As anticlimaxes go, the failure of Y2K to bring the world to a halt is no great shakes. It doesn’t hold a candle to the Great Disappointment. That was the name given to the nonevents of October 22, 1844, the day William Miller and thousands of his followers expected Jesus Christ to return to earth.

Miller, born in 1782, was a well-read New England farmer and a deist–till he went to war. Like other deists, he was put off by the apparent inconsistencies of the Bible. He believed that God had created the universe, set it in motion, and stepped away. Man was responsible for whatever happened after that. Ergo, it was up to each individual to do the right thing for family, country, and the general good. Then Miller led a contingent of friends into battle in the War of 1812, emerged victorious in circumstances that suggested divine intervention, and started to rethink his philosophy. After the war he joined the Baptist church and began reading the Scriptures with the intention of finding internal coherence. After several years of study he found something more: evidence that the Second Coming was imminent. In 1822 he put his finding into a formal written statement: Christ would arrive “about the year 1843.”

He came to this conclusion by making two assumptions: first, that each day of biblical time equals one year of historic time; second, that a prophecy of 2,300 evenings and mornings before “the sanctuary” would be cleansed (Book of Daniel) is talking about Christ’s return. The rest was easy: he pegged a historical date for Daniel–457 BC–and counted forward 2,300 years. When he was pressed to be more precise, he said he was “fully convinced” Christ would arrive “sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.”

Miller kept his opinion pretty much to himself until the early 1830s, when he began speaking to small groups in country churches. In 1839 things changed dramatically. Joshua Himes, a Boston minister with a talent for promotion, heard Miller’s message, found it convincing, and became his “manager.” He booked Miller into big-city churches and began publishing pamphlets, books, and newspapers (Signs of the Times, Midnight Cry) that promulgated Miller’s theory. Soon Millerism was a burgeoning movement, with reading rooms, lecture tours, tent meetings, and a revival atmosphere. An eclipse in 1780 and a spectacular meteor shower in 1833 were interpreted as evidence that he was right.

When Miller preached, he used large charts or banners as visual aids. The charts were painted by folk or professional artists and illustrated Miller’s main points: the holy arithmetic indicating the date of Christ’s return, the history of the world as symbolized by a parade of mythical beasts from Daniel and Revelation, and the corruption of organized religion (especially Catholicism). As the prophetic year approached and conventional Protestant ministers looked on with increasing alarm, Miller’s following swelled: sinners rushed to repent; the faithful were moved to new spiritual heights.

But 1843 came and went uneventfully, as did the first quarter of 1844. Millerite leadership, scrambling for damage control, said there must have been an error in the computations. They recalculated and eventually announced a new date: October 22, 1844. The remaining Millerites, strengthened by adversity, were more ardent than ever. Many gave up their farms, businesses, homes, and other worldly goods, sure they’d soon have no need for them. They awaited the Rapture in rapturous expectation.

It must have been a very long day. When it was over, Millerism was dead. Some of the faithful, reexamining the Scriptures, decided there had been a second miscalculation or a misinterpretation. They formed several new denominations, including the Seventh-day Adventists and the Advent Christian church. Aurora University, founded by the Advent Christians, now houses the Jenks Memorial Collection of Adventual Materials, which includes 30 banners and charts used by Miller and subsequent Adventists. An exhibit of nine of the charts, replete with calculations, fabulous creatures (winged and horned), and Victorian ladies–a dreamworld on a grid–opens at the university this week.

“Visions of the Millennium: Adventist Prophetic Charts from the Aurora University Collection,” opens Monday and runs through January 23 at the Schingoethe Center for Native American Cultures, 1400 Marseillaise Place in Aurora. Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 Sunday. Adventist authority David Dean will deliver an opening lecture, “Holy Arithmetic, Horrible Beasts, Hell-Bound Churches: The Message of the Early Adventist Prophetic Charts,” Monday at 7 PM. It’s free. Call 630-844-5481 for more information.

–Deanna Isaacs