On April 3, 1843, someone in the village of Westford, Mass., blew a horn, and a large crowd of white-robed people surged into the streets, chanting "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The time has come!"
They were Millerites, devoted followers of William Miller, a New York farmer and former Baptist preacher who believed the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to be imminent.
Days before, Miller's apocalyptic prophecy had been featured on the front page of the New York Herald. As a result, believers flocked to the New England community to await doomsday.
All week long, Millerites feasted, fasted, sang hymns, chanted and prayed. Some families sold their worldly goods. Others, clad in white robes, gathered at a cemetery with their loved ones to await the glorious moment. A few committed suicide, thinking the dead would be first to enter heaven.
When the big day came and they heard the horn, Miller's estimated 1 million followers took it to be Gabriel announcing his glorious descent from the heavens.
Amid the frenzied excitement, a noted skeptic in the communtiy stepped forward and sneered, "You fools, go dig your potatoes. The angel Gabriel won't dig 'em for you!"
The Millerites watched and waited all day long. When the sun finally set and there was no fluttering of wings, they pulled off their robes and trudged back to their homes to await their leader's next prophecy. It wasn't the first time he'd made a mistake. They just hoped it would be the last.
The first blown prediction had come more than a decade before. Miller, having studied the prophetic books of Daniel and Revelation, issued his first warning in 1831. It was reinforced by shooting stars, halos around the sun and a spectacular comet. But Judgment Day never materialized.
Undaunted, Miller admitted that he had made a mistake in calculating the end of the world. After weeks of prayer and periodic fasting, he settled on a new day: April 3, 1843.
As the appointed day drew near, thousands of people started pouring in from across the country. Clutching their Bibles, they assembled on hilltops outside Westford to await the clarion call of Gabriel. One farmer even dressed his cow in white robes. "It's a long trip," he explained. "The kids will want milk."
At last, when April 3 came and went without the anticipated flourish of wings and trumpets, Millerites began to have doubts about their once exalted leader. Some called him a fraud. Others, bitter over having given up worldly possessions or having lost overzealous loved ones, wanted to press charges against him.
Shaken but not broken, Miller retreated to his study once again to pray and fast. A few months later, he emerged to announce that Oct. 23 would be the date. Once again, the remaining faithful in his flock began to prepare. And once again, when Oct. 23 rolled around and nothing happened, the jolted congregation went away, grumbling. This time, even most of his staunchest supporters abandoned him and his church.
Miller quietly stepped down from the pulpit and retired, never to preach again. But thousands of people adhered to his teachings about the Second Coming of Christ, even though they rejected his predictions. Eventually, they and other Protestants would form the Adventist Church.
Syndicated writer and author Randall Floyd lives in Augusta.