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.

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15 thoughts on “Time of trouble

  1. Corinna,

    This is one of the best posts you have written. Very moving and very historical. And, accurately, we are living in the last days of this system of things, as we know it. (2Timothy 3:1-5)

    ADIOS, Cheri

  2. One of the benefits of not growing up religious is that you are able to take an outside look at the different “sects” within Christianity. The truth is plain to those who truly seek. God bless your journey

    • Hi Jon, Yes, that is one of the benefits–and I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from looking beyond Christianity too. Sometimes it’s painful to be “homeless” but, on the other hand, it gives a person so much freedom…

  3. Woof! It was amazing to read this piece. Hard to detail all the reasons, but this showed what you have actually been doing all along (I think) but not always evident in your more-recent posts–you are doing a lot of research in your quest. And you are indeed a good writer (I knew that–just reminded of it in this post).

    I remember thinking early on that it was a wonder, not that so many people died in these great plagues, but that anyone lived! One of the things I realized while living in Tonia Toba (a small village) among the Manjako people: God made human beings with incredible ability to withstand and survive. Before going there, I had heard that life expectancy for these people was in its 20s and 30s. While living there, I saw how that worked out: women often bore as many as a dozen or 15 children, but only a few (4 or 5) would survive past seven or eight years old. If a person could survive that, they could expect to live into their 60s or 70s. (AIDS changed some of that in the 80s).

  4. A very moving post, Corrina. It illustrates how a changing social and physical environment can profoundly affect religious views. I’ve read this period referred to as the “Second Great Awakening” , when revivalist denominations really took off, partially in response to the “threat” of liturgical Catholicism. Near end of this period, the 1850’s saw the rise of the “Know Nothing Party”, which was virulently anti-immigrant and anti-tholic. On the positive side, the period also saw the birth of the “social Gospel”, where several groups took it upon themselves to reach out and help the poor and sick in those overcrowded and filthy cities. Humans are a sturdy bunch indeed, in that bilogically we survived unimaginably unhealthy living conditions, and spiritually we didn’t completely go off the deep end religiously or politically, either.

    • Hi Tim, Thank you. The “Know Nothings?” Funny name. Sounds like the “Nones” — only opposite side of the political spectrum maybe. It seems, in many ways, religion is part of our survival technique. It has helped groups band together and get through some grim circumstances.

  5. Perhaps, in many ways, the Age of Enlightenment, combined with a new country that guaranteed religious freedom, sparked a spirit of continual free-thinking and challenging of the status quo, a kind of unending reformation. No matter how you evaluate the resulting religious innovations, it has made the Christian landscape in America incredibly diverse and complex. Thanks for your thoughtful historical research.

  6. Your post reminded me of what one Lutheran pastor said to me once – “Everyone’s life is an ‘end times.” Death brings the end of the world to us all. The historical periods you’re talking about were extremely interesting in bringing renewal and vigor to what could often be a somewhat stagnant Christianity. My own circuit-riding “Methody” (Methodist) great grandfather was an example.

    Alas, what goes wrong with all this is that people, usually very charismatic people, decide that they know God better than Jesus did, and that THEY know the last day. Jesus told his followers that they were living in the last days. We are living in the last days. All days are the last days somewhere, to some. But as Jesus also said, “Not even I know the Father’s mind.” If Jesus wasn’t in on the calendar date, then certainly none of us are, at present.

    So we are left with the need to have our lamps full, because no one knows when the bridegroom will come.

    Easter was a truly glorious day. It was good to see the Christ light lit in the sanctuary again and to worship the Risen Christ. I hope that the spirit of new life and new strength has laid its hand upon you all.

    Yours in Christ

  7. Corinna,

    It warms the cockles of my heart to see you discuss religious ideology using a rational approach, not embracing it for all it’s lovey-dovey goopiness, as if you’re falling for the show-biz stage tricks, the spiritual slight of hand, the mystical prestidigitation that overpowers the individual’s senses via an over-reliance on the use of heavy-handed appeals to one’s emotions (eg cults that “love bomb” prospective recruits).

    Humans are social animals, yes, but religion frequently abuses such “appeals to emotion”, demanding that we sacrifice rationality and common sense upon the altar of religious worship, accepting “faith” above proof (evidence). Now that’s a HEFTY price for admission into a club, forcing the individual to go with the group, right or wrong (and the member doesn’t need to be told NOT to question the core beliefs, so that isn’t an issue that usually comes up: if the individual has to ASK, they SHOULD know the answer).

    “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.”

    Of course, it’s a cliched’ manifestation of homo sapien narcissism to think, “Woe is me! I am living during the WORST times, EVER!!” (as if the person has any OTHER personal experience upon which to base such a broad claim; we all know the natural repulsion to studying any historical evidence that disagrees with their PERSONAL faith). However, a study of history quickly reveals the opposite is true, eg the average human’s longevity, standard-of-living, and quality-of-life indices are at the HIGHEST they’ve ever been. Why? Not due to religious ‘faith’ in Gods, but thanks to undeniable advances in SCIENCE over the past 400 years.

    Nevertheless, that doesn’t prevent the Apocalyptically-motivated Chicken Littles amongst us from declaring we ARE living at the WORST TIMES in history EVER, on the verge of Earth-shattering events, when things will finally come to a boil with humans sitting in front-row seats in the FINAL ROUND of an EPIC battle between the forces of good vs evil. And what good luck we have, each of us is sitting in a front-row seat (and think of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Woebegon, with each of us “more special” than everyone else)! Just think of our fortune: we could’ve been born in 12th Century Norway, doomed to a life squandered in worship of Thor; or maybe 14th Century China, believing in whatever “pagan” beliefs they fervently held. But NO: we have the GOOD LUCK of having been born in the right place/time/region/religion of the Earth to personally reap God’s reward!

    I’m reminded of the same over-estimation of one’s sense of self-importance that drives people to ignore statistics, telling themselves that THEY are the long-shot, the lucky one who will win the big Powerball lottery and not even have to split the jackpot with anyone else! THAT should tell you something about mass psychology/delusions, with the rampant “everyone’s a winner, and can beat the odds” mindset.

    Of course, Jesus and his disciples themselves fell for the same delusion, as they likely fully believed THEY were witnessing the “end of days”, too, thinking Armageddon was just around the corner. In fact, a Biblical scripture Xians REALLY like to ignore is Matt 16:28, wherein Jesus said for emphasis, just to make it PERFECTLY CLEAR TO EVERYONE: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”. Rephrased, Jesus said some of YOU standing HERE WILL NOT DIE until Jesus goes into the Kingdom. Any questions?

    Of course, Xian apologetists by definition are EXPECTED to make excuses for Jesus’ failed prophecies, so typically claim that Jesus HAS been coming into his Kingdom since his crucifixion, it’s just that he took the long way to Heaven (this is where they may choose to borrow from Islamist theology, pointing out that according to the Koran Jesus took a slight detour to Gehenna to give the patriarchs a ride to Heaven), or to claim that Jesus assumed his throne but it was “invisible” (just like God, etc). They point out that Jesus didn’t say WHEN he’d actually ASSUME the throne, just that he’d “COME INTO” the throne (he’s got a private backstage entrance). Jesus is relying on “weasel words” again, arguing semantics, AKA quibbling.

    But stepping back from that point, the Bible ACTIVELY ENCOURAGES readers to insert THEMSELVES into the story-line, with the reader encouraged to see themselves as important players in plot events which they are told are literally a matter of their life and death!

    Unfortunately, it’s a crock, a lie, an old stage-show trick: the oldest theatrical/plot device EVER, trying to get the audience involved in the story.

    Mythologist Joseph Campbell has shown that mankind ALWAYS possessed a weakness for “appeals to personal narcissism”, with young people fascinated by tales of young heroes on epic adventures, learning important moral lessons and life skills they are told will be useful to them throughout their lives (via projection). The stories are at once fresh, yet familiar, relying on themes that tell (and retell) the same old story.

    Considered as literary works, the collection of writings that came to be assembled into a final canon 400 years after Jesus’ death into the New Testament can be thought of as the ultimate work of “fan fiction”, EVER, built upon the concepts found in Judaism’s Tanakh (and even renamed as Old Testament, by Xians) just like people nowadays will use prior works of others as the basis for THEIR derivative stories.

    Heck, Disney has profited nicely from mining the public domain of nursery rhymes/stories written by the Brothers Grimm centuries ago, with Disney claiming the stories as new derivative works (and hence deserving of copyright protection, long after the original work had entered the public domain). Nothing new here: the practice has been going on a LONG time. The surprising fact is that some orthodox Jewish intellectual property law firm hasn’t sued the Roman Catholic Church for copyright infringement (unauthorized use of the Tanakh as source material upon which Xianity is derived), LOL! THAT approach would likely work in today’s “copyright infringement is theft!” mind-set, where Jews should push the court to give them a C&D (cease and desist) order for printing of additional infringing copies of the Old Testament/Septuagint, and the New Testament (a derivative work which excerpts whole passages of the original).

    As a related aside, modern-day critical analysis of the paintings of Leonardo DaVinci by art historians reveal that they weren’t actually produced by DaVinci’s own hand, but were actually produced by a team of collaborators working under the ‘umbrella’ of his name, painted in DaVinci’s style:

    http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/arts-entertainment/inside-leonardo-da-vinci-s-collaborative-workshop-360768.html

    Just goes to show that the idea of attribution of work is not as simple as it seems, where everything we’ve been told is NOT necessarily the whole “truth”.

    “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.”

    WOW, A PERFECT set-up for segueing to the topic of Mormons, who retreaded OT eschatology in order to place events in North America. Like many, Joseph Smith was a visionary who recognized America as the land of spiritual opportunity, as well as material wealth: he even cast the indigenous Native Americans (which we all know better as “Indians”, obviously a misnomer) as the descendants of the wandering tribes of Israel! Even though it was un-politically correct at the time to kiss up to the native population (who were about to be wiped off the face of the Earth via American genocide), Smith sensed it was good to use the natives in the plot.

    Like many others before, Joseph Smith simply ignored the warnings in the OT against anyone DARING to write a sequel (which obviously WAS ignored by the authors of the NT), or even the warnings found in the NT not to add any more books (which was promptly ignored by Islamic prophets and many others, including Joseph Smith).

    As the comments section found on the web prove, LOL, no one can halt the proliferation of “fan fiction”, ie writers who take part in the creative efforts of others, adding their elements to the original! It’s a fundamental element of human nature to want to add one’s own two bits, comments from the peanut gallery. 🙂

    “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.”

    Ohhh, don’t leave us with a cliff-hanger like that! So did Jesus come back in 1843 or not? 🙂

    Like Don Adams in the TV show “Get Smart” used to say, “Ohhhh, missed it by THAT much!” 🙂

    Some of us don’t need to read accounts of Miller’s failed prophecies: some of us LIVED through RECENT failed end-times prophecies, eg the Jehovah’s Witnesses “1975” miscalculation.

    As a kid raised as a JW, I clearly remember the “signs of the end times”: the paranoia about possible nuclear war with USSR (and the Soviets were interpreted by JWs as being Daniel’s “The King of the North”: whoops, the USSR disbanded in the early 1990’s, leaving THAT scriptural interpretation as another failure, LOL!), the impending World population explosion and subsequent food shortages (an apocryphal book based on the Bible, “The Late Great Planet Earth” was selling like hot-cakes in 1970), and Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” was selling to the lay public, hungry to alleviate their fear of the unknown.

    I remember going to the movie theater to watch “Earthquake!” (which was interesting, being that we HAD lived in So Cal on the San Andreas fault at the time, and HAD been ordered to evacuate from home when the Van Norman dam threatened to break and flood our area). We also saw the movie, “Soylent Green”, a dystopian future where people ate dead people, as a vital protein source. Oh, the fond memories of childhood. 🙂

    PS WHY exactly was Orson Welles always used as narrator in all those 1970’s junk-science films? Were the film producers getting a laugh at the sly reference of using an actor/director, famous for his role in the radio show broadcast, “War of the Worlds”, a known hoax?

    But YES, I can say I’ve “been there, and got the Failed Apocalyptic Prediction t-shirt”. I FULLY remember when 1975 came and went without a fizz, and everyone in the group acted like the whole episode never occurred. Massive denial of the immediate past, a rewriting of history occurring in real-time before my very eyes.

    Such is human nature, furiously back-peddling when someone calls for an end of the World that never arrives (eg Harold Camping, Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego, etc). It’s actually GOOD to swell the ranks of membership, as few weak-minded individuals will have the strength to leave the group, unable to dare to state that the “Emperor” is naked, not wearing any clothes.

    Of course, as a 12 y.o. I was reading The People’s Almanac, an encyclopedic work written by secularists David Wallace and Irving Wallechinsky, so it wasn’t THAT surprising to me that Armageddon didn’t happen. They had written a WONDERFUL series of books that amongst other topics, contained a full history of failed Armageddon calls, from 900 AD to the-then current day (it’s reprinted below; the article spreads over multiple pages, so readers need to navigate through the full account):

    http://www.trivia-library.com/b/predictions-for-the-end-of-the-world-from-999-to-1600.htm

    So by my early teens, I was starting to smell a skunk of the fraud of religion (unfortunately, it was too late to extricate family members, who’d gotten involved too deeply in the JW cult to extract themselves from the quick-sand and mire of group-think).

    Thanks Corinna for the concise stimulating writing, which serves as a spring-board (excuse) to sound off! 🙂

    • Hi Dave, well, you will just have to read my next posts to find out whether Jesus came back in 1843…I don’t want to spoil it for you. Yes, even in my secular upbringing, I’ve noticed that there’s often someone who is predicting that Jesus will come back on such-and-such a date. I have to admit that when I was younger, and I would hear these stories in the news, I always thought there was a chance this person would be right. The date would come and go and I never failed to be somewhat relieved and happy to still have the world as I knew outside my door. Then began the countdown to the next date. It makes me think that there’s something vital to the human experience in the sense of anticipation, or the hope, that someday we will all be reunited with our source (whatever one calls that). I don’t see this impulse as negative or fraudulent…but sort of beautiful. But I’m weird like that.

      • ” It makes me think that there’s something vital to the human experience in the sense of anticipation, or the hope, that someday we will all be reunited with our source (whatever one calls that). I don’t see this impulse as negative or fraudulent…but sort of beautiful. But I’m weird like that.”

        Yes, you ARE!

        Then you probably should NOT do a Google search for “Jehovahs Witness Armageddon art”, as JW beliefs contain the specter of massive death and annihilation, gruesome death and destruction, with a few “lucky” survivors given the opportunity to save one’s own skin, earning the “privilege” to bury the corpses.

        Jesus referred to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Flood when referencing Armageddon, and the Bible indicates that the Flood was a proto-Armageddon which only it had 6 human survivors (out of billions who died), ie not good odds for survival. Sodom/Gomorrah? Population of two towns, with three survivors (Lot’s wife ALMOST made it, but apparently preferred to be turned into a pillar of salt).

        Surviving Armageddon is earned by fulfilling Christ’s commandment to warn others of the coming “end of this evil system of things”.

        (I vividly remember my older sister of 8 absolutely crying her eyes out as she tried to convert my Father (a non-JW) to prevent him from being killed by Jehovah in Armageddon as an “unrepentant goat”. At one point she was exasperatingly pleading with him, saying, “But Daddy, I don’t want to you die….”

        Of course, he had NO idea of the emotionally-abusive doctrines his children were being taught, and he tried to placate her seeming female histrionics (which it wasn’t: he had NO IDEA of the doctrines the JWs expose their young children to); it was psychological child abuse, starting at a young age, but it’s perfectly legal protected activity, since we allow “freedom of worship” under the US Constitution.

        Just saying, there IS dark abusive downside potential to all this belief in God stuff, with plenty of opportunity for gaining control over others in the name of “serving God.” It’s not all about “Happy, happy, joy, joy!!” and enjoying the benefits of relinquishing oneself to exterior forces (imaginary or otherwise) in order to feel like you’re part of the community.

        Nevertheless, I’m glad to see you engage in a comparative study of religions (a course I never took in college, for whatever reasons), as i feel it’s the responsibility of all citizens to know something of the topic: religion is a force that we all must deal with, as it’s such an inseparable part of American culture.

        And just as there are Xians who cannot begin to explain the basis of their faith or roots of their doctrines, I have suspicions about “nones” who cannot explain their rationale for their LACK of religious faith or belief in Gods (some people are “nones” for the exact OPPOSITE reason that others believe: because they don’t WANT for God to exist, va those who WANT such an omnipotent being to exist. I’m unimpressed by the lack of critical thinking displayed logic by BOTH groups, who seemingly retreat from doing the hard intellectual work and independent thinking required to back up their beliefs with evidence, one way or the other).

  8. It’s really interesting to look at the historical background behind movements that started new churches. I really like the concept of your blog. I was raised SDA… am not anymore…

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