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.