In addition to being a historic event, one might be forgiven for thinking that the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris would sound the death knell of QAnon conspiracy theories. Now that Biden is actually president and QAnon predictions about Trump’s continuing hold on power have failed to come to fruition it would seem logical that they would pack up shop and admit that they were wrong. But if history has taught us anything it is that failed prophecies and frustrated predictions don’t always mark the beginning of the end for radical social movements. With apologies to Madonna, it’s prophets who are the mothers of reinvention.
In the early 19th century, New York farmer and Baptist preacher William Miller preached that the return of Jesus Christ was imminent. His prophecy was based largely on his study of the biblical book of Daniel. His interpretation led him to conclude, initially at least, that Christ would return sometime between March 1843 and 1844. When March 1844 passed without the appearance of Christ and his angels in the sky, Miller picked another date —April 18, 1844—which also slid by without cosmic incident or divine intervention. A follower of Miller’s, Samuel Snow, proposed a third date in October, but the Day of Judgment had still not arrived. The Millerites were understandably disillusioned. One member, Henry Emmons, wrote that he had to be helped to his bedroom, where he lay “sick with disappointment.”
You would think that three false prophecies, collectively known as the Great Disappointment, would be the end of the Millerites. To be sure, some members did leave to join the Shakers, but others began to reinterpret the prophecies about the end of days. One group began to argue that they were only partly wrong. The prophecies weren’t about the Second Coming and end of the world but, rather, about the cleansing of a heavenly sanctuary. It wasn’t an earthly event, it was a heavenly one, and this explained why, to us mere humans, it might appear that nothing had happened. It was out of this group that the Seventh Day Adventist Church arose. Today the Seventh Day Adventist Church has between 20-25 million members. They are, according to Christianity Today, “the fifth largest Christian communion worldwide.”