14 December 2018

19th Century Religious Movements

I have always been intrigued by the many, many nineteenth century prophetic movements all over the world. People from New York to Tehran to Nanjing were all getting prophet fever. Some were preparing people for the coming of a great day heralded by Christianity and Islam, others were claiming themselves to be the long-awaited restored religion.

Observing as a Baha'i, these new religious movements were part of a world upheaval in religious thought that was in the context of the revelation of Baha'u'llah and the concurrent collapse of established orthodoxy. 

It is amazing what they got right. William Miller's prediction of the return of Christ was within months of the Bab's declaration of His mission. Most of the movements held restorationist beliefs about the need for new guidance from God, and many tried to create a moral code suitable for the modern world, teaching of the equality of men and women or abstention from alcohol.

Here are short summaries of them, and some mysterious connections to the Baha'i Faith.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith spent his childhood in New York and Pennsylvania, where three large churches were vying for adherents. In his early twenties, he began receiving revelations and claims to have been guided to find a set of golden tablets left by a Jewish tribe that visited America. Joseph used his seer stones to translate the plates, which tell of a visit of Jesus Christ to the New World. His followers, Mormons, now number about 16 million.

Although there are many indications that Joseph Smith was at times a fraud, there are also many indications that he tapped into the divine currents flowing in the nineteenth century. He said that there were "some in the congregation that should live until the Savior should descend from heaven" and "there are those of the rising generation who shall not taste death til Christ comes." After all, he named his reformed church "... of Latter-day Saints" when there was a focus on being in the "latter days" before Christ appeared.

He also received a revelation that if he were to live to 85 years, Smith would see "the face of the Son of Man". He was killed by a mob in 1844, just weeks after the Bab's declaration, but if he had lived to be 85, he could have seen Baha'u'llah standing on Mt Carmel, pointing out the spot where the Bab's shrine would later be built. The following year the Baha'i Faith was presented at the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago not far from the Mormon colony of Nauvoo, an event that Smith certainly would have attended if he had been alive.

William Miller 
(1782 - 1849) 

In 1818, after two years of intense Bible study, William Miller discovered that prophecy would be fulfilled in the year leading up to 21 March 1844. He expected "all the affairs of our present state would be wound up" and that Christ would descend from the sky. The date was revised and set to 22 October 1844, and on that day thousands of people put on white robes and waited in fields. Of course, in May that year the Bab began teaching in Persia.

Millerites, as they came to be known, numbered more than 50,000. Miller recorded his personal disappointment in his memoirs: ''Were I to live my life over again, with the same evidence that I then had, to be honest with God and man, I should have to do as I have done. I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment”.

Although there are no "Millerites" today, there are about 20 million followers of the Seventh-day Adventist church that sprung directly from Miller's movement. Another 8.5 million are in the Jehovah's Witness church, whose founder was influenced by Miller.

Hong Xiuquan 
(1812 - 1864) 

After failing the Chinese civil service exam for the third time, Hong Xiuquan had a nervous breakdown. He dreamed of a fatherly man in a black dragon cloak giving him a sword and seal, and telling him to rid the world of demons. In the dream, he slayed the demons with the help of his heavenly brother. 

Back in the real world, Hong took the exam again in 1843 and failed a fourth time, again causing delerious visions of slaying demons. This time he also started reading Christian literature, and decided that the father in the vision was God, his brother was Jesus, and Hong (the brother of Jesus) was being commanded by God to rid China of idol worship.

Hong immediately destroyed all the idols and confucian literature in his home, and soon recruited his extended family to do the same. In 1844, as the Bab declared to Mulla Husayn, Hong's movement spread to his entire ethnic group (Hakka) and soon engulfed Guangzhou in a crisis as they began destroying idols all over the place and preaching the worship of the one true God. Hong prohibited opium, gambling, alcohol, slavery, and prostitution. Under his control, property was seized by the state and redistributed among the poor and farmers. In 1850-51, as Hujjat and Vahid were being sieged by government forces in Persia, Hong and tens of thousands of his followers were under attack by government forces in southern China, but they emerged on top. Within three years they sacked Nanjing and controlled a territory covering 30 million people, known as the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. By 1856, the Taiping armies numbered over 1 million, and the resulting civil war caused at least 20 million deaths.

In 1864, as the imperial army closed in on Nanjing, Hong retreated to the basement of his imperial palace and died from taking poison. His followers buried him in a yellow imperial shroud, but when the imperial army reached the palace, Hong was exumed, beheaded, and burned.

Ghulam Ahmad

Just as Christians are awaiting the second coming of the Messiah, Muslims are expecting both Jesus and the Mahdi to appear about the same time to restore the true religion of God. According to one account, a Baha'i teacher named Sulayman Khan visited Ghulam Ahmad in northern India and left him some literature (maybe 1888-9). Later Ahmad announced himself to be the Mahdi of Islam and shared doctrines that are surprisingly similar to those espoused by Baha'u'llah, such as the return of the qualities of a prophet and not the physical body. He forbade holy war, talked of a new world order, and discouraged the materialism of western civilization.

Ahmad claimed to be a reformer within Islam, a sort of revivalist restoring the true faith, quite similar to the claims of Joseph Smith about a restored priesthood. And similar to Joseph Smith, the claims did not go over well with the mainstream. His followers faced persecution, hundreds killed, many fled, and to this day Pakistan forbids Ahmadis from calling themselves 'Muslim'. There are now more than 10 million Ahmadi Muslims in the world, mostly concentrated in Pakistan.

Joseph Wolff
(1795 - 1862) 

Wolff was born a Jew in Germany and later became a preacher in the Church of England. Wolff was a well respected missionary who traveled to Greece, Malta, the Crimea, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Central Asia, Abyssinia, Yemen, India, and other lands, including the United States of America, where he was ordained deacon, and preached to a joint meeting of Congress in 1836.

He taught that the Messiah was coming soon to set up His kingdom in the Holy Land. He showed Jews that the Messiah is to be identified with Jesus Christ. Using the same prophecies that Miller found, he proceeded to expound the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14, showing that they would end in 1847 with the coming of the Messiah in power and glory. Having established in his hearers’ minds that the Messiah would be returning to re-establish the Jewish kingdom within a few years, Wolff called for belief in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

As the years passed and 1847 loomed close, people asked Wolff what he would say if 1847 passed without the return of the Messiah. He answered that he would admit that he had been wrong.

Choe Je-u

Choe Je-u was a Confucian scholar in Korea who noticed that the "mandate of heaven" had passed from the Asian powers to the western powers. Concerned, Choe spent years wandering and studying with a distressed heart.

In 1860 Choe claims to have heard the voice of the supreme ruler of heaven saying, "Don't be afraid. Mankind calls me the Supreme Lord. I sent you to save mankind. I have a talisman which is called the Elixir of Immortality. Cure mankind's illness with this talisman." The voice told Choe that he, the Supreme Lord, would soon appear in the world and initiate the "Great Opening of the Later Heaven". Choe formed a new religion called Donghak around the belief that this Lord of Heaven would soon incarnate in this world to usher in a new era of righteousness. One of the distinguishing features of his religion was the unity of humanity, emphasizing that all people should be treated equally. 

Three years after Choe began preaching, Baha'u'llah announced his new Faith in Baghdad. Eight months later, Choe was arrested and beheaded by the emperor of Korea due to the popularity of his movement. The faith that Choe founded evolved into Cheondism in modern Korea, with a current following of about 3 million.

Joseph Bates

On the morning following the "Great Disappointment" of October 22, 1844, a Mr. Hiram Edson claimed to have seen a vision. He said that he saw Jesus standing at the altar of heaven and concluded that Miller had been right about the time, but wrong about the place. The idea became popular that the return was fulfilled in 1844 as predicted, but not as they were expecting. Rather than seek out the fulfillment in a new Messenger of God somewhere else on earth (hint: Persia), Joseph Bates decided that Jesus' return was not to earth, but a move into the heavenly sanctuary as is referenced in Heb. 8:1-2.

Mr. Joseph Bates (1792-1872), a retired sea captain and a convert to "Millerism" then began to promote the idea of Jesus moving into the heavenly sanctuary. He published a pamphlet which greatly influenced James (1821-1881) and Ellen White (1827-1915). It is these three who were the driving force behind the Seventh Day Adventist movement, now numbering about 20 million.

Charles Russell
(1852 - 1916)

At the age of 18, Russell listened to a Millerite preacher and renewed his faith. He was further influenced by a handful of Adventist preachers until he too began writing articles about faith, rapture, and the imminent coming of Christ.

One Adventist in particular, Nelson Barbour, worked with Russell to describe that 6,000 years from creation would end in 1873, Christians would be removed in a rapture in 1874, and the "harvest" would be from 1874 to 1914, after which the kingdom of God would be established on earth.

After the failure of 1874 to produce the expected rapture, Russell and Barbour split ways while trying to explain the embarrassing situation. Russell quickly established what came to be known as the Watch Tower Society, a name which you probably recognize because you have most likely found their pamphlets left on your door. Russell's publications quickly spread to reach millions of readers. He taught that in 1874 Christ returned invisibly to rule from heaven, and that 1914 would see an anarchical world war that would destroy nations. When World War I broke out that year, he said that it was the battle of Armageddon and that the generation who witnessed it would see the return of Christ.

Russell's Bible students, now known as Jehovah's Witnesses and numbering 8.5 million, entered a crisis as the expected return of Christ failed to materialize as they expected. After Russell's death in 1916 they continued setting dates for the event in 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, and 1975. Their last, best hope for their foundational doctrine was that maybe a baby born in 1914 would still be alive, but even that hope faded and the church had to come up with logic gymnastics to explain their continued existence.

Shaykh Ahmad

Ahmad was born in al-Ahsa, eastern Arabia near Bahrain. He observed that Muslims had perverted and degraded Islam, and he set out traveling and studying, thinking about how to bring about a revival. He concluded that no reform could regenerate Islam, and that nothing short of a new revelation would be needed through a new Manifestation of God. He settled in the theological centers of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, and convinced a large following that the promised Mahdi and Christ would soon appear to redeem and save mankind. He spent the last twenty years of his life in Iran, where he gained the patronage of Qajar princes.

Shaykh Ahmad didn't exactly create his own sect, he always considered himself teaching within Shi'ah Islam, yet he introduced some ideas that changed Shi'ah thinking and created a distinct following. He taught that the soul is separate from the body, and that the ascent into heaven is of the soul, not the body. He also applied this principle to the return of bodies, meaning that the return of the Imam Mahdi would be a return of the qualities of prophethood, not of the individual who lived in the 10th century AD. He therefore taught insistently that his followers should scatter far and wide and seek the redeemer of the world in the form of a human being born with innate knowledge.

Shaykh Ahmad's successor, Kazim, gave details of what to look for: he was to be of pure lineage, of the seed of Fatima (Muhammad's daughter), he would be between 20 and 30 years old, of medium height, he would not smoke, and be free from bodily deficiencies. In May of 1844 a follower of Shaykh Ahmad by the name of Mulla Husayn encountered a young merchant in Shiraz who announced that he was the promised Mahdi. The Bab, as he came to be known, began revealing scripture and converted tens of thousands in Iran to his new faith, which formally split from Islam.

The Bab gained close to a million followers in just six years. The opposition from the Islamic clergy was heavy and swift. The Bab was executed in a public square, and an estimated 20,000 followers killed across the Persian Empire.

The Bab claimed to be the herald of a far greater Manifestation of God, who would reveal himself 19 years later (1863). According to Biblical and Islamic prophecy, there would be two messengers back to back in the end times. One of the Bab's followers, exiled in Iraq, announced himself as this second Messenger. He was known as Baha'u'llah, and his own writings spread among the Babis of the time, and the majority of them converted to become Baha'is. The followers of Baha'u'llah now number between 5 and 8 million, spread out into nearly every country and territory of the world. 

That's it. The Baha'i Faith is the fulfillment of all these messianic expectations. Some of them got it very close but were taking things too literally. Some of them conquered half of China. But all of them were part of the currents flowing at the time in the context of the true renewal of the one religion of God. If you haven't done so already, I highly recommend reading Baha'u'llah's Seven Valleys and the Book of Certitude.


  1. thanks for this Bryan---good information and good to have realistic strings to where we are now---amazing!