I wish you would tell me Sir what you do mean By drawing this figure that looks like a chain [opening caption of 1844 American Millerite Adventist Folk Art Spiritual Drawing].
Extraordinary, complex American millenarian spiritual folk art drawing embodying the Adventist religious beliefs of William Miller (1782–1849) and his followers and illustrating the claim of a future age to begin on March 22, 1844.
The Anonymous artist, probably an adherent of the Adventist preacher William Miller, depicts a symbolical simultaneous vision of past salvation history and the future life. Here there are references to Biblical verses of prophecy and future apocalypse. Here there are sacred numbers such as “44” and references to various Christian churches including the Shakers—an adventist sect formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Here there are drawings of mystical chains—chains linking the past to a future revelation, drawings of the sun and the moon, and drawings of manicules or disembodied hands pointing at key design elements.
Millerite theology taught that the Second Coming or Advent of Christ aligned with a Biblical prophecy about the re-building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Aditionally, they belived that Christ—based on Miller’s elaborate calculations—would return to earth on March 21, 1844. American harbingers of Christ’s Second Coming are incorporated into both the drawing’s design and its text.
The Millerite spiritual drawing is composed in four symmetrically arranged panels of complex geometric patterns. The drawing contains fractal-like depictions of circles emanating from circles emanating from still more circles. Also seen are circle radii delimiting triangular spaces and cordiform or heart-shaped spaces within which are inscribed biblical verses. These citations and their arrangements within the drawing are used by the Millerite artist to present by word and image the doctrine of Christ’s Second Coming in 1844. In this way the drawing is a uniquely American evangelical proclamation.
The symmetrical drawing is made in the “future tense;” it is predictive of a coming event. It opens enigmatically with a poetical question to be answered and seeks to persuade the viewer/reader of its claim to represent the truth about the imminent coming of Christ:
I wish you would tell me Sir what do you mean / By drawing this figure that looks like a chain.
Please turn to Third chapter according to LUKE / Beginning at Twenty-Third verse in rebuke.
This opening line appears above a drawing of a chain which spans the sheet, a chain that literally links three columns of 22 books each from both the Old and New Testaments. There are references at the feet of the left and right columns to the 22nd chapters of Matthew and the Book of Revelations (or Apocalypse), the latter of which states “Behold, I come quickly [i.e. an Advent]: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.” (verse 7) A chain at the bottom links the books of the Bible and the Jews and the Gentiles. The second poetical couplet refers to Luke 3:23 and to the genealogy of “Jesus…the son of Joseph” recounted there.
Illustrations fill both sides of the drawing sheet. The recto side celebrates the “marriage” of the Old and New Testaments, presenting numerous examples of matching pairs, such as feet/head, Jews/Gentiles, Groom/Bride, Fall-Winter/Spring-Summer, etc. A list of the Twelve Apostles (under the heading of “Bride” and paralleling a list of 13 Old Testament names headed “Groom”) includes a thirteenth name: “MIRIAM or Christ,” an unusual implied reference to the orthodox belief of Mary’s role in the economy of salvation.
Marriage symbolism became increasingly important to the followers of William Miller after his prediction of the Second Coming failed to occur in March 1844. Miller explained this failure by referencing the parable of the Bridegroom and the Virgins, later known by Adventists as the “shut-door prophesy,” from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. (verses 10–13)
Prior to the “Great Disappointment,” when Miller’s prediction of the 1844 Second Coming failed to occur, Miller had linked the imagery of marriage to the Second Coming, writing in a book outlining his theology: “‘Marriage’ is the time when Christ shall come the second time without sin unto salvation; gather his elect from the four winds of heaven…when the bride hath made herself ready, and the marriage of the Lamb [Christ] is come…”¹
Many of the Biblical references on the drawing’s recto are related to the idea of a 50 year Jubilee, most specifically Leviticus 25:10: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout [all] the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you…” (KJV) This verse was cast into the body of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and may have been known to some Millerites.
Importantly, the number “44” is found at the center of the drawing, between the two major circles, and in at least one other place, embedded in the list of the books of the Bible at the bottom of the sheet. There is also an explicit reference in the drawing to the Book of Revelation 4:4 which describes 24 elders seated around God’s throne and an implied reference to the year 1844, a kind of “proof text” to validate the year of Christ’s Second Coming. Here the drawing depicts 24 circles emanating from a center circle labeled “Throne.”
At the bottom right of the drawing’s recto is a geometrically constructed heart-shaped field filled with references to the Biblical story of Jacob (also known as Israel) and his son, the Patriarch Joseph, as recounted in the 37th chapter of Genesis. Here, a drawing of the sun is surmounted by the words “Groom,” “Sun,” and “Father;” along side, there is a drawing of the moon and the parallel words “Mother,” “Moon,” and “Bride.” There are also references to Jacob’s twin brother Esau and to Rachel and John.
The importance of Genesis 37 and the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, is so important to the drawing’s narrative that 12 gray-shaded or highlighted manicules or hands point to his name. Text surrounding the “lobes” of the “heart” emphasize the story of Joseph’s dream of the sun and the moon and Joseph’s subsequent betrayal by his brothers and his being sold into slavery in Egypt. The drawing declares:
Within the Book of GENESIS / And Thirty-Seventh Chapter
That will explain the whole of this / And all that follows after.
The other side or verso of the drawing also depicts two parallel illustration panels. The right half, though unfinished, contains prominent lettering in blue ink linking the Old Testament Patriarch Joseph and Moses and Christ, all of whom went out of Egypt, though Joseph only after his death. Its design parallel on the left side features the date “March 22 Day 1844,” the first day of the new dispensation. The completed side of the verso emphasizes apocalyptic elements of Christian prophecy, linking it to the United States. The artist mentions two U.S. presidents, Andrew Jackson, giving his birthday and age in March of 1844 (referencing a mystical number 7 and noting him as “7th President” and being “Aged 77 y[r]s.”) and John Tyler, predicting his future resignation. The year, 1844, is found four times. Poetical verses surround this portion of the drawing, each quatrain separated by a drawing of a long chain:
The DEVIL has ruled Six-Thousand years / By falsehood and deceit
Which has excited many fears / While on his Judgement SEAT.
Tyler his office will resign. / In Eighteen-Hundred Forty-Four.
Times end according to the Sign / Then comes the Judgement of the Whore.
The center of the major circle has the word “SHAKER” lettered in 6 smaller circles; emanating from it are six identically-sized circles naming six Protestant denominations: Baptist, Congregationalist, Methodist, Unitarians, Perfectionism, and Universalist.
Spiritual drawings in America and from this time are quite often associated with the Shakers, whose sect is referenced in the present drawing. According to Sharon Koomler’s Seen and Received: The Shaker’s Private Art (Pittsfield, Mass., 2000) the making of Shaker religious drawings or “gifts” flourished from 1837 to the late 1860s. Shaker drawings from the earlier years include numerous examples of heart-shaped drawings and drawings accompanied by texts. Koomler’s book depicts several heart-shaped cutouts from Mount Lebanon, New York all dating from 1844. A complex symmetrically designed drawing or “Sacred Sheet” was executed there by two Shaker women in 1843. They also incorporated enigmatic lettering, circles and quasi-heart forms into their pen and ink work.
The reference to “Perfectionism” in this context (and in 1844) is interesting. Perfectionism might refer to a general mode of Christian living or to the Methodist teachings of John Wesley, the author of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766). A general mode, however, is not a specific religious sect and Methodism is already separately mentioned in the drawing. Is Perfectionism, perhaps, a reference to John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886) who later founded the Oneida Community in upstate New York? By 1844, having adopted a perfectionist theology, Noyes had already established a community in Putney, Vermont based on his teachings including his teachings on so-called “complex marriage,” a system of free love. This said, the present drawing with its prominent reference to marriage may have been created around this same area—Western Massachusetts or around the New York-Vermont border—the same places where William Miller lived and where his followers were mostly concentrated.
Within the large circle on the drawing’s verso is the banner, “HOLINESS TO THE LORD” and a reference to the 28th chapter of Exodus: “And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, Holiness to the Lord.” (verse 36) This phrase embodies the spirit of early 19th Century American evangelicalism, from Charles Finney (1792–1875), who attached the motto to the famous Oberlin Tent, through Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church, who etched it into all their public buildings. The phrase, as found in Zechariah 14, also inspired many apocalyptic prophecies: “Behold, the day of the Lord cometh…In that day shall there be upon the bells of the horses, Holiness unto the Lord.” (verses 1 and 20) Below the “Holiness” circle with its American references is a geometrically constructed, heart-shaped field with a banner reading “The United States of America - 1844.” Aligned with it are two biblical verses referring to the human heart.
A remarkable nineteenth-century nexus of American folk art and American Adventism.
Description: I wish you would tell me Sir what you do mean By drawing this figure that looks like a chain [opening caption of 1844 American Millerite Adventist Folk Art Spiritual Drawing].
[New England? ca. 1844]. Double-sided Drawing. 12½ x 15⅜ inches. Ink on paper with some gray wash, a small part accomplished in blue ink; text on both sides. Sheet folded vertically in the middle, presenting an intricate, symmetrically arranged and precisely drawn combination of geometric patterns, drawings of chains, and manicules and with numerous handwritten biblical names and references and other writings. Some foxing; sheet closely trimmed at edges with no apparent loss of illustrations or text; very good.
Note. 1. Miller, Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1843; Exhibited in a Course of Lectures (Boston, 1842), p237.