O Science

Sitting in this Church of Christian Science, I think about founder Mary Baker Eddy’s detractors. Their common refrain: “What she discovered is neither Christian nor science!”

Perhaps they were thinkig too literally. She believed her discovery was something above and beyond human science, an alternate set of principles that govern the universe, the real rules which Christ demonstrated with his life. She could have called it “God’s Truth.” She collected her insights in a volume she named Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures; along with the Bible, this is the primary text used during services.

I can’t help but be awed by Eddy’s life story. Even Mark Twain, who wrote hilariously scathing opinions about this “discoverer of truth” seems to have respected Eddy as one of the most influential and fascinating women of his day. No doubt she was a groundbreaking person, especially for Victorian times. A divorcee who gave up her only biological child, she lived the first half of her life sick and weak and dependent. But the second half was all vitality and authority. If ever there was a role model for what can be accomplished after age 40, here it is. Churches built, devotees wooed, servants employed. She was almost 90 when she founded the award-wining newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor.

Even if her unconventional thinking was helped along by episodes of morphine dependency, as some authors speculate, I don’t think it changes the bravery of her vision. She offers the most original reason to forgo suffering from the human condition: neither are real.

You were never born so there’s no need to twist in the wind over your level of gratitude for that particular event. Furthermore, what’s the point of fearing “death” when it will never take place?

Yet, Eddy had to stretch the limits of her insight when her followers asked tricky questions like why they continued to perceive the birth and death of people. Mistakes in thinking, she answered. But what if more than one person perceives the mistake? A collective error, she surmised. As her explanations dance toward the edge of reason, I can see why historians draw parallels between the development of Christian Science and the dawning of the New Age movement. Both champion the power of thought to shape experience and embrace the possibility of a reality beyond our perception.

Just when I grasp a tenet of Eddy’s Christian Science and trace its meaning to a logical conclusion, I find that it seems to vanish, as elusive as a broken filament in an abandoned spider’s web. She says all suffering is caused by the false belief in a selfhood apart from God. Illness is illusion. Individual identity is imaginary. Matter is unreal. This discovery, writes Eddy, “rolls back the clouds of error with the light of Truth, and lifts the curtain on man as never born and as never dying…”

Yet, what to make of how real the human experience feels? My own little mind screams, “I exist!” My body, this chair, the room…they seem so true and solid. At the same time, the notion that God is all that exists and that I’m nothing more than some expression or fantasy of this enormous force of love is a beautiful idea to entertain. Just thinking it seems to ease my anxiety, if only for a moment….

At least some of Eddy’s followers were shocked when their prophetess appeared to die. They must have felt a sense of guilt knowing their erroneous thinking was to blame.

In the small chapel in which I sit today, all the way across the country from the denomination’s headquarters in Boston, I do not perceive Mary Baker Eddy as being physically present. I’ve seen pictures of her—she was exceptionally pretty with fine, high cheekbones—but none of these faces match hers.

Still, she is very much present in the sequence of the service and all the words, including little notes explaining elements of the service, which are read just as she instructed over 100 years ago. There is no traditional sermon, no new thoughts sprouting from the minds of these church leaders. The three women behind the podium give voice to Eddy’s sentences as outlined in a slick pamphlet produced quarterly by the Mother Church so that all her little church goslings are perfectly in step. Even the various readings from the Bible are followed by Eddy’s interpretations; up against Jesus, Eddy gets the last word. The service ends, as it always does, with the reading of what Eddy called “the Scientific Statement of Being, and the correlative scripture according to I John 3:1-3” from page 468 of Science and Health.

It might as well be Eddy’s voice as the reader intones, “There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.”


When I enter the Church of Christian Science, the proceedings have begun and I slip into an empty pew. I’ve seen the rare news story about a sick kid who died because his faithful parents chose not to seek medical attention. While Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to refuse blood transfusions, some devout Christian Scientists decline to see doctors. This is all fine and well for adults; for minors, the state may step in to charge parents with negligence.

The room feels more like a small court than an ordinary chapel. The pews face a raised podium that stretches almost wall to wall. Three women sit behind the podium and I imagine them in ethereal judge’s robes–though, from my perspective, I see them only from the neck up. Aside from two men, the congregants are all women. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a parallel society, some female-centric tribunal in a feminist alternative to The Handmaid’s Tale. That strange dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood I was assigned in high school haunts me still.

The wall behind the podium sports two quotes. On one side is Jesus: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The other side is Eddy: “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need.” I notice that each has been given exactly 12 words, but somehow I feel Lady Justice’s scales tip ever so slightly toward Eddy.

I try to imagine what it must have been like back in Eddy’s day to be trapped in a prolonged state of suffering. No one but my closest family members willing to come near. Suddenly a stranger who everyone admires and thinks is special, this sort of celebrity, approaches me and puts his hands on my head and looks me in the eyes. Perhaps he says, “God loves you” with such gravitas that I have no choice but to believe it. How much better would I feel from that small act of kindness? I might still have my ailment, but the degree to which I believe this limits or isolates me almost certainly would be diminished.

This makes me wonder if some of Jesus’ miracles weren’t actually rooted in a very human phenomenon, the simple yet powerful gesture of connection; in my mind, this would make them no less extraordinary. Quimby recognized this aspect of Jesus’ talent and he tried to replicate the technique. He employed compassion to break through the alienation that plagues the human condition.

Suffering is the same, but the names for it change. According to Quimby, the standard diagnosis of his day, “neuralgia,” was giving way to a “new invention called spine disease.” Mary Baker Eddy suffered all of the most popular ailments including neuralgia of the stomach, nervous inflammation of the spine, and the mysterious and unpleasant-sounding “renal calculi.” She was nearly an invalid when she sought out Quimby; under his care her health improved, though the year he died, 1866, Eddy relapsed dramatically after a slip on an icy sidewalk. The attending physician predicted she would die; instead, she discovered Christian Science. Quimby taught that physical ailments could be inventions of our alienation and other anxieties. Eddy saw further that disease and death were not real at all, but illusions of our mortal minds.

Calvin, like other Protestants, explained man as a thing apart from God. Eddy understood differently: God is all that exists so man can’t be a thing apart. Calvin saw that to achieve holiness, man must struggle against his creaturely nature. Eddy understood that man, having no identity separate from God, can be nothing but eternal and perfect. The struggle is to overcome all beliefs to the contrary.

I am agape at this other-worldly destination to which this journey has brought me—no need to leave the confines of my own community. I stand with the congregation as we open our Christian Science Hymnals to one penned by Margaret Matters, head of the “Mother Church” in the mid-1900’s. Accompanied by a piano, we sing:

O Science, God sent message!

Today Christ’s precious Science

thy healing power makes plain!

American Religion

I drive past the church several times without seeing it, which I find hilarious once I start to grasp the tenets of Christian Science. I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting the exterior of the building to be white, which I’ve read is the color favored by Christian Scientists to represent the “divine light of truth.”

The third time past it seems to materialize: an ordinary little brown-shingled building, not particularly church-like, more reminiscent of a small medical office, but obviously my destination. I pull into the parking lot a few minutes late, and run inside.

Harold Bloom, the lauded cultural critic, uses the term “American religion” for those off-shoots of Protestantism invented solely on these soils. These include the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists but culminate with Joseph Smith and his Latter-day Saints. It wasn’t until my journey through Christianity was well underway that I even dared pick up a copy of Bloom’s book The American Religion. It’s a good thing I waited, too, because otherwise I wouldn’t have understood what the heck he was talking about.

According to Bloom, early America was particularly ripe for religious innovation not only because of broad social changes like rapid urbanization, but also because the notion of God as punishing and judgmental had leached into every nook and cranny of the national subconscious.

The first waves of settlers had been heavily influenced by Protestant reformer Calvin who taught that everyone was either saved or damned from birth. Unlike Luther, who said anyone with faith could be saved, Calvin insisted God had made all those decisions before we got here; never could we know or change our status. This idea may have worked for a self-confident theologian and his supporters with prosperous and stable lives, but it was too much for most Americans whose difficult circumstances offered no proof of salvation. As if times back then weren’t stressful enough, here was another reason for one’s anxiety to turn crippling.

These years seem to be unique in the degree to which physical illness preceded religious innovation. Ellen White, spiritual head of the Seventh-Day Adventists, was often bed ridden. But perhaps no one suffered more than Mary Baker Eddy, who “discovered” Christian Science.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby flat out blamed Calvin for the overwhelming number of ill patients who walked through his doors. Quimby was the clockmaker-turned-healer who treated Mary Baker Eddy when her condition failed to improve under the care of traditional doctors. He claimed his mission in life was to free people from Calvin’s “iron grip.” For many, Calvinism seemed to ratchet up the anxiety associated with perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the human condition: death. As Quimby surmised, “The fear of death is the cause of nine-tenths of all disease.”

Quimby was all for Christianity, but he advocated a return to the healing aspects of Jesus’ work. It’s hard to imagine today because so much progress has been made in the fields of medicine and psychoanalysis, but fewer than 200 years ago it was not unusual for doctors to give up on patients whose indeterminate sources of suffering did not respond to the usual remedies. This is where Quimby came in. He treated hordes of people, some of whom travelled great distances to his office in Maine for help.

What was Quimby’s remarkably effective medicine? Empathy.

He noted that if traditional doctors couldn’t categorize the disease, the patient would be labeled “nervous, spleeny or hypochondrical and receive no sympathy from anyone.” His treatment included holding hands with his patients and listening intently to their tales of woe. For a time, he cured Mary Baker Eddy with his care and attention.


For all the shades of grey that exist in Christianity, here is a denomination that lays it out in black and white. When the new world arrives, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Organization will become what it was destined to become: a global governing structure. Kingdom Halls are ready and waiting in communities all over the world. These will be the new Kingdom’s headquarters, and the remaining people will be a single race speaking one language.

What language? According to an old Watchtower, it will be like ancient Hebrew—except the letters will look more like our current style of alphabet instead of that weird old blocky text. How will I learn it? The Watchtower assures readers that the Kingdom will employ plenty of good language instructors.

If you’re the kind of person who wants answers, here they are in spades. In fact, you don’t even have to think of the questions—those are provided as well. The day’s “sermon” is a question and answer session lifted directly from the most recent copy of the Watchtower. Every Kingdom Hall all over the world is reviewing this exact article this weekend. The governing board of the Jehovah’s organization keeps a tight grip on the curriculum. Everyone is asked to read the article in advance—carefully, at home, during the week. Now an elder stands at the podium as we open to the correct page.

Today’s lesson is called “Entering into God’s Rest.” Examples from Genesis and Hebrews reveal people being punished for not being obedient to God. The old guy at the podium asks the questions printed at the bottom of each column and then calls on people by name. “Why is obedience essential if we are to enter into God’s rest?” A few people raise their hands and provide an appropriate snippet from the article. He asks, “What does it mean to enter into God’s rest today? Brother James?”

“By being obedient,” says Brother James obediently.

For those who want a bottom line, a “pull quote” is printed at the top of the page: “We can enter into Jehovah’s rest today by obediently working in harmony with his advancing purpose as it is revealed to us through his organization.”

The answers are clearly printed, but I’m left scratching my head.

I’ve skipped ahead to the next week’s lesson and it is about family members who leave the faith, and how they must be shunned. The attached photo shows a young man walking out the door with his suitcase, his weeping mother in the foreground. I want to ask about family and friends who would never in a million years join the faith. Can eternal paradise really be that great if no one I love will be there?

As I am leaving, I can see a group gathering around a flip chart. This is the meeting where they go over their personal ministries, which is what they call their doorstep proselytizing. They are dividing up the neighborhoods, making sure every door gets knocked on.

I can live without celebrating Christmas and birthdays and other holidays. I can steer clear of smoking and gambling and pornography. But there seems to be a massive grey area. During the service, one of the leaders from another Kingdom Hall gave a brief talk about immorality and he singled out Web-based social networking as an example of one of the ways “wicked men will be progressing from bad to worse.” Will I need to ditch my Facebook profile? I’d hate to because I’m reconnecting with so many old friends through it.

What about this blog? Should I hit the “delete” button?

I understand that bad things happen. Some people develop dark and twisted thoughts that compel them to harm others and themselves. It doesn’t matter if their parents were loving and taught them well—it’s hate they breed. Maybe something went wrong in the chemistry of their brains. I don’t know. But focusing on it, and assuming it exists everywhere, seems wrong, like it gives those forces more power instead of less.

I’d rather turn my attention to the good, and grow the love.

Great flock

From the Jehovah Witnesses who have knocked on my front door, I’ve gathered a small stack of their primary publication, a slim magazine called The Watchtower.

The most recent copy in my collection bears the title “Life in a Peaceful New World.” The cover illustration is an idyllic scene of meadows and snow-peaked mountains. It’s half pastoral England and half Swiss Alps. The foreground shows people of all races smiling, gathering fruit and vegetables. An Asian toddler feeds blueberries to a grizzly bear. The inside text reads, “The whole earth will eventually be brought to a gardenlike paradise state….no longer will people be crammed into huge apartment buildings.”

At the Kingdom Hall, I take a padded seat near a polyester plant while the young woman who has offered me companionship fetches me a small song book called “Sing to Jehovah.” I recognize the style of the illustration on the cover, the hordes of happy people of all colors and ages. Here they cradle hymnals and float in a golden light. The tinkling of piano keys begins and we stand to sing hymn number 19, “God’s Promise of Paradise.” We warble the first verse:

A paradise our God has promised,

By means of Christ’s Millenial Reign,

When he’ll blot out all sin and error,

Removing death and tears and pain.

The pace of the piano is painfully slow; each person draws out different words and in different ways. The result is a sound I’d liken to a gang of drugged alley cats. I scan the room for the culprit. “Where’s the piano?” I whisper to my companion. She points up. Suddenly it makes sense. It’s prerecorded and piped in through speakers in the ceiling.

The founder of the Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, accepted that after the Great Disappointment, the messiah took up residence in a heavenly sanctuary closer to earth and would soon make it the rest of the way down. With this next step, the dead will rise and everyone who ever lived will be sorted into one of two groups: believers or nonbelievers.

Nonbelievers will be obliterated; no hell: just poof and gone.

Believers will occupy earth forever with perfect bodies that never get old.

The Book of Revelation appears to state that only 144,000 slots exist for the faithful who will get the perfect bodies. This must have seemed a sufficiently huge figure 2,000 years ago, but now it’s not even a fifth of Albuquerque.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have solved the 144,000 dilemma. That relatively small number only refers to a special group—what they call the “small flock”—that will help Jesus run the new earthly paradise. Small flock members will hold official administrative positions. It includes the original apostles and leaders in the Jehovah’s Witness organization, past and present.

However, you can still be an inhabitant of the new earth without being a member of the small flock. According to some old Watchtower articles, there will also be a “great flock” and the only requirement for inclusion is to be an obedient Witness. Members of the great flock won’t just feed blue berries to grizzlies all day—they’ll have tasks too. They will be on post-apocalypse clean-up duty. The article mentions that they will be assigned the job of gathering the bleached bones of the annihilated.

Personally, I think it sounds like the better deal because it means you get to live in paradise without taking on managerial duties.


For someone learning about the Bible for the first time, one of the key elements to the story of Jesus returning—the dead rising from their graves—is bound to leave an impression. My only frame of reference for this phenomenon comes from popular culture: zombies.

We are obsessed with dead people who reanimate, usually in mass. Movies, books, and television shows—we are hungry for stories about “the Zombie Apocalypse.” Is this another example of a Christian idea so thoroughly integrated into our collective imagination that we hardly remember where it came from? Obviously, we have embellished upon the theme for entertainment. The zombies are coming for us with their arms outstretched. They make strange guttural noises and eat human brains. I don’t think that comes from the Bible.

Some denominations seem to focus on Jesus coming back, but don’t worry too much beyond this event. Others, like the Jehovah Witnesses, have invested more energy into planning for the aftermath of Christ’s return. Hence, the subject of the dead coming back to life gains importance.

Even though representatives from my local Kingdom Hall have visited my house at least a dozen times, I was hesitant to go to theirs. I called earlier in the week to make sure it was okay for me to attend Sunday services. They aren’t listed in my newspaper’s Worship Directory. It goes along with their distrust of all things civic: they don’t vote, hold office, salute the flag, serve in the military, or volunteer their information to the newspaper authorities. It’s part of their commitment to avoid the world where evil lurks. Theirs is a safer parallel world that intersects with the dangerous world at countless doorsteps.

Turns out there’s one civic instrument they are powerless to avoid: the phone book.

On the phone, I talk to a woman named Sadu and she says I am welcome on Sunday. She speaks with a strong accent that I imagine comes from some place in India or maybe Africa. I picture her as exotic and statuesque, like one of the dark women from the Watchtower illustrations who dons a colorful headscarf and flowing robe. Sadu tells me to look for her when I visit.

What if these are real-life zombies? This thought flashes to mind as I’m standing at the entrance to the Kingdom Hall with people milling around. I’ve been thinking too much about corpses springing back to life. It’s as if their happy expressions and business casual attire carry the whiff of inauthenticity—like they’re trying too hard to seem alive. The atmosphere in the building can only be described as funereal: fake plants, floral carpet, mauve wainscoting. No windows; the only light emanates from florescent tubes. Décor best appreciated by the dead. I keep expecting someone to turn and have an eyeball dangling from a socket, an image that momentarily scares the bejesus out of me.

A man in a suit smiles broadly. He has big white teeth and sandy blond hair shellacked into place. If he is a zombie, he has cleaned up nicely. “I’m looking for Sadu,” I tell him.

He frowns and turns to a woman, “Have you seen Sadu?” She turns to second woman. The second asks a third. Sadu? Sadu? On down the line. A young woman approaches, “Sadu isn’t here today.” She is apologetic. “You can sit with me if you’d like.”

She is white and short and ordinary, but her eyeballs are intact. I accept her invitation.

Fellowship meal

Men and women from this Seventh Day Adventist congregation take turns giving a talk as part of the worship service. Today’s leader is the spitting image of my uncle, a retired geologist whose full beard and lanky frame belies a more conservative interior. This version’s right pant leg is still cinched from biking. He begins his talk with a slide show from a recent hike. He clicks through shots of mountains and boulders and lakes. He stops on a screen with a quote from Psalms, “Seek ye my face.” With tears in his eyes, he tells us: “Mrs. White wrote that the natural world offers a front row seat on the face of God.”

He clicks through to a slide of sunlight reflected in ripples of water. He wipes his eyes, “To quote White: ‘God is love’ is written upon every opening bud, upon every spire of springing grass.” He turns to take in his own photo. He says, “Look how beautiful it is…” so earnestly that I feel a lump form in my throat.

The service culminates in a big feast, or what the program calls a “fellowship meal.” We file into the kitchen area where someone has set out no fewer than 20 dishes. It’s a vegetarian smorgasbord. I have never seen so many variations of zucchini in one place. I fill my plate and take a seat with everyone else at a long table, family style. I can almost imagine that beyond these walls the earth has been destroyed but we faithful are happily eating the yummy produce from our post-apocalyptic gardens. If I should survive such a catastrophic event, this wouldn’t be bad company to keep.

Like much in this denomination, the end result is progressive; though, I’m not certain if the same can be said of the logic used to get there. White encouraged congregants to give up tobacco and alcohol not for health reasons but because these items “stirred up animal passions.” She promoted vegetarianism, not to prevent the killing of animals but because she believed meat carried “disease-producing humors.” She argued that women should trade in their street-scraping dresses for shorter skirts worn over pantaloons. She intended for women to stay healthy to better honor God, but her fashion suggestions allowed for freer movement.

Different paths can lead to the same spot. I generally think of organic gardening and veganism as ways of life for those on the left end of the political spectrum, but here I’m learning it can also be part of a conservative Christian vision, a step toward recreating Eden on earth. I’ve often considered Jesus a symbol for those on the right, but much of what he stood for is embraced by the left.

If we are lucky, we end up together in a place where the beauty of the world breaks our hearts and we are overwhelmed with gratitude.

It makes me wonder if there isn’t more common ground than I think.

Celestial messengers

Several minutes before the Seventh-day Adventist program begins, I slip into a chair next to a woman who is dressed to the nines. She and I appear close in age, though I am a dull stone next to her sparkle. She is wearing a bright yellow dress with a full skirt and matching heels. The color is electric against her black skin. The vibrant, lady-like attire simultaneously fights and flatters her tall, athletic physique. If life was a fashion spread, hers would be part social commentary, part satire: a fresh interpretation of the 50’s housewife. Her smoothed-back hair highlights a perfect heart-shaped face.

In a charming patois, she tells me she has recently moved here from the Dominican Republic to start a graduate program. I listen, enraptured. Her family wasn’t religious, she tells me, and didn’t attend worship services; she would watch from her bedroom window as a school acquaintance waited every Saturday morning for the bus to church. Something in her classmate’s patient demeanor piqued her curiosity about the destination.

Then, in high school, she began to receive visits from Jesus. She explains matter-of-factly that for many nights, he came to her in dreams, so vivid and real. I can tell by the sincerity with which she speaks that this experience had a profound influence on her. Not long after, she began to wait for the bus with her friend.

What she describes is not so different from what happened to Ellen White, the spiritual head of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. White’s visions began within a few weeks of the Great Disappointment. Something about the failed prediction regarding Christ’s return emboldened this otherwise ordinary young woman to channel divine messages.

During the visions, White grew limp and unresponsive on the outside; on the inside, she took epic journeys guided by angels and other heavenly creatures. She learns that Christ’s failure to appear was all part of God’s plan. Jesus hadn’t come to earth, but he had taken up residence in a “heavenly sanctuary” that, from what I understand, is an intermediary space a little closer to earth than wherever he was before. From this new location, the angels tell her, Jesus is conducting an “investigative judgment” of the planet’s inhabitants. In the meantime, true believers must get ready for the moment when Christ’s invisible presence becomes visible. Engaging in this preparation is the backbone of the Seventh-day Adventist belief system.

My new friend is hoping to meet Jesus again, this time in the flesh.

The Seventh-Day Adventists may be anticipating Jesus’ imminent return, but they don’t seem overly concerned regarding the details. The only mention of any sort of apocalyptic vision came at the end of the service as the microphone was passed around for congregants to share a few words about this or that. The microphone landed in the hands of an older Asian woman. She looked aristocratic, with her hair in a chignon and streaks of grey at her temples. She said, “I’m just so thankful the lord will be returning soon.” Everyone nodded their agreement and then it was time for lunch.

The Great Disappointment

The Seventh-day Adventists do not promise everlasting life but they do offer me an extra decade. When I enter the church doors, I’m handed a flyer for their “10 Years More Series: Happier, Healthier, Longer,” a set of special presentations about the importance of weight control and proper sleep. Before now, what I knew of this denomination came from the media attention given to a Seventh-day Adventist community in southern California for having an average lifespan many years longer than the national average. This denomination promotes a plant-based diet. They are basically messianic vegans; apparently, that is not an oxymoron. Their interest in growing organic food is part of an effort to return the planet to a Garden-of-Eden-like state in anticipation of, and perhaps even to accelerate, Christ’s return to earth.

Today’s service takes place in a church building belonging to a different denomination. The Seventh-Day Adventists hold their services on Saturdays, making it convenient for them to share a building with a denomination that worships on Sundays.

The program announces the time of today’s sunset as well as the sunset for the following Friday evening. As far as I know, this is the only Christian denomination that celebrates according to the lunar Jewish tradition of Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Officially, the holy day began the previous evening. The Bible suggests that Jesus won’t return until the “Sabbath is restored” and Seventh-day Adventists interpret this literally. This is another action they hope will help fulfill Biblical prophecy.

When Jesus did not return in 1843, Miller revised his prediction. He decided his miscalculation was the result of an oversight; he hadn’t taken into account the “tarrying time” referred to in the Bible. Believers decided upon a corrected date: October 22, 1844.

What must it have been like to be among the faithful who stayed up that fall night hoping for Christ to appear? I stumbled upon an account of a farmer who described the anticipation. He stood in a field with other believers, their eyes trained to the sky. I can only imagine what they hoped to see: some bright light or benevolent fireball and then the figure of Jesus with his arms outstretched to them. Perhaps a golden staircase would materialize for the faithful to climb.

When the sun rose as usual on October 23rd, the farmer and his companions were devastated. The failure of Jesus to return on that date has gone down in the history books as “the Great Disappointment.”

Ellen White, the woman credited with founding the Seventh-day Adventists, was just an ordinary girl growing up in Maine when these events were unfolding. She had believed passionately in Miller’s predictions. Not long after the Great Disappointment, she began to have visions. She would fall into trance-like states in which heavenly messengers would communicate with her.

Of all my church visits so far, I have not yet had anyone readily admit to first-hand interactions with celestial beings. That is about to change…

Time of trouble

I try to imagine what it must have been like to be an American in the early and mid-1800s, when a unique form of Christianity that includes the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses took shape.

Textbooks teach the broad social changes: urbanization, industrialization, rapid population growth. But what did this mean to individuals? In a nutshell: filthy living conditions. Most of those piling into the cities did not have refrigeration and indoor plumbing. The “Gilded Age”—steel, lights, science!—was still too far off to bring much innovation in the way of medicine or sanitation. Being sick and/or dying was practically a national pastime. The two basic things one needed—food and drink—were also effective transportation for those other colonists not detectable to the human eye. The bacteria were winning. In the 1832 cholera epidemic that spread from London and Paris to New York and beyond, thousands were felled by water.

Women at the time were particularly vulnerable, and not just due to their sensitive imaginations. Their floor-length dresses dragged through feces-soaked streets. Left and right, people came down with the weirdest sounding stuff: yellow fever, chronic dyspepsia, dropsy.

Americans were a generation or two removed from the original settlers who had overwhelmingly embraced Calvin’s notion of predestination. The younger set was less confident of being tucked nicely into the “saved” pile of humanity. This uncertainty coupled with the dramatic influx of Catholics further eroded the security of a formerly Protestant refuge. God’s protective bubble had burst leaving a residue of anxiety and illness.

Between 1790 and 1840, the overall population of the United States quadrupled and Catholics increased about four times faster than that. The independent congregational churches that dotted the land must have seemed like sad little islands in the sea of unified might that was Catholicism, whose individual outposts were connected not just to each other but to the Vatican in Rome. Even after congregational churches merged with the Presbyterians, adopting their overarching governing structure, the backbone of Protestantism must have seemed puny by comparison. By the mid-1800s, Catholicism had become the largest Christian denomination in America.

In this context, some people became convinced that current conditions were so terrible it must be the “end times.” In the New Testament, this is described as a time of trouble and tribulation heralding the return of the messiah. America wasn’t just some far-flung new land; it was the epicenter of Biblical prophecy. The present wasn’t a random chapter in human history, but a vital piece of the story. Here was the point at which the circle comes round, the grand finale.

Previous generations had fought for a closer relationship to the divine; now believers would be reunited with God. The Bible was filled with clues of how our last days would play out. After careful consideration, William Miller, a farmer in New York, came to believe that the 1,000 years of peace prophesied in the New Testament would come only after Christ returned—not before as typically assumed. He claimed to have decoded the Bible’s messages and uncovered the truth: Jesus was coming back in 1843.