1844: embracing disappointment

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Every year on October 22 a good friend of mine sends me a tongue-in-cheek “Happy Great Disappointment Day” message. He wonders aloud about the continued delay of Christ’s return. It’s a light-hearted way of raising a good question “What happened on October 22, 1844?” And “why is there such a delay?” October 22, 1844, is of course the day thousands of Millerites awaited the return of Jesus only to be sorely devastated.

Before looking at what happened in 1844 we need to acknowledge that the more time elapses between then and now, the more obscure the date and event become. Some church members know little of it or struggle to make sense of it. It seems a world away now and not very relevant. It’s hard to explain and easy to ridicule. It’s about a mistake after all! And yet it’s a defining part of our history. Briefly I want to explore 1844 as an event in which God is at work but in ways that are counter-intuitive yet edifying. I want to reclaim the greatness of the Great Disappointment. Not as the heart of our faith, for it certainly isn’t—Jesus is—but as a foundational part and catalytic moment for Seventh-day Adventism which has ongoing relevance for us precisely because of its unusual and even awkward qualities.

. . . God prepares us through disappointment. A great mission is preceded by great trail and refinement.


The earthly event

A surface understanding of October 22, 1844, goes something like this. American Millerite Christians caught up in revivalistic millennial excitement wrongly predicted the return of Jesus as so many other groups have done in history. That’s the truncated version. In reality, what led up to the 1844 movement, the event itself, and what followed it, marks 1844 as of unique and unrivalled significance. 

The lead up

Historically 1844 brought to a head deep elements of Christian faith which had been building for centuries. In particular, the broadly accepted and long work of countless biblical expositors who sought to understand the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. This whole history of historicist interpretation finally reached its zenith in the pulsating cauldron of revivalistic America among the Millerites. No other failed date for the return of Jesus had such a broadly attested backstory.

The event

No other movement focused on the second coming compares to the 1844 movement in terms of sheer size and global reach. Estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000 people as connected to the movement in 19th century America (population 17 million), not to mention the wide spread interest in South America, Europe, the British Empire, and the Middle East. This took place in a 10-year period. In today’s terms that is equivalent to a movement in the USA growing from zero to between 2 to 9 million people in ten years. 

The follow up

Afterward, this event gave birth to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, one of the fastest growing, organisationally unified, and most global and ethnically diverse bodies of faith in the world.
 

The heavenly event

The early Adventists knew the 1844 date was not acquired impulsively but built on a long trail of historical and biblical evidence. They could testify to the extraordinary spiritual power of the advent awakening in transforming lives. This encouraged them to search for its enduring meaning. The early Adventists recovered from the trauma of the Great Disappointment by means of a new insight into heavenly realities. This new insight was the realisation that the date was correct but their interpretation of the expected event was wrong. The “cleansing of the sanctuary” (Daniel 8:14), the defining text for the 1844 movement, was not the cleansing of the earth by Christ’s fiery second coming but the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary by means of a final judgment.

This wasn’t a face-saving devise as critics asserted. After all, the people who eventually became the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church could have done what the vast bulk of Millerites did; assimilate back into the Christian denominations they most closely identified with. They chose the path of further study because they believed they were onto something important, but they just didn’t know what it was. It was the beginning of an unanticipated doctrinal and missional revolution. What this brought to mind (and in a sense restored from neglect) was the importance of Jesus’ cosmic priestly ministry for our ongoing salvation and final deliverance. Sinful mortals are only presented complete before the Father by the unfailing mediation of a priest who cares about our every moment, trail, and struggle. It’s not “once saved, always saved” (either by an outward profession of faith I can date or by Gods eternal predestined degree regardless of my choice) but “once saved, continually saved by Jesus—his life, death, resurrection, intercession”. This work of Jesus climax’s in a new additional closing work to end sin. In 1844, after holding off for centuries and centuries, God began the final judgment.

This final judgment involves pre-advent, advent, and post-advent (millennium) stages. What is significant is that this judgment ends all others. Throughout history God has been engaging in temporary and partial judgments. He has always sought to give humanity more opportunities. But in order to bring on the second coming, to end all sin and evil, and to inaugurate a perfected universe and an eternity without opposition to his reign, God begins the final judgment. Jesus will not return until he has vindicated God and all his people (called the “saints” in Daniel 8) in judgment, as well as cosmically expose so-called followers who are really betrayers and deniers who brought shame and blame upon God’s name (chief representative is the “little horn” in Daniel 8) and finally, and fully, expose the instigator of all evil himself.

The effect of this new insight about 1844 on the shattered former Millerites was phenomenal. They started to think in new ways. Instead of seeing the end of time as simply a geographic and sociological expansion of the gospel, to this they now started to see a cosmic dimension. The early Adventist group started to realise that the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14 and 1844 did not mark the abrupt “end of time” but demarcated an eventful “time of the end”. During this period major prophecies would be fulfilled and Christ’s final saving work would take place. A final message and finalising mission would take place (Rev 14:6-20). The last earthly leg of the great controversy between Christ and Satan, involving conflict over God’s character and law, would be completed (Rev 12-14). The early Adventists thus rediscovered their mission within the newly recognised and wider cosmic mission of Christ. They were transported from a simple “end of history” mind-set to an “end of cosmic conflict” mind-set.
 

Why a disappointment?

But we must ask the question “why did God allow it to happen this way?” After all, it’s hard promoting the Great Disappointment as a wonderful triumph! It doesn’t make good press. There is a reason it is called the Great Disappointment even by Adventists. Why couldn’t the events which triggered the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church been more dramatically heroic? Like Martin Luther the solitary monk standing against the whole world! Submerging his fear in fiery passion, Luther shook the world, split the church, and gave birth to the Protestant Reformation. The Lutheran Church has quite a story! Instead our origins trace back to a great revival which ended in apparent failure. Why?

I think behind this is a providential combination of God’s mercy and wisdom. I am certain God did not ordain or predestine the Great Disappointment. But he did foresee it. Having foreseen this event in which human faithfulness to Scripture was entangled with human fallibility what is God to do? Simply allow failure without redeeming it? Or does God, foreknowing the sincerity of their mistake, skilfully incorporate it into his wider work? Yes! God often redeems our sincere failures by making them part of his work. Thankfully this is so because our spiritual lives are full of countless mistakes. If God fails to utilise our mistakes then a large portion of our lives are beyond divine involvement!

More than that God prepares us through disappointment. A great mission is preceded by great trail and refinement. Before the Exodus, Moses endured the desert. Prison and exile prepared Joseph and Daniel. David was a fugitive before a King. Elijah faltered before he was ready for translation. Peter painfully learnt the cost of denying Christ before bravely heralding him. What then of the group who would receive the final message to usher in Christ’s return? What test might help prepare them? What might help them break with fossilised tradition and receive dramatic new truth? The Great Disappointment! I perceive a divinely measured symmetry here. The movement to announce the second coming would die and be reborn in the hope of the second coming itself. Those who gave all, would lose all, and only then receive all. A message destined to end in total triumph started in the humbling furnace of disappointment. Before giving his final message to the world, God wanted a movement focused solely on Christ and his return. His foreknowledge allowed God to transform human miscalculation into just such an occasion. If God can embrace our failure we need fear no disappointment.