William Miller: Was He really a Great Reformer?

By Dirk Anderson

William Miller was born in 1782. He began attending school at age 9 and continued until the age of 18, after which he had no further education. He married in 1803, and began farming. As a young man he rejected his Baptist upbringing and became a Deist. Miller became a Freemason and "advanced to the highest degree which the lodges then in the country, or in that region, could confer."1

Miller served in the War of 1812 as a captain, and afterward renewed his Baptist faith. Miller began studying the Bible intensely, and in 1818 he came to the conclusion Christ was going to return in 1843 based upon his understanding of Daniel 8:14. He first presented his findings in a document published in 1822. In 1831, Miller was ordained as a Baptist preacher and he began lecturing in various churches, sharing with them his theories on Christ's imminent return.

While Miller never personally set an exact date for the return, he did narrow it down to a year:

"My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844."2

Miller managed to garner a small following and his disciples called him by the affectionate terms "Prophet Miller" and "Father Miller."3 After March 21, 1844, passed without Christ returning, Prophet Miller admitted his mistake to his followers. When a new date, October 22, 1844, was proposed by Samuel Snow, Prophet Miller was, at first, reluctant to endorse it. However, Snow eventually convinced Miller who signed an endorsement of the date in early October of 1844. On October 12, 1844, Prophet Miller published this letter to the editor of the Midnight Cry:

"I thank God for this light. My soul is so full I cannot write. My doubts and fears and darkness are all gone. I see that we are yet right. . . and my soul is full of joy; my heart is full of gratitude to God. Oh, how I wish I could shout; but I will shout when the King of Kings comes.

"Methinks I hear you say: 'Bro. Miller is now a fanatic!' Very well - call me what you please. I care not - Christ will come on the seventh month and bless us all."4

After the failure of the 1844 date, "Prophet Miller" withdrew from public ministry but continued to look for the imminent return of Christ until his death in 1849.5

The Bitter Fruit of His Ministry

Miller's ministry resulted in four very bitter fruits. First, Miller's delusional teachings led to great personal losses and suffering. When Jesus did not arrive as Miller predicted, many people were financially devastated. Some farmers had not planted their crops because they expected Christ to return before the harvest. Others suffered financial loss because they sold property or cashed out their life's savings and gave their money to Miller and his associates to proclaim the false message of Christ's imminent return. After Jesus failed to return, there were numerous reports of suicide, insanity, and other mental health problems suffered by the victims of Miller.

Second, Miller's teachings resulted in a bitter division between his followers and the mainline churches. Families were divided, friends were divided, and churches were divided. Some of his followers refused to return to their former churches after the Disappointment. For example, James and Ellen White, and Joseph Bates continued to denounce the brethren in their former churches as Babylon or the Synagogue of Satan. This bitter root of division continues to this day. One minister wrote of this divisiveness:

Many of these reformers, so called, are fond of abusing the Church, and proclaiming its short-comings and misdeeds; when they are themselves guilty, in a tenfold measure, of that selfish narrowness, which has done more than all other causes put together to lessen the influence of Christianity in the world. The self-same evil which locks the wheels of Christian influence, makes those of reform drive as heavily as the chariots of Pharaoh in the Red Sea. There is no concentration of effort; no union and singleness of power. The enemy laughs to see them spend against each other those energies, which would have been fatal to him, if united.6

Third, because of Miller's false teachings, Christian ministers had to spend significant time and effort refuting his falsehoods. They printed books and tracts and preached against the delusion of Millerism. All the time and effort they were forced to expend to protect their flocks from this delusion meant they had less time to proclaim the gospel message to the lost.

Finally, Miller made a mockery of Christianity. When Christ did not come as Miller proclaimed, the church was held up in ridicule before the entire world. Opponents of the faith lost no time in lambasting and belittling Christians because of Miller's delusional teaching. One minister wrote:

Many of the leaders infused an uncharitable and denunciatory spirit into their disciples, and insisted on a separation from their brethren, who did not agree with them in relation to the period of Christ's coming. Millerism has strengthened infidelity. Our heart has bled as we have witnessed the contempt and scorn of the ungodly toward Zion, and we have wept as we have contemplated the hardening of the infidel heart, and the blinding of the ungodly mind, and the searing of already blunted conscience, under the consequence of the new theory concerning the end of the world. The effect of Millerism upon its disciples will, we fear, be woeful.7

This man did not claim to be a prophet, but how true his words were. The effect of Millerism on its disciples, Joseph Bates, James and Ellen White, and others, was woeful indeed.

Miller stands as an example of how delusional and misguided teachings can hurt many people, cause serious rifts in the church, set back the progress of the gospel message, and make a mockery of Christianity before the world. These are the fruits of Miller's ministry.

Miller's Teaching Devoid of the Gospel

William Miller's teachings were heavy on judgment and light on the gospel. One minister commented in 1844:

"We fear, too, that Millerism, in a great measure, loses sight of the cross, and aims to accomplish the great purposes of the Gospel by proclaiming the judgment."8

Another minister of that era wrote a book on the return of Christ and observed that the teachings of Miller and those Adventists who continued his teachings were leading people to Satan, not Christ:

"...those imaginary visions of the Millerites...who have so often got up an excitement in this way, which ended in the mystery of iniquity, wherein Satan involved many."9

Others found it remarkable that a teaching which claimed to be the "everlasting gospel" was so devoid of the gospel.

William Miller endorsed by Ellen White

Ellen White wrote fondly of "Father Miller," believing him to be a modern-day "John the Baptist":

"As John the Baptist heralded the first advent of Jesus and prepared the way for His coming, so William Miller and those who joined with him proclaimed the second advent of the Son of God."10

In her epic book The Great Controversy, Mrs. White places Miller alongside the great Protestant reformers, such as Luther and Wycliffe. In that book she devotes an entire chapter to the "American Reformer."11 She compares Miller's calling to preach his theories on the date of Christ's return with God's call of the prophet Elisha:

"As Elisha was called following his oxen in the field, to receive the mantle of consecration to the prophetic office, so was William Miller called to leave his plow and open to the people the mysteries of the kingdom of God."12

And what mystery of God did Miller have for the people? That Christ was going to return in 1843/1844:

"In 1818, he reached the solemn conviction that in about twenty-five years Christ would appear for the redemption of His people."13

Thus, Ellen White makes it clear that Miller was called to preach a message that was essentially false--a message that would cause the few who believed and accepted it to suffer a great disappointment when Jesus failed to return as planned.

Knowing what we do of William Miller, knowing that he set false dates for Christ's return, knowing that these false dates were the primary emphasis of his message, knowing that his message, albeit sincere, deluded thousands of people, does he really deserve to stand among the giants of the Christian faith? Was he really a great reformer?

Compare and Contrast: Miller vs. Protestant Reformers

All of the great Protestant reformers were leaders in their churches, well-educated, of outstanding scholarly ability, and had far-reaching influence. Ellen White mentions these facts in the Great Controversy:


"Wycliffe received a liberal education, and with him the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. He was noted at college for his fervent piety as well as for his remarkable talents and sound scholarship. In his thirst for knowledge he sought to become acquainted with every branch of learning. He was educated in the scholastic philosophy, in the canons of the church, and in the civil law, especially that of his own country. . . . The power of his genius and the extent and thoroughness of his knowledge commanded the respect of both friends and foes. His adherents saw with satisfaction that their champion stood foremost among the leading minds of the nation..."14

Huss and Jerome

"Huss studied at the provincial school, and then repaired to the university at Prague, receiving admission as a charity scholar. . . . At the university, Huss soon distinguished himself by his untiring application and rapid progress, while his blameless life and gentle, winning deportment gained him universal esteem. . . . After completing his college course, he entered the priesthood, and rapidly attaining to eminence, he soon became attached to the court of the king. He was also made professor and afterward rector of the university where he had received his education. In a few years the humble charity scholar had become the pride of his country, and his name was renowned throughout Europe.15

"Brilliancy of genius, eloquence and learning--gifts that win popular favor--were possessed in a pre-eminent degree by Jerome; but in those qualities which constitute real strength of character, Huss was the greater."16


"At the age of eighteen, he entered the University of Erfurt... A retentive memory, a lively imagination, strong reasoning powers, and untiring application soon placed him in the foremost rank among his associates."17

"Luther was ordained a priest and was called from the cloister to a professorship in the University of Wittenberg. Here he applied himself to the study of the Scriptures in the original tongues.

"After his return from Rome, Luther received at the University of Wittenberg the degree of doctor of divinity."18


"Lefevre, a man of extensive learning, a professor in the University of Paris."19

Leaders of the English Reformation

"Barnes and Frith, the faithful friends of Tyndale, arose to defend the truth. The Ridleys and Cranmer followed. These leaders in the English Reformation were men of learning..."20

The reformers often appeared before kings and high government officials:

"Other teachers who ranked high for their ability and learning joined in proclaiming the gospel, and it won adherents among all classes, from the homes of artisans and peasants to the palace of the king."21

Now contrast what you have just read about the great Protestant Reformers to William Miller:

Protestant Reformers William Miller
Held positions of high responsibility in their respective churches Was a farmer, not a church leader, although he was a high degree Freemason
Were highly educated; they received extensive training in church history and principles of Biblical interpretation "Did not enjoy the advantages of a collegiate education"22 and had no formal training in the principles of Biblical interpretation
Were fluent in the original Biblical languages Had no understanding of the original Biblical languages
Were noted for their scholarly work Did no scholarly work
Were called to speak before kings and rulers No evidence his message ever reached national leaders
Teachings centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ Teachings were virtually devoid of the gospel
Refused to recant their teachings; some were martyred Recanted and admitted his teachings were erroneous
Their doctrine led millions of people to a better, happier life His delusions led thousands of people into bitter disappointment


In studying the results of the life-work of William Miller it is difficult to understand how one could put him in the same league as the great Protestant Reformers. Furthermore, it seems a gross exaggeration to categorize his work with such Bible greats as Elisha and John the Baptist. While Miller may have been sincere in his efforts, his interpretations of the Bible were fanatical and incorrect, and the movement he inspired is now regarded as little more than an unfortunate blemish on Christian history.


1. Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller, 21-22.

2. Everett N. Dick, William Miller and the Advent Crisis, 96-97.

3. Follower Ellen G. White referred to William Miller as "Father Miller": In 1884 she wrote, "Those who are engaged in proclaiming the third angel's message are searching the Scriptures upon the same plan that Father Miller adopted. In the little book entitled 'Views of the Prophecies and Prophetic Chronology,' Father Miller gives the following simple but intelligent and important rules for Bible study..." (Review and Herald, November 25, 1884). See Days of Delusion by Clara Endicott Sears for the term "Prophet Miller".

4. William Miller, letter to Joshua Himes, published in Midnight Cry, Oct. 12, 1844, as quoted in Clara Endicott Sears, Days of Delusion, chapter 9 (1924).

5. The source of the biographical dates and major events regarding William Miller in the above paragraphs is the Wikipedia article "William Miller (preacher)".

6. Christian Examiner and Theological Review, Vol. 41 (Boston: William Crosby, 1846), 95.

7. E. Thomson, The Ladies' Repository, and Gatherings of the West, vol. 4 (Cincinnati, OH: R.P. Thomson, December, 1844), 378,379.

8. Ibid., 379.

9. Ichabod Cook, Millerism Confounded, and the Second Coming of Our Lord Elucidated (Providence: M.B. Young, 1850), 22.

10. Ellen G. White, Early Writings, 229.

11. Ellen G. White, Great Controversy, chapter 18, "An American Reformer".

12. Ibid., 331.

13. Ibid., 329.

14. Ibid., 80.

15. Ibid., 98.

16. Ibid., 102.

17. Ibid., 121.

18. Ibid., 125.

19. Ibid., 212.

20. Ibid., 248.

21. Ibid., 214.

22. Ibid., 317.

Category: 1844 Movement
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