Now I am coming to the hard part of my story, but I don’t want to tell it, not today. Let’s talk about something else: history, for example. If I were to travel back in time, to check the accuracy of my guesses about the Millerites, one question I’d surely want to settle concerns their ascension robes, the white gowns they supposedly put on in order to go up to Heaven. Did the Millerites really wear them, or not? On the one hand you have a host of eyewitnesses who say yes, the Millerites wore white robes: a New Hampshire seamstress who made robes for her neighbors; a cloth merchant who ran out of white fabric as the final day approached, and so on. On the other hand you have the historians who say the Millerites never wore robes of any kind; they planned to go up to Heaven in whatever they happened to be wearing.
Just about everyone who writes about the Millerites weighs in on the ascension-robe question. You have to wonder, why was it such a big deal? When I was working on my dissertation, I thought about this a fair amount. The conclusion I reached was that the ascension robes, if they were real, were a sign that the Millerites’ fundamentalism—their belief that the world would really end after however many years and days it said in the Bible—was just as petty and materialistic as the world to which it was opposed. If you believed in Jesus, what did it matter if you wore a robe or not? The robes made the Millerites ridiculous in the public imagination, but I couldn’t help thinking that they also united the Millerites to a noble tradition of people whose actions respond, in the end, not to the real world but to some kind of dream. From the so-called pioneers of flight to the explorers who set off in search of a Northwest Passage to the Pacific, or even the timid people who sit down at their desks to write novels, how much of what human beings undertake is based, not on a calculation of possibilities, but on the blind belief that if we just act on our desires, the world will somehow make them possible? Everyone believes what they want to believe, everyone sees what they want to see, if they want it badly enough, and all I can say is, the Millerites must have wanted the world to end very badly if they did dress up in white robes, but on the other hand I can understand them, I can understand wanting something badly enough that you are willing to make yourself ridiculous. If there’s anything I can understand now, it’s that. I don’t think you are reading these pages, Yesim, I don’t see how you could be reading them, but if you are: I’m sorry!