The Problem with "False Prophecy" Polemics
Suppose I had access to everything you had done or said since you
were a little child, stored on a computer. It would be a simple matter
for me to pick out a hundred or two hundred of the worst things you’d
said and done over the course of your life, to write them up in a
list with dates, times and places and then to proclaim, in the same
way as a correspondent did in one of his emails to me: “The question
is not what you have got wrong, but whether you got anything right.” On the other hand, by a
similar process of selecting the 100-200 kindest, most generous,
loving things you’d
done, I could equally make you look like a saint. Both pictures would be true
in a sense, but neither would be the whole truth. Why is this important?
the last 125 years, Jehovah’s
Witnesses have published literally millions of words in publications
such as The Watchtower. This includes powerful
arguments against atheism and the theory of evolution, eloquent
defences of the Bible as the inspired word of God, articles
upholding the Bible’s
stance on moral issues such as abortion, fornication, adultery and
Watchtower publications have long exhorted their readers to
display Christian qualities and imitate Jesus. They have shown how applying
counsel can benefit family life. Through The
Watchtower, millions of people have been comforted by the Bible’s
message of hope.
You might expect that evangelical Christian organizations would
happily applaud most of the above. After all, evangelical
Christians believe in God and reject evolution, consider the Bible
to be God’s
inspired word, oppose sexual sins and abortion. They, too, speak of the need
to imitate Jesus and display Christlike qualities. You would expect, then, that
evangelical Christian groups could find a lot of positive things to
say about The Watchtower. You’d
Witnesses for energetically spreading the above-mentioned views
throughout the world and in literally hundreds of languages. But you would be wildly
An analysis of quotations from The Watchtower
and other Jehovah’s
Witness publications made by evangelical Christian writers -
particularly on the Internet, but also in print - reveals that, far
from commending Witness literature for all the positive material
they publish, these writers consistently attack Jehovah’s
Witnesses and actively seek anything that could possibly be used to
discredit them - including many things published more than 100 years
You could compare their attitude with that of a man who visits one
of the world’s
most beautiful cities - say Vienna. Instead of touring the most
attractive parts of the city, though, this man visits the Municipal
Garbage Dump and photographs the rubbish there. Then he goes to the
industrial area and photographs the factories. Everywhere he goes he
looks for the ugliest, most sordid parts of the city. Making copious use of
close-ups to highlight the least attractive parts and using the most
unflattering camera angles, he ensures his pictures give the worst
Then, on his return home, he shows the photographs to his
friends, to convince them that Vienna is the most awful city in the
In resorting to similar tactics, critics
of Witness publications immediately reveal their bias. The Watchtower Society is
their ideological opponent, to be defeated at all costs. They comb through old
Watchtowers, going back as far as 130 years. They take whatever suits
their purpose and ignore the rest. They rip quotes out of their
context, attempting to make it look as though they say much more
than they actually meant. Why
do they do it? They do it because it is their job to do it!
In short, they are far from being an objective source of
Frankly, few Jehovah's Witnesses are likely to be taken in by such
chicanery. It is easy to detect an agenda behind this type of
mudslinging. Just about anyone who wanted to believe it has
already done so. And as for the rest of us, what hasn't killed
us has made us stronger.
But we should not reject a person’s
criticism simply because we feel it is wrongly motivated. Prejudiced and hate-filled
people can sometimes be at least partially right. As Christians, we should be
discerning, remembering the admonition of the proverb, “anyone
inexperienced puts faith in every word.” (Proverbs 14:15) With that in mind, let us
examine the assertions commonly made in anti-Witness literature
concerning the Witnesses’
alleged “false prophecies”.
Taken Out of Context
The standard technique of critics appears to be to present a list of
alleged “false prophecies”, the
longer the better. There are dozens of such
lists on the Internet.
These take the form of quotations from The Watchtower
and other Witness publications.
Whereas the majority of the
themselves are accurate, the context in which they were presented -
both the immediate context of the printed page and the historical
context - is omitted. Selective quotations ensure
that anything that gives the impression of certainty is usually
included, whereas any cautionary statements are omitted.
We are not for a moment denying that the publications - in
particular the earlier ones -
have at times published information that was speculative in nature
and turned out to be mistaken.
But the fact is that, for each of the dates commonly touted
by critics as
(1874, 1914, 1925, 1975), Watch Tower publications had published
cautionary statements to the effect that it was by no means certain
what would happen.
Consider, for example, the following statements, which
emphasise that the basis for the conclusions was Bible study
not some message from God:
regard to 1874: It should be noted
was not published until 1879 and Russell himself did not become
aware of the 1874 date until 1876! So it was hardly a matter of
a failed prediction.
With regard to 1914: :
"We are not prophesying; we are merely giving our surmises . . . We
do not even aver that there is no mistake in our interpretation
of prophecy and our calculations of chronology. We have merely
laid these before you, leaving it for each to exercise his own faith
or doubt in respect to them" (emphasis added).
With regard to
1925: "The year 1925 is here. With great expectation
Christians have looked forward to this year. Many have confidently
expected that all members of the body of Christ will be changed to
heavenly glory during this year. This may be accomplished. It may
not be. In his own due time God will accomplish his purposes
concerning his people. Christians should not be so deeply concerned
about what may transpire this year."
With regard to 1975:
about the year 1975? What is it going to mean, dear friends?’
asked Brother Franz.
it mean that Armageddon is going to be finished, with Satan bound,
by 1975? It could! It could! All things are possible with God. Does
it mean that Babylon the Great is going to go down by 1975? It
could. Does it mean that the attack of Gog of Magog is going to be
made on Jehovah’s
witnesses to wipe them out, then Gog himself will be put out of
action? It could. But we are not saying. All things are possible
with God. But we are not saying. And don’t
any of you be specific in saying anything that is going to happen
between now and 1975.
It’s obvious, therefore, that the situation was by no means as
clear-cut as Watchtower opposers would have us believe.
By omitting these more cautionary statements, many of which
are in the same articles as the quotations they like to print,
enemies of Jehovah’s Witnesses give a misleading picture of events and endeavour to
make a suggested interpretation look like a prophecy.
No Claim of Inspiration
Not to be overlooked is the larger context of the role of the Watch
Tower publications. Whereas Watchtower writers
undoubtedly pray for God’s blessing on their work and sincerely believe that God answers
these prayers, they make no pretensions of being inspired,
infallible or perfect. Consider the following extracts from Watch Tower
publications, which prove that this is the case.
(This is just a small selection of examples. Many more could be cited,
but care has been taken to include at least one example for every
decade since The Watchtower began to be published.)
We do not object to changing our opinions on any subject, or
discarding former applications of prophecy, or any other scripture, when we see a
good reason for the change,—in fact, it is important that we should be willing to unlearn
errors and mere traditions, as to learn truth.... It is our duty to
"prove all things."—by the unerring Word,—"and hold fast to that which is good."
not the gift of prophecy.”
1890s: Nor would we have our writings reverenced or regarded as
infallible, or on a par with
the holy Scriptures. The most we claim or have ever claimed for
our teachings is that they are what we believe to be harmonious interpretations of the divine Word, in harmony with the spirit
of the truth. And we still urge, as in the past, that each reader
study the subjects we present in the light of the Scriptures,
proving all things by the Scriptures, accepting what they see to be
thus approved, and rejecting all else. It is to this end, to
enable the student to trace the subject in the divinely inspired
Record, that we so freely intersperse both quotations and citations
of the Scriptures upon which to build.
It is not our intention to enter upon the role of prophet to any
but merely to give below what seems to us rather likely to be the
trend of events—giving also the reasons for our expectations.
Someone may ask, Do you, then, claim
infallibility and that every sentence appearing in "The Watch Tower"
publications is stated with absolute correctness? Assuredly we make
no such claim and have never made such a claim. What motive can our
opponents have in so charging against us? Are they not seeking to
set up a falsehood to give themselves excuse for making attacks and
to endeavor to pervert the judgments of others?
However, we should not denounce those who in a proper spirit express their dissent in respect to the date
mentioned  and what may there be expected . . . We must admit
that there are possibilities of our having made a mistake in respect
to the chronology, even though we do not see where any mistake has
been made in calculating the seven times of the Gentiles as expiring
about October 1, 1914.
Many students have made the grievous mistake of thinking
that God has inspired men to interpret prophecy. The holy prophets
of the Old Testament were inspired by Jehovah to write as his power
moved upon them. The writers of the New Testament were clothed with
certain power and authority to write as the Lord directed them.
However, since the days of the apostles no man on earth has been
inspired to write prophecy, nor has any man been inspired to
We are not a prophet; we merely believe that we have come to the
place where the Gentile times have ended
This pouring out of God's spirit upon the flesh of all his
faithful anointed witnesses does not mean those now serving as
Jehovah's Witnesses are inspired. It does not mean that the writings
in this magazine The Watchtower are inspired and infallible and
without mistakes. It does not mean that the president of the
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society is inspired and infallible,
although enemies falsely charge us with believing so.... But we
confess with the Scriptures that
the day of such inspiration passed long before 1870, as the
apostle Paul showed it would. . . . Inspired speaking and writing passed away with the last of the
twelve apostles, by whom the gifts of the spirit were imparted
to others. Yet God is still able to teach and lead us.
While confessing no inspiration for today for anyone on earth,
we do have the privilege of praying God for more of his holy spirit
and for his guidance of us by the bestowal of his spirit through
The Watchtower does not claim to be inspired in its utterances,
nor is it dogmatic. It invites careful and critical examination of
its contents in the light of the Scriptures.
1960s: The book [Life Everlasting in Freedom of
Sons of God] merely presents the chronology. You can
accept it or reject it
Our chronology, however, ... is
reasonably accurate (but admittedly not infallible)
In this regard, however, it must be observed that this “faithful and
discreet slave” was never inspired, never perfect. Those writings by
certain members of the “slave” class that came to form the Christian
part of God’s Word were inspired and infallible, but that is not true of other
writings since. Things published were not perfect in the days of
Charles Taze Russell, first president of the Watch Tower Bible and
Tract Society; nor were they perfect in the days of J. F.
Rutherford, the succeeding president. The increasing light on God’s Word as well as the facts of history have repeatedly required
that adjustments of one kind or another be made down to the very
1980s: It is not claimed that the explanations in
this publication are infallible. Like Joseph of old, we say: “Do not
interpretations belong to God?” (Genesis 40:8) At the same time,
however, we firmly believe that the explanations set forth herein
harmonize with the Bible in its entirety, showing how remarkably
divine prophecy has been fulfilled in the world events of our
Those who make up the one true Christian organization today do not
have angelic revelations or divine inspiration. But they do have the
inspired Holy Scriptures, which contain revelations of God’s thinking and will. As an organization and individually, they must
accept the Bible as divine truth, study it carefully, and let it
work in them.
Although the slave class is defined as “faithful and
discreet,” Jesus did not say that it would be infallible. This group
of faithful anointed brothers still consists of imperfect
Christians. Even with the best of intentions, they can be mistaken,
as such men sometimes were in the first century.
It’s therefore quite clear that Jehovah’s Witnesses make no claim to divine inspiration for their
publications. Thus, the critics' assertion that “the Watch Tower
claims to be an inspired prophet” is manifestly false.
Haydon Covington concede that the Watch Tower is a False Prophet?
Did Haydon Covington concede in the
trial that the Watch Tower Society has promulgated false prophecy,
as is stated by critics?
Even if he had done so, what would that have proved? If
Covington had said that the thought the Society was a false prophet,
then he would have been mistaken, that is all. However, a look at the court record (even as it is
quoted on anti-Witness web pages) shows that Covington did nothing
of the sort.
The court records show that
Covington said: “I do not think we have promulgated false prophecy
... there have been statements that were erroneous, that is the way
I put it, and mistaken.” When asked hypothetically if it would have been a false prophecy if
the Society had authoritatively promulgated 1874 as the date for the
return of Christ’s coming, Covington himself pointed out that this was only an
assumption, and is then is recorded as having said the words “I
agree that”. This is an incomplete
sentence in English. Now it could very well be that he was interrupted and
was not intending to agree that a false prophecy had been made. If we take the court to read “I agree to
that”, he was simply agreeing
hypothetically that the Society would have been guilty of
false prophecy under a certain set
of circumstances, namely if it had promulgated as authoritative that
Christ returned in 1874. Now the records show that Covington had not studied
the Society’s literature relating to 1874, saying “you are speaking of a matter
that I know nothing of.” So, Covington’s comments, viewed in their proper context do not prove the point
Witness critics are trying to make.
Covington certainly did not mean that the Society was
responsible for a false prophecy, as he had just a few moments
earlier stated the very opposite. And as we have seen, the Society did not
‘authoritatively promulgate’ 1874 as the date, it merely presented
it to its readers to decide for themselves.
Of course, Witnesses do believe that God is using them - and their publications - to
accomplish his work. But that is not the same as
believing that God personally directs the writing of Watchtower
Publications in the way that he inspired the Bible.
The above quotations - and many others - show that at no time
in the history of the organization has it claimed to be God’s prophet, inspired or infallible.
It is evident here that critics are setting up a straw man
argument. In other words, they are
imputing to Watch Tower a position that it does not claim for itself
and then refuting that position, instead of the Society’s actual position. This is really nothing but a
dishonest debating trick.
Thus, the Watch Tower quotations, taken
in context and stripped of all hyperbole and rhetoric, establish
basically one thing only: that Watch Tower publications have on a
number of occasions presented interpretations of Bible prophecies
which later turned out to be incorrect. It is not possible to argue on the basis of the
Watchtower literature that (1) the Society claims that its
literature is inspired of God or infallible, (2) that it claimed to
speak in the name of God as a prophet.
Admittedly, it would certainly have been better for all concerned
had the publications refrained from publishing such speculative
interpretations, which doubtless led to disappointment for many.
‘The Watchtower’, far from covering over these facts, has admitted openly that this
is the case, as is seen from the following extract from The
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.
Thus the Watch Tower Society has
recognised that it was a mistake to speculate. But was it the only ever religious organization to
make such a mistake?
Double Standards and Bigotry
If Jehovah’s Witnesses have had mistaken expectations about the fulfillment of
Bible prophecies, they are far from alone.
Many other students of the Bible - including some highly
respected Catholic and Protestant writers - have made similar
mistakes to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whole books have been written on the subject of
predictions that failed to come true, but let’s look at just three examples from the world of Protestantism:
Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham.
Protestant leader Martin Luther, believed that the end would come in his day.
He believed the Turkish war would be "the final wrath of God, in which the world
will come to an end and Christ will come to destroy Gog and Magog and set free His own"? and that "Christ has given a sign by which one can know when the
Judgment Day is near. When the Turk will have an end, we can
certainly predict that the Judgment must be at the door"
John Wesley wrote:
"1836 The end of the non-chronos, and
of the many kings; the fulfilling of the word, and of the mystery
of God; the repentance of the survivors in the great city; the end
of the 'little time,' and of the three times and a half; the
destruction of the east; the imprisonment of Satan."
In 1950, Billy Graham,
the well-known US evangelist, told a rally in Los
Angeles: “I sincerely believe that the Lord draweth nigh. We may have another year,
maybe two years, to work for Jesus Christ, and, Ladies and
Gentlemen, I believe it is all going to be over ... two years and it’s all going to be over.”
If it had been Jehovah’s Witnesses who had said the things that Luther, Wesley and Graham
proclaimed, these proclamations would have been added to the list of
quotations supposedly proving
the Witnesses are false prophets. Unsurprisingly, however, the sources that attack the
Witnesses for false prophecy do not generally take the same position
when it comes to Protestant figures who have made very similar
This should give all of us food for thought.
If a newspaper editor were to publish in his paper all the
crimes committed by members of just one ethnic group or race,
dwelling on them in great detail, even repeatedly bringing up very
old offences, but at the same time, ignoring all the crimes
committed by members of another group (perhaps his own), then
thinking people who looked at the facts would conclude that he was
nothing but a bigot. What are we to think, then, when certain ones
opposed to Jehovah’s Witnesses constantly harp on what they incorrectly and
maliciously term “false prophecies” of the organization, reproducing
ad nauseam the same quotations from Watch Tower literature, the
majority of which were published almost 100 years ago, while
remaining deadly silent about all similar errors by those who share
their theological convictions? Is the word
‘bigoted’ any less appropriate? At any rate, their agenda is
obvious and respect for the truth is not high on their list of
I do not think that the comments of Luther, Wesley or Graham make
them false prophets, for the same reason that I don’t accept that the Watch Tower is a false prophet, namely, that
interpreting Bible prophecy is not the same as prophesying.
Prophecy and Interpretation
It is true that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they are being guided by God.
‘guidance’ is a much broader concept than
‘inspiration’. True, inspiration is a form of guidance, but it is
only one form. In this regard, Stafford makes a very telling
It cannot truthfully be said that to be
inspired by God to produce flawless information is the same as being
guided or lead by a flawless source, whether that source be the
Scriptures or an angel sent by God. Why? Because in the former case
the person is taken over by God, given a vision, revelation
(sometimes in a dream), or put into a trance. The person then
receives God's thoughts and will which are then channelled through
the individual, providing information he or she would otherwise not
have known. However, in the latter case one could simply
misunderstand or ignore the directions given, which would make the
accuracy of what they do or say dependent upon whether or not they
correctly understood the inspired source.
“Prophecy” involves much more than simply predicting the future. It involves claiming to have a message directly from
God. It is not the same as interpreting events or even
interpreting the prophetic parts of the Bible.
Russell understood this and that is why he said: “The most we claim or have ever claimed for our teachings is that
they are what we believe to be harmonious interpretations of the divine Word, in harmony with the spirit
of the truth”, adding “we are far from claiming any direct plenary inspiration”
Similarly, when Wesley drew the conclusion that the end
would come in 1836, he did so on the basis of his understanding of
the Bible. Of course, this understanding turned out to be
completely and utterly wrong, but that does not make him a false
prophet. When Billy Graham stated in 1950 that the end would
come within two years, he was not claiming that God had personally
spoken to him through a
or a vision. He was just stating what he
believed after comparing world events with what he knew from the
Bible. No charitable person would accuse Graham of being a
false prophet because of that (although it is obvious that he did
make an error of judgment).
Likewise, when Luther stated that the Turkish war would lead
to the end of the world, he was woefully mistaken, but that
certainly does not make him a false prophet.
Incidentally, Luther, on the basis of his understanding of
the Bible, also contradicted Copernicus and insisted that the earth
was the centre of the universe! 
Thus, the Watch Tower Society is not a false prophet, for the simple
reason that it is not a prophet. It makes no claim that any
of its members have heard voices from God,
seen visions or in any other way been directly influenced to
make a certain proclamation beyond what is in the Bible. It has made mistakes in explaining or interpreting parts of the
Bible, but as we have seen, so have other religious organizations.
On the basis of the above, critics of
Jehovah's Witnesses have some questions to answer:
(1) Do they think it is truthful and fair to focus on a minute
selection of the Watch Tower’s published material - the most negative part - and ignore
(2) Can they cite the Watch Tower publication where the Society
claims to be an “inspired prophet” (their expression, not ours). On what do they base that conclusion, and how do they
explain the dozens of quotations I have presented from the Society’s literature - from all periods of its history - where the Society
(3) Why do they present the Watchtower’s statements about future events as prophetic statements, rather
than what they really were - interpretations?
(4) Do they believe that others who have
had mistaken expectations, including Martin Luther, John Wesley and
Billy Graham, are false prophets, and if not, why not?
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that they should be above honest
criticism and have not hidden the fact that they have made errors in
their interpretations. But honest criticism implies respect for truth - the
whole truth, not just extracts taken out of context and twisted to
give an impression that they were never intended to give.
Beware of half truths. You might end up believing the wrong half!
Footnotes and References
 I am grateful to other Witness writers for bringing
many of these citations to my attention.
Additionally, the book Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended, Second Edition [JWD2]
by Greg Stafford contains extensive research on this matter. Quotations from publications after 1950 are generally
taken from the Watchtower Library 2003 CD-ROM. Almost all Russell’s
writings are freely available on the Internet.
Zion's Watch Tower,
January 1, 1908 (reprint) page 4110
 The Watch Tower, January 1, 1925, page 3.
 The Watchtower, 15 October 1966, page 631.
Zion’s Watch Tower, January 1883, page 425.
Zion 's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence,
15 December 1896, reprint, 2080 (emphasis added).
"Views From the Watch Tower," Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence, 1 March
1904, reprint, 3327 (emphasis added).
Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence,
15 September 1909, reprint, 4473.
The Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence,
15 November 1913, repr. 5348 (emphasis added).
(Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1929), 61-62
vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1930), 194
 The Watchtower, 15 May 1947, pp. 157-8.
"Name and Purpose of the Watchtower," The Watchtower, 15 August 1950, 262-263 (emphasis added)
 The Watchtower, 15 October 1966, page 631.
 The Watchtower, 15 August 1968, page 499.
 The Watchtower, 1 March 1979, page 23-24.
 Revelation - Its Grand Climax at Hand, page 9. (Published 1988)
 Jehovah’s Witnesses - Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom,
page 708 (Published 1993)
 The Watchtower, 1 December 2002, page 17.
Occasionally, The Watchtower
(for example 1 April 1972) has referred to true
Christians (not specifically to the writers of Watch Tower
publications) as “prophets”. However, the word is placed in inverted commas, which
shows that it is not meant literally. The 1972 article is simply
drawing parallels between experiences in the life of the prophet
Ezekiel and those of Christians today as they fulfil Christ’s
commission to preach to all the nations. This sense of the word
‘prophecy’ is recognised by many ‘mainstream’ Christians., Billy
Graham’s biography is called “A prophet with Honor” .
Pope John Paul II spoke of ‘the ‘prophetic office’ of the People of God -
meaning their responsibility to give a Christian witness. (http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/pope0264of.htm) In view of other comments (cited in the main
article) in which the Society specifically repudiates prophet
status, both before and after this article was published, attempts
to use this article to demonstrate that the Watch Tower Society
claims to be an inspired prophet are obviously misrepresenting the
sense of the article.
John T. Baldwin, "Luther's Eschatological Appraisal of the Turkish
Threat in Eine Heerpredigt -wider den Tuerken [Army Sermon
Against the Turks],"
Andrews University Seminary Studies 33.2 (Autumn 1995), 196.
Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence,
15 July 1899, reprint, 2506
 Luther is also quoted on certain websites as having
said that Jesus would return 300 years from his time.
(The Familiar Discourses of Dr. Martin Luther, trans.
by Henry Bell and revised by Joseph Kerby [London: Baldwin, Craddock
and Joy, 1818], pp. 7,8.) I have not been able to verify this source, although
I have no reason to doubt it.
 A computer search for the expression “inspired prophet” on the
Watchtower 2003 CD-ROM (containing The Watchtower) since 1950 plus most other publications,
revealed that the expression came up 44 times. Every single
occurrence was referring to a Bible writer.