A History of False Prophecies
The articles on our site concerning the Worldwide Church of God are to
inform readers about the history of that organization and the doctrines
taught by its founder. Numerous splinter groups still practice Armstrongism.
The Worldwide Church of God is a Christian denomination and a member of the
National Association of Evangelicals and Evangelical Ministries to New
Long before David Koresh became a household name, Watchman Fellowship maintained a file on the Branch Davidians. Their history has been retraced in the secular media as well as in other articles in this issue of the Watchman Expositor.
However, there are several aspects of this group's history the secular media have failed to recognized. One such aspect is the connection between the Branch Davidian's false prophecies and that of other, more well-known non-Christian group's false prophecies. It would seem that false prophecy is a common characteristic.
The appeal of End-of-the-world or Armageddon-type prophecies has a very powerful effect on people's lives. It is partly because of this fascination with The End, that people flocked to the Branch Davidian compound in the 1940's and `50's and why many of them stayed.
In 1942, Victor Houteff, then-leader of the organization, changed the group's name to Davidian Seventh Day Adventist, "based on his belief that the restoration of David's kingdom in Palestine is imminent." After Victor's death, his wife, Florence, gave the message that "David's Kingdom will be established on April 22, 1959. Hundreds of followers join the group, disposing of their property and businesses. Total membership grows to about 1,400 under her leadership" (San Diego Union-Tribune, 1 March 1993, p. A-8).
Following the pattern of other false prophecy groups, when this prophecy failed, many of the followers faded away. Yet, there were many whose beliefs became stronger. These people, along with other new converts, were the ones who would eventually became followers of Vernon Howell or David Koresh. Years later, after becoming the undisputed leader of the Branch Davidians, Koresh would be seen by his followers as leading "them through an apocalyptic future to salvation" (Longview News Journal, Texas, 7 March 1993, p. A1).
While the story of Koresh and his followers began to dominate the media at the end of February and will no doubt continue to be mentioned for many months to come, his story is not unique. In fact, it is reminiscent of many other groups which are still thriving in America today.
Throughout the history of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, various leaders have given numerous false prophecies. Beginning in 1914, Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, wrote, "In view of this strong Bible evidence concerning the Times of the Gentiles, 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" (The Time is at Hand, p. 99). Thus, the end of the world or the battle of Armageddon, "will end in A.D. 1914," according to the Jehovah's Witnesses (Ibid, p. 101).
This prophecy was followed by others which also predicted The End of various institutions or the world itself in 1918, 1925, 1975 and 1989. When each of these ends failed to arrive, many followers of the Watchtower left the organization. However, many did not.
The first reaction to false prophecies by a member of the group is not necessarily to leave the group. This can also be seen in The Children of God, now known as The Family of Love. Founded by "Moses" David Berg, the leader gave the dire prophecy of America's destruction in 1974 by the comet Kohoutek. He wrote, "But it will be a 40 day warning culminating somewhere in January, most likely between the 11th and 21st of January" (The 3rd Letter of Moses on the Comet!, 12 November 1973, p. 1).
Just before this impending destruction, Children of God members moved to Europe. After the failed prophecy, rather than leaving the group, many began to proselyte new members throughout the European countries.
A similar scenario was seen in another non-Christian group which has, in the past few years, received a great amount of favorable press. Founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, the Worldwide Church of God has had its share of false prophecies throughout its history. One of the most famous concerned an impending drought that was to strike America sometime before 1975.
Armstrong wrote, "this drought will be even more devastating than he foresees, and that it will strike sooner than 1975 - probably between 1965 and 1972! This will be the very beginning, as Jesus said, of the Great Tribulation!" What specifically will happen as a result of the beginning of the Tribulation? Armstrong stated, "Here is exactly how catastrophic it will be: One Third Of Our Entire Population Will Die in this famine and disease epidemic!" (1975 In Prophecy, pp. 10, 12).
The dynamics of strengthening membership as a result of failed prophecy is discussed by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter in their book, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. This is an excellent work for understanding the mind-set of groups like the Branch Davidians, the Watchtower, the Children of God and others. In its pages several characteristics are discussed. Two of the most relevant are the following:
First, after several false prophecies, the members feel the need to confirm their beliefs in the group's teachings by attempting to "proselyte" others. Their beliefs are confirmed by attempting to bring others into their fold (p. 182). This is precisely what many of the above-mentioned groups did upon the failure of their prophecies.
Before the failed prophecy or perception of a failed end, the groups would practice proselyting. However, after the prophecy failed, in order to help shore up the individual's inner belief system, they would attempt to spread their message with redoubled efforts.
This is precisely what David Koresh did with his radio message which was broadcast on one of Dallas' largest radio stations. His message was also reproduced in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on 3 March 1993. Koresh stated, "We made an agreement with ATF agents that they would allow me to have national coverage of this tape that I might give to the world all of (the) information that I have tried so hard to share with people (Ibid, p. A-17). His purpose was to teach the people of America his message.
A second very relevant and common characteristic of these false prophecy groups is their need to draw strength and confirmation from each person within the group itself. The authors of When Prophecy Fails explain, "It is reasonable to believe that dissonances created by unequivocal disconfirmation cannot be appreciably reduced unless one is in the constant presence of supporting members who can provide for one another the kind of social reality that will make the rationalization of disconfirmation acceptable" (p. 205).
Simply stated, when a prophecy has failed and there is no external doubts about this fact (e.g. David's Kingdom to be established on 22 April 1959), one of the members' best ways to overcome these undeniable facts is to gather strength from other members of the group who also believe in the group's teachings. This is important to understand, because, though the Branch Davidian compound was surrounded by the ATF and FBI officers, Koresh was still teaching and the members were still able to observe their holy days as a united community; thereby not only gaining strength from one another but also gaining the much needed confirmation that their leader is correct in his teachings and still in control.
The demonstration of a group's false prophecies can be a strategic element for Christians to use when witnessing to members of these non-Christian groups. However, it has also proven in the past to be a very powerful tool for the group's leaders to use in the manipulation and control of the individual member's belief system.