Against all expectation, I found what I was looking for in the Wagner Center for Nineteenth-Century Periodicals: The Michigan Midnight Cry, a newspaper published by a society of Millerites—or Adventists, as they called themselves—in Detroit. I had heard of the Millerites before, but I’d never thought of them as a subject worth knowing in detail. They were too religious and too marginal. But everything else in the Wagner Center was worse, and so, diffidently at first, then with curiosity and even something like excitement, I read the complete run of The Michigan Midnight Cry.
While East Lansing froze and crackled in one of the coldest Februaries in memory, I learned about an apocalypse long past. The Michigan Midnight Cry was part tract, part newsletter; articles explicating the prophecies in Daniel and Revelations alternated with stories about people in Detroit who needed a few dollars to get through the winter, recipes for “Jubilee Pie” and other such treats, poems, announcements of weddings, meetings, auctions. If it weren’t for the weird phrase if time continues, which was appended at the foot of every published schedule, the Millerites could have been stamp collectors, pony breeders, almost any special-interest group in America with a developed body of knowledge. And yet I found myself getting strangely engrossed in their nerdy (in the sense that they were passionate about technicalities) debates about the fall of the Ottoman Empire—had it happened yet? was it a sign of the end times?—and the return of the Jews to Israel. I shared their enthusiasm as the summer of 1844 brought all-night bouts of singing and prayer, and their anxiety as the final days drew near. When was it too soon to give away everything you owned, and when would it be too late? No one wanted to be homeless in Detroit in October, but no one wanted to be burned up for covetousness either.
The popular press called the Millerites “raving maniacs” whose imagination had run away with them, but as I read The Michigan Midnight Cry another picture emerged: of people who continued to build houses and fences, to buy and sell livestock, to attend concerts and lectures, to read poems, to marry and give birth to children. Some of them spoke out against slavery; they argued for temperance and woman suffrage. They believed in reform, albeit the way you might believe in cleaning your house before you left for a trip. I didn’t understand why these ordinary, good-hearted people had believed the world was about to end. And why then? The first half of the nineteenth century in America was a time of progress and rapid expansion: the number of states in the union doubled and the population grew by a factor of five; canals were dug all across New York and Pennsylvania and even in Ohio and Illinois, where, because of drought, they were useful only half the year. Steamboats plied the Hudson and the Mississippi and crossed the Great Lakes. The railroad was invented, and the industrial printing press, and the telegraph. Why, in such a giddy and optimistic time, had the Millerites dreamed of apocalypse? I thought of San Francisco, of money and the Mission, and I wondered if rapid change made some people want the world to end. I heard my dissertation ringing like a church bell, clear and close at hand.