In the light of current events in Ukraine, following on from the covid pandemic, many former Jehovah’s Witnesses will be starting to get jittery and wonder if perhaps the WT Society was right after all in their predictions about the end of the world and the Battle of Armageddon. Lots if folk will be wondering if they ought to try and return the JWs. This is an issue which I deal with in chapters four and five of my book, Pathways to Freedom. For ease of reference, I reproduce those chapters here:
Not all defectors from the Watchtower movement will wish to pursue any other religious affiliation but most will want, at some stage, to clarify their thoughts about the religion which they have left and the implications for any claims which other religions may make. Defectors who leave on a point of doctrine and move very quickly to affiliation with a church probably (like those whose departure is prompted by a rejection of the Bible in toto as Word of God) take the potentially least troublesome route. They will, of course, have to deal with all the social issues consequent upon leaving, and with the cruelty of shunning, but the unsettling “what if they were right all along?” misgivings based upon doctrine are less likely to haunt them than others whose departures arise from lifestyle issues. It will be useful, therefore, to face the religious and doctrinal issues as soon as possible in order to reduce the power of those issues to cause distress and uncertainty at times of weakness.
I should point out that I am not concerned here to persuade anyone to consider any particular alternative religious pathway, but those who do wish to find a Christian alternative will, I hope, find what follows in this chapter informative and interesting. Equally, I hope that those who have no intention whatever of seeking any religious involvement will also find this chapter helpful. I offer this chapter as a solid basis with which to tackle the troubling misgivings which often arise in the wake of all manner of unpleasant situations from personal and family troubles to world affairs – those occasions when an ex-Witness may be prone to wonder, “What if they were right after all?”
… turning to what can be probed using the established techniques of the historian and the detective, it is possible to identify at least three different points of origin of the Watchtower movement. The well-informed Witness and the new defector will probably recognise that it emerged when Charles Taze Russell set out his end times speculations during the late nineteenth century following the failure of William Miller’s adventist predictions. Others, mostly ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who have reflected upon the Watchtower’s modern history, may point out that the movement in its present form and character is better described as beginning during the period between the two world wars with the new directions taken under the leadership of Joseph Rutherford in response to the failure of Russell’s predictions. A historian of religion, on the other hand, might well begin the story much earlier with the renewed interest in prophetic speculation which came about in response to an apparently remarkable successful prediction.
he Watchtower movement, as a group centred upon the expected fulfilment of end-time prophecy, belongs within a tradition of interpretation of Scripture which has been subject to trial and error since the first century C.E., when some Jewish rabbis sought to identify the due time for the appearance of Messiah by their interpretation of the prophecy of the seventy weeks of Daniel 9:24-27. (Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol 2, pp. 195ff.) This approach to prophetic interpretation, which is based upon the principle that one day in prophecy represents one year in the fulfilment, was probably introduced into Christian exposition by the Cistercian Joachim of Flora (circa 1130-1202 C.E.) who appears to have been the first Christian interpreter to apply the year-for-a-day rule to those time periods referenced in Daniel and Revelation which have since exercised the minds of scholars and preachers looking forward to the return of Christ.
Following Joachim, lots of people attempted to apply his interpretive principle and so unlock the timing of the prophecies’ fulfilment, and it may be supposed that persistent trial and error would eventually lead to the abandonment of the year-for-a-day principle. Its apparent validation, however, in the understanding of the seventy weeks leading to the time of Christ gave cause for persistence. In 1701 Robert Fleming, a Scottish Presbyterian minister published his prophetic speculations in a book, The Rise and Fall of Papacy, in which he wrote the following concerning events to be expected at the close of the eighteenth century, giving an uncannily accurate prediction – so it seemed – of the French Revolution and its aftermath:
There is ground to hope that, about the beginning of another such century, things may again alter for the better; for I cannot but hope that some new mortification of the chief supporters of the Antichrist will then happen; and perhaps the French monarchy may begin to be considerably humbled about that time…We may justly suppose that the French monarchy, after it has scorched others, will itself consume by doing so – its fire, and that which is the fuel which maintains it, wasting insensibly, till it be exhausted at last towards the end of this century.
(Robert Fleming, The Rise and Fall of Papacy, London and Edinburgh, 1701. pp.64,68)
Joachim had found nothing corresponding to his speculations but by the late eighteenth century the calendar and historical events converged to enable devotees of Fleming’s ideas to match his arithmetic to the political upheaval in Europe. In 1798, during the French Revolution, the French General Berthier entered Rome without resistance, deposed the Pope, abolished papal government and established the Republic of Italy. It looked as if Fleming had scored a bullseye. His writings enjoyed renewed acclaim and faithful adherents of the method set about determining the countdown of events to the soon to be expected climax of history.
Enthusiasm for the imminent coming of Christ became widespread and at this stage remained well within the Protestant mainstream. This is reflected in many hymns of the period, lots of which are still sung in mainstream churches today but without appreciation of their historical context. For example:
Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
Once for favoured sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shall the true Messiah see.
(Charles Wesley 1707-88)
There’s a light upon the mountains, and the day is at the spring,
When our eyes shall see the beauty and the glory of the King;
Weary was our heart with waiting, and the night watch seemed so long;
But his triumph day is breaking, and we hail it with a song.
(Henry Burton 1840-1930)
The arrow is flown,
The moment is gone;
The millennial year
Rushes on to our view, and eternity’s here.
O that each in the day
Of his coming may say:
‘I have fought my way through,
I have finished the work thou didst give me to do!’
O that each from his Lord
May receive the glad word:
‘Well and faithfully done;
Enter into my joy, and sit down on my throne!’
(Charles Wesley 1707-88)
Today’s worshippers, if they think at all about the meaning of hymns such as these, will likely set them in some indeterminate and perhaps remote future or else in a figurative context but for the original writers and singers they were expressions of a very real millennialist fervour among mainstream Christians who believed the return of Christ was imminent. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, and the second coming failed to occur, enthusiasm dwindled. William Miller, a Baptist preacher, was one of the last of the mainstream interpreters to have a go at working out when Christ was due to appear. Following Fleming he took the year 1845 as the time for the culmination of events but when that failed, the pre-occupation with the arithmetic interpretation of prophecy passed from the mainstream and became the preserve of the sectarian fringe. Some of Miller’s adherents persevered and formed what was to become the Seventh Day Adventist movement.
Leaving the mainstream
Charles Taze Russell appeared on the scene during the 1870s, first studying ideas about the coming of Christ with a group of continuing Adventists and Millerites. Then, from the late 1880s until the early 1900s he published his six-volume series, Studies in the Scriptures, in which he set out his own understanding of the prophetic corpus building upon the ideas of many of his predecessors.
Russell’s system is ingenious. It is well-written and tightly argued. He finds, not just one, but many indicators in scripture of the timing of events leading up to the climax of history when Christ steps in and establishes rule by the Kingdom of God over the whole world. Reading his exposition of prophecy, it is not difficult to see why reasonable and intelligent people were persuaded. (Readers interested in the history of this approach to prophetic interpretation can find comprehensive treatment of it in my book, Counting the Days to Armageddon.)
The big problem with Russell’s countdown to the end, of course, was that it was wrong in its entirety. With the outbreak of war in 1914 it looked for a while as if things were going to happen as he had expected but the war did not culminate in the overthrow of all institutions of Church and State throughout the world. The Kingdom of God did not take over as anticipated. Russell died in 1916 and it was left to his successors to work out what had gone wrong and to patch things up. Joseph Rutherford bullied his way to the presidency of the Watchtower movement and immediately commissioned Clayton Woodworth and George Fisher to prepare a seventh volume of Studies in the Scriptures. This was published in 1917 as The Finished Mystery, and it began the long process of patching things up and applying the prophecies to a previously unexpected period in history.
The Finished Mystery brought unlooked-for consequences. It was an incompetently executed mess and passing it off as the posthumous work of Russell succeeded only in alienating many of the Bible Students who had not already left in disillusionment. Woodworth and Fisher sought new applications of the year-for-a-day principle but, in doing so, showed they had no understanding at all of the rationale which underpinned Russell’s thinking and, indeed, the whole of the prophetic enterprise from Fleming onwards. And, working separately, they came up with different and incompatible amendments to the end-time calendar.
Woodworth, adding up the ages of animals sacrificed by Abraham when ratifying his covenant with God, found confirmation for 1925 as the date for the establishment of the Kingdom of God in Palestine. (The Finished Mystery, p.128) Fisher, on the other hand, sees an indication in the timing of Ezekiel’s vision of the restoration of Jerusalem, and goes for 1931 as the due date. (The Finished Mystery, p.569)
Though it was to be some years before the complete abandonment of Russell’s system, The Finished Mystery marked a clear break with the past. It did, of course, represent the first acknowledgement that major revision was necessary but, more significantly, Woodworth’s and Fisher’s inability to match the standard of exposition which had been set by Russell was symptomatic of the separation, not only from Russell’s original Watchtower movement , but also from from the millennialist tradition which had begun with Fleming and of which Russell was a part. Surveying the scene from a distance there is perhaps a natural tendency to think that all such arithmetical speculations upon scripture are equally eccentric. Close examination, however, reveals in Russell’s work a degree of coherence and an appreciation of the underlying principles which is entirely lacking in The Finished Mystery.
The antipathy of loyal Russellite Bible Students to The Finished Mystery was an inauspicious start to the new era, but more troubles were to come. Some sections of the book had what appeared to be a distinctly revolutionary, even Marxist, character which could not be tolerated during wartime nor, indeed, at the time of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. This led to the imprisonment of Rutherford and other officers of the Society on charges under the Espionage Act (for which they were eventually exonerated) and the subsequent abandonment of Woodworth’s and Fisher’s volume.
Rutherford’s time in prison was seen by his followers, not as a mark of shame to be glossed over and concealed from view, but as a badge of honour. He was held up as an example of one who stood for religious truth regardless of the personal consequences. Opponents of the Watchtower Society then and ever since have used this episode to smear the movement. Martin and Klann, for example, refer to Rutherford’s imprisonment in 1918 “for violation of the Espionage Act” (W. Martin and N. Klann, Jehovah of the Watchtower, p.26) without mentioning that he was subsequently exonerated. He was released after only nine months of his eighty-year sentence, his trial declared unfair and the verdict set aside pending a retrial. Finally the US Attorney withdrew all charges against him and his co-defendants.
So does he return triumphant, the resolute hero who took on the Government and won? Hardly. When all the facts are taken into account neither side comes out with very much credit. With feeling running high during the war, it is hardly surprising that some passages with a curiously Marxist aspect in The Finished Mystery, the book at the centre of Rutherford’s anti-war campaign, attracted the wrath of the establishment. Like Russell before him, Rutherford believed that the battle of Armageddon would erupt when the war-weary masses of the common people turned against the institutions of Church and State. “The crisis will be reached when the hitherto upholders of the law shall become violators of the law… Fear for the future will goad the well-meaning masses to desperation, and anarchy will result when Socialism fails.” (The Finished Mystery, p.253) To appear to be advocating revolution during wartime and at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, was surely asking for trouble. But Rutherford’s prosecutors were evidently much too careless in their determination to secure a guilty verdict. As a result, the Society’s lawyers were able to show that there had been 130 procedural errors in the trial. Thus, a retrial was ordered.
Why were the charges withdrawn? With the war over and resultant high feeling abated, there may have been little purpose to be served in pursuing the case. On the other hand, there may have been more to it than that. Rutherford’s first reaction upon hearing that the Government objected to The Finished Mystery had been to suspend production. Then, when he learned which sections were deemed objectionable, he had those pages removed from all copies prior to distribution. Finally, when he learned that the government still objected to the book, even in its amended form, he directed that all distribution of the book should cease. (The Watchtower Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, pp.650ff.) So he had a perfect plea in mitigation if his case had come to retrial.
There was more. No only had Rutherford done all he could to retract the proclamation of a message which the Government objected to, the Society even appeared at one stage to go along with Government policy concerning domestic war propaganda. In June 1918, when the case first came to trial, The Watchtower urged all its readers to join in the national day of prayer for an Allied victory over Germany which the US President had called for. (The Watchtower Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, p.191)
The Watchtower Society has long made much of its refusal to compromise its beliefs. During the Espionage Actaffair, however, compromise was the order of the day and it is not difficult to see why. No effort must be spared to secure the Judge’s release for, had he been convicted, he would not have been able thereafter to practise law. He would have been disbarred. His exoneration meant that he could remain a member of the bar of the US Supreme Court and that he was able to fight many important legal battles on behalf of the Society during the years following his release. And during that time, when refusal to compromise was re-established, it was left to humbler Witnesses to shoulder the burden of conviction and martyrdom.
During the post-war years Rutherford took sole responsibility for the Watchtower’s doctrinal development. He embarked upon a disastrous and embarrassing campaign pinning all expectations to the year 1925 which he promoted under the slogan, “Millions now living will never die.”
Following the failure of 1925 he gradually discarded the whole of Russell’s countdown to the end with the sole exception of one date. 1914, which had been the end point of Russell’s countdown, became the starting point of the new countdown. Of the several scriptural derivations of that date which Russell had devised, Rutherford retained only one – the “seven times” of Daniel 4 – and gave it a new twist. If there were any of the original Bible Students still around to object, they were in a minority. Most had left in disillusionment or had joined in the many secessions to form their own independent groups. Rutherford’s methods which had at first appeared potentially disastrous for the movement by alienating already disillusioned members, worked in his favour. He began with a new membership most of whom had not known the movement in its early years and owed no loyalty to Russell except as manipulated by Rutherford. He gave them a new name – Jehovah’s Witnesses – and under his leadership the Witnesses began to foster a sense of pride in being utterly distinct from all other expressions of Christianity.
In due course one of the Watchtower movement’s anchoring beliefs was put into place and helped to form the basis for stable membership for many years. In the “eschatological discourse” of Matthew 24, Jesus is said to have have told his hearers, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matt 24:34) This, it was firmly believed, meant that some who were alive to see the start of the fulfilment of the prophecies in 1914 would still be around to see the climax, the Battle of Armageddon when all except the Witnesses would be destroyed and the earth restored to an Edenic paradise. Seeing the end in sight in the not too distant or even very near future, Witnesses believed they had good reason to persevere through whatever ups and downs they faced. Their problems would soon be solved; youngsters need not worry about possible careers or further education when school days were ended, for Armageddon would be here before then; best not to marry and raise a family in this corrupt world – better to wait until after Armageddon and devote one’s life in the interim to working for the Watchtower.
This understanding could not last indefinitely. Either Armageddon had to come within a limited period and for a while it appeared to the Witnesses that the end was going to be 1975. The significance of that date was promoted clearly but, in hindsight, a little ambiguously so that when 1975 passed without incident, the leadership was able to pass the blame for disappointment onto the members who, they said, had expected too much instead of their leaders who had fanned those expectations. And in the meantime the “generation” who had witnessed events of 1914 began to expire.
In 1995 the Watch Tower’s leaders decided that Jesus had meant something rather different by the expression “this generation.” It is much more flexible than originally thought.
Jesus stated concerning himself: ‘the Son of man… must undergo many sufferings and be rejected by this generation. Moreover, just as it occurred in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of man.’ (Luke 17:24-26) Thus, Matthew chapter 24 and Luke chapter 17 make the same comparison. In Noah’s day ‘all flesh that had ruined its way on the earth’ and that was destroyed at the Flood was ‘this generation.’ In Jesus’ day the apostate Jewish people that were rejecting Jesus was ‘this generation’ – Genesis 6:11,12; 7:1. Therefore in the final fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy today, ‘this generation’ apparently refers to the peoples of the earth who see the sign of Christ’s presence but fail to mend their ways.
(The Watchtower, 1 Nov 1995, p.19)
It is a drastic volte face. The belief changed almost overnight from one which was clearly time-limited and which had expired, to one which was not vulnerable to the passage of time. On the understanding promulgated above, “this generation” would always signify the present generation. How much discontent was stirred up amongst rank-and-file witnesses by that sweeping change is difficult to judge. There are some amongst the online ex-Witness community who cite it as a factor in their becoming disillusioned with the movement, but far more appeared to accept it and carry on as before.
Things changed once more in 2008. Perhaps the Watch Tower’s leaders realised that the teaching put forward in 1995 was almost meaningless and needed to be replaced with a new interpretation to bring Jesus’ crucial saying back into an identifiable time-frame, however vague that might be so the reference was shifted from any generation of unbelievers to, specifically, members of the dwindling class of “anointed” members of the 144,000.
As a class, these anointed ones make up the modern-day ‘generation’ of contemporaries that will not pass away ‘until all these things occur.’ This suggests that some who are Christ’s anointed brothers will still be alive on earth when the foretold great tribulation begins.
(The Watchtower, 15 Feb 2008, pp.23-24)
Yet more was to come, though. At the Society’s annual meeting in October 2009 yet another revision was made and John Barr, the last surviving member of the Governing Body who had been born before 1914 was chosen to make the announcement. The Watchtower reported it thus:
John Barr … twice read the comment: “Jesus evidently meant that the lives of the anointed ones who were on hand when the sign began to be evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of the other anointed ones who would see the start of the great tribulation.” We do not know the exact length of “this generation,” but it includes these two groups whose lives overlap. Even though the anointed vary in age, those in the two groups constituting the generation are contemporaries during part of the last days. How comforting it is to know that the younger anointed contemporaries of those older anointed ones who discerned the sign when it became evident beginning in 1914 will not die off before the great tribulation starts!
(The Watchtower 15 June 2010 p5.)
And still it goes on. Faithful witnesses are still putting off living their lives until after Armageddon, and youngsters are still being urged, as I was in the early 1950s, not to put more than minimum effort into school work because Armageddon will soon be here. And so long as the Watchtower Society’s leadership maintains its stranglehold upon its members their potential for personal development is being squandered.
What if they were right after all?
Many former Witnesses will experience occasions when they are plagued by misgivings about whether or not they did the right thing in leaving. An act of cutting unkindness by a family member or a former friend, or some ominous turn of events on the world stage, can all too often prompt the unsettling thought: “What if the Witnesses were right all along and Armageddon is just around the corner?” Let’s consider this in the light of the previous chapter’s historical survey.
Imagine you are living in Britain or Europe during the latter part of the eighteenth century. You used to be a devotee of the writings of Robert Fleming and you had come to expect political and religious upheaval in France towards the end of the century, but you had decided at last that it was all wishful thinking and you left it behind. You begin to hear, however, of events in France – the revolution, with its terrifying assault upon the aristocracy, the French General Berthier’s campaign in Italy when he deposed the Pope and abolished papal government of Italy. And you think that perhaps Fleming was right after all. But he wasn’t right.
Or imagine you are living in the newly created republic, the United States of America, during the 1840s and you read William Miller’s book, Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ about the Year 1843. You are almost persuaded, but not quite. And then, as it gets closer to the mid 1840s you begin to think, “What if Miller was right after all?” And as time goes by without event you realise that, no, Miller wasn’t right.
Or you are living in the early twentieth century and read Russell’s Studies in the Scriptures. Those books are well-written and closely argued, they are very persuasive indeed. But you know a thing or two about Miller and Fleming and Joachim of Flora and all the rest and decide that Russell is just another who is convincing but wrong. And then you see the outbreak of world war and think about Russell’s prediction of a time of trouble which would culminate in Armageddon and you begin to think that maybe he was right after all. But he wasn’t right.
Or perhaps you are living during the 1920s and you discover Rutherford’s book, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The date to look forward to now is 1925 and really exciting things are going to happen. The “ancient worthies” – that is, Abraham, Isaac, King David, the prophets and others – were to be resurrected and form the government of the earthly phase of the Kingdom of God. Can you imagine some time afterwards wondering whether it happened, whether those ancient leaders were already planning their governing strategy, whether they were already living somewhere in Jerusalem or maybe in California in the mansion which Rutherford had built especially for their use? Would you really be wondering whether Rutherford was right all along?
Or, imagine yourself in the late 1960s as a former Witness when it comes to your attention that the Watchtower’s literature is focussing upon the year 1975 as the likely date for Armageddon. (They did not say unequivocally that it would come in 1975 but they clearly and repeatedly implied it.) Now, do you begin to think, “What if they are right?” If you knew nothing at all about the history of this kind of thinking would you be a little apprehensive and think perhaps you ought to return to the Witnesses? Or, if you did know about this historical background would you begin to wonder whether some of your old acquaintances might soon be thinking that perhaps you were the one who was right after all?