The Watchtower’s Apocalyptic Pratfalls

Since we all had a hearty laugh at the antics of Harold Camping earlier this summer, I thought you might appreciate a little more light comedy. Presented here for your approval are some excerpts from Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a famous the-end-is-near book published in 1920. You can download the entire book in PDF form, or read some more background about it, from this link.

The emphatic announcement that millions now living on earth will never die must seem presumptuous to many people; but when the evidence is carefully considered I believe that almost every fair mind will concede that the conclusion is a reasonable one.

Millions was published by the Watchtower, also known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which like Camping’s cult has a record of publicly embarrassing itself with apocalyptic pratfalls. But even more significant is the identity of its author: J.F. Rutherford, the second president of the Watchtower Society and one of the founders of the Jehovah’s Witness movement, which had its roots in the Bible Student movement begun by Charles Taze Russell after his split from the Millerites (whom I’ve written about here).

The conditions which have arisen in the world since 1914 are distressing and perplexing. All the rulers of earth are perplexed. The financiers are in perplexity; the business men are in perplexity; the people are in perplexity; and all are in distress. [p.57]

Like Camping, Rutherford bases his argument on numerology, stringing together various bible verses to “prove” that the end would come 2,520 years after Nebuchadnezzar’s overthrow of the Israelites, which he says occurred in 606 BCE (most modern scholars think the date was 586 BCE). This brings us to 1914, the date of World War I, which he claims was the beginning of the end. Although the book was published after the war had ended, Rutherford didn’t hesitate to treat it as a sign that the “old order of things” was passing away and God’s kingdom on earth would soon arrive. And did you know that capitalism is a herald of the end of days?

Selfishness seems to pervade every line of business. The landlord, feeling that he may not get another such chance to reap a harvest, increases the rent upon his tenant. The groceryman, the dealer in other foodstuffs, clothing, etc., seem to fear that another opportunity will not come and that now advantage must be taken of this opportunity to get all the money possible… All of this is but in fulfillment of the words of Jesus. [p.58]

As with modern evangelicals, the emergence of the Zionist movement was a tremendous excitement to Rutherford’s imagination. The first stirrings of intent to create a Jewish homeland, the first few settlers who moved back to Palestine, took on tremendous importance to him as fulfillment of the New Testament prophecy of the fig tree. And he explains clearly what the next sign will be:

…since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favor, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death, being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth. [p.88]

Rutherford makes good use of a standard trick of apocalypse-real-sooners: he switches freely between literal and metaphorical interpretations of different verses, or even different parts of the same verse, as needed to prove his point. For example, in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, he identifies the “wars and rumors of wars” as the literal World War I and the pestilence as the literal 1914 Spanish flu; but the “earthquakes”, he says, were the communist revolutions in Russia and eastern Europe. (The fact that no major earthquake fitting the bill occurred in 1914 was probably the motivation for this creativity.) The verse about the sun and moon being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, meanwhile, magically becomes a reference to the ecumenical movement [p.42-44].

Every apocalypse-real-soon book contains a few bits of off-the-wall theology, and Rutherford’s is no exception. He shows the paranoid hallmarks of the demonically obsessed, claiming that World War I was started by demons influencing world leaders [p.60], and maintains the belief, which the Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to this day, that all world governments and institutions are controlled by Satan [p.81]. There’s also this section about how God plans to make humankind immortal:

…had Adam remained in Eden, feeding upon the perfect food it afforded, he would have continued to live. The judgment was executed against him by causing him to feed upon imperfect food. Perfect food, therefore, seems a necessary element to sustain human life everlastingly. When the kingdom of Messiah is inaugurated, the great Messiah will make provision for right food conditions… a man of seventy years of age will gradually be restored to a condition of physical health and mental balance. [p.99-100]

Clearly, Pastor Rutherford missed his calling. He could have made a great deal of money if he’d published a diet book. (“The Divine Diet: Eat Well and Live Forever! It’s how Jesus would have snacked!”)

How do the Jehovah’s Witnesses handle the embarrassment of a failed prophecy by one of their founders? For the most part, they ignore or downplay it as “overoptimism” or “merely an expressed opinion”, even though Rutherford himself described his predictions for this date as “positive and indisputable” [p.97] and elsewhere called it “proven certainty” (source). Ironically, as recently as 1997, the Watchtower magazine recycled Rutherford’s failed prediction and claimed “with full confidence” that it actually applies to people living today! These apocalyptic books must be a reliable source of income for publishers: once they’ve been written, they can be reissued every few decades with only minor corrections.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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