What Hath God Wrought? Or, Can Money Buy You Love, Revisited

As promised, some more on Daniel Walker Howe's new volume for the Oxford History of the United States, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of the United States, 1815-1848, as well as on the coming and going of another millennium day of October 22, anniversary of the Great Disappointment but also the birth of any number of American religious groupings.

With permission from Oxford University Press book blog, I'm cross-posting Daniel Walker Howe's reflections on the millennial dreams of the era that saw William Miller search for Jesus in the skies while Samuel Morse strung together the telegraph. Click here for Jill Lepore's review of Howe's work in the New Yorker -- which reflects on the striking contrast (one clearly of the values of the respective historians) between Charles Sellers's Market Revolution thesis and Howe's take on the same period. A nice appetizer for the Lepore's typically perceptive and smartly written review:

Sellers summarized Howe’s argument as “Market delivers eager self-improvers from stifling Jacksonian barbarism” as against his own “Go-getter minority compels everybody else to play its competitive game of speedup and stretch-out or be run over.” Fair enough. “Where Howe’s assumptions suggest that I undervalue capitalism’s benefits and attractions,” Sellers continued, “my assumptions suggest that he underestimates its costs and coercions.” Again, fair enough. But Sellers attributed these “warring assumptions” not to different evidence, methods, theories, or strategies of analysis but to the two historians’ different values. Howe writes from “within the bourgeois middle-class culture,” Sellers scoffed, while his own (presumably more Waldenesque) life had taught him that “relations of capitalist production wrench a commodified humanity to relentless competitive effort and poison the more affective and altruistic relations of social reproduction that outweigh material accumulation for most human beings.” In other words, money talks, but it can’t buy you love.

Anyway, here is Howe's piece:

The Oxford History of The United States series has won two Pulitzer Prizes, a Bancroft and a Parkman Prize. The newest addition, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe, looks at the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War. Howe’s narrative history shows how drastically America changed in thirty years. Below Howe, Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus, Oxford University and Professor of History Emeritus, University of California, looks at how October 22nd resonated throughout America.

On October 22, 1844, somewhere between twenty-five and fifty thousand people gathered in groups all over the United States to watch the sky. They stayed up until after midnight, straining to see Jesus Christ coming out of the heavens. A Vermont farmer named William Miller, undeterred by his lack of knowledge of Hebrew or Greek, had applied his naive ingenuity to biblical study. Calculations based on prophecies in the Book of Daniel had convinced him and his disciples that the long-awaited Second Coming of Christ would occur on this day.

How would people behave if they were convinced the world was coming to an end on a known day only months away? In 1844, many paid their debts, quit their jobs, closed their businesses, left their crops unharvested in the fields. Some who felt guilty about past frauds and cheats turned over money to banks or the U.S. Treasury. Others simply gave away money keeping no accounting of it. There was a rush to get baptized. On the appointed night, thousands gathered in many locations outdoors to watch the sky. But Jesus did not appear to them, and October 22d became known among Adventists as “The Great Disappointment.” The legend that Miller’s people had donned ascension robes for the occasion was one of the many humiliations heaped on the Adventists over the next year by a laughing public that had not quite dared risk scorning them until after the fact.

William Miller had never formed a denomination while expecting Christ, for there would have been no point in any long-term planning. But after the Great Disappointment his followers, many of them were expelled from their previous churches, kept their movement alive by differentiating themselves more sharply from mainline evangelicalism. The largest group organized as the Seventh-Day Adventists, under the new leadership of Joseph Bates, who declared Sunday observance an unwarranted innovation and restored the Jewish Sabbath, and Ellen Harmon White, an inspired visionary who instituted dietary reforms opposing tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and meat. The denomination re-interpreted Daniel’s prophecy and decided that Christ had entered a new “heavenly sanctuary” on 22 October, 1844 in preparation for an early but unspecified return to earth. Miller himself never got over his great embarrassment and retired quietly, but the Seventh-Day Adventists survive to this day.

William Miller’s prophecy was only one of many manifestations of the millennial belief widespread in the America of his time. Others include the picturesque Shakers, who called themselves the Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, and the much more potent Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly knows as Mormons. The “latter days” refer to the Mormon belief that the Second Coming of Christ will occur soon, bringing history to an end. The Mormon prophet, seer, and revelator Joseph Smith was assassinated by an Illinois mob in June of the same year that Miller’s people searched the skies for Jesus. The leader of the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, Nat Turner, a literate religious visionary who listened to “the Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days,” heard that Spirit tell him the day of judgment was at hand, when “the last would be first.”

Many Americans of that time and since have believed in their country’s special destiny to help prepare humanity for the Second Coming of Christ. Faith in democratic progress, in equal human rights, and even in economic and technological improvement have all been expressed in terms of paving the way for Christ’s return. The same year that William Miller was disappointed and Joseph Smith murdered, Samuel F. B. Morse publicly demonstrated his electric telegraph, its wires strung from the Supreme Court Chambers in Washington to Baltimore forty miles away. Morse transmitted a message of portentous religious significance: “What Hath God Wrought.” As Morse later commented, the message “baptized the American Telegraph with the name of its author”: God. America’s self-image was bound up with millennial expectation. In some significant ways, it still is.


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