(William Miller 1782 – 1849)
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Adventism
Part 1 Historical Origins – by Jason Wright
Whether you know it or not we each have a worldview through which we comprehend the world around us. Our worldview is born out of antecedent ideas, information, and experiences that ebb and flow to form an interpretative structure upon which we hang our personal reality. Most of us go about life oblivious to this process, perhaps believing we are independent thinkers, free agents. Yet in truth we are each the product of our sitz-im-leben; our life setting.
Jehovah’s Witnesses as individuals and the Watch Tower as an organization are no exception. This religious movement traces its antecedents to the separatist branch of Adventism known as age-to-come or one faith, which itself was birthed out of Millerism.
The modern Watch Tower organization pays little attention to these historical fact and adherents will often remark how Watch Tower origins are unimportant – its all about “new light” they say.
As one Jamaican Witness told me recently historical facts are “old wine – we drink new wine”.
Another Witness complained, “why do you go on about the past”– my answer – to understand the present we must first understand the past.
Thus despite the closed mindset of Watch Tower followers, it is imperative for all of us to take stock of why we believe the things we believe. Comprehending historical antecedents play a major role in arriving at an answer. Why does the Watch Tower play down its past? Why are members discouraged from searching out old articles and books? The answer is simple; to follow the paper trail to its source means to decode, deconstruct and expose this religious enigma as nothing more than the amalgamation and expansion of various Adventist doctrines, nothing more and nothing less. So from the Watch Tower’s perspective the past must be kept silent.
Due to the vast information involved this article will be divided into two parts. The first is a historical survey of Millerism, which later evolved into Adventism. Part two will consist of a survey of the effects of aberrational adventist groups upon the worldview of Charles Taze Russell and the subsequent Watch Tower organization.
The overall objective of this article is to help Jehovah’s Witnesses understand that their spiritual father is not Charles Taze Russell but various Adventist preachers, specifically those holding to age-to-come beliefs. As such from its inception the Watch Tower organization has been built upon the imaginations of men rather than sound biblical exegesis.
It is important to understand that Millerism was an “Advent” driven movement, that is, a movement that focused on the date of Christ return. Yet how can a date be set for Christ return? The simple answer is it cannot; yet for centuries Christians have speculated on when Christ might return. “Apocalyptic books were read under the conviction that God infused history with meaning and that the climax of God’s work in History would soon arrive; God and History coming together in a great age of peace” (Alden, 1987 p. 3). This passion for Christ return and subsequent age of peace otherwise known as the thousand-year reign of Christ or Millennium, drove many to seek ways of unlocking prophecy. In pursuit of the “Advent” an interpretive method evolved known as Historicist Premillennialism.
Premillennialism (in its basic sense) holds to the conviction that after Christ returns (second Advent) he will set up his rule on earth for one thousand years terminating in the consummation of the age (cf. Revelation Chapter 20). Immediately preceding this golden age is the Church age; an interim period before the establishment of Christ Millennial Kingdom. In Millerism this basic model is modified by surveying prophecy as being gradually fulfilled throughout history leading to the Advent, hence the term historicist premillennialism.
It should be noted that from the reformation to the French revolution the Historicist method was the dominant force among Bible scholars seeking to unlock the books of Daniel and Revelation. Relating history with prophecy scholars began creating complex chronologies. However, to do so one essential ingredient was needed, namely the ability to convert prophetic “days” into years. This equation, namely, one prophet day equals one literal year originates with first century Jewish Rabbi Aquibah ben Joseph. Known as the “day-for-a-year” principle subsequent Christian interpreters such as Joachim of Fiores (1135-1202) adopted this method. Thus numerically charged pericope, such as 1,260 days (Daniel 7:25), 2,300 days (Daniel 8:14) were converted into literal years resulting in the creation of complex chronological systems, wherein prophetic material was arbitrarily dovetailed with historic events.
One early example of connecting biblical prophecy with actual historical figures can be seen from Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) who identified Rome as Babylon, the Pope as the Man of Sin and Mohammedans as the “little horn” of Daniel 7. Later Archbishop James Usher (1581-1656) published Annales which remained the standard biblical chronology for over two hundred years. Other’s followed such as Joseph Mede (1586-1638) with his classic work Clavis Apocalyptica (keys to the Apocalypse), Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) and many others to boot. (Johnson, 2015, pp. 33-62; Jonsson, 2004, pp. 23-38).
The most important stimulus to prophetic speculation was the French Revolution of the 1790’s wherein social and political upheavals, alongside the sacking of Rome by Napoleon’s Army in 1798 convinced many that the end of the age was imminent (Knight 2010, p. 13).
America was likewise slowly overcome with historicist premillennial interpretation, so much so that by the early nineteenth century “America was drunk on the Millennium” (Sandeen, 1970, p. 42).
William Miller was a man of his times. Affected by war (Battle of Plattsburgh 1812) Miller began his journey a skeptic. Enamored with enlightenment rationalism Miller adopted a deist position resulting in conflict with his Baptist tradition. However America of the 1820’s entered what historians call the Jacksonian era, wherein “every person could exercise his or her God-given talents without the need of experts” simply by exercising common sense (Knight 2010, p. 31).
No doubt this atmosphere of independence helped Miller reassess his Baptist upbringing and in particular address problematic biblical doctrines. By 1816 Miller confessed to a conversion experience, subsequently rejecting deism, while holding firmly to elements of rationalism that later regulates his study of scripture. “Another important element” in Miller’s approach to scripture was the influence of the restorationist movement. “Undergirding restorationism is the belief that the New Testament church is the ideal model for God’s people and that the model had been lost and needed restoring” (Knight, 2010, p. 32).
Consequently Miller approached scripture as a rationalist, literalist and restorationist. With these presuppositions he began examining scripture believing that the Bible itself was a self-interpreting book. Moreover he concluded that biblical symbolism and figurative passages could be unlocked by giving them a literal meaning. Such methods were “in harmony with the times” and likely influenced by previous scholarship. (Barkun, 1986, p. 36).
As Miller continued his studies his prophetic speculation grew. The core of his conclusions being the assertion that “Jesus Christ [would] 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″ (Everett, 1994, pp. 96–97).
Miller’s restorationist position, evangelistic appeal, and chronological speculation struck a chord with ten’s of thousands of American’s. Enamored with a positive message, Millerite preachers spoke successfully in hundreds of mainstream Churches resulting in Millerite sympathisers within the denominations. Nevertheless, many opposed the specificity of the 1843/44 prophecy and overtime more and more denominations closed their doors to Millerite preachers.
The consequence of rejection was sectarianism, resulting in the creation of independent Millerite groups, Millerite conferences and the publication of specialist Adventist papers (Sign of the Times & Midnight Cry). Interestingly, the more certain Millerites became of the 1843/44 terminus the more aggressive they became with others who did not share their view. Spurred on by restorationist theology many Adventists began claiming that Christendom was now “apostate” and they alone had truth; their mission being to warn of the coming judgment (Knight, 2010, pp. 120-128). Sound familiar?
The Great Disappointment.
As with all date setter’s what happens when the date fails? March 21st 1843 came and went so Millerites focused on March 21st 1844. Great effort went into the final push to warn everyone who would listen that Jesus was coming again. With the non-appearance of Christ came great disappointment. Miller himself was honest enough to admit the failure of his March 21st 1844 date; nevertheless he did not go far enough in rejecting his own speculations. Instead he (and others) pushed the date forward.
Miller lamented; should I complain if God should give a few days or even months more as probation time? (Knight, 2010, p. 137).
The dates next proposed were April 18th 1844, then October 22nd 1844. With each failure came the question: Why?
The Albany Conference
Millerism should naturally have died the death of a false prophet (Deuteronomy 18:20-22; Matthew 24:26). Indeed without an Advent date many Christians did abandon Adventism and returned to their former denominations. However a small group refused to admit failure and sought alternative explanations.
In 1845, sixty-one Millerite delegates attended the Albany Conference. This was called to attempt to determine the future course and meaning of the Millerite movement. Following this meeting, the “Millerites” then became known as “Adventists” or “Second Adventists”. However, the delegates disagreed on several theological points. Out of the conference emerged four main streams:
1) The Evangelical Adventists
2) The Life and Advent Union
3) The Advent Christian Church
4) The Seventh-day Adventist Church
If Adventism was to survive, the 1844 failures had to be explained. What occurred was a bizarre hermeneutical reversal. Miller had originally founded his dates upon a rational, literal, hermeneutic, with an element of typology. Yet out of necessity a new hermeneutic had to be employed. After all “how could Adventism continue to exist in a world, which stubbornly refused to end?” (Knight, 2010, 237). The first step of the rescue mission was to read their movement back into the biblical text. To a fair degree Adventist preachers had already been doing this. Remember, the historicist hermeneutic seeks to locate prophecy in history; hence it was not unnatural to imbue their own experiences back onto the prophetic material.
The second step came by way of “new light” or progressive theology. In other words they argued that biblical interpretation is fluid, always changing depending on revealed truth. Applying this “new light” methodology various explanations were proposed.
Apollos Hale and Joseph Turner looked again at the parable of the foolish virgins (Matthew 25). They read the events of 1844 back into the parable teaching that the work of general salvation had ended as of October 22nd 1844 and that
“Christ had come spiritually as the bridegroom, the wise virgins had gone in with him and the door was shut to all others.” (Knight, 2010, p. 200).
Despite this convenient interpretation, converts continued to be made, so how could the door to salvation have been shut in 1844? A new explanation was needed.
Originally Miller had taught that the “sanctuary” mentioned in Daniel 8:14 related to earth, it’s cleansing and purification. Clearly this literal explanation had failed so Adventists revisited the text concluding that Jesus had actually cleansed the heavenly sanctuary in 1844. Therefore October 22nd 1844 stood for the change of Christ’s ministry. In this way the nature of the event was shifted from Christ Second Advent to Christ’s ministry of sanctuary cleansing. This prophetic reworking gave Adventists a theological framework by which to process the great disappointment of 1844 and in turn continue existing as an Adventist movement. Miller himself died in 1849 and so never lived to see the evolution of his prophetic speculations.
Over time the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) became the most successful Adventist group. This new branch of Adventism believed that the “cleansing” of the heavenly sanctuary involved a work of judgment as depicted in the courtroom scene of Daniel 7:9-12 immediately prior to the second coming of Christ described in Daniel 7:13-14. In other words according to SDA Jesus is presently involved in an “investigative judgment” in heaven, in which the lives of professed believers pass in review before God. So after all the prophetic speculations and disappointment Adventists are still waiting for the second coming!
The main point to grasp is this. With failure came two options, either ditch the whole thing or reinvent the message. Sadly those choosing the latter moved away from sound biblical exegesis, being forced to create new meaning by way spiritualization. Employing this method Adventists could read the events of 1844 back into the sacred text. Thus at the heart of these revisionist explanations is a soft form of reader response criticism, a hermeneutical method by which the reading community creates meaning according to their own particular needs. Overall the needs of the community superseded the plain reading of scripture.
Seventy years later (1914) Charles Taze Russell’s “end of the age” predications likewise failed. Analogous with Miller’s early death (1849) Russell too died soon after his 1914 failure (1916) leaving Joseph Rutherford to pick up the pieces. The correlation between the events of early Adventism (1844-1850) and the Watch Tower period (1914-1925) are uncanny. Both groups re-invented their chronological systems based upon the needs of the community and so-called “new light”. However this corollary is not unexpected because as shall be seen Russell and his followers were at heart Adventist (by Adventist I do not mean the strict forms of early Millerism nor SDA but rather age-to-come branches).
Schism & New Doctrines
Returning to Adventism, it is important to understand that the followers of Miller came from all walks of life and denominational backgrounds. Their unity was based solely upon the Advent date of 1844. Hence no theological unity existed, the movement had no faith statement, because believers expected to be in heaven by 22nd October 1844 (at the latest!). However, non-appearance necessitated the formulation of theological and doctrinal statements. However, with such an eclectic mixture of “theologies” schism invariably ensued; each new group defined their own specific brand of Adventist thought.
What follows is a selection of groups that directly or indirectly influenced the Watch Tower founder C. T. Russell.
The Evangelical Adventists
This group reflected more fully the theology of their founder William Miller, indeed Miller remained with this group up to his death. Joshua V. Himes supported their periodical, the Advent Herald. The groups doctrinal position remained premillennial and they expected Christ return would be literal and in person wherein Jesus would rule and reign with the redeemed for one thousand years followed by the consummation of the age and the eternal realm. They also held to a conscious afterlife and that the wicked experience a conscious state of punishment and torment. In fact orthodoxy remained central to this groups theology. Overtime this group merged with our second group the Advent Christians. It is presumed that a good number of Adventists holding to orthodoxy returned to mainstream Christianity.
Advent Christian Church (Advent Christian General Conference)
Founded by Jonathan Cummings, this group believed in soul sleep, annihilationism and rejected the trinity doctrine. Cumming’s recalculated Miller’s chronology concluding that Miller had been out by ten years and that Jesus would return in 1854. Needless to say the new date resulted in further schism.
Those holding to 1854 (called second Adventists) published a new periodical entitled World Crisis. Herein articles by Nelson H. Barbour were published wherein he proposed a new calculation for Jesus return, namely 1874. Barbour published his work in 1871 entitled Evidences for the Coming of the Lord in 1873, or The Midnight Cry. One devoted Barbourite was Jonas Wendell who published his views in the booklet entitled The Present Truth, or Meat in Due Season. More importantly for Jehovah’s Witnesses it was Barbour and Wendell’s brand of Adventism that directly influenced the young C. T. Russell.
Interestingly Barbour and Russell both believed 1844 was a prophetically important date. For them 1844 signalled the beginning of a thirty year antitypical tarrying period corresponding to Jesus Birth and Baptism and ending in 1874.
However, with the failure of Christ literal return in 1874 Barbour was forced to deliteralize the second coming (see below B. W. Keith) Additionally he taught a new end-time date, namely that the gentile times would end in 1914 – a framework of dates which Russell later adopted into his own chronological system (Schulz, 2009, pp. 102-103). Analogous with 1844, the spiritualizing of 1874 acted as a self-correcting method against prophetic failure.
The Life and Advent Union
Founded by George Storrs and John Walsh in 1863 as a break-away from the Advent Christian Church. Storrs popularized the teaching of Henry Grew a former Baptist Minister turned itinerant preacher. Grew rejected the Trinity, immortality of the soul (conditionalism), and a hell of literal eternal torment. (Johnson, 2015, p. 140). Storrs periodical the Bible Examiner was another source of inspiration for the young Charles who read and accepted Grew’s teachings on conditionalism, soul sleep, and annihilationism – doctrines that formed part of Russell’s own theological formulations.
Church of God Abrahamic Faith (Age-to-come Adventists)
Founded in 1864 by autodidact Biblical scholar Benjamin Wilson and Joseph Marsh. This group began as a small Bible study group among friends and family, including Dr. John Thomas who went on to found the Christadelphians. Thomas taught that elements of the Abrahamic convent were yet to be fulfilled, a belief that Russell developed in line with his understanding of Jewish National restoration.
Wilson (himself a printer) published the newsletter The Gospel Banner and later produced an English-Interlinear Bible entitled the Emphatic Diaglott. Adventist B. W. Keith drew upon Wilson’s work to explain the non-appearance of Jesus in 1874. Keith believed Wilson’s translation of parousia as “presence”, indicated a spiritual presence in the world unseen to the naked eye. Russell likewise accepted this interpretation teaching that Jesus return constitutes an invisible presence.
Another unique teaching of the age-to-come Adventists was the notion that some persons would receive salvation after the Millennium had begun – in other words in the age-to-come some would get a second chance. Again Russell accepted the age-to-come doctrines teaching his followers that bodily resurrection would take place in the Millennium wherein all would receive a second chance at salvation.
In 1911 schism occurred and the age-to-come Adventists split, the majority taking the name “Church of God General Conference” Here is a list of some of their doctrines:
- Churches are called “ekklesia”
- They are Unitarian – deny Jesus deity – anti-Trinitarian
- Jesus is the only begotten Son, a mediator.
- The Holy Spirit is God’s power
- They are conditionalists – deny immortality of soul
- The Kingdom of Heaven, will be the Kingdom of Israel, restored in the Holy land
- Baptism by water
- They are pacifist and do not participate in politics.
- Annihilationist – destruction of wicked
- Denial of eternal torment in hell
Unless otherwise informed this list could easily be mistaken for a list of Jehovah’s Witness teaching, the points are staggeringly similar, underscoring the fact that Watch Tower teachings are far from unique but reflect the doctrines of fellow Adventist groups. Of all the Adventist off shoots Russellite theology owes more to age-to-come or One faith doctrine than any other schismatic branch.
The above is only a brief survey of 19th Century Millerism/Adventism. What can we conclude? Firstly, well-meaning, zealous Bible students can and do make serious mistakes. Our Adventist example is William Miller. Secondly, the followers of well-meaning men oftentimes recapitulate the error of their teachers by building upon the original error. For example Miller arrived at the date 1844 through a literal, historicist hermeneutic but this methodology was jettisoned in favor of spiritualization. Why? – Because the needs of the community superseded the plain reading of scripture. The only viable option for those who insisted 1844 was a correct date was spiritualization.
When reviewing Adventist and Watch Tower History it is strikingly obvious that prophetic speculators never seem to learn! It is as if the search for a date acts like opium on the brain, an addiction. Yet we must ask the obvious question, what did Jesus say about his return? Did he give us a date?
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Mark 13:32 (ESV)
“If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders that would deceive even the elect, if that were possible.” Matthew 24:23-24 (BSB)
“Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.” Luke 21:8 (NIV)
What about the date setter who states emphatically that the date arrived at is biblically accurate – i.e. from God’s own word.
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 (ESV)
If you are a Jehovah’s Witness listen to the voice of reason. Firstly Jesus himself said that no one can know in advance the day or hour of his return. Secondly William Miller, Nelson Barbour, Jonas Wendell, George Storrs and other abberrational voices, remain the true spiritual fathers of Charles Taze Russell. Zion’s Watch Tower reflected the sitz-im-leben of Russell. Therefore the core beliefs of both modern-day Bible Students and Jehovah’s witnesses originate outside of scripture with aberrational preachers, who were sincere, but sincerely wrong.
With these facts in mind I submit to Jehovah’s Witness this question; if all the doctrines you believe in have originated in aberrational forms of adventism, how can you say that the “faithful slave” and its teachings are anything other than borrowed? In turn how can you submit to an organization which calls itself the “faithful slave” when most if not all of its teaching are the vain imaginations of men – doctrines and chronologies invented ex nihlio to meet the needs of the community.
I pray this article will challenge you to examine your faith, examine the origins of your teachings, and prayerfully search the scriptures to see if the Bible really does teach the things the Watch Tower asserts. Don’t be content to be spoon fed from Brooklyn. Use your God-given intellect to check and double-check if these doctrines hold water. Put down the Watch Tower lens and read scripture with fresh eyes, an open heart, and a mind-set on truth. God will not fail to show you the truth about the “truth”.
May the LORD open your eyes to his truth, which is found in and through Jesus Christ our LORD and Savior. To him be the glory and honor for all eternity,
Amen and Amen
Alden, D. R. (1987) “The Miller Heresy, Millerism, and American Culture” Temple University Press, Philadelphia
Barkun, M. (1986). “Crucible of the Millenium: The burned-over District of New York in the 1840’s” Syracuse University Press, New York
Crompton, R. (1996) “Counting the Days to Armageddon – Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Second Presence of Christ” James Clarke & Co. Cambridge
Everett, D. N. (1994). “William Miller and the Advent Crisis” Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press
Fruchtenbaum, A. G. (2001) “Israelology – `The Missing Link in Systematic Theology” Arial Ministries California
Grenz, S. J. (1992) “The Millennial Maze – Sorting Out Evangelical Options” Inter Varsity Press Illinois
Jonsson, C. (2004) “The Gentile Times Reconsidered” Commentary Press, Atlanta
Johnson, R. (2015) “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree” Global Destiny
Knight, G. R. (2010) “William Miller and the Rise of Adventism” Pacific Press Publishing Association, Ontario
Loughborough, J. N. (2015) “The Great Second Advent Movement – Its Rise and Progess” Adventist Pioneer Library.
Sandeen, E. R. (1970). “The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930” Chicago University Press
Schulz, B. W., de Vienne, R. (2009). “Nelson Barbour – The Millennium’s Forgotten Prophet” Fluttering Wings Press
Zydek, F. (2010) “Charles Taze Russell – His Life and Times, The Man, the Millennium and the Message” Winthrop Press Connecticut.
 Other positions include:
Postmillennialism – this view holds that the millennial Kingdom began with the first coming of Christ and terminates with the second coming. It is not limited to one thousand years but covers the entire period of the Church age. Postmillennial adherents look for a golden age wherein the victorious church will conquer the world for Christ usher in the spiritual millennium in preparation for Christ return, this golden age sets forth a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men.
Amillenialism – this view holds that the millennial Kingdom began with the first coming of Christ and terminates with the second coming. It is not limited to one thousand years but covers the entire period of the Church age. Amillenialists reject the notion of a golden age believing the world to grown increasingly worse culminating with the appearance of anti-Christ before Christ return and consummation of the age.