Revisiting the Events of the Great Disappointment of 1844

By Dorothy Dunbar


Let us look back to almost a week before Jesus was brought to trial for crimes he did not commit, and hung on a cross to die.  He came riding into Jerusalem and the people tried to crown Him king.  They wanted a king on earth, and they ignored the things Jesus had told them concerning Himself and His ministry.  This was a terrible disappointment!


Just as the disciples misunderstood the true purpose of the life of Jesus here on earth, His followers misunderstood His purpose in 1844.  Jesus died on the cross near the end of the seventy weeks.  After His return to heaven, He began a ministry for us in the Holy Place.  So, at the close of the 2300 year-days of Daniel 8:14 on October 22, 1844, He began His ministry in the Most Holy Place of the Heavenly Sanctuary in the New Jerusalem.  How did they ever know and understand this truth, if they had not understood while it was being preached? 


Was their understanding of the date wrong?  Or, was it their understanding of the event?


On the morning of October 23, Hiram Edson, a little known believer, and an un-named companion, met to pray in a barn, after which, they set out across a grain field to encourage fellow believers.  About half way across the field, Edson was given the distinct impression of what had happened on the day before.  His companion came back to see what was happening, and Edson was standing still in the middle of the field, looking toward Heaven.  He related that ‘he saw, distinctly and clearly’ that Jesus, had left the Holy Place in the Heavenly Sanctuary, and moved to His ministry in the Most Holy Place. 


This revelation caused Edson and others to go back to intense Bible study to learn the Truth! After which, they concluded that the sanctuary to be cleansed in Dan. 8:14 was not the earth, but in Heaven.


Two disappointments! Both from misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings.  And many other parallels with them.   What did they benefit?  Very much, it would seem!  The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem drew all eyes to Jesus.  The ones who wanted Him to be king, and those who did not. 


When Jesus entered the Most Holy place on the antitypical Day of Atonement, there was nothing visibly seen on earth, except the people who were waiting for Him.  And these people were disappointed!  The little book which had been “sweet as honey in their mouth, was now bitter in their belly.Rev.10:10.”  Yes, disappointed, but not discouraged.  Again they studied, and prayed together they read Rev. 10:11 and believed…”Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.”


As always, when God’s people are committed to learn the truth, He is

there to guide them.  It is amazing to learn that there were actually “Sabbath keeping Adventists” before the “Great Disappointment” ever occurred.  Rachel Oaks, a Seventh Day Baptist, visited her daughter in Washington, NH.  While there, they attended church on a Sunday where Fredrick Wheeler, a young Methodist circuit rider, was preaching.  He was also a believer in the soon coming of Christ.  While he was expounding on the Ten Commandments, he said something which caused Mrs. Oaks to grab the back of the pew in front of her to stop herself from protesting his statement at that moment.


But, being a good shepherd of the flock, he came to call on Mrs. Oaks and her daughter before he left Washington.  Rachel Oaks was evidently a woman ahead of her time, for she abruptly told Fredrick Wheeler what had happened.  She stated, “You said that we must observe all of the Ten Commandments, and yet you yourself constantly break one of them!” 


“Why, Sister Oaks,” exclaimed the preacher, “Whatever do you mean?”  And, in answer, Rachel Oaks told him what the fourth commandment does say, and she ended with, “You observe the pope’s Sunday instead of the Lord’s Sabbath.”


What Fredrick Wheeler’s reaction was at that time, we do not know, but, we do know that some time during that same winter, possibly in March, 1844, he made his decision to keep the seventh day as the Sabbath.  By August 1844, Wheeler discussed his decision with another minister, Thomas M. Preble, formerly a Freewill Baptist, who like himself was expecting the soon coming of Jesus.  Preble believed this Sabbath truth, and became the second Sabbath-keeping minister in North America.


There was something about the manner in which the Sabbath made its way from Seventh Day Baptists to the future Seventh-day Adventists that resembled fire making its way along a fuse to a barrel of gunpowder. After Mrs. Oaks brought the Sabbath to Fredrick Wheeler’s attention, he passed it on to Thomas M. Preble, and he wrote about it in a paper titled the Hope of Israel.  This was not until February 1845, after the Disappointment in October of 1844.  Not long afterward, Preble revised and republished his article, and titled it, “Tract Showing That the Seventh Day Should Be Observed as the Sabbath.”  Shortly afterward, a copy of the article was read by the sea captain, turned Millerite leader, Joseph Bates.  And, as we will see, through his exertions the fire fairly flamed along the fuse.



So, we are seeing New Light brought to more than one person after the disappointment in 1844.  As God revealed His Bible truths to His people, they began to study for themselves, and then accept them.


Ellen Harmon was brought up in a Methodist Episcopal Church in Maine.  When she was a young girl, she had a bad injury to her face and nose, which caused lingering damage to her respiratory system.  She eventually had to drop out of school.  But, God had plans for this young girl.  She heard William Miller preach when she was 12, and the next summer she gave her heart to Jesus at a campmeeting, and was baptized.


When Jesus did not appear on October 22, 1844, Ellen’s family was as disappointed as any other, and during November and December of 1844 Ellen and her parents kept hoping that He soon would come.   One morning, in December, Ellen visited with a friend, and a small group who were praying to understand the Disappointment.  As they knelt, and the Holy Spirit drew near, Ellen White, now 17, received her first vision.  This was the vision of the bright light behind God’s people at the beginning of the path, which an angel told her was “The Midnight Cry”

(Early Writings, pp13-20) 


A week after this first vision, Ellen received another one in which God called her formally to work for Him as a prophet.  He warned her of the great sacrifice there would be, but, also promised an abundance of His grace.


For this 17 year old girl, who was physically ill, this seemed terribly frightening.  Although she had a burning desire to give her all to save the lost, this seemed impossible.


But in a little while she surrendered, and starting relating what Jesus had shown her in vision.  Shortly afterward, she was shown what really happened at the end of the 2300 days.  (EW pp54-56)


Once again, let us note that Ellen White’s gift did not play a prominent role in the development of Adventist doctrine.  In an 1874 response to critics who claimed that Seventh-day Adventists had received their sanctuary doctrine through the visions of Ellen White, this is what the denomination’s leading editor replied:  “Hundreds of articles have been written on the subject.  But in no one of these are the visions once referred to as any authority on this subject, or the source from whence any view we hold has been derived…the appeal is invariably to the Bible, where there is abundant evidence for the views we hold on this subject.”  (RH, Dec 22, 1874)


The primary method used by the pioneers in their doctrinal formation was to study the Bible until a general consensus developed.  Then, Ellen White would sometimes have a vision on what was already studied.  So we can best see Ellen White’s role in doctrinal development as confirming what had already been understood by the brethren, rather than by her own initiation.  This is a very important truth to know.  God gave His message to His believing people, not to just one person.



Soon after that God began speaking to Ellen White in vision, she was instructed that she must relate all that she had seen.  While visiting in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1846 she became acquainted with Elder Joseph Bates.  He believed completely in the advent message, and had already become an active worker.  When he first heard Ellen white speak, he was deeply interested, but, when she had finished speaking he stood up and stated:  “I am a doubting Thomas.  I do not believe in visions.  But, if I could believe that the testimony the sister has related tonight was indeed the voice of God to us, I should be the happiest man alive.  My heart is deeply moved.  I believe the speaker to be sincere, but cannot explain in regard to her being shown the wonderful things she has related to us.”


Elder Bates was resting on Saturday, the seventh day, and he believed and was preaching it as the true Sabbath.  But, strangely, Ellen White did not feel it to be that important and thought he was wrong because he was dwelling upon the fourth commandment more than the other was nine.


About this time, Captain Bates published a tract entitled “The Seventh-day Sabbath, a Perpetual Sign,” which he introduced to James and Ellen White,  (who married on August 30,1846.)  “In the autumn of 1846 we began to observe the Bible Sabbath, and to teach and defend it.” 1T 75  Sometime, after they had begun to study the Sabbath, and they began to be convinced on it being the truth, another vision was given Ellen White, confirming the importance of the Sabbath: 


“But the Lord gave me a view of the heavenly sanctuary.  The temple of God was open in Heaven, and I was shown the ark of God covered with the mercy seat.  Two angels stood one at either end of the ark, with their wings spread over the mercy seat, and their faces turned toward it.  This my accompanying angel informed me represented all the heavenly host looking with reverential awe toward the law of God, which had been written by the finger of God.


Jesus raised the cover of the ark, and I beheld the tables of stone on which the Ten Commandments were written.  I was amazed as I saw the fourth commandment in the very center of the ten precepts, with a soft halo of light encircling it.  Said the angel; “It is the only one of the ten which defines the living God who created the heavens and the earth and all things that are therein.”


In November, 1846, Ellen and James White went to a meeting at Topsham, Maine, and Elder Bates was there.  He still was not fully convinced that the visions Ellen White was receiving were of God……So, while they were in the meeting, God took Mrs. White into vision, and for the first time, she had a view of other planets.  After she came out of vision, she told them all she had seen.  Elder Bates was astounded!  He asked if she had studied astronomy, but she knew absolutely nothing about astronomy.  “This is of the Lord.” Elder Bates declared.  God had given to Ellen White the one thing that would convince Elder Bates, for he had for many years been a ship’s captain, and had sailed by the stars and planets.  He was convinced that these visions was the ‘work of God, and is given to comfort and strengthen His scattered and torn people.’



After the Disappointment it would seem that the Millerite papers that came out would have been the ideal means of reaching other Adventists. But, the position that was taken by those publishing these papers did not allow for the acceptance of the “new light” which had been given to those who were diligently searching their Bibles and praying into the night. The “Millerite believers” did not want to believe the Sanctuary Truths which had been discovered, nor even the Sabbath. This group kept looking for the soon coming of Jesus, and did not by faith, ‘follow our Lord into the Most Holy Place.” So, that avenue to spread the truth was closed.

For a time Ellen Harmon and those intimately associated with her attempted to hand copy and mail out accounts of the visions God had given her. Yet, this method was so limited. In the spring of 1846 an account of the first vision was printed, entitled, “To the Remnant Scattered Abroad.” The cost of 250 copies published was jointly met by James White and H.S. Gurney.

Meanwhile, Joseph Bates also felt the need of publishing the new truths he had discovered along with his fellow believers. When Bates retired from being sea-captain he was quite ‘well off,' but he had thrown himself and his funds into helping to spread the word that Jesus was coming in 1844, for they were so sure this was true. Now, when funds were needed to correct some of the errors into which many of his fellow Adventists were straying, he had practically nothing.

The means to publish the first tract on the Sanctuary were supplied by an Adventist sister who had recently woven a large rag carpet for her home. Seeing the need, she took up the carpet and sold it, giving Bates the money to meet his printing bill.

Next, Bates was impressed to prepare a tract on the Sabbath. As he was beginning to write, Mrs. Bates came to his study door to tell him that she needed some flour to finish the day’s baking. Now, Joseph Bates knew that all the money he had was a single York shilling (about 12 ½ cents) “Prudy,” Bates called from his study, “How much flour do you need?” “About four pounds,” answered his wife. “Ok, he thought, I can do that much, but that is all.” So off the former sea captain went to the neighboring store, and used his last cent to purchase the flour and a few other small items Prudence had added to her grocery list. He brought it home, and quietly sat it on the table, while Mrs. Bates was otherwise occupied.

When she discovered the four pounds of flour she was horrified. Her husband, a man of standing in New Bedford, who had traded with distant parts of the world…had he really gone and bought only four pounds of flour? “Yes,” Joseph had to admit, and in the process he had spent his last penny. Prudence Bates’ embarrassment turned to dismay, and she started crying, “Joseph, what are we going to do?” So, Joseph shared with her that he planned to write a booklet that would help spread the Sabbath truth. And, he assured her, that God would open the way for their personal needs. “Oh, yes! That’s what you always say, Prudence sobbed.”

Joseph went back to his study to work, but in a few minutes, he was suddenly impressed that a letter was awaiting him at the post office. Now, Joseph was not one to drag his feet when he believed God was guiding, so off he went to see the postmaster. Sure enough, there was a letter! But…the letter had no postage, and Captain Bates had to tell the postmaster that he did not have even the few cents to claim the letter. The postmaster told him he could take the letter and pay later, but Bates said no. “I feel impressed that there is money in the letter,” he said. “Please open it, and if there is, take the postage out first and then give me the rest. Finally, the postmaster was persuaded to open the letter, and sure enough, there was a ten-dollar bill. With it was a note, saying that the man was impressed that his friend needed money; so he had sent some off immediately.

In those days, ten dollars would buy quite a few needed items, so with this money, Captain Bates bought a barrel of flour, potatoes, sugar and some other things for the household. He had these delivered to his home, admonishing the grocer to be sure to have it made clear to Mrs. Bates that there was no mistake, for he knew she would think it did not belong to them. Then, he went to the printer to arrange for the printing of his Sabbath tract, with no doubt in his mind that God would provide funds for that as well.

When he got home, Prudence was puzzled and somewhat upset. “Where had this amount of groceries come from when they had no money?” she asked. “The Lord sent them.” Bates replied. “That’s what you always say,” retorted Mrs. Bates. Then, Joseph Bates handed her the letter, and as she read it she cried in joy and also told Bates and our Lord that she was sorry for her lack of faith. This was not the only time someone appeared to help him, once a widow sold her humble cottage and moved in with in-laws, giving Bates enough to publish another tract. And, so it went for a while.

In the late spring, 1847 the first joint publication of James and Ellen White and Joseph Bates appeared. "A Word to the Little Flock” was clearly for Adventists. It began to be obvious that some periodic means of communicating to the Sabbathkeeping Adventists was needed. Shortly after this, Ellen white had a vision in which she saw that the time had come to start “a little paper” to send “out to the people.” She saw that God was laying this work directly on her husband. James was willing, but his financial resources were practically nonexistent. So, James started looking for work…any way in which to earn a little, working on the railroad, or as a farm laborer. Yet what he could earn this way was so small. Sometimes Ellen had a real struggle in deciding whether to use the few pennies available, to buy milk for herself and their son, Henry, (the new edition to the family, born in August of 1847,) or to use these funds to purchase material to clothe the baby.

It was in this small way with our early pioneers’ many sacrifices that the publishing work began; just as such a tiny light at first, but with the promise that the Three Angels’ Messages would be heard and read around the world.

References: Ellen White, Life Sketches, Light Bearers to the Remnant, The Early Years.

I believe we are seeing this same commitment and "enthusiasm" in some people. Just as we are learning here that our church pioneers were ready and willing to sacrifice everything, the same commitment must happen in our lives also. When it does, don't you believe we will see the True Revival occur? The events in this account happened only 5 years after the disappointment of 1844. There was only a small group of believers who stayed faithful at that time. But, let us go on to see more of the "streams of light," which are shining more and more around the world, through the published word.

During the early summer of 1849 James and Ellen white went to Connecticut to live, responding to the invitation of Albert Belden to occupy a part of their house at Rocky Hill. Once again, they had no furniture, but once again, the Lord provided. Clarissa M. Bonfoey’s parents had recently died, and she became the owner of enough furniture for a small family, yet she was alone. Clarissa approached the Whites about living with them, and she not only furnished their rooms with her furniture, but generously helped with the housework. This was just two months before baby Edson White was to be born.

It was in 1848 when Ellen had been given the vision that James must print a little paper and send it out to the people. “From this small beginning,” Ellen told him, “it was shown to me to be like streams of light that went clear round the world.” LS p125 While they were in Connecticut the summer of 1849 James was deeply impressed that it was time for him to write and publish the present truth. But How to pay for it? He had no money, and although there were those who did, they chose to keep it. So, James decided there was nothing else to do but look again for a field of grass to mow. He started out in search of work, but God had other plans, of which Ellen wrote:

“As he left the house, a burden was rolled upon me, and I fainted. Prayer was offered for me, and I was blessed, and taken off in vision. I saw that the Lord had blessed and strengthened my husband to labor in the field one year before; that he had made a right disposition of the means he there earned; and that he would have a hundredfold in this life, and if faithful, a rich reward in the kingdom of God; but that the Lord would not now give him strength to labor in the field, for He had another work for him to do, and that if he ventured into the field, he would be cut down by sickness; but that he must write, write, write, and walk out by faith. He immediately began to write, and when he came to some difficult passage, we would unite in prayer to God for an understanding of the true meaning of His word.”

In July, James brought home from Middletown a thousand copies of the first number of his paper. He usually would walk the eight miles to Middletown and back, but this day he had borrowed Brother Belden’s horse and buggy with which to bring home the papers.

“The precious sheets were brought into the house and laid upon the floor, and then a little group of interested ones were gathered in, and we knelt around the papers, and with humble hearts and many tears besought the Lord to let His blessing rest upon these printed messengers of truth.

When we had folded the papers, and my husband had wrapped and addressed copies to all those who he thought would read them, he put them into a carpetbag, and carried them on foot to the Middletown post office.

During July, August, and September, four numbers of the paper were printed at Middletown. Each number contained eight pages. Always before the papers were mailed, they were spread before the Lord, and earnest prayers, mingled with tears, were offered to God that His blessing would attend the silent messengers. Soon after the sending out of the first number, we received letters bringing means with which to continue publishing the paper, and also the good news of many souls embracing the truth.” LS pp125, 126, 127

“Present Truth, in ten issues published over a period of eleven months, heralded the third angel’s message, with the Sabbath truth as the focal point. But the eye of the Lord saw a need extending beyond this—something that would bring men and women who had been in the great advent awakening to see that experience in its true light as the work of God.”

In August, 1850, James White stated that the Lord had shown his wife, Ellen, that he must start another paper with the testimonies of those who acknowledged the work and the Advent move of God after 1844. This paper consisted of sixteen pages, and was called the Advent Review.

“The design of this review is to cheer and refresh the true believer, by showing the fulfillment of prophecy in the past wonderful work of God, in calling out, and separating from the world and the nominal church, a people who are looking for the second advent of the dear Saviour.” said James White.

His intention was to republish the writings of the leaders in the advent cause and to “show that they once boldly advocated and published to the world the same position…...that we now occupy.” This he declared would show “who have LEFT THE ORIGINAL FAITH.”

But, the great adversary, Satan, did all he could to stop this paper, for he knew it would enlighten and inform the confused Adventists who had not been able to see which way to go since the October 22 disappointment. We will soon see the attacks he made on those who were struggling to get the truths before the Advent people, and the ways that God intervened.

Life Sketches, The Early Years

In our last study we learned about the plans for the publishing of our paper, the Review, and that these very plans of the Whites and other believers, Satan determined to stop. He knew that publishing a church paper, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, would tie scattered Adventists together.

First, Satan tried to kill Edson, James and Ellen’s second son, who was only about one year old at the time. For no apparent reason, Edson lost consciousness, turned blue, and was at the point of death. Through anointing and prayer, God healed him. Shortly after this, James came down with cholera, and was so ill they knew that unless God healed him, he would not recover. This time it was Ellen herself who says, “I anointed his head and stomach and bowels in the name of the Lord, then we took hold of faith for him; our united prayers went up to God, and the answer came…James was healed…”

Satan was far from finished with them. Seeing that his power was broken upon James, he went to Baby Edson again. They were awakened by the screams of their baby, and when they went to him he clung to them; and then, with his little hands fighting the air, he cried in terror, “NO! NO” and clung closer. They believed this, too, was one of Satan’s attacks. So, together they knelt in prayer, claiming God’s power. Immediately the baby relaxed, and they placed him in his bed asleep.

Not long after this incident with Baby Edson, the Whites were driving a pair of horses hitched to a farm wagon. The horses suddenly reared, the wagon swerved into a bank and overturned, and both Ellen and James were violently thrown from the wagon. But, they were unhurt, and they thanked God for their protection.

James had to travel too soon after his illness, for someone had to get the printed papers. Due to this he experienced pain and weakness again. He brought the papers home to fold and mail, and they did not even think of food or rest until two or three in the morning. All of the illness and hard, unceasing work with little help began to take its’ toll on both James and Ellen, but just as they both were becoming depressed over all the trials, God gave her a vision.

She saw that Satan had intended to kill Edson, but God would not allow it, and she said, “I saw it was the work of the enemy, as we were going from Oswego to Volney, to destroy us on the way by our being thrown from the wagon. I saw the angels of Satan triumphed as they were carrying out their purposes. But, I saw the angels of God were around, and as we fell, their arms were beneath us that we might not be injured. I saw the hands of one of the angels were busy at work and wrought for us or we should have been destroyed by Satan….

I saw these efforts of Satan were to hinder the paper coming out, for the lines that were being republished were written in the Spirit of God and would rejoice the hearts of the trusting ones…I saw that the paper would strengthen the things that remain and would help build up God’s people in the most holy faith.”—MS7, 1850

Ellen White was also shown in the vision that much of the same type of conflict was still before God’s people. She had been warned: “We must buckle on the whole armor and take the shield of faith and we should be enabled to stand and the fiery darts of Satan could not move us”—Ibid.

Four issues of the Advent Review were published at Oswego during August and September. During the next few years it was given a wide distribution.

It was not an easy task to publish the Review, for a number of reasons. There was hardly any money for supplies, wages or food for even the employees and food prices were high, so they made do with what they had. Ellen decided they must have a garden to supplement their food supply, so someone was found to plow a spot near the house. To her amazement, the plowing turned up a great number of small potatoes that had not frozen in the winter. Potatoes were expensive, and Ellen saw a chance for free food. She found a bucket and followed the man plowing the ground, as she picked up the potatoes, filling her bucket with them several times. One of the workers at the Review office was shocked at her doing this. In fact he was so shocked, he laid down his tools and said, “My employer’s wife out there following the plow, picking up those little potatoes? I will not work for such people!” Ellen told the man she considered it a religious duty not to waste food and that was why she was doing this. Besides that, the potatoes were needed. The man finally calmed down and went back to work.

Another time, it was Ellen’s frugality that “saved the paper.” Ellen had a stocking hidden in the kitchen cupboard, and every time she could, she dropped a coin into it, just for some such crisis as was always showing up with printing the Review. Just as she anticipated, one day James came home with the bad news that there was no money for a shipment of paper.

He said that the paper was at the express office, and he had no idea what he was going to do. Without saying a word, Ellen went to the cupboard, and to James’ surprise, pulled out a stocking. His eyes got big, while she emptied the stocking and counted the money. There was enough to pay the bill, and with that shipment of paper, the Review was printed on time.

References: The Early Years, Why Me, Lord, and Ellen