of Nelson Barbour: The Millennium's Forgotten Prophet. Now available here:
1. Inventions and Discoveries
Nelson Barbour’s life spanned a goodly portion of American history. He was born when the last of the Revolutionary War veterans were passing. The house where he was born was lighted with tallow candles or whale oil lamps. Meals were cooked in an open fire place.
When he was born most of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were the province of native civilizations, with almost no Euro-American settlement. He was not quite four years old when construction started on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He was about forty-six when the last spike was driven at Promontory Point, Utah, and America was joined coast to coast by rails. When he began his academy education there were twenty-six states. At his death there were forty-five, and much of the wilderness was tamed, farmed, even industrialized.
He was about thirty-eight when the Civil War ignited. He lived through the Hard Times of the late 1830’s, the great post war depression of the 1870’s and the tragic depression of the 1890’s. He saw the labor wars of the 1870’s and early 1880’s. He saw Federal troops fire on American workers during the railroad strike at Pittsburgh in 1877. He saw the industrialization of America, watching it transition from cottage industry and agriculture to become the world’s greatest industrial power.
He lived through the impeachment of Johnson, the scandals of the Grant administration and the torturous Reconstruction years. He saw the gasification and electrification of major cities. He saw the first iron hulled ships and the transition from sails to steam. He saw the first automobiles, and he saw the telephone become common. He saw these events with eyes focused on them as proofs that Christ’s rule was near.
Nelson Barbour’s family settled in New York early in the Colonial Era. Barbour’s father purchased a homestead in Throopsville, near Auburn, New York, in 1801. By the time Barbour was born on August 21, 1824, Throopsville was a small manufacturing village. His closest living relative, a half-uncle lived there, and when Barbour died in 1905 of “exhaustion” he was buried there.
Though the usual references to her are as “Mrs. Barbour” or “Mrs. N. H. Barbour,” he was married in 1876 to Emeline, maiden name unknown. Emeline B. Barbour was born in September 1831 and died while on a trip to Florida on November 20, 1901. The Library of Congress catalogue suggests that his middle name was Homer. This is incorrect. His middle name was Horatio and is so noted on the British patent for one of his inventions.
A newspaper article appearing in The Auburn, New York, Citizen of October 30, 1905, makes it clear that Barbour was related to and probably the younger brother of Delecta Barbour Lewis, the radical anti-saloon crusader. That would make Friend Barbour his father.
Both Friend Barbour and his wife were interested in the Temperance Movement, and letters from and about them appear in various New York newspapers. Barbour’s mother, assuming that the newspaper article hasn’t misled us, was “a woman of remarkable endowments and fine educational attainments.” Noted in her early life “for her accomplishments,” she “became a well recognized oracle in the neighborhood.”
A brief description of Friend Barbour and his family appears in Mary F. Eastman’s Biography of Dio Lewis:
Friend Barbour was one of the largest men, weighing three hundred pounds. He was well-proportioned, of erect carriage, and of great strength of body and mind. His voice was so loud and clear that he never used a horn to call his men, as was the custom, for his shout could be heard anywhere on his farm of seventy-five acres. … Dr. Peter Clark used to say that at a house-raising, when the frame was lifted with the cry of “he-ho heave!” he had heard Mr. Barbour’s voice a mile away.
He was a master builder and pushed work with such vigor that when … he wished to substitute a frame house for the log-house in which he lived, he moved his family into the church across the street on Monday morning, took away the log-house, built a new frame house with three rooms on the ground-floor, and moved his family into it on the next Saturday afternoon.
Other than a family move to Cohocton, New York, when Barbour was young, nothing is known about his life until he is fifteen and enrolled in Temple Hill Academy in Geneseo, New York. The Academy was founded in 1827 and chartered by the New York Legislature. It was “an institution combining classical instruction with that of the useful arts, and at a moderate expense.” The trustees promised “to throw around it those healthful, moral, and religious influences which cannot fail to inspire confidence in the minds of parents and guardians, and make it a seat of Literature and Science, as desirable, as its location is distinguished, for its grand and beautiful scenery.” Temple Hill’s management was eventually entrusted to the Presbyterians. Barbour attended from 1839 to 1842.
From his frequent use of illustrations drawn from engineering, the Doppler Effect, and scientific analysis one can, I believe, conclude that Barbour concentrated on the science curriculum. While there it is likely that he met Owen Russell Crozier who was four years older than Barbour, a school teacher and a student at the Methodist seminary at Lima, New York. Crozier belonged to the Amphictyonic Society, a debating society that met at Temple Hill Academy in 1842, and Crozier enrolled in Temple Hill in 1842.
[Photo of Crozier inserted here]
Barbour left his parent’s Presbyterian religion and “united with the Methodist Episcopal Church” at Geneseo. He began studying for the Methodist ministry “under Elder Ferris.” Elder Ferris is otherwise unnamed, but he appears to be William H. Ferris, a prominent member of the New York Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and a representative to the church’s annual national conferences. Ferris was one of the founders of Drew Theological Seminary and is named in the charter.
[Photo of Methodist Church in Geneseo inserted here]
That William H. Ferris was Barbour’s teacher is only an educated guess. Whoever Elder Ferris was, Barbour’s association with him was brief. “Having been brought up among Presbyterians” a newspaper profile says, “and having an investigating turn of mind, instead of quietly learning Methodist theology he troubled his teacher with questions of election, universal salvation, and many other subjects, until it was politely hinted that he was more likely to succeed in life as a farmer than as a clergyman.”
Barbour told The Rochester, New York, Union and Advertiser that he began preaching independently when he was nineteen. What impelled Barbour into “independent” preaching was conversion to Millerism. There is no detailed narrative of his conversion, and we are left to piece the story together the best we can. Crozier says that a Mr. Johnson, a Millerite evangelist, lectured at Geneseo in the winter of 1842. Though Crozier paid little attention to Johnson’s message, by mid summer 1843, he was actively spreading Millerite end-times predictions, lecturing at the Canandaigua school house and elsewhere. Barbour, and Daniel Cogswell from Dansville, about 21 miles from Geneseo, also spread the Millerite message. It is apparent from the biographical sections of Barbour’s Midnight Cry booklet that Miller’s end-times calculations struck his fancy and convinced him. He saw them as flawless, inarguable conclusions. He memorized the math and the chronology upon which the calculations were based, and for fifteen years after the 1843/4 disappointment he could find no error in them, though the failure was self-evident.
Barbour gives us one snippet of his experiences as an active Millerite. He recalled that every Adventist had a Bible “in his hand or pocket, ready for immediate use. It must have been a small gathering for those days, where, if a preacher quoted or misquoted a text, his ear was not saluted by the rustling of a hundred volumes.”
In 1843, at the time appointed, Millerites in the Geneseo and surrounding areas gathered in Springwater at the home of “Captain [Parker H.] Pierce near the center of the town with its huge lawn.” The group there took the name “House of Judgment.” One source estimates that twenty or more attended the gathering, and, considering Barbour’s close association with H. F. Hill, who was one of the principal speakers, it is likely he attended.
Reports of Ascension Robes are suspect and the incident of the burned haystack is apocryphal, but an article published much later recalled the events this way:
History records that the little band of faithful met and prepared for their ascension in robes of white. The sun went down as usual but many continued to sing and pray far into the night.
Many amusing incidents are related of the event. One concerns a smart prank played by the young men of the village who encircled a farmer in a wide wreath of burning hay as he slept. When aroused by the village urchins, the old farmer opened his eyes and seeing the fire about him exclaimed:
“In Hell. - Just as I expected.”
Millerite opponents reacted violently to the 1843/4 failure. Joseph Marsh reported after the “seventh month” disappointment of 1844, that the Second Adventist Church at Ithaca was burned. In Scottsville, near Rochester, New York, “the seats of their place of meeting were taken outside and burned.” The Adventist Tabernacle at Danville, Broome County, New York was torn down. “Br. Johnson is in Springwater and Br. [Henry F.] Hill at Geneseo, well engaged in comforting the people of God,” he wrote.
Barbour felt the 1843 disappointment keenly. While he doesn’t describe his feelings at length, he later wrote: “We held together until the autumn of 1844. Then, as if a raft floating in deep water should suddenly disappear from under its living burden, so our platform went from under us, and we made for shore in every direction; but our unity was gone, and, like drowning men, we caught at straws.” On another occasion he wrote: “The ‘43 movement ending as it did, in disappointment and fanaticism, has brought reproach,” and he felt as if he were in the “very sink of that reproach.” He wrote of his “long years of disappointment and waiting,” saying they had taught him to “mistrust human ability” to unravel the Bible’s time-prophecies.
[photo of William Miller inserted here]
In one of his more poignant statements on the 1843/4 disappointment, he said: “Disappointments may be bitter; that of 1843 was exceedingly so to me; and I have never seen an argument that satisfied me since then, until the four strong arguments which God has given for 1873. The eating of that ‘open book’ in the 1843 message was sweet. O what love, what unity, what strong faith we then had! But the digestion was to be bitter. The disappointment followed; and those who passed through it will never forget the bitterness of that cup.”
Barbour doesn’t tell us if he participated in any of the time-setting movements through 1854. Though his “we caught at straws” remark suggests that he did, a later statement seems to indicate he remained aloof from them.
He describes himself as “almost in despair,” and as one “who had lost his religion, and been for many years in total darkness.” He meant that he was in darkness as to the time of Christ’s advent, not that he abandoned Christianity. “It seemed almost as if God’s word had failed,” he told his readers. “We were in darkness on this subject; our unity was gone; discord and confusion seemed to reign; and these things have continued, more or less, until the present time.”
Barbour became a physician sometime after the Millerite disappointment. He is listed as a physician in a Rochester, New York, city directory, and he is often called Dr. Barbour. It appears that Temple Hill Academy offered courses related to medicine. A biographical sketch of another graduate mentions his “two year course” at Temple Hill, and says that medicine was “the only profession open to his limited means.” Any course work was followed by training under the guidance of a practicing physician. Another biographical sketch tells of a graduate of Temple Hill following up his education there with a year’s medical reading under a James A. West, M.D. Barbour may have followed a similar course, perhaps studying under Doctor Lewis McCarthy of Throopsville. It is more likely that he trained at the Metropolitan Medical College in New York City. The college provided training in Botanic and Electric medicine. The building that quartered it had a connection to a Second Adventist congregation, and at one point Barbour lived near it.
In the 1850’s Barbour sought his fortune in the Australian gold fields. Other than his trip home, there are no details of this adventure. The only definitive statement on it is found in an 1879 supplement to Zion’s Watch Tower, and all it says is that Barbour was a gold miner and that he was then “entirely uninterested” in Bible prophecy. If Barbour sought his fortune in the Australian gold fields, the results were indifferent. He seems never to have had any appreciable wealth and was, perhaps, not a good steward of the money he had. His disinterest seems to be limited to the scope of predictive prophetic studies. His claim to have preached in many of the Australian colonies fits no other time in his life.
Barbour returned from Australia, setting sail in 1859 and taking the route around Africa to the United Kingdom. For Barbour the return voyage was life changing. He fell into a Bible discussion with a clergyman. “To wile away the monotony of a long sea voyage, the English chaplain proposed a systematic reading of the prophecies,” Barbour remembered.
In Barbour’s assent to the chaplain’s suggestion we see something of the “peculiar combination of the lion and the lamb” in his personality attributed to him by an associate. He “readily assented,” no doubt because he remained interested, but primarily because “having been a Millerite in former years, he knew right well there were arguments it would puzzle the chaplain to answer, even though the time has past.” There is a certain perverse deviousness in his motive, but there may also have been an acute desire to discover wherein Miller had erred.
He took the Millerite failure as a personal failure because he had invested his faith and life in the movement and because he could find no underlying error. He found a sense of personal validity as a Millerite and mourned the loss of significance and belonging it gave him. He suggested that accepting his interpretations re-validated Miller and his movement.
When Barbour and the clergyman read and discussed Daniel 12:7, Barbour felt a sense of revelation. He “saw what he had never seen before, though he had read it a hundred times.”