The Jehovah’s Witness Phenomenon by Bill Peddie

The Jehovah’s Witnesses intrigue me. I guess I should say at the outset I suspect analytical thinkers would have a problem with multiple and successive failures in their predictions, with what I suspect is their continued misrepresentation of the theory of evolution, their self-serving “translations” in their preferred version of the Bible, and for that matter, their apparently unkind and even isolating treatment of those who amongst their membership who dare to question their doctrines. On the other hand it is hard not to be impressed by their dedication, their pacifism, their sincere and persistent attempts to evangelize and their strong communal support for those who are seen to be loyal to their doctrines. Where they are most interesting compared with other Christian groups is in the different slant they have in their chosen beliefs.

For what it is worth my personal opinion is that as for many religious sects, a good part of their real attraction is the sociological feeling of belonging to a group where a common history and distinctive – even urgent – theology reinforces a strong sense of belonging which in turn is fed by support from the group.

The sect known today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses started out in Pennsylvania in 1870 as a Bible class led by Charles Taze Russell. Russell originally called his group the “Millennial Dawn Bible Study.” Charles T. Russell began writing a series of books he called “The Millennial Dawn,” which stretched to six volumes before his death and contained much of the theology Jehovah’s Witnesses still hold. After Russell’s death in 1916, Judge J. F. Rutherford, Russell’s friend and successor, wrote the seventh and final volume of the “Millennial Dawn” series, “The Finished Mystery,” in 1917. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society was founded in 1886 and quickly became the means by which the “Millennial Dawn” movement began distributing their views to others. The group was known as the “Russellites” until 1931 when, due to a second split in the organization (and I suspect a need to distance itself a little from earlier failed prophecies), it was renamed the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The largest main group from which it split became known as the “Bible students.”

The aforementioned leader of the group Charles T Russell was certainly not a recognized scholar and appears not to have made that as a direct claim, although the jury may still be out on whether his later implied expertise in Biblical scholarship was intended misinformation or even if he might have been unintentionally self delusional. The Watch Tower Society literature now claims the Society’s founder, Russell, was directed by God’s Holy Spirit, through which he received “flashes of light“(By coincidence as it happens, my (ie the writer’s) flashes of light were diagnosed by my doctors as the beginning of a detached retina!!??), “Flashes of Light – Great and Small“, The Watchtower, May 15, 1995, page 17 That he was not quite as qualified as he claimed to be had been highlighted when one Rev. J.J. Ross of Hamilton ON wrote a pamphlet called “Some Facts About the Self-styled ‘pastor’ Charles T. Russell.” This included a denunciation of Russell’s qualifications for the ministry and even his morals. Russell reacted by suing Ross for libel.  The court returned a “no bill” verdict determining Russell had no justification for a cash settlement.  According to post trial booklet authored by Ross, during the trial, Russell had claimed to know the Greek alphabet, but was unable to identify Greek letters at the top of the page of a Greek New Testament that was handed to him. Russell certainly admitted in that same court that he had never been ordained, even though he had earlier claimed to have been ordained by a recognized religious group, and acknowledged he had left school at age 14.

Although those from other branches of Christianity may be scornful of the Jehovah’s Witness numerous failed prophecies, before denouncing their faith it is salutary to remember most denominations would find it hard to justify all their past beliefs in terms of successfully tested assumptions and prophecies. At the same time, some doctrines highlight dramatic differences. For example many observers of the JW faith are concerned at their steadfast refusal to accept whole blood transfusions. Remember however this is more that they see themselves bound to a literal acceptance of instructions in the Bible and compared with other literalist groups they have merely chosen to focus on different sections. Whereas an Orthodox Jew might focus on the 613 Commandments in the Old Testament, or the Seventh Day Adventists on verses referring to Saturday worship and the Closed Brethren on verses justifying keeping themselves apart from un-believers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses choose a particular interpretation of the verses about keeping oneself from blood – and of course an extreme emphasis on the Book of Revelation.

If the reader goes to the Wikipedia article on Criticisms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there they will find the references for the following sample failed prophecies:

For a much more substantial list of failed JW prophecies which contains details of the prophecies as actual quotes together with the detailed sources the reader is invited to go to

Although I include brief commentary notes, most of what follows is lifted with some editing from the Wikipedia article. (Because many will be unfamiliar with the literature relating to end times I would like to suggest readers Google my article entitled “END TIMES: BUT THIS TIME IT’S SERIOUS …. again” which introduces the extraordinary list of end time predictions dating right back to the time of Christ). Perhaps we would gain perspective if we remembered the JW incursion into end time claims might be better understood in the wider setting of numerous prior end time claims across a number of Christian denominations). Now to some of the JW claims and their outcomes.

1877: Christ’s kingdom would hold full sway over the earth in 1914; the Jews, as a people, would be restored to God’s favour and the “saints” would be carried to heaven. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. ( We look at the situation more than 100 years later and should be clear this did not come to pass.)

1891: 1914 would be “the farthest limit of the rule of imperfect men.” Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (They were wrong.)

1904: “World-wide anarchy” would follow the end of the Gentile Times in 1914. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (There was anarchy in places but not world-wide.)

The 1914 prophecy failure was something of a shock to the membership and during 1915 a good number of the members abandoned their faith. Russell then adjusted his prophecy and focussed on the coming end to World War I.

1916: World War I would terminate in Armageddon and the rapture of the “saints”. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (The war ended rather differently.)

1917: In 1918, Christendom would go down as a system to face oblivion and be succeeded by revolutionary governments. God would “destroy the churches wholesale and the church members by the millions.” Church members would “perish by the sword of war, revolution and anarchy.” The dead would lie unburied. In 1920 all earthly governments would disappear, with worldwide anarchy prevailing. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (Wrong again.)

1920: Messiah’s kingdom was to be established in 1925 and bring worldwide peace. God would begin restoring the earth. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful patriarchs would be resurrected to perfect human life and be made princes and rulers, the visible representatives of the New Order on earth. Those who showed themselves obedient to God would never die  The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (No evidence this happened…… )

1922: The anti-typical “jubilee” that would mark God’s intervention in earthly affairs would take place “probably the fall” of 1925. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (As it turned out…improbably.)

1924: God’s restoration of Earth would begin “shortly after” October 1,
1925. Jerusalem would be made the world’s capital. Resurrected “princes” such as Abel, Noah, Moses and John the Baptist would give instructions to their subjects around the world by radio, and airplanes would transport people to and from Jerusalem from all parts of the globe in just “a few hours” cf Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (Making the statements doesn’t make them come true). Again the members were showing disappointment when nothing of particular significance happened on the predicted date and there was a unsurprising increase in the number of defections. Russell’s successor Rutherford (from 1916 onward) showed considerable skill in gathering together those who were left, explaining that the signs were still there for the approaching Armageddon.

1930 Judge Joseph Frederick Rutherford 60, lives in a ten room Spanish mansion, No 4440 Braeburn Rd, San Diego, Calif. Last week he deeded No 4440 Braeburn Road, and adjacent two car garage and a pair of automobiles to King David, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthae, Samuel and sundry other mighties of ancient Palestine. Positive is he that they are shortly to reappear on earth, Said he: ‘I have purposely landscaped the place with palm and olive trees so that these princes of the universe will feel at home.. (Time Magazine, March 31, 1930)

1938: Armageddon was too close for marriage or child bearing. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22

1941: There were only “months” remaining until Armageddon cf.Charles Taze Russell, The Time Is At Hand (1891) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, page 44. (Long months).

1942: Armageddon was “immediately before us.” J. F. Rutherford, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1920, as cited by Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, pages 212-214.(Millions now living will never die ???…or not).

And then as we now know the Second World War finished without the expected heavenly intervention.

1961: Awake! magazine stated that the heavenly kingdom “will, within the twentieth century, cleanse the entire earth of wickedness.” James A. Beverley, Crisis of Allegiance, Welch Publishing Company, Burlington, Ontario, 1986, ISBN 0-920413-37-4, page 87. (Not counting FIFA etc etc?)

1966: It would be 6000 years since man’s creation in the fall of 1975 and it would be “appropriate” for Christ’s thousand-year reign to begin at that time. Reasoning From the Scriptures, Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, 1989, pg 137. (It might have been appropriate but clearly Jehovah didn’t share that view.)

Time was “running out, no question about that.” Talk by F. W. Franz, Baltimore, Maryland 1966, cited by Jehovah’s Witnesses – Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, Watch Tower Society, and by Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, pages 238-239.The “immediate future” was “certain to be filled with climactic events … within a few years at most”, the final parts of Bible prophecy relating to the “last days” would undergo fulfilment as Christ’s reign began. ( I think the term “a few years at most” is now past use-by date.)

1967: The end-time period (beginning in 1914) was claimed to be so far advanced that the time remaining could “be compared, not just to the last day of a week, but rather, to the last part of that day “Did Man Get Here By Evolution Or By Creation?, Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1967, pg 161.(Or should that now be the last but one part of the day????)
1968: No one could say “with certainty” that the battle of Armageddon would begin in 1975, but time was “running out rapidly” with “earthshaking events” soon to take place. In March 1968 there was a “short period of time left”, with “only about ninety months left before 6000 years of man’s existence on earth is completed” Kingdom Ministry, Watch Tower Society, March 1968, as cited by Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, pages 246.
(Ninety months has now passed!!! The point to note here is that by now the predictions were being done via the Watchtower Society but with no noticeable improvement in accuracy)

1969: The existing world order would not last long enough for young people to grow old; the world system would end “in a few years.” Young Witnesses were told not to bother pursuing tertiary education for this reason Awake!, May 22, 1969, p. 15
(At least they were spared student loans. I was teaching in 1969 and have to tell you some of my pupils from then now have white hair).

1971: The “battle in the day of Jehovah” was described as beginning “shortly, within our twentieth century” The Nations Shall Know That I Am Jehovah – How?, Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, 1971, pg 216. (Or was that without?………)

1974: There was just a “short time remaining before the wicked world’s end” and Witnesses were commended for selling their homes and property to “finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service.” Kingdom Ministry, Watch Tower Society, May 1974, page 3. ( as it turned out a long time to be living in a car)

1984: There were “many indications” that “the end” was closer than the end of the 20th century. The Watchtower, March 1, 1984, pp. 18-19 (In hindsight even more indications that it wasn’t.)

1989: The Watchtower asserted that Christian missionary work begun in the first century would “be completed in our 20th century” The Watchtower, January 1, 1989, pg. 12. When republished in bound volumes, the phrase “in our 20th century” was replaced with the less specific “in our day”. (Today, 4 June 2015,I as the self appointed author/commentator of this small article turned 71. “In our day” will shortly become in someone else’s day.)

With something like 100 years of repeated failures of prophecy it should be acknowledged that recent End Time articles are much more circumspect and setting likely dates is now discouraged and even mocked when other religious groups set their own dates.

I know the JW faithful are not supposed to question or risk being dis-fellowshipped but surely with so many clear failures, as outsiders, we might ask if the gift of prophecy had somehow bypassed JW leadership. As Henny Penny eventually discovered, you can only announce the sky is falling so many times before you begin to lose your audience. As an outsider I remain curious that despite the failed prophecies, those members who had expressed earlier reservations about the prophecies of the day remained dis-fellowshipped even well after they had in effect been justified by history in their doubts.

In some ways it may have been their fixation on end times which has undermined their overall effectiveness. In the US it has been reported that something like two thirds of the converted members leave the Church and we might suspect that in part it has been the disappointment of failed predictions that causes this attrition. On the other hand the sense of urgent enthusiasm for their cause draws plenty of replacement members to the organization. Theirs is not the first Church where group acceptance of dogma blinds its members to a mounting list of failed predictions. Yet one of the costs has been in terms of basic education. For example in 1969 the Watchtower released a statement saying that because the end of the world was nigh there was no point in young JWs continuing to seek a College education. The 2006 study of educational ranking of the followers of some of the more significant religions in the US (by Barry A Kosmin and Ariela Keyser) appears to indicate JW buy in to the notion that College education was no longer needed.   For example the Jehovah’s Witnesses had the lowest percentage College graduates (12%) whereas to take some other denominations: the Methodists had 36% College graduates, Presbyterians 51%, Episcopalians 56% and Unitarians 72%.

The lack of recognized scholars may also account for some problems in keeping up to date with Biblical scholarship. For example the New World Translation Bible appears to have been assembled from other versions of the Bible rather than a consequence of precise translation. The four members responsible for the “Translation” are anonymous with The Watchtower claiming that the educational qualifications of the translators were unimportant in that “the translation itself testifies to their qualifications Questions from readers, The Watchtower, December 15, 1974, page 767.

The same time Raymond Franz a former member of the Governing Body has claimed that of the four men who made up the committee, only one—its principal translator, his uncle Frederick Franz, had sufficient knowledge of biblical languages to have attempted the project “New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures”, The Watchtower, September 15, 1950, page 320. And Questions from readers, The Watchtower, December 15, 1974, page 767.

Even there, Frederick Franz had only studied Greek for two years and was self-taught in Hebrew (2007), Crisis of Conscience, Commentary Press, p. 56, ISBN 0-914675-23-0

With no experts in Aramaic it is hard to see how they could claim to have translated some parts of the Old Testament. This implies that much of the translation was done with the assistance of other translations. According to Wikipedia, Jason BeDuhn ,associate professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University, in a comparison of a variety of translations for accuracy, concluded that the NWT’s introduction of the name “Jehovah” into the New Testament 237 times was “not accurate translation by the most basic principle of accuracy”

While some of the “translation” is unremarkable, some specific JW teaching is imposed. For example the Greek word “stauros” for the cross is indeed literally translated as stake but since in Koine Greek, “Stauros” stood as a single word for four different crosses eg the Tau or T shaped cross, the cross that in religious art which is usually associated with the crucifixion, one we now call the St Andrews Cross and one that took the form of a simple stake, there is only very tenuous support for insisting Jesus was crucified on a torture stake particularly as that form was not usually carried by the condemned man. We might also note the JW Biblical commentary notes are not updated. To take one small example in 2004 it was established on the basis of the earliest versions of the Book of Revelation that the “mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation is actually 616 and not 666. JW leaders I have spoken to appear unaware of that discovery. Much criticism of the NWT involves the subtle editing of certain texts considered to be biased towards specific Witness practices and doctrines. These include the rendering of John 1:1, with the insertion of the indefinite article (“a”) in its rendering to give “the Word was a god” Romans 10:10, which inserts the term “public declaration”, which may reinforce the imperative to engage in public preaching.John 17:3, which used the term “taking in knowledge” rather than “know” to suggest that salvation is dependent on ongoing study and the placement of the comma in Luke 23:43, which affects the timing of the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to the thief at Calvary.

Since a good proportion of the JW membership attend meetings to rote learn the answers to questions needed for the propagation of the faith this does not mean learning is neglected, but on the other hand it does appear to deny adherents the opportunity to think or themselves or understand mainstream advances in science and even international scholarship in faith related topics. A senior JW missionary assured me that JWs are encouraged not to read non JW literature.   For me, this implies they would have no idea if some of their assumptions can be reasonably challenged.  While it is true that JW publications include articles on general areas including science, geology and medicine, there is plenty of evidence to show that those preparing the articles are lacking in basic understanding. For example the substantial JW articles and booklets on evolution commonly assume scientists think evolution depends on chance whereas evolutionists look to natural selection of favoured forms.

Because they are unfamiliar with the standard literature, such JW articles make naive claims. The Society’s 1985 publication, Life—How Did it Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation? is rightly criticized for its dependency on Francis Hitching who is cited thirteen times and presented as an evolutionary scientist yet in professional life is actually a TV writer and paranormalist with no scientific credentials.

The same book makes numerous claims that scientists working in the field could refute with little effort. For example the 1953 Miller Urey experiments in which a simulated primordial atmosphere is sparked was criticised for only producing four of the 20 amino acids thought to be essential for life. In fact in the 1980 s when the previously unexamined sealed result phials which had been stored after the experiments were examined using more modern analytical methods 24 amino acids were discovered.

However the most serious problem with the Watchtower authorized text on evolution is that it totally downplays the modern methods of tracing the history of evolution via genetics by which the history of relationships in the living world are traced and mapped.

Now the tricky bit.   What should those of us who are unconvinced by some of the Jehovah’s Witness beliefs then do about it.      My personal response might surprise some.

First I think that we should admit that given the way most religions develop there will always be some beliefs that are difficult to justify.    Because many of the beliefs had their origins in a non-scientific age and because the insights from science continue to expand and clarify our understanding of the Universe and the myriad of forms of life, that some may seem to have a view which we now think is redundant is inevitable.   If we actually do know better (which will not always be the case) then it is up to each one of us to assemble enough convincing argument to bring others to our point of view.   In many cases it simply may not matter.   Knowing why the sky is blue will not change its colour.  Certainly disbelieving in evolution of humans is not where mainstream science currently takes us, but on the other hand if it is a misunderstanding, it is also widespread.

Second just as non Jehovah’s Witness forms of faith are modified over time, the JWs themselves have changed their views.   For example when it comes to End Times they are now more reluctant to encourage members to state a date or even a decade.   In this it is probably better to read up on our own faith history to learn what changes have occurred with our beliefs.

Third I think we can admire two aspects of the JW beliefs.   First they assume faith should affect life choices.   Their reasons for refusing to support war and giving tangible support to fellow believers are reasonable and their identification of the dangers of nationalism are well worth consideration.   The other aspect we should respect is that the JWs are prepared to work hard to share their beliefs with others.  The concern is not that their beliefs may be at fault but rather that our beliefs may seem to matter less.

Maybe in summary we need to explore our own faith journey and sort out the life implications before worrying about the choices made by others.

(The above article is intended as the beginning of a discussion document and it is hoped others will draw attention to aspects which need further comment.)

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