All the World Will Burn: William Miller and the Roots of American Eco-Millenarianism
Historians have pointed to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 as a key factor propelling Finneyite revivalism as well as fringe movements like Millerism and Mormonism in the “burned-over district” of upstate New York, specifically the social instability attending the economic and transportation revolution that this development represented. But the industrialization of what had been agrarian communities also constituted an ecological disaster. Many at the time remarked on environmental damage like deforestation, swampland drainage, and other measures that ultimately triggered cholera and smallpox epidemics, poisoned the groundwater, and introduced invasive fish and plant species into the Great Lakes and the Hudson River. Moreover, the period leading up to the Millerite heyday was marked by earthquakes, comets, sun spots, red rains, and the “year without a summer,” when birds dropped dead from the sky, the ground froze in July, and the Northeast faced famine. People developed a range of theories to understand these phenomena, drawing on both emergent scientific ideas about the effects of industrial development on the climate as well as a long religious tradition of eschatological interpretation of the environment.
This kind of cautionary speculation with jeremiadic roots endures in contemporary eco activism. Lawrence Buell has noted that “Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.” A central task of climate activism for the past 60 years has been to help us imagine the end of our world, indeed to demand that we do so. We might regard Miller as a pivot in the evolution of this genre, as he relied in part on apocalyptic ecofiction to deliver his sermonic message of warning.
In an 1843 issue of The Midnight Cry, Miller published a particularly notable narrative account of what he called “the great burning day.” This piece comments on the difficulty of determining what by this time was a “natural” environmental occurrence, and what were the rumblings of apocalypse. When the narrator feels the earth moving, hears trumpet blasts, and sees the sky lit up with fire, he reflects, “When the stars fell like hail-stones, I stood unmoved, and laughed at others’ fears. They passed away, and all was calm again. It was one of nature’s freaks,” presumably referring to the Leonid Meteor Storm of 1833. He notes, “So oft of late has nature played her tricks, methinks ʼtis natural. There was a time when superstition reigned. The world would then have said—ah, yes, and believed it too—that these denoted war, bloodshed, and great convulsions among men; but now the world has become more wise.” He continues, “This may be natural…. These noises in the earth, and roarings of the sea which have of late made timid mortals shake, by this philosophy are all accounted for. I am not shaken yet.” But as the situation escalates, he asks, “Is nature in a fit?” Miller’s vision of the second coming of Christ echoes the kind of “fit” in nature that Americans of his generation had witnessed more than once. The narrator wrestles with whether such environmental phenomena signify divine judgement or whether science might hold an alternate explanation; the story ultimately hints at the entwinement of these discourses in the age of anthropogenic climate change.
He goes on to describe a superstorm, suffocating heat, pummeling hail, forests torn out of the ground, and piles of animal and human corpses. Then “such a flood of light and heat upon the earth, that the hail melted, and the streams and fountains of water dried up. The tops of the mountains soon began to burn: the rocks began to melt, and with their lava filled up the streams and vales below.” The heat “penetrated every crevice, crack, and cavern of the earth, and then descended to the bottom of the deep, the sea.” This mention of a crack in the earth calls to mind the great ditch of the Erie Canal, as does a reference to the destruction of all “monuments of man.” For readers today, his vision of destructive heat penetrating even to the seafloor may seem to prophesy global warming as much as Christ’s return. I would suggest that Miller’s prescient imagery of the world’s destruction is drawn not only from Biblical accounts of the final judgment but also from his own experiences of settler colonial war, emergent industrial technologies, and climate change. Millerism indexed a moment of multivalent crisis in the United States—political, economic, humanitarian, and ecological. We might agree with the sympathetic fellow travelers who afterwards insisted that the Millerites had been right about the end of the world, they had just imagined it wrong.
 Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller (Boston, 1853), 257–60.
 See Whitney Cross The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850 (Ithaca, NY 1950); Paul Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (New York, 2004); and Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848(Oxford, UK, 2007).
 See Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Canal Boat,” New-England Magazine 9 (Dec. 1835) 398–409;
Basil Hall, Travels in North America, in the Year 1827 and 1828 (Philadelphia, 1829), 83-–87; George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York, 1864); and W. B. Langbein, Hydrology and Environmental Aspects of Erie Canal (1817–99) (Washington, DC, 1976).
 See Michael Barkun, Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-Over District of Upstate New York in the 1840s (Syracuse, NY, 1896); and Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (Princeton, NJ,, 2014).
 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 285.
 William Miller, “A Scene of the Last Day,” The Midnight Cry (Mar. 31, 1843).
30 May 2023
About the Author
Holly Jackson is associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.