The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is notable for making prophetic statements that fail to come to pass.
From foretelling the resurrection of ancient bible characters into 1920’s San Diego, to predicting 1874 being the start of Christ’s second coming, a close study of Watchtower history throws up many, many instances of failed prophetic dates.
Dates such as 1975.
For a detailed breakdown of the full story, please check this extensively researched article at jwfacts.com, but the basic facts of the case are that Watchtower leadership in the 1960’s decided that Biblical chronology indicated that 1975 would mark 6000 years of human existence. Thus, they felt it would be very fitting if Jehovah God were to bring Armageddon at that time.
This belief was featured and taught in many Watchtower publications and public events, and so once 1976 rolled around without Armageddon taking place, things got a little…awkward.
Whilst Watchtower has indeed since suffered many other instances of prophetic failure, 1975 remains as one of the most enduring and embarrassing instances of the religion’s grand proclamations going unfulfilled.
Now, it appears that one of the videos for the 2017 Regional Convention, entitled “Don’t Give Up,” will address the 1975 teaching. The full video (video 49) can be viewed here on the AvoidJW.org website, and is part of a larger teaching segment with the theme of remaining faithful to the Watchtower organisation despite trials.
However, the video is extremely deceptive in the way it presents the events of the late 60’s and early 70’s to the audience.
In fact, I would go so far as to call it a whitewash.
I’m going to break down line-by-line the statements made in the video about 1975, and place them against statements from Watchtower publications written at the time, so that you can make your own judgement as to how truthful you think this video is being about one of Watchtower’s most infamous failures of prophecy.
1975: Where did the expectation come from?
The video starts discussing the 1975 issue around the 1:43 mark, when the character narrating the video says:
“Back then, some were looking to a certain date as signifying the end of this old system of things.”
Now firstly, it’s interesting that this video refers to “a certain date,” rather than specifically mentioning 1975 as the year. In fact, nowhere in the video is the year or the teaching given by name. This has the effect of muddying the waters; many younger Witnesses will not have heard of this 47 year old teaching and by being vague, Watchtower makes it harder for them to pinpoint and research this incident. However, much more concerning is the phraseology;
“Back then, some were looking to a certain date as signifying the end of this old system of things.”
Who are this “some?” We are never told, but this use of words subtly disassociates the belief from official Watchtower doctrine. It gives the impression that the 1975 expectation was simply the product of a few rogue Witnesses, spreading their own teachings in the backroom of Kingdom halls. But do the facts taken from Watchtower’s own publications support this?
Here is just a handful of the many Watchtower publications at the time which discussed the possibility of a 1975 armageddon date.
“The published timetable resulting from this independent study gives the date of man’s creation as 4026 B.C.E. 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. So six thousand years of man’s existence on earth will soon be up, yes, within this generation. So in not many years within our own generation we are reaching what Jehovah God could view as the seventh day of man’s existence. How appropriate it would be for Jehovah God to make of this coming seventh period of a thousand years a sabbath period of rest and release, a great Jubilee sabbath for the proclaiming of liberty throughout the earth to all its inhabitants! This would be most timely for mankind. It would also be most fitting on God’s part, for, remember, mankind has yet ahead of it what the last book of the Holy Bible speaks of as the reign of Jesus Christ over earth for a thousand years, the millennial reign of Christ. It would not be by mere chance or accident but would be according to the loving purpose of Jehovah God for the reign of Jesus Christ, the ‘Lord of the Sabbath,’ to run parallel with the seventh millennium of man’s existence.” Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God 1966 pp.26-30
“Does God’s rest day parallel the time man has been on earth since his creation? Apparently so. In what year, then, would the first 6,000 years of man’s existence and also the first 6,000 years of Gods rest day come to an end? The year 1975. It means that within a relatively few years we will witness the fulfilment of the remaining prophecies that have to do with the “time of the end”.” Awake! 1966 Oct 8 pp.19-20
“Another speaker, F. W. Franz, the Society’s vice-president, forcefully impressed on the audience the urgency of the Christian preaching work.
He stressed that, according to dependable Bible chronology, 6,000 years of human history will end this coming September according to the lunar calendar. This coincides with a time when “the human species [is] about to starve itself to death,” as well as its being faced with poisoning by pollution and destruction by nuclear weapons. Franz added: “There’s no basis for believing that mankind, faced with what it now faces, can exist for the seventh thousand-year period” under the present system of things. Does this mean that we know exactly when God will destroy this old system and establish a new one? Franz showed that we do not, for we do not know how short was the time interval between Adam’s creation and the creation of Eve, at which point God’s rest day of seven thousand years began. (Heb. 4:3, 4)
But, he pointed out, “we should not think that this year of 1975 is of no significance to us,” for the Bible proves that Jehovah is “the greatest chronologist” and “we have the anchor date, 1914, marking the end of the Gentile Times.” So, he continued, “we are filled with anticipation for the near future, for our generation.”—Matt. 24:34.” Watchtower 1975 May 1 p.285
“The immediate future is certain to be filled with climactic events, for this old system is nearing its complete end. Within a few years at most the final parts of Bible prophecy relative to these “last days” will undergo fulfilment.”Watchtower 1968 May 1 p.272
And if the publications at the time were dropping very very heavy hints, some of the public talks given by senior Watchtower officials were positively explicit. Take for example the following talk which was given at the 1967 District Convention in Wisconsin, by District Overseer Charles Sunutko. (audio available at jwfacts.com)
“Well now, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, as runners, even though some of us have become a little weary, it almost seems as though Jehovah has provided meat in due season. Because he’s held up before all of us, a new goal. A new year. Something to reach out for and it just seems it has given all of us so much more energy and power in this final burst of speed to the finish line. And that’s the year 1975. Well, we don’t have to guess what the year 1975 means if we read the Watchtower. And don’t wait ’till 1975. The door is going to be shut before then. As one brother put it, “Stay alive to Seventy-Five“”
I could go on and on. Watchtower teaching material at the time was saturated with this. Here is a chart from an October 8th, 1971 Awake that explicitly states the Millennial Reign of Christ will start on the 6000’s year of human history i.e 1975
So as we can see, the Witnesses alive at this time had this expectation because the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society were publishing and preaching teachings that specifically cultivated this expectation.
1975 was not a product of rogue Witnesses; it was official Watchtower doctrine.
1975: Who encouraged Witnesses to sell homes and quit jobs?
The narrator in the video goes on to say:
A few went so far as selling their homes and quitting their jobs.
In the context of the video, this is presented as having been an unwise thing to do. It is indeed true that Witnesses at the time sold homes, quit jobs, delayed surgical operations and so forth because they expected the world to end. I personally know of one Witness family that, in the present day, still suffers a significant financial shortfall because of actions taken back in the 70’s to sell properties and abandon financial investments.
However, what was the Watchtower response at the time to the actions of these Witnesses? Was it to warn against such rashness?
Take for one example an article printed in the Kingdom Ministry of May 1974.
“Yes, since the summer of 1973 there have been new peaks in pioneers every month. Now there are 20,394 regular and special pioneers in the United States, an all-time peak. That is 5,190 more than there were in February 1973! A 34-percent increase! Does that not warm our hearts? Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.” Kingdom MinistryMay 1974 p.3 How Are You Using Your Life?
Far from advising caution, or presenting such activity as rash or unwise, Watchtower actively encouraged such ones to sell up and abandon their jobs, due to the “short time remaining.” In other words, Watchtower in 2017 is frowning upon the conduct of Witnesses who were simply doing what they were encouraged to do by Watchtower in 1974!
1975: Who sounded a scriptural note of caution?
The narrator continues:
I admit, I was ready to see this old system go away too, but something just didn’t seem right. Both at meetings, and in my personal study, I was reminded of what Jesus said: “No man knows the day or hour.”
Again, is this accurate? Were witnesses being reminded at meetings of this scripture, in the context of trying to dispel any premature expectations about 1975? Let’s take a look at one such paragraph, taken from an article which was heavily hinting at a 1975 armageddon date and using Bible chronology to back up this expect
35 One thing is absolutely certain, Bible chronology reinforced with fulfilled Bible prophecy shows that six thousand years of man’s existence will soon be up, yes, within this generation! (Matt. 24:34) This is, therefore, no time to be indifferent and complacent. This is not the time to be toying with the words of Jesus that “concerning that day and hour nobody knows , neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matt. 24:36) To the contrary, it is a time when one should be keenly aware that the end of this system of things is rapidly coming to its violent end. Make no mistake, it is sufficient that the Father himself knows both the “day and hour”! Watchtower 1968 Aug 15 p.494 Why Are You Looking Forward to 1975?
We see again that, instead of Watchtower sounding a note of caution that maverick Witnesses failed to heed, quite the opposite is true. Witnesses were being explicitly told at meetings not to use this scripture to raise doubts.
Technically, the brother in this video is going against the council of the Governing Body of his era.
What would have happened to the brother in the video had he voiced these doubts about the 1975 expectations, and used this scripture to support his argument? In a worst case scenario, if he publicly refused to relent, he may have been disfellowshipped for apostasy.
1975: Who took responsibility?
The video’s coverage of 1975 concludes with the narrator saying:
After that year came and went, most of those who had wrong expectations made the needed adjustments.
Again, this use of words infers that the matter was the fault of individual Witnesses “running ahead of Jehovah’s Chariot”, whereas we have seen that all evidence clearly shows these wrong expectations came as a direct result of official Watchtower publications and public talks. The membership figures for 1976 and onward show that many left the religion as a result of this debacle. Others suffered in terms of lost income, property, life opportunities, postponed surgeries and the choice to defer having children.
Did Watchtower make adjustments? Did it ever apologise for what was clearly a huge error of judgement that essentially amounted to false prophesy? Did it ever acknowledge the pain and suffering that these rash predictions, which ran contrary to scriptural advice, had inflicted upon many faithful Witnesses who acted in good faith on what they were told?
Five years later, the following appeared in the Watchtower magazine.
“With the appearance of the book Life Everlasting-in Freedom of the Sons of God, and its comments as to how appropriate it would be for the millennial reign of Christ to parallel the seventh millennium of man’s existence, considerable expectation was aroused regarding the year 1975. … Unfortunately, however, along with such cautionary information, there were other statements published that implied that such realization of hopes by that year was more of a probability than a mere possibility .” Watchtower 1980 Mar 15 p.17
Now, that might strike you as something of a mealy mouthed, evasive apology, and you’d be correct, but to get even this from an organisation so historically loathe to admit error as Watchtower demonstrates how bad the damage was at the time.
We get a similar apology in the 1993 Proclaimers book, a book which endeavoured to provide a comprehensive history of the Witness movement from the 19th century onwards. Whilst the book is in reality a very sanitised and biased account of the founding and growth of Watchtower, it nonetheless does address the 1975 issue, probably because it simply had no other choice given the large number of Witnesses in the early 90’s who would still have vivid memories of the incident, and would note any conspicuous absence of it from Watchtower’s “official” history book;
“Brother Franz then referred to the many questions that had arisen as to whether the material in the new book meant that by 1975 Armageddon would be finished, and Satan would be bound. He stated, in essence: ‘It could. But we are not saying . All things are possible with God. But we are not saying. And don’t any of you be specific in saying anything that is going to happen between now and 1975. But the big point of it all is this, dear friends: Time is short. Time is running out, no question about that.’ … However, other statements were published on this subject, and some were likely more definite than advisable.” Jehovah’s Witnesses – Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom p.104
Again, not exactly the humble repentance one would hope for, featuring a very selective quote that is clearly not representative of the more hysteria-inducing articles and speeches being given at the time. Yet both these excerpts establish the following fact;
In 1980 and 1993 Watchtower admitted the fault was with them, not the with the rank and file Witnesses.
Yet now, in 2017 that same religious organisation is putting out a video implying the exact opposite.
This video is presented in such as way as to whitewash any responsibility Watchtower had for the debacle, and to denigrate as foolish the faithful Witnesses of the 1970’s who were simply following the teaching and council Watchtower gave them.
1975: Why now?
Why would Watchtower even discuss this topic in a video? Much like the ongoing child abuse scandal, 1975 is a topic that the organisation usually pretends does not even exist, only acknowledging it obliquely when absolutely necessary. So why make it a subject of a convention video that all Witnesses will see, albeit in a whitewashed, victim blaming fashion that even manages to avoid even stating the discredited date?
I can’t be certain but I can think of two possible reasons:
- The video very strongly stresses the idea of not serving God with a date for Armageddon in mind, and focuses on the need not to get discouraged when expected prophecies fail to materialise. Watchtower has recently been struggling to get its absurd “Overlapping Generations” teaching fully accepted by the rank and file. This teaching came in around the time I began to leave the religion and I remember how many of the witnesses I knew were privately uncomfortable with it, admitting it was hard to “prove it from the Bible.” If Watchtower’s repeated attempts to drum the teaching into the Witnesses are anything to go by, this is probably still the case. Some Witnesses may well be unsettled that the New World, once so close at hand, seems to be receding further and further into the distance by the day, and that the teachings being used to pinpoint its arrival appear to getting flimsier and flimsier with every revision. Thus, by referring to the 1975 incident in this way, Watchtower might be trying to condition its followers for further dissapapointments when the overlapping generation teaching is also abandoned, or when another decade rolls past with no New World appearing
- This video may also be an attempt to rewrite the history of 1975 so that Watchtower appears blameless for the mistake. This is possibly due to the fact that, although the number of Witnesses alive during the events of 1975 is shrinking, the newer witnesses are becoming more and more aware of the embarrassment due to discussion in the ranks and also from internet exposure to this infamous incident from “apostate” websites and online comments on youtube, twitter and so forth. So this might be an attempt at damage control; to present an “acceptable version” of the debacle to Witnesses who are hearing the truth from other sources, even if this version clashes with Watchtower’s own previously published version of events.
Whatever the motivation, I think the final word should go to the Bible book of Deuteronomy 18:22, where God is telling the nation of Israel how to view those who speak false prophesy.
“When the prophet speaks in the name of Jehovah and the word is not fulfilled or does not come true, then Jehovah did not speak that word. The prophet spoke it presumptuously. You should not fear him.’
Sound like a religion you know?
Follow me on twitter @covertfade.
Follow JW Survey on @jwsurveyorg
* Many thanks to Paul Grundy and his website JWfacts.com for the reference material and information presented in this article.