My dissertation was, or would have been, about the “doom-minded Millerites,” a group of radical Protestants who believed the world would end in 1843. They were named for William Miller, a New York State farmer who had added up the years of the prophecies in the Book of Daniel and Revelations, according to a complex and not obviously correct system of his own, and fixed 1843 as the deadline for the apocalypse. Tens of thousands of people were convinced by his calculations, and as the final year approached they prayed and read and danced themselves into a frenzy of anticipated salvation. But the world did not end. Late in the year one of Miller’s disciples added up the numbers again, and concluded that the world would end on October 22, 1844. On that day, somewhere between fifty thousand and half a million Millerites gathered in churches, on hilltops, and in cemeteries. They sang; they prayed; they waited. Nothing happened. Eventually they returned home to sleep.
After the Great Disappointment, as the day when the world didn’t end came to be known, most of the Millerites renounced their faith and went on with their lives. Some recalculated the date of the apocalypse: it was going to happen in 1846, or 1853, or, anyway, soon. And a few asserted that Jesus had come back, and that he’d shut the doors of salvation to all unbelievers—in other words to anyone who wasn’t them. Believing that their souls were out of danger, they gave themselves over to free love and “promiscuous foot-washing,” something I’ve always wondered about. For these “shut-door” Millerites, the world had ended; what they continued to experience was only a sort of appendix to history, in which a few problems that remained obscure in the body of the text would be resolved. What led these otherwise reasonable people to believe that the world was going to end, that it had ended? It was an interesting question.