In the fall of 1844, possessed by a certain belief that the world was about to come to an end, as many as a hundred thousand Americans prepared to meet their Maker. In Maine, this anticipation of the Apocalypse led some otherwise practical-minded people to do some rather bizarre things.
In Hermon, for instance, it was reported that folks built ladders to enable them to reach their rooftops in a hurry in order to be "taken up" at the appointed hour.
In Oxford County, a woman in a white robe was said to have crawled on her hands and knees from Norway to Paris Hill in order to fulfill the injunction that only those who "become like children" shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
In Atkinson, an otherwise virtuous and devout woman apparently dropped her cloak and shawl, the only garments she was wearing, and preached stark naked to a group of fellow believers.
Around Lincolnville, there are stories of as many as a hundred souls, dressed in white "ascension robes," climbing Mount Megunticook to await the Apocalypse on what are now known as the Millerite Cliffs.
And in West Rockport, it is said that a local deacon climbed a tall pine tree atop Mount Pleasant carrying a pocket watch and, when he was sure that the appointed hour had arrived, tossed the watch away and jumped from the tree to his death. Whether his soul was taken up as he expected before he hit the ground is anyone's guess.
Though there are elements of truth to each of these tales, they may be apocryphal as well as apocalyptical. What is known for sure is that in the early 1840s close to half a million Americans attended lectures by a prophet of doom named William Miller, and between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand Millerites came away convinced that Father Miller had calculated the exact date of the Second Coming of Christ.
The Millerite movement had followers from Canada to Kentucky and as far west as Michigan and Ohio, but it was particularly prevalent in Massachusetts and Maine.
"Maine history is full of utopian and religious groups," says Professor Marcus Bruce, who teaches American religion at Bates College in Lewiston, citing the Shiloh community in Durham, the Shaker settlement in Poland Springs, and the Green Acres Baha'i community in Eliot. Indeed, the Seventh-day Adventists Church that arose in the wake of Millerism was founded on the prophetic visions of a Millerite from Gorham, Maine, named Ellen Harmon White.
Though Millerism was an extreme manifestation of it, Marcus Bruce believes millennialism - the biblical notion that Christ might rule a just and perfect world for one thousand years - has always been part of the fabric of the American experience.
"At its core, America has a kind of millennialist view that can be coupled with American democracy and the way Americans view their government and their country," says Bruce. "There was a high hope that the United States of America might be the place where the Kingdom of God might be realized on Earth."
William Miller (1782-1849), a farmer from Low Hampton, New York, on the Vermont border, just happened to believe that he knew when the Kingdom of God was scheduled to arrive. Based on years of methodical Bible study, with particular attention to the apocalyptical texts of the Books of Daniel and Revelation, Miller worked out to his satisfaction that Jesus Christ would return to Earth sometime between the spring equinoxes of March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.
Prophets of doom have come with the dust and gone with the wind for centuries, but what made William Miller different - and perhaps effective - was that he was not a wild, messianic cult figure. He was simply a pragmatic Yankee farmer who believed he had managed to solve the divine calculus of the Bible and that it was now his reluctant duty to inform all Christians that the end was near.
When William Miller brought his message to the Second Advent Congress in Portland, Maine, from October 12 to 15, 1841, the Maine Wesleyan Journal reported that, "Mr. Miller has been in Portland lecturing to crowded congregations in Casco Street Church, on his favorite theme, the end of the world, or literal reign of Christ for one thousand years."
"In his public discourse he is self-possessed and ready; distinct in his utterance, and frequently quaint in his expressions," reported the Methodist journal. "He succeeds in claiming the attention of his auditory for an hour and a half to two hours; and in the management of his subject discovers much tact - holding frequent colloquies with the objector and inquirer, supplying the questions and answers himself, sometimes producing a smile from a portion of his auditors."
Indeed, William Miller preached on his Second Coming prophecy, the chronology by which he ascertained it, as well as signs of Christ's coming and the urgency of repentance to receptive audiences in Portland, Bangor, Camden, and Castine.
Miller himself was not interested in establishing a following or a religion of his own, but Joshua Himes, a Boston minister, became his chief promoter, orchestrating tent revival meetings all over the country. Hines was also the chief Millerite apologist.
"If we are mistaken in the time, and the world still goes on after 1843," Himes said in the August 3, 1842 edition of the Millerites' Signs of the Times, "we shall have the satisfaction of having done our duty. Our publications are evangelical; they have, and now are producing, the most salutary effects upon the churches of the world. Our lectures and public meetings produce the same glorious results. Can we ever regret that souls were converted; that the virgins were awakened and prepared to meet their Lord? If we are mistaken about the time, what harm can result to the church or world?"
The apparent harm was to the Millerites themselves. For if you fervently believe that the world will end tomorrow, there's a good chance you might neglect your earthly pursuits.
In the wake of what it called the "Millerite Excitement," for instance, the Oxford Democrat reported on March 11, 1845 that, "The selectmen of Orrington have given public notice, by hand bills, that several persons are to be placed under guardianship and all persons are cautioned against purchasing any property, real or personal, of them, as all contracts and deeds will be void on account of their incompetence to manage their affairs. It is certainly deplorable that men with families who have provided for their wants and accumulated property by years of industry, should be so much overcome by the theories of Mr. Miller, as to neglect all business, throw off all care for the future, and expose themselves and their families to the peltings of the pitiless storm of poverty."
A fair number of Maine Millerites reportedly gave away all their earthly possessions, and accounts of Millerites arrested and prosecuted for vagrancy appeared frequently in Maine newspapers of the day.
When March 21, 1844, came and went like any other day, William Miller remained resolute. "I confess my error," he said, "and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door; and I exhort you, my brethren, to be watchful, and not let the day come upon you unawares."
Following the Millerites' first dis-appointment, a Miller acolyte named Samuel Snow did a little prophetic figuring of his own and came up with a new date for the end of the world that William Miller reluctantly endorsed - October 22, 1844.
"It is fortunate that these deluded men have fixed their point so near," wrote the Eastern Argus on that very day. "Having disappointed their patient followers several times, many have left them, but many still cling to them. After to-day, Messrs. Miller, Himes, Snow, Bliss, Storrs, and others, it seems to us, cannot put on a face still to predict. If they do, who will believe them? This being the case, we rejoice that the time upon which their hopes hang has come."
Three days later, the Eastern Argus was pleased to report, "The Weather is most delightful in this nook of the world. Our friends, the Millerites, are surprised that we have any weather at all, at this late day."
On October 26, 1844, the Portland Transcript, which had previously declined to report on the Millerite delusion, finally chimed in on what it called "the gross but alarming absurdities of the Miller doctrines.
"We have observed with great regret, that by means of heedless publications, and otherwise, a panic has been produced in many families, and in case where there was no pre-existing tendency to enthusiastic delusions," wrote the Portland Transcript, "yet the general agitation of such a subject has created painful alarms and distress. Even in our schools, the agitation has been very mischievous, and little children have gone home to their parents in agonies of apprehension from the frightful matters so commonly talked about."
Immediately following the Millerites' second Great Disappointment, William Miller urged his followers, "Brethren, hold fast; let no man take your crown. I have fixed my mind on another time, and here I mean to stand until God gives me more light, and that is today, today, today, until he comes!"
A year later, however, Miller was sounding more contrite when the Portland Transcript quoted him on September 13, 1845, as saying, "My view of exact time depended entirely upon the accuracy of chronology: of this I had no absolute demonstration; but as no evidence was presented to invalidate it, I deemed it my duty to rely on it as certain until it should be disproved."
Matthew F. Whittier, the younger brother of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, had attended William Miller's lectures in Portland and wrote an extremely critical account of the Millerite movement on the first anniversary of the Great Disappointment.
"When, at last, the 'Tenth Day of the Seventh Month' [a key Biblical marker that Miller reckoned by the ancient Jewish calendar to be October 22, 1844] came, and passed away as other days, unmarked by any of the terrific exhibitions predicted," Whittier wrote in the November 1, 1845, Portland Transcript, "the large portion of the deluded returned once more to regions of common sense, heartily sick of the part they had taken in the wild effort to bring old mother earth to an untimely end. But a few - with a perseverance which in better cause would be commendable - still hold on, adding daily, fresh absurdities to their ridiculous theory."
What seemed absurd and ridiculous then, and even more so now, is the idea that one man could know the exact day and time of the Apocalypse. Yet a belief in the Second Coming is central to Christianity and the notion of paradise holds a universal religious appeal.
"It's sort of ironic," says religion professor Marcus Bruce, "but I think it provided hope in the midst of a troubled world. Millennial expectations are based on a desire for justice and a return to an unfallen state, the whole idea that there is an order to things and that one day justice will be meted out, wrongs righted, wounds healed. It is the expectation that God will restore the order of things."