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The Final Consummation: American Bahá'ís, Millerites and Biblical Time Prophecy


The relationship of the Millerites and biblical time prophecy to the sacred drama of the Bahá'í Faith is the theme of this book. For American Bahá'ís, two millennial visions on far-separated continents, within different religious milieux, and from contrasting social climates, have been perceived to have a direct link at the level of spiritual idea and predictive force. Sociologist Peter Berger's notion of religious "motif" has been used by Peter Smith in analyzing the major concerns of the Babi-Baha'i religious community. The first of the religious motifs to be expressed in Babi-Baha'i history, and the most enduring, is the millennialist/millenarian motif: the desire to conform to a divine plan to build the Kingdom of God on earth. The three conditions that often, though not always, precede the appearance of millenarian movements are discussed: a source of charismatic authority, the existence of a traditional millenarian milieu in the surrounding culture (a significant aspect of which is the fascination exercised by the power and mythic potency of numbers and dating systems), and some major ongoing disruption of social life and belief structure as perceived by the incipient millennialists. Two millennialist movements -- Millerism and Babism -- were born in the first half of the nineteenth century on two continents. The Millerites in the United States were at their height in the 1830s and 1840s. These premillennialist Protestants, followers of William Miller, expected the imminent bodily return of Jesus Christ, and predicted specific dates in the 1843-1844 period.

William Miller and his followers used a prophetic interpretive method known as historicism: the coordination of all prophecy with specific historical events, in order to determine with precision the dates of fulfillment for future events prophesied but as yet not completed. Historicism's characteristics included (1) preoccupation with prophetic time periods, supported by the notion of a prophetic day equalling a prophetic year, (2) calibration of all prophecy with history, (3) identification of the papacy with the antichrist, and (4) a coherent system of interdependent synchronizaton among prophecies. The seeming failure of Miller's predictions undermined historicism and premillennialism in America for a generation. Millerism evolved during the remainder of the century into a grouping of Adventist churches, the most successful of which has been the Seventh-day Adventists. The Babi phase of the Babi-Baha'i religious movement was explicitly millennialist, arising within the milieu of Shiah expectation of the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam -- the Mahdi or Qa'im [He who arises] -- in 1260 AH (1844 CE), and his establishment of the reign of divine truth. Although Babism's followers defended themselves against the inevitable pressure by state and religious authorities, it did not suffer extinction. Babism's transformation into a world religion possessed of a progressive millennial focus owed itself to the leadership and charismatic authority exercised by Baha'u'llah. Baha'u'llah transformed the immediate establishment of the millennial kingdom into a long-term promise enshrined in his teachings and institutions.

The Baha'i Faith was brought to the United States by Ibrahim Kheiralla in 1892. Kheiralla, a Melkite Christian, received training at the Syrian Protestant College. This training was in accord with American Protestant notions of biblical revelation as the univalent repository of a truth that is at once immutable and available to all through the faculty of common sense. While these notions are not identical to Baha'u'llah's doctrine of progressive revelation as explained in such works as the Iqan, they are the framework for a significant literature and teaching method directed toward Protestant Christians in America. Kheiralla's method of teaching the Baha'i Faith was a series of lessons based on this American Protestant view of the Bible and common sense. The final lessons of the series involved a selection of biblical prophecies. The seekers who surmised from these verses that Christ had returned were admitted to the final lessons. The culminating lessons began with reference to the Millerites, whose prediction of Christ's return in 1844 was both an astounding coincidence for the proto-Baha'is, as well as a vindication of a native millennialist movement in America. Millerism and its historicist method of interpreting prophecy are strong icons of the American Baha'i identity. The recasting of historicist prophecies for the purpose of proving the truth of the Baha'i Faith is evident from the first systematic teaching by Kheiralla in 1894. This is traced chonologically through the published writings of Kheiralla, Dodge, Dealy, Brittingham, to 'Abdu'l-Baha's authoritative statements, and their subsequent restatement and expansion in the writings of Sears, Sours, Motlagh and others. 'Abdu'l-Baha's simplification of some interpretations, and his introduction of innovative explanations of biblical passages, served to remove the problematical aspects of historicist exegesis. He was thus able to disarm the unreasonableand unauthorized early expectation that the Baha'i millennial kingdom would be established in 1917, and redirect the prophetic exegesis toward coherence with progressive revelation.

The Baha'i Faith is the single instance of a religious group that vindicates Miller's date-setting and the specific event that he predicted. That its occurrence was not recognized by the Millerites and other Christians was a function of their traditional view of the second advent as a literal bodily return of the same person Jesus Christ coming down from the skies. The Baha'i use of historicist-type prophetic exegesis may mislead observers to think that the Baha'i Faith is a catastrophic millennialist religious group with a pessimistic view of human development. Although the Baha'is have a premillennialist foundation because "Christ" returns in the persons of the Bab and Baha'u'llah before the millennium, it is postmillennialist or progressive in that the millennium based upon the teachings of the Bab and Baha'u'llah is established over a long period by the believers. Historicist exegesis is used creatively in the Baha'i Faith as a tool to gain converts from Protestant Christianity. It can be used to show that events through 1963 were predicted in the Bible, serving as a method of proof for Christians who are susceptible to that proof, and sustaining Baha'is in their faith. However, the use of pre-Baha'i scriptures as prophetic texts for date-setting beyond 1963 is probably impossible or at best unfruitful. Since Baha'is believe that the millennial advent is fulfilled and its kingdom being built, the function of prophetic date setting becomes one of evangelizing an unbelieving world by convincing it that the great event has occurred and that the one whom it seeks has already come.


I. The Millennial Motif

II. Millerism and Its Successors

III. Intellectual History of "Historicist" Exegesis of Time Prophecies

IV. William Miller's Exegetical Principles and Time Prophecies

V. The Bábí-Bahá'í Movement

VI. The Bahá'í Faith in the United States

VII. Millerism and Time Prophecy in Bahá'í Intellectual History

VIII. Bahá'í Millennialisms

Table 1: Comparison of Millerite & Bahá'í Time Prophecies

Table 2: Miller's 15 Proofs

Table 3: Bahá'í Interpretations of Time Prophecies

Table 4: Robert Riggs' Prophetic Chronology of Events in the Book of Daniel

Appendix 1: Time Proved in Fifteen Different Ways, by William Miller

Appendix 2: Bahá'u'lláh's Exegesis of the Olivet Discourse (Little Apocalypse)

Appendix 3: 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Exegesis of Prophetic Proofs from Daniel & Revelation

Appendix 4: Daniel's Prophecies - Research Department Memorandum

Appendix 5: Bahá'í Writings on Calamity, Catastrophe, Convulsion, and Upheaval



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