Every student of American religious history has heard of the event known as “the Great Disappointment.” In 1818 William Miller, a former naval captain turned lay Baptist preacher, developed a new method for calculating biblical chronology to arrive at the conclusion that the millennium would take place sometime between 1842 and 1844. Finally published in 1832, Miller’s thesis quickly drew attention. A sect began to form, spreading from Miller’s home region in Eastern New York to New England and beyond. Millerism was born. The time was drawing nigh, Miller preached, when a dreadful cataclysm would occur, to be followed by a wondrous splendor: “The heavens appear, the great white throne is in sight, amazement fills the universe with awe.” Pressed by followers for an exact date—people wished to settle their affairs before going up to heaven—Miller, after some hesitation and a few unmet deadlines, settled on October 22, 1844. The fateful day came and then went without any visible sign of the Advent, leaving the Millerites disheartened and perplexed.
And what of the Great Disappointment of 2013? In the promiscuous blending of politics and culture that characterizes our age, the launch of the Obama campaign in 2007 marked the beginning of a politico-spiritual movement that promised a new beginning and a transformation of the nation. It was to be the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal . . . [when we] restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” Faith in the leader knew no bounds. Obamaism spilled out from the college campuses and tony enclaves of Manhattan and San Francisco into the mass public to become first an American and then a worldwide phenomenon. The legion of believers included not only the youth in their T-shirts emblazoned with the silk-screen Obama image, but also many of the nation’s most experienced political observers. By early 2009, the five wise persons from Oslo had come bearing the gift of the Nobel Peace Prize. No date was fixed for the fulfillment of all the hopes and promises—extensions were continually asked for under the excuse that “change would never be easy”—but enough time had transpired by the end of 2013 for people to sense that the deadline had come and gone. Like October 22, 1844, the appointed time passed with no visible sign of the advent of a new era.
How believers cope with the trauma of disappointment has long been a theme in the field of social psychology. Modern, positivist research on this topic began with the publication in 1956 of Leon Festinger’s celebrated work When Prophecy Fails, in which Festinger and his colleagues first introduced the theory of “cognitive dissonance.” This theory explores how people deal with the discomfort of confronting conflicting ideas and opposing sentiments (“dissonance”). The model holds that individuals will look for mechanisms to reduce dissonance, be it by avoiding contact with conflicting sources of information (as when readers of The Weekly Standard surf with their remotes past MSNBC) or by restructuring their worldview to reduce or eliminate clashing positions. Three general responses are possible: acceptance, denial, and deflection.
Accepters are those who conclude that they have succumbed to an error or perhaps been victims of a hoax. In the psychologists’ jargon, they admit to “disconfirmation.” Such recognition may come with powerful feelings of pain—a sense of emptiness, the despair of lost hope, or the embarrassment of having been “had” by a confidence man. It is poignant to read the reaction of one of the Millerites in the wake of the Great Disappointment: “Is there no God, no heaven, no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable?” Yet with acceptance, difficult as it may be, individuals eliminate dissonance and can at least hope to establish a new equilibrium. According to Festinger, who made Millerism one of his main case studies, acceptance turned out to be the Millerites’ predominant, and likely the best, response. “In spite of their overwhelming commitments,” Festinger writes, “Miller’s followers gave up their beliefs and the movement quickly disintegrated. . . . By the late spring of 1845 it had virtually disappeared.”