- Fearless Inquiry
- Identifying a False Prophet
- Early Predictions: Russell’s Chronology
- Rewriting History
The Watchtower Society says that, in spite of many failed predictions, it is not a false prophet. For example, The Watchtower of March 15, 1986, says on page 19:
…. we might consider what the Society has published in the past on chronology. Some opposers claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses are false prophets. These opponents say that dates have been set, but nothing has happened…. Yes, Jehovah’s people have had to revise expectations from time to time…. we display our faith in God’s Word and its sure promises by declaring its message to others. Moreover, the need to revise our understanding somewhat does not make us false prophets…. How foolish to take the view that expectations needing some adjustment should call into question the whole body of truth! The evidence is clear that Jehovah has used and is continuing to use his one organization, with “the faithful and discreet slave” taking the lead.
The question for this paragraph, 15, says:
Rather than being false prophets, what proves that Jehovah’s Witnesses have faith in God’s Word and its sure promises?
Apparently the required answer is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not false prophets because they declare the message of God to others, and there is clear evidence that Jehovah is backing the Watchtower Society. But such evidence is not here specified, and as for the relevance of declaring God’s message to others, see Deuteronomy 18:20-22. The paragraph does not answer the charge that Jehovah’s Witnesses are false prophets.
Reasoning from the Scriptures said on page 134 that
The apostles and other early Christian disciples had certain wrong expectations, but the Bible does not classify them with the “false prophets.” — See Luke 19:11; John 21:22,23; Acts 1:6,7.
That statement is certainly true, but the scriptures referred to show that these expectations were misunderstandings that Jesus cleared up right away. Furthermore the disciples who had the misunderstandings did not force others to believe their expectations by disfellowshipping any of their brothers who did not share those wrong expectations.
This material has been compiled in accord with the spirit set forth in the Truth book:1
We need to examine, not only what we personally believe, but also what is taught by any religious organization with which we may be associated. Are its teachings in full harmony with God’s Word, or are they based on the traditions of men? If we are lovers of the truth, there is nothing to fear from such an examination. It should be the sincere desire of every one of us to learn what God’s will is for us, and then to do it.
If one believes these words, one should not fear to examine ideas that may conflict with what the Society says on certain matters. One should not want to be included among those described by Jean-Paul Sartre as ones who, “since they are afraid of reasoning…. want to adopt a mode of life in which reasoning and research play but a subordinate role, in which one never seeks but that which one has already found.”2 Nor should one follow the example of the United States Congress, which makes laws that everyone is required to follow, but which often exempts itself from those laws because they are inconvenient.
In similar spirit, the December 15, 1991 Watchtower said on its back cover, in an advertisement for the book Mankind’s Search for God,
Most people know only the religion of their parents and that often only superficially. But should your religion be simply the one you were born into, or should you make an intelligent choice after comparing your religion with that of others? The 384-page book Mankind’s Search for God will help you to make this comparison.
Likewise, The Watchtower of June 15, 1985, pages 11-12 gives fine counsel for thinking Christians:
Proverbs 2:4,5 states: ‘If as for hid treasures you keep searching for it, you will find the very knowledge of God.’ The context of that passage speaks of the need to seek out Jehovah’s “sayings,” “commandments,” “wisdom,” “discernment,” and “understanding.” Searching for treasures requires effort and perseverance. It calls for much digging. It is not different when searching for “the very knowlege of God,” for “discernment,” and for “understanding.” This also requires much digging, or penetrating below the surface…. We should be truly thankful for the spiritual digging that the “slave” class does to make clearer and clearer for us “the hidden depths of God’s purposes.”….
But that does not relieve each individual Christian of the responsibility to dig deeper into God’s Word, for the purpose of getting the full depth of the thoughts explained. This involves looking up the scriptures cited. It means reading the footnotes in Watchtower articles, some of which refer the reader to an older publication that provides a fuller explanation of a certain passage or prophecy. It requires digging deeper, putting forth effort to locate that older publication and then studying the pages referred to.
In a different context, the August 15, 1972 Watchtower asked a relevant question:
Do I fully know the history of God’s people?
This essay digs deep into the Society’s publications and its history in a search for truth. This is appropriate because 1 John 4:1 says:
Test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God, because many false prophets have gone forth into the world.
Therefore it is every Christian’s obligation to test expressions that claim to be inspired. This material is written in the spirit of digging deep into Watchtower publications, with the object of understanding how the Society can claim to not be a false prophet in spite of its many failed predictions.
Identifying a False Prophet
Let us define our terms. A prophecy, according to Vol 2. of Insight on the Scriptures, pages 690, 691, is:
An inspired message; a revelation of divine will and purpose or the proclamation thereof. Prophecy may be an inspired moral teaching, an expression of a divine command or judgment, or a declaration of something to come. As shown under PROPHET, prediction, or foretelling, is not the basic thought conveyed by the root verbs in the original languages…. yet it forms an outstanding feature of Bible prophecy…. The Source of all true prophecy is Jehovah God.
A prophet, according to Vol 2. of Insight on the Scriptures, page 694, is
One through whom divine will and purpose are made known.
and a true prophet can be distinguished from a false one:
The three essentials for establishing the credentials of a true prophet, as given through Moses, were: The true prophet would speak in Jehovah’s name; the things foretold would come to pass (De 18:20-22); and his prophesying must promote true worship, being in harmony with God’s revealed word and commandments (De 13:1-4).
So there are three standards which a prophet must meet; failure to meet any one makes a false prophet. A false prophet, therefore, can be one who meets the following criteria:
1. One must first claim to be a prophet.
2. Then one must speak in God’s name and make predictions.
3. Then those predictions must fail.
Deuteronomy 18:20-22 gives Jehovah’s definition of a false prophet and how people ought to view such:
‘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 Watch Tower, May 15, 1930, pages 153-155, describes a true prophet and a false prophet:
A prophet is a person who professes to proclaim a message from Jehovah God. The Bible reveals the fact that there are both true and false prophets. The true prophet is one who always speaks as God’s mouthpiece. His message is the truth, and is designed to be a blessing to his hearers. He is never boastful, and always gives God the credit for the message which he proclaims, and therefore always has the divine approval. A false prophet is a person who claims to be a representative of Jehovah and to speak in his name and to proclaim his message but is in fact the mouthpiece of Satan. A false prophet never has Jehovah’s approval, and his message is always intended to deceive the people and to draw them away from God and a study of his Word.
A false prophet speaks that which is contrary to God’s will; he sneers at, contradicts and denies the message of God’s true prophets. It matters not whether he proclaims his message with deliberate, wilful and malicious intent to deceive, or whether he is the blinded and deluded dupe of Satan and hence unwittingly used of him. In either case he is a false prophet….
Since the Bible was completed, and “inspiration” is no longer necessary, a true prophet is one who is faithfully proclaiming what is written in the Bible…. But it may be asked, How are we to know whether one is a true or a false prophet? There are at least three ways by which we can positively decide: (1) If he is a true prophet, his message will come to pass exactly as prophesied. If he is a false prophet, his prophecy will fail to come to pass…. The difference between a true and a false prophet is that the one is speaking the word of the Lord and the other is speaking his own dreams and guesses…. The true prophet of God today will be telling forth what the Bible teaches, and those things that the Bible tells us are soon to come to pass. He will not be sounding forth man-made theories or guesses, either his own or those of others…. In the New Testament, and in our day, the word “prophet” has a thought similar to that of our word “teacher,” in the sense of a public expounder. Hence when the term “false prophet” is used, we shall get the correct thought if we think of a false teacher.
Awake!, October 8, 1968 page 23, in speaking about the Society’s contention that the Bible indicates we are living in the last days, said:
Still some persons may say: “How can you be sure? Maybe it is later than many people think. But maybe it is not as late as some persons claim. People have been mistaken about these prophecies before.”…. 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?
Compare these statements with the above statements from the May 15, 1930 Watch Tower, and with what the Society said was going to occur in 1914 and 1925 (see below). Continuing,
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.
Paradise Restored to Mankind — By Theocracy, 1972, pages 353-354 said:
Jehovah, the God of the true prophets, will put all false prophets to shame either by not fulfilling the false prediction of such self-assuming prophets or by having His own prophecies fulfilled in a way opposite to that predicted by the false prophets. False prophets will try to hide their reason for feeling shame by denying who they really are.
Early Predictions: Russell’s Chronology
What did Jehovah’s Witnesses believe about chronology in the early days?
The earliest Bible Student publications stressed the urgency of the times, stating that in 1874 Christ returned and by 1914 he would have destroyed all the kingdoms of the world. The 1877 book written by N. H. Barbour and financed by C. T. Russell, Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World, contained the basis for Russell’s later chronology and many of his doctrines. Note these excerpts:
THE END OF THIS WORLD; that is, the end of the gospel and the beginning of the millennial age is nearer than most men suppose; indeed we have already entered the transition period, which is to be a “time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation” (Dan. 12:1)…. [p. 17].
In the world to come, the first, or millennial age, is to be a 1000 years; and is introduced by the “time of trouble,” so often referred to in Scripture. There is very conclusive evidence that this time of trouble is to continue 40 years; and has already commenced; and that “men’s hearts are [beginning already] to fail them with fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth“. [p. 18]
The organizing of capital against labor, the rising of the people in self defense, the overthrow of law and order, the casting down of the “thrones” and governments, and “a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation;” are all clearly foretold in Scripture as events to precede the millennial age of glory. And the signs of great events at hand are so apparent that all are impressed with the dark shadow of coming trouble.
The nations are perplexed, and are preparing for a terrible struggle; huge engines of war are being multiplied by land and sea; millions of men are under arms, and still their numbers are increased, while the people are becoming desperate and alarmed.
When the struggle begins, as soon it must, a ball will be set in motion before which “all the kingdoms of the world, that are upon the face of the earth, shall be thrown down;” and, according to Scripture, one wild scene of desolation and terror will result….
That the millennium is to be ushered in, or preceded, by the most terrible and desolating wars this world has ever witnessed, is so clearly revealed, as to leave no room for the believer in the Bible to call it in question. Many texts might be offered in proof, but a few will suffice: “For they are spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth, and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Rev. 16:14). [p. 19]
At the present time the kingdoms of this world belong to the Gentiles by a God-given right, and they do not become “the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ,” until the “times of the Gentiles are fulfilled;” nor does war and oppression cease till then, for Christ says, “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). [p. 20]
The kingdom of God is to be set up before the days of the Gentiles end, for “in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom; and it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms” (Dan. 2:44). And this breaking in pieces, together with the battle of the great day, are some of the events of this forty years of trouble [beginning in 1874]. [p. 26]
Although there is no direct evidence that at the end of six thousand years from the creation of Adam, the “second” Adam should begin the new creation, or restitution of all things; still there is much indirect evidence….
The mass of evidence which synchronizes with the fact that the six thousand years are already ended [in 1873], is absolutely startling, to one who will take the trouble to investigate. [p. 67, 76]
Note how similar this language is to what the Society uses today to describe “the time of the end” and present-day conditions. Also note how similar the reasoning about the end of 6000 years and Adam is to what the Society published beginning in 1966, with respect to 1975. It is easy to see, in the following material, how the opinions expressed in Three Worlds were carried over into Zion’s Watch Tower, which C. T. Russell began publishing in 1879.
The very first issue of Zion’s Watch Tower, July, 1879, stated on page 1 the object of its publication:
That we are living “in the last days” — “the days of the Lord” — “the end” of the Gospel age, and consequently, in the dawn of the “new” age, are facts not only discernible by the close student of the Word, led by the spirit, but the outward signs recognizable by the world bear the same testimony.
The August, 1879 Watch Tower, on pages 2-3 described its view of Christ’s “presence” (parousia):
We believe the Scriptures to teach that, at His coming and for a time after He has come, He will remain invisible; afterward manifesting or showing Himself in judgments and various forms, so that “every eye shall see Him.”…. We think we have good solid reasons…. that we are now “in the days of the Son;” that “the day of the Lord” has come, and Jesus, a spiritual body, is present, harvesting the Gospel age.
When did Christ’s “presence” begin? The October, 1879 Watch Tower stated on page 4:
Christ came in the character of a Bridegroom in 1874…. at the beginning of the Gospel harvest.
The April, 1880 Watch Tower said on page 2, with respect to the parable of the ten virgins of Matthew 25:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock….”…. The presence and knock began in the fall of 1874.
The August, 1880 Watch Tower said on page 2 concerning Christ’s “presence”:
It was 1841 1/2 years from the commencement of our Gospel age at Pentecost (A.D., 33,) to the commencement of our “harvest” in the autumn of 1874, when our “sure word of prophecy” announces him as again present, but now on the higher plane, a spiritual body unseen, reaping, or harvesting the spiritual house.
This issue, apparently speaking of Russell’s break with J. H. Paton, then described on page 3 what happens to those who disagreed with Russell’s version of the “light” about Christ’s “presence”:
These who once rejoiced in the light of “the sure word of prophecy” which shows us the presence of our Lord as the “Bridegroom,” “Reaper” and “King,” that proves to us that the “times of restitution of all things began in 1874,” and that consequently “the heavens” which were to receive Him until that time, now no longer receive Him, but that he is present, and that soon when the separation of wheat and tares is complete, “we shall be changed to His glorious likeness and see Him as He is.” All, all this light they have lost, and have now reached the condition of outer-darkness, the condition of darkness on the subject of the Lord’s presence that the world and a worldly church have always occupied.
The July, 1880 Watch Tower described on pages 1 and 3 some of what was to happen during the “time of trouble,” and when that was to be:
Most of our readers are perhaps aware that our understanding of the word leads us to the conclusion that “The time of trouble” or “Day of wrath,” covering the forty years from 1874 to 1914 is in two parts or of two kinds: first a time of trouble upon the church during which she (the nominal church) will fall from her present position of influence and respect with the world, and many will fall from truth and from faith. This trouble upon the church and also the fact that we shall be in it but protected and safe is shown by the xci. Psalm…. The trouble coming upon the world will follow the trouble on the church as a natural consequence and is the second part of the trouble of the “Day of wrath.” Will the saints be here during its continuance upon the world? No, we remember Jesus said: “Watch ye that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all those things coming upon the world and to stand before the Son of Man.” A glorious anticipation is this, that we are to be gathered together unto our living Head — Christ, and to enter into His kingdom before the pouring out of the vials of wrath upon the world….
We conclude that the day of wrath is included in the Gospel harvest, and, therfore, that the age and harvest extend to 1914, covering a space of forty years from the Spring of 1875….
The Society says that no other organization successfully predicted 1914 as a pivotal year in Biblical prophecy and in human history. From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained said on page 170:
In the “Watchtower” magazine of March, 1880, they said: “The Times of the Gentiles extend to 1914, and the heavenly kingdom will not have full sway till then.” Of all people, only the witnesses pointed to 1914 as the year for God’s kingdom to be fully set up in heaven.
However, this is an incomplete quotation, as the following complete one shows. The March, 1880 Watch Tower, on page 2, said:
“The Times of the gentiles” extend to 1914, and the heavenly kingdom will not have full sway till then, but as a “Stone” the kingdom of God is set up “in the days of these (ten gentile) kings,” and by consuming them it becomes a universal kingdom — a “great mountain and fills the whole Earth.”
Clearly the rest of the quotation proves that Russell did not predict that the Kingdom of God would be set up in heaven, in 1914, but would be set up on the earth, by 1914, and that by 1914 everything would be pretty much wrapped up. Material cited below shows that Russell could not possibly have believed God’s Kingdom would be set up in heaven in 1914, because he believed it had already been set up in heaven in 1878. This is further shown by the statement in The Time Is At Hand, 1889, page 77, concerning 1914:
…. at that date the Kingdom of God, for which our Lord taught us to pray, saying, “Thy Kingdom come,” will have obtained full, universal control, and that it will then be “set up,” or firmly established, in the earth.
Further showing this was Russell’s view, the July, 1880 Watch Tower, on page 4, was quite adamant that by 1914 the “day of wrath” would be finished:
Will any whose lamps are burning brightly with the light of the truth on the Times of the Gentiles, and the time of trouble or day of vengeance with which those times end, take the ground that the day of wrath extends beyond 1914? They must do all this, and thus ignore the parallelism between the two days of wrath, or admit that Christ receives His crown before the subjugation of the nations in this day of wrath.
The August, 1880 Watch Tower, on page 2, also said that pretty much everything would be wrapped up by 1914. There would be a period of 33 years of trouble — making with the preceding 7 years the 40 years of trouble or “Day of wrath” ending with the times of the Gentiles in 1914, when the kingdom of God [soon to be set up or exalted to power] will have broken in pieces and consumed all earthly kingdoms.
The issue also stressed the urgency of the times, saying that the churches were very soon to be destroyed, on page 3, in an article entitled “It Hasteth Greatly”:
In the October number (1879) of the WATCH TOWER in the article headed “The Day of the Lord” — and in the November number in the article headed “Babylon is Fallen,” we gave expression to our view of the “time of trouble” and endeavored to prove scripturally that it began with the church and would first result in the complete overthrow of the nominal church, Protestant and Catholic, by infidelity and spiritualism, and afterward, it would reach and overthrow national governments. Many were inclined to make light of our statements, etc., and expressed themselves as believing that the trouble upon the nations was the only thing to be looked for by us. Our views then expressed are confirmed in us daily, and we are more than ever convinced of their truth…. We clip the following extracts to show our readers that the storm has already begun, and that others are noticing the fulfillment who never noticed the prophecies: —
Then it listed various quotations to the effect that the churches were already experiencing severe breakdowns.
The November, 1880 Watch Tower said on page 1 that there was “conclusive proof” about Russell’s view of Christs’ presence. Discussing parts of Revelation it said:
We need not here repeat the evidences that the “seventh trump” began its sounding A.D., 1840, and will continue until the end of the time of trouble, and the end of “The times of the Gentiles,” A.D., 1914, and that it is the trouble of this “Great day,” which is here symbolically called the voice of the Archangel when he begins the deliverance of fleshly Israel. “At that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince [Archangel] which standeth for the children of thy people and there shall be a time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation.” Dan. xii. 1. Nor will we here, again present the conclusive Bible proof that our Lord came for his Bride in 1874, and has an unseen work as Reaper of the first-fruits of this Gospel Age.
The May, 1881 Watch Tower, on page 5, discussed the current beliefs about what might happen in the fall of 1881, and summarized the beliefs about time prophecies:
We believe that all time prophecies (bearing upon Jesus’ coming) ended at and before the fall of 1874, and that He came there, and the second advent is now in progress and will continue during the entire Millennial age. We believe that his presence will be revealed to the eyes of men’s understandings gradually during this “Day of the Lord,” (forty years — from 1874 to 1914,) as it now is to ours; except that we, discern it through the word of prophecy revealed by the Spirit, and they will recognize his presence by His judgment upon Nominal Zion, and the World.
The January, 1886 Watch Tower stressed the urgency of the times:
The outlook at the opening of the New Year has some very encouraging features. The outward evidences are that the marshalling of the hosts for the battle of the great day of God Almighty, is in progress while the skirmishing is commencing….
The time is come for Messiah to take the dominion of earth and to overthrow the oppressors and corrupters of the earth, (Rev. 19:15 and 11:17,18) preparatory to the establishment of everlasting peace upon the only firm foundation of righteousness and truth.
Most Jehovah’s Witnesses understand that the calculations leading to 1914 as the end of “The Gentile Times,” and as the year when Christ invisibly established his kingdom in the heavens are unique to the Watchtower Society. On its inside cover, the 1959 book Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose contains these statements:
1870 Charles Taze Russell begins his study of the Bible with a small group of associates.
1877 The book “Three Worlds” is published identifying the date 1914 as the end of “Gentile Times.”
The impression given here, as well as in most other Watchtower publications, is that the book Three Worlds (which was written by N. H. Barbour and which Russell only financed) was the first publication to contain this teaching about 1914.
But this is not true at all. In 1823 John Aquila Brown published an explanation virtually identical to the one ultimately adopted by the Society, except that the 2520 years ran from 604 B.C. to 1917 A.D. He foretold that then “the full glory of the kingdom of Israel shall be perfected,” but he did not apply the “Gentile Times” to the 2520 years. He also taught that the 2300 days of Daniel 12 would end in 1844. A form of this teaching was taken up by William Miller and his followers, who predicted the end of the world in 1843-1844, and who started the Second Advent movement.
After the failure of the expectations for 1844, Miller’s movement split into several sects, one of which eventually formed around N. H. Barbour. Barbour redid Brown’s calculations and came up with a period from 606 B.C. to 1914 A.D. (actually this was a miscalculation since this period is only 2519 years. The Society used this calculation until 1943, when 606 was changed to 607 in The Truth Shall Make You Free, pages 238-239, using an incorrect and disingenuous explanation.) Barbour first published the 1914 date in his magazine Herald of the Morning in September, 1875.
In the July 15, 1906 Watch Tower C. T. Russell told how in 1876 Barbour and others convinced him of their 1914 teachings. Russell became assistant editor of Herald of the Morning by July, 1878. This magazine, and later, Russell’s Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, also published the year 1873 as the end of 6000 years of human history and 1874 as the start of Christ’s invisible presence. Among Adventist related groups, the invisible presence doctrine actually started as a result of the failure of Barbour’s and other’s prediction of 1874 for Christ’s return, as shown below. The doctrine allowed them to say, like William Miller before, that they had expected the “wrong thing at the right time.” This explanation was later adopted by the Society to explain the failure of its 1914 predictions.
The Society would like its adherents to believe that C. T. Russell and some others had believed since about 1870 that Christ would return invisibly. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, basing its statements on the above July 15, 1906 Watch Tower article (which was reproduced in the June 1, 1916 issue) said on pages 14-15:
MARIA: Isn’t it true, though, that, while most of those looking for the second presence of Christ expected a physical return, there were some who believed that Christ would not be visible at this second presence?
JOHN: Yes. For example, there were George Storrs of Brooklyn, who published a magazine called “The Bible Examiner” and who looked to the date 1870; H. B. Rice, who published The Last Trump, also looked to 1870, and a third group, this time of disappointed Second Adventists, looking to 1873 or 1874. This group was headed by N. H. Barbour of Rochester, New York, publisher of The Herald of the Morning….
Beyond this point in the narrative, nothing is said bearing on Christ’s invisible second presence until the following account of the formation of Russell’s beliefs:
Thus passed the years 1868-1872. The years following, to 1876, were years of continued growth in grace and in knowledge on the part of the handful of Bible students with whom I met in Allegheny. We progressed from our first crude and indefinite ideas of Restitution to clearer understanding of the details; but God’s due time for clear light had not yet come.
It was during this time, the account shows, that these Bible students came to recognize the difference between the Lord as “the man who gave himself” and the Lord who would come again as a spirit creature. They learned that spirit creatures can be present and yet invisible to men. As a result of this advanced understanding —
We felt greatly grieved at the error of Second Adventists, who were expecting Christ in the flesh and were teaching that the world and all in it except Second Adventists would be burned up in 1873 or 1874, and whose time settings and disappointments and crude ideas generally of the object and manner of our Lord’s Coming brought more or less reproach upon us and upon all who longed for and proclaimed His coming Kingdom.
These wrong views so generally held of both the object and manner of Christ’s Second Advent, led me to write a pamphlet: “The Object and Manner of the Lord’s Return,” of which some 50,000 copies were published.
Note that these quotations do not state precisely when between 1872 and 1876 Russell arrived at his understanding of Christ’s invisible presence. The evidence is good, but inconclusive, that this new understanding did not take place until after the failure of the predictions of the Second Adventists in 1874, of which Russell was very much aware.
To show this, we first note that the October/November, 1881 Watch Tower, on page 3, described how, using the parable of the ten virgins, N. H. Barbour had discerned that Christ was due to return visibly as the “Bridegroom” in 1874, and it described the result when that did not occur:
A brother, Barbour of Rochester, was we believe, the chosen vessel of God through whom the “Midnight Cry” issued to the sleeping virgins of Christ,… proving that the night of the parable was thirty years long, and that the morning was in 1873, and the Bridegroom due in that morning in 1874…. Brother Barbour first began to preach the message, and soon started a paper, which he appropriately called “The Midnight Cry.“….
When 1874 came and there was no outward sign of Jesus in the literal clouds and in a fleshly form, there was a general re-examination of all the arguments upon which the “Midnight Cry” was made. And when no fault or flaw could be found it led to the critical examination of the Scriptures which seem to bear on the manner of Christ’s coming, and it was soon discovered that the expectation of Jesus in the flesh at the second advent was the mistake…. Soon, too, under critical examination Matt. 24:37 and Luke 17:26, 30 were seen to teach positively that “in the presence” of Christ, “in his days,” the world would be ignorant of the fact, and be attending to their affairs as usual….
It was evident, then, that though the manner in which they had expected Jesus was in error, yet the time, as indicated by the “Midnight Cry,” was correct, and that the Bridegroom came in the Autumn of 1874, and he appeared to the eyes of faith — seen by the light of the lamp — the Word.
So it is clearly evident that the group headed by N. H. Barbour did not expect Christ to come invisibly in 1874, but in the flesh.
Next we attempt to find when Russell began to believe that Christ’s return was to be invisible. Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, on page 18, gives the impression that this had occurred sometime beforethe failure of Barbour’s 1874 expectations:
You will recall Russell’s study group had come to realize that when Christ returned it would not be in the flesh, as commonly believed and taught by the Second Adventists. Pastor Russell had learned that when Jesus should come he would be as invisible as though an angel had come.
Note that this does not say precisely when Russell came to believe that Christ’s return would be invisible. This is because there are no documents available to show it. The Society says Object and Manner was published in 1873, but there is a real question about the true date. No Zion’s Watch Tower gives the date. No copies exist that bear a publishing date prior to 1877 when an edition was published by The Herald of the Morning, edited by N. H. Barbour. Furthermore, according to P. S. L. Johnson, who was the leader of a group that broke away in 1918, Russell himself stated that he came to accept the doctrine of Christ’s invisible presence in October, 1874. It was about October, 1874 that Barbour’s and other groups were expecting Christ’s return, and Russell was definitely aware of some of these, having been closely associated with various Second Adventist groups such as those of George Storrs and Jonas Wendell. He was also aware that those expectations had failed.
An additional piece of evidence is seen in a statement contained in Object and Manner itself, which strongly indicates it was not written until after Russell and Barbour got together in 1876, at which time Russell accepted essentially all of Barbour’s chronology. On page 62 it said:
But it is not my object in this pamphlet to call your attention more fully to the time of the second advent than I have above, in answering some of the chief objections to the investigation of it. (Those interested in knowing the evidences as to the time, I would refer to Dr. N. H. Barbour, editor of the “Herald of the Morning,” Rochester, N. Y.) I simply add that I am deeply impressed, and think, not without good scriptural evidence, that the Master is come and is now inspecting the guests to the marriage. (Matt. 22:11) That the harvest is progressing, the separation (mental) between wheat and tares now going on, and that the two in the field, mill and bed may be bodily separated at any moment, the wise virgins go into the marriage, and the door to the high calling be forever shut.
Since this 1877 edition of Object and Manner is labelled neither a revision nor a reprint, and was published by the “Office of Herald of the Morning,” Rochester, N. Y., it seems likely that Russell had not published any earlier versions of it. Another evidence that Object and Manner was first printed well after 1873 is that in it, Russell referred to Barbour’s Herald of the Morning. Herald of the Morning did not begin publication until June, 1875, and its predecessor, The Midnight Cry and Herald of the Morning ceased publication in October, 1874. But the most telling evidence that Russell published it no earlier than October, 1874 is that he said that “the Master is come and…. the harvest is progressing,” which could not have been said until after the harvest began, “in October, 1874.” Had Object and Manner been published in 1873, Russell would have said “the Master is about to come and…. the harvest is about to begin.”
Actually, there were many in both Great Britain and America who believed in doctrines such as what is called “the two-stage coming doctrine,” the idea of Christ’s invisible presence prior to his revelation at the end of the present world, and the teaching of an invisible rapture of the saints during his presence or parousia — all ideas presented in The Object and Manner. In point of fact, these concepts were originated in 1828 by Henry Drummond, a British Evangelical who, with Edward Irving, was a co-founder of the Catholic Apostolic church or the Irvingites. Later, many of Drummond’s ideas were popularized and spread throughout Great Britain and the United States by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren, and by a number of other preachers. The various groups espousing these ideas came to be known as Dispensationalists. Quite a few famous names in American religion are associated with them: J. B. Rotherham, a Bible translator; the well known Bible commentator W. E. Vine; and the commentator C. I. Scofield of Scofield Reference Bible fame. Their dispensationalist views are clearly evident in their works. See The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800 — 1930 by Ernest R. Sandeen, University of Chicago Press, 1970.
JWDP continues on page 18:
Then, in 1876, while Pastor Russell was in Philadelphia on a business trip, he happened to come into possession of a copy of the magazine The Herald of the Morning, which, you will recall, was being published by N. H. Barbour of Rochester, N. Y. He was surprised and pleased to note that here was another group that expected Christ’s return invisibly and, because of the similarity of their views, he read more of this publication, even though he recognized it as an Adventist paper and even though, up to this time, he had had little regard for their doctrines. But Russell was interested in learning from any quarter, whatever God had to teach. He became interested in the chronology set forth in the magazine and immediately got in touch with Barbour to arrange a meeting at Russell’s expense in order to discuss this matter further.
It seems that one of Barbour’s group had come into possession of Benjamin Wilson’s Diaglott translation of the “New Testament.” He noticed, at Matthew 24:27, 37, 39, that the word rendered coming in the King James Version is translated presence in the Diaglott. This was the clue that had led Barbour’s group to advocate, in addition to their time calculations, an invisible presence of Christ.
Note how the reader is not told that this ‘revelation’ did not occur until after the failure of Barbour’s original prediction. In fact, no where is the reader told that Barbour’s prediction had failed.
Russell had been interested first in the purpose of Christ’s return. His realization that it would be invisible led him now seriously to consider the time features. He was satisfied with the evidence Barbour presented.
Compare the above description with Russell’s own account of how Barbour’s group decided that Christ’s return had been invisible, as shown above in the October/November, 1881 Watch Tower. Note also the description in the June 1, 1916 Watch Tower, pp. 170-1, which JWDP just quoted from. The same information appeared in Zion’s Watch Tower, July 15, 1906, pp. 229-31:
Anxious to learn, from any quarter, whatever God had to teach, I at once wrote to Mr. Barbour, informing him of my harmony on other points and desiring to know particularly why, and upon what Scriptural evidences, he held that Christ’s presence and the harvesting of the Gospel age dated from the Autumn of 1874. The answer showed that my surmise had been correct, viz.: that the time arguments, chronology, etc., were the same as used by Second Adventists in 1873, and explained how Mr. Barbour and Mr. J. H. Paton, of Michigan, a co-worker with him, had been regular Second Adventists up to that time; and that when the date 1874 had passed without the world being burned, and without their seeing Christ in the flesh, they were for a time dumb-founded. They had examined the time-prophecies that had seemingly passed unfulfilled, and had been unable to find any flaw, and had begun to wonder whether the time was right and their expectations wrong, — whether the views of restitution and blessing to the world, which myself and others were teaching, might not be the things to look for. It seems that not long after their 1874 disappointment, a reader of the Herald of the Morning, who had a copy of the Diaglott, noticed something in it which he thought peculiar….
After this the account given in Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Divine Purpose begins to correspond to Russell’s again.
The are certain peculiarities with Russell’s description of events. He does not describe how he first came upon the idea of Jesus’ return as being a “presence” rather than a “coming.” Rather, he describes how one of Barbour’s associates had found an appropriate passage from Matthew in the Emphatic Diaglott.
So, taking note of all the available information, it is not clear whether Russell advocated the idea of Christ’s invisible presence before or after the failure of the Second Adventist’s prediction for October, 1874. It is very clear, however, that Russell later believed Christ’s presence began in 1874, and he therefore did not expect Christ to return invisibly in 1914. On the the contrary, he expected Christ to manifest himself to the world in 1914, as the following material shows.
The Society kept the 1874 date for the beginning of Christ’s presence at least up through 1929, when the last official mention of it seems to have been made in the book Prophecy, on page 65. By 1930 the Society seemed uncertain about the time from 1874 onward, saying in Light I, pages 333-4:
From about 1875 until the coming of the Lord to God’s temple [in 1918] was a period of time in which Christ the messenger was preparing the way before Jehovah for the building up of Zion. Then he, the great Judge, came suddenly or straightway to his temple for judgement.
Sometime between 1931 and 1943, without a word of explanation (it is not clear from Watchtower publications just what the official teaching was), the Society began teaching that Christ’s presence began in 1914. The Society taught that Christ officially began his Kingdom rule in 1878 until the Cedar Point, Ohio convention in 1922. At that time the date was changed to 1914. The Society also taught until 1929 that the “last days” began in 1799. Before 1914 it taught that the resurrection of anointed Christians occurred in 1881, that the great “harvest” work would run from 1874 to 1914, and that by 1914 the destruction of all human institutions would take place. It taught that the fall of “Babylon the Great” occurred in 1878, with its complete destruction due in 1914 or 1918.
What was responsible for the change in all these major prophetic teachings? The same as in the case of William Miller and the dozens of other prophetic speculators like him — the failure of their published expectations to be realized.
Are these statements mere assertions? Let us look further into the Society’s older publications and see what they say.
1 The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, p. 13, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, Rev. 1981.
2 Walter Kaufman, Existentialism, Religion, and Death: Thirteen Essays, New American Library, New York, 1976.