On Oct. 22, 1944, the faithful throughout New England gathered for their translation into heaven. Beginning in 1831, William Miller, a farmer and Bible interpreter from Low Hampton, New York, had determined that Jesus would return imminently.
Miller’s calculations were based on esoteric interpretations of the prophetic books in the Bible, especially Revelation, at the end of the New Testament, and the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. Counting from the reign of Artaxerxes, Miller decided that the “Second Coming” would be some time between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844 – what he called the Jewish year 5604.
On March 22, disappointment set in. Some of the followers, known as Millerites (contemporaries estimated as many as 50,000 at the height of the Millerite fervor), fell away. Miller reviewed his calculations and came up with a new date, October 22, when Christ would return. Some Millerites sold their farms and settled their debts in anticipation of their imminent departure from this Earth. Some scaled mountains and climbed trees to be among the first to ascend. Others reportedly gathered in cemeteries, wearing white muslin robes – a circumstance hotly denied by Adventists today.
When Tuesday, October 22, passed without incident, something Adventists call the Great Disappointment set in. “I waited all Tuesday and dear Jesus did not come,” Henry Emmons, a Millerite, recalled. “I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain – sick with disappointment.”
I wonder if today’s Trump supporters are beginning to feel something akin to the Great Disappointment. In 2016, 81% of white evangelicals cast their lot with Donald Trump. Evangelical leaders hailed Trump as something akin to a messiah. He would deliver evangelicals from their supposed persecution. He would establish a commission on “radical Islam” and secure the nation’s borders – at Mexico’s expense, no less. He would balance the federal budget “fairly quickly,” release his tax returns and bring health care to everyone, far less expensively than Obamacare. He would make America great again.
When doubters pointed to Trump’s multiple extramarital affairs and marriages, his episodic to nonexistent church attendance, his shady business dealings and his passing acquaintance with the truth (apparently, he’s now surpassed 15,000 false or misleading statements since inauguration day), these evangelical leaders shrugged off those concerns. They even concocted a biblical parallel. Just as Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed the ancient Israelites to return to Jerusalem, so too the Almighty is using Trump, another morally flawed leader, to work out divine purposes.
But I wonder if these rationalizations are the contemporary equivalent of fiddling with the dates for the return of Jesus. Sooner or later, in the midst of the most vulgar and corrupt presidency in American history – Ulysses Grant, Warren Harding and Richard Nixon are contenders for the latter adjective, but not the former – evangelicals and other Trump supporters will surely have to acknowledge their own Great Disappointment.
What happened to health care for all? Why are American taxpayers, and not Mexico, paying billions of dollars for a border wall? Where are those promised tax returns? Does integrity and truth in the White House count for nothing? Do Americans really want Rudy Giuliani conducting American foreign policy? (And why, by the way, is Giuliani not being prosecuted for violating the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from meddling in foreign affairs? Short answer: William Barr.)
Alas, and sadly, there’s not much evidence that Trump supporters, including white evangelicals, are jumping ship. If the Great Disappointment has set in, they’re not acknowledging it. The one arguable exception to this is Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, which published an editorial just before Christmas calling for Trump’s ouster. Media sources – that is except for Fox News and the rest of the downstream media – pounced on this as a significant development.
Maybe Trump supporters today, like the Millerites of the 19th century, are engaged in what scholars call cognitive dissonance: They cling to their convictions even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The outcome of the 2020 presidential election, not to mention democracy, the separation of powers and the future of the republic itself, may hinge on whether or not these voters are willing to acknowledge their own Great Disappointment.
Randall Balmer, a resident of Santa Fe, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of “God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.”