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Lange: The Millerites of Calais

01/02/12 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) As we contemplate the New Year, commentator Willem Lange thinks we might do well to remember the Millerites - and how their story suggests that there are no simple, heavenly solutions to complicated problems – that it's ordinary people who keep on chugging along in their daily lives who are most likely to solve them.

(Lange) The problems of the world – wars and insurrections; crises financial, political, and moral; and environmental degradation, to name a few – must seem to many people impossibly complex. As if to prove it, ever more organizations emerge with purported solutions that, when considered rationally, reveal themselves to be simplistic and satisfactory to only those who cling to them.

We now have a political cult dedicated to emasculating federal government, ignoring thousands of critical services that couldn’t be performed by any other agent. And, while mainline churches slowly decline into penury, evangelical churches blossom; and thousands of the faithful await the day of Rapture, when they’ll be lifted into everlasting (and uncomplicated) bliss. I’ve decided to cast my lot with those left behind. It’s a safer bet: nobody’s going anywhere, anyway; and sinners are more interesting and at least mostly rational.

The Old West Church in peaceful Calais, Vermont, was once the scene of a Rapture. The building stands alone in a grassy plot. It’s not hard to find if you know how to get there; but, significantly, if you ask for directions, you get a hand-drawn map instead of an oral description. It first opened for business as a meeting house in 1825. But it’s still in pretty good shape.

Nearly everybody in New England has heard of the Millerites, an apocalyptic group made up of folks eager to trade old New England for Paradise. They emerged between 1820 and 1860, when church membership in America rose sharply and new sects sprang up like dandelions in May. Their prophet was William Miller, a farmer who, after a profound conversion, parsed Biblical testimony regarding the Second Coming, and calculated that it would occur no later than 1843.

The prophet never gave a date for the Second Coming, though it was supposed it would occur near the end of 1843. Thus, on the eve of 1844 the Millerites of Calais, who had disposed of their earthly property, gathered in the meeting house, robed in white sheets, to await its arrival.

The clock struck midnight. People screamed; women fainted. And that was it. Within ten minutes the building was all but deserted, and some of the faithful discovered their recent property dispositions were irrevocable. Many became Seventh-Day Adventists; some joined the Shakers, who believed that Christ had already returned, but in their individual sanctified persons. Others – I like to think that we can learn from disappointments, even as great as that one – went back to farming, carpentry, teaching, town meetings, fighting for the Union, paying their mortgages, and facing the complexities of their everyday lives.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.
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