The high pitched whistling that signaled the approach of a shell snapped Captain Miller to attention. He looked up just in time to make out the blur of the projectile as it whizzed towards the ground and exploded not two feet from him. The force of the blast injured three of the men who stood around him but he managed to walk away without a scratch.
He was engaged in the Battle of Plattsburg on the shores of Lake Champlain on the 11th of September 1812. The British forces numbered 15,000 men on land and a small but well equipped naval fleet out on the lake. By comparison, the American troops numbered 5,500 with a smaller naval fleet on the lake for support. The odds were heavily stacked against the Americans but as it turned out they walked away victorious.
After the victory, Miller returned home to his farm in Poultney, Vermont a changed man. He had been born into a Baptist family in 1782 and raised by deeply spiritual parents. His maternal grandfather and one of his uncles were both Baptist ministers. But Miller, in the lead up to the Battle of Plattsburg had been a confirmed deist.
Deism was something that Miller had naturally fallen into as a result of his deep love of learning. At a time when nine-tenths of the American population were farmers and at a time when farmers were not the most educated social demographic, Miller distinguished himself as a farmer who became a self-educated scholar.
He had a voracious appetite for reading and spent countless hours as a young boy scouring the local libraries for any reading material he could get his hands on. Every evening, after the entire family had gone to bed, William would stay awake reading by the light of the crackling pine knots in the household fireplace.
Miller was an avid reader of the Enlightenment thinkers of the late 17th century. Men like Voltaire, Hume, and Paine drew his attention and slowly converted him away from his traditional Baptist upbringing to embrace Deism. Deism is a skeptical belief system that rejects Christianity with all of its miracles and supernatural flavor without dispensing with the existence of a supernatural being. The thesis of Deism is that God, like an ancient watchmaker, wound up the world, thousands (perhaps even millions) of years ago and then walked away from it in search of bigger and better projects, allowing it to slowly tick on and plot its own trajectory through history. Miller was drawn to this impersonal view of Divine being.
In 1803 he married Lucy and moved from his boyhood home in Low Hampton, New York to Poultney, Vermont. Here he became a frequent visitor to the local library and also an upstanding member of his local community. He was soon a gentleman farmer, rich enough to own two horses and make a comfortable living. Miller was sociable, intelligent and loved to entertain, a combination that saw his home become a frequent haunt of other Deist couples in his area.
During many of these meetings, he poked good-natured fun at his uncle Elihu and grandfather Phelps, both deeply spiritual Baptist ministers. After he returned from the war, Miller sold his farm in Poultney and moved back to his boyhood hometown of Low Hampton to be closer to his aging mother. During this time there were several elements in his life that began to draw him to God.
First was the narrow shave he had experienced during the Battle of Plattsburg coupled with the unlikely, almost divinely appointed victory of the American forces over their far superior and better equipped British counterparts. Miller kept turning the series of events over and over in his mind trying to make sense of them in light of his Deist leanings but they just didn’t fit within the framework of what he believed. Everything about the encounter seemed to point to a personal, all-knowing God.
The second element was that of the influence of his mother, grandfather, and uncle in his life. All three of them were praying for him and he obligingly attended services at the Baptist church where his uncle preached on a Sunday. The turning point came when he volunteered himself to read the sermon in his uncle’s absence. The sermon he read made a deep impression on his mind and he broke down in tears, unable to finish the reading.
In despair, over his sins, William Miller went home with a heart that longed for a savior. Someone, he could lean on for help and strength. He needed a savior of that he was sure, and he realized the world needed a savior too. But where could he find such a being?
He found what he was looking for as he read the Bible and later wrote “I was constrained to admit that the scriptures must be a revelation from God. They became my delight and in Jesus, I found a friend.” It was one of the most significant turning points in his life and William Miller the Deist became William Miller, the friend of Jesus.
Perhaps there is someone in your life today who needs to have the kind of revelation that William Miller did. Someone who needs to have their hearts melted by the all-encompassing matchless love of Jesus. Maybe you could do what his family did for him; pray. Pray that God might open their eyes that they might see his love with a clarity that will pierce their hearts and transform their lives. The same God that reached William Miller is still alive and able today.