Charles Taze Russel Watch Tower

Dates, Dates, and More Dates—Was Russell a False Prophet?


Transcript of OnionUnlimited podcast episode 003

HELLO AND WELCOME TO EPISODE 3 OF ONIONUNLIMITED—THE PODCAST. I’m your host Daniel Torridon and this time I try to get to grips with Russell’s failed predictions and answer the question “Was Charles Taze Russell a false prophet?”

So, in 2004, at the age of 34, I began to read the six volumes of Studies in the Scriptures by Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Watch Tower organisation, as well as the seventh volume, The Finished Mystery, which was dubiously attributed to Charles Taze Russell posthumously. My aim was to find out why Jehovah’s Witnesses believed the things we did. I wanted to know the origins of Watch Tower doctrines and how the teachings crystallised over the years. In particular, I wanted to learn about the Watch Tower’s early predictions for 1914.

The first volume of Studies in the Scriptures entitled The Divine Plan of the Ages, published in 1886, presented interpretations of fundamental Bible topics associated with God’s plan of salvation.

Followed by volume 2, The Time is at Hand, released 3 years later. This was an interpretation of Biblical chronology—keys to time prophecies, the second advent of Christ, and the identification of the Antichrist.

Thy Kingdom Come, published in 1891. This was interesting. This one described biblical prophesies in further detail along with the fate of Israel and information on the Great Pyramid of Giza—Russell’s claim being that the pyramid had been built under God’s direction. The section on Pyramidology was influenced by the theories of Charles Piazzi Smyth, who also helped review the book.

The fourth volume entitled The Day of Vengeance, later renamed The Battle of Armageddon, discussed the forthcoming dissolution of the world order, with the biblical remedy as God’s kingdom.

And at number 5 was The At-one-ment Between God and Man, written in 1899 and discussing the nature of humanity, the work of redemption, and the holy spirit.

Finally, and I say finally because I only count the first 6 volumes as being Russell’s work, there was The New Creation. Published in 1904 this volume discussed the seven creative days found in Genesis, and the duties and personal responsibilities of a Christian.

So the seventh volume, released after Russell’s death was, quite frankly, rubbish and barely worth reading. It was advertised as a commentary on Ezekiel and Revelation, and I think some parts of the Song of Solomon, given to the Bible Students by Russell, presumably from “beyond the grave”. In fact, it was just a collection of some of his study notes strung together by Clayton Woodworth and George Fisher, two of Russell’s associates, and edited—notably—by Russell’s successor, J F Rutherford. More about him next time!

Okay, so as I read Studies in the Scriptures and early copies of the Watch Tower magazine written by Russell, I was surprised to find that Jehovah’s Witnesses, originally known as Bible Students, initially believed that Jesus’ second presence began, not in 1914 as they do now, but in 1874.  I’d always thought that Russell had predicted Jesus’ presence and associated events in advance of 1914, but a close examination of the older Watch Tower publications revealed this to not be the case. From its very inception in 1879, the Watch Tower magazine and Russell’s Studies in the Scriptures books taught that Jesus’ second presence had begun in 1874, a date I discovered had been inherited from the Millerite and Adventist movements. 

While this information was available to curious Jehovah’s Witnesses of my era, it wasn’t obvious in the publications. The Watch Tower Publications Index contained only one reference to 1874, that being the book Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom. I’d clearly never assimilated this and, as it would turn out to be the case, neither had many other Witnesses. 

Prior to 1986, there were only a few references to 1874. These included The Watchtower magazines 1955 and 1974. There was a 70s book entitled God’s Kingdom of a Thousand Years Has Approached! and then there was the 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses that made a brief reference to 1874. So, all of these publications predated my baptism and, in the case of the 1955 Watchtower, even my birth. There was nothing current discussing the 1874 date. It was almost as though the organisation wanted us to forget the early predictions, or at least not have them highlighted.

Asking around my Witness friends what they thought the early Bible Students had believed confirmed my suspicion that 1874 was not common knowledge. In every case, my friends thought the Bible Students had predicted Christ’s presence would begin in 1914, and even that they had prophesied the start of the first world war, in advance. They were as surprised as me to find that this was simply not the case. They also felt uncomfortable, I think, with the information I was presenting as if it was something we shouldn’t know about. That started me wondering why?

1874 was virtually unheard of by 21st-century Jehovah’s Witnesses. Certainly, none of those I spoke to had even heard of Studies in the Scriptures, let alone read them. Most had never read any of the older Watch Tower books or magazines and their general response was that anything over 20 years old was “old light” and served no purpose. But, I was certain that there was much to learn from the older publications, so I started digging. I wanted to know why Russell had adopted 1874 for the start of Jesus’ presence, and why it had been later changed to 1914. What I discovered shocked me to the core.

My search for answers began by learning about William Miller. Now, Miller was an American Baptist preacher who believed that six thousand years of human existence on earth ended in 1842, and that the seventh millennium—the thousand-year reign of Jesus—began in 1844. He predicted Jesus’ second advent would occur visibly on the earth in 1843 or 1844. Thousands of people believed him and they sold their possessions to follow him. Unfortunately for them, 1844 came and went with no sign of Jesus.

So after what was dubbed the “Great Disappointment” most Millerites abandoned their beliefs, but others formed various break-away groups collectively known as “Second Adventists” and it was from the Second Adventist movement that Russell’s Bible Students later emerged.

The majority of Second Adventists gave up believing in any significance for 1844, yet they remained expectant of the second coming of Jesus. Of those groups who retained the 1844 date, some maintained that Jesus had indeed returned, except not literally. Just as modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses, they preached that Jesus’ presence was “spiritual”, and therefore invisible.

Meanwhile, other Adventists began to express the opinion that 1873, and later 1874, would mark the return of Christ to the earth and, much like the original 1843-44 prediction, that this would be a visible presence, strikingly noticeable in nature. One such person was an Adventist writer and publisher Nelson H Barbour, previously a Millerite who had lived through the Great Disappointment.

When 1874 also passed, again with no visible evidence of Christ’s second coming, Barbour capitulated and adopted the “spiritual” interpretation, concluding that Christ had indeed returned in 1874, but had done so invisibly. Such a belief was obviously unfalsifiable.

Writing in his journal The Herald of the Morning in 1875, Barbour promulgated a number of other dates as having special significance. In addition to 1874 being Christ’s invisible advent, he proposed that 1878 would mark the “end of the Gospel harvest”, concluding with the rapture of anointed Christians to heaven. This claim was much bolder and totally falsifiable since it would be plain to see if he and his followers were suddenly whisked off to heaven. But Barbour seemed undeterred. His predictions became bolder still, asserting in his magazine The Herald of the Morning that 40 years from 1874 to 1914 were a “time of distress”—the “great tribulation”—during which all Gentile kingdoms would soon cease to exist, paving the way for the installation of God’s kingdom on earth in 1915.

Now enter Charles Taze Russell. He became associated with Barbour in 1876 and, despite earlier misgivings of Adventist chronology, Russell accepted Barbour’s interpretations. The following year, Russell provided Barbour with funds to write the book Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World and also to restart publication of The Herald of the Morning, after it had stopped being printed due to financial issues. Although Three Worlds bore the names of both Barbour and Russell as publishers, the book was written entirely by Barbour. Russell simply sought to use Three Worlds and The Herald of the Morning to combine Barbour’s teachings on chronology with his own ideas and he did that by becoming a writer and an editor for Barbour’s The Herald magazine.

Barbour then published a short booklet written by Russell entitled The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return in which Russell stated: “We believe the scriptures to teach, that, at His coming and for a time after He has come, He [that’s Jesus] will remain invisible; afterward manifesting or showing Himself in judgments and various forms, so that ‘every eye shall see Him.’”

I managed to source copies of Three Worlds and The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return on eBay, no less, and devoured them. In addition to proclaiming that Christ’s return had occurred already, invisibly, in 1874, I learned that Barbour and Russell had intrepidly predicted that the Christian saints—the “anointed”—would be raptured in 1878 and then that the “day of wrath”, Armageddon, would be all over and done with by the end of 1914, marking the end of the “great tribulation”. Now, make a mental note of that: Russell predicted that Armageddon would be finished by 1914.

When the rapture didn’t occur in 1878, Russell proposed that it would take place three-and-a-half years later in 1881. In the meantime, he split from Barbour and The Herald due to doctrinal differences about Jesus’ ransom. Then Russell began publishing his own journal, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence (renamed The Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence in 1909) in which he continued to preach that Jesus’ second advent had begun invisibly in 1874, that the rapture would occur in 1881, and that Armageddon would have come and gone by 1914.

It was clear from my research that Miller and Barbour had predicted things that had not occurred. Miller died in 1849 still expecting the return of Christ any minute. Barbour had foretold the rapture for 1878 but was found wanting. In both cases, I wondered, could it be said that the prophesied falsely? Were Miller and Barbour false prophets? And what could be said for Russell’s predictions? He’d already messed up on the prediction about the rapture. Were his thoughts about Armageddon occurring by 1914 going to prove any more reliable? Was Russell a false prophet?

Turning to the Bible for my answer I looked up the word “prophet” and I read at Deuteronomy 18:20-22: “‘However, the prophet who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded him to speak or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die. And in case you should say in your heart: ‘How shall we know the word that Jehovah has not spoken?’  when the prophet speaks in the name of Jehovah and the word does not occur or come true, that is the word that Jehovah did not speak. With presumptuousness the prophet spoke it. You must not get frightened at him.’’”

The Bible’s definition there was clear to me. Any person who prophesies “in the name of Jehovah” (or “the Lord” according to the King James Version) is a false prophet if his prophecy “does not occur or come true”. Were Miller and Barbour guilty of false prophesying? It seemed to me that they were, but what did Watch Tower have to say on the matter?

I soon found  a 1993 Awake! article entitled “Why So Many False Alarms?” in which reference was made to the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!” The article acknowledged, “So it has become with those who proclaim the end of the world. Down through the centuries since Jesus’ day, so many unfulfilled predictions have been made that many no longer take them seriously.” This article then went on to list a number of “unfulfilled predictions” including the claim by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century that “the end of the present world is already near and that the unending Kingdom of the Saints is approaching”, also Martin Luther’s 16th-century claim that “the day of judgment is just around the corner”, and then there was the Anabaptist’s belief that Christ’s thousand-year reign over the earth would occur in—get this—1533. 

Awake! then raised the question: “Does the failure of such predictions to come true convict as false prophets those who made them, within the meaning of Deuteronomy?” Now, one would imagine, would they not, the Watch Tower’s answer would be a resounding “yes!”, but staggeringly, the article concluded that the Catholic Pope, the Lutheran Church and the Anabaptist’s were not guilty of false prophesying because—and I quote—“they [were] sincerely convinced” and they “[did] not claim that their predictions [were] direct revelations” from God! Now, these men may have been sincere, but Deuteronomy speaks nothing to a prophet’s sense of self-belief. The definition of a false prophet is one who delivers a false prophecy—simple. Motive is not the determinant as to whether or not they are a false prophet. Moreover, how on earth could it be argued that Pope Gregory I, commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, was not presuming to speak for God? He was the Pope for goodness sake! He may not have prefixed every utterance with the words “God says”, but when speaking his predictions, who the hell did he think he was speaking for? Why was the Awake! shielding these men from a charge of false prophesying?

It surprised me that Watch Tower would even give these three religions, deemed by them to be part of “Babylon the Great”, the empire of false religion, a free pass, but it soon became clear to me why they would. The Awake! magazine next went on to mention our friend William Miller—remember him? “Miller”, it wrote, “generally credited with founding the Adventist Church, is quoted as saying: ‘I am fully convinced that sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, according to the Jewish mode of computation of time, Christ will come.’” Fair enough. He did say that and he was, indeed, wrong. Yet no mention is here made of Miller’s prophecies being the foundation on which Barbour and Russell built their chronology. So why mention Miller? Well it all becomes clear when, having established that a promulgator of failed predictions is not necessarily a false prophet, the article then went on to defend Miller and others as being “sincere”, thus deflecting attention away from the fact that his predictions were completely erroneous. 

As to Gregory, Luther and Miller claiming to “speak for Jehovah”, this was noticeably glossed over in readiness for Awake! to defend the Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses from a charge of false prophesying. In a footnote on Awake! explained, “Jehovah’s Witnesses, in their eagerness for Jesus’ second coming, have suggested dates that turned out to be incorrect”. It then argued that they had never claimed prophet status—interesting! While it’s true that Watch Tower has denied being a prophet on a number of occasions, it has also claimed on other occasions that Jehovah’s Witnesses as a people are a prophet. So, I guess if you say one thing, and then say the complete opposite, you can claim anything as being true—a classic example there of doublespeak!

The Watchtower April 1, 1972 carried an article entitled “They Shall Know that a Prophet Was Among Them”. Now, despite previously defending the likes of Pope Gregory I and Martin Luther, this article denounced the clergy of Christendom for “[holding] themselves before the people as being the ones commissioned to speak for God”. Oh, the irony! It then went on to state that God has a modern-day prophet, it says: “not one man, but… a body of men and women… the small group of footstep followers of Jesus Christ, known… as International Bible Students… Today”, it concluded, “they are known as Jehovah’s Christian witnesses.” So I had it in print in front of me—the Watchtower claiming quite clearly that Jehovah’s Witnesses were God’s prophet.

The article then posed a damning question. It said: “Of course, it is easy to say that this group acts as a ‘prophet’ of God. It is another thing to prove it. The only way that this can be done is to review the record.” and it asked: “What does it show?” Indeed, what does it show? Let us “review the record” and see!

Jehovah’s Witnesses may be sincere but is it true that “never… did they presume to originate predictions ‘in the name of Jehovah.’ Never did they say, ‘These are the words of Jehovah.’?” And were end-time dates published by Watch Tower presented as mere “suggestions”, or rather as concrete truths?

Among Russell’s dates were 1799 (the start of the “last days”, inherited from the Adventist movement), 1878 (the enthronement of Jesus as King in the heavens), and then 1914 (the end of the “gentile times”). The 1914 date was especially of keen interest to Bible Students in the 1800s since Russell was predicting for 1914 the overthrow of Satan’s world at Armageddon and the full establishment of Christ’s rulership over the earth by the end of the year.

Regarding the “last days” and the beginning of Christ’s invisible presence, Russell didn’t merely suggest his chronology to be accurate but stated: “The indisputable facts… show that the time of the end began in 1799 [and] that the Lord’s second presence began in 1874.” That was from a Watchtower from March 1, 1922

Zion’s Watchtower way back in 1894 had already taken things a step further than that explaining why the chronology presented should be considered “indisputable facts”. It started: “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.” So now I had proof—the Watchtower had claimed not only that the Watchtower organisation, headed by Russell at the time, was God’s prophet, but also that the predictions published were from God himself.

Writing in 1882 in Zion’s Watch Tower, Russell admitted in regards to Jesus’ return in 1874 that “there was little or no outward signs of any such stupendous event” and that “it required implicit faith… to believe that these things were to be fulfilled.” Nevertheless, he continued to present his chronology as being of divine origin. Anyone who pointed out the absence of any clear evidence for the return of Christ in 1874, and the unlikelihood of 1914 seeing “the end”, were labelled as “scoffers walking after their own desires, who sneeringly ask, ‘where is the  promise of his presence?… all things continue as they are.’”

Despite the lack of visible evidence proving that Jesus had returned in 1874, The Watch Tower continued on predicting that 1914 would be an important date, and in October of that year Russell announced to the Bethel family at breakfast that “the gentile times had ended”.  By that time the Great War had been raging for several months, but so what? Everything—and I mean everything—that Russell had specifically prophesied for that year, including Armageddon and the rapture of the saints, had simply failed to materialise. There was nothing anyone could point to that could demonstrably prove that “the gentile times” had or hadn’t ended. It was—it was all invisible, requiring “implicit faith”.

This realisation came as a shock to me because I’d always thought that the Bible Students predicted not just Christ’s invisible presence, but the actual start of the—very visible—Great War, many years in advance. Certainly, that’s what the Watch Tower publications of my era insinuated. In reality, Russel and the Bible Students predicted nothing of the sort, and what they did predict never occurred. 

After Armageddon failed to materialize in 1914 the only prophecy supposedly fulfilled was “the end of the Gentile times”, but even this didn’t stack up. Rather than seeing a termination of Gentile power on earth, 1914-1918 witnessed the Gentile nations flexing their authority like never before as they engaged in the greatest war the world had ever seen. Yet, even then this did not result in Armageddon, despite the Bible Students preaching that Christ had been present for over 40 years by this point!

Even after his death in 1916, Russell’s 1874-1914 chronology continued to be promoted by Watch Tower. In 1922 his end-time dates were declared to be “of divine origin and divinely corroborated… in a class by itself, absolutely and unqualifiedly correct.” Furthermore, repudiation of Russell’s teachings was described in the Watchtower as “equivalent to a repudiation of the Lord”.

I was surprised to find upon further digging that all the way up to as late as 1930 The Watch Tower was still teaching that the “last days” had begun in 1799 and Christ’s invisible presence had begun in 1874. Now, that’s not what most Jehovah’s Witnesses think was the case.

Nevertheless, The Watchtower of 1993 unashamedly claimed: “The Watchtower has consistently presented evidence… that Jesus’ presence in heavenly Kingdom power began in 1914.” Can you believe that? They actually had the audacity to claim that the Watchtower had predicted 1914 as Jesus’ presence all along—and consistently so! No they didn’t! If there was any truth at all in that statement it was only insofar as “The Watchtower” (one word) was originally called “Zion’s Watch Tower” (two words), and then just “The Watch Tower” (still two words). They only settled on “The Watchtower” (one word) in 1931. So The Watchtower (one word, post 1931) may have “consistently” claimed that Jesus’ presence began in 1914, but previous iterations of the magazine had done nothing of the sort! 

As for the events anticipated for 1914, Russell had predicted not the start of World War One, but the end of the Satan’s world at the battle of Armageddon. He’d said of 1914 that it was “not the date for the beginning, but for the end of the time of trouble.” However, when Armageddon failed to emerge from the Great War of 1914-18, the War came to be reinterpreted by Russell’s successor as the start of the “great tribulation”, despite the earlier warnings that repudiation of Russell’s teachings would be “equivalent to a repudiation of the Lord”, God himself. So once again, Watch Tower pulled the “spiritual” card, declaring that Satan’s world had ended in 1914, in a “legal sense”, and it was just a matter of time before the great tribulation would resume with Armageddon. Basically, if a prediction didn’t come true they just changed the narrative and set a new prediction. And, folks, that is what they’ve been doing for the past hundred-plus years and they continue to do so.

Towards the end of his life, Charles Taze Russell began predicting that 1918 would see the rapture. He died in 1916 on a train during a pastoral tour of the United States. and like Miller and Barbour before him, Russell never got to see Armageddon. He’d spoken “God’s dates”, “indisputable facts” “of divine origin and divinely corroborated”, but none of his prophecies had “come true”. All things considered, I had to conclude that Russell, like all of those before him, however sincere, had proved to be a false prophet.

As always, thank you for listening. Join me next time when I tell you about my discovery of the most ridiculous prediction ever.