Joseph Smith Maybe Didn’t Believe in the Bible Dictionary’s Chronology

This day, 6,024 years ago, on October 23, 4004 BC, was the first day of Creation, according to James Ussher, the man whose chronology published in 1650 still pervades our paradigms of the Bible today. His approximate dates are even used in our LDS Bible Dictionary.

176 years ago yesterday, on October 22, 1844, was the day that William Miller predicted to be Christ’s Second Coming. Obviously, it didn’t happen, and that day came to be known as the Great Disappointment. Interestingly to Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith was aware beforehand of Miller’s predictions, and had confidently refuted them multiple times before his death in 1844. But what’s even more interesting is that in doing so, Joseph may have also indirectly expressed a belief that Ussher’s idea of Adam living in 4004 BC was totally wrong. 

Yes, Joseph Smith probably wouldn’t have accepted the chronology we have in the Bible Dictionary. At least, I don’t think he would.

James Ussher’s Chronology

In the 17th century, Archbishop Ussher set out to determine when the Bible happened. He added up the “begats” in Genesis, used other passages of the Bible to determine the time between Abraham and the Temple of Solomon, consulted the reigns of Judah’s kings to connect to the Babylonian captivity, then used historical Babylonian, Greek, and Roman sources to pin the year of creation at 4004 BC. Because the creation lasted only 7 days, it was reasonable to assume that Adam was created just a few days later in that same year, 4004 BC. Ussher also decided that Jesus must have been born exactly 4,000 years after Adam’s fall, so he put the Savior’s birth at 4 BC. (1)

This chronology was impressive for its time (pun intended), and began being published and used in Bibles and Biblical commentaries all over. As I mentioned above, vestiges of it even ended up in our LDS Bible Dictionary—I remember looking at it as a teenager, and learning that Adam fell around 4000 BC. In light of other LDS scriptures–such as D&C 77:6–4,000 BC made sense. (2)

William Miller’s Prediction

In the early 19th century, a man named William Miller set out to calculate the date of the Second Coming. He figured that sometimes in the Bible, when the word “day” is used, it really means “year”, and therefore a “week” could really mean “7 years”. From what I could gather (and I could be completely off here), Miller used James Ussher’s date for Jesus’ baptism, 27 AD (~30 years after 4 BC) to figure that Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 8:14 was given in 457 BC. How is that? Well, 27 AD subtracted by 69 Miller weeks and 1 Miller day, or 484 (69*7+1) years is 457 BC, and Daniel 9:24 says that “Seventy weeks are decreed” for an atonement to be made–or for Christ to finish the atonement. (3)

If I got that right, let’s go back to Daniel 8:14–This verse declared that 2300 days would pass, “then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller interpreted the sanctuary’s cleansing to be the Second Coming of the Lord. Since he had reckoned the date of the prophecy’s utterance as 457 BC, that meant that the Second Coming would occur 2300 years after 457 BC. That comes out to 1843-1844 AD. (4)

I know that was a lot to digest, so hopefully this image can help:

Diagram of Miller’s reasoning using the 70 weeks and 2300 days,

Essentially, James Ussher used what’s written in the Bible to create his chronology, and William Miller relied heavily on Ussher’s chronology to calculate the date of the Second Coming. “It doesn’t take a math whiz,” wrote one observer, “to notice that William Miller based some of his own chronology on Ussher’s, predicting that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844, neatly finishing off the earth’s history to the day.” (5)

It’s very likely that Miller had Ussher’s famous chronology book, Annals, in his library, and that even the Bible he worked with contained “extra information” such as Ussher’s chronology in its margins. “Whether Miller recognised it or not,” wrote another, “such items clearly influenced his biblical interpretation and his conclusions.” (6)

“The error is in the Bible”

And now I’ll explain what this has to do with Joseph Smith not believing in Ussher’s created-in-4,000-BC world.

On February 12, 1843, about 7 or 8 respectful young men from New York City came to see Joseph Smith. They must have asked him about William Miller’s looming end-time prophecy, because Joseph recorded this in his journal:

“I shewed them the fallacey of Mr [William] Millers data concerni[n]g the Millnim [Millennium] & preachd them quite a sermon. shewed them, that the error is in the Bible or translation. & that Miller is in want of information.” (7)

Of course Miller turned out to be wrong–Jesus did not come on March 21, 1844; or on April 18, 1844; or October 22, 1844 (all dates that Miller settled on for the rapture to begin). In a way, Joseph proved himself a prophet by confidently declaring Miller’s 1844 date(s) to be a bad decision.

But did you catch what Joseph said to these young New Yorkers who called on him? It wasn’t that Miller was wrong because of his huge assumption that a day in the scriptures really equals 365 days, or that a week equals 7 years. It wasn’t that Miller was wrong because he figured the cleansing of the sanctuary referred to the destruction at the Second Coming. Miller was wrong because he used the Bible to make his prediction, and the Bible was full of errors. The BIBLE was wrong, not necessarily Miller’s method. “The error [was] in the Bible.”

Now, if the Bible was the suspect here, what about it could have possibly been incorrect? Well, as most Latter-day Saints know, there are a lot of places for the Bible to have errors, but I’ve narrowed it down to a likely-incomplete list of three possible things (as it relates to Miller’s prediction):

  1. The 2300 days should be a bigger number.
  2. The 70 weeks should be a smaller number.
  3. The Biblical numbers James Ussher used to establish a chronology are wrong. 

Although the problem with Miller’s calculus could lie in any of those three things or in something else entirely, I think the biggest problem was he and Ussher took the numbers given in the Bible too literally. And if the numbers in the Bible aren’t to be trusted, how can we say for sure that Adam fell in 4004 BC, or that Noah’s flood happened exactly 1,656 years after that, or that Methuselah lived for 969 years (Gen 5:27)? How can we rely on any number in the Bible, when, as Joseph Smith said, “the error is in the Bible or translation,” and any person that tries to use it to date anything—be it the Second Coming, the creation of Earth, or the appearance of mankind—“is in want of information”?

By the time he met with these 7 or 8 young men to refute Miller’s ideas, Joseph had already elsewhere revealed that Adam, Enoch, and Noah lived in North America, that the creation account in Genesis needed a facelift (see here and here), and that he believed the Bible to be God’s word “as far as it is translated correctly” (Articles of Faith 1:8). He had also produced a controversial book that contained more of God’s word and claimed Jesus visited the Americas, even though many believed the Bible to be sufficient and that Jesus had finished His work on the cross. For as much as he loved quoting and preaching from the Bible (which he did A LOT), Joseph Smith knew that there were things in it that weren’t historically factual. Perhaps he also had an inkling that the years and dates derived from the Bible were not all reliable.

Take it how you will, but I think Joseph Smith’s comments concerning William Miller’s predictions are a sign that Ussher’s widely-used chronology is wrong–and now, in the year 2020, we know for sure that it is.

Sources and Notes


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