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Joseph Smith, William Miller, and Prophetic Speculation

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Joseph Smith, William Miller, and Prophetic Speculation

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

A. Joseph Smith and William Miller

"The expectation that Christ would return in the lifetime of some people living in the 1840s proved mistaken decades ago. Joseph’s repeated references to the time around 1890 and 1891 proved also to have no real significance; nothing of prophetic relevance occurred at that time, and it has now been 120 years since those dates passed."

In 1844, the year of Joseph Smith’s death, another major event took place in the history of American Christianity. Ironically, this other event involved another man from upstate New York, named William Miller. In 1832, two years after Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon and started the LDS Church, Miller published his first articles setting forth his theories concerning biblical prophecy. He had concluded years earlier that the second coming of Jesus Christ would take place about the year 1844. The final date that the “Millerites” set for the Second Coming was October 22, 1844—a date that with its failed prediction became known as the Great Disappointment. Following the failure of that predicted date for the Second Coming, some people who remained in the movement, known as Adventism, developed new speculative interpretations of the Bible. The largest of these Adventist groups became known years later as the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The same year (1832) that Miller began publishing articles and lecturing constantly on the imminent Second Coming, Joseph Smith issued some prophetic predictions of his own. In September of that year, Joseph predicted that a temple would be built in Jackson County, Missouri, before the generation living at the time had all passed away (Doctrine & Covenants 84:1-5). As pointed out in the previous article responding to chapter 42 of Gospel Principles, this prophecy of a Missouri temple failed to come to pass. On Christmas 1832, Joseph predicted that wars would “shortly come to pass” and that war would “be poured out upon all nations” beginning with a war between the northern and southern States commencing at South Carolina (Doctrine & Covenants 87).

As the years passed and the Saints experienced hostile and even violent opposition—including their explusion from Missouri—Joseph anticipated that the Second Coming would take place soon but not immediately. On February 14, 1835, Joseph Smith is reported to have said that “it was the will of God that those who went to Zion, with a determination to lay down their lives, if necessary, should be ordained to the ministry, and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, or the coming of the Lord, which was nigh—even fifty-six years should wind up the scene” (History of the Church 2:182). This comment suggested, though not as an explicit prophecy, that the Second Coming would take place as early as February 1891. In 1843, Joseph gave a message that was later included in the LDS scripture Doctrine & Covenants, explaining that the Second Coming could take place no sooner than about that date:

“I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following: Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter. I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face. I believe the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time” (Doctrine & Covenants 130:14-17).

Joseph was born on December 23, 1805, so that he would have turned 85 years of age at the very end of 1890. The above statement was apparently made in part as a public rejection of Miller’s prediction, which had given 1843-1844 as the timeframe for the Second Coming. A few days later, Joseph commented specifically on Miller’s 1844 prediction: “Were I going to prophesy, I would say the end [of the world] would not come in 1844, 5, or 6, or in forty years. There are those of the rising generation who shall not taste death till Christ comes” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, 286; also in History of the Church, 5:336). After repeating his story about the Lord revealing to him that he would see the coming of the Son of Man if he lived to the age of 85, Joseph made the following comments:

“Then read the 14th chapter of Revelation, 6th and 7th verses…. And Hosea, 6th chapter, After two days, etc.,—2,520 years; which brings it to 1890” (Teachings, 286).

Joseph’s prediction that some of “the rising generation” would not die before Christ came is consistent with his prophecy in 1832 that the generation living at that time would not all pass away before the Missouri temple was built. Both predictions pointed to the end of the nineteenth century as the time when the Saints could expect the Second Coming. Joseph’s cryptic and puzzling-sounding reference to “two days, etc.” and “2,520 years” is an allusion to a popular interpretation of Leviticus 26:28 in the light of Daniel’s prophecies. That popular speculation theorized that a period of two and a half “days” of a thousand years each, or more precisely 2,520 years (seven times 360 days, with each day representing a year), would culminate in the Second Coming. At this point Joseph was apparently using the same methods of calculation promoted by the Millerites but coming up with a different end date, that of 1890. According to Joseph, too many things needed to happen before the Second Coming for it to occur in 1844 or even shortly thereafter:

“Judah must return, Jerusalem must be rebuilt, and the temple, and water come out from under the temple, and the waters of the Dead Sea be healed. It will take some time to rebuild the walls of the city and the temple, &c.; and all this must be done before the Son of Man will make His appearance. There will be wars and rumors of wars, signs in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, the sun turned into darkness and the moon to blood, earthquakes in divers places, the seas heaving beyond their bounds; then will appear one grand sign of the Son of Man in heaven” (Teachings, 286-87).

In March 1844, Joseph again prophesied that William Miller’s prediction of the Second Coming to occur in that year would fail:

“But I take the responsibility upon myself to prophesy in the name of the Lord, that Christ will not come this year as Miller has prophecyed, for we have seen the bow. and I also Prophecy in the name of the Lord that Christ will not Come in forty years & if God ever spake by my mouth he will not come in that length of time, & Jesus Christ never did reveal to any man the precise time that he would come. Go & read the scriptures & you cannot find any thing that specified the exact [time] he would come & all who say so are fals teachers” (The Essential Joseph Smith, foreword by Marvin S. Hill [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995], 231, spelling as in original).

We may summarize the foregoing information as follows:

  • Joseph Smith shared some of the same beliefs as that of William Miller and his followers, including the expectation that Christ’s return would happen soon.
  • Joseph rejected Miller’s predictions for 1843 and 1844, stating instead that Christ could not come any sooner than 1890 or 1891.
  • Joseph roundly criticized setting a precise date for Christ’s return, but did prophesy that it would take place in the lifetime of some of those living in the 1830s or 1840s.
  • Joseph emphasized that specific “signs” or anticipatory events needed to occur before the Second Coming, including wars, the return of the Jews to their land and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple, and the building of a temple in Jackson County, Missouri, as the centralized location of the New Jerusalem or city of Zion for the Americas.

Needless to say, the expectation that Christ would return in the lifetime of some people living in the 1840s proved mistaken decades ago. Joseph’s repeated references to the time around 1890 and 1891 proved also to have no real significance; nothing of prophetic relevance occurred at that time, and it has now been over 120 years since those dates passed. Some of the things that Joseph expected to occur before the Second Coming have taken place, notably the War Between the States (the Civil War, 1861-1865), about which we will have more to say below, and the return of the Jews to Israel (1948). (The latter event was widely expected by English-speaking evangelical Protestants long before Joseph Smith; this was another belief that he inherited from evangelicalism.) Other events prophesied by Joseph Smith, however, have not occurred within the expected timeframe, notably the building of a temple in Jackson County, Missouri.

B. The “Civil War” Prophecy

As mentioned above, on Christmas 1832 Joseph Smith prophesied correctly that there would be a war between the northern and southern States “beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina” (Doctrine & Covenants 87:1). If there is a predictive prophecy from Joseph Smith that Mormons are inclined to consider a validation of his claim to be a prophet of God, this would be it. South Carolina was the first of the southern States to announce its cessation from the Union, and the Civil War (or, as Southerners still prefer, the War of Northern Aggression!) began when the new Confederate army attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1861.

Looking back 150 years after the beginning of the Civil War, it is understandable that some hearing that Joseph Smith had predicted the conflict 28 years earlier, even naming the State where the war would begin, would find this prediction to be an impressive fulfillment of prophecy. However, familiarity with the historical situation in Joseph Smith’s time leads to a different conclusion. While there were tensions generally between the southern “slave” States and the northern States, none of the southern States besides South Carolina was on a clear, aggressive path toward cessation from the Union. For four years before Joseph’s prophecy, the people of South Carolina had been debating how to respond to federally imposed tariffs that they felt hit their State’s economy particularly hard. Those who argued for “nullification” (the State’s right to reject a federal law ) had gained control of State politics by 1832, and in November—just one month before Joseph’s prophecy—held a “Nullification Convention” in which South Carolina formally declared the tariffs unconstitutional and threatened cessation if the federal government attempted to use force to collect the tariffs. This was all “front page news” throughout the United States in late 1832, and the possibility of a war between the northern and southern States with South Carolina’s “rebellion” as the flashpoint was widely recognized. Prediction in 1832 of such a war is not even evidence of extraordinary human prescience, let alone divine inspiration.

In fact, Joseph’s “Civil War prophecy” is itself a false prophecy. According to that prophecy, the conflict between the northern and southern States was going to escalate as other nations allied themselves with each side, “and then war shall be poured out upon all nations” (Doctrine & Covenants 87:3; see also verse 2). In other words, the Civil War was supposed to escalate into a world war—and not just any world war, but the war to end all wars, “until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations” (v. 6). Historically, of course, nothing of the sort happened. The First World War (1914-1918) began nearly sixty years after the end of the American Civil War, and the conflicts that precipitated World War I had no significant connection geographically, politically, culturally, or militarily to the Civil War. Nor did these wars bring an end to all nations; it has now been over 66 years since the conclusion of World War II. The two world wars of the twentieth century were horrific in terms of the sheer numbers of people killed and the global dimensions of the conflicts, but they were not fulfillments of Joseph’s prophecy in Doctrine & Covenants 87.

Joseph Smith’s overall performance in his prophetic predictions raises serious doubts about his claim to be a prophet of God. He made some correct predictions, but these were predictions others who made no claim to be prophets were also making in his day. He also made some demonstrably false predictions in the name of the Lord, including predictions enshrined to this day in the Mormon scriptures called the Doctrine and Covenants. His prophetic speculations reveal Joseph to have been a man of his own day, seeing no more than anyone else and indeed claiming to see things by divine revelation that turned out not to be so. The proper conclusion to draw from these facts is that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God.


For Further Study

Bowman, Robert M. Jr. Prophets Old and New. A response to chapter 9 of Gospel Principles focusing on the issue of the LDS Church’s claim to be led by true prophets of God.

Failed Prophecies of Joseph Smith. IRR web article detailing seven lesser-known false prophecies made by Joseph.