David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008. 244 pp. + 5 pp. appendix. $24.00.
Every once in a while I pick up a book that is so well written that I just can not put it down. This was the case for me as I read Rowe’s new biography of William Miller. What is amazing to me is that with the recent series of biographies edited by George R. Knight and the resurgence of interest in Adventist studies over the past two decades that no one until Rowe has tackled a biographical treatment of the founder of Adventism since 1910! In many ways, Rowe, who is not an adherent of any of the Adventist traditions, has done Miller and the story of Adventism a great service by demythologizing apologetics and hagiography and presenting Miller within his historical, cultural, and religious milieu.
The book is neatly organized into eight chapters with a foreword (by Mark Noll) and an epilogue. In chapter 1 Rowe sets the stage for the biography by telling the story of his family. Service in the military and instability in Massachusetts created an opportunity for his family to move west. It also created new opportunities for Bill, as his family knew him. A quest for knowledge coupled with his family’s political interests shaped the young man (10-14). Some of Bill’s patrons included Dr. James C. Witherill, an active Democrat-Republican who would later serve in Congress, Alexander Cruikshanks, a successful local farmer, and the infamous firebrand, Matthew Lyon (16-17). The books he read beckoned him to a wider world; they also took him away from his family. Internal family conflict, in particular with his father, led him to relocate to Poultney, Vermont, after he married Lucy Smith, a childhood friend, in 1803. Chapter 2 showcases the young couple’s upward social path. Poultney also offered more opportunities for such an ambitious couple. Miller was active in the Masonic lodge (27, 91-94), set his political career aflame by writing a patriotic poem, and held a variety of local political offices (27-31). Rowe’s analysis of Miller’s journey into Deism is especially helpful. Although Miller rejected his religious upbringing, he was far from a systematic thinker in terms of his acceptance of deism. Miller rejected the optimistic assumptions of human nature, but instead “he sought returns—assurance, understanding, predictability, and a measure of control over himself” that showed his rebellion toward revealed religion (39-41). His frustration with human nature and politics led him into the military, a family preoccupation, where the author continues the story in chapter 3. Miller hoped war would “reveal the nobler qualities of men” but he was soon disappointed (49). It is here that we begin to see Miller’s inner turmoil. Although he escaped harm, five relatives died within an eighteen-month period. As a boy he had determined he could never please God. Now existential questions haunted him. Now the returns he required of deism failed him. Miller wrestled with his personal behavior as well as his rebellion away from his family and its ensuing guilt that led him back to both his family and God (63).
“A feast of reason,” the title of chapter 4, documents Miller’s spiritual evolution that “reflected a transformation in the religious culture of the young republic” (69). The capacity of Miller to reconcile reason and revelation marked a rapproachment of republican ideology, commonsense ethical reason, and Christian theology. His homocentric conversion furthermore mirrored the “evangelical tidal wave” spreading across the nation (71). Conversion required personal Bible study. For Miller the Bible became his “chief study.” Rowe explores the rich background for apolcalpyticism that likely contributed to Miller’s interest in prophecy (75-81). Ultimately Miller came to the conclusion that Christ would return “on or before 1843.” During his tenure in Low Hampton the author continues to trace Miller’s upward social status (85-87). Miller continued to imbibe the evangelical revival by participating in missions, revival, and reform. By 1831 Miller began to make his views public although Rowe’s deconstruction of the legendary story of Miller going into the nearby Maple grove may challenge some Seventh-day Adventist apologists (97-100). Whatever the case may be, Miller felt called to “tell it to the world” (chapter 5). Miller had a democratic appeal that came from his ability to relate to the common person. His simple messages were expository, apologetic, and homiletic which produced regional excitement (105-109). His message grew wider as he began to write for the Vermont Telegraph and published his first booklet. Miller’s message were commodities in the American religious market and he was learning how to market them (115). The author portrays a down-to-earth portrait of a man who as he traveled more strained his own family relations, suffered from depression, and was often ill, lonely, and cranky. As the movement grew, his followers began to ascribe to Miller his most enduring title, “Father Miller.” Chapter 6 explores the irony of Miller, who had been a rebellious son, becoming the spiritual father to thousands. Millerism was not out of synch with the sentimentality of American secular and religious romanticism during the 1830s (129). Miller’s calculated description of the eschaton was designed to evoke strong emotions that had more to do with the heart than with the mind (131). Miller became angry with the scorn he met, had a sense that he would face a violent demise, and a paranoia that plagued his personality. Rowe’s description of Miller’s promulgation and subsequent retreat from the fall of Turkey will help to revise the historical record and shows how “empirical elements of his vision”, including chronology, were less significant to him than his “commitment to the idea of imminent apocalypse” (138, see 135-139). As Miller engaged other ideas such as universalism he was forced to a new understanding of the Millennium, the church, and its mission (146).
As Miller met a new group of workers, described in chapter 7, the movement transformed from Millerism to Adventism (157). Chief among these was Joshua V. Himes who helped Miller market Adventism as a mass movement. Himes mobilized the press, attracted workers, and systematized financing for Adventism’s many ventures (161-162). “Miller himself became a commodity to be peddled to admiring supporters” (163). As Miller’s own health deteriorated he increasing sought refuge at his Low Hampton farm. Although Rowe acknowledges Miller’s congestive heart failure and chronic erysipelas, a painful skin condition (169), he does not explore Miller’s tremor that increasingly debilitated him throughout his life (described by some as “palsy”). Recent research of Miller’s handwriting by Dr. Daniel Giang at Loma Linda University documents that Miller suffered from essential tremor. This was what most likely accentuated Miller’s other health maladies. Miller’s retirement had an upside: his personal presence would lead to the conversion of his family to Millerism (172). His distance forced Himes to exploit Miller as the founder of the movement as Miller further withdrew from making decisions. The relationship between Himes and Miller was obviously complicated yet still cordial as a spiritual father and son. As Miller tried to refrain from date setting, he was ultimately shoved into accepting the October 22 date (188-189). This set the stage for the Great Disappointment, the focus of chapter 8. As Adventism disintegrated Miller continued to wait patiently for the eschaton.
In the epilogue Rowe concludes that Millerism was about conversion. This “strange work” (hence the title of the book) began with God’s transformation of Miller’s own heart. I would recommend this book especially to Seventh-day Adventist scholars because Miller never became a Sabbatarian Adventist. In many denominational texts Seventh-day Adventists begin with Miller and transition quickly to Hiram Edson, O. R. L. Crosier, and F. B. Hahn, and the rise of the Sabbath and Sanctuary Conferences with little if any discussion about the fate of Miller. He died only five years after the Great Disappointment. Ellen White points to the influence of Himes and his cohorts who closed his eyes to progressive truth. Angels, she wrote, remain by the grave of Miller watching over this beloved man of God until Jesus comes again (Ellen White, Early Writings, 258). Since that time Seventh-day Adventists have adopted him as one of their pioneers. This may help explain why some Seventh-day Adventists, under the aegis of Adventist Historic Properties (now Adventist Heritage Ministry), beginning in 1983, have preserved his home as a museum (Rowe states that during Miller’s own lifetime his farm had already become a shrine). Rowe does a service because he portrays him as the Sunday-keeping preacher, hog-raising farmer, tobacco-using man that he was. This may offend the sensibilities of some Seventh-day Adventists, but ultimately I think we will be better off as a result of Rowe’s keen historical and cultural analysis. Finally, I believe this book has a use in the classroom. As a relatively short read God’s Strange Work should be assigned as a basic text for Adventist history classes, or as supplementary reading for seminary courses.