In the 1830’s and 1840’s America saw a huge surge in religious interest. New churches opened every other Sunday—and sometimes on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, as well. For a while the Narrow Wayers, the proto-Seventh-day Adventists, the Midnight Cryers, the New Lighters, and the Millerites worshipped together, but then they fell out over some damn thing or other and went their separate ways. I don’t remember it all now, but I do know that when the Advent believers and Millerites and Midnight Cryers decided that Jesus was coming in 1844 Narrow Wayers jumped on the bandwagon and headed for glory right along with them. Among them was Andrew Smyth. He dragged his wife and sixteen kids with him.
Since Jesus was coming before harvest Andrew decided he didn’t need to plant crops. His wife put in a garden so they’d have something to eat in the meantime, but Andrew spent his time reading his Bible and pestering—he called it “exhorting”—his wife, children, and neighbors to shape up or they’d miss the cloud. He gave away his oxen and draft horses. He gave away the milk cow. He gave away the plow. He gave away the farm, although he arranged for his family to stay in the house until Jesus showed up. He gave away the furniture. He gave away their winter clothes.
The day came. Jesus pulled a no-show. Andrew and the other men got together and checked their daytimers. They re-read the prophecies. They checked their math. At first they thought Jesus had just gotten the date wrong, but they went back to mangling those prophecies that deal with good women and whores and horny beasts and horses and skeletons and stuff and figured out that there was another way to look at everything, if they held their Bibles up to the light, closed one eye and squinted just a little. And it was a date that worked for them, too, which was nice. They got out their daytimers and penciled Jesus in again. It was only a few months; the garden truck would see them through.
I can see it now. Andrew’s wife goes back to gardening, trying to keep the kids clean and fed, and figuring out where the hell to sit in her empty house. Andrew goes back to reading his Bible and pestering people. The day arrives. And Jesus pulls another no-show. At this point Andrew’s getting a little peeved. I mean, Jesus is God’s son and everything, but like ministers’ kids everywhere he’s turning out to be just the teensiest bit unreliable. Of course, Andrew doesn’t say that. He and the boys get together, go over everything again, and irritably re-schedule Jesus one more time, this time for late fall. And they hope to hell he shows, because winter’s coming on and like Andrew, none of them have planted crops, most of them have given away their winter clothes, many of the have given away their farms and emptied their savings accounts and used the money to spread the gospel, and they’ve eaten the last of the garden produce. To do otherwise would show a lack of faith, right? The children are hungry. Surely Jesus wouldn’t stand up hungry children! Jesus loves children, right? They’ll give him every opportunity to redeem himself.
It’s November. Andrew stands on the hilltop with his family and stares up into the heavy autumn sky. The fields lie around them choked in gray, frost-coated weeds. His children have wrapped thin, tattered quilts over their ragged summer clothes. They shiver and wait for Jesus. They stare toward the middle star in Orion’s sword—Andrew and his friends have pinpointed that as the spot Jesus will emerge into Earth’s airspace. They watch, full of anticipation—and possibly just a lingering touch of irritation. After all, they’ve done this before. Andrew stands straight and tall, staring into heaven, willing Jesus to appear. A light streaks across the sky. One of the children screams, “It’s Jesus!”
But it isn’t. Their eyes follow the light’s long arc until the falling star winks out. They let out their breath and go back to watching Orion. “Let’s sing,” Andrew’s wife finally says to take their minds off the cold. They sing “Oh who will come and go with me/ I’m bound for the land of Canaan,” and “We see the gleams of the golden morning piercing through this night of gloom.” But they don’t see any gleams. The wintry night wears on. One of the children, perhaps chillier than his brothers, or perhaps just braver, suggests singing, “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
“You know better than that,” Andrew says sadly. “I didn’t raise you up to mock the Lord.” Midnight comes. Icy stars twinkle overhead. Andrew looks around at his blanket-wrapped, shivering children, and at his wife. She holds their youngest inside her shawl. The baby’s sick and there’s no money left for the doctor, but Jesus is coming, and they’ve been praying for healing, so it’s all right. Except that Andrew finally understands that Jesus isn’t coming. He looks at his empty barn, the barren fields, and the stripped house, and knows he has been betrayed for the third and final time.
Of course he won’t admit it to anyone, but he feels a sudden, unwilling sympathy for Judas Iscariot, who faced the same disappointment in his Redeemer, and salvaged what he could—thirty pieces of silver. Andrew himself will be lucky to come out of this fiasco as well. Though he never admits it the letters he writes tell the story.
They lived that winter with Andrew’s brother and his family, who pointed out rather more often than the Smyths would have liked that they were here and Jesus wasn’t. The baby died. Worn out from hard work and sorrow, Mrs. Smyth went into a decline and died, too. Andrew came west to “preach the message,” but ended up panning for gold instead. The streets of gold might be beyond his reach, but the gold fields of California weren’t. He struck it rich, or at least well-off, sent for his children, and set about establishing a colony of Narrow Way believers in California.
He married again and had yet more children before his new wife died as well. Before he died himself he’d managed to establish a Narrow Way colony—many of whom were related to him by blood or marriage—and a substantial personal fortune, which he willed intact to his oldest son, cutting the other children out completely. The letters end shortly before his death, so I don’t know if the son actually got all the money, but it fascinates me that a man who would began by beggaring himself for faith would end up so intensely practical. Maybe after Jesus stood him up for the last time he decided that he’d better rely on his own resources. He may have worshipped God, but he sure as hell didn’t trust him.