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Countdown!: or, How Nigh is the End?
By Patrick Moore
The History PressCopyright © 2013 The estate of Patrick Moore
All rights reserved.
William Miller – and Others
The year was 1843. A brilliant comet blazed down from the sky, 'shaking its fiery locks'. There was great tension in America, and there were thousands of people who believed that the Last Trump was about to sound. This was the time of the Millerite movement, which led to one of the greatest end-of-the-world scares ever known. It was centred on the United States, though traces of it spread further afield, and were slow to fade away. The whole episode had been sparked off by a New England farmer named William Miller.
Miller was not a scientist; he was a student of the Bible, and he was eccentric. Indeed, it is not too much to say that he was as nutty as a fruitcake; but he had a tremendous following, and he was completely sincere. To him, the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and he regarded it as his bounden duty to spread the word among his fellow men – in which he succeeded only too well, aided and abetted by a clergyman named Joshua V. Hines, who acted as his publicity agent and who fanned the flames with uncanny skill.
I have started this chapter with William Miller because his crusade of doom was so incredibly successful. Even when the fateful year of 1843 was over, the Millerite movement did not perish abruptly; it petered out slowly, and echoes of it lingered on. However, it is best to deal with matters chronologically, and so let us delve back much further than the nineteenth century to see what we can find out.
I do not propose to say much about ancient religions, because they do not really come into the story, and in any case most of them regarded the Earth as eternal. (The same was true of the gods, with the notable exception of those in Norse mythology; you may remember that in the final battle between the Æsir and the forces of evil, the chief god Odin was unceremoniously swallowed by the wolf Fenrir – which was unfortunate for Odin, and may well have given Fenrir indigestion.) So we really begin with St Augustine, who is always remembered as being the man sent to England to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. In this he had considerable success, starting with King Ethelbert of Kent. To be candid, history has been rather kind to Augustine; he came to England with marked reluctance, and his lack of tact very nearly ruined the entire mission. Still, he made his mark, and he was certainly forceful.
Augustine lived in the sixth and seventh centuries AD, and his meeting with King Ethelbert took place in the year 596. Apparently he believed that the Church would last for 1,000 years but no longer, and this paved the way for the first of the religious end-of-the-world scares. If Christ had been born in AD 1, then presumably the year 1000 would complete the cycle. Druthmar, an English monk, even gave a definite date: 24 March – and the stage was set.
There is an immediate flaw here, because, as we have seen, Christ was certainly born well before AD 1. At that time the most powerful man in the European world was Augustus, ruler of Rome. He was Julius Caesar's great-nephew, and had come to power after ousting Mark Antony, who had been too preoccupied with wooing Cleopatra to give his attention to more pressing matters. Augustus is also memorable for having upset the calendar merely because he wanted August, the month named after his honour, to be as long as Caesar's month, July; this is why we now have two consecutive months with thirty-one days each.
However, the approach of AD 1000 was dreaded in every country to which Christianity had penetrated – and this, of course, included England, though the panics were much greater in Italy, France and what is now Germany.
It was, incidentally, a peculiarly unpleasant time for most people. Warfare was widespread, and in addition Europe was in the grip of one of those plagues which have been prevalent every now and then. Many victims may well have thought that the forthcoming end of the world would be a relief rather than otherwise. The Church did not agree, and much money and effort was spent in erecting new cathedrals and renovating old ones – the basic idea being, presumably, that those who were busy upon such noble projects would be given VIP treatment when the world was no more. The English were having extra problems, since Ethelred the Unready sat upon the throne, and the Danish raids were increasing all the time. Ethelred was completely unprepared for them, and it is permissible to think that he would have been equally unprepared for the end of the world, but the matter was never actually put to the test, because nothing happened. The year 1000 came in, passed by, and expired without any divine manifestations whatsoever. It must have been rather galling for the thousands of Christians, mainly from continental Europe, who had sold up all their possessions in 999 and made haste to Jerusalem, where the Second Coming might logically have been expected.
The fears of AD 1000 were decidedly nebulous, and were based upon a mere timescale rather than anything specific in the Bible. Much later came a Spaniard, St Vincent Ferrer, who was born in or about 1350 and died in 1419. He concluded that the world would last for as many years as there are verses in the Psalms. As there are 2,357 verses, there seemed no reason for apprehension.
To catalogue all the individual prophets who forecast doomsday on purely religious grounds would take a long time, and would be rather tedious, but I cannot resist saying something about Solomon Eccles, partly because he was English and partly because he was so odd by any standards. He seems to have been born in London in 1618, and his early career was conventional enough; he was a talented musician, and when still in his twenties he was making a good living by teaching stringed and keyboard instruments. Later he fell in with the Quakers, and began to have visions which told him quite plainly that the end was nigh. Music, of course, was a pastime of the Devil, so he disposed of all his equipment and became a shoemaker. This in itself would have aroused no comment, but he also disposed of his clothing (or most of it; at first he retained a loincloth to cover the appropriate part of his anatomy) and began to burst in upon religious services, imploring the congregation to take heed and be saved while there was still time. It was hardly surprising that preachers did not take kindly to this sort of interruption, and the usual result was that Eccles was thrown out, metaphorically upon his ear. He was even imprisoned, which apparently troubled him not at all.
His strange career approached its zenith, so far as London was concerned, in the years of plague and fire, 1665 and 1666. No doubt he regarded these events as warnings of the holocaust to come. He even attracted the attention of the great diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote in 1667: 'One thing extraordinary was, this day a man, a Quaker, came naked through the Hall at Westminster, where all the courtiers assembled, only civilly tied about the loins to avoid scandal, and with a chafing-dish of fire and brimstone up in his head did pass through the Hall at Westminster crying 'Repent! Repent!'
Since the stupid Londoners refused to take him seriously, Eccles decided to venture elsewhere; he went to Scotland, and was arrested again. On his release he made for Ireland, where he regarded even a loincloth as an unnecessary encumbrance. Yet he met with no better fortune, and when he streaked naked into Cork Cathedral during a solemn service, both the Church and the civil authorities were outraged. He was whipped through the streets, and then expelled from the city with stern warnings never to come back.
He did join a Quaker missionary party to the West Indies in 1671, and then went to New England, where he was at once arrested and subsequently banished. Nine years later we find him in Barbados, speaking to gatherings of Negro slaves; the authorities intervened and shipped him back to England, where he died. Eccles did not seem to have selected any particular part of the Bible to bolster up his views. He relied upon his instinct and his visions, which is always a risky thing to do; and though he achieved considerable notoriety, he never mustered a following in the way that William Miller managed to do later.
In London, the next important prophet of doom was the Rev. Dr William Whiston, sometime friend of Newton; but since Whiston's theory involved a comet, I propose to defer its discussion for the moment and pass on to the year 1761, when the city was shaken by a couple of earthquakes. Both were very mild, and there was little damage, though a few chimneys were toppled and the shocks were strong enough to be noticeable. They are relevant here only because they led to a noteworthy panic, due entirely to the ravings of an ex-soldier whose name was William Bell.
It is often thought that earthquakes in England are uncommon, but this is not strictly true; a thousand have been recorded altogether, though only one death has been established – in 1580, when a moderate shock dislodged a stone from Christ Church and deposited it upon the head of a luckless youth who happened to be standing underneath. In 1761 the jolts were separated by twenty-eight days, and Bell jumped to the conclusion that after another twenty-eight days there would be something much worse – enough, in fact, to destroy the world. He gave the date as 5 April and, for reasons which remain a total mystery, people believed him. Panic broke out, and spread through wide areas of London. A general exodus began; carts and coaches drew out of the city, and camps sprang up in regions which have now been swamped by the spread of London but were then pleasant villages, such as Highgate and Hampstead. Boats were bought up, and the Thames was crowded, presumably because it was thought that water would be safer than dry land.
Bell became famous; everything he said was magnified out of all proportion and by the time that 5 April came the scene was one of utter chaos. Predictably, the day passed quietly, and there was a sense as much of anti-climax as of relief. Bell's enthusiasm for his cause was not dampened, but the authorities had had more than enough, and the luckless ex-soldier was quietly stored in the nearest asylum, where he died some days later. It was a curious episode in every way, and there was no logic behind it.
I can pause only briefly to mention a lady named Mary Bateman, who achieved fame in 1806 when she announced that one of her hens was making a habit of laying eggs with Jesus Christ's personal seal upon them; clearly, this meant that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent. Unfortunately it was found that the eggs had been skilfully treated by Mary herself, so that Christ was not involved. It was, in fact, a pure confidence trick, and Mrs Bateman's subsequent career was no more creditable; it came to an abrupt end after she had been caught giving two wealthy clients a tasty-looking pudding which had been liberally laced with arsenic.
There was also John Tom, a Cornishman who called himself Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtney, and actually stood twice for Parliament. He fought the Canterbury constituency in 1832 and collected 375 votes, which was 372 more than he managed at his second attempt some years later. Eventually he announced that he was the new Messiah, and that he had been sent to give news of the impending destruction of the Earth. Courtney, too, came to an untimely end after he shot a policeman who had been ordered to break up a mob which he had collected and was leading along the road from London to Dover.
Recently, of course, we have had the great expenses scandal when it was found that the Hounourable Members had been using taxpayers' money in ways that were hardly likely to be of much use to their constituents. One MP claimed money for building an island for his ducks, and another charged a large sum having the moat around his house thoroughly cleaned. A senior cabinet minister actually put in a claim for several pornographic films which her husband enjoyed watching. There was an outcry about all of this, and Honourable Members are hardly likely to be admirers of the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper which broke the story. However, let us forget the present crop of dubious MPs, and return to the greatest of all prophets of doom, William Miller.
Judged by any standards, Miller was a phenomenon. His background was quite normal; he was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and his parents were farmers in a modest way. They were also Baptists, which was admittedly harmless. William's only sign of eccentricity was that he was an avid reader who devoured any book he could find, which was by no means common at the time. When he and his family moved to the state of Vermont, he became known as a young man of learning, and he was elected Constable of the town of Poultney; in 1809 he was even made Sheriff, and clearly he was cast in a different mould from most of his contemporaries. He married and at that stage was by no means of a religious turn of mind. He went so far as to declare that the Bible was nonsense, an attitude which horrified his parents.
Meanwhile, storm clouds were gathering, and war against the English was more than probable. Miller decided to serve his country, and so he joined the army. In 1810 he was commissioned, and by 1812 he held the rank of captain. He saw plenty of action, but he also met with an accident which probably changed the whole course of his life. The exact details of the mishap are unknown, but involved a fall from a cart, and the fact that Miller landed on his head may well have been the root cause of his transformation from an energetic, practical men into a fanatical end-of-the-worlder. We will never know. However, the change was not immediately obvious, and he stayed in the army until 1815, when he resigned his commission and established a farm at Low Hampton, which was then a remote part of New York State.
It was at Low Hampton that Miller found God – or thought he did. His lifestyle changed entirely, and he began to spend more and more time reading the Bible, particularly the Book of Daniel. The walls of his study were festooned with charts and graphs, and he became more or less a recluse. Eventually he decided that the Second Coming of Christ was nearer than most people imagined, and would signal the end of the world as we know it. What of the date? By 1832 he had the answer; the world would be destroyed in 1843, probably at midnight at the spring equinox on 21 March.
At first he was cautious. Should he announce the dread news, or wait until the Earth was snuffed out like a candle flame in the wind? To say nothing might be more merciful. On the other hand, there was plenty of sin around (though no doubt much less than there is today), and it would be only right to give the sinners time to repent so that they could face their Maker with confidence and a bright smile. Moreover, there were other prophets who were giving wrong dates. (One was a certain Harriet Livermore, whose career is decidedly obscure, but who expected the Last Trump to sound sometime in 1847. Another was a Captain Saunders, and yet a third was Joseph Wolff, who lived appropriately in Jerusalem, and who held the same opinion. Wolff expected Christ to appear on top of the Mount of Olives. One of his followers was Lady Hester Stanhope, a niece of William Pitt, who subsequently repaired to the top of the Mount taking two white horses with her – one for Jesus and the other for herself.)
Eventually Miller made up his mind. He must spread the word, and there were only a few years left. In 1832 he began his campaign by preaching in the local church. From all accounts, he was an excellent orator of the Hitler variety, and he was certainly positive. The end was nigh, he thundered; those who had led evil lives must make full atonement before it was too late, or they would be cast down into the flames of hell. It was a depressing prospect.
At first his success was modest. Some of the locals took him seriously, while others dismissed him as a crazy old man. What may have helped him was the meteor shower of 1833 when, for some hours, shooting stars 'rained down like snowflakes', indicating divine displeasure. Nowadays we know that the shower was due to the meteors known as Leonids. Periodically the Earth plunges through the main swarm of tiny particles, scooping up many of them. They are associated with a periodical comet, Tempel-Tuttle, which has an orbital period of thirty-three years. When the comet returns to the neighbourhood of the Sun, we are sometimes treated to the spectacle of a major 'meteor storm', as happened in 1799 and again in 1833. To Miller, this was a sign that he was thinking along the right lines.
Gradually his fame spread. Over the following years he preached almost 1,000 sermons, and when challenged by sceptics he was able to give as good as he got; so far as the Bible was concerned he had done his homework extremely well, and of his sincerity there was no doubt at all. The Millerite sect became firmly established, and the year 1843 was awaited with considerable apprehension. It was at this juncture that Miller met up with a man who was destined to play a major role in the whole episode – the Elder Joshua V. Hines, a Baptist who had considerable influence in the city of Boston.
Excerpted from Countdown!: or, How Nigh is the End? by Patrick Moore. Copyright © 2013 The estate of Patrick Moore. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. William Miller – and Others,
2. The Astrologers,
3. The Jupiter Effect,
4. The Menacing Moon,
5. Comets of Doom,
6. Cosmic Bullets,
8. Ordeal by Flying Saucer,
9. And So to Science,