American Millennialism, Millerites, and Cognitive Dissonance

The general theme for this week is to look for eschatological ideas in American culture, particularly those that develop at a popular level, rather than in the academy of theologians and religious officials. The United States has a very special relationship with religion. On the one hand, much of our early settlement was due to Puritan and Catholic missionaries, and we are (one of?) the most religious countries in the first world. On the other hand, we have a form of secularism, which promotes religious autonomy and individualism. Note that “secularism” does not refer to the absence of religion, but rather the creation of a separate neutral or pluralistic common sphere that assumes the truth of no one religion.

There are many points that could have been considered this week. I think it is worth mentioning some of the things we could have done, just to give a sense of the larger issue of eschatology in American culture. I suspect you already have a sense of most of them.

These are not all exclusive to American culture, but they all have a distinctive American flavor, and almost all of them have been significant as measured by popularity. I will only add that I could go on if I wanted to. I am interested in eschatology, and I tend to see it everywhere.

From that broad context, let’s move to a theme that will be a focus for the evening. The relationship between religion and science has been tense for a long time, going back to the older issue of faith and reason. However, I don’t believe it has ever been the case more than in modernity. It is also not exclusive to America, but I do think we have a special drive, permitted by a special independence, to merge empiric and scientific data with supernatural beliefs in new ways. One might think of it as the progress of science outpacing, or appearing to outpace, theology. Tradition is seen as the opposite of new discovery, and a new age is built on the rejection of the old age and its traditions. It is very difficult to generalize, but that is part of the point. There is tremendous individualism and emphasis on novelty that essentially forbids any broad orthodoxy.

Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956).

The second hour will bring us to two major elements in one reading. The reading provides a short version of the story of the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844. This first element is a major part of American religious history in its own right. The second element is the nature of the book as grounded in social science but addressing questions traditionally associated with theology. That is, it takes a scientific approach to studying human behavior associated with belief in the afterlife and the end of the world. This work is a seminal study of cognitive dissonance, which frequently comes up in biblical studies (sometimes in a loose sense). It argues that under certain conditions, beliefs that are proven wrong only become more fervent and are more vigorously proselytized. I find it fascinating that science can predict the behavior of individuals and groups according to certain patterns. I also think this scientific model is potentially very challenging for theologians, and may lead us to enhanced insight into the compatibility of the supernatural and the natural, such as God working through nature. I think it will be important for us not to be too quickly dismissive of the Millerites and the UFO cult that is studied in the remainder of the book. Festinger et al. raise but tread lightly on the issue of early Christianity. If we sharpen a sword against cultic behavior as predictable delusion, we run the risk of Christian origins being similarly dismissed. It is relatively easy for us to say that Miller was wrong, Montanus was wrong, Harold Camping was wrong, etc., but it is not so easy for us to say that Paul was wrong.

We may need to hold in balance the virtue of living as if judgment is imminent, even if historically everyone who has believed that has been proven “wrong” (in scare-quotes because the final judgment did not happen, but maybe they were right in a different way). Of course we can talk about other ways in which the Millerites were wrong and fundamentally different from Paul and the first Christians. I do wish to suggest that we should be careful about dismissing the beliefs of others without looking carefully at which challenges are found in our own tradition as well.


The story of the Millerites and the Great Disappointment is a major part of American religious history in its own right, with more lasting effects and frequent analogous examples than Festinger et al. discuss. I want to emphasize a few points and suggest some theological questions. I am especially concerned with the question of whether or how the Millerites can be dismissed as fundamentally unlike early Christianity.

I am interested in biblical interpretation, and I have studied many of the codes and calculations from the history of Judaism and Christianity. I have to say, Miller’s seems particularly uncomplicated to me, at least as far as I understand it. It is essentially based on two verses:

I heard a holy one speaking, and another said to whichever one it was that spoke, “How long shall the events of this vision last concerning the daily sacrifice, the desolating sin which is placed there, the sanctuary, and the trampled host?” He answered him, “For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be purified.” (Daniel 8:13-14)

The historical-critical view is that the desecration of the temple associated with Antiochus Epiphanes (an altar or statue considered pagan) was expected to last for about three and a half-years. The cryptic way of saying about three and a half years is 1150 days. The cryptic way of saying 1150 days is 2300 evenings and mornings. Miller took each day and evening as a year. He counted from 457 BCE as the date of the prophecy (which I don’t understand because the Babylonian desecration of the temple was in 587 BCE and the book of Daniel is set during the sixth century). 2300 years after 457 BCE is 1843 CE. There was no year zero. Miller interpreted the purification of the sanctuary as the second coming of Christ. It strikes me as unusual to make the calculation on the basis of one passage. Hal Lindsey, for example, makes more elaborate efforts to include all unfulfilled prophecies in the Bible (which he counts as two-thirds of the total prophecies) in his eschatological prediction. Isaac Newton also made a very complicated calculation.

Besides the prediction of when it would happen, I also want to point out the expectation of what would happen. Namely, it would be a complete rejection of the world (page 19). For example, planting or even harvesting crops indicated lack of faith. Possession of money is a liability. Essentially the view of the world is profoundly negative. The first thing Christ will do with our ecology and economy is destroy them.

Besides the main theory of cognitive dissonance, Festinger et al. include some interesting socio-historical notes. First the steam press played a major role. Technology often plays a role in religious developments. Other major examples include the printing press (especially Gutenberg’s Bible) and the Internet. I also thought it was interesting that Miller himself was not the one-man center of the movement. I don’t get the sense that he was particularly charismatic or at the forefront in confident speculation. Rather, the leadership seem to have resisted some of the specific claims that snowballed on a popular level (comparable to the sensus fidelium?).

I also want to point out some of the reactions to the Great Disappointment besides cognitive dissonance. Some are reported to have been consumed with disillusionment, concluding that God is a lie or the Bible is a lie, not just Miller’s prediction (page 22). It seems to me that is the danger of erring on the side of faith without reason. Eventually reason comes crashing in and it can be catastrophic.

Finally, I think it important to clarify the implication of Festinger et al. that the movement died out (page 23). The Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses developed fairly directly out of the Millerites. As I understand it, those groups still believe Miller was right, except it was an invisible heavenly precursor of the end of days on earth. Only recently did Jehovah’s Witnesses stop calculating the end in favor of a general emphasis on readiness. These groups have grown in size and do some good works. The Seventh Day Adventists claim 15 million members, and are very active in charitable work and education (thus they do not reject planning for an earthly future). For John Kellogg, the inventor of Corn Flakes and general nutrition and holistic health pioneer, the faith led him to take care of the human body as temple of God. It may be tempting to say that early Christianity is unlike the Millerites or other cults because the tree is known by the fruits, i.e., Christianity survived and grew. Although early Christianity claimed antiquity through Judaism, it met the basic definition of cult in being small and novel. Meanwhile, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists (and Latter Day Saints) are no longer small or novel.

Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance had a major impact on biblical studies. The original work was based in social-scientific method, and was focused on methodological rigor and data. The Millerites are only an introductory example and the rest of the book is oriented around “scientific” data collection. Of course social science has changed since 1956 as much as any field. As far as I know the basic claims have withstood the test of time in the social-scientific community. First, it is worth being clear on the basic conditions required and the predicted response.

Five conditions for increased fervor and proselyting following disconfirmation: (page 4)

  1. Belief deeply embedded in behavior
  2. Irreversible commitment to belief
  3. Belief must be specific and objective enough to be disconfirmed by reality
  4. Disconfirmation must occur and be recognized by the believer
  5. Believer must have social support (others and new converts)

Disconfirmation may be followed by changing beliefs or ignoring the dissonance, but when all five conditions are met those are impossible and the predicted response is to increase fervor and proselytize. The proposed inner-logic is that if I can convince others I am right I can convince myself I am right, and I really am right.

Cognitive dissonance in biblical studies

Cognitive dissonance comes up often in biblical studies. I’m not sure of the whole story, but the theory articulated by Festinger et al. seems to have been supplemented at some point, such that disconfirmation leads not only to more fervor and proselytizing, but also radicalization of the belief. Here are some examples.

The supernatural and the natural, religion and science, faith and reason

Drawing especially from Aquinas, the First Vatican Council responded to modernity by asserting that faith and reason can never be at variance. It has occasionally been difficult to keep up with this challenge as science progresses quickly and makes more and more claims to explain as natural what had been considered supernatural. In the case at hand, it is daunting to consider that the growth of an evangelical movement can be explained as the predicted behavior of those proven objectively wrong. I think crises of faith and reason, in their various forms, are fairly common. I tend to think of three basic types of response, only the last of which I consider acceptable:

  1. We must choose between faith and reason, at least on individual propositions. Either religion is right or science is right. Something is either natural or supernatural. Faith is defined as the sum of those issues on which one chooses religion over science. Faith is that which is not rational. We can either accept or reject that cognitive dissonance played a role in the growth of Christianity.
  2. Religion and science occupy separate spheres. They do not conflict because they do not overlap. Stephen Jay Gould most promoted this view. He insisted that science and religion, properly understood, have completely different objects of study. The implication is that religion must content itself with whatever questions science chooses not to ask. Historically, it has not been the case that religion confined itself to a narrow area of inquiry apart from other disciplines, or focused on the supernatural without concern for the natural. On the issue at hand I imagine that Stephen Jay Gould would say that the history of how Christianity developed is not properly a question of religion, and one can have faith or not have faith regardless of the history of that faith. I image he would also say that if religion limits itself to that which can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed it will never encounter cognitive dissonance. I suppose my way of phrasing it indicates my dissatisfaction with this approach, but I do think it is very common.
  3. Faith and reason lead us to the same truth. The challenge of Vatican I must be taken seriously, even if it means we have to work harder to keep up with the scientists. Nature, having been created by God, is no less proper to God than the supernatural. God works through nature, or creates nature for God’s own ends. On the issue at hand, God created cognitive dissonance to aid the spread of Christianity. Note that no one says this is easy.

Discussion questions

  1. What is distinctive about American religion, or religion in America? Is there a particularly eschatological vein in American culture?
  2. Is there a fundamental difference between modern cults and early Christianity?
  3. How is our evangelization different from the proselytizing of sects proven wrong?
  4. Can we attribute non-divine explanations of the beliefs of others without risking our own beliefs being dismissed the same way?
  5. If something has a scientific, psychological, or sociological explanation is it less supernatural? Less the work of God?
  6. Were the first Christians wrong to believe that Christ would return in their lifetimes? Christians today?
  7. Can belief in an afterlife be explained as the result of dissonance between theology (belief in a single ethical and all-powerful God) and reality (injustice in this life/world)?
  8. How is faith and reason best addressed in ministry contexts?

Testable questions

  1. Which of the following best describes the Millerite expectation of “the end” in 1843-44?
    1. The elect who had prepared themselves for the day of the Lord would be put in charge of a new and righteous kingdom or government.
    2. Jesus would rule the earth directly and all people would live justly. As a result, there would be no suffering, such as hunger, because all people would share what they have.
    3. The elect would dwell together in a restored Jerusalem where all their efforts for justice would meet success in the absence of evil obstruction.
    4. The world would be destroyed and everything associated with it would be shameful.
  2. How do Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses view Miller’s calculation?
  3. What is the historical-critical explanation of the passage in Daniel that the sanctuary would be cleansed after 2300 mornings and evenings?
  4. What does the model of cognitive dissonance predict will be the behavior of those who are inextricably committed to a belief, and yet undeniably proven wrong? What other condition must be met?
  5. What does Vatican I say about faith and reason?