Next Tuesday marks the Terquasquicentennial of the Day of Wrath and the Great Disappointment.
I first learned about the Millerites in 2009 when researching a story for the Messenger Post Newspapers, A notable woman, on the wrong side of history, on Jane Marsh Parker whose father Joseph was the Rochester leader of the Millerites who believed the world would end on October 22nd, 1844 — the Day of Wrath — which became the Great Disappointment when it did not happen.
In the piece, I wrote:
Intrigued by the ascension robes, I later found a 1977 Upstate Magazine article by Vaughn Polmenteer, “The Seers: Along Upstate’s ‘psychic highway’ visions are not uncommon,” that vividly draws a portrait of the Millerites supposedly atop Cobb’s Hill in white robes expectant of the arrival of Christ.
These stories inspired me to climb Cobb’s Hill for what might be our last earthly day. The first excursion in 2015 featured a facsimile ascension robe and an old clock:
Below are articles from 2015 – 2018. For the 2020 edition see Atop Cobb’s Hill, the Magic 8 Ball is asked: “Will the world end on Thursday?”
In preparation for this years’ ascent, I reviewed Whitney R. Cross’ classic The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiasm in Western New York, 1800 – 1850 (1950).
On page 306, I discovered a very disconcerting claim. According to Cross, there were no ascension robes and perhaps no Millerites atop Cobb’s Hill:
The Voice of Truth was Joseph Marsh’s Millerite newspaper published in Rochester so it does indeed seem odd that the newspaper did not mention the gathering atop Cobb’s Hill. If Cross is right, ascension robes are a myth and there was no great pilgrimage — to be disappointed — on the hill.Disappointed, I turned to the Democrat and Chronicle archives, finding Arch Merril’s 1959 article “Will it be Armageddon? Next month” that accepts Cross’ hypothesis on the ascension robes:
Along with more debunking of the ascension robe myth, Merril says the Millerites did not gather on Cobb’s Hill but were at Talman’s Hall on East Main Street. I went to the Hall which is now a Building, trying to imagine the great disappointment of Milllerites who gathered there in 1844 as a crowd ridiculed and jeered them.In addition, the New York History Blog further undercuts the robe myth: The blog places the faithful at Cobb’s Hill not Talman Hall but the crowd size and dress later became hyperbolized.
Finally, my search too me back to Jane Marsh Parker where it began 10 years ago. In 1884, Parker (1836 – 1913) wrote Rochester, A Story Historical. On page 252, Parker offers her own recollection of the day 40 years prior when she was eight years old.
They [the Milllerites] did not go to Mount Hope, as has been stated, all clad in their ascension robes, to sit on pinnacle height waiting for the trumpet to sound. They gathered in Talman Hall.
Here, Parker does not even mention Cobb’s Hill, saying the mistaken notion was that they gathering at Mount Hope.Without ascension robes.
As for what exactly happened on Cobb’s Hill on October 22nd, 1844, we’ll never know, except the world continued.On the 22nd of October, 1844 on top of Cobb’s Hill, 172 years ago when the Millerites trudged down Cobb’s Hill and In search of Talker on Cobb’s Hill for “The Day of Wrath” (below), on October 22nd, 1844, the Millerites, a religious sect named for its founder Joseph Miller, believed the End of Days was upon us. Some wearing ascension robes, the Millerites climbed to the top of Cobb’s Hill to await the Second Coming of Christ and their own ascension to heaven. The Millerites suffered a “Great Disappointment.”
In some apocalyptic traditions, October 22nd is a day on which the world may yet come to an end. For three years now, I’ve trudged up Cobb’s Hill — even once with an ascension robe — only to have to face yet another non-ascended October 23rd. Quite frankly, I am feeling Weltschmerz. That’s German for world-weariness. Hopefully, today will not be another Great Disappointment.
As some may recall, in the last two years Talker has reported on the anniversary of October 22nd, 1844, the so-called Day Of Wrath. Members of the millennial sect, the Millerites, believed the world was coming to an end that day with the Second Coming of Christ and the entrance into heaven of the righteous. Some wearing ascension robes, they climbed up Cobb’s Hill, anticipating of the End of Days. The world did not end, and instead the day become know as the Great Disappointment to the Millerites who would soon disband. In some religious prophecies, October 22nd is still considered a possible date for the End of Days.
As some may also recall, I have had the mournful task of reporting on Talker’s untimely disappearance in the Maplewood Park waterfall, the ascension of his soul through a hole next to the McDonald’s on Lake Avenue, and then his possible spectral reappearance at the Grand Torch Light Tour in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
So it is with a heavy heart that I felt it necessary to pay homage to Talker by climbing Cobb’s Hill 173 years later. I know Talker would have done so with relish, hoping to be the first news outlet to report on the End of the World if it were to happen.When I arrived at around dusk, I asked a few passerbys if they had heard of the Millerites journey up the Hill, the Day of Wrath and the subsequent Great Disappointment. None had specifically, but one couple knew well about the various mid 19th century sects that proliferated in our “Burnt Over District.” Nor did any fear this might be their last night on Earth. Thinking of my lost comrade, Talker, I was alone.
Then I saw a flickering candle near by. So there was another believer retracing the steps of William Miller’s followers. Maybe it was the ghost of Miller himself, living in the purgatory of the Great Disappointment. As I approached the man, I felt an uncanny sense of familiarity. The man looked, looked, looked like . . . ! Were my eyes playing tricks in the fading light? As I neared, the candle was snuffed out and the man seemed to evaporate before I could reach him. Did he ascend heavenward?
As seen last year in On top of Cobb’s Hill (below) 172 years ago today, melancholy disciples of William Miller trudged down Cobb’s Hill. The night before — some wearing ascension robes — these Millerites had waited on the top of Cobb’s for the Day of Wrath.
As described by Vaughn Polmenteer in a 1977 Democrat and Chronicle article, “The Seers: Along Upstate’s ‘psychic highway’ visions are not uncommon,” the Millerites first believed the 22nd of March, 1844 would be their last earthly day.
In the year since On Top, the world still turns and, happily, Richard Henshaw is still in good health at 95.This year I did find some photos taken at Cobb’s Hill in August, 2008. That day my friend Martha and I were walking in Washington Grove (on that all too rare event, a successful match.com date). I told Martha about the Millerites and October 22nd.
Then, we noticed an open window/iron shutter on one of the abandoned water towers. Inside (not pictured) were skateboarders and some musicians taking advantage of the unusual acoustics.
Inside the graffiti walled, open roofed tower, under a sparkling summer sky, the mad max skateboarders and musicians gave the setting and moment a post-apocalyptic feel: October the 23rd.
At least for the last few years, the iron shutter has been locked tight.
Cobb’s Hill is a place of mystery and lore. Perhaps no better seen in the graffiti art draped abandoned water tanks in Washington Grove. Eerie at night, they evoke a post-industrial, post-armageddon future.It was near the site of these tanks, on October 22nd, 1844, that another strange scene was etched into the history of Cobb’s Hill.
That daybreak hundreds, if not thousands, of “Millerites” gathered atop Cobb’s Hill. Followers of the charismatic preacher William Miller who had at least 100,000 converts in western New York, the congregation believed “the Day of Wrath” had come and the literal Second Coming of Christ was at hand. The righteous would rise to heaven — some already wearing specially designed Ascension robes — and the wicked would descend to hell.
The failure of the messiah to appear became known among Millerites as the “Great Disappointment.”
In the weeks following, Miller admitted he was wrong. The Great Disappointment led to internal schism, and eventually the Millerites dispersed and disbanded. (For more on a Rochester woman, Jane Marsh Parker, who in 1844 was the 9 year old daughter of a disappointed Millerite leader, see at end.)
To learn more about the event, I turned to one of Rochester’s theological treasures, Dr. Richard Henshaw.
At 94, Richard has been a fixture in Rochester since moving here in 1968. He has a Ph.D, from Hebrew Union College and taught for many decades at the Colgate Divinity School, specializing in the Old Testament. He still teaches 55+ courses at Oasis on Monroe Avenue. Until recently, he taught yearly at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Many know him as long time volunteer at the now defunct Houghton Book Store and as a long standing member of the Rochester Bibliophile Society.
After doing some research from his voluminous library of at least 10,000 books (he is even considering donating some to the University of Baghdad), Richard gave me a little overview on the field of eschatology: a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity.
First, Richard explained how the Millerites must have calculated the date. The key texts to be traced were Old Testament references to the Jewish Day of Atonement and the old Karaite Jewish calendar which emphasized the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishri).
Richard says the Millerites first thought the date would be March 21st, 1844 but then changed it to October. I also found that in 1992, Purdue University Professor Susan Prohofsky researched the Day of Atonement in 1844 on a computer program called “Inter Luach” (Hebrew for Lunar Calendar). Her findings were that the September 23, 1844 was the Day of Atonement. Prohofsky also stated that, “The Day of Atonement never came as late as the month of October.”
In a broader context, Richard explained that notions of life after death go back to the Neolithic age and then Babylonian times, as well as from Zoroaster (later adapted by Nietzsche into Zarathusra). References to the “End of Time” and the millennial can be found in the First Book of Enoch. Chapter 20 of Revelations is equally vital to understanding biblical prophesy.
I didn’t realize how much millennialism focused on End of Time prophesy was and is a particularly American movement within the evangelical tradition. As Richard says, ideas of a possibly imminent Second Coming proliferate in more sects than he can count. The 7th Day Adventists have much in common with the Millerites, as do, to some degree, the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Church of God. As Richard says, October 22nd, 1844 was hardly the beginning or the end. (He also said he could imagine how “down in the dumps” the Millerites must have felt trudging down Cobb’s Hill that afternoon.)
We had some hopefully not too irreverent fun in my mock Ascension robe and old clock in the picture. Still, while I do not believe in the End of the World on some October 22nd, far be it from me to know the future.