From Protestant mainstream to sectarian fringe

During the latter part of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, Charles Taze Russell built a religious movement founded upon his ingenious, last-ditch attempt to construct an end-times calendar using methods established with the Protestant mainstream a century before him.

It was one Robert Fleming who, in 1703, set the ball rolling with an uncannily accurate prediction – so it seemed – of the French Revolution. “We may justly suppose,” he wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the Papacy, 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. 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.” (Quoted in Crompton: Counting the Days to Armageddon, p18.)

The predictions had been there for all to see in the Bible books of Daniel and Revelation. All that was needed to understand them was the simple application of a method introduced into Christian exposition of the Scriptures by the Cistercian Joachim of Flora in the 12th century. The rule is that periods of time indicated in the prophecies are to be understood on the basis that one day in the prophetic writing represents one year in the fulfilment. Joachim had found nothing corresponding to his speculations but by the 18th century the calendar and historical events converged to enable Fleming to match his arithmetic 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 erected the Republic of Italy. It looked as though 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 climax of history.

Enthusiasm for the imminent coming of Christ was widespread and is reflected in many hymns of the period – lots of which are still sung today without understanding in mainstream churches. 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,
Deeply wailing,
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 set them in some remote future but for the original writers and singers they were expressions of a very real millennialist fervour which saw the return of Christ as imminent. As the 19th 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. He hit upon the year 1845 and when that passed without event, the pre-occupation with 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.

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.

The big problem with Russell's countdown to the end 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 Watch Tower 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, p128.) 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, p569.)

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 from the millennialist tradition which had begun with Fleming and of which Russell was a part. From a distance there is perhaps a tendency to think that all such arithmetic 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.
(See Why did the Judge go to jail? for a summary of this episode.)

During the post-war years Rutherford took sole responsibility for the Watch Tower'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 the Watch Tower Movement's anchoring belief was put into place and formed 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 found 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 Watch Tower.

This understanding could not last indefinitely. Either Armageddon had to come within a limited period and for a while it appeared 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 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 God revealed to the Watch Tower's leaders that Jesus had meant something a little 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 1st Nov 1995, p19.)

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' will 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-JW 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.

This 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 Feb 15th 2008 pp23-24.)

Yet more was to come, though. At the Society's annual meeting on October 3rd 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 15th 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 the minimum effort into school work because Armageddon will soon be here. And so long as the Watch Tower Society's leadership maintains its stranglehold upon its members glorious, exciting potential is being squandered.
How does the Society maintain its hold on the rank-and-file Witness community? That will have to be the subject of another article.

For a comprehensive study of the Watch Tower's doctrinal history, see my book: Counting the Days toArmageddon
For an insight into the experience of disfellowshipping and shunning, see my novel, Leaving Gilead, which is available in paperback or as an ebook

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