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Hope remains even after "Great Disappointment'

Long before radio broadcaster Harold Camping or David Koresh, or any of hundreds of minor and major American religious figures who thought they could predict the end of the world, there was William Miller.

The farmer-turned-prophet convinced tens of thousands of Baptists, Methodists and other Christians across the nation that the Second Coming would take place Oct. 22, 1844. Scores gathered that day on his farm in upstate New York to await the coming of the Messiah.

The "Great Disappointment" that followed left most of them angry and disappointed. But from the group of original believers arose a small remnant who created one of the truly unique American contributions to world religion: The Seventh-day Adventist Church.

A century-and-a-half later, some 500 Adventists gathered again on "Ascension Rock" at the Miller estate this month to commemorate the event that led to the founding of their faith. The Adventists are not among the date-setters, but they still eagerly await the return of Jesus to reunite them with their loved ones in heaven.

For the church, which has multiplied many times over this century to grow to 8 million worldwide today, the challenge has become how to keep a sense of urgent anticipation of the Second Coming even after the passing of seven or eight generations.

"To keep that hope alive is something, frankly, I think the church is struggling with," says historian James Nix from church headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.

"How do you keep that hope alive? I don't have a good answer for that."

Christianity has anticipated the Second Coming from the faith's earliest days. Up until the present in the United States, there have been a steady stream of prognosticators of the end of the world.

But perhaps no one in American religious history has built greater expectations of the imminent return of Christ than Miller, who lectured throughout the country at a time when many Americans believed the Kingdom of God was near.

Miller based his prophecy on an interpretation of Daniel 8:14: "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed." Counting days as a year, he came up with 1844 as the year Christ would return.

As soon as Jesus finishes going over the rolls in heaven to judge the living and the dead, Adventists believe he will return to Earth in clouds of glory.

"We maintain a hopefulness it will be soon," said C. Mervyn Maxwell, a church historian at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich.