Great Disappointment Remembered 170 Years On
Ellen White's great-grandson says October 22, 1844, paved the way for the Adventist Church and the marriage of his great-grandmother.
Ellen Harmon spent the night in tears.
Harmon — whose later decisions to marry James White and co-found the Seventh-day Adventist Church had roots in that night — was among some 100,000 people in northeastern United States who futilely waited for Jesus’ second coming on October 22, 1844.
Bitter anguish set in at midnight when they realized that their hopes would not be fulfilled. Many wept bitterly until daybreak.
“I can’t even fathom how profound and life-changing an event it must have been, not just for Ellen White but for all Advent believers who were heavily invested in the anticipation of Jesus’ return,” White’s great-grandson Charles White said in a telephone interview.
“It wasn’t just because they were anticipating Him, but they loved Him dearly,” he said. “They had such a love for Jesus and a desire to be with Him personally that it was a huge emotional letdown.”
But the Adventist descendants of those who waited for Jesus 170 years ago this month do not remember the day with sorrow. Instead they say that the Great Disappointment was a key moment in Earth’s history that saw the fulfillment of the three angels’ messages in Revelation 14:6-11.
Early Advent believers didn’t know it at the time. Many abandoned the Advent movement when the world didn’t end as predicted by William Miller, a Baptist farmer whose study of Daniel 8 led him to believe that Jesus’ return was imminent.
But those who clung to their faith and searched the Bible came to the understanding that Daniel’s “cleansing of the sanctuary” was not a prophecy of Jesus’ return, as Miller had believed, but the start of Jesus’ final work of atonement. In 1844, Jesus entered the Most Holy Place in the Heavenly Sanctuary to begin judging who would be saved, His final action before His Second Coming and a development announced in the first angel’s message, early believers said.
“The Great Disappointment story says at least two important things to us: The ‘blessed hope’ of Jesus’ return is still our hope, our aim, and expectation, and Jesus is ministering for us now in heaven’s inner sanctuary, during judgment time. While He does so, we are to take the ‘everlasting gospel’ to the whole world until He returns,” said William Fagal, associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, a depository of White's writings.
What Happened in 1844
Early Advent believers said the second angel’s message was fulfilled when thousands of people left their churches in 1844 to join the Advent movement. The third angel’s message was understood later as a call for people to observe the seventh-day Sabbath.
The three angels’ messages form the foundation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and are reflected in the name of the denomination.
The spirits of early Advent believers got a welcome boost about two months after the Great Disappointment when Ellen Harmon, then 17, had her first vision in December 1844. In the vision, she saw Jesus leading a group of people along a difficult path to the New Jerusalem, as well as a portrayal of Jesus’ Second Coming. Early believers understood that the vision meant heaven would be attained by those who remained faithful despite their current despair.
Ellen White later wrote that even though the Advent believers had suffered for months after the Great Disappointment, their pain was nothing compared to that of the disciples when Jesus was crucified.
“Our disappointment was not so great as that of the disciples,” she wrote in Signs of the Times magazine in 1876. “When the Son of man rode triumphantly into Jerusalem they expected Him to be crowned king. … Yet in a few days these very disciples saw their beloved Master, whom they believed would reign on David’s throne, stretched upon the cruel cross above the mocking, taunting Pharisees.”
But some of the believers from the Great Disappointment lived in despair for decades. Among them were two relatives, Benjamin Franklin Craig, who only heard about the three angels’ messages 25 years later in Adel, Iowa, and John M. Robb, who heard them 30 years later in Kansas, said their great-great grandson Stanley Hickerson.
“For all these years they suffered uncertainty about what really happened in 1844, and found peace when they finally understood the ministry of Christ in the Most Holy place and its relation to the Sabbath truth,” said Hickerson, an editor at the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University.
Hickerson said the only story that his family had to share from the Great Disappointment centered on the relief and peace that came years later when the event was finally explained from the Bible.
“Thus the significance for me of the Great Disappointment lies not in the disappointment but rather in the explanation,” he said. “Some struggle with the value of the doctrine of Christ in the sanctuary, but for my family it represents the solution to a decade-old inexplicable disappointment.”
A Personal Event for Charles White
Charles White, 71, said it is vital for present-day Adventists to remember the Great Disappointment and expressed sadness that many, especially children, are not aware that it marked the start of Jesus’ judgment in heaven.
“When I talk to kids about the sanctuary, and what it means in connection to 1844, they don’t have any concept of what happened,” he said from Arizona, where he has served as pastor of the Camelback Adventist Church in Phoenix for the past 15 years.
He added: “For those who recognize the value of recounting our heritage and our history, it is still an important and significant event. It is the event from which the Seventh-day Adventist Church emerged.”
The Adventist Church was formally organized by James and Ellen White and other believers in 1863, 19 years after the Great Disappointment.
For Charles White, who has served in the Adventist Church for nearly 45 years, the event of October 22, 1844, is not only important but also personal. If it weren’t for the Great Disappointment, his great-grandmother Ellen would never have married his great-grandfather James.
“That was what ultimately led them to marriage — the sharing of that disappointment between James White and Ellen Harmon,” Charles White said.
He hastened to point out that the two never would have considered marriage before October 22 because that would have been viewed as a faithless act on the eve of Jesus’ return. But after his great-grandmother had the first of many visions in December of that year, James White became her “protector and guide” who helped her share that and subsequent visions, he said. The couple was married in August 1846, and remained close companions until James White’s death 35 years later.
“Guidance and companionship first emerged from this event, and a relationship followed,” Charles White said, noting that his great-grandmother often used her own life as an example in counseling couples considering marriage.
“Romance was not a significant part of the relationship,” he said. “But obviously it was something that followed because they had four boys after all.”