from the Bethel Ministries Newsletter May/June 1990 (now the Free Minds Journal)
Few aspects of the Jehovah's Witness movement are more fascinating to the outside observer than their predictions of the end of the world. Yet the predictions themselves are just the surface ripples of a much deeper current in the lives of the movement's adherents. How the prophecies affect the members, how their belief in the prophecy gets stronger, and how they cope with disillusionment and finally regroup with greater strength is far more fascinating food for thought.
There have been plenty of end-times scenarios that could be studied since the time of Christ. As early as the second century, the charismatic leader Montanus gained a following around the belief that the second coming of the Lord was at hand, and that this would occur at a specific location according to his "New Prophecy". Harold O.J. Brown says,
What is interesting, however, was that the Montanists did not die out right away, but continued as a small cult for several centuries in Phrygia of Asia Minor."
In studying this phenomena, credit must be given to Leon Festinger for his cognitive dissonance theory, 2 as developed in his book When Prophecy Fails, originally published in 1956 and co-authored by Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. The authors comprised a research team who conducted a study of a small cult-following of a Mrs. Marian Keech, a housewife who claimed to receive messages from aliens via automatic writing. The message of the aliens was one of a coming world cataclysm, but with the hope of surviving for the elect who listened to them through Keech and selected other mediums. What Festinger and his associates demonstrated in the end was that the failure of prophecy often has the opposite effect of what the average person might expect; the cult following often gets stronger and the members even more convinced of the truth of their actions and beliefs! This unique paradox is the focus of attention in this article, and will be later applied specifically to the Jehovah's Witness movement.
When Prophecy Fails focuses on the failure of prophecies to come true, termed disconfirmation by Festinger, and the accompanied renewal of energy and faith in their source of divine guidance. His theory presupposes the cult having certain identifying features, such as: (a) belief held with deep conviction along with respective actions taken, (b) the belief or prediction must be specific enough to be disconfirmed (i.e., it didn't happen), (c) the believer is a member of a group of like-minded believers who support one another and even proselytize. All of these characteristics were present in the saucer cult.
Of particular interest in Festinger's book is how the followers of Mrs. Keech reacted to each disconfirmation (failed date). Little attempt was made to deny the failure. The strength to continue in the movement was derived, not largely from the rationalizations , but from the very energy of the group itself and its dedication to the cause. This explains why proselytizing was so successful later in reinforcing the group's sagging belief system. Festinger relates:
In the end, the members of the flying saucer cult did not give up their faith in the Guardians from outer space with their promises of a new world. Despite numerous prophecies and the resultant disappointment accentuated by many personal sacrifices, the group remained strong. Summarizing the final stages of the flying saucer cult, Festinger says:
Festinger and co-authors review a few of the historic millennial movements. Among them were the Millerites, a cult centered around the advent hopes for the end of the world to come in the year 1843 as taught by William Miller. The feelings of those in the Millerite movement after the 1843 prophecy had passed were conveyed in the memoirs of F.D. Nichol (who continued to defend William Miller even after the disconfirmed date):
Interestingly, Festinger fails to discuss the International Bible Students (later known as Jehovah's Witnesses) who borrowed extensively from several millennial theories of the day. In January 1876 Russell began a partnership with Nelson H. Barbour, a former Millerite. Barbour convinced Russell that the year 1873 marked the end of 6000 years of human history.
Historian M. James Penton tells us that Barbour had gone far beyond Wendell and his associates, who had originally believed that 1873 would see the second advent and the consummation of the earth by fire. When nothing visible had happened in that year, they were at first quite perplexed until B.W. Keith, a reader of the Herald, discovered Benjamin Wilson's translation of parousia as "presence" Then, like Russell, Barbour and Paton began to believe in the idea of an invisible presence of the Christ, which they felt had begun on schedule in 1874." 7
Penton, a Watchtower historian and critic of the movement, relates additional information regarding the prophecies of Russell:
The results of disconfirmation of prophecy within the organization was later admitted by the Watch Tower itself:
The disconfirmation of the 1914 date did not deter the majority of the Bible Students. Russell had the ability to lift up their spirits with new fervor and hope, as the December 15, 1914 issue of The Watch Tower illustrates:
Russell reworked his chronology and moved the date for the end of the world up to 1915. After the end failed to materialize in 1915, the end was set for 1918, when "God destroys the churches wholesale and the church members by millions." 11
At the death of C.T. Russell in 1916, J.F. Rutherford took over the role of the `prophet,' proclaiming in 1920 that Millions Now Living Will Never Die in a booklet and lecture by the same name. Rutherford set a new date for the end for 1925, also claiming that it would bring the resurrection of the ancient men of God to the earth, such as Abraham, Isaac, David, etc. So sure was Rutherford of this that he made the following statements:
Rutherford even had a house built in San Diego for these ancients, and it was deeded to them when it was built! 15 Bearing witness to the ability of the Witnesses to ride out this period of disconfirmation, the house and the prophecy wasn't abandoned until 1943, when it was promptly sold. The Witnesses were later told that it was "built for brother Rutherford's use." 16
Rutherford kept the Witnesses occupied with proselytizing during the thirties. As with the flying saucer cult, Rutherford began teaching that there was some great significance in their disappointment over the disconfirmed prophecies and that the dates were somehow important, but they eventually decided against setting dates:
The disappointment didn't last long, however. The outbreak of World War II was seen as the beginning of Armageddon. An in-house publication of the Watchtower stated in 1940:
The Watchtower of September 15, 1941 (p . 288) even stated that we are "in the remaining months before Armageddon." Armageddon fever was at an all-time high. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, former member of the Watchtower's Bethel family, gives us a glimpse of the air of expectancy:
The end came for Rutherford in 1942, as he passed away and N.H. Knorr took his place as the key member of the faithful and discreet slave, dispensing prophetic messages to the Witnesses. However, more credit is due to Frederick W. Franz, Knorr's vice-president, for the prediction of 1975 that first appeared in Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God (1966). Exercising caution in stating that this new date would definitely be the end, Franz (through his public lectures and Watchtower articles) made statements such as "according to this trustworthy Bible chronology six thousand years from man's creation will end in 1975, and the seventh period of a thousand years of human history will begin in the fall of 1975 C.E." 20 Any Jehovah's Witness knew that the end of 6000 years meant the beginning of the millennium of Christ's reign. The Awake! magazine of October 8, 1968 (p. 14) stated, "How fitting it would be for God, following this pattern, to end man's misery after six thousand years of human rule and follow it with his glorious Kingdom rule for a thousand years!"
In lectures given to the members of the headquarters staff in New York, Franz stated (regarding the end) that "we don't know now if it will be weeks or months," before a crowd of 2000 Witnesses. 21 Many other statements were made in print. One traveling overseer even gave a public talk indicating it would be a total lack of faith to doubt that 1975 would be the end! 22 Franz became the fourth president of the Watchtower a year later.
Unlike the flying saucer cult and the Millerites, the Watchtower was at first unwilling to accept blame for the disconfirmation, shifting it to "over-zealous brothers." Many Witnesses, however, were outraged and the Watchtower finally accepted much of the blame publicly.
Friends of those who were Jehovah's Witnesses often noted the changes in their lives as 1975 approached. Janice Godlove relates this regarding her JW brother and sister-in-law:
Today, 1975 is played down, but no recent reason is officially given for the disconfirmation, nor is there any further official date on the horizon. Some recent converts are even unaware of the 1975 expectations.
A pattern emerges when we examine the growth figures before and after each disconfirmation. Typically, there was a rapid growth in numbers at least two years before the prophetic date, followed by a falling away of some (viewed as a "cleansing" of the organization of the unfaithful), then another growth spurt as a new emphasis on evangelism was put forward.
It may seem incomprehensible how the Witnesses could ignore the implications of each disconfirmation. Outsiders view the Witnesses as lacking common sense for not leaving the organization after numerous failures. They fail to understand the dynamics of mind control as used by cults. Even many ex-JWs fail to understand that the further disconfirmation of the importance of 1914 and "this generation" will not seriously affect the numbers of those swelling the ranks of the Watchtower. The results of mind control and unquestioning obedience will have the same effect today as it did in Russell's day. His view was, "Where else can we go?" Harrison writes regarding this attitude,
This same dependency-unto-death phenomena is at work in thousands of cults all over the world. People wondered at Jonestown: "Why didn't they leave when they saw what Jim Jones was becoming?" The people of Jonestown answered by their actions, "Where else would we go?" They had burned their bridges to follow their Messiah unto death.
Over 110 years and several failed prophecies later, the Watchtower movement is testimony enough that failed predictions do not mean the dissolution of a cult following. The failure of 1975 resulted in a decrease of less than 2%. 25 The Watchtower will always be able to develop clever rationalizations regarding their changing dates, as their history documents. Today, the Watchtower grows at a rate of about 5% per year worldwide, with over 3.7 million door knockers and over 9 million sympathizers! 26
When the dissolution of the Watchtower movement comes, as it inevitably will, it will more likely be due to dissension from within than from the disconfirmation of prophecy. Until that day, let us hope and pray that the eyes of many Witnesses will be opened up to the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ and come to Him.
1. Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies (New York: Doubleday, 1984), p. 67.
2. In brief, Festinger explains the cognitive dissonance theory thusly:
"Dissonance and consonance are relations among cognitions that is, among opinions, beliefs, knowledge of the environment, and knowledge of one's own actions and feelings. Two opinions, or beliefs, or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together that is, if they are inconsistent, or if, considering only the particular two items, one does not follow from the other. For example, a cigarette smoker who believes that smoking is bad for his health has an opinion that is dissonant with the knowledge that he is continuing to smoke. He may have many other opinions, beliefs, or items of knowledge that are consonant with continuing to smoke but the dissonance nevertheless exists too.
"Dissonance produces discomfort and, correspondingly, there will arise pressures to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. Attempts to reduce dissonance represent the observable manifestations that dissonance exists. Such attempts may take any or all of three forms. The person may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance; to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship." (p. 25-26)
"Alternatively, the dissonance would be reduced or eliminated if the members of a movement effectively blind themselves to the fact that the prediction has not been fulfilled. But most people, including members of such movements, are in touch with reality and cannot simply blot out of their cognition such an unequivocal and undeniable fact. They can try to ignore it, however, and they usually do try. They may convince themselves that the date was wrong but that the prediction will, after all, be shortly confirmed; or they may even set another date as the Millerites did.... Rationalization can reduce dissonance somewhat. For rationalization to be fully effective, support from others is needed to make the explanation or the revision seem correct. Fortunately, the disappointed believer can usually turn to the others in the same movement, who have the same dissonance and the same pressures to reduce it. Support for the new explanation is, hence, forthcoming and the members of the movement can recover somewhat from the shock of the disconfirmation." --Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails, (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), pp. 27, 28.
3. ibid., p. 3.
4. ibid., p. 28.
5. ibid., p. 208.
6. ibid., p. 22; quoted from Hiram Edson, fragment of ms. on his life and experience, pp. 8,9, quoted in Francis D. Nichol, The Midnight Cry (Tacoma Park, Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Company, 1944), pp. 247-248.
7. M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), p. 18.
8. ibid., pp. 34.
9. Joseph Rutherford, Light, Book I (New York: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1930), p. 194.
10. The Watch Tower, 12/15/14, p. 377.
11. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (WTBTS), The Finished Mystery, 1917 edition, p. 485.
12. WTBTS, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1920, p. 89.
13. The Watch Tower, 9/1/22, p. 262.
14. ibid., 4/1/23, p. 106.
15. Consolation (WTBTS), 5/27/42, p. 3, also Golden Age (WTBTS), 3/19/30, p. 406, 407.
16. WTBTS, 1975 Yearbook, p. 194.
17. WTBTS, Vindication, Book I, 1931, pp. 338, 339.
18. WTBTS, The Messenger, 9/1/40, p. 6.
19. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Visions of Glory (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), p. 16.
20. WTBTS, Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God, 1966, p. 29.
21. F.W. Franz, verbatim as quoted by Randall Watters, present at the March 2, 1975 graduating class of the students of Gilead school. See The Watchtower, 5/1/75, p. 285.
22. Message given by C. Sunutko, Circuit Overseer, in 1967 (tape available).
23. The Bethel Ministries Newsletter, November, 1987, in a letter by Janice Godlove respecting her brother and sisterinlaw.
24. Harrison, p. 167.
25. Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience (Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1983), p. 212.
26. WTBTS, 1990 Yearbook, pp. 4041.
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