I doubt very many of you have heard of Millerism. William Miller was a Baptist pastor in northeastern New York during the first half of the 19th century. Using eschatological math based on Daniel 8:14 and turning days into years, Miller concluded that the Second Coming would take place sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. He began lecturing on the subject in 1833, and thanks to the support of a number of serial publications, the movement went national over the next few years. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Christians became Millerites.
March 21, 1844, came and went. The date was amended to April 18. Then to July 10. Finally, the Millerites declared that October 22 to definitely be the day. When that day passed, hopes began to dwindle. By November, the Great Hope turned into what historians have dubbed the Great Disappointment. The thousands of folks who had joined the movement now went back to their home churches or found other sects.
Among them was a former slave who was born in Ulster County, New York, a hundred miles north of New York City. She was Christened Isabelle Baumfree. Isabelle was sold to new owners three times; at ages nine, eleven, and thirteen. Her second owner beat her nearly every day. Her third owner, a man named Dumont fathered the second of her five children. Three of her children who survived childhood were fathered by an older slave named Thomas, whom Isabelle married.
The New York state legislature abolished slavery, effective July 4, 1827. Although the practice was illegal, many New York slave owners sold their slaves to plantations in the south before they could be set free. Isabelle suspected Dumont was going to sell her and her children, so she and her daughter, Sophia, escaped. Her fears proved correct. Her five-year-old son, Peter, was indeed sold to a slave owner in Alabama. In 1828 she sued to get Peter back and won, the first Black woman to do so successfully.
At about that same time Isabelle came to know Jesus as her personal Savior and Lord. She moved to New York City, and with a woman who claimed to be a slave of George Washington, she began doing charity work. In 1843 she joined the Methodist Church and changed her name. She said she was called to travel the country and speak out for justice, so her new calling would be reflected in her new name, Sojourner Truth. That’s the name by which we know her.
That same year she fell in with the Millerites. She refused to be disillusioned by the Great Disappointment. Her faith in God and His Son Jesus Christ remained strong. She threw herself into the work, which has made her famous, speaking out against slavery, for women’s rights, for prison reform, and for those living in poverty.
This is one of the great lessons of her life. She loved the Lord, but got caught up in a well-intentioned but unrealistic movement. When the movement proved to be false, she did not abandon her faith or go off to find another such movement. She re-evaluated what the Bible has to say about what discipleship means and she threw herself into the causes and the service she knew were worthy for someone who was a Christian.
This lesson holds true for us today. There are many preachers out there, many of them on television, who have huge followings of people who are hoping for something that is pie in the sky. I can understand why people love to listen to them and even give them money. I hesitate to call them apostates, but I guess that’s what they are. I find it hard to determine if they are merely misguided or out and out charlatans.
But I know this. When in doubt, return to the basics. “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” “Love the Lord and treat your neighbor as yourself.” “Devote yourself to whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.” “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” “Be loving, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, self-controlled.”
You can’t go wrong with these. Study, pray, serve, worship, forgive. You will never be disappointed and you will never disappoint God. It’s the lesson Sojourner Truth learned. She stayed true to it and in 2014 the Smithsonian Institute listed he among the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”
Sojourner Truth died on November 26, 1883 at the age of eighty-six.