A commemoration. Not a celebration.
Organizers stressed at least three times the difference between the two words, as more than a thousand church members and leaders traveled in mid-October to near Whitehall, New York, United States, to mark the 175th anniversary of October 22, 1844.
The October 17-19, 2019 event, which took place at the William Miller farm, chapel, and environs, sought to poignantly recreate aspects of the original experience. It also served to encourage contemporary Seventh-day Adventists to rise and keep spreading the gospel as the denomination’s pioneers did 175 years ago.
“From that great disappointment, we are now headed to the great appointment,” said Adventist Church president Ted N. C. Wilson as he gave a missional perspective on the meaning of the weekend remembrance. Farmer-turned-preacher William Miller and others, who had studied Bible prophecies, thought Jesus would come back to the earth on October 22, 1844. That day, known in Adventist history as the Great Disappointment after Jesus did not come back, would later become a catalyst for the denomination, now with 21 million members worldwide. It would spur believers to take the message of Jesus’ second coming to the whole world, a mission that, Wilson reminded the audience, is unfinished.
“Let us remember that no one in this church is too simple, too uneducated, too humble not to be used by God,” Wilson told attendees gathered under a tent on the premises. “Everyone doing something for Jesus—that is our great appointment,” he said.
No Singing Like Advent Singing
Remembrance events included, on the evenings of October 17 and 18, singing some of the “Millerite hymns,” which the first group of Advent believers sang in the early 1840s. Adventist Church White Estate director Jim Nix related some of the stories behind the hymns and the melodies of classics such as “Together Let Us Sweetly Live,” “You Will See Your Lord A-Coming,” and “Lo, What a Glorious Sight Appears,” among others.
Nix quoted Adventist pioneer James White, who, in the late 1860s, wrote that in those days (around 1844), “there was no singing like Advent singing.” Nix also emphasized how early leaders of the church went to great lengths to make sure people sang at the church’s first gatherings.
“The first Advent believers were so intent on people singing hymns that they even resorted to well-known melodies, which they sang in worship gatherings with different lyrics,” Nix explained. One early example is the hymn “O Brother, Be Faithful,” which uses a folk melody of the time. The hymn is still sung in Adventist congregations, he said.
During the daytime of the commemoration events, attendees could opt for guided bus tours in the area, visiting places meaningful to the early history of Advent believers. These included some of the Christian churches where Miller was first invited to preach in the early 1840s and the local cemetery where he and others rest from their labors.
A God Who Does Not Quit
Friday night vespers included a devotional message by North American Division president Daniel Jackson.
In remembering the plight of the early believers who waited for Jesus to appear in 1844, Jackson acknowledged that it’s hard to imagine the anticipation these people must have felt, but it’s also difficult to imagine their disappointment. Nevertheless, Jackson emphasized, the people who gathered at Miller's Farm in 1844 were part of God’s plan for the world.
“What happened here 175 years ago was part of God’s plan to spread this message [of Jesus’ soon second coming] to the whole world,” Jackson said. “Disappointment was not an end but a beginning. God was calling [early Advent believers] to carry on.”
Jackson explained that this reality is based on who God is. “The God I believe in does not quit; He does not stop,” he said. “The will and plans of God would not be thwarted by defeat, ridicule, or disappointment.”
It is a reason to hope, Jackson emphasized.
“Our God does not give up on you or the church,” he said. “God will continue to work through His church.”
Jackson also reminded listeners that even though the Advent believers’ early work was both robust and fragile, God did not stop taking care of them, because He had a plan. And we as contemporary believers are also part of His plan.
“Today, God sends us the Holy Spirit and makes us His ambassadors,” Jackson said. “The reality is that Jesus is coming soon, and that is the reason He wants ambassadors, not benchwarmers,” he added. “It is God's plan that His church today rise,” he said.
When God Disappoints
In his Saturday (Sabbath) morning message, White Estate associate director Dwain Esmond reviewed how early Advent pioneers longed and wished for God’s kingdom to come. After briefly reviewing the current state of the world, Esmond said, “You have to be crazy not to want the kingdom to come!”
Esmond said that Miller wanted God’s kingdom to come because he knew that God’s kingdom is first and that His kingdom will have no end. “It is the promise we have,” Esmond said. “By God’s grace, we’ll fly away, and God will start again.”
In discussing the experience of those who were disappointed, Esmond said that just like them, we never get into a situation for which God has not made a provision.
“Remember that when God disappoints, it’s always in the service of something greater,” Esmond emphasized. “He makes it better than it was before.”
After providing several examples of Bible characters who were disappointed but ended up receiving something better — he mentioned the examples of Moses, David, Mary, and Martha, among others — Esmond turned to the stories surrounding the disappointment of 1844. He specifically zeroed in on the experience of Hiram Edson, an early believer who was the first to apprehend the theological meaning of what had happened on October 22, 1844.
According to Adventist history records, as Edson was crossing a cornfield to visit some of the disappointed brethren on October 23, he understood that the “cleansing of the sanctuary” referred to in the book of Daniel was an event that would start on October 22 but did not refer to this earth but to heaven and Jesus’ intercessory work there.
It was something that changed our pioneers’ perspective, Esmond said, and it should also change ours.
“Our pioneers had no education, no money, and no great means of communication, but God used them because they were faithful,” he said. “If they were here and saw some of the things we worry about they would probably tell us, ‘What’s your problem?’” Esmond emphasized. “Remember that from that disappointment came the appointment to finish the work.”
The Sabbath afternoon program was launched with special moments of reflection on “Ascension Rock,” a rock formation at the back of Miller's farm, where a group of believers may have waited for Jesus to appear on October 22, 1844. On a sunny and mild fall afternoon, executive director of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines Bill Knott, also a church history expert, narrated how it was to live through the October 22 disappointment, especially on the days and weeks that followed. Those who did not renounce their faith or go back to their old churches were mocked and derided, he said.
For Wilson, who closed the moments of remembrance and reflection after Knott’s brief presentation, the early believers’ plight foresees what Adventist believers may experience at the end of time.
“Those who want to stay faithful to God's Word will also be mocked and taunted,” Wilson said. “But there's nothing to fear; God will see us through.” In that sense, Wilson and other leaders emphasized the present-day church should be as tenacious and persevering as those early pioneers were.
Esmond said that for today’s church members, it’s all about remembering that it’s not what we know but what we do with what we know.
“Our pioneers gave us truth, but one thing they couldn’t give us is faithfulness,” Esmond said. “Today, God is betting on you and me. He is inviting us to be part of the final warning to the world before His coming.”
Once more, Esmond called church members and leaders to remember that when God disappoints, it’s always in the service of something greater. The key question is, he said, what our role will be.
“Are you going to be that greater thing that came out of disappointment?” he said.