"The old women seemed to think that the day of judgment had come like a thief in the night. We had two Baptist preachers in the crowd, but the Lord had not revealed anything of this kind to them therefore they could not lend us much comfort in this trying hour. So the remainder of the night was spent in prayer."
That's how John Harvey Greenwood described the night of November 12, 1833 when his party camped on the Texas prairie on the last leg of their migration from Illinois.
It became known to those who lived through it as 'the night the stars fell.' It's known today as the Leonid Meteor Shower.
"What's the big deal about a meteor shower?" you might ask. Most of us have made wishes on falling stars or even seen a few dozen streaking through the sky out in the country on the right night.
This was different. Imagine stars tumbling from heaven at a rate of a hundred-thousand an hour! Folks thought the world was ending.
The event was a landmark in time. Sort of like November 22, 1963 or September 11, 2001. Something that could never be forgotten.
It entered into the oral histories of slaves, surviving across generations. One former Texas slave when interviewed in the 1930s retold this story heard from her grandmother:
"Somebody in the quarters started yellin' in the middle of the night to come out and to look up at the sky. We went outside and there they was a fallin' everywhere! Big stars coming down real close to the groun' and just before they hit the ground they would burn up! We was all scared. Some o' the folks was screamin', and some was prayin'. We all made so much noise, the white folks came out to see what was happenin'. They looked up and then they got scared, too.
"But then the white folks started callin' all the slaves together, and for no reason, they started tellin' some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they'd been sold to and where. The old folks was so glad to hear where their people went. They made sure we all knew what happened.........you see, they thought it was Judgment Day."
But everyone was alive the next day. Certainly people got over their fears and it had no lasting effect, right?
Not exactly. That night would lend an air of credibility to a man who was preaching the end of the world was at hand. William Miller and his Millerites would have a profound effect on the American religious landscape.
Even after his proclaimed doomsday passed in 1843, the true believers where not shaken. One faction regrouped to become the Seventh Day Adventists. Another splinter group became the Jehovah's Witnesses.
In the 1930s a group separated themselves from the Seventh Day Adventists and called themselves the Branch Davidians. Their world came to a fiery end in a compound outside of Waco in 1993.