The Great Disappointment – New Poetry by Janna Wagner

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Poetry. CW for biblical imagery and sacrilege.

I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come; I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain—sick with disappointment. 

  – Henry Emmons

October 22, 1844. Approximately 100,000 souls stood in the valleys of New York and New England, and between dawn and midnight, waited for Jesus.

The people left their crops in the field, or planted none at all, and most had given up their possessions. Their leader was a Baptist preacher named William Miller and the people called themselves Millerites.

Old Testament. Book of Daniel. Chapter 8. Verse 14. Miller read to the people:

And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.

He said the cleansing was the end of the world. He set the date for October.


In years that followed, our leaders theorized that the date had been right, but not the event. 

In fact, Jesus had entered the sacred chamber of the tabernacle and from this date forward, would begin to review the cases of everyone who ever lived, pleading for us one by one to God his Father. 

We would call this intercession.

We do not know when our names will be called. When the last name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, the world as we know it will end.

This is the birth of the Adventist church. 

Here is the song of our people: 


There is a word for us, the ones who are taught to move through this world as other.
The ones admonished to be “in” the world but not “of” it.
The ones whose fruit is multiplied only to serve and obey.

On October 22 of 1844 our spiritual ancestors stood on their ungathered squash and inhaled their last sure breaths of belief. Potatoes turned to tricksters in the dark, and the people stumbled over 
the firewood they never collected.

Jesus did not come back.

There is a song for us, a song that inhabits the caves of the damned.

My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?

A hundred thousand hearts as midnight passed.
A hundred thousand apples fell and crashed.

Bewildered lungs from the tombs that sprung not open.

Oh Lazarus! Is this our longest night?
Oh William Miller! Were you wrong about the prophecy?
Oh Prophet Daniel! Open again to the eighth chapter of your book,
show us a way to believe you.

October 23. Now, we see. The squash is heavy, but the only thing left is to dreg it for flesh and choke on its pulp and comprehend how we shall stay here.

We beg for water and try to explain.

Oh Hyssop! Were you only to cleanse the temple?
Oh Father, did you not proclaim that the world would be cleansed?
Do you send not your son to take us?

There is theology for this, our Great Disappointment.

Yes William, show us here, right here, that it must have been only a movement, a tremble as the Son of God gathered his robes and entered into the sanctum.

From the holy place to the most holy place, the place we do not belong.

Oh God! [May they enter your Kingdom?]


There is a word for us, the ones who are taught to move through the world as other, 
the ones no one ever came for.

We the children, 179 years later, the sprites of the ones who waited, 
so lost we did not gather our corn, so lost in the pit we created. 


But what of the children of the children? who shriek to reclaim our throats?
We hiss through our throats which we hold in our fists 
A battle cry: 

Oh freedom!

Oh gods of thunder, unleash our apocalypse, upon we who no longer believe!

Oh Angel Gabriel! Will you not descend? and sup with us from the cup of the damned? 

We spit the suffering from our lips, 
we who no longer believe.

There is a name for us, the ones who eschew Salvation. We who cast the stones from the fold, who beseech the wolf, take us with you, for this is not our reckoning.

There is a name for us, the gluttons who gather the grapes,
the drunken distillers of corn
The howlers who seek their hair in the moon,
Who crawl open and wet to the arms of the rain.
The sinners who suck from the teats of the trees and shed their skins in the grass.

Hear us! 

We no longer wait for a world we do not inhabit. 


There is a song for us, a song for the children’s children.

Let us breathe soft through the beards of the moss and know we are held by this world.
Let us kneel in a living brook and shiver with cold and delight.

Here dragonfly
Here dragonfly

Teach us the song of the water 

Show us we already know
how to sing. 


Tilting our necks from the sky to the earth,
we choose to inhabit this breath. 

There is a word for us, a word we relaxed into being.
There is a word for us. 


Janna Wagner is an MFA candidate at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop. She has been a nurse with Doctors Without Borders since 2014 and is trying to understand how to write about cultures not her own. She writes from her home base at the end of the road in Homer, Alaska. Janna’s essays have been published in Spectrum Literary Journal, Yellow Arrow Journal, and Exposition Review.