November 12, 2008

The End of a Sign, or a Sign of the End?

2008 1531 page18 capheir appearance was often so incessant that all the stars of the firmament seemed to be darting from their places.” “There was scarcely a space in the 
firmament which was not filled at every instant with these falling stars.”1 “The most grand and brilliant celestial phenomenon ever beheld and recorded by man.”2
It would be listed among the top 100 “great and memorable events” of America’s first century,3 give birth to a new science within astronomy, and ignite unprecedented study of end-time prophecies. The great Leonid4 meteor storm of November 13, 1833, which marks its 175th anniversary this month—on the very day of this issue—captured the fascination of all who witnessed or heard of the spectacular display.
Since we are accustomed to observing occasional “shooting stars” or periodic meteoric showers of varying scale, it is difficult for us to grasp the magnitude of the event or its impact as contemporaries described it. The stars showered the entire United States, from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and to its westernmost territories.5 Typical of the gripping reports appearing in American newspapers after the 4-7 hour display are the following:
“Some two or three hours after midnight small shooting stars began to be observed in the sky, which gradually increased in number and magnitude until the whole firmament appeared in motion with them, as if the planets and constellations were falling from their places.”6
2008 1531 page18“The light in my room was so great that I could see the hour of the morning by my watch which hung over my mantle, and supposing that there was a fire near at hand, probably on my own premises, I sprung to the window, and beheld the stars, or some other bodies presenting a fiery appearance, descending in torrents as rapid and numerous as I ever saw flakes of snow or drops of rain in the midst of a storm.”7
Science had no explanation to offer, but the magnificence of the display led Yale mathematics professor Denison Olmsted, himself an observer of the display, to collect, solicit, and analyze the eyewitness accounts that flowed into the newspapers and journals for upwards of six weeks following the storm. Recognizing patterns in the descriptions, and researching past records of showers also observed in the month of November, Olmsted’s studies launched what would become its own science within the larger field of astronomy. As stated on Astronomy Magazine’s Web site, “The science of meteor astronomy began in 1833, when a storm of 60,000 meteors an hour shocked the world.”8
Generations of Seventh-day Adventists have linked this extraordinary event with the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and subsequent celestial phenomena of the sun and moon as a fulfillment of Christ’s prediction that as the time of His return approaches, “the stars will fall from the sky” (Matt. 24:29). They have also seen it as fulfilling the scene John described at the opening of the sixth seal: “And the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind” (Rev. 6:13). After quoting these verses, Ellen White wrote: “This prophecy received a striking and impressive fulfillment in the great meteoric shower of November 13, 1833.”9
But how can a geographically restricted event that occurred 175 years ago—and one that is now understood to recur every 33¼ years—meet the specifications of the prophecy or speak meaningfully today of the “nearness” of Jesus’ return?
One might suppose that this is a question that arises only in the minds of post-twentieth-century Adventists, but Adventist pioneers and theologians have discussed these issues ever since their cyclical nature was first understood. Uriah Smith, longtime Review editor, took up the challenge as early as 1861 and again in 1866—a month after the showers made their next but much less impressive appearance, this time most visibly in parts of Europe.
Smith pointed out that Christ “did not say that the sign should be confined to one exhibition of the falling meteors; and though there should be a score of such, if they take place this side of the specified time at which they were to appear as a sign, they must all be taken as omens and heralds of the great day.”10 That the 1866 display turned out to be largely a European event led Smith to conclude that now the sign had been fulfilled “before the wondering gaze of the principal portion of both hemispheres.”
Writing in 1917, Adventist administrator and editor W. A. Spicer noted that though the 1833 display was physically limited to North America, its magnitude also caught the attention 
of European writers. He further suggested that “it may be that on a yet more awful and universal scale these phenomena will be seen again in that last shaking of the powers of heaven which is to attend the rolling back of the heavens as a scroll, the immediate prelude to Christ’s glorious appearing.” But he cautioned that “Christ’s prophecy, at this point, was not giving a description of events at the very end of the world, but signs by which it might be known when the end was drawing near.”11
Echoing that theme, Adventist educator W. W. Prescott compared the progression of the celestial signs to a train traveler’s mental logging of passing stations on the way to one’s final destination, “and as one after another is left behind, we note with increasing interest that the end of what may have been a long journey is rapidly approaching.”12
Over the years, Adventist writers and theologians have consistently pointed to a number of features of the 1833 shower that give it preeminence over later exhibitions in terms of its prophetic significance. First, its timing. The heavenly or cosmic signs described by Jesus are said to occur “immediately after the distress of those days” (Matt. 24:29), understood to refer to the same 1260-day/year tribulation outlined in greater detail in Revelation, and concluding at the end of the eighteenth century.13
Furthermore, no other display catapulted the biblical prophecies of the last days into the popular consciousness as did this one. Only two years earlier William Miller presented his first sermon on the imminence of Christ’s return. Interest in the Second Advent message was awakening, and Millerite preachers carried it to the front in the eastern United States—the very place where the meteoric storm was most extensively viewed.14
But there is more to the timing than its beginning point. There is also the specific sequence of the signs Jesus gave and that Revelation repeated: 
(1) tribulation ending; (2) great earthquake; (3) sun darkened; (4) moon to blood; (5) stars falling.
Although Jesus echoes several Old Testament prophecies that speak of cosmic signs involving the sun, moon, or stars,15 the sequence He presents is unique when He places the falling of the stars last in the series. The same sequence (sun, moon, then stars) appears consistently in each of the Synoptic Gospels, and the book of Revelation maintains the same order. No other meteoric display matches in timing and sequence with the events of the Lisbon earthquake (1755), followed by the dark day (1780).
Referring to these signs, William Shea writes: “Geography, sequence, and timing make this series of events unique and unmatched by any earthquakes or meteor showers elsewhere or at other times.”16
Some commentators suggest that we should not understand the celestial signs literally. Instead, they believe the described events may be merely symbolic depictions of God’s victory over false gods or political powers represented by the sun, moon, and stars. But the language John the revelator used in describing the scenes at the opening of the sixth seal suggests otherwise. 
It has been noted that the Greek term used in this context to compare the blackened sun to sackcloth and the falling stars to dropping figs “introduces a figurative analogy to an actual event,” just as a receding scroll is used symbolically in the text to depict the parting sky (a literal place).17
So we see that in His eschatological sermon and in His revelation to John, Jesus has outlined a specific sequence of literal events that transpire soon after the close of the medieval persecuting period but just prior to His literal return.
Even though other and possibly greater meteoric showers have occurred since 1833, this event remains the standard by which later displays continue to be measured. Some authorities credit the 1966 Leonid shower as surpassing the peak display of the 1833 storm,18 but its notoriety was hampered due to its visibility being limited to the southwestern United States and by poor weather conditions.
Wrote Mark Littman: “As great as the 1966 display was, it is doubtful if it was twice that of 1833 or perhaps even equal to it. . . . Given the techniques available then and even now, there is no way to resolve which display—1833 or 1966—was greater, nor is there a need for rivalry. The two certainly stand as the most awesome Leonid showers in the past two centuries. They were beyond counting . . . and beyond the words that strove to tell of them.”19
As Spicer hinted, some Adventists believe that the cosmic signs will be repeated and perhaps most completely fulfilled at the very time of Christ’s return.20 Indeed, Ellen White depicts stupendous heavenly events in connection with Christ’s prediction of the “shaking of the powers of heaven.” She describes how the voice of God will “shake the sun, moon, and stars, and this earth also.”21 And in one account of an early vision, Ellen White reportedly said that “the signs shall be reacted over again”22 immediately prior to His return, but she provided no further elaboration.
2008 1531 page18As we consider the 175th anniversary of this remarkable event, how can it still be a sign to today’s generation that Christ is soon to return? Adventists have held that since the 1260-day/year prophecy ended we have been living in the prophetic “time of the end,” “with no time-proclamation to intervene between the close of the prophetic periods in 1844 and the time of our Lord’s coming.”23 But the wait has far surpassed the expectation of all who pioneered our movement. Does the predicted “delay”—and we do well to remember that it was predicted—invalidate the prophetic signs that indeed we are living in the end-times?
As in Prescott’s “train station” analogy, it is helpful to recognize past prophetic events as “markers”—points in time that indicate our relative position along the course of human history. Perhaps we could update his illustration by using an analogy from the world of sports.

Most sporting events have a way of “marking” the game’s approaching end. In baseball the start of the ninth inning marks the last opportunities of regulation play. In American football there is the “two-minute warning,” and in the National Hockey League an announcer invariably proclaims, “One minute remaining in the period!”
Whatever the signal, the players recognize the “marker” as an indicator that time is running out. Does it come at the final second? No, for that would be too late for the players to react appropriately. It must come sufficiently ahead of the final moments to achieve its intended purpose.
Could it be that in God’s prophetic timetable, the great events of 1755, 1780, and 1833 stand as His warning markers to alert humankind that the clock is soon to run out? Signs that appeared 200 years ago seem distant indeed, yet when measured proportionally against the 2,000 years that have passed since the prediction was first spoken, they stand no farther away from us than the “two-minute warning” in the last quarter of football, or the start of the final inning of 
a baseball game.
While we do not know how much longer time will last, the prophetic periods and signs confirm that truly we are in the end-times. With full confidence, we can affirm with Paul, “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11). 
1From contemporary eyewitness accounts published in American Journal of Science and Arts, vol. 25, No. 2, Jan. 1834, as quoted in Mark Littmann, The Heavens on Fire: The Great Leonid Meteor Storms (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 6. Littmann provides a fascinating and thoroughly documented review of the Leonid storms throughout history.
2R. M. Devens, Our First Century: Being a Popular Descriptive Portraiture of the One Hundred Great and Memorable Events of Perpetual Interest in the History of Our Country (C. A. Nichols & Co., 1876), p. 329.
3Ibid. Listed in chronological order, the meteoric shower was event No. 36. The “Wonderful Dark Day” of 1780 was event No. 4.
4The designation “Leonid” derived from the meteorites’ apparent point of origin being the constellation Leo.
5Littmann, pp. 13, 14.
6New York Evening Post, Nov. 13, 1833.
7Baltimore Patriot, Nov. 13, 1833, as quoted in Niles’ Weekly Register, Nov. 16, 1833, p. 184. For other examples of contemporary accounts, see the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Students’ Source Book, “Falling of Stars.”; accessed Sept. 22, 2008.
9Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 333.
10The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 25, 1866, p. 30. See also Jan. 29, 1861, p. 84; May 23, 1878, p. 164.
11W. A. Spicer, Our Day in the Light of Prophecy (Review and Herald, 1917), see pp. 99-102.
12W. W. Prescott, The Doctrine of Christ (Review and Herald, 1920), p. 141.
13See, for example, C. Mervyn Maxwell, God Cares, vol. 2 (Pacific Press, 1985), pp. 193-202. Some have suggested that the “distress” Jesus speaks of is the future final “time of trouble” described in Daniel 12:1. But what purpose would these heavenly signs serve when human destiny has already been sealed?
14L. E. Froom documents this effect of the display in “Meteoric Showers Seen as Heralds of Advent,” The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Review and Herald, 1954), vol. 4, chap. 13, pp. 289-300.
15See Isa. 13:10; 34:4; Joel 2:30, 31; Amos 8:8, 9.
16William H. Shea, “Cosmic Signs Through History,” Ministry, Feb. 1999, p. 11.
17Jon Paulien, “The Seven Seals,” Symposium on Revelation, Book 1 (Biblical Research Institute, 1992), p. 237, as quoted in Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ (Andrews University Press, 2002), p. 244.
18The Guinness Book of World Records has listed the 20-minute peak period of the 1966 storm as “the greatest meteor ‘shower’ on record.”
19Littmann, pp. 215, 216.
20See Maxwell, op. cit., p. 214.
21Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 41. See also The Great Controversy, pp. 636, 637.
22Ellen G. White, MS 6, 1849 (June 30, 1849).
23Ellen G. White, Last Day Events, p. 36.
Tim Poirier is vice director of the Ellen G. White estate at the General Conference.