My interest in Bible prophecy and the Millerites
With a grandfather who was a committed member of the Advent Christian Church and a mother who taught Bible history in a Universalist Church, I have always been interested in Bible prophecy and Millerism—a mid-nineteenth century religious movement that expected the return of Jesus Christ in 1844.
Imagine my joy when I discovered the book Thief in the Night, or, The Strange Case of the Missing Millennium by William Sears (1911‒1992). This book focused on biblical prophecy from cover to cover. Sears painstakingly scoured the Old Testament and the New Testament for answers to the mystery of the return of Christ. This return had been foretold by the prophet Daniel and by Jesus Himself in Matthew 24, at least according to how His disciples understood His words. As a Catholic, Sears initially had no intention of looking for answers outside Christianity.
However, as Sears dug for clues, his deeply inquiring mind found many references in the Jewish and Christian scriptures to events for which he was not looking and about which he knew nothing––the coming of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, the two Prophets of the Bahá’í Faith, in the nineteenth century. Leaving no prophetic stones unturned, Sears connected innumerable dots between Bible verses and Bahá’í history and sacred texts, and then he presented the results of his thorough investigation and conclusions in this amazing book. Little could he have known at the outset that his detective skills in Bible prophecy would uncover a prophetic convergence in the year 1844 for Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith—and prompted Sears to become a Bahá’í.
The West studies Bible prophecy and expects the return of Christ
In the West, expectation of the return of Christ was increasing throughout the early nineteenth century. Joseph Wolff (1795‒1862) was born a Jew in Bavaria, Germany. Wolff converted to Roman Catholicism but later became an Episcopalian. He was convinced that Jesus would return in 1847, but how he determined that date is not known. Wolff made two arduous missionary journeys throughout the Middle East and western Asia to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity and to tell them about the coming Advent. Although he traveled in Persia and became acquainted with the Bábí movement, the forerunner of the Bahá’í Faith, he neither recognized its significance nor gave it credence. And to put it mildly, Wolff had an irascible, intractable personality that largely precluded any lasting results from his missionary work.
The child preachers in Sweden in the early 1840s was an incredible phenomenon. In the Swedish Lutheran state church of the time, preaching contrary to the beliefs of the church was prohibited—not only did the church not emphasize the Second Coming of Jesus, but no one except the pastors was allowed to preach. Bible prophecy was not emphasized. However, many children and youth, some of whom could not read, began spontaneously preaching about the imminent coming of Christ. Thousands of Swedes listened to them and were moved by their message, which the young ones said came from the Holy Spirit. Even after receiving draconian punishments, these youth and children continued to deliver their message and they received much press attention.
The Millerites study Bible prophecy and expect Jesus to return in 1844
Adherents to the Millerism movement in the 1840s, who lived primarily in the northern United States and England, expected the return of Jesus in 1844, the year arrived at through the bible prophecy of Daniel 8:14.
He [a holy one] said to me, ‘It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.Daniel 8:14
The first step to interpreting this vision is understanding the biblical numerical code for time. One day equals one year, as these two biblical verses indicate:
For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against youNum. 14:34
I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So for 390 days you will bear the sin of the people of IsraelEzek. 4:5
Daniel was told in his vision to use the year 457 BCE as the starting date. This was the year the Persian king Artaxerxes I issued the decree authorizing the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem. (Ezra 7:1, 6, 8, 11–26) The years from the third decree to the birth of Christ numbered 456. Subtracting 456 from the 2,300 years in Daniel’s prophecy results in 1,844 years, which led Miller and many other Christians to believe that Daniel’s vision would be fulfilled in the year 1844 CE by the return of Jesus Christ. In a Christian context, the cleansing of the sanctuary would be the Last Judgment brought by Jesus and the banishment of sin from the earth.
The Second Coming had always been a part of Christian theology, but interest in it ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. Adventism caught fire as students of Bible prophecy calculated that the prophet Daniel had pointed to the year 1843 or 1844 for this blessed event (Daniel 8:14). They collaborated to investigate this Bible prophecy and generally agreed with one another’s findings.
What could possibly be more important in human affairs than the Second Coming in a few short years or months? The Millerites’ flurry of activity became a frenzy of preparation, including the study of Bible prophecy.
When nothing happened in 1843, it was decided that an error had been made by assuming the presence of a “zero year” between BCE and CE. Additional study of Bible prophecy and new calculations eliminated this extra year and identified the early days in 1844 up to March 21 as the time of the Advent. Again, nothing happened.
The last effort to set the date relied on recognizing that the spring Jewish Holy Days had been fulfilled by Jesus, but the fall ones had not. Traditionally, the date for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was set for the tenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. In 1844, the date for Yom Kippur would be October 22, 1844. Therefore, the Second Coming would occur on October 22, 1844. However, that day also came and went with no signs of the event. The ensuing widespread emotional and religious distress was deemed the Great Disappointment.
Although the year 1844 came and went with no indication of the Second Coming, at least as far as the Millerite Christians could tell, several Protestant sects emerged that continued the expectation of the Second Coming. Two of these Adventist churches have survived––the Seventh Day Adventist Church with 21 million members, and the Advent Christian Church with 125,000 members.
Nevertheless, Daniel 8:14 turned out to be surprisingly accurate. Millerite scholars had calculated the right year—but the wrong expectation!
The East expects the Promised One
Unknown in the West, a similar quest was underway in the Shia Islamic Middle East, especially Persia. While Christians in the West expected the literal return of Jesus, Shia Muslims expected the imminent return of the twelfth Imam, who was called the Qa’im––the Risen One, the Promised One, and the Mahdi. According to Shia tradition, the twelfth Imam was the last of the legitimate spiritual successors to Muḥammad, who were also descended from Mohammad, who possessed divine knowledge and authority and were responsible for interpreting the Qur’an and guiding Islam. The twelfth Imam was believed to have disappeared in the year 874 CE under mysterious and disputed circumstances. Shia tradition maintains that he remained alive throughout the centuries in a state of occultation, hidden from the world, and that he would return in 1,000 lunar years to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Add 1,000 to 874, and the result is 1,844––the year 1844!
In Persia, religious scholars search for the Prophet
In Persia, a group of Shia Muslims, led by two Islamic scholars and teachers, believed that a new and independent Revelation, as attested and foreshadowed by the sacred scriptures of Islam, would soon be given. These religious scholars searched for the Prophet who would bring that Revelation. In some ways, the two expectations of the East and the West were parallel.
A foremost Islamic searcher was Mulla Husayn (1813‒1849), who arrived in Shiraz, Persia, to a warm welcome from a stranger on the evening of May 22, 1844. After dinner and conversation, his host, a young merchant named Mírzá ‘Alí Muḥammad-i-Shírází (1819‒1850), proclaimed to Mulla Husayn that He was the object of his search. He called Himself the Báb, which in English means the Gate of God. The word “gate” is an English translation of the Arabic word báb. The Báb later wrote:
It is clear and evident that the object of all preceding Dispensations hath been to pave the way for the advent of Muhammad, the Apostle of God. These, including the Muhammadan Dispensation, have had, in their turn, as their objective the Revelation proclaimed by the Qá’im. The purpose underlying this Revelation, as well as those that preceded it, has, in like manner, been to announce the advent of the Faith of Him Whom God will make manifest. And this Faith—the Faith of Him Whom God will make manifest—in its turn, together with all the Revelations gone before it, have as their object the Manifestation destined to succeed it. And the latter, no less than all the Revelations preceding it, prepare the way for the Revelation which is yet to follow. The process of the rise and setting of the Sun of Truth will thus indefinitely continue—a process that hath had no beginning and will have no end.The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb, Section 3:34, para. 1, 136–37.
The Bab’s mission would fulfill Islam, as Jesus’s mission would fulfill the Mosaic Dispensation. After giving the Beatitudes to the crowd and telling them that they were the salt of the earth and a light to world, He said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill themMatt. 5:17
The coming of the Báb, a Prophet of God, was also a return of the Christ spirit, which is embodied by every Prophet of God.
The mission of the Báb was twofold—to make a complete break with Islam, thus setting the stage for a new spiritual era, and to proclaim the coming of Him Whom God will make manifest. In that way, He both brought a new Revelation from God and He also served as the Herald for the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh that was to follow. The Báb had complete love and respect for the Qur’an, and intimate knowledge of those Scriptures. In no way did His declaration denigrate the Qur’an or the true essence of Islam. On the contrary, the Báb initiated a fulfillment of many references in the Qur’an to the coming of a new era and it validated the Qur’an’s divine truths.
A new era of spiritual and moral reformation
A new religion thus emerged from the milieu of Shia Islam, just as Christianity had arisen from the milieu of Judaism. The Báb announced that humanity stood at the threshold of a new era of spiritual and moral reformation and on the cusp of a soon-to-be-revealed second Divine Revelation.
Fanatical Islamic clergy fiercely opposed the Báb, just as the Jewish priesthood had opposed Jesus and the idolatrous Meccans had opposed Muhammad. Under the direction of the clergy and their allies in power, the Báb was imprisoned for about half of his six-year ministry while His disciples and followers were being persecuted, with many imprisoned or murdered throughout Persia for accepting or teaching the Bábí Faith. In 1848, the Báb met with the crown prince of Persia and many Islamic clerics. There He exclaimed:
I am, I am, I am the promised One! I am the one whose name you have for a thousand years invoked, … the hour of Whose revelation you have prayed God to hasten.”The Báb, quoted by Nabil-i-Azam, The Dawn-breakers: Nabil’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation, 315–16)
The Báb was executed by a firing squad in Tabriz, Persia, in 1850, thus ending His ministry of six years from 1844 to 1850. His Dispensation lasted nineteen years, from 1844 to 1863, the shortest span in history for a divinely revealed religion. The Báb repeatedly foretold that Him Whom God will make manifest would appear. He urged his followers to watch and recognize Him when He appeared and to follow His guidance and teachings.
Bahá’u’lláh (Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri)
Among the early followers of the Báb was a young nobleman of high social standing, Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri (1817‒1892). He taught the new Bábí Faith, earning wide recognition for His wisdom and respect for His role as one of the Bábí movement’s most influential believers. He was tortured and imprisoned in 1852 for four months in an infamous underground prison. While chained there in perpetual darkness, He was visited by the Holy Spirit and was told that He was the one whom the Báb had prophesied, the next Messenger of God. However, Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí, known as Bahá’u’lláh, which is Arabic for the Glory of God, did not openly divulge this information at that time. After four months of incarceration in the appalling pit, the Persian government persuaded Ottoman authorities to accept Him in exile in Baghdad. He could not be executed because He was the son of a vizier, or minister, in the court of the Shah.
The year 1853 was the first of forty years of exile and imprisonment for Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá’u’lláh lived in Baghdad for ten years. Just days before His departure for further exile in Constantinople, and then in Adriananople (Edirne), He openly announced that He was the Messenger of God foretold by the Báb. The year was 1863, nineteen years after the Báb’s own declaration in 1844. Him Whom God would make manifest had appeared.
During His time in Adrianople, Bahá’u’lláh wrote a series of letters, called tablets, to the world’s major religious and political leaders in which He proclaimed His station and wrote about the dawn of a new age of universal peace.1 He also warned the recipients that cataclysmic upheavals in the world’s political, religious, and social order would precede the new age if they ignored His teachings and admonitions. In other words, based on their actions and decisions, the rulers could achieve peace relatively easily, or humanity would have to attain it the hard way. Because the leaders did not acknowledge Bahá’u’lláh, the path for humanity has been far more difficult than it need have been.
Bahá’u’lláh’s detractors in Persia continued to agitate against Him and His followers, despite their exile. In 1868, the Ottoman authorities responded by sending Bahá’u’lláh from Adrianople to His final destination, the dreaded penal colony and prison fortress in the walled city of Akka (Akko, Acre) in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. The conditions of His initial harsh imprisonment were gradually eased as various Turkish authorities and Islamic clergy in Akka became His devoted admirers. In 1877, He was even allowed to live outside the city in a country home and to freely receive guests.
A prolific writer, Bahá’u’lláh not only recorded divine revelation with His own pen, but more often He delivered it through dictation that kept three or four secretaries busy at a time. The scope of His writings in both Arabic and Persian encompasses an uncountable number of subjects found in more than 18,000 unique, authenticated works that comprise about six million words.2 In fact, His writings are referred to as the “Ocean of His Word.” For the Báb, over 2,000 unique works have been identified, comprising almost five million words.3 These writings are held in the International Bahá’í Archives at the Bahá’í World Centre in state-of-the-art environmental conditions.
In addition, archivists have preserved countless eyewitness accounts of the events surrounding the lives and activities of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, and their contemporaries. Humanity is extraordinarily fortunate that these two Prophets came so relatively recently in history. This is the first time in religious history that the words of Prophets of God have been recorded and preserved. Scholars of the Bahá’í Faith will never have to study ancient languages, trace scripture through successive translations, or resort to deduction and conjecture as biblical scholars have been forced to do. The Bahá’í Faith and its sacred texts are part of modern history. Much of this trove of religious literature has been published in several languages and is readily available to anyone who wants to study it.
The study of Bible prophecy is exciting because many prophecies have been fulfilled in our day. All the Hebrew classical prophets, not just Daniel, foresaw events that came to pass in 1844 and are continuing today.
1 These tablets are published in The Summons of the Lord of Hosts.
Note: Eileen Maddocks is the author of the trilogy The Coming of the Glory, which explores the Hebrew prophets within the context of their times in chronological order with Israelite history. Volume 1 was published in 2020 (A list of booksellers for Volume 1 is provided here.); volume 2 will be published in the summer of 2021, and volume 3 will be published in 2022.