History of the Millerites

Devoted Sect Believed The World Would End on October 22, 1844

Illustration depicting ascension of Miller Tabernacle
Illustration depicting the ascension of Miller's followers. New York Historical Society/Getty Images

The Millerites were members of a ​religious sect who became famous in 19th century America for fervently believing the world was about to end. The name came from William Miller, an Adventist preacher from New York State who gained an enormous following for asserting, in fiery sermons, that Christ’s return was imminent.

At hundreds of tent meetings around America throughout the summers of the early 1840s, Miller and others convinced as many as one million Americans that Christ would be resurrected between the spring of 1843 and the spring of 1844.

People came up with precise dates and prepared to meet their end.

As the various dates passed and the end of the world did not occur, the movement began to be ridiculed in the press. In fact, the name Millerite was originally bestowed upon the sect by detractors before coming into common usage in newspaper reports.

The date of October 22, 1844, was eventually chosen as the day when Christ would return and the faithful would ascend to heaven. There were reports of Millerites selling or giving away their worldly possessions, and even donning white robes to ascend to heaven.

The world did not end, of course. And while some followers of Miller gave up on him, he went on to play a role in the founding of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Life of William Miller

William Miller was born February 15, 1782, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He grew up in New York State and received a spotty education, which would have been typical for the time.

However, he read books from a local library and essentially educated himself.

He married in 1803 and became a farmer. He served in the War of 1812, rising to the rank of captain. Following the war, he returned to farming and became intensely interested in religion. Over a period of 15 years, he studied scripture and became obsessed with the idea of prophecies.

About 1831 he began to preach the idea that the world would end with the return of Christ close to the year 1843. He had calculated the date by studying Biblical passages and assembling clues which led him to create a complicated calendar.

Over the next decade, he developed into a forceful public speaker, and his preaching became extraordinarily popular.

A publisher of religious works, Joshua Vaughan Himes, became involved with Miller in 1839. He encouraged Miller’s work and used a considerable organizational ability to spread Miller’s prophecies. Himes arranged to have an enormous tent made, and organized a tour so Miller could preach to hundreds of people at a time. Himes also arranged for Miller’s works to be published, in the form of books, handbills, and newsletters.

As Miller’s fame spread, many Americans came to take his prophecies seriously. And even after the world did not end in October 1844, some disciples still clung to their beliefs. A common explanation was that Biblical chronology was inaccurate, therefore Miller’s calculations produced an unreliable result.

After he was essentially proven wrong, Miller lived for another five years, dying at his home in Hampton, New York, on December 20, 1849.

His most devoted followers branched off and founded other denominations, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Fame of the Millerites

As Miller and some of his followers preached at hundreds of meetings in the early 1840s, newspapers naturally covered the popularity of the movement. And converts to Miller’s thinking began to attract attention by preparing themselves, in public ways, for the world to end and for the faithful to enter heaven.

The newspaper coverage tended to be dismissive if not blatantly hostile. And when the various dates proposed for the end of the world came and went, the stories about the sect often portrayed followers as delusional or insane.

Typical stories would detail eccentricities of sect members, which often included tales of them giving away possessions which they would no longer need when they ascended to heaven.

For instance, a story in the New York Tribune on October 21, 1844, claimed that a female Millerite in Philadelphia had sold her house and a brickmaker had abandoned his prosperous business.

By the 1850s the Millerites were considered an unusual fad which had come and gone.