Friday, April 3, 2009

'God's Strange Work'

William Miller is a fascinating figure of American history. Usually referred to in the context of religious hysteria. The idea of a crazed preacher prophesying the end of the world and his followers selling all and climbing mountains to await the Second Coming, only to be disappointed, is a story that amuses most of us. But Miller was far more than a mere religious crank, and his followers more than just a few crackpots and victims of hysteria.
God's Strange Work (Eerdmans, 2008), by David L. Rowe, is an excellent and sympathetic study of a man who is more often caricatured than understood. Rowe shows that Miller was far from the two-dimensional character so often presented. In this book we have the life of a man who in many ways presents a typical American type of the period. Miller threw off a strict religious upbringing and embraced rationalism. He was an officer in the war of 1812, and it was only after that, in middle age, that he was converted. Thus Miller was a middle aged respectable gentleman, hardly the sort of youthful convert that religious fanaticism is usually connected with.
Nevertheless, this respectable gentleman farmer became America's first great prophetic teacher, complete with his chart of the end-times events! He comes across in this book as an honest man who made a mistake, and thought that he had discovered the date of the Second Coming of Christ. He was, of course wrong, and the thousands who were influenced by his books were disappointed and shocked, as was Miller himself. He was not a rogue, but he was sucked into prophetic speculation and built for himself a house of cards which fell so easily. His speculations split his church, and discredited him and his followers. And he was an honest man, just sincerely mistaken.
I enjoyed this book, although the ending is of course tragic. I hope it will go a long way towards putting Miller where he deserves, and in perspective.

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