The 1844 Confusion: Is it Wrong to be Right?

By Dirk Anderson, An updated, expanded version of the article published in the March 2005 issue of Proclamation

“No lie is of the truth” 1 John 2:21

Is it wrong to be right? Is “up” really “down”, and is “down” really “up”? Is the truth a falsehood? And is a falsehood the truth? Welcome to the topsy-turvy days of 1844, when fiction was embraced as fact, when myths were welcomed as reality, and errors were saluted as “Bible truth.” In what could only be described as the most embarrassing debacle in modern Christian history, a group of believers were so anxious to have Jesus return on their timetable, that they “changed the truth of God into a lie.”[1] Ignoring the explicit command of Christ forbidding them from setting a date for His return, a hodge-podge amalgamation of Christians from different religions rallied around their leader, William Miller, and proclaimed Christ was to return on October 22, 1844. After the date passed without event, the movement quickly disintegrated in confusion and embarrassment. Then, to top it all off, a so-called “prophetess of God” arose amongst the embarrassed with a most unusual “message from God”. Simply put, that message was this: It is right to be wrong, and wrong to be right!

In order to understand how Ellen White arrived at this startling conclusion, we must go back to the fall of 1844. Farmer-turned-preacher William Miller’s first prediction about the return of Christ in 1843 ended in disappointment, but the leading Millerite brethren quickly recovered from that devastating blow and worked out a new date for the return. They assembled their proof—-their calculations, their charts, and their Bible texts. They checked and rechecked their figures. They had it all worked out. They had discovered the “Bible truth.” They knew when Jesus was going to come and they could hardly contain their excitement! They began circulating the news amongst the churches again and the movement started to regain some of the momentum it had lost after the 1843 fiasco.

Prior to the 1843 catastrophe, Miller and company had some access to teach their theories in various Christian churches. However, by 1844, many of the churches had grown weary of the time-setting nonsense of Miller and his henchmen. Therefore, they shut their doors to them. A number of able Protestant scholars had written tracts and books showing the errors of William Miller’s 15 proofs,[2] and the majority of churches were convinced that while Miller may have had good intentions, his scholarship missed the mark widely. The major Protestant churches in America presented four compelling reasons why Mr. Miller was wrong. Read these four reasons carefully and think them through. After you read them, it will be crystal clear why the vast majority of Christians rejected Miller's teaching.


The Four Reasons Miller was Wrong

1) Time-setting has always been viewed as an instrument of Satan, and Christian leaders could not with a clear conscience endorse any movement involved in setting a date for Christ's return regardless of how much they personally prized that return. Miller was not unique. Many a deluded soul had arisen in the past claiming to have some "Bible truth" which unlocked the secret of the date of Christ's return. Christian history was blemished with numerous examples of such folly. Protestant pastors and scholars were painfully aware of fanatics and extremists setting dates for Christ's return, and some had dealt personally with delusional church members. Church leaders recognized that time-setting leads to a false revival, and the bitter disappointment, which inevitably follows, wreaks havoc on the faith of those involved in the delusion. It makes a mockery of Bible prophecy and those deceived by the fanatics end up paying the price, setting themselves up to be the laughing-stock of the world. While it is evident church leaders understood the dangers of time-setting, the 17-year-old prophetess Ellen Harmon was seemingly unaware of such dangers. However, later in life, a much more mature Ellen White also acknowledged the danger of setting dates and times:

“I saw that some were getting a false excitement, arising from preaching time...” “Those who so presumptuously preach definite time, in so doing gratify the adversary of souls; for they are advancing infidelity rather than Christianity. They produce Scripture and by false interpretation show a chain of argument which apparently proves their position. But their failures show that they are false prophets, that they do not rightly interpret the language of inspiration.”[3]

2) Church leaders understood Miller’s message was a direct contradiction of the very words of Jesus who admonished:

“Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”[4]

“But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”[5]

It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Listen! Don’t even think about setting a date for my return! Not even the angels know the date! Not even I know!! And if I don’t know, what makes you think that you can ever know?” It is incomprehensible how the Millerites could read such plain statements of truth from the lips of Jesus and then dismiss it entirely. It should come as no surprise that the Millerites were derided as mental inebriates.

3) Church leaders were aware that not all of the prophecies of the Bible had been fulfilled in 1844. For example, Christ predicted the gospel would be preached in the entire world before He returned:

“And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”[6]

There were literally thousands of languages and dialects that had never heard the gospel in 1844. This was before the highly esteemed missionary David Livingstone opened up the heart of Africa to the gospel. Even a mental inebriate could figure out that if Christ came in 1844 it would be a direct contradiction of His own prediction!

4) William Miller used poor Biblical exegesis in coming up with his infamous “15 proofs” of Christ's return in 1844. Some of the texts he used to prove the return of Christ were not even prophetic passages, and others were badly misused. For example, in his 15th proof, Miller added the 1335 days of Daniel 12 with the number 666 from Revelation 13 and somehow managed to end up with 1844![7]

If a man walked into your church and told you Jesus was going to return on a certain date because the number 666 ended upon that day, would you believe him? Of course you wouldn't! The Christians in 1844 were not that much different from us today. They were not a bunch of idiots. They were literate people who knew their Bibles. Likewise, most of us today are well-enough grounded in the Bible to know not to follow after every fanatic who walks down the church aisle spewing out “proofs” and “Bible truths” showing that Christ is returning on a certain date.

Now that you understand the four solid reasons intelligent Christians rejected Miller, what would you have done? There is little doubt that if you were the one sitting in the pew in 1844, you would have stood firmly on the four principles enunciated above and rejected Miller’s movement. And that is exactly what the vast majority of Christians did. But there were some back in 1844, like the 17-year-old Ellen Harmon, who were caught up in the thrill of the moment. They allowed their desire for Christ’s soon return to cloud their judgment. In their yearning for Christ’s return they refused to see the solid Biblical reasons for rejecting Miller’s date. They were so anxious for Jesus to return to relieve their misery and fulfill their hopes that they seemingly lost their objectivity. 


Conflict Erupts

The battle lines formed in 1844. One one side, Protestant ministers saw the direction Miller and his associates were headed. Instead of just preaching the near return of Jesus, they were setting definite time, and this was causing disatrous problems in the church. Thus, they were not going to allow Miller to carry on his choas in their churches any longer. On the other side, Miller was rebounding from the debacle of setting definite time in 1843. Instead of learning his lesson, he dug in even harder, selecting a specific date, October 22, 1844, for the return of Jesus. He seemed unable or unwilling to fathom how Protestant ministers could dare to doubt his "proofs." Uncharitably, the Millerites assumed the worst of the Protestants. They interpreted the rejection as meaning the Protestants did not want Christ to return. Of course, that was an unfounded and ludicrous accusation, meant to smear their reputation in the mud.

It was not long before tempers on both sides started to flare. When churches shut their doors to Miller and scoffed at his ludicrous predictions, the Millerites retaliated in turn, deriding the churches as “Babylon” and the “Synagogue of Satan.”[8] Ellen White later acknowledged the opposition to Miller, but interpreted that opposition as hypocrisy:

“The preaching of definite time called forth great opposition from all classes, from the minister in the pulpit down to the most reckless, heaven-daring sinner. ‘No man knoweth the day nor the hour,’ was heard from the hypocritical minister and the bold scoffer.”[9]

Were those quoting Jesus' words really "hypocrites and scoffers?" Or were they providing the correct Biblical answer to a crowd of fanatics? The mature Ellen White said those preaching ”definite time...are advancing infidelity rather than Christianity." Does this statement mean that the mature Ellen White was a hypocrite and scoffer? No, of course not. The mature Ellen White was showing good wisdom in rejecting time-setters. Likewise, the people who rejected Miller were not hypocrites and scoffers any more than the mature Ellen White was. They were showing wisdom and rejecting fanaticism. Therefore, the young Ellen White's assessment was not only uninspired, it was also vindictive and missed the mark entirely.

So, if those who rejected Miller were in the right, then who was in the wrong? It was Miller, Ellen Harmon, and the rest of the time-setting band. The mature Ellen White informs us those teaching "definite time...are advancing infidelity." Therefore, Miller and his crew were the ones who were wrong. They were the ones advancing infidelity.

It is very clear who was right and who was wrong. The contrast between the two groups was remarkable. The Protestant ministers who rejected Miller had given their lives to studying God’s Word. Many were well advanced in learning, recognized by their communities as men of experience and character. Many were scholars in Greek and Hebrew, doctors of theology. Some had served for decades as missionaries. Others had served 30, 40, or even 50 years in ministry. During their distinguished careers these men had withstood many a fanatical “prophet” and faced down many a misguided extremist. These men had earned their right to be called men of God! Now an uneducated and impressionable 17-year-old prophetess enters the scene. She is caught up in the throes of a fanatical movement led by a farmer teaching "definite time," thereby in her own words, "advancing infidelity." What does she do? Does she respect the Protestant ministers of God who have given their lives to His service? No! In tones echoing of haughty blasphemy she derides these servants of God in the most hateful and degrading manner:

“Many shepherds of the flock, who professed to love Jesus, said that they had no opposition to the preaching of Christ's coming, but they objected to the definite time. God's all-seeing eye read their hearts. They did not love Jesus near. They knew that their unchristian lives would not stand the test, for they were not walking in the humble path marked out by Him.”[10]

Mrs. White goes even further, claiming that angels were sent to lead people out of the churches that rejected Miller’s definite time:

“I saw Jesus turn His face from those who rejected and despised His coming, and then He bade angels lead His people out from among the unclean, lest they should be defiled.”[11]

To those like Ellen Harmon who embraced the delusion of Christ’s return in 1844, anyone fighting against Miller’s message must be fighting against God. Ellen Harmon either could not, or would not fathom the idea that there were very valid reasons for rejecting Miller’s date. In her mind, the righteous accepted Miller’s delusion while the ungodly rejected it:

“The most devoted gladly received the message. They knew that it was from God.”[12]

One can only wonder how Ellen White could say, “they knew it was from God,” but later could write that those preaching definite time were “advancing infidelity rather than Christianity.”


Probation’s Door Slams Shut

After Jesus failed to return in 1844, William Miller eventually swallowed his pride and confessed his mistake and admitted he was wrong. However, Joseph Bates and James and Ellen White continued to believe and teach that a door of probation closed on Oct. 22, 1844. At first, the Whites taught the door was shut to all who had not joined the Millerite movement, but later they modified their view so that only those people who rejected the message of Christ’s imminent return in 1844 (referred to as the 1st angel’s message) and rejected the call to leave the churches of “Babylon” (referred to as the 2nd angel’s message) had a door of probation shut upon them.

Ellen White, writing in 1883, explains how the door of salvation was shut in 1844:

     I was shown in vision, and I still believe, that there was a shut door in 1844. All who saw the light of the first and second angels' messages and rejected that light, were left in darkness. And those who accepted it and received the Holy Spirit which attended the proclamation of the message from heaven, and who afterward renounced their faith and pronounced their experience a delusion, thereby rejected the Spirit of God, and it no longer pleaded with them.

     “Those who did not see the light, had not the guilt of its rejection. It was only the class who had despised the light from heaven that the Spirit of God could not reach. And this class included, as I have stated, both those who refused to accept the message when it was presented to them, and also those who, having received it, afterward renounced their faith. These might have a form of godliness, and profess to be followers of Christ; but having no living connection with God, they would be taken captive by the delusions of Satan. These two classes are brought to view in the vision--those who declared the light which they had followed a delusion, and the wicked of the world who, having rejected the light, had been rejected of God. No reference is made to those who had not seen the light, and therefore were not guilty of its rejection.”[13]

Why was the door shut on these Christians? Was it because of some great sin they committed? Was it because of some crime against humanity? No, their “mistake” was they did not believe William Miller and leave their churches to follow him. These were Christians who testified that they loved Jesus and wanted him to return, but simply could not accept the foolhardy idea of setting a definite time for His return in 1844.

Once again, what was their crime? It was being right! They were guilty of being correct. They failed to be deluded. They refused to be led away in chains of falsehood by false prophets. Now follow this line of reasoning. If Miller was the one who was wrong (as he admitted), and if the Christians churches were the ones who were right, then why did God close a door of probation upon them?


It’s Right to be Wrong and Wrong to be Right

The churches correctly responded to William Miller by rejecting his false message. Yet, Mrs. White said probation closed upon them because they rejected a false teaching. Supposedly, God’s Spirit left them and went with those who were deluded into accepting a false teaching. In effect, Mrs. White was saying, it was right to be wrong, and wrong to be right. This is a serious case of cognitive dissonance.

As noted above, Ellen White said the Millerites who afterward “pronounced their experience a delusion, thereby rejected the Spirit of God, and it no longer pleaded with them.” One would think this exclusion must include William Miller who openly and humbly admitted his mistake, denying that it was a fulfillment of any Bible prophecy whatsoever:

“We expected the personal coming of Christ at that time; and now to contend that we were not mistaken, is dishonest. We should never be ashamed frankly to confess our errors. I have no confidence in any of the new theories that grew out of that movement, namely, that Christ then came as the Bridegroom, that the door of mercy was closed, that there is no salvation for sinners, that the seventh trumpet then sounded, or that it was a fulfillment of prophecy in any sense.”[14]

Miller's defection must have caused Mrs. White great consternation. The question now became, how can we explain away the captain abandoning the ship? She could not so easily consign to perdition her former leader, a man she had unwisely equated with no less a personage than John the Baptist:

“As John the Baptist heralded the first advent of Jesus and prepared the way for His coming, so William Miller and those who joined with him proclaimed the second advent of the Son of God.”[15]

How could the door of salvation be shut upon one whose mind, according to Mrs. White, was so divinely inspired?

“God directed the mind of William Miller to the prophecies and gave him great light upon the book of Revelation.”[16] “Angels of God repeatedly visited that chosen one [Miller], to guide his mind and open to his understanding prophecies which had ever been dark to God's people”[17]

Mrs. White solved the dilemma by conveniently claiming Miller was not really responsible for…

“…suffering his influence to go against the truth. Others led him to this; others must account for it. But angels watch the precious dust of this servant of God, and he will come forth at the sound of the last trump.”[18]

Despite abandoning the ship, despite deserting the troops, despite doing the exact same thing that she damned other Christians for doing, Mrs. White was forced to come up with some clever way to sneak the modern "John the Baptist" past the shut door of salvation. While it is at least comforting to know one person escaped the wrath of Ellen White’s shut door, one must wonder how many other Christians were not so fortunate?

It is time for a "reality check." If you were alive in 1844, what would you have done? It is amazing what happens when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment! It is a lot easier to write off some Christian you never met or heard of who lived way back in 1844, than it is to send yourself to damnation. When you are about to close the door of salvation upon yourself, you suddenly start looking very carefully to make sure you are not missing something. You start asking yourself, is there a valid basis for a door of salvation to be shut in 1844? [19] And if there is not a valid reason for it to be shut, then one must question whether Mrs. White was a true prophet of God.

Ellen White claimed she “saw that God was in the proclamation of the time in 1843.”[20] Is this how God operates?

  • Does God lead a man to set a definite time for Christ’s return even though Christ forbid that practice in Matthew 25:13?
  • Does God turn away from churches that stand firmly upon His word and refuse to be caught up in a delusional movement?
  • Does God send angels to call people out of churches where the truth is being proclaimed in order to lead them into a delusional movement?
  • Does God close the door of probation on Christians who stood firm and refused to be deluded by the falsehood proclaimed by Miller?

Is that how God operates? No, of course not! It is a slander upon the character of God to charge Him with being responsible for the 1844 delusion. It is blasphemy to accuse God of shutting a door of probation in 1844 against innocent people whose only crime was in refusing to believe a delusion. The true prophet of God, Isaiah, said it best:

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter![21]



[1] Paul writing about certain Romans who had taken the truth of God and twisted it into a falsehood. Romans 1:25.

[2] E.g., John Dowling, An Exposition of the Prophecies, Supposed by William Miller to Predict the Second Coming of Christ, in 1843,  (CROCKER & BREWSTER:  BOSTON), 1840, and, A. Cosmopolite, Miller Overthrown: Or the False Prophet Confounded, (ABEL TOMPKINS: BOSTON), 1840.

[3] Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, March 22, 1892, paragraph 8. Testimonies for the Church Vol. 4, p. 307.

[4] Matthew 25:13.

[5] Mark 13:31—Only the Father knows the time of Christ’s return. Jesus further told His disciples, “…It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.” Acts 1:7.

[6] Matthew 24:14.

[7] William Miller, 15th proof, as quoted in History of the Second Advent Believers, p. 689: “It can be proved by the numbers in Rev. xiii. 18: ‘Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six,’ connected with Daniel xii. 12, as before quoted. This text shows the number of years that Rome would exist under the blasphemous head of Paganism, after it was connected with the people of God by league; beginning B. C. 158, add 666 years, will bring us to A. D. 508, when the daily sacrifice was done away. Then add, Daniel xii. 12, the 1335 to 508, makes the year 1843.” Note: After the 1843 failure, this proof was recalculated to point to 1844.

[8] See for example, Charles Fitch’s comment, as quoted in Jonathon Butler, The Disappointed, p. 197, “If you are a Christian, come out of Babylon. If you intend to be found a Christian when Christ appears, come out of Babylon, and come out now...”

[9] Ellen White, Early Writings, p. 233.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 249.

[12] Ibid., p. 235.

[13] Ellen G. White, Ms 4, 1883 in Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 63, 64. See also statement from Ellen White, Manuscript 3, 1853: "I saw that many who enjoyed the truth of the first and second angels' messages and felt the power and glory of the messages, have since rejected the light that came from heaven, called it of the devil, and there was more hope of sinners than of such."

[14] William Miller as cited in History of the Advent Message, pp. 410, 412.

[15] Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 229.

[16] Ibid., p. 231. Apparently this “great light” on Revelation Miller supposedly received from God included his 15th proof, which said the number 666 of Rev. 13:8 ended in 1843.

[17] Ibid., p. 232.

[18] Ibid., p. 258.

[19] The only other Biblical account of a door of salvation being shut is just prior to the Flood. What was the basis of God shutting the door of salvation before Noah’s flood? “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. Compare this to the basis for shutting the door in 1844, which was shut upon a group of believers in Christ whose only "sin" was in refusing to accept a teaching that was later proven to be false. Some Adventists have recently come up with a new reason that the door was shut, namely that it was shut upon those who taught post-millennialism (Christ's return after the 1000-year Millennium). In effect, this would make the issue of the timing of the Millennium a salvational issue. It would mean that God cut off people's probation because they misinterpretted the book of Revelation. This would seem to contradict the teaching of Jesus in Matt. 12:31 that "all manner of sin" would be forgiven. It is blasphemy against God to say He would shut the door of salvation upon someone for holding a false view of the Millennium. It makes God out to be an unjust tyrant. Besides, there is evidence that a number of pre-millennialists Christians in 1844 also rejected the teaching of William Miller, thus shutting the "door of salvation" upon themselves. What justification would God have in shutting the door of salvation upon these pre-millennialists?

[20] Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 232.

[21] Isaiah 5:20.

Category: Confused Teachings 1844 Movement
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