What on Earth Happened in 1844?
Christ as Creator and Judge
The Seventh-day Adventist Church emerged in the mid-nineteenth century from a series of highly significant events. Millennial hopes culminated in the fervent expectation of Christ’s return on October 22, 1844. Similar to the experience of the early disciples after the cross (cf. Luke 24:21), the disappointment was bitter when He failed to return as the Millerites had hoped. Careful retrospection focused not on the date, which had been so meticulously vetted, but on the meaning of the phrase “then the sanctuary shall be cleansed” (Dan. 8:14).1 Early Advent pioneers understood this “sanctuary” to be the earth; “cleansing,” then, would refer to the cleansing of the earth by Christ’s return.
Intensive Bible study by these pioneers—and an inspired moment in a field—revealed the nature of their misunderstanding. The “sanctuary” referred not to the earth itself (which is never so designated in Scripture), but to the only structure in which the services associated with salvation and atonement were to take place, designated in Scripture as tabernacle, temple, or sanctuary. However, in the case of Daniel 8:14, the reference is not to the earthly tabernacle originally built according to the plans God gave to Moses (and later replaced by other buildings), but to the sanctuary in heaven. Thus the earthly model was but a type or shadow (Ex. 25:8, 40; Heb. 8:1-5; 9:23).
As Christ was our high priest in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 8:1, 2), it followed that the yearly services of the earthly sanctuary must mirror greater, one-time services in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:24-26). The pioneers discovered that the annual service of the Day of Atonement involved the cleansing of the earthly sanctuary. Here the sins of the penitent were transferred from the physical building to the scapegoat (Azazel; cf. Lev. 16:10), representing Satan. They reasoned that a parallel event must have been initiated in the heavenly sanctuary on October 22, 1844. It was to this great event that Daniel’s prophecy pointed, an event centered on the beginning of the act of judgment depicted in Daniel 7:9, 10 and elsewhere in Scripture as taking place before the return of Christ for His people. The realization that the final act of judgment was underway gave urgency to the message of this fledgling group of Advent believers; they remained faithful to the vision in spite of their disappointment.
Sweet, Yet Bitter
In retracing their steps, the pioneers realized a particular aspect they had missed. Revelation 10 discloses that God had known all along that the study of Daniel’s prophecies would lead to great enlightenment. Conversely, its misapplication spelled agony and disappointment. This chapter opens with a mighty angel standing on the sea and the land with a little book in his hand (Rev. 10:1, 2). This little book, now open, is the book of Daniel. After all, it was Daniel who was told to seal up his little book until the “time of the end” (Dan. 12:4, 9). Advent pioneers pinpointed this prophetic milestone as the end of the 1260 days/years (given in various forms in Daniel 7:25; 12:7; Revelation 11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5), pointing to the end of the French Revolution in 1798.
Daniel 12:4 adds that when this book is opened, “many shall run to and fro and search anxiously [through the Book], and knowledge [of God’s purposes as revealed by His prophets] shall be increased and become great” (Amplified).2 However, the Second Great Awakening was not only a North American phenomenon. All around the world God’s Word and the prophecies of Daniel were being proclaimed during the early part of the nineteenth century. Adventist pioneer Ellen White confirms this: “In the Revelation all the books of the Bible meet and end. Here is the complement of the book of Daniel. One is a prophecy; the other a revelation. The book that was sealed is not the Revelation, but that portion of the prophecy of Daniel relating to the last days.”3 Additionally she wrote, “The words of the angel to Daniel relating to the last days were to be understood in the time of the end.”4
Such parallels between Daniel and Revelation are difficult to miss. Note the nearly identical language describing the oath in Daniel 12:7 and Revelation 10:6. Furthermore, Millerites saw the culmination of the Bible’s longest prophecy, the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:14, as parallel with Revelation 10:6 (“there should be delay no longer”).
Parallels between Daniel and Revelation are difficult to miss.
This brings us to October 22, 1844, the Great Disappointment. John is told to take the book of Daniel from the hand of the angel and to “eat it.” The angel warns John that “it will make your stomach bitter,” but that it would also “be as sweet as honey in your mouth” (Rev. 10:9). John obeys and finds the angel’s words fulfilled. Puzzled, he looks to the angel for understanding and is told: “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings” (verse 11)—the prophetic mandate parexcellence of the Advent movement. The messenger offers no hint of the content of that message, and with that solemn announcement, John’s vision in chapter 10 ends. It is not until we reach Revelation 14 that we learn the rest of the story, the reason for the Great Disappointment that John experienced in vision.
In Revelation 14:6 we pick up the trail of chapter 10 with a clearly identifiable repetition. Both Revelation 10:11 and 14:6 are directed to a global audience.5 The three angels’ messages that follow are the global commission to the remnant of those who experienced the disappointment of 1844 and later went on to found the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The message begins with a loud voice saying, “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come” (Rev. 14:7), the judgment that heralds the soon return of Christ and gives rise to the Adventist part of our name. So an event beginning in mid-October 1844 in heaven is a vital part of the “everlasting gospel” we are chartered to proclaim loudly on the earth today! Thus, we can trace the ending of a prophetic period, make sense of the pioneers’ misunderstanding of the event that terminates this period, detect God’s foreknowledge of those events, and apply them to our mission and message today.
Worship the Creator
However, one final aspect of the first angel’s message in Revelation 14 cannot be tied to an event in heaven in mid-October 1844, but it is just as important to our origin as a church. The angel admonishes to “worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (Rev. 14:7). This statement, a call to worship the Creator with language reflective of the Sabbath commandment, is the reason for the first part of our name, Seventh-day.
How does this connect with the prophecies of Daniel? Did anything happen on earth in 1844? Modern geology and evolutionary thought traces its roots to a Scottish physician, James Hutton, who became deeply engrossed in the study of the earth. Hutton wrote a three-volume work entitled Theory of the Earth, completed in 1795. Its 2,100 pages were hardly read in his lifetime, but before long the data was taken up and popularized by others. His first volume ends with the following significant passage: “But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end.”6
This passage reflects strikingly a quotation of the text recorded in 2 Peter 3:4. “Where is the promise of His coming [“no prospect of an end”]? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation [“no vestige of a beginning”].” Peter precisely sets the time frame for this event when he explains that “there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts” (2 Peter 3:3, KJV).
Thus the time frame of 2 Peter 3:3-6 is identical with the time frame of Revelation 10, the “time of the end.” The passage goes on to identify the willing ignorance of people who will choose not to believe in a fiat creation by God or in a worldwide flood. While this is intriguing as a fulfilled prophecy—what does it have to do with 1844?
Revelation 10:6, the key verse relating to the 1844 date in that chapter, contains an element not present in the parallel passage in Daniel 12:7. The biblical text describing the angel, who speaks now to the remnant of God’s followers living on earth in the time of the end, includes the following important addition: “[The angel] swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and the things that are in it, the earth and the things that are in it, and the sea and the things that are in it, that there should be delay no longer.”
Creation as an eschatologically critical theme is introduced as a new element in the same verse that proclaims the fulfillment of the longest Bible time prophecy and the beginning of judgment. It therefore promises to play an important role in the subsequent history of the Advent movement. But was there a significant event that took place on earth in mid-October 1844 that would justify including this most significant reference to God’s creatorship in the same verse?
Evolution and 1844
In mid-October 1844 a Scottish bookseller, Robert Chambers, published anonymously a book with the title Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chambers offered a comprehensive account of the origin of the universe, life, and even the origin of humans within a completely naturalistic framework (i.e., without God’s involvement). The book was an instant success, selling more than 20,000 copies in 10 editions during its first 10 years. It was widely distributed on the continent as well as abroad and was read by major poets, statesmen, scientists, and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic. Lincoln and Queen Victoria read the book. Physicist Sir David Brewster warned that Vestiges stood a “fair chance of poisoning the fountains of science, and sapping the foundations of religion.”7 Darwin, who himself in July of 1844 had included provisions in his will to have his then 230-page manuscript on origins published, was devastated by Vestiges, thinking he had lost his chance to get the credit he thought he deserved for ideas he presumed to be his own!
Modern historian James Secord recently wrote a treatise on Chambers’ book. He spells out his sense of the importance of this work in changing people’s minds about evolution: “How did evolution gain this pivotal role in the public arena? The answer turns out to have little to do with Darwinian biology or big bang astronomy. Instead, the critical period is the first half of the nineteenth century, and the turning point is the response of readers to Vestiges.”8
The insidious seeds of evolution cast by Hutton at the beginning of the “time of the end” took root, and sprang forth in the writings of Robert Chambers, published in mid-October 1844. They subsequently sprouted in the writings of Charles Darwin, ripening a harvest of seed that has infested the entire world with the spawn of Lucifer’s rebellion in heaven: “I will be like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14). In the absence of the ability to create life itself, Lucifer’s desire to supplant God and have creatures worship him could be realized only if he made God’s creatures think that God was not the Creator (cf. Isa. 29:16). None can doubt that he has been successful. Paul spells out the consequences of rejecting God as Creator in Romans 1:22-25: “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.”
Sabbath and Creation
This brings us right back to the second half of the first angel’s message, and the first part of our church’s name, Seventh-day—“and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (Rev. 14:7). The Sabbath is the memorial of Creation, and God is calling us back to true worship, an act due only to the Creator (cf. Rev. 4:11).
It is interesting to note that the editors of the most commonly used Greek New Testament included Exodus 20:11 as a cross-reference for Revelation 14:7—a reasonable inference based on a simple comparison of the terminology used in both references.
God has given the Seventh-day Adventist Church the mission and privilege of proclaiming the good news to the whole world. It is the news that Christ, the Creator-God, is coming soon for His people. He originally created the world in six days, and is ready to re-
create His saved people and this earth following His second coming. What a privilege it is to participate in this great mission! Surely Satan will do anything in his power to prevent the spread of the truth about the Creator-God. Yet, there is comfort: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).
- Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Bible texts credited to Amplified are from The Amplified Bible, Old Testament copyright © 1965, 1987 by Zondervan Corporation. The Amplified New Testament copyright © 1958, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
- Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 585.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 234.
- Revelation 10:11 refers to “many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings” while Revelation 14:6 employs a different sequence and points to “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people.”
- James Hutton, Theory of the Earth (transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1788), p. 166.
- David Brewster, “Review of the Vestiges (4th ed.),” North British Review 3 (May-August 1845): 471.
- James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 2.