Spoiler alert: The rapture didn’t happen on Oct. 22, 1844.
But a lot of people sure thought it would. They were followers of a preacher and self-proclaimed prophet from Vermont named William Miller, and on the day that he predicted the second coming of Jesus Christ, they took to high ground so they could be ready for the Lord to take them away.
Instead of angels reaching down from heaven to pluck believers from pine trees and granite mountaintops, nothing happened, and the day became known as the Great Disappointment.
On Friday, a group of hikers and history buffs will take to the trail in Lincolnville to remember the day the world didn’t end.
“These things just intrigue me,” Rosey Gerry of Lincolnville, who has led the annual hike to the Millerite Cliffs for 30 years now, said. “It was a superstitious time … These people lived to be only 40 or 50 years old, most of them. They worked from dawn till dusk. They worked themselves to death. And when somebody said, ‘There’s a better life ahead,’ some of them were ready.”
Miller, a farmer and civil servant, grew up in the Baptist church, but rejected its teachings as a young man. Instead, he took up Deism, a belief in God based on reason rather than revelation. However, after he saw action in the War of 1812, he got his faith back. His ensuing questions about death and the afterlife drove him to an interest in the books of Daniel and Revelations.
Miller returned to the Bible with a lot of zeal, and ended up with an idea of when Jesus would come back, and that it would happen pretty soon. This prediction attracted a following, and by the 1830s, it became a movement. Miller even came to Camden to preach revival meetings in 1842, Gerry said.
“Where the Camden Public Library is was a cow pasture, and that’s where they set up the tent,” he said.
As the Millerite movement grew, so did the pressure for Miller to share a specific date. His first stab at choosing a Judgement Day was March 21, 1844. After nothing happened then, he recalibrated and determined that it would happen on Oct. 22, 1844.
Despite the previous failure, his followers began to get ready.
That year, some believers didn’t plant the crops they would need to survive the winter and some even sold their farms and houses, Gerry said. They took the harnesses off their animals and turned them loose. After all, who needed a farm, or a team of oxen, in heaven?
The day of the expected rapture, Millerites around the northeast prepared for the ascension. Some climbed in groups to higher ground, as was the case in Lincolnville.
As the believers waited, they prayed. But their prayers didn’t stop the disappointment, chaos and even tragedy that came next.
In West Rockport, a deacon hiked up Pleasant Mountain and then climbed a pine tree, in order to be as high as possible.
“He predicted the moment Jesus would come, and threw up his pocket watch and then jumped out of a pine tree to his death,” Gerry said.
In Lincolnville, believers who had walked or taken wagons up to the ledges on the backside of Mount Megunticook. Once there, they threw a little girl up in the air.
“They thought Jesus would catch her,” Gerry said.
Instead, the girl plummeted to the ground.
“She was maimed for life,” he said.
When the distraught believers limped down from the higher places, many faced a tough, hungry winter.
“A lot of people suffered,” Gerry said.
The Great Disappointment left a scar. Grown men wept and traumatized people questioned the very existence of God. Many of Miller’s disappointed followers lost their religion altogether. Others joined the Shakers and the Quakers, and one follower, Ellen White, launched a new movement that became known as the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
In Maine, the annual walk up to the cliffs in Lincolnville, named the Millerite Ledges after this strange chapter in local history, passes by old cellar holes that belonged to farms and homes that disappeared long ago. Gerry likes to imagine how it was in 1844 when the believers, which he estimates numbering 50 or so, made their way past those houses.
“As you go up by the cellar holes, I often think, did these people go, too? Did they stay? Did they point their fingers and laugh? Did they say, ‘Jeez, do you suppose we’re making a mistake by sitting on the porch, waiting to see what will happen?’” Gerry said.
Gerry, 72 and a Lincolnville native, has a long-standing interest in history. When he was just a boy, he helped his family out financially by going door-to-door and selling all-occasion cards, cloverine salve — “like bag balm,” he said — and Grit newspaper, a publication marketed to rural families.
“I was peddling when I was 6, 7 years old,” he said. “I got to meet all the elderly people around Youngtown Road.”
From them, he heard about the history of the region, including early settlers and the Millerites. Those stories lit a fire that, for Gerry, has never gone out.
“That was the only subject in school I got a decent grade in,” he said. “History is us. We’re making history every day.”
That’s why he enjoys leading the hike up to the Millerite Ledges. Every October, people come with him, some years as few as five, others as many as 20. Some like history and some may be more interested in the roughly hour-long walk.
But every year, he said, people think about the second coming that wasn’t.
“You believe what you want … I am not affiliated with any church. I’m not religious and I’m not preaching to you,” Gerry said. “Still, people laugh and say, ‘Maybe it’s going to happen today.’ But they’re just joking.”
To go on the hike, meet Rosey Gerry at 6:45 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 22 at the end of Maiden Cliff Road in Lincolnville. The road is at the top of the hill just up from the Youngtown Inn.