It’s time to take a break from studying about what God is going to do in the future and look at what He’s done in the past. We’re going to start a series on America’s Third Great Awakening.
America’s Third Great Awakening was very different than the First and Second Great Awakenings. It was, in fact, a move of God that was unique to anything the Lord had ever done in America. Past revivals were led by big name ministers like George Whitefield and Charles G. Finney. This move of God was unique in that it didn’t involve ministers holding big weeks-long meetings. In fact, the Third Great Awakening was collectively one big prayer meeting where people came together to seek the Lord. Thousands upon thousands of people were converted during this time. It began in 1857, right before the Civil War started on April 12, 1861. Like all the other Great Awakenings, the details of this great move of God are astonishing! If you’re curious to learn more, keep reading.
AMERICA’S THIRD GREAT AWAKENING
By Karen Thompson
First in a Four-Part Series
America’s Third Great Awakening has been called by many different names. Not only was it called America’s Third Great Awakening, it’s been called the 1857 Prayer Revival, the Revival of 1857–1858, the Fulton Street Revival, the Laymen’s Prayer Revival, the Businessmen’s Prayer Revival, the Union Prayer Meeting, and simply The Awakening of 1857–1858. It’s estimated that a million unchurched people were born again and began to attend church. That’s not all. Before the prayer revival, there was an estimated four million people that already attended church. Of those four million church goers, one million of them became born again. Those are truly remarkable numbers for any move of God.
The State of the Union
Before we talk about the 1857 Prayer Revival, let’s first talk about what was happening in the United States at that time. Franklin Pierce was the 14th President, 1853–1857, and was succeeded by James Buchanan, the 15th President, 1857–1861. America’s population doubled between 1825 and 1850 due to immigration. The 1850 census numbered the population at 23,191,876. The United States was burgeoning into a great nation by adding new territories. The U.S. annexed the territory of Texas in 1844, and it officially became a state in December 1845. In 1849, California petitioned for statehood which was granted in September 1850, making it the 31st state. The Gadsden Purchase, named after James Gadsden, was purchased from Mexico in 1853; it was more than 30,000 square miles located in what is now New Mexico and Arizona near the Rio Grande River.
The nation was undergoing significant changes through invention and discovery. The Industrial Revolution in America was in full swing. Railroad mileage expanded, which was an important step in connecting the states. James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, triggering the gold rush. People began to flood into California to prospect for gold. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, and by the year 1850, 12,000 miles of wire were spread throughout the United States, creating the near instant ability to send messages. The nation was growing, and a lot of people were making fortunes in various endeavors.
Tensions and Strife in the Young Nation
There was, however, a lot of negative things happening as well. For one, the spiritual enthusiasm that America’s Second Great Awakening had created was on the decline. There were things happening in the nation that had a negative effect on the overall religious condition in America. Several factors contributed to a growing agitation in the nation. For one thing, the immigration explosion caused America to experience a 35 percent population growth during the 1840s and 50s. This resulted in a shortage of jobs, which resulted in race riots. Add to that, the stock market crashed on October 10, 1857. During this time, there were bank runs and failures in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Even though the stock market crash was short lived, it caused more than 5,000 businesses to go bankrupt in just one year’s time. Many people lost their jobs. During that time, interest rates soared.
The Curse of Slavery
During this period, the issue of slavery was tearing the nation apart. The subject of abolition (the abolishment of slavery) was creating political unrest and many feared the nation was headed toward a civil war. The nation was ambivalent: sentiments for and against slavery were equally intense. It was an evil that should have been eradicated at the founding of the new nation. The fact that it was not was a failure of the founding fathers. But in fairness to them, the issue of slavery was an extremely explosive subject. The divide between the north and south states on the subject had to be traversed lightly. Otherwise, there might not even be a United States.
After the American Revolution, the founding fathers all agreed that slavery was an evil institution. Jefferson wanted the Declaration of Independence to condemn slavery outright. The south, however, was very much invested in slavery, and many thought it would be too divisive to make such a bold statement in the Declaration of Independence.
During the Constitutional Convention a man named George Mason, a Christian, made a very strong statement against slavery that was a typical sentiment held by many.
“Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven upon a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this one. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”
During the Constitutional Convention, the founding fathers argued about slavery, but could not come to an agreement to end it. The south was too invested in the institution to give it up altogether. There was fear that if the issue was pushed, the states would never be able to come together as one nation, so they came to a compromise. The south was willing to concede to the abolishment of slave trade both nationally and between the states by 1808. Slave trade would end, but tragically, the practice of slavery continued. It was a mistake that would eventually tear the nation apart, resulting in the Civil War. No doubt, the founding fathers thought slave trade coming to an end would surely bring about the slow and eventual death to the institution of slavery.
They were wrong.
Flash forward to the next generation. The founding fathers were all gone, along with their conviction that slavery was evil. There was a new generation of Americans who did not share the same convictions regarding slavery. As the profits on big plantations grew, the south became more and more entrenched in slavery. The south was heavily invested in the institution. The end of slavery would bring about an end to their way of life—a way of life they had no intention of giving up.
Many Christian denominations were split on the subject. The split was along the Mason-Dixon Line (a demarcation line dividing the northern United States where slavery was forbidden and the Southern United States in which slavery was allowed). Northern churches condemned slavery while the southern churches were able to find a biblical compromise for slavery.
The moral compromise for slavery is evident in the statement of Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. Sadly, he defended the institution of slavery. In his writings about the subject, he wrote:
“My creed on the subject of slavery is short. Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom. The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than the being a parent, or employer, or ruler.”
But George Mason who made the statement, “Providence punishes national sins by national calamities” was right about slavery. Slavery was a national sin, a moral injustice. Many believed the sin of slavery is what caused the detrimental chain of events to take place in America right before the Third Great Awakening and the Civil War.
The Great Disappointment
One of the most unusual detriments to Church growth during this time had to do with a happening called “The Great Disappointment.” The momentum of America’s Second Great Awakening was, indeed, fading, but The Great Disappointment helped speed up its decline. The Great Disappointment is connected to a Baptist preacher named William Miller (1782–1849). Miller was raised in the church, but he became a deist when he reached adulthood, embracing the belief in the existence of God but not the belief that He’s personally involved in a person’s life. But there came a time when he gave his life to the Lord and became born again. His fellow deists were appalled at his becoming a Christian, and they began to challenge him about his faith. This motivated Miller to begin a concentrated effort to study the Bible in order to answer their challenges. He began with Genesis 1:1 and went straight through the Bible.
Eventually, Miller began to study the prophetic books. His studies led him to believe that postmillennialism was not scriptural (a belief that the Second Coming of Christ would happen after the seventh millennium). In addition, his study of the prophetic books led him to believe he could predict the Second Coming of the Lord based on Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” He interpreted the phrase “the sanctuary be cleansed” to mean the earth’s purification by fire at His Second Coming: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10).
Miller then used 2 Peter 3:8 as a formula to calculate the number of years the Lord would return: “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” This, he believed, was a formula to calculate the 2,300 days. He then determined the 2,300-day period started in 347 BC, the day the Persian King Artaxerxes I made the decree that Jerusalem should be rebuilt. According to his calculations, the 2,300-day period would end in 1843. He came up with this calculation in the year 1818. So according to his calculations, the Second Coming of Jesus would take place in 25 years!
Miller continued his study of the prophetic books to confirm that he had arrived at the correct interpretation. Confident in his interpretations, in September 1822, he put together a 20-point document of all his findings. Point 15 said, “I believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years—on or before 1843.” So bold! In 1831, he began to publically teach about his findings in the region where he lived.
Then in 1832, he sent 16 articles to a Baptist newspaper called the Vermont Telegraph. That’s when Miller’s prediction of the Second Coming blew up! After the Telegraph published them, he said, “I began to be flooded with letters of inquiry respecting my views; and visitors flocked to converse with me on the subject.” People were hungry to hear about the possibility of the soon coming of the Lord Jesus. There were too many requests for information to be able to respond to them all. Nor could he say yes to all the invitations to teach on the subject. So in 1834, he put together a synopsis of his teachings in a 64-page tract called, “Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1844: Exhibited in a Course of Lectures.”
The publication of Miller’s teachings caused his then regional ministry to become a nationwide phenomenon—a movement. This movement would come to be known as “Millerism,” and the people who followed William Miller’s teachings called themselves “Millerites.” There was no way to determine just how many Millerites there actually were, but their numbers were estimated to be as many as 500,000 people.
When Miller first gave his prediction of the Second Coming, it was only a year—1843. He didn’t predict a month or day. But his followers urged him to try to figure out a more precise date. The closest he was able to estimate was between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.
The Millerites waited in great anticipation of that day. The first date, March 21, 1843 came. Nothing. Then the second date, March 21, 1844, came and went. It too turned out to be an ordinary day. There was no Second Coming. He was so sure in the soon appearance of the Lord, he thought he simply got his calculations wrong. This prompted a further re-examination of the scriptures, and the date of April 18, 1844 was determined to be the new date of the Second Coming. But it, too, came and went without incident. Millerites all across the nation were crushed with disappointment. A humbled Miller issued a statement in writing: “I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.”
Not willing to give up, a fellow Millerite chose another date based on Daniel 8:14. Christ was to come on “the tenth day of the seventh month” in the year 1844. The Gregorian date was calculated to be October 22, 1844. But, alas, it too came and went just like the other dates.
After the last prediction failed, the date of October 22, 1844, became known as the Millerites’ “Great Disappointment.” Hiram Edson (a founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church) said, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before… We wept and wept, till the day dawn.”
The legacy of Millerism birthed two denominations: the Advent Christian Church (61,000 members) and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (19 million members). Both were connected to Millerism and the Great Disappointment.
On a personal note, my paternal grandmother was a Seventh Day Adventist. I didn’t know her as she died before I was born. My father used to tell us how his mother would gather all her seven children around her and read the scriptures to them. Whenever he talked about her, he always made the point of saying she was a Seventh Day Adventist. He didn’t say it derisively, but rather like it was special. I didn’t know anything about the Seventh Day Adventists and always wondered if it was something weird. She would have been a young child around the time when this denomination began. That means one or both of her parents might have been Millerites. So… that’s interesting.
The Damage Caused by Millerism
Miller’s failed predictions of Jesus’ Second Coming resulted in a lot more than people simply being disappointed. There was actual damage done to people’s lives. Some people abandoned their faith altogether and became atheists. Others kept the faith, believing the calculations were simply off and indulged in explanations about why nothing happened. Miller never faltered in his faith; though it didn’t happen as per his calculations, he still maintained that the Second Coming was a soon coming event.
The Millerites suffered great persecution for their beliefs. Even before the prediction failed, they were mercilessly ridiculed. But they took the ridicule from the non-believing public in stride. Not only were they were subjected to name calling, but the newspapers were filled with cartoons mocking them. They were even subjected to ridicule and criticism from other Christians. But, nevertheless, they endured it all. The faith of the Millerites (a.k.a. Seventh Day Adventists) was strong. They believed! They endured the ridicule, knowing all those who persecuted them would be put to silence at the appearing of the Lord Jesus.
The aftermath of the Great Disappointment was devastating. The Millerites had been so convinced of the soon coming of Jesus that many of them put action to their faith. Some gave away their money and possessions, believing they would no longer have need of them. Tragically, some farmers never even bothered to plant crops believing they wouldn’t be around to bring in the harvest. Families were broken and divided over the issue. Some churches excommunicated anyone who was a Millerite. The ridicule was bad before the failed prediction, but it was many times worse afterward. People were left to pick up the pieces of their devastated lives.
Yes, there was bitter disappointment. But in the midst of it all, they called upon the Lord and He sustained them by His grace. One said, “We were disappointed, but not disheartened.”
Another said, “No words could express the feelings of disappointment of a true Adventist.”
James White said, “My feelings were almost uncontrollable. I left the place of meeting and wept like a child.”
Joshua Himes said, “While the unbelieving world treated us with contempt and scorn, even with violence, we had been enabled to endure this also with uncomplaining patience.”
The disappointed Adventists asked Miller, “What now?” He responded, “Brethren, although I have been twice disappointed, I am not yet cast down or discouraged. My mind is perfectly calm and my hope in the coming of Christ is as strong as ever. Brethren hold fast, let no man take your crown. I have fixed my mind on another time. And here I need to stand until God gives me more light, and that is today, today, and today until He comes.”
Jesus said, “Occupy till I come!”
The Great Disappointment was tragic; however, the failed prediction of Jesus’ return in itself was not the tragedy. There’s nothing wrong with trying to predict the return of the Lord. William Miller was not the first to predict the Second Coming of Jesus, nor was he the last. What made The Great Disappointment a tragedy is the failure of the Millerites to heed the words of Jesus in Luke chapter 19 in the parable of the nobleman. Jesus talked about the nobleman that went into a far country. The instruction he left his servants was, “Occupy till I come” (v. 13). Jesus said He would return again. Until that time, He said to “occupy till I come.” That means keep living your life, going on about your business.
If the Millerites heeded Jesus’ words, they would not have given away their money and possessions. The farmers would have gone ahead and planted their crops. They would not have made any changes to their lives. That’s what it means to “occupy till I come.”
William Miller—Just One of Many
William Miller isn’t the first person to predict the Second Coming of the Lord. I remember a well-known minister had made a prediction of the Second Coming to take place sometime during the 1980s. He boldly announced the date. Many people waited with great anticipation. But, like the Millerites, they too were disappointed.
That got me thinking. I wondered if there was a list of people who, like Miller, made failed predictions of the Second Coming. So I searched the Internet and found the most amazing list on Wikipedia. It’s a huge list! The first prediction listed is 66 AD, and its entries go all the way to the present.
There were three categories that interested me the most. 1) I was interested in the ones that came from famous people. 2) I was interested in the ones, like Miller, that recalculated their predictions, setting several dates. 3) And, lastly, I enjoyed the ones that made their predictions based on crazy things, like one used the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. Anyway, the list below is made up of the predictions I most enjoyed.
Failed Predictions of Second Coming and End Times
66–70 | Simon bar Giora, Jewish Essenes | Jewish people from the Essene sect believed the final battle against the Romans in 66–70 would trigger the Messiah’s arrival. He would come back to save them.
500 | Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus, and Irenaeus | All three of these men predicted that this was the year the Messiah would return. I enjoyed this entry because it said they based their predictions on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark!
April 6, 793 | Beatus of Liébana | I included this entry because this Spanish monk was so bold to predict the world would end on this day in front of a large group of people. You have to be “some kind of sure” about your prediction to be so bold.
1533 | Melchior Hoffman | This was an unusual prediction. Melchior, an Anabaptist, predicted that Christ would return in the year 1533 in Strasbourg, France. Not only that, he claimed that only 144,000 people would be saved. This, obviously, is a number he got from Revelation chapter 7. He said everybody else in the world would be burned up.
1600 | Martin Luther (1483–1546) | I’ve read a lot of books about Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, so I was surprised to learn he, too, made a prediction that the world would end in 1600. End, meaning the rapture would occur.
1656 | Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) | Here’s another very famous guy! Columbus wrote a book titled, “Book of Prophecies” (1501) in which he predicted the world would end in 1656. His date was 56 years later than Martin Luther’s!
1688 | John Napier | I included this entry because Napier, a mathematician, predicted the end of the world would happen in 1688 based on his calculations from the book of Revelation.
1697 | Cotton Mather (1663–1728) | This is another famous person, or should I say “infamous.” He was a central character in the Salem Witch Trials. He was kind of a villain because he approved of the trials. Anyway, he predicted the world would end in 1697. After the prediction failed, like William Miller, he revised his date two more times.
1700 | Henry (or John) Archer | In 1642, he wrote a book entitled “The Personall Reigne of Christ Upon Earth,” in which he predicted Christ’s return in 1700. He set two more dates: 1716 and 1736.
1836 | John Wesley (1703–1791) | I was so surprised to see Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, on the list. He predicted the Millennial reign of Christ would occur in 1836. His prediction was based on Revelation 12:14.
Aug. 7, 1847 | George Rapp (1757–1847) | Originally from Germany, Rapp immigrated to the United States and founded the Harmony Society, a group of people that isolated themselves from society. Rapp prophesied that Jesus would return in his lifetime. This entry is interesting to me because even while he was on his deathbed, he still believed Jesus would return before he died.
1892–1911 | Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819–1900) | Smyth predicted Jesus would return somewhere between 1892 and 1911. This entry is interesting to me because he was a pyramidologist, and he based his prediction on the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Giza!
1981 | Chuck Smith (1927–2013) | Smith founded Calvary Chapel which was the “hub” of the Jesus People movement on the west coast of America during the hippie culture at its zenith. He predicted the generation of 1948 would be the last generation. I assume he made that prediction based on Israel becoming a nation in 1948. The rest of his prediction was that the world would end by 1981.
1982 | Pat Robertson (born 1930) | Most everyone knows Pat Robertson from his TV program called the “700 Club.” He predicted the world would end in 1982: “I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world.” I was amused when I read on his wikipedia page that he and several others who incorrectly predicted the end of the world were jointly awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for “teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.” He needn’t be embarrassed because as far as making wrong predictions goes, he’s in good company.
1985 | Lester Sumrall (1913–1996) | I included this entry because he was a guest minister at our church. He was an awesome man of God. In his book entitled, I Predict 1985, Sumrall predicted the rapture would take place in 1985.
Sept. 11–13, 1988, Oct. 3, 1988 | Edgar C. Whisenant (1932–2001) | A NASA engineer as well as a Bible student, Whisenant (like William Miller) wrote a book about his end time studies entitled, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. He was so sure of his prediction that he mailed 300,000 free copies of his book to ministers all across America. And like William Miller, when his prediction failed, he too revised his date to Sept. 30, 1989.
Sept. 6, 1994 | Harold Camping (1921–2013) | Camping was a radio broadcaster who became famous for making several predictions about end times. He made so many failed predictions that people began to call him a false prophet. He predicted Judgment Day would occur on Sept. 6, 1994. He revised the date to Sept. 29 and then Oct. 2. He predicted the Second Coming would happen on May 21, 2011; the saved would be raptured. The rapture would be followed by five months of plagues like in the book of Revelation. The final destruction of the world would happen on October 21, 2011. After all his predictions failed, he said he was sinful for trying to predict Christ’s Second Coming. He agreed with his critics that according to Matthew 24:36, “of that day and hour knoweth no man.” Like the Millerites, Camping was soundly ridiculed not only by atheists but by fellow Christians as well.
1999 | James Gordon Lindsay (1906–1973) | Lindsay was founder of Christ for the Nations Institute and is connected with the Azusa Street Revival. He predicted the great tribulation talked about in the book of Revelation would begin before 2000.
2000 | Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) | America’s First Great Awakening began at Jonathan Edwards’ church in Northampton, MA. I found it interesting that Edwards predicted the millennial reign of Christ would begin in 2000.
The list I shared with you is just a fragment of the list in Wikipedia. If you’d enjoy reading the complete list of all the predictions, click here. Enjoy!