Jehovah's Witnesses and the History of 1914
In the 1 November 1995 Watchtower magazine, the Jehovah's Witnesses made a major doctrinal change concerning the "Generation of 1914." To better understand the significance of this change it is crucial to understand the importance they place on the year 1914 and how their beliefs concerning that year have radically changed throughout their history. The following is a brief survey of the Watchtower's inconsistencies.
"Beginning of end" in 1799 not 1914
Originally the Watchtower taught that the beginning of "the time of the end" was in 1799 rather than 1914. They continued to teach this well beyond 1914.
"...1799 definitely marks the beginning of 'the time of the end'.... 'The time of the end' embraces a period from A.D. 1799, as above indicated, to the time of the complete overthrow of Satan's empire....we have been in 'the time of the end' since 1799" (The Harp of God, 1928 ed., pp. 235-36, 239).
Christ's Invisible Second Presence in 1874 not 1914.
Based originally on the teachings of the Second Adventist preacher Nelson H. Barbour (Jehovah's Witnesses Proclaimers of Christ's Kingdom, p. 47), the Watchtower Society taught that Christ's invisible second presence began in 1874 - not 1914 as they currently teach.
"The time of the Lord's second presence dates from 1874....From 1874 forward is the latter part of the period of 'the time of the end'. From 1874 is the time of the Lord's second presence... It was in the year 1874, the date of our Lord's second presence..." (The Harp of God, 1928 ed., pp. 236, 239-40).
Armageddon ends in 1914
Initially the organization taught the "battle of the Great Day of God Almighty" (Armageddon) would end in 1914. Every kingdom of the world would be overthrown in 1914 which was "God's date" not for the beginning but "for the end" of the time of trouble.
"...we consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, will be accomplished by the end of A.D. 1914" (Watchtower founder, Charles Taze Russell, The Time is at Hand, p. 99).
"¼...the 'battle of the great day of God Almighty' (Rev. 16:14), which will end in A.D. 1914 with the complete overthrow of earth's present rulership, is already commenced" (Ibid., p. 101).
"CAN IT BE DELAYED UNTIL 1914?...our readers are writing to know if there may not be a mistake in the 1914 date. They say that they do not see how present conditions can last so long under the strain. 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" (Watch Tower, 15 July 1894, p. 226).
Armageddon ends shortly after 1914
World War I, rather than Armageddon, broke out in 1914. The Society had already begun to modify their prediction. They taught that 1914 was not the end, but the beginning of Armageddon. World War I was supposed to be the beginning of the Battle of Armageddon. That battle was to end shortly after 1914 with the utter destruction of professing Christianity, and the inauguration of Christ's millennial reign. The Watchtower first suggested this would be accomplished in 1915, but later predictions delayed it to 1918.
"The present great war in Europe [World War I] is the beginning of the Armageddon of the Scriptures" (Pastor Russell's Sermons, p. 676).
"...our eyes of understanding should discern clearly the Battle of the Great Day of God Almighty now in progress... the glorious outcome - Messiah's Kingdom" (Watch Tower, 1 September 1916, p. 265).
"The Scriptures indicate that a great time of trouble similar to that which came upon the Jewish nation will now come upon all Christendom. The experience of Israel in the year 70 [destruction of Jerusalem] will be paralleled in the experiences of the year 1915" (Watch Tower, 15 June 1913, p. 181).
"...in the year 1918, when God destroys the churches wholesale and the church members by millions, it shall be that any that escape shall come to the works of Pastor Russell to learn the meaning of the downfall of 'Christianity'" (The Finished Mystery, 1917, p. 485).
1925 is clearly more biblical than 1914
By 1919-20 the Society began looking to the year 1925 as the date for the visible signs of Armageddon's approach. The Watchtower taught that the year 1925 was more clearly taught in the Bible than 1914. Watchtower president Joseph Rutherford claimed that as a sign that Armageddon was imminent, God would resurrect Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the faithful mentioned in Hebrews 11 in the year 1925.
"The date 1925 is even more distinctly indicated by the Scriptures because it is fixed by the law God gave to Israel. Viewing the present situation in Europe, one wonders how it will be possible to hold back the explosion much longer; and that even before 1925 the great crisis will be reached and probably passed" (Watch Tower, 1 September 1922, p. 262).
"The year 1925 is a date definitely and clearly marked in the Scriptures, even more clearly than that of 1914; but it would be presumptuous on the part of any faithful follower of the Lord to assume just what the Lord is going to do during that year" (Watch Tower, 15 July 1924, p. 211).
"As we have heretofore stated, the great jubilee cycle is due to begin in 1925. At that time the earthly phase of the kingdom shall be recognized... Therefore we may confidently expect that 1925 will mark the return of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the faithful prophets of old, particularly those named by the Apostle in Hebrews chapter eleven, to the condition of human perfection" (Millions Now Living Will Never Die! pp. 89-90).
1914 begins the last generation before Armageddon
Years later the Watchtower Society made three important changes for 1914. They taught:
- Christ's invisible "Second Presence" began in 1914 rather than 1874.
- 1914 (rather than 1799) began the "last generation."
- The length of a "generation" was based on the life span of those alive at the time of its beginning. This final point led to the Watchtower's claim that Jehovah had promised there would be "survivors" among those alive in 1914 who would live to see Armageddon.
"Did not Jesus say as much when he spoke of his second presence in these 'last days'?...Christ Jesus has been present since 1914 and witness has been given of the signs that prove it, but the veil will not lift from the sightless 'eyes of understanding' of humanity's majority till his power is revealed in Armageddon's fury" (Watchtower, 15 January 1950, p. 22).
"The thirty-six intervening years since 1914, instead of postponing Armageddon, have only made it nearer than most people think. Do not forget: 'This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.' (Matt. 24:34)" (Watchtower, 1 November 1950, p. 419).
"The foretold events having begun A.D. 1914, the generation of mankind that is still alive from that year is the generation meant by Jesus Christ. Till now we have seen fulfilled the world-shaking features of the 'sign of [Christ's invisible] presence and of the consummation of the system of things.'...The occurrence of these things since 1914 is within the knowledge of millions of this generation.... We, then, are the generation that will not pass away till there is fulfilled that 'great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world's beginning until now, no, nor will occur again'" (Watchtower, 15 April 1961, p. 236; brackets in original, italics added).
"Also, the Bible said that all these things would happen upon the generation that was alive in 1914... After drawing attention to the many things that have marked the period from 1914 onward, Jesus said: 'This generation will by no means pass away until all these things [including the end of this system] occur.' (Matthew 24:34, 14) Which generation did Jesus mean? He meant the generation of people who were living in 1914. Those persons yet remaining of that generation are now very old. However, some of them will still be alive to see the end of this wicked system. So of this we can be certain: Shortly now there will be a sudden end to all wickedness and wicked people at Armageddon... Some of the generation living in 1914 will see the end of the system of things and survive it" (You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, p.154;).
People old enough to understand the events of 1914 will live to see Armageddon
For a while the Society maintained that "1914 Generation" was a reference to those alive "with understanding" in 1914. This significantly shortens the time period for fulfillment. According to the Society, Jesus was not talking about babies born in 1914 when he said, "this generation would not pass away." Thus, those who were old enough to observe and understand the events they witnessed in 1914 (such as teenagers) would live to see Armageddon. This would mean that a very young member of the "1914 generation" (say, a sixteen-year-old) would have been born as early as 1898 or 1899.
"Where Are We According to God's Timetable?... In examining these Scriptural facts, something else also captures our attention. According to Bible chronology, we are already over fifty-two years into the wicked system of things' 'time of the end.' That time began in the autumn of 1914 C.E., at the termination of the 'appointed times of the nations,' and it is already far advanced. Jesus said that 'this generation' that saw the beginning of this time period in 1914 would also see its end. The generation that was old enough to view those events with understanding in 1914 is no longer young. It no longer has many years to run. Already many of its members have died. But Jesus showed that there would still be members of 'this generation' alive at the time of the passing away of this wicked system of things in both heaven and earth. (Luke 21:32, 33) How much longer will it be, then, before God takes action to destroy the wicked and usher in the blessings of his Kingdom rule? (Watchtower, 1 May 1967, p. 262; emphasis added).
"What will the 1970's Bring? The fact that fifty-four years of the period called the 'last days' have already gone by is highly significant... It means only a few years, at most, remain before the corrupt system of things dominating the earth is destroyed by God. How can we be so certain of this?¼ Jesus was obviously speaking about those who were old enough to witness with understanding what took place when the 'last days' began... Even if we presume that the youngsters 15 years of age would be perceptive enough to realize the import of what happened in 1914, it would still make the youngest of 'this generation' nearly 70 years old today" (Awake!, 8 October 1968, pp. 13-14).
"Jesus said 'this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.' Which generation is this, and how long is it?... [W]hen it comes to the application in our time, the 'generation' logically would not apply to babies born during World War I. It applies to Christ's followers and others who were able to observe that war and the other things that have occurred in fulfillment of Jesus' composite 'sign.' Some of such persons 'will by no means pass away until' all of what Christ prophesied occurs, including the end of the present wicked system" (Watchtower, 1 October 1978, p. 31).
Babies born in 1914 will live to see Armageddon
By 1984 teenagers alive in 1914 were in their 80's. The Watchtower reversed themselves again to include babies born in 1914 when calculating the length of the generation. Using this technique the Watchtower could stretch the 1914 generation by another decade or so.
"If Jesus used 'generation' in that sense and we apply it to 1914, then the babies of that generation are now 70 years old or older. And others alive in 1914 are in their 80's or 90's, a few even having reached a hundred. There are still many millions of that generation alive. Some of them 'will by no means pass away until all things occur.' - Luke 21:32" (Watchtower, 15 May 1984, p.5).
1914 Generation to end in 1975?
As early as the mid 1960's, the Watchtower had strongly suggested that the 1914 generation would end by the Fall of 1975. They based the 1975 prediction in part on their "year for a day" theory and the "fact" that Adam and Eve were created in the year 4,026 B.C. This anticipation was seen to be "particularly true" because some of those who witnessed the events of 1914 would still be alive in 1975. Thus, the 1914 generation theory helped "prove" the 1975 Armageddon theory.
"To calculate where man is in the stream of time relative to God's seventh day of 7,000 years, we need to determine how long a time has elapsed from the year of Adam and Eve's creation in 4026 B.C.E. From the autumn of that year to the autumn of 1 B.C.E., there would be 4,025 years. From the autumn of 1 B.C.E. to the autumn of 1 C.E. is one year (there was no zero year). From the autumn of 1 C.E. to the autumn of 1967 is a total of 1,966 years. Adding 4,025 and 1 and 1,966, we get 5,992 years from the autumn of 4026 B.C.E. to the autumn of 1967. Thus, eight years remain to account for a full 6,000 years of the seventh day. Eight years from the autumn of 1967 would bring us to the autumn of 1975, fully 6,000 years into God's seventh day, his rest day.
"...The seventh day of the Jewish week, the sabbath, would well picture the final 1,000- year reign of God's kingdom under Christ... Hence, when Christians note from God's timetable the approaching end of 6,000 years of human history, it fills them with anticipation. Particularly is this true because the great sign of the 'last days' has been in the course of fulfillment since the beginning of the 'time of the end' in 1914... Some of the generation that discerned the beginning of the time of the end in 1914 will still be alive on earth to witness the end of this present wicked system of things at the battle of Armageddon.-Rev. 16:14, 16" (Watchtower, 1 May 1968, pp. 271-72).
1914 Generation to end in 1989?
In a 1988 Awake! article titled, "The Last Days - What's Next?", under the heading, "How Long Can A Generation Last?", the Society seemed to suggest that the 1914 generation would end the next year. After reminding Jehovah's Witnesses that 1914 began the "last generation," the Watchtower announced that Hebrews counted seventy-five years as one generation (note: 1914 + 75 = 1989). Interestingly, to make their case, the Watchtower turned to one of Christendom's scholars rather than their own "anointed" sources.
"J. A. Bengel states in his New Testament Word Studies: 'The Hebrews... reckon seventy-five years as one generation, and the words, shall not pass away, intimate that the greater part of that generation [of Jesus' day] indeed, but not the whole of it, should have passed away before all should be fulfilled.' This became true by the year 70 C.E. when Jerusalem was destroyed. Likewise today, most of the generation of 1914 has passed away. However, there are still millions on earth who were born in that year or prior to it. And although their numbers are dwindling, Jesus' words will come true, 'this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened'" (Awake!, 8 April 1988, p. 14).
1914 Generation to end in 1994?
A more serious problem for the Society is found in their premier two volume Bible dictionary, Insight on the Scriptures. Currently in use, Insight was a major project for the Watchtower and provides Jehovah's Witnesses the definitive answer to biblical meanings. Insight very clearly defines the "reasonable limits" for the length of a generation as 70, or in the case of "special mightiness," 80 years.
"When the term 'generation' is used with reference to the people living at a particular time, the exact length of that time cannot be stated, except that the time would fall within reasonable limits. These limits would be determined by the life span of the people of that time or of that population... Today, much as it was in the time of Moses, people living under favorable conditions may reach 70 or 80 years of age. Moses wrote: 'In themselves the days of our years are seventy years; and if because of special mightiness they are eighty years, yet their insistence is on trouble and hurtful things; for it must quickly pass by, and away we fly.' (Ps 90:10) Some few may live longer, but Moses stated the general rule." (Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 1, pp. 917-18).
1914 Generation to end ????
Finally the Society has abandoned all attempts to measure the 1914 generation by the life span of its "survivors." According to the latest "light," 1914 still started "the last generation" that will end in Armageddon. But the 1914 generation now consists of all "the peoples of earth who see the sign" of Christ's 1914 presence but fail to repent (Watchtower, 1 November 1995, p. 19). In Watchtower dogma, this "sign" is a "composite" sign made up of many historical events of which virtually all adults alive today would be aware, regardless of when they were born.
"Rather than providing a rule for measuring time, the term 'generation' as used by Jesus refers principally to contemporary people of a certain historical period, with their identifying characteristics" (Ibid., p. 17). With such a definition, a "generation" could, functionally, last indefinitely - conveniently protecting the Watchtower against further charges of failed prophecy over its teaching about the 1914 generation surviving till the "end of the system." To maintain a sense of urgency, the Society claims the time period begun in 1914 is "a short period of time" (Ibid., p. 19). How can they say this after defining "generation" so vaguely? It is short, they say, when "compared with the thousands of years of Satan's rulership" (Ibid.).
The following composite quotations drawn from throughout their recent article, "A Time to Keep Awake" illustrate the Watchtower's current position:
"Eager to see the end of this evil system, Jehovah's people have at times speculated about the time when the 'great tribulation' would break out, even tying this to calculations of what is the lifetime of a generation since 1914. However we 'bring a heart of wisdom in' not by speculating about how many years or days make up a generation... Is anything to be gained, then, by looking for dates or by speculating about the literal lifetime of a 'generation'? Far from it!... Therefore, in the final fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy today, 'this generation' apparently refers to the peoples of earth who see the sign of Christ's presence but fail to mend their ways... Does our more precise viewpoint on 'this generation' mean that Armageddon is further away than we had thought? Not at all" (Watchtower, 1 November 1995, pp. 17, 19-20).
1914 and False Prophecy
The Bible teaches that predictions spoken in God's name which do not come to pass are evidence that the prophet really does not speak for God. The Lord's people are commanded not to "fear" (Hebrew, guwr, to be intimidated by, or have humility towards) this prophet In fact, under the Old Testament law, this prophet was sentenced to death (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). The Society has verified this understanding of Deuteronomy on several occasions (See: Awake!, 8 October 1968, p. 23; Watch Tower, 15 April 1930, p. 154).
Jehovah's Witnesses have attempted to blunt criticism of their past prophetic failures by professing never to have claimed to be a prophet - an assertion that is simply false. (See: Watchtower, 1 April 1972, p. 197; The Nations Shall Know that I am Jehovah, pp. 58, 66).
More recently, in an article critical of others who had given "false alarms" concerning Armageddon, the Society did admit to having some problems in this area themselves. Still, the Society attempted to side step false prophecy charges by claiming that their predictions were never said with "these are the words of Jehovah."
"Jehovah's Witnesses, in their eagerness for Jesus' second coming, have suggested dates that turned out to be incorrect. Because of this, some have called them false prophets. Never in these instances, however, did they presume to originate predictions 'in the name of Jehovah.' Never did they say, 'These are the words of Jehovah.'" (Awake!, 22 March 1993 p. 4).
The Watchtower surely cannot use this excuse with their latest 1914 failure. The Watchtower plainly said that it was "the Creator's promise" that the new world would come "before the generation that saw the events of 1914 passes away" (Awake! 22 October 1995, p. 4). Elsewhere they even called this prediction for the 1914 generation, "Jehovah's prophetic word":
"From a purely human viewpoint, it could appear that these developments could hardly take place before the generation of 1914 disappears from the scene. But fulfillment of all the foretold events affecting the generation of 1914 does not depend on comparatively slow human action. Jehovah's prophetic word through Christ Jesus is: 'This generation [of 1914] will by no means pass away until all things occur.' (Luke 21:32) And Jehovah, who is the source of inspired and unfailing prophecy, will bring about the fulfillment of his Son's words in a relatively short time...
"Just as Jesus' prophecies regarding Jerusalem were fulfilled within the life span of the generation of the year 33 C.E., so his prophecies regarding 'the time of the end' will be fulfilled within the life span of the generation of 1914... Yes, you may live to see this promised New Order, along with survivors of the generation of 1914 - the generation that will not pass away. (Watchtower, 15 May 1984, pp. 6-7; emphasis added, brackets in original).
Beware of False Prophets
Clearly then, the Watchtower predicted in the name of Jehovah that people living in 1914 would not all pass away before Armageddon is fought and "a peaceful and secure new world" is established. Now, by changing their definition of a "generation," the Watchtower has changed its prediction. In so doing, the Society has functionally confessed that the old doctrine, "Jehovah's prophetic word," "the Creator's promise," is no longer true.
Thoughtful Jehovah's Witnesses who love God's word should be able to recognize that the Watchtower is in direct violation of Deuteronomy 18:20-22. Even the Watchtower itself warned:
"True, there have been those in times past who predicted an 'end to the world,' even announcing a specific date... Yet, nothing happened. The 'end' did not come. They were guilty of false prophesying. Why? What was missing? Missing was the full measure of evidence required in fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Missing from such people were God's truths and the evidence that he was guiding and using them" (Awake!, 8 October 1968, p. 23).