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Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses (1985)

by M. James Penton

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623318,701 (3.89)1
"Since 1876, Jehovah's Witnesses have believed that they are living in the last days of the present world. Charles T. Russell, their founder, advised his followers that members of Christ's church would be raptured in 1878, and by 1914 Christ would destroy the nations and establish his kingdom on earth. The first prophecy was not fulfilled, but the outbreak of the First World War lent some credibility to the second. Ever since that time, Jehovah's Witnesses have been predicting that the world would end 'shortly.' Their numbers have grown to many millions in over two hundred countries. They distribute a billion pieces of literature annually, and continue to anticipate the end of the world. Apocalypticism is the key issue in this detailed history, but there are others. As a long-time member of the sect, now expelled, Penton offers a comprehensive overview of a remarkable religious movement. His book is divided into three parts, each presenting the Witnesses' story in a different context: historical, doctrinal, and sociological. Some of the issues he discusses are known to the general public, such as the sect's opposition to military service and blood transfusions. Others involve internal controversies, including political control of the organization and the handling of dissent within the ranks. Penton has combined the special insight of an insider with the critical analysis of an observer now at a distance from his subject. From them he has created a penetrating study of a spreading world phenomenon. In this second edition, an afterword by the author brings us up to date on events since Apocalypse Delayed was first published in 1985. Penton considers changes in doctrine, practice, and governance on issues such as medical treatment, higher education, apostates, and the apocalypse. This edition features a revised and expanded bibliography"--Introduction.… (more)

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Knock, knock, knock

Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Third Edition by M. James Penton (University of Toronto Press, $39.95).

Despite their persistent door-knocking–now into its second century–the Jehovah’s Witnesses remain an extremely small sect (roughly nine million worldwide; approximately 1.9 million in the U.S.–or about .005% of the population). What most people know about this offshoot of the Adventist movement is that they require members to evangelize aggressively from door to door.

Like most branches of Adventism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses anticipate the end of the world–Armageddon–any minute now. Unlike most other Adventist sects, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a lengthy history of using scriptural interpretation to predict an actual date for the arrival of Armageddon. And, of course, that also means that the group also has a lengthy history of prophetic failure.

While most books about the Witnesses are written either by disgruntled former members or Christians of some other denomination who wish to evangelize members of the group, M. James Penton’s Apocalypse Delayed is the gold standard in scholarly writing on the subject. Now updated in this third edition, Penton–who, unfortunately, falls into the “disgruntled former member” camp–uses academic standards in his history of Jehovah’s Witnesses and explication of their beliefs, with documentation from sources both inside and outside the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (one of the many legal corporations that constitute the Jehovah’s Witnesses).

Penton’s book remains hands-down the best history of the group, and one of his strong points is the insightful critique he offers of most opposition writers. While he can hardly be accused of withholding his criticism of the Witnesses, he’s also not willing to blindly accept accusations made against them by others. For example, he calls Jerry Bergmann*, a former Witness who writes extensively on the psychological make-up of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to task for over-generalization based on extremely limited evidence, a criticism that is well-deserved.

However, Penton’s research–while noting a rise in dissidence in the ranks–does not directly attribute this increase in dissonance to an obvious source: the Internet. Those of us who have been paying attention to high-control groups like the Witnesses for years are aware that pages and sites for unhappy members of the Seventh Day Adventists, the LDS and Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first uses of the Web.

Further, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses strongly advised their members to avoid the Internet as a negative source of information and a possible source of temptation. That makes the recent heavy use of their own website (www.jw.org) as an evangelizing tool, including their use of tracts that include the website, all the more fascinating–yet Penton has not a word about it.

Nor does he comment on the changes in the evangelizing work–the door-to-door ministry–observed by veteran Witness watchers. These include less actual door-to-door work and increased use of stationary tables with displays and carts full of literature in public places, a reflection of the number of people who are no longer at home during the day.

What’s more, the single biggest controversy for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the last fifteen years has, without a doubt, been the number of lawsuits brought–along with the ensuing bad publicity–against the organization for hiding child molesters in the congregations and for pressuring members to not file police complaints in such matters. Covered in the national press in the United States and the U.K., the issue of pedophiles in the congregations–and the secrecy on the part of the organization’s leadership–has led in recent years to a number of high-profile disfellowshippings (the equivalent of excommunication), and has resulted in a dissident organization (Silent Lambs, www.silentlambs.org) which works in tandem with the larger and higher-profile SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, www.snapnetwork.org). This situation receives no mention in the new edition.

Similarly, the section that deals with blood transfusions–banned by Jehovah’s Witnesses for years–is not updated. Recent changes in doctrine allow members to take “fractions” of blood (its constituent parts) as allowed by their conscience, but not whole blood. This leads to a rather interesting situation: It’s entirely possible for a Witness to, should their conscience allow, have I.V.s of each “fraction” of blood–the red cells, the white cells, the liquid–independently and still not have taken “blood,” using the same illogic that says if one eats two slices of bread, a scoop of mayonaise, a leaf of lettuce and a piece of bologna, one did not eat a sandwich.

There’s no mention of this change, nor is there any discussion of the use of Hemopure, which seems acceptable to the leadership of the organization despite being a product of cow’s blood. Nor is there any mention of the Associated Jehovah’s Witnesses for Reform on Blood (now the Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood, www.ajwrb.org), a group formed by Witness elders in 1998 to work internally to bring about changes to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ blood policy.

While Penton retains an excellent historical analysis of the origins of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their doctrine and practices up to the early 1980s, this new edition lacks any substantial revision or addition of new information about the sect. It seems, unfortunately, as if he stopped paying attention to Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1990–and that’s relatively crucial, since the very nature of their apocalyptic doctrine changed in 1995, when the Watchtower introduced the concept of “overlapping generations” as a way to back away from the reality that Armageddon had still not arrived when they said it would.

While this remains a highly recommended scholarly work on the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there’s simply nothing new to see in this Third Edition. Of course, that means there’s plenty of opportunity for new scholarship on the subject.

Reviewed on Lit/Rant: www.litrant.tumblr.com ( )
2 vote KelMunger | May 1, 2015 |
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:

1. 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).

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Concluding Thoughts

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. ( )
2 vote StephenBarkley | Jul 31, 2014 |
A little dry, but an interesting history of Jehovah's Witnesses. ( )
  llrose01 | Apr 23, 2009 |
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Epigraph
Eternity looks grander and kinder if time grows meaner and more hostile.
--Thomas Carlyle
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To Marilyn -- friend, comrade, wife, and sister in Christ -- without whom this book would never have been written.
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(Preface): Seldom should an author's preface be an apologia pro vita sua, but this one must be, at least in part.
(Introduction): The religious community now known as Jehovah's Witnesses was originally developed into a separate sect in the 1970s and has remained one ever since.
Jehovah's Witnesses have grown out of the religious environment of lage ninteenth-century American Protestantism.
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"Since 1876, Jehovah's Witnesses have believed that they are living in the last days of the present world. Charles T. Russell, their founder, advised his followers that members of Christ's church would be raptured in 1878, and by 1914 Christ would destroy the nations and establish his kingdom on earth. The first prophecy was not fulfilled, but the outbreak of the First World War lent some credibility to the second. Ever since that time, Jehovah's Witnesses have been predicting that the world would end 'shortly.' Their numbers have grown to many millions in over two hundred countries. They distribute a billion pieces of literature annually, and continue to anticipate the end of the world. Apocalypticism is the key issue in this detailed history, but there are others. As a long-time member of the sect, now expelled, Penton offers a comprehensive overview of a remarkable religious movement. His book is divided into three parts, each presenting the Witnesses' story in a different context: historical, doctrinal, and sociological. Some of the issues he discusses are known to the general public, such as the sect's opposition to military service and blood transfusions. Others involve internal controversies, including political control of the organization and the handling of dissent within the ranks. Penton has combined the special insight of an insider with the critical analysis of an observer now at a distance from his subject. From them he has created a penetrating study of a spreading world phenomenon. In this second edition, an afterword by the author brings us up to date on events since Apocalypse Delayed was first published in 1985. Penton considers changes in doctrine, practice, and governance on issues such as medical treatment, higher education, apostates, and the apocalypse. This edition features a revised and expanded bibliography"--Introduction.

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