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Apologies for the length of this introduction but I felt it was important to begin with a weight of evidence. There have been a great many changes in the Jehovah's Witness understanding and prophetic predictions regarding the commencement and conclusion of the 'time of trouble', the beginning of Christ's 'second presence' and His coming into the Kingdom with power, the length and composition of 'this generation', and even which people group all these things apply to.

I have bolded parts of each of the references below. One of the most dramatic changes is that 1799 marks the beginning of the 'time of the end' and then 1914 is given as the end and not the beginning of the time, and then 1914 is given as the beginning of the time. At this point 1914 is clung to and the definition of 'this generation' begins to change.

"...1799 definitely marks the beginning of 'the time of the end'.... 'The time of the end' embraces a period from A.D. 1799, as above indicated, to the time of the complete overthrow of Satan's empire....we have been in 'the time of the end' since 1799" (The Harp of God, 1928 ed., pp. 235-36, 239).

"The time of the Lord's second presence dates from 1874....From 1874 forward is the latter part of the period of 'the time of the end'. From 1874 is the time of the Lord's second presence... It was in the year 1874, the date of our Lord's second presence..." (The Harp of God, 1928 ed., pp. 236, 239-40).

"CAN IT BE DELAYED UNTIL 1914?...our readers are writing to know if there may not be a mistake in the 1914 date. They say that they do not see how present conditions can last so long under the strain. We see no reason for changing the figures - nor could we change them if we would. They are, we believe, God's dates not ours. But bear in mind that the end of 1914 is not the date for the beginning, but for the end of the time of trouble" (Watch Tower, 15 July 1894, p. 226).

"The Scriptures indicate that a great time of trouble similar to that which came upon the Jewish nation will now come upon all Christendom. The experience of Israel in the year 70 [destruction of Jerusalem] will be paralleled in the experiences of the year 1915" (Watch Tower, 15 June 1913, p. 181).

"...in the year 1918, when God destroys the churches wholesale and the church members by millions, it shall be that any that escape shall come to the works of Pastor Russell to learn the meaning of the downfall of 'Christianity'" (The Finished Mystery, 1917, p. 485).

"The date 1925 is even more distinctly indicated by the Scriptures because it is fixed by the law God gave to Israel. Viewing the present situation in Europe, one wonders how it will be possible to hold back the explosion much longer; and that even before 1925 the great crisis will be reached and probably passed" (Watch Tower, 1 September 1922, p. 262).

"As we have heretofore stated, the great jubilee cycle is due to begin in 1925. At that time the earthly phase of the kingdom shall be recognized... Therefore we may confidently expect that 1925 will mark the return of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the faithful prophets of old, particularly those named by the Apostle in Hebrews chapter eleven, to the condition of human perfection" (Millions Now Living Will Never Die! pp. 89-90).

"The foretold events having begun A.D. 1914, the generation of mankind that is still alive from that year is the generation meant by Jesus Christ. Till now we have seen fulfilled the world-shaking features of the 'sign of [Christ's invisible] presence and of the consummation of the system of things.'...The occurrence of these things since 1914 is within the knowledge of millions of this generation.... We, then, are the generation that will not pass away till there is fulfilled that 'great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world's beginning until now, no, nor will occur again'" (Watchtower, 15 April 1961, p. 236; brackets in original, italics added).

"Jesus said 'this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.' Which generation is this, and how long is it?... [W]hen it comes to the application in our time, the 'generation' logically would not apply to babies born during World War I. It applies to Christ's followers and others who were able to observe that war and the other things that have occurred in fulfillment of Jesus' composite 'sign.' Some of such persons 'will by no means pass away until' all of what Christ prophesied occurs, including the end of the present wicked system" (Watchtower, 1 October 1978, p. 31).

"If Jesus used 'generation' in that sense and we apply it to 1914, then the babies of that generation are now 70 years old or older. And others alive in 1914 are in their 80's or 90's, a few even having reached a hundred. There are still many millions of that generation alive. Some of them 'will by no means pass away until all things occur.' - Luke 21:32" (Watchtower, 15 May 1984, p.5).

"To calculate where man is in the stream of time relative to God's seventh day of 7,000 years, we need to determine how long a time has elapsed from the year of Adam and Eve's creation in 4026 B.C.E. From the autumn of that year to the autumn of 1 B.C.E., there would be 4,025 years. From the autumn of 1 B.C.E. to the autumn of 1 C.E. is one year (there was no zero year). From the autumn of 1 C.E. to the autumn of 1967 is a total of 1,966 years. Adding 4,025 and 1 and 1,966, we get 5,992 years from the autumn of 4026 B.C.E. to the autumn of 1967. Thus, eight years remain to account for a full 6,000 years of the seventh day. Eight years from the autumn of 1967 would bring us to the autumn of 1975, fully 6,000 years into God's seventh day, his rest day.(Watchtower, 1 May 1968, pp. 271-72).

An April 8, 1988 issue of Awake magazine, in an article entitled 'How Long Can a Generation Last?' intimated that 1989 would be the end of the 'last generation'

The 1994 Watchtower 2 volume research dictionary, "Insight on the Scriptures" calculated a possible end to the 'last generation' as 1994. (Vol. 1, pp. 917-18).

Finally in Watchtower (1 November 1995, p. 19) the definition of 'this generation' was changed from those born in 1914 to "all the peoples of earth who see the sign of Christ's 1914 presence but fail to repent".

The historical pattern of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society appears to be one of thresholds proclaimed, reached, exceeded, and changed. Rinse and repeat. What is the Jehovah's Witness explanation of this constantly evolving eschatology surrounding the year 1914?

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    In two words, "New Light." Of course the problem they have is on what basis this "New Light" can be justified Biblically. For instance the NWT before 1950 did NOT use the word "other" at Colossians 1:16, why? Which also begs the question of why the word "other" was not used at John 1:3? My point and your point is how they account for this new light, what changed to justify their changes of adding and taking away words of the Bible to mean something other than what it states? +1
    – Mr. Bond
    Apr 2, 2020 at 14:27
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    @Mr.Bond There was no NWT before 1950. 1950 was the year it was first released.
    – user32540
    Apr 2, 2020 at 17:52
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    @4castle Your absolutely right, I misread my source. However, the word "other" was inserted four times in the 1950 NWT at Colossians 1:16-17 but it was not in brackets. Why does it have brackets now?
    – Mr. Bond
    Apr 2, 2020 at 19:59

3 Answers 3

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Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jehovah God and Jesus guide the earthly part of the organization by holy spirit, they also understand that the human leaders of the organization are imperfect humans, just as all other members of the congregation. The organization of Jehovah's Witnesses has a similar hierarchical structure as modern companies or other religions. At the root of the hierarchical tree of the earthly part of the organization is what is now called the Governing Body. In contrast to most other religions, the Governing Body does not claim to be inspired or infallible.

The Governing Body is neither inspired nor infallible. Therefore, it can err in doctrinal matters or in organizational direction. In fact, the Watch Tower Publications Index includes the heading “Beliefs Clarified,” which lists adjustments in our Scriptural understanding since 1870.

Watchtower February 2017 p.26 paragraph 12

Therefore, there is no 'magical' or 'divine' inspiration or change of dogmas because there are no dogmas. There are sometimes changes in understanding. Before some things were understood in a different way than now. And maybe in some time in the future, they will be understood in another way. The point is that because the Governing Body does not claim inspiration or infallibility, there is no big conflict if they change the understanding. As imperfect people, they can be wrong. And more importantly like mature imperfect people, they can admit when they are wrong, and correct their point of view.

“The Governing Body gives all credit for the success of this organization to Jehovah and the appointed head of the congregation, Jesus Christ. We are just imperfect men trying to follow the lead of Christ and the Holy Spirit.”

JW Broadcast July 2017, timestamp 12:18

So as they are all "imperfect men", there is no conflict or problem, with a change of "light" or understanding, between themselves, or previous members of the governing body, or Mr. Russell, or any other imperfect man. Problems only occur because people and also some JWs expect them to be infallible. It seems a deep desire of many religious believers to worship or blindly follow visible human religious leaders. Some people can not imagine having a religion where the leaders do not claim to have divine inspiration. I personally think it is very liberating, that leaders of my religion are aware that they are imperfect, that their organization is imperfect, and that they are not too proud to even keep a list tracking changes in understanding throughout history. In the same video linked above a member of the Governing Body quotes the line: “this is the best imperfect organization on earth.” (timestamp 14:17)

I think it is good that they are humble modest, and I hope it will stay like that. That makes the difference between a faithful, sensible servant (or discrete and faithful slave) and an evil servant.

Matthew 24:45 “A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. 46 If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. 47 I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. 48 But what if the servant is evil and thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ 49and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk? 50 The master will return unannounced and unexpected, 51 and he will cut the servant to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So the things are not automatically true because the members of the governing body say it. The members of the governing body try to be faithful and discrete by trying to say things that are true to the best of their limited human knowledge, and capabilities. If you are humble and modest, it's not a big deal to correct your mistakes. Also, Jesus stayed modest:

Luke 18:18 A ruler asked Jesus, Good Teacher, 'what must I do so that I will live for ever?' 19 Jesus answered him, Why do you call me good? Only one is good, and that is God.

And Jesus gave some warnings to stay modest to those who take the lead, and those who follow the lead:

Mark 23:8 But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your Teacher, and all of you are brothers. 9 Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. 10 Neither be called leaders, for your Leader is one, the Christ.

Of course the Brothers in the Governing Body feel responsible, so when they change their understanding, these changes often take many years' time from initiating to publication. More information on that can be found in the talk of Mr. David H. Splane (a member of the Governing Body) in the JW Broadcast of August 2016 (timestamp 18:15).

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The year 1914 is a cemented date in the eschatology because the evidence is undeniable that it was a turning point in human history, a fulfillment of Bible prophecy and chronology, and a period of great growth and refinement for Jehovah's Witnesses.

Over the years, there has been much effort to continue to "keep on the watch" (Matt. 25:13) as world events unfold, which has resulted in a number of speculations that the end is very close with varying degrees of certainty. The current attitude of Jehovah's Witnesses continues to be that the commencement of the Great Tribulation is immediately imminent. All that we are waiting for now is the cry of "peace and security!"

Do Jehovah's Witnesses feel that their false predictions are evidence of a lack of God's blessing? No. God's people in the Bible also had wrong expectations and uncertainty at times, and these were corrected with time.

Do Jehovah's Witnesses view lightly the changes to their eschatology? No. Changes are taken very seriously, and the reasons for these changes are presented clearly and logically to everyone at the time they are announced.

w13 1/1 p. 8 - "The End of the World—Fear, Fascination, and Frustration"

HAVE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES GIVEN INCORRECT DATES FOR THE END?

Jehovah’s Witnesses have had wrong expectations about when the end would come. Like Jesus’ first-century disciples, we have sometimes looked forward to the fulfillment of prophecy ahead of God’s timetable. (Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2) We agree with the sentiment of longtime Witness A. H. Macmillan, who said: “I learned that we should admit our mistakes and continue searching God’s Word for more enlightenment.”

Why, then, do we continue to highlight the nearness of the end? Because we take seriously Jesus’ words: “Keep looking, keep awake.” The alternative, to be found “sleeping” by Jesus, would prevent us from gaining his favor. (Mark 13:33, 36) Why?

Consider this example: A lookout in a fire tower might see what he thinks is a wisp of smoke on the horizon and sound what proves to be a false alarm. Later, though, his alertness could save lives.

Likewise, we have had some wrong expectations about the end. But we are more concerned with obeying Jesus and saving lives than with avoiding criticism. Jesus’ command to “give a thorough witness” compels us to warn others about the end.​—Acts 10:42.

We believe that even more important than focusing on when the end will come, we must be confident that it will come, and we must act accordingly. We take seriously the words of Habakkuk 2:3, which says: “Even if [the end] should delay [compared to what you thought], keep in expectation of it; for it will without fail come true. It will not be late.”

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    "But with God there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning, and so it is with truth; any knowledge or light coming from God must be like its author. A new view of truth never can contradict a former truth. “New Light” never extinguishes older “light” but adds to it.” (Zion’s Watch Tower 1881 Feb pp.3, 188) Is this why the expression "new light" has now been changed to "increased light" to explain the numerous chronological changes made over the last 100 years - changes that only "came to light" after it became obvious the original dates were wrong? Why did Jehovah keep you in the dark?
    – Lesley
    Apr 4, 2020 at 9:32
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    Prior to 1914, the Watchtower believed: The Last Days began 1799 - Jesus Parousia started 1874 - Jesus started ruling in heaven in 1878 - The Gentile Times would end in 1914, resulting in the end of Armageddon, the fall of false religion, the end of all earthly governments, heavenly and earthly resurrections and paradise on earth. More recently: 15 September 2010 Watchtower, page 13: “What is taught is not from men but from Jehovah.”
    – Lesley
    Apr 4, 2020 at 9:43
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    @4castle Can you edit your answer to flesh out what "The year 1914 is a cemented date in the eschatology" means? Other than connecting 1914 to 607 B.C.E. the three links you provided merely repeat how important it is without explaining what has cemented it to the point where beliefs and predictions change around it but it remains.. Apr 4, 2020 at 12:23
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    @Lesley I should point out that many of the early beliefs expressed in the Watchtower stem from traditional views of Christendom, and have been corrected as Jehovah separates his people from Babylon the Great. The term "increased light" is used more now because many of the changes are just clarifications rather than something new.
    – user32540
    Apr 4, 2020 at 16:52
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Eschatology deals with "The Last Things" - "The End Times", and chronology is about dates. Given your stress on their beliefs about different dates, and the idea that Jehovah's Witnesses [JWs] have made various changes to end-time beliefs as they relate to specific dates, you have homed in on various thresh-holds surrounding the year 1914. You ask "What is the Jehovah's Witness explanation of this constantly evolving eschatology?"

To answer that properly would require pages and pages of quotations from JW literature. It would require knowledge of just how far removed their current eschatology and chronology is from initial published beliefs. Only then could understanding come of how official JW explanations today satisfy their millions of members. Fortunately, there is a short-cut, to cut to the chase. This is to establish why JWs today accept explanations, such as those given in their own history book, Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, published in 1993. This book admits to certain eschatological and chronological changes, showing how that was tied up with clearly identifying who "The Faithful and Wise Servant" was (stated by Jesus in Matthew 24:45 to be his appointed means of spiritually feeding his flock). A foundational doctrine of JWs is that they alone, in all the earth, have this appointed means, so that to question it is to question God. Therefore, the short-cut to answering your question is to deal with the authority claimed. As all JWs unquestioningly accept the authority of that group within its midst, its explanations for how beliefs and dates have changed are sufficient for them.

Initially, many members believed this had been the first president, Charles Taze Russell. After Russell died on 31st October, 1916, questions arose about his role and the date, 1914. The Proclaimers book explains:

"However, as the light of truth progressively shone even more brightly after Brother Russell's death, and as the preaching that Jesus had foretold became even more extensive, it became evident that 'the faithful and wise servant' (KJ), or "faithful and discreet slave" (NW), had not passed off the scene when Brother Russell died... Jehovah's Witnesses today recognize the Watchtower magazine and kindred publications to be the ones used by the faithful and discreet slave to dispense spiritual food. They do not claim that this slave class is infallible, but they do view it as the one channel that the Lord is using during the last days of this system of things." (page 626)

That phrase "the one channel that the Lord is using during the last days" (emphasis theirs), once believed, ensures that this group can make any changes it deems necessary, and all members will accept the reasons given. The Proclaimers book says:

"But anyone who publicly or privately advocates views that are divergent from what appears in the publications of an organization, and who does so while claiming to represent that organization, causes division...

Jehovah's Witnesses freely acknowledge that their understanding of God's purpose has undergone many adjustments over the years. The fact that knowledge of God's purpose is progressive means that there must be change. It is not that God's purpose changes, but the enlightenment that he continuously grants to his servants calls for adjustments in their viewpoint." (p 629)

The Proclaimers book mentions problems regarding beliefs about the dates 1874, 1914, and 1975 in pages 631 to 637. Later publications also mention such problems and this satisfies all JWs (apparently). They believe this Faithful and Discreet servant class in their midst is being up-front and admitting to such problems, which it then received "increased light" on, and it is the current understanding that all JWs dwell on. They do not thank anybody for bringing up eschatological and chronological problems during the last 160 years. They consider the matter sorted, and that the need is to look to the imminent great tribulation and Armageddon.

However, the fact that their Faithful and Discreet Servant theology has undergone significant changes is highly relevant. In a nutshell, it has gone from many members in the early 1900s believing C.T. Russell to be, in his person, that one, to a group succeeding his leadership being a 'servant class', to all of their living 144,000 anointed ones being that class, to only those ones in the Governing Body being that class. Further, they have admitted quite recently that Christ did not appoint that class in 1919 to oversight of all Christ's 'possessions' on earth - that won't happen until Christ conquers at Armageddon, though before then, all of the anointed class will have died and invisibly gone up to heaven, leaving non-anointed JWs on earth to go through the great tribulation. This theology is complicated but without it, JWs would not accept every explanation and every change a tiny group of men in America publish. That's not my personal opinion. Answers here have already shown that.

This means that the long list of changed eschatological and chronological beliefs you mentioned can be dismissed by JWs today because they view their tiny group of Governing Body leaders to be the only qualified Christians on earth today who have spiritual authority to direct and instruct. They trust their obedience to them will prepare them for the great tribulation and Armageddon. They have their attention fixed on the imminent future, and errors made getting to their current stance are to be expected, given that their leaders have never claimed to be infallible, and given that they have no dogmas. The only thresh-hold they see is the approaching one of Armageddon, for which they have no date (now that the date 1914 has been cut loose from their old literal 'generation' teaching.)

EDIT: Due to a request to provide sources for some of these claims, I add this:

Many Bible Students, up till shortly after Russell’s death, said he was, singularly, that one ‘Slave’. That was dropped with the new leadership saying it was a collective class (themselves) who represented all the anointed Witnesses. They claimed that in 1919 A.D. Jesus examined the Wt.Soc leaders and appointed them over all Christ’s ‘domestics’ (who were all, likewise, ‘anointed’), and over all Christ’s ‘belongings’ as per Mat.24:29-24. (Source 1 May 1993 Watchtower p.16 onward.) The GB claimed that they alone comprise the F&DS class, no longer just being a representative group for all the anointed. More sources from JW literature regarding this: Watchtower 1 February 1952 page 80; Watchtower 1 October 1967 pages 590 & 591; Watchtower 1 July 1973 page 402; God’s Kingdom of a Thousand Years Has Approached page 355, published in 1975. In the mid-1930s the ‘calling’ to heaven (via holy spirit anointing) was said to have virtually closed. A new un-anointed group, who would never get to heaven but stay on earth, began to be gathered in. Numbers claiming to be anointed gradually decreased and numbers of the un-anointed shot up. But in 2005 there were 8,524 claiming to be anointed while by 2020 that had steadily climbed to 21,000+. This proved the doctrine of the ‘calling’ having more or less ceased in the mid 1930s to be wrong.

Preparing the ground for admitting this, the 15 Jan 2001 Watchtower, p.31 announced removing their anointed GB members from being directors of their legal corporation, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, with un-anointed JWs filling those places instead. Men of the ‘other sheep’ class would serve as directors and officers of that legal entity. The inside front cover of that edition said the new President of the Wt.Soc. was now N.H. Larson, a member of the other sheep. (But the article repeated their belief that the GB started at Pentecost 33 A.D. p. 29). This was first announced at the 7 October 2000 annual meeting. The reason why this is tied up with changing F&DS doctrine is to enable un-anointed JWs to start taking over duties previously the exclusive domain of anointed JWs.

In the 1 May 2007 Watchtower, Questions From Readers article p30-31 the question was answered, ‘When does the calling of Christians to a heavenly hope cease?’ It was admitted that what they’d believed for around 40 years – that the call to the heavenly Kingdom had ended in 1935 – was based on a misinterpretation of Mat.20:1-16. “Thus, it appears that we cannot set a specific date for when the calling of Christians to the heavenly hope ends.” That would help deal with the problem of claimants to being anointed shooting up by thousands every year. Further, that article added that “genuine anointed Christians do not believe that they necessarily have more holy spirit than their companions of the other sheep have.” If that is true, then all JWs need to know if all (or just some) of the men comprising their Governing Body are indwelt with God's Holy Spirit (or even 'holy spirit') - or not. After all, if the Governing Body does not have any more of 'holy spirit' than they do, on what basis can this Governing Body claim any authority over them at all?

Then, at the 2012 annual meeting, the teaching that the F&DS class had been appointed by Christ over “all his belongings” was said to be wrong. They said that appointment would not happen until Christ came as Judge at the future great tribulation. Although the F&DS class had been appointed to “feed the domestics”, that other appointment had not yet happened (and, note, “the domestics” used to be thought to be anointed JWs). Another change to the F&DS class doctrine was also made – that class could not have begun until after Christ’s ‘presence’ in 1914. http://www.jw.org/en/news/events/activities/annual-meeting-report-2012/ http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/rl/lp-e/2007610?q=end+heavenly+calling&p=par

In conclusion, the more recent change, to appoint non-anointed JWs to be directors and officers in the legal corporation, withdrawing the GB from that, needs to be kept an eye on, as does this claim,

"All who want to understand the Bible should appreciate that the "greatly diversified wisdom of God" can become known only through Jehovah's channel of communication, the faithful and discreet slave." (Watchtower, Oct. 1, 1994, p. 8)

There’s a need to know all the changes about what this tiny group claim regarding themselves, from 1914 till now. All of these changes are woven into the PO’s question, “How do JWs explain the dramatic changes in their eschatology?” to show that there’s much more to the 1914 date than most people realise. And all of this is bound up with GB claims about itself and its authority.

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    This sounds similar to the unfolding of revelation by prophets within the LDS church. Jan 4 at 20:57
  • Fact checking: first thing that jumps out is the false statement that non anointed JWs are in the Governing Body.
    – user23657
    Jan 4 at 21:19
  • “Further, they have admitted quite recently that Christ did not appoint that class in 1919 to oversight of all Christ's 'possessions' on earth - that won't happen until Christ conquers at Armageddon”. Could you source this assertion?
    – user23657
    Jan 4 at 23:19
  • All GB members are spirit anointed. Helpers to GB are not necessarily spirit anointed. Any helper that is appointed to GB would of course be spirit anointed.
    – user23657
    Jan 5 at 17:13
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    @Kris Yes, I've noted they are no longer working, but years ago they were, and I printed out relevant material for the 2012 annual meeting. I was working from that. I also have the printed copy of the Watchtower magazine admitting to changes in F&DS doctrine. I will remove the bit about non-anointed JWs in the GB.
    – Anne
    Jan 5 at 17:40

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