It’s difficult to be sympathetic sometimes. This is no where more problematic than with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. With an evangelistic strategy that feels more like a call centre than good news, it’s easy to get frustrated and dismissive.
On the other hand, I have met a few kind and generous Jehovah’s Witnesses in my day. While browsing the religion section of Wayfarer Books (a place you really should visit) in Kingston, I found M. James Penton’s book on the movement and decided to learn more.
The Author’s Background
The author begins by sharing his personal background. He is the great-grandson of a Bible Student (an earlier name for Jehovah’s Witness). He grew up in a Witness home and was a faithful Witness for years, even serving as an elder in Lethbridge, Alberta.
In the late 1970s, Penton wrote a positive book entitled, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada: Champions of Freedom of Speech and Worship. Apocaplypse Delayed takes on a decidedly more negative tone.
In 1979, Penton tried to share some of his misgivings about the direction of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with head office. This led to his “disfellowshipment” (read: excommunication).
Penton’s personal story makes Apocalypse Delayed a better book. It was written by an insider who loves the movement, but who recognizes the flaws and wanted to see renewal. He succeeds at being remarkably objective, despite his personal investment in the subject.
The Book’s Structure
Penton tackles the story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in three sections:
- History. Starting with the Adventist Milieu of the 19th Century, Penton presents a clear and detailed history of the movement through 1985. An extra chapter in the 2nd edition describes the Witnesses from 1985 through 1997.
- Theology. Jehovah Witness theology is notoriously difficult to describe because it’s issued by fiat from head office and often contradicts earlier doctrine. Penteon eschews traditional systematic theological categories and proceeds from sources of authority. This allows him to present a truer picture of Jehovah Witness doctrine than you would get by slotting it into traditional fields.
- Sociology. Penton shows, ironically, how the governing structure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses conforms quite closely to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The social pull that head office has on its members along with the power it wields to squash all dissent and questioning is clearly described.
Things I Learned
Many things struck me as fascinating in this study. Here are a few things I learned:
- The role of eschatology. The title of the book describes the defining feature of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They consistently pin their hopes on dates in the future which come and go and are then reinterpreted. 1873 was going to be the end of human existence. In 1874, Jesus was to return. In 1878, Jesus was to return in power. In 1881, Babylon the Great was to fall, meaning the end of false religious influence on the church. In 1914, the world was supposed to end. (Coincidentally, the advent of the Great War boosted their belief in this date.) In 1918, worldwide anarchy was to break out. In 1931, God would establish his kingdom in power on earth. These dates have all passed without greater significance. The timeline has been readjusted. The latest significant date was 1975, “the end of 6,000 years of human existence” (199).
- The importance of literature. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York is massively prolific. “In 1983 alone they distributed 53,517,808 Bibles, books, and booklets around the world, plus 460,072,255 copies of the Awake! and Watchtower magazines” (231). Despite labeling themselves as an organization dedicated to Scripture, Witnesses are expected to read far more Watchtower publications than scripture.
- The transformation from Russel to Rutherford. Charles T. Russell, the founder of what would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a generally likable character (despite his marriage issues). He was open to Christians of other stripes while still believing his revelations were the most accurate. When he died, J. F. Rutherford used political subterfuge and outright strong-arm tactics to install himself as Russel’s heir. Despite persistent alcoholism and very questionable morality, this man single-handedly transformed the organization from a movement of Bible Students to an army of door-to-door Witnesses.
- The ruthless exercise of control. The tactics used to squash all discontent are brutal. Take for example, Raymond V. Franz. The nephew of then President Frederick W. Franz, he started questioning doctrine and started looking for some sort of reformation. While he went on holidays, Frederick conducted a series of interviews with all of his nephew’s acquaintances. He returned from holidays to disfellowshipment. Those who talked with him were disfellowshiped. Some lost their livelihood when salespeople were instantly cut off from their entire social network.
Now that I’ve had time to think through the book, I’ve come to some conclusions. This book was written in 1985 and updated in 1997. I wonder what happened in the years following. Penton’s inside information and investigative skills provide a level of accuracy and detail you can’t find in official outlets.
The severe role of control on the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses has made me change my outlook when in conversation with them. When you discuss doctrine with a Jehovah’s Witness, you cannot expect them to merely shift their belief—you’re asking them to leave their friends, family, and social network behind.
Apocalypse Delayed is one of the most insightful and genuinely interesting books of religious history that I’ve read. I recommend it highly to anyone.
—M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, 1997).