The day is Sunday 28 June, 1914. A car takes a wrong turn down a street in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
As the driver backs up, a bystander approaches. He pulls out a pistol, and shoots the couple sitting on the passenger seat. Both die within minutes. The assassin’s name was Gavrillo Princip, and his victims were Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.
This single incident set off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to two world wars and a long and bitter cold war. Millions would die from the anarchy and chaos that would ensue once the powder keg of Europe had been ignited by this simple spark.
But apart from the far-reaching ramifications on world history and politics, the events on that fateful day would also breathe life into a hitherto innocuous Bible group in America – blowing a gust of wind into its otherwise lifeless sails that would propel it well into the next century.
I refer, of course, to the Bible Students under Charles Taze Russell, who were to later morph into what we know today as Jehovah’s Witnesses. If the start of World War I had not coincided with 1914, then quite possibly that religion (and this website) would not exist.
It was the fact that something of significance happened in that year that enabled Russell and his associates to claim that their predictions had not been a complete failure. 1914 would thus become an anchor point in Witness teachings around which an entire religion could be built for decades to follow.
We now sit on the cusp of 2014. As 1914 slips deeper into the fog of history, you would expect the Watch Tower Society to begin quietly distancing itself from that year. But quite the opposite is happening. The Governing Body recently unveiled a revision to its New World Translation which enshrined 1914 as a year of significance in its appendix. And more recently still, a new Watchtower study magazine has been released that mentions 1914 no less than 18 times (excluding the questions).
To download the magazine, please click here.
When reading this latest magazine the impression is given that a person would need to be stupid not to reach the same conclusions as Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding the year 1914.
“Because we regularly study God’s Word, we can see that prophecy is being fulfilled right now. What a contrast with people in general! They are so involved in their lives and pursuits that they overlook the clear evidence that Christ has been ruling since 1914 and will soon bring God’s judgment.” – w14 1/15 p.28
“As one writer states: ‘The world of 1914 was full of hope and promise.’ With the outbreak of World War I later that year, however, Bible prophecy came true. The subsequent famines, earthquakes, and pestilences as well as the fulfillment of other Bible prophecies proved conclusively that Jesus Christ had begun to rule in heaven as King of God’s Kingdom in 1914.” – w14 1/15 p.13
This sneering and bullish refusal to let go of the 1914 teaching permeates the entire magazine. Great pride is taken in the fact that “the Bible Students spent decades pointing out that the year 1914 would be significant.” (page 12)
Significant in what respect? Precisely WHAT did Russell and his associates expect to happen in that year? To find out, let us consult some words penned by Russell in his second volume of Studies In The Scriptures, published in 1906…
As can be clearly seen from the above, Russell expected 1914 to mark, not the beginning, but the END of Armageddon. He further claimed that Christ had already started ruling invisibly in 1878.
Were these claims put forward as innocent suggestions on a “take it or leave it” basis? No. Russell considered the imminence of Armageddon back then as “plainly visible” from the Bible’s standpoint. And yet notice how the latest Watchtower describes pre-1914 expectations…
“They were not completely sure about what would happen. Still, they knew that 1914 would mark a turning point regarding divine rulership.” – w14 1/15 p.28
It is impossible to read those words and identify them with the certainty with which Russell propounded his specific expectations for 1914. Consider two more of his quotes from pre-1914, and notice the conviction with which these statements are made…
“The date of the close of that ‘battle’ is definitely marked in Scripture as October, 1914. It is already in progress, its beginning dating from October, 1874.” – Watchtower reprints, January 15, 1892, p.1355
“We see no reason for changing the figures — nor could we change them if we would. They are, we believe, God’s dates, not ours. But bear in mind that the end of 1914 is not the date for the beginning, but for the end of the time of trouble.” – Watchtower reprints, July 15, 1894, p. 1677
For more similar quotes, please click here.
By claiming that Russell and his associates were not “completely sure” about what would happen in 1914, Watchtower is re-writing its own history. And not for the first time either. The publications show that Russell WAS totally convinced of what would happen in 1914 – he just turned out to be wrong. And he died in 1916 before he could see just how wrong he was.
Sticking to the plan
But where does all this leave the Governing Body of 2013?
Well, as the 100-year anniversary of October 4/5 1914 (Tishri 15) looms ever closer, they are presented with two options. They can either begin distancing themselves from 1914 and start to hint at “new light” as to when Christ’s heavenly rule began, OR they can stick rigidly with a year that has all but vanished into the distant past. The fact that the Governing Body has adopted the latter course indicates to me that they are either bereft of imagination, or heavily deluded by their own Witness upbringing – or perhaps both.
But I struggle to find sympathy for the Governing Body’s situation. When presented with clear evidence that previous understandings have failed they SHOULD be humbly apologizing – not just for their error but for ruthlessly punishing any who disagree with their narrow interpretation of scripture. Instead they not only re-write their own history – they also chain themselves emphatically to a chronology that is already obsolete.
If the 1914 teaching were a beloved pet dog that died a long time ago, the Governing Body is a slightly deranged owner that takes it to the taxidermist, has it stuffed in a lifelike position, and places it prominently in his home – pretending it is still alive. That is how I would illustrate their preoccupation with this year. Any Witnesses who consider themselves loyal must demonstrate the same irrational devotion.
As an example, read the article “100 Years of Kingdom Rule – How Does It Affect You?” which attempts to invoke pride among Witnesses in the 1914 teaching. Consider the following timeline, which appears on pages 13 and 14…
The above timeline is clearly designed to impress Witnesses with the organization’s accomplishments since 1914 – and doubtless many will be won over. But when it is scrutinized objectively, things begin to unravel. For example, IF this is truly God’s organization and Christ has been guiding the organization as its head since 1919…
- Why did it take 8 years for house-to-house work on Sundays to be organized?
- Why did it take 19 years for ministerial servants to begin being appointed theocratically?
- Why did it take 53 years for congregation oversight to be assigned to a body of elders?
- And so on…
There is simply no justification, biblical or otherwise, as to why it would take Christ so very long to implement such rudimentary procedures. For example, it did not take years for Christ to organization his disciples to undertake a preaching tour of Israel, as we see in Matthew 10. But for some reason getting his chosen organization to start preaching on Sundays took Jesus 8 years!
I was also bemused by the part of the timeline that heralds 1976 as the year “the Governing Body is organized into six committees.” Why so?
As this website has already explained, the Governing Body only truly came into existence in the form we recognize it in 1971. It was in this year that it was decided that the spiritual leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses should be distinct and separate from the board of directors of the Watch Tower Society.
Fast forward five years, and 1976 didn’t just see the formation of the six Governing Body committees – it saw the powers of the President significantly reduced (much to Knorr’s protest, if you read Crisis of Conscience) so that the Governing Body could finally assume the power and prominence it enjoys today.
The timeline in this latest Watchtower is intended to gloss over all of this, and leave Witnesses with the impression that there has ALWAYS been a Governing Body directing them. But this simply isn’t true. Neither Charles Taze Russell nor Joseph Rutherford ever sat on any “governing body” where their personal views or wishes could be superseded by the views of the majority. That is simply not what we see through any objective analysis of Watchtower history.
I would rather not allow myself to become too diverted on this issue. Suffice to say you can find more information from the following sources, which I would highly recommend if you are at all unclear as to how long the Governing Body has been around in its current form…
- Wikipedia article on the history of the Governing Body
- December 15th 1971 Watchtower article “A Governing Body as Different from a Legal Corporation” (see Watchtower Library)
- JWsurvey article “The Governing Body Explained”
Duping the next generation
The more I observe the Governing Body, the less I am surprised at their apparent inability to embrace substantive change – either doctrinally or procedurally.
Here we have a group of men who were under the organization’s spell for decades before they ascended to their current positions. They were chosen BECAUSE of their steadfast allegiance to the organization and to keeping the status quo. They are thus programmed to keep Knorr’s Watchtower of the 1950s ticking over smoothly rather than to help it reform and change with the times. We see this right down to their aversion to beards and insistence on forcing everyone to dress like an extra on “I Love Lucy.”
What I do find intolerable is the conceitedness of it all. Any who dare to say “maybe we got it wrong” is branded an apostate and punished in the worst possible way by being cut off from his or her JW family.
Equally troubling is the manner in which the Governing Body is voraciously pursuing the next generation of Witnesses, which I touched on in a previous article. This sadistic recruitment drive is in further evidence in the January Watchtower.
A chapter entitled “Making Wise Choices During Youth” drills home the idea that becoming a Witness is a necessity rather than a choice for young ones. The only choice available to them is how quickly and to what extent they will volunteer their time and skills to Watchtower’s benefit. “Each person must make his own choice how he will spend his life as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” declares page 18 paradoxically.
The follow-up chapter, entitled “Serving Jehovah Before the Days of Distress Come,” is targeted at the older generation of Witnesses. In reminding them of ways in which they can put their age and experience to good use, it suggests: “Could you invite younger servants of God to your home for some upbuilding association? Could you ask them to accompany you in the Christian ministry and show them the joy you experience in serving Jehovah?” (page 23)
In other words, “Yes, you threw away your career prospects and wasted decades believing our failed promises. Now, please make yourselves useful by encouraging the next generation to do the same.”
If you happen to receive a copy of the January 15th 2014, please do me a favor. Put it in a safe place – some place where it can lie undisturbed for many many years. Make sure your new revised Bible is equally safeguarded. Why? Because decades from now, when the Governing Body of the future is telling us that they never said they were “completely sure” that 1914 marked the beginning of Christ’s rule, I have a feeling you may find it useful.
- Revised New World Translation – will it stand the test of time?
- The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses – Explained
- Quotes about 1914 in Watchtower literature
Warm thanks to Vincent Deporter for contributing a cartoon for this article.