Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in History



First Advisor

Evelyn Sterne


Millerites were antebellum Protestants who, according to William Miller's interpretation of the Biblical prophecies in the books of Daniel and Revelation, believed that Jesus's literal return to judge mankind and initiate the millennium was imminent. Self-righteously holding beliefs that were diametrically opposed to those of their mainstream evangelical churches, most Millerites withdrew from them in the months following the summer of 1843.

Historians have explained Millerites' separation from their churches by mistakenly relying upon Millerite evangelists' biased explanation of it. Evangelists argued that Millerites were forced to separate from their churches due to conflict over evangelizing, which intensified in the summer of 1842. They, therefore, portray believers' withdrawal from their churches as reluctant and belated; as such, they depicted it as contrary to the spirit of the movement. As a distinct minority of the movement whose experiences differed from its rank-and-file members, evangelists' views of the relationship between Millerites and their churches did not reflect those of their followers. Because evangelists needed access to the evangelical churches to conduct their missionary work, they argued against their followers' withdrawal and insisted that the movement was congenial to mainstream evangelicalism. Despite having been a minority of the movement, evangelists' perspectives are reflected in most of the movement's records. Consequently, their views have shaped the historiography. Because historians have based their explanation of Millerite separatism on sources produced by the movement's evangelists, they have mistakenly explained its followers' withdrawal as reluctant and belated. Innovatively exploring the views and experiences of the movement's rank-and-file believers, though, reveals that separatism was at the heart of the movement.

My study examines both Miller's theology and the views of rank-and-file Millerites to uncover the origins of movement's separatist impulse. In doing so, I challenge historians' belief that it arose reluctantly and belatedly. By examining Miller's lectures, I find that at the same time as Miller explained how biblical prophecy predicted the imminent second coming he also condemned antebellum evangelicalism as "sinful." Letters written to Miller by rank-and-file believers confirm that his diatribes against evangelicals resonated with them. Perceiving their churches as "sinful," Millerites believed that worshipping apart from them was necessary for their salvation. Ideologically, separatism was at the heart of the Millerite identity.

After examining the movement's ideology, I consider the extent to which the movement's rank-and-file members acted upon its separatist ideology during its early years of national prominence--1840 through the summer of 1842. I find that by forming separate "Millerite meetings" rank-and-file believers created institutions that sustained the movement's divisive identity, making it possible for believers to separate from their churches when widespread conflict arose in the months following the summer of 1843. It took time for Miller's followers to fully withdraw due to practical considerations-namely the fact that separating from one's church was akin to withdrawing from society. Nevertheless, during the early years of the movement, rank-and-file believers made a vital step toward withdrawal. Considering the experiences of rank-and-file Millerites reveals that the movement was far more radical than historians have appreciated. To truly grasp what the Millerite movement meant to its followers, it is necessary to appreciate its inherent divisiveness.

In addition to challenging Millerite historians' views of the movement, my study both helps to explain the rise of twentieth-century conservative evangelicalism and sheds light onto the nature of Christianity. Millerism and twentieth-century conservative evangelicalism were both motivated by their alienation from the worldliness of mainstream Protestantism. A half-century or so before conservative evangelicals reacted against mainstream evangelicals' "Social Gospel," Millerites demonstrated the potential for innovative leaders to refer to the Bible's authority to justify their critiques of mainstream religion and build alternative movements. In fact, the two groups' shared criticism of mainstream evangelicalism's worldliness suggests that competing impulses are at the heart of Christianity. At the same time as Christianity compels some people to devote their lives to helping others, it motivates others to withdraw from the world so that they can escape its "sins" and live "piously" with other faithful Christians.



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