We should understand that historicism, in the form that we inherited it, is a child of its times. It ruled protestant prophetic interpretation for about 200 years from Joseph Mede (1650) and Sir Isaac Newton to William Miller and Samuel S. Snow. Especially the British and the North Americans had an appetite for the mysteries of apocalyptic beasts and horns, or the complicated synchronization of prophetic times and historical events. There were dozens if not hundreds of British and American laymen, pastors, theologians, and bishops who took it upon themselves to unlock the prophetic symbols of Daniel and the Revelation. A scientific pursuit, many of them believed.
Miller and Snow had the dubious honor of bringing it all to and end. The date of the Parousia was like a time-bomb, which not only blew up the Millerite revival but also the dominant prophetic hermeneutic. However, looking at the tables of L.E. Froom’s massive Prophetic Faith one finds tens of other calculations and dates set for approximately the same time. It could be a small comfort to us that had Millerism failed to grow, there would have been some other revival with the same end, maybe M’Corkleism (1847), Faberism (1864), Gillism or Scottism (1866). Options are too numerous to list. What I find mildly funny is that Miller’s date was earlier than that of the others. Clever man.
After the disappointment almost no one dared to speak about prophecies, and if someone did, their typical opening statement was: I do not believe what Mr. Miller did. The poor old man became a theological leper. Everyone kept their distance to his teaching and methods, and washed their hands to avoid contamination. This paved the way for Darbyan dispensationalism which in a few decades took over Protestant prophetic interpretation.
However, after the initial shock, the old hermeneutic still worked for the Adventists when the majority of other protestants had rejected it. The culture and thinking of people had not changed, and the interpretation of Daniel and Revelation continued to be a major gateway into the Adventist Church. But the tragedy is, that things are different now. For several decades our favourite prophecies have turned people away from our church rather than bringing them in. 70 years ago my father filled the best meeting hall in town to capacity with minimal advertising on Revelation’s beasts, while today, a million dollars on advertising would not, I think, bring more than a handful people. Postmodern westerners may envision dragons or four-headed leopards as entertainment, but their use as valid symbols of historical realities is nonsense to them. What is worse, is that Wikipedia or easily available scholarly histories do not endorse many of the dates we have fixed as prophetically foretold key events or important turning points in history.
This is one of the reasons why Adventist Church has grown weaker in the Western world. The church’s successes are now in the developing countries, but it may not take long before postmodernism reaches them, and spoils our advance. What is really sad is our inability to do any serious discussion on our methods or interpretations. The Bible is still relevant, and there are people with spiritual needs all around us, but we insist on scratching where it itched a hundred years ago…