Did the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses apologize for 1975?
Many times, when pressed on the question of whether on not the Watchtower Society ever admits that it has made mistakes, Jehovah’s Witnesses will point to what was written in the March 15, 1980 Watchtower as an example of the Society admitting it made a mistake and apologizing for it.
This “apology” came about as a result of the Watchtower Society’s linking the end of the sixth millenium of mankind’s existence, which they calculated to be in the fall of 1975, with the beginning of Christ’s 1000-year reign. In some places, the expectation was kept to a reasonable level, while in others, some witnesses were totally convinced that the end of the system would come in 1975. All this began in 1966 with the publication of the book “Life Everlasting In the Freedom of the Sons of God,” and continued in other Watchtower publications until 1975. When 1975 came and went, many Jehovah’s Witnesses became disillusioned and left the organization. Besides those who died or were disfellowshipped, about 800,000 left the organization in the 1970’s.
From now on, I will mention the “governing body” quite often. What I am referring to is the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is the governing body that is responsible for what is printed in all of the Watchtower publications. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania are the legal instruments that the governing body uses to accomplish its aims. Several members of the governing body serve on the boards of directors of both corporations.
Former governing body member Raymond Franz in his book Crisis of Conscience gives us an outline of what lead up to the publication of the apology:
In 1976, a year after the passing of that widely publicized date, a few members of the Governing Body began urging that some statement should be made acknowledging that the organization had been in error, had stimulated false expectations. Others said they did not think we should, that it would “just give ammunition to opposers.” Milton Henschel recommended that the wise course would be simply not to bring the matter up and that in time the brothers would stop talking about it. There was clearly not enough support for a motion favoring a statement to carry. That year, an article in the July 15 Watchtower did refer to the failed expectations but the article had to conform to the prevailing sentiments within the Governing Body and no clear acknowledgement of the organization’s responsibility was possible. – Crisis of Conscience p 209
Later on page 212, he writes:
It had taken nearly four years for the organization through its administration finally to admit it had been wrong, had, for an entire decade, built up false hopes. Not that a statement so candid, though true, could be made. Whatever was written had to be acceptable to the Body as a whole for publishing. I know, because I was assigned to write the statement and, as in similar cases before, I had to governed by – not what I would liked to say or even what I thought the brothers needed to hear – but by what could be said that would receive approval of two-thirds of the Governing Body when submitted to them.
So, although Raymond Franz wrote the article, what was finally published has to be viewed a statement of the governing body as a whole, a policy statement.
While what was written in the March 15, 1980 issue of The Watchtower, may be the closest thing to an admission of error and apology for the 1975 debacle that was ever published by the governing body, when we examine this text, can we really say that it is either an admission of wrong or an apology? Here are two paragraphs from the article entitled “Choosing the Best Way of Life” that begins on page 16:
5 In modern times such eagerness, commendable in itself, has led to attempts at setting dates for the desired liberation from the suffering and troubles that are the lot of persons throughout the earth. With the appearance of the book Life Everlasting – In the Freedom of the Sons of God, and its comments as to how appropriate it would be for the millennial reign of Christ to parallel the seventh millennium of man’s existence, considerable expectation was aroused regarding the year 1975. There were statements made then, and thereafter, stressing that this was only a possibility. Unfortunately, however, along with such cautionary information, there were other statements published that implied that such realization of hopes by that year was more of a probability than a mere possibility. It is to be regretted that these latter statements apparently overshadowed the cautionary ones and contributed to a buildup of the expectation already initiated.
6 In its issue of July 15, 1976, The Watchtower, commenting on the inadvisability of setting our sights on a certain date, stated: “If anyone has been disappointed through not following this line of thought, he should now concentrate on adjusting his viewpoint, seeing that it was not the word of God that failed or deceived him and brought disappointment, but that his own understanding was based on wrong premises.” In saying “anyone,” The Watchtower included all disappointed ones of Jehovah’s Witnesses, hence including persons having to do with the publication of the information that contributed to the buildup of hopes centered on that date.
Having read these two paragraphs, let’s take a closer look at some of their key phrases. As we do, I think you will see how these two paragraphs, rather than being a contrite admission of error and apology are an attempt by the governing body to distance themselves from any responsibility for the 1975 problem and to shift the blame for the unrealistic expectations away from themselves and over to the victims.
“With the appearance of the book Life Everlasting – In the Freedom of the Sons of God, and its comments …”
Here the governing body almost makes it sound like the Life Everlasting book appeared on its own, spontaneously springing into existence. This is a clever way for them to divert the reader from the notion that someone conceived the idea that the end of 6,000 years of mankind’s existence might coincide with the beginning of the Millennium, that someone actually wrote the book Life Everlasting – In the Freedom of the Sons of God (and its comments.) It also ignores the fact that the governing body, as spokesman for the faithful and discreet slave, has the ultimate responsibility for what is published in The Watchtower and related publications.
“… considerable expectation was aroused … There were statements made then … there were other statements published …”
Use of the passive voice is a good way to rid yourself of troublesome responsibility It is as if nobody in particular aroused the expectation, nobody in particular made the offending statements, but they just sort of happened. U.S. journalist Sydney J. Harris wrote: “We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice – that is until we have stopped saying “It got lost” and say “I lost it.”
“It is to be regretted that these latter statements apparently overshadowed the cautionary ones and contributed to a buildup of the expectation already initiated.”
Here the governing body avoids the use of the first person, presumably in an effort to also avoid any responsibility for the buildup of expectations regarding 1975. Of course “it is to be regretted,” but by whom? I am sure that those who sold their houses or businesses in order to spend the last few months of this system in the pioneer work regretted it. So, probably, did those who held their children back from going to school in the fall of 1975 and those who did not have needed medical or dental work done, or those who did not bother with retirement plans because the end was so near. The question is, did the governing body truly regret it? Their statement here does not say whether they did or not. If this were a real apology there would be no question.
The way this sentence is worded, one might think that it was the fault of the “latter statements”. After all, it was they that “overshadowed the cautionary ones and contributed to the buildup of the expectation already initiated”.
If we removed all of the responsibility-dodging language, paragraph 5 might read something like this:
5 In modern times such eagerness, commendable in itself, has led us, the governing body of Jehovah’s witnesses to attempts at setting dates for the desired liberation from the suffering and troubles that are the lot of persons throughout the earth. With our publication of the book Life Everlasting – In the Freedom of the Sons of God, we of the governing body made comments as to how appropriate it would be for the millennial reign of Christ to parallel the seventh millennium of man’s existence. In doing so, we aroused considerable expectation regarding the year 1975. We of the governing body made statements then, and thereafter, stressing that this was only a possibility. Unfortunately, however, along with such cautionary information, we also published other statements that implied that such realization of hopes by that year was more of a probability than a mere possibility. We of the governing body sincerely regret that we apparently overshadowed the cautionary statements with these latter ones and contributed to a buildup of the expectation far beyond what was appropriate or scriptural.
In paragraph 6 the tone becomes even less apologetic and far more accusatory.
In its issue of July 15, 1976, The Watchtower, commenting on the inadvisability of setting our sights on a certain date, stated: “If anyone has been disappointed through not following this line of thought, he should now concentrate on adjusting his viewpoint.”
Here the governing body moves from just avoiding the responsibility to putting it on those who were disappointed when nothing happened in 1975. In saying that it is those who were disappointed that need to “adjust their viewpoint”, they are laying the blame squarely on them. It is their viewpoint that needs adjusting, not that of the governing body that raised their expectations for a decade.
That July 15, 1976 article, while discussing Jesus words about not being weighed down with anxieties of life at Luke 21:34-36 said:
Did Jesus mean that we should adjust our financial and secular affairs so that our resources would just carry us to a certain date that we think marks the end? If our house is suffering serious deterioration, should we let it go, on the assumption that we would need it only a few months longer? Or, if someone in the family needs special medical care, should we say, “Well, we’ll put it off because the time is so near for this system of things to go”? This is not the kind of thinking that Jesus advised.
Contrast that with this statement from the May, 1974 Our Kingdom Ministry said: “Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.”
So, in the July 15, 1976 article the governing body criticized the same attitude that it commended in the May 1975 Kingdom Ministry. Although, as the July 15, 1976 article said “This is not the kind of thinking that Jesus advised”, it was the kind of thinking that was encouraged and commended by the governing body and many of their appointed representatives prior to 1975.
“… it was not the word of God that failed or deceived him and brought disappointment, but that his own understanding was based on wrong premises. “
The governing body does not here address the source of those “wrong premises”, leaving the impression that those who were disappointed were responsible for their own wrong premises, along with their own disappointment and any other problems associated with it. They adroitly sidestep the fact that the wrong premises were fed to the disappointed as part of what they were taught was their spiritual food. This spiritual food is represented as coming to them through the faithful and discreet slave from Jehovah Himself.
I should point out here that just looking at what was published in The Watchtower and related publications does not give the whole picture as to the atmosphere of expectation that existed in many congregations just prior to 1975. Along with the publications, there were stirring talks by circuit and district overseers who are considered direct representatives of the Watchtower Society. The level of expectation in any area was largely dependent on how vigorously the overseers fanned the flames of expectation. You can download WAV files of parts of a talk given by District Overseer Charles Sunutko at this link.
“The Watchtower included all disappointed ones of Jehovah’s Witnesses, hence including persons having to do with the publication of the information that contributed to the buildup of hopes centered on that date.”
The governing body is here evidently trying to say, “Hey, we were just as disappointed as you when 1975 rolled around and nothing happened.” This is a good way of transforming themselves from being perpetrators to being victims, again denying any responsibility for their own actions.
It is much harder for me to feel sorry for a member of the governing body who had the choice of publishing or not publishing the material that built up those expectations, than for the “rank and file” witness who were expected to accept without question or criticism everything that was published in the Watchtower publications and to view it as spiritual food from the “faithful and discreet slave”.
Adjustment in the meaning of “This generation”
Once again in 1994, the governing body found itself in a position where it had to explain an “adjustment” in such a way as not to put them in too bad a light. When explaining the change in their view of the generation in the November 1, 1994 issue of The Watchtower, (page 17 under the title “A Time to Keep Awake”) the governing body said the following:
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 calculation 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, but by thinking about how we “count our days” in bringing joyful praise to Jehovah (Psalm 90:12)
If Jehovah’s people speculated about anything, it was because they were encouraged to do so by the governing body. As you will see, it was the governing body that lit the fires of speculation and then constantly fanned them.
First of all, Bible chronology shows that since the autumn of 1914 C.E. we have been living in the “last days” of this system of things. Jesus Christ indicated that these “last days” would not extend beyond the life-span of the generation seeing their start. (Matt. 24:34) Hence, at least some people who witnessed the horrors of World War I will see the complete end of government by imperfect men and the bringing in of prosperity under the kingdom of God. (w72 10/1 582-3 Prosperity Under the Kingdom of God in Our Own Generation )
Here the governing body definitely states that some people who were alive in 1914 would see the end of the system. How could a statement like that not raise expectations? While the governing body said in 1994 that “we ‘bring a heart of wisdom in,’ not by speculating about how many years or days make up a generation,” they themselves published material that did exactly that. In the first two paragraphs of the first chapter of the book Man’s Salvation, published in 1975 they say:
HOW much more will the present generation of mankind have to take of this world distress that has plagued us since 1914 C.E.? How much more can we take of it without reaching the worst-the end of mankind? Quite a number of us have managed to reach seventy years of age or more. Fewer of us have attained to eighty years of age or more. In times such as these, such an age attainment is very good, according to the age-old saying that set a reasonable time-length for a generation:
“The days of our years in this life are seventy years; and if by uncommon vigour they be eighty, yet is their greatness trouble and mishap; for it soon hasteneth off, and we fly away.” The governing body here are very clear that 70 or 80 years is a “reasonable time-length for a generation.” So they were leading the witnesses to the conclusion that the end would come within 70 or 80 years from 1914. Having set all this speculation in motion and having reached the end of the “reasonable time-length for a generation,” in 1994, the governing body had to do something, hence the “adjustment” to what the word “generation” means.
The wording of the 1994 “adjustment” shows an interesting difference from that of the 1980 “apology.” While the 1980 “apology” implied that only a segment of Jehovah’s Witness suffered from overblown expectations regarding 1975, the 1994 “adjustment” seems to imply that all of “Jehovah’s people have at times speculated.” So unlike 1980 where they tried to avoid responsibility for the problem by shifting it to a specific group that got carried away due to their “wrong premises,” in 1994 they spread it out to include the whole group.
Why was it so hard just to say “we’re sorry”?
At this point I have to ask: Why is it so hard for the governing body to admit their error in these and other situations? Examining some of the advice they have given the rank and file may give us some clues. First, from the 9/1/82 The Watchtower, pages 28 and 29, the article “Why Admit It When You Are Wrong?”
Especially does it seem difficult for those in positions of responsibility to admit being wrong. Why? No doubt in many instances this is due to pride. They are concerned with what others may think; they want to “save face,” as the saying goes. But, then again, failure to admit being wrong may well be due to feelings of insecurity. A person may feel that his position is threatened if he admits a mistake.
No doubt some individuals are reluctant to admit that they are or have been wrong because of the price they might have to pay for their mistake. Thus a railway employee may have caused a serious accident due to negligence. But if he admits that he made a mistake, he may lose his job or even go to prison. Or, in the case of a physician, a costly malpractice suit might be involved, and admitting wrong may cost him or his insurance company a great deal of money.
Imagine the potential cost to the governing body of admitting they were wrong about 1975. That would call into question the whole range of other proclamations of the governing body. They may have worried that admitting that they were wrong about 1975 would cause them to loose the respect of and hence authority over the rank and file. Personally, it would cause me to respect them more if they accepted responsibility for the 1975 situation and sincerely apologized for it. The counsel that the governing body gave elders in the same article on page 30 under the subheading “When an Elder Makes a Mistake” would have well applied.
Admitting mistakes and making sincere apologies will also help Christian elders to work together harmoniously and ‘show honor to one another.’ (Romans 12:10) An elder may be reluctant to admit a mistake because he fears that this will undermine his authority in the congregation. However, trying to justify, ignore, or minimize a mistake is much more likely to cause others to lose confidence in his oversight. A mature brother who humbly apologizes, perhaps for some thoughtless remark, earns the respect of others.
I don’t think the governing body realizes that their justifying, ignoring and minimizing their mistakes has caused others to lose confidence in their oversight or not. I suspect not because any who are disappointed enough in the failure of any of the governing body’s predictions to say much about it are at the very least looked at as being spiritually weak or murmurers and at the worst are disfellowshipped for apostasy or even for “loose conduct” or having no respect for authority.
Periodically, the governing body publishes articles that seem to be designed not only to quell any vocal dissent, but to even discourage Jehovah’s Witnesses from having questions or doubts in their own minds and hearts. An example is the article “Blessings or Maledictions – Examples For Us Today” from The Watchtower of June 15, 1996:
It is proper to ask sincere questions about a Scriptural subject. But what if we were to develop a negative attitude that manifested itself in critical discussions among an intimate circle of friends? We would do well to ask ourselves, “Where is this likely to end? Would it not be far better to stop murmuring and pray humbly for wisdom? (James 1:5-8; Jude 17-21) Korah and his supporters, who rebelled against the authority of Moses and Aaron, may have been so convinced that their perspective was valid that they did not examine their motives. Nonetheless, they were completely wrong. So were the Israelites who murmured about the destruction of Korah and the other rebels. How wise it is to let such examples move us to examine our motives, dispel murmuring or complaining, and allow Jehovah to refine us! – Psalm 17:1-3
Invoking the story of Korah is likely to have a chilling effect on almost any witness who is beginning to question something written by the governing body. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses know that Korah and 250 of his confederates were destroyed by fire from Jehovah. The governing body is implying that a similar fate awaits those who disagree with them.
The effective silencing of any who are disappointed by intimidation or expulsion enables the governing body to make statements such as appeared in the January 15, 1990 Watchtower on page 26. After contrasting the governing body with the boards of directors of the Watchtower Societies, the articles says:
Not so the Governing Body, which is not a legal instrument but the members of which “are appointed through the holy spirit under the direction of Jehovah and Christ.” Thus, the Governing Body continues to function and to receive the unqualified support of Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide.
It may be easier to attain “unqualified support” in the short run by expelling those who complain that it is by listening to and dealing with the complaints. In the long run, though, the whole organization suffers by such a shortsighted approach. Many of those who have been expelled for disagreeing with the governing body have been elders and ministerial servants, pioneers, missionaries, circuit and district overseers and in one case a member of the governing body. They are people who at one time contributed to the spiritual strength of their congregation and the organization as a whole. Many are people with a deep love for God and man and with a love of learning (and teaching) from the Scriptures. As people like these are weeded out of the organization, all that will be left are “yes-men.”
Notice the qualities that the governing body says will help to overcome the tendency not to admit errors. Again, this is from the September 1, 1982 Watchtower article “Why Admit it When You Are Wrong?”: >blockquote>Honesty and empathy also enter the picture. If certain persons are entitled to know that we have erred, we should be willing to admit the wrong. Especially should empathy move us to admit it if another person would otherwise be blamed and would suffer for our mistake. Here Jesus’ words apply: “Just as you want men to do to you, do the same way to them.”-Luke 6:31. Who can deny that the rank and file of Jehovah’s Witnesses “are entitled to know that we have erred”? Who can deny that others were blamed for and hurt by the errors of the governing body?
Humility also will help us to admit a wrong. When we think it through, failure to admit a wrong borders on hypocrisy, does it not? Neither the haughty person nor the hypocrite has God’s approval.-Proverbs 21:4; James 3:17.
Maintaining a close relationship with Jehovah will be of greatest help in our being willing to admit it when we are wrong. Why? Because we will be inclined to take all our concerns and errors to him in humble prayer. Then, confident in his aid and mercy, we will possess the unequaled “peace of God.”-Philippians 4:6, 7. So, since we all err, let us acknowledge our mistakes. When we are in the wrong, may we humbly admit it. Then let us work on our errors constructively, to our own benefit and to that of others. .
Why can’t the governing body follow its own advice?