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What is the Great Disappointment and What Can We Learn From It?

On October 22, 1844, thousands of Christians in the Northeastern United States gathered outside to witness what they believed would be the second coming of Jesus.

The day came and went, and those same Christians–disappointed and disillusioned–returned to their homes. From then on, October 22, 1844 would be known as The Great Disappointment. 

The Great Disappointment is considered an important marker in Seventh-day Adventist history. Because even though it dashed the hope of many Christians, the disappointment galvanized those that didn’t lose hope to return to their Bibles to figure out what had gone wrong. 

Early church leaders, such as Ellen White, faithfully studied the scriptures in order to understand what October 22, 1844 was really all about. 

Eventually, these same leaders would, through prayerful study and guidance from God, grow the Advent Movement and lay the foundation for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

If you want to know more about 1844 and why it’s important to Seventh-day Adventists and other Christians, keep reading.

You’ll learn about…

What did people think was going to happen in 1844?

In order to answer this question, let’s dig into the context surrounding 1844. 

Years before 1844, William Miller, a New York farmer and Baptist minister, fervently studied the Bible. 

Miller’s study of the Bible was intense and all-encompassing. He took into consideration all parts of the Bible, tying together visions from Ezekiel, verses from Numbers, visions from the book of Daniel, and the apocalyptic book of Revelation, to discover what he called the 2,300 day prophecy. 

The 2,300 day prophecy is complex enough for an entire article, but in summary, this prophecy used Daniel 8:14 as its cornerstone:

“And he said to me ‘For two thousand three hundred days; then the sanctuary shall be cleansed” (NKJV).

Biblical Book of Daniel as we discuss how William Miller studied the prophecy of 2300 evenings and mornings in Daniel 8-14.Miller believed that the cleansed sanctuary in Daniel 8:14 was the earth. He used scripture from all over the Bible to determine this, citing verses like Isaiah 60:13,1 Kings 8:27, and Revelation 5:10.1  

Then, his study of verses like Ezekiel 4:6 and Numbers 14:34 led him to realize that in apocalyptic and prophetic biblical literature, a biblical day actually symbolizes a year. 

This meant that the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14 actually meant 2300 years, a span that started in 457 BC, with Artaxerxes’ decree to rebuild Jerusalem (Daniel 9:25).

With this knowledge, Miller felt that he could pinpoint the date that Jesus would return. While Miller originally settled on a date in April 1844, a later date—October 22, 1844—was adopted after Samuel Snow gave a lecture at an August camp meeting about the starting date of the prophecy.

Miller’s followers, the Millerites, enthusiastically clung to the idea that the Second Advent could be predicted and prepared themselves for Jesus’ soon return. So, when October 22, 1844 came and went, many were so disappointed that they left the movement (more on this later).

So what actually happened on October 22, 1844?

 Field of grain as the sun sets across the horizon and we study what actually happened on October 22, 1844 as per the Bible.Turns out that something did happen on this date, but it wasn’t what Miller and his followers thought would happen. 

After the disappointment, some believers, including Hiram Edson—a farmer in New York—prayed that God would guide them to better understand the message of the Scriptures. 

God heard their desire to know the truth. What happened next was miraculous. The Review and Herald, an Adventist publication, details Hiram Edson’s story:

“After breakfast I said to one of my brethren, ‘Let us go to see and encourage some of our brethren.’ We started, and while passing through a large field, I was stopped about midway in the field. Heaven seemed open to my view, and I saw distinctly and clearly that instead of our High Priest coming out of the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary to this earth on the tenth day of the seventh month, at the end of the 2300 days, He, for the first time, entered on that day into the second apartment of that sanctuary, and that he had a work to perform in the most holy place before coming to the earth; that He came to the marriage, or in other words, to the Ancient of days, to receive a kingdom, dominion, and glory; and that we must wait for His return from the wedding.” 3

Edson, along with two friends and fellow believers Hahn and Crosier studied the Scriptures together and discovered that Miller had misinterpreted Daniel 8:14. The “sanctuary” of that verse wasn’t the earth or the earthly church

Rather, the cleansing of the sanctuary of Daniel 8 is a heavenly event (Daniel 7:9-10; Peter 4:17; Revelation 20:12; Matthew 22:1-14).

Put simply, Seventh-day Adventists believe that in time as we humans perceive it, during the year of 1844, Jesus began the final phase of His ministry in Heaven: cleansing the heavenly sanctuary. 

This means that Jesus moved from the Holy Place to the Most Holy Place and began the process of judging those who will be saved before His second coming (Hebrews 8:1-5; Daniel 7:9-27). 

White marble columns on either sides as light shines through them and we study about the Cleansing of Heavenly Sanctuary.In other words, the heavenly sanctuary contains a record of our lives, including every sin and every decision for Christ (Ecclesiastes 12:14). The judgment—or “cleansing”—that is happening in heaven right now is the cleansing of the record of sins for those who choose God and accept the salvation of Jesus

This new light about the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary, paired with the concept of the Day of Atonement, helped lay the foundation for the Seventh-day Adventist Church and in forming the doctrine of the investigative judgment.

While the word “judgment” seems scary, it doesn’t have to be! This doctrine holds that on October 22, 1844, Christ entered the holiest part of the heavenly sanctuary and has been interceding for us ever since. Jesus is writing our names in the Book of Life, and giving salvation freely to all who choose Him. 

Through prayerful study of the Bible, what was once a “Great Disappointment” ended up leading many believers to new hope in Jesus and His plan of salvation

It also led them to realize, based on scripture, that they shouldn’t be trying to pinpoint the exact date of Jesus’ return. Indeed, the Bible says that “no one knows the day or the hour” of the Second Advent (Matthew 24:36, NKJV). 

Yet, God can use us for good even in our errors. Out of the misinterpretation of the Millerites came a group of believers who valued sincere and prayerful Bible study and trust in God over human calculations. 

Now, let’s explore how the event impacted believers at the time and what came out of the Great Disappointment, both good and bad (but mostly good!). 

How did the Great Disappointment impact believers?

The Great Disappointment divided many early believers in the Advent and Millerite movements. 

A person holding lamp in a dark night as we study how Great Disappointment pushed some believers back to study of Scriptures.A lot of former believers abandoned the movement. The anger and sadness they felt when Jesus didn’t return in 1844 was simply too much. Many went back to their previous congregations and traditions.

And for many others, the repercussions from the Great Disappointment were serious. People had sold all of their possessions, including their homes. They also experienced ridicule, and even violence, from those around them when Jesus did not return. Several churches were vandalized, and unbelievers taunted them with questions like “Have you not gone up?”

For others, the Great Disappointment pushed them to dive back into the Scriptures and discover what they had misunderstood. They banded together to help each other.

One believer in particular who felt a need to dig deeper into the Bible after the Great Disappointment was Ellen White (then Ellen Harmon). 

Ellen White and her family were among the Millerites who believed Jesus would be coming on October 22nd. 

She recalls that day: 

  “It was hard to take up the vexing cares of life that we thought had been laid down forever. It was a bitter disappointment that fell upon the little flock whose faith had been so strong and whose hope had been so high. … We were disappointed but not disheartened.” 2

Though this moment in time was disappointing for many, Ellen White’s sincere conviction and belief in the Bible helped guide others out of the confusion of The Great Disappointment and into the hope that lay ahead for the Advent Movement. 

Soon after the Disappointment, she received insight from God during studies that convicted her about the Second Coming and what was happening in the heavenly sanctuary. She corrected believers who still thought Jesus’ return was happening in a matter of weeks or months and led them to see that the future was still open to do work for the Lord. 

Women praying with folded hands and open eyes as we study how Great Disappointment led Ellen White to further study of Bible.These insights corrected a popular theology among Millerites at the time: the shut-door theology. 

This theology stated that after October 22, 1844, those who hadn’t accepted William Miller’s message could not be saved. The door of salvation was “shut.”

God began to shed light to His followers that salvation was still available for every person He ever created. This renewed hope for many and helped to reshape early Adventist ideas about salvation. 

Ellen White’s experience of the Great Disappointment may have been briefly saddening, but the long term impact led her to further study the BIble and remain open to God’s guiding light. 

Because she and other believers were influenced by this event to study the Bible even more, they also discovered other concepts that hadn’t been given much thought before. Important principles like the seventh-day Sabbath, the investigative judgment, how we should take care of ourselves, and more. All that came out of sincere, spirit-led Bible study.

The Great Disappointment certainly had an immediate impact on those who were actually there, but what kind of impact does it continue to have today? 

What can we learn from the Great Disappointment today?

The Great Disappointment has a lot of implications for Seventh-day Adventists today as well as all believers in Jesus.

Dependance on God and the Bible for guidance

 Praying hands on an open Bible as we study how Great Disappointment of 1844 led some to depend more on the Bible and on God.Those that lived through the Great Disappointment learned firsthand how important it is to back up theological claims with the Bible and prayerful study. 

The leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church displayed this kind of dependence on the Bible and on God. Through their study and prayer, they helped establish the Seventh-day Adventist Church and guide believers to new perspectives on salvation and the heavenly sanctuary.

It also teaches us that…

God’s timing is not like our timing

 Hourglass on ground as we learn how God's timing is not our timing and we must wait upon Him and put our faith on His timing.The Bible highlights the importance of waiting on the Lord:

“Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage; and He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14, NKJV).

October 22, 1844 really puts verses like this one into perspective. Human beings have a limited perspective of time. We are finite beings, while God is infinite. And God’s timing is perfect, and when we put our faith in His timing, He will guide us and strengthen us. 

Be perpetually ready for Jesus’ second coming

Admittedly, it’s easy to become an alarmist as soon as it seems the world is in crisis. When something bad happens, it’s natural to want it to mean something more than just another manifestation of sin. Sometimes people still try to set a time period for Jesus’ return, only to be disappointed when years pass and He does not. 

Rather than being swayed by human opinion and anxiety, we can maintain a daily relationship with Jesus. This helps us always stay ready for His return, allowing us to live our lives in peace and trust in God’s plan for us. 

We can follow Paul’s guidance for us: 

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12, NKJV).

Man looking up to the Cross as we learn to have hope in the Second Advent of Jesus, regardless of circumstances around us.The Bible calls us to remain steady in our faith that Jesus will come again.

In the end, no matter what is happening in the world or our immediate society at the time, we can have hope in the second advent of Jesus. 

The Great Disappointment will be an even more distant memory as one day, we will no longer feel disappointment by the expectations of this life. 

Until then, let’s prayerfully read the Bible and learn about the wonder of God’s love and His plan of salvation for us. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the plan of salvation, prophecy, or the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,

        1. http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/christn/cheswmaf.html []
        2. White, Ellen, Life Sketches 1880, p. 189-190. []
        3. The Review and Herald, June 23, 1921 []

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