its way to becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire. The notion of a violent clash between this world and the next had less appeal for Christians who were increasingly the beneficiaries of worldly position and power. Augustine of Hippo's great fifth century work, The City of God, set the Church firmly in the context of contemporary earthly events, with the Second Coming, Resurrection, and Last Judgment in the far distant future. Apocalyptic texts were to be read as allegories of the life to come, rather than literally applied to current earthly events.
But speculation about the nearness of the end of the world continued, with tension between a well established politically powerful Church and apocalyptic expectations in less advantaged sectors of the the body of believers becoming an ongoing dynamic in Christendom. The end seemed near in difficult times, but tended to recede as an active concern when things were good. A century after Augustine, a series of natural disasters, plagues, political turmoil, and wars led Pope Gregory I to observe, "The world grows old and hoary and hastens to its approaching end."(25) Despite Augustine's urging of an allegorical reading, Revelation continued to be interpreted literally during the Middle Ages with contemporary events of various sorts repeatedly cited as foretold signs of the approaching End and millennial movements repeatedly emerging to disturb the establishment.(26) Apocalyptic events were a favorite theme in medieval and renaissance art.
Apocalypticism was particularly attractive to those on the margins of society or critical of the established order. The Spiritual Franciscans, whose dedication to poverty and strict observance of religious injunctions was a direct rebuke to the wealthy rulers of the Church, firmly believed that the end was neigh. Many medieval heretics preached a radical apocalyptic message. In the fourteenth century, early reformers such as Wycliffe and Huss identified the Roman Catholic Church with the beast of Revelation and the pope with the antichrist. While Luther made ample use of apocalyptic imagery in his denunciation of Rome and believed the Second Coming was near, he regarded the book of Revelation as "neither apostolic nor prophetic." His German translation of the Bible separated Revelation from the rest of scripture by putting it in an appendix.
As the Reformation and its attendant religious wars tore apart the political and social fabric of Western Europe, apocalyptic expectancies increased. Radical movements and leaders who believed themselves divinely ordained to bring about the coming kingdom of God emerged to challenge the authority of Protestant and Catholic leaders alike.(27) In 1525, a German apocalyptist led an army of peasants in a disastrous revolt that ended in their slaughter. Luther, perhaps having some second thoughts about the priesthood of all believers, supported the killing of the revolutionaries and other dissenters who seemed to be springing up everywhere in the wake of the Reformation. In 1534 an Anabaptist millennial sect gained control of the German city of Munster, and quickly instituted a reign of terror. Catholics and Lutherans alike were expelled as the city was proclaimed the New Jerusalem. In a scenario uncannily parallel to the tragic events that ended with the fiery death of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas in 1993, a charismatic tailor succeeded the first leader of the sect, who had been hacked to death by the besieging army sent by the alarmed authorities when he ventured outside the city, and declared himself the King and Messiah of the Last Days. Initial advocacy of sexual puritanism was replaced by a proclamation that God had re-instituted polygamy along with sexual license, at least for the leader who acquired a harem of teenage wives. While he was arrayed in magnificent robes, the ordinary citizens of Munster were to live in poverty until the Second Coming which would occur only after all the priests, monks, and rulers in the world, beginning with all remaining opponents in Munster, had been killed. The city held out for several months against the siege until famine finally rendered the Anabaptists too feeble to resist. The sect members were quickly killed, except for the leader who was paraded around on a chain before being tortured to death.(28)
Religious struggles in England produced an amazing number of millennial movements. During the English Civil War, Cromwell's New Model Army drew inspiration from Revelation for their self appointed task of establishing the New Jerusalem in England. By the middle of the seventeenth century, "Baptists and Anabaptists, Levelers, Diggers, Socinians, Ranters, Quakers, Muggletonians (named after a man who claimed to be one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3), and all sorts of popular utopian millenarians, (all proclaiming themselves) the stoutest foes of Antichrist, were busy preparing Christ's kingdom."(29) The Fifth Monarchy Men, believing themselves called to establish the fifth kingdom described in Daniel 2:44 , briefly gained control of Parliament and issued an apocalyptic declaration from the House of Commons. But they quickly fell from favor to be remembered primarily as the instigators of a few violent civil disturbances.
With the Restoration of the English monarchy, the chaos created by millennial movements came to an abrupt end. To ensure that such disorders would not recur, speculation about the Second Coming was made a criminal offense in England. On the continent, millennial expectations faded as the Thirty Years War, initially thought by many to be Armageddon, reduced the combatants to a state of exhaustion that eventually ended the conflict. The focus of apocalyptic expectations shifted from spiritual, other worldly conflict to the efforts of humanity to establish a "goodly kingdom" in which the millennium would unfold on earth. In New England, Puritans established their "city on the hill" as an example of a Christian society that they earnestly hoped would spread back to their homeland and eventually encompass the world.
Enlightenment humanists and deists raised questions about the necessity of divine intervention in establishing the rule of right. In their view humanity unaided by deity would continue to move forward to achieve the perfect society. Others, such as the Quakers, believed that the Second Coming was a purely spiritual phenomena occurring in present time within the heart of the believer. Pessimistic visions of the End generally faded away before expectations of a bright future brought about by human progress. Post millenarianism, the idea that the Second Coming would occur after an earthly millennium of enlightenment, peace, and harmony, became the predominant Christian view. This was especially so in America, where many believed that the new Republic represented the triumph of the godly prophesied in the Bible.(30)
William Miller and the Millerite Movement
Born in 1782, William Miller (31) grew up on the then frontier of upstate New York. Although raised a Baptist, as a young man Miller came to have doubts about the truthfulness of the Bible. As did many at the time, he became a Deist who believed that while God created the world, he does not directly intervene in the course of natural and human affairs. But while serving in the War of 1812, Miller came to feel that God was actively watching over the United States as he had Israel in biblical times. Coming home after the war, he experienced a spiritual crisis that led him back to the Baptist Church. Challenged by a Deist friend on his regained faith, Miller decided to study the Bible for himself to find whether or not it was what it claimed to be. Two years of intense study using only his Bible's marginal references and a concordance in addition to the Bible itself convinced Miller that, as the Bible itself stated, "all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, . . . for instruction."(32)
As a result of his studies, Miller concluded that post millenarianism was not scriptural. The Second Coming of Christ would occur prior to the millennium, and was in fact very near at hand. The so-called twenty three hundred days prophecy of Daniel 8:14 - "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed" (33) - provided Miller with the key to the time of the End. In determining the date, Miller drew upon a long established but questionable tradition that a day in Biblical prophecy represents an actual year.(34) “Cleansing of the sanctuary” he took to mean the purification of the earth by fire at the Second Coming. On the basis of other verses in Daniel, Miller decided that 457 BC, the year of the Persian decree to rebuild Jerusalem, was the starting point of the prophetic time line. Two thousand three hundred years from that date would be 1843, when the Last Judgment would occur.
While he shared his conclusions with friends and neighbors, Miller was initially reluctant to publicly proclaim his message. Then in 1831 he was invited to preach at a service in Dresden, Vermont, where the congregation persuaded him to stay for a week to tell them more. In the 1830's, upstate New York and Western Vermont was in the midst of religious turmoil, with one religious or reform movement after another sweeping through so often that the area became known as the "burnt over" district. Miller's message found ready ears among people who were already open to religious contagion. In 1839 Joshua V. Hines, a young abolitionist minister with a flair for public relations, joined Miller to turn the message of an impending End into a mass movement, "one of hundreds of strange religious experiences that occurred all across the United States from the 1820's through the 1840's."(35)
Estimates of the number of Millerites range from ten thousand to over one million. Whatever the exact numbers, Miller's message within a few years spread throughout New England and the Mid Atlantic States. Scores of other ministers from virtually all of the Protestant denominations of the day took up the "midnight cry" warning of the impending End. Some of the most adamant Millerites were abolitionists and other social reformers who, giving up hopes of changing the present world, turned their attention to a better world to come. Despite the opposition that they often experienced from the religious establishment, most of Miller's followers continued their membership in the churches to which they already belonged. Not until the final year of the movement, with the established churches increasingly in opposition, did the Millerites declare the rejecting churches "spiritual Babylon" and, echoing a verse from Revelation, issue a call to "come out of her my people."
While others proposed dates based on various readings of prophecy and history, Miller from the first steadfastly refused to set a definite date for the End, simply stating that it would occur sometime around 1843. But as 1843 drew near, Miller, pressured to name a more specific time, stated a belief that Jesus would return to the earth sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844, the beginning and ending dates of a year as marked by the spring equinox. As the year rolled by there was growing millennial excitement, with itinerant Millerites preaching the rapidly nearing End of Time to great masses. The appearance of a comet visible in day light seemed a certain "sign in the heaven," a great many more, some highly improbable, of which were excitedly reported.(36) Meanwhile, ridicule poured from the popular press, with Miller inspiring what would become the stock cartoon figure of a bearded prophet carrying a sign bearing the legend, "The End Is Near."
As the year continued with no apparent divine intrusion into the course of earthly affairs, the ridicule grew along with the Millerites' ardor. When the vernal equinox of 1844 came and went as had any other day, the Millerites rallied around the idea of a "tarrying time" that, as in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, would separate those who were truly prepared from those whose faith was lacking. As has been repeatedly demonstrated in various movements, such a disconfirming experience, far from convincing believers that they are wrong, often strengthens the group as it reshapes its interpretations to incorporate seemingly discordant data into its belief system.(37)
Samuel S. Snow, an eccentric Millerite preacher who would later go about in white robes declaring himself to be “Elijah the Prophet,” claimed the Second Coming would occur on October 22, 1844, a date he (erroneously) believed to be the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) as observed by the Karaite sect.(38) Snow convinced many Millerites that the delayed "Bridegroom" (Jesus) would finally arrive on that day. Millerite leaders, including Miller and Hines, continued to express doubts about the date until late September, by which time Snow’s date setting was "spreading over the land like a prairie wildfire."(39) The October 22 date gave a new focus to a movement in which serious divisions had begun to appear. While some continued to express reservations, most Millerites came to believe that the end of their earthly tribulations would occur on October 22. Although there is no evidence anyone made "ascension robes" as was reported by the press, many Millerites saw no need to harvest fall crops, tend their businesses, or make other preparations for an earthly life extending beyond October. Earthly business was superseded by preparation for "the Great Day of the Lord."
But October 22, 1844, which every Seventh-day Adventist church school child learns as the date of the "Great Disappointment," came and went with no visible change in the course of earthly affairs. Devastated by the apparent failure of prophecy, the Millerite movement broke apart. While many gave up their hopes to return to mainstream churches, others remained steadfast in the conviction that the Second Coming was about to occur. The largest body of the movement formed the Advent Christian Church which still exists. Some joined the Shakers who regarded the Second Coming as a spiritual event that had already occurred in the person of their founder. A small group came to believe that, while October 22 was the correct date, a heavenly rather than earthly event had been foretold by Daniel's prophecy. In their reformulated understanding, Jesus on that day entered into the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary to begin what they termed the "Investigative Judgment" as prelude to the Final Judgment that was yet to come on an unspecified but not far distant date. This belief, unique in the history of Christian doctrine, became the foundation of what would eventually become the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the years immediately following the Great Disappointment, Ellen G. White, a young woman who had been a devoted follower of Miller, had visions which further developed the beliefs of the little group as it established itself as a unique apocalyptic American religion. With a claimed worldwide membership over seventeen million, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is today the largest extant Millerite based group. Like their forebears, Seventh-day Adventists believe themselves to be the divinely chosen "remnant people," spiritual heirs to the ancient apocalyptic vision of a better world to come.(40)
For a critique of traditional Seventh-day Adventist interpretations of the prophecies around which the denomination formed, see Roy Ingram, "The Assumptions of DARCOM and other Sources in Defending 1844."
The PBS documentary series, “Frontline,” did a very informative program on “Apocalypse: The Evolution of Apocalyptic Belief and How It Shaped the Western World.”
References & Footnotes
(1) American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), p. 61.
(2) For instance, Jude 6-16 draws from non-canonical Jewish apocalyptic literature, with verses 14-15 a direct quote from Enoch 1:9.
(3) Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 214-216. Much of my account of early apocalypticism is based on Cohn.
(4) ibid., pp. 77-104.
(5) Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures: An Introduction to Their Literature and Religious Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 43-151.
(6) These "ten lost tribes" live on in wild speculations about their fate and continued existence. One of the most persistent has them somehow migrating to ancient Britain to become "Anglo-Israelites." This idea in various forms is popular with several right wing militia groups, and has been of interest for some Adventists.
(7) Sandmel, pp. 152-168. Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief In Modern American Culture, (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 24-26.
(8) It is generally accepted that the second part of Isaiah, which Biblical scholars refer to as Second Isaiah, was composed after the time of the eighth century prophet of chapters 1-31. See Sandmel, pp. 81-84, 169-170 and Herbert G. May and Bruce M Metzger, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 822.
(9) Isaiah 44:28-45:6. David Koresh, the leader of the group of former Seventh-day Adventists known as the Branch Davidians, believed that this prophecy referred to him, and adopted as his last name the Hebrew form of "Cyrus." See James D. Taylor & Eugene V. Gallaher, Why Waco? (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), p. 8 and David Vades Greenwood, “Waco - The Fire Next Time.”
(10) Isaiah 11:9, 6.
(11) Cohen, p. 166.
(12) There are many accounts of Antiochus and the Maccabean revolt. Most of my narrative is based on Cohen (pp. 166-167) supplemented by standard reference works.
(13) Almost any standard work on the Old Testament and Daniel will discuss these problems. Wikipedia has a lengthy entry on Daniel. While somewhat dated, Louis F. Hartman and Alexander A DiLella's volume on The Book of Daniel (New York: Doubleday & Co, 1978) in The Anchor Bible series is very comprehensive. The notes on Daniel in The New Oxford Annotated Bible are also helpful. Broderick D. Shepherd's Beasts, Horns And The Antichrist: Daniel: A Blueprint of the Last Days? (Cliffside Pub House, 1994), is a book by a conservative Christian on some of the problems with the traditional dating and interpretation of Daniel.
(14) Cohen pp. 176 ff.
(15) ibid. pp. 204-206.
(16) Hershel Shanks (ed.), Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Random House, 1992) and Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls In English (New York: The Penguin Press, 1997).
(17) Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), describes how ideas about Jesus have changed in relation to shifting social and historical factors.
(18) Frank Moore Cross, "Light on the Bible From the Dead Sea Scrolls," in Hershel Shanks, (ed.), Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Random House, 1992) p. 165.
(19) Acts 9:2, 19:2, 23.
(20) While tradition has it that Revelation was written during a persecution of Christians by the Emperor Domitian, and John the Revelator was exiled to Patmos because he was a Christian, there is no historical evidence of widespread persecution during Domitian's reign. See Cohen pp. 215-216.
(21) Cohen, pp. 212-219. Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John's Apocalypse ( Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986). James Tabor, "Why Y2K? The Biblical Roots of Millennialism," Bible Review, Dec. 1999, pp. 16-27, 44-45.
(22) Daniel 8:26, Revelation 22:10.
(23) David E. Aune, "Revelation" in Everett Ferguson (ed.) Encyclopedia of Early Christianity 2nd Edition (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), p. 981.
(24) W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), pp. 253-256. Dennis E. Groh, "Montanism" in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, p. 778-779.
(25) Quoted in Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 41-60.
(26) A classic account of medieval apocalyptic movements is Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, 2nd edit. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).
(27) Weber, pp. 41-82.
(28) Cohn, pp. 261-280. Damian Thompson, The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium (Hanover & London: University Press of New England, 1996), pp. 84-86.
(29) Weber, p. 73.
(30) ibid., pp. 99-117. Thompson, pp. 94-98.
(31) Everett N. Dick, William Miller and the Advent Crisis (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1994) is the source from which I have drawn much of what follows. Originally written in 1932, its publication was blocked for over sixty years by the reluctance of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to submit to a critical study of its history. This despite Dick's long tenure as a well respected historian at the denomination's Union College. See the introduction to Dick's book by Gary Land, "The Historians and the Millerites: An Historiographical Essay," pp. xiii-xxviii.
(32) 2 Timothy 3:16.
(33) King James Version. More recent translations render it more accurately: "two thousand and three hundred evenings and mornings" which most commentators understand as a reference to the evening and morning sacrifices performed in the temple, which is clearly referred to in the proceeding verse. This would correspond to a period of about three and a half years, the actual period of time during which sacrifices could not be performed due to the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes.
(35) Paul E. Johnson & Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 6. Johnson and Wilentz's account of one of the many small cultic groups that flourished around this time gives a fascinating picture of the social, political, and economic changes that gave rise to widespread religious ferment in America during the first half of the nineteenth century.
(36) Some of the "signs of the times "cited by Adventists actually predated the Millerite movement. These included the darkening of the sun on "the Dark Day," caused by vast forest fires to the west of New England, of May 19, 1780 and the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. A spectacular display produced by the annual Leonid meteor shower in 1833 became the "falling of the stars" predicted by scripture. Contemporaneous supernatural manifestations, such as the appearance of three suns, crosses on the sun, angels seen flying by, the sounds of angel choirs, etc., were reported by both Millerites and non-Millerites. See Dick, pp. 101-115.
(37) The classic study is Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, & Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (New York: Harper & Row , 1964[1956 original publication]). While the group studied was a UFO cult, the dynamics are very similar to those in other prophecy based groups, including Millerites and Seventh-day Adventists whose relatively short history furnishes many instances of this process. While the Millerite movement is discussed (pp., 12-23) in some detail in the introductory chapter, the authors seem to be unaware of the history of the Millerites after the Great Disappointment. The development of the Seventh-day Adventist doctrine of the Investigative Judgment is, in fact, a perfect example of the authors' thesis that disconfirmation of prophetic expectancies strengthens the conviction and enthusiasm of believers who modify their beliefs to accommodate the contradictory evidence. For an interesting application of the theory of Festinger, et. al.to Adventist history, particularly the controversies revolving around Ellen White, see Timothy Dunfield, "Challenging Authority: The Role of Dissent in the Formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Sect," International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 2, 2011, pp. 19-32
(38) The Karaites originated in the Jewish community residing in Babylon in the eighth century AD. They resemble the Essenes in many of their teachings, and some scholars believe they may be descendants of an ancient Essene community in Babylon. See Hershel Shanks, "Essene Origins - Palestine or Babyonia?" in Hershel Shanks, ed. Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Random House, 1992), pp. 83-84. It is, however, quite certain that in 1844, by both Orthodox and Karaite reckoning, Yom Kippur occurred in September. In fact, it has never fallen as late as October 22 in any year. Snow also claimed that 1844 was a Jubilee year in the Jewish calendar, which it was not. See http://www.nonegw.org/2300days.shtml.
(39) Dick, p. 145.
(40) See #13 of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs: "The Remnant and Its Mission" at https://www.adventist.org/fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/official-statements/28Beliefs-Web.pdf
©2009 James C. Moyers
The Last Judgement. Il Duomo di Firenze, Florence, Italy Photo © Jim Moyers