Post 97, Fresh light on William Miller and his Bible study

Exactly forty years ago I was standing in the library of Aurora College (Illinois, USA) with Dr Moses Crouse, then the leading historian of the Advent Christian Church. We were discussing the original letters and other handwritten documents of William Miller, the books and journals that comprised what was once called the Second Advent Library, and related historical treasures-most of them available at no other place on earth. With a wave of his hand that caused his waist-length beard to swing in a half circle toward heavily-laden shelves, Dr Crouse said: “You Adventists should have all these things. They mean so much more to you than they do to us.”

So much has changed since 1972. Back then, with the savings of twelve years in ministerial service almost spent on study at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, I travelled from Andrews University and stayed close to the institution that is now Aurora University-to read what Miller wrote, in his own handwriting, on now faded and brittle paper. Since then a shelf of excellent books based on primary historical sources have been published, like The Rise of Adventism (1974), The Disappointed (1987), The Miller Heresy (1987), Millennial Fever (1993), William Miller and the End of the World (2008). When, early in Century 21, I heard that Jeff Crocombe was writing a doctoral thesis at The University of Queensland on how Miller interpreted the Bible, I was concerned.

Not that the subject is unimportant. Crocombe is right in claiming: “The Seventh-day Adventist Church is now a 17 million strong denomination with a worldwide presence that reads and interprets the Bible using an approach that owes a great deal to Miller’s hermeneutic.”

But I was looking at the problems Crocombe would face. Gary Land aptly observes that “Millerite historiography has basically passed through three periods”: “memoirs by the movement’s participants who sought to defend their beliefs and actions,” “a debate between detractors and apologists,” and “an academic interest” that better defines the movement in the context of American culture.[1] In this era of academic interest, I wondered if Crocombe could offer a study that would stand tall in the scholarly community and, at the same time, be significant for Adventists. Was it possible to focus on the rather well-known subject of William Miller’s hermeneutics in a way that would justify a substantial financial commitment and long years of intense study? Could the job be done by an Australian in Australia and Africa, enrolled in a secular university? In short, was the outcome likely to justify the enormous effort?

I have now read Jeff Crocombe’s 238-page thesis entitled “’A Feast of Reason’: The Roots of William Miller’s Biblical Interpretation and its influence on the Seventh-day Adventist Church” that The University of Queensland accepted in 2011. After ministry in Australia and teaching at Helderberg College in South Africa, Dr Crocombe, loaded with his newly-minted degree, tranferred to Papua New Guinea to teach at Pacific Adventist University in 2012.

So, what is the content of this sterling work? The first chapter offers a history of William Miller, the Millerites, and the Adventists. Chapter two delves into Miller’s hermeneutics, unpacking his historicism, his “Fourteen Rules” for Bible study, his biblicism and his proof-texting. Although such ground is already well-ploughed, Crocombe’s ploughshare digs deeply; his results are always fresh. Of greater interest to this reviewer is Chapter three’s investigation of Miller’s culture and philosophy. The influence of Christian revivalism, rationalism, deism, “Common Sense” philosophy, bibliolatry, biblical democratisation and freemasonry combined to make a Miller that most Adventists barely know. Crocombe the detective has traced the clues that lead us to Miller’s sources, the libararies and the specific books that he consulted. Finally, Chapter five details Miller’s influence on Adventist hermeneutics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Most of us have come to terms with the reality that the much-loved founder of our passion about the Second Advent was a hell-believing, Sunday-keeping Baptist, willing to remain silent on truths we regard as crucial (like baptism) lest they draw attention away from “the Advent near.” Some of us have been shocked to also learn that Miller was a cigar-smoking, hog-raising farmer who was  a significant figure in Freemasonry. We cherish Miller for what he achieved under the guidance of the Holy Spirit long before health reform began to stir us, recognising that without him there would be no such movement as Sabbatarian Adventism.

Thanks to Jeff Crocombe we can rejoice anew for insights into “the way the Lord has led us, and his teaching in our past history” (to quote Ellen White’s memorable words). William Miller is a profoundly important founder for so much of what we cherish, even though we need to be duly warned by the far-reaching principle Ellen White gives us in Testimonies I,  262:

Greater light shines upon us than shone upon our fathers. We cannot be accepted or honored of God in rendering the same service, or doing the same works, that our fathers did. In order to be accepted and blessed of God as they were, we must imitate their faithfulnerss and zeal,improve our light as they improved theirs,and do as they would have done had they lived in our day.

The William Miller that Jeff Crocombe depicts in such detail makes this an arresting call for every Adventist.

Arthur Patrick, 31 January 2013

The published form of this review is available in Record, 2 February 2013, pages 14 and 15; see also a re-publication of Miller fourteen rules on page 17 of the same issue. 

[1] Gary Land, “The Historians and the Millerites: An Historiographical Essay,” in Everett N. Dick, William Miller and the Advent Crisis 1831-1844 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1994), xiii.