Sorry about the long read. Not like I'm tying you up and forcing you to read it...
This essay is intended to (a) familiarize the layperson with the predictions made by the 1917 book The Finished Mystery, (b) convey the current WTS view of the book, (c) convey the weight with which its arguments were presented at the time of its publication (and therefore, how it would have been received by the contemporaneous Bible Students). Some claim the WTS has never acted as a false prophet; this essay provides some evidence to the contrary.
1918—Failed Watchtower Prediction or Chronological Miscalculation?
The Watch Tower Society (WTS) regards the 1917 book The Finished Mystery as one of its most important historic publications, and it is one of the few works from the WWI era that still receives frequent mention in modern Watchtower writings. Charles Taze Russell had penned six volumes of the series “Studies in the Scriptures,” which, even more than The Watch Tower journal, expounded his teachings in great detail. Russell died in 1916, without having written the planned seventh and final volume. New WTS president “Judge” Rutherford immediately authorized the Seventh Volume to be completed (unbeknownst to his enemies within the corporation), and it was written by Clayton Woodworth and George Fisher. The work was advertised as “a posthumous publication of Pastor Russell.” Published in 1917, its initial release was accompanied by Rutherford’s dismissal of the WTS officers he viewed as enemies, contrary to the instructions left in Russell’s will. Keep in mind that 1914-1918 is the critical time period during which, according to the current WTS teaching, Jesus was inspecting the religions of the world immediately after his Fall 1914 return.
The book itself is an extremely detailed verse-by-verse commentary of the books of Revelation, Song of Solomon, and Ezekiel.
Now, before we examine the predictions made by The Finished Mystery (hereafter referred to as TFM), it will be helpful to gain an overview of the Society’s opinion of this work. What does the WTS currently teach about TFM, what did the WTS teach about the “author” C.T. Russell in 1917, and how did it view TFM at the time of its publication?
How Does the Society View The Finished Mystery Today?
TFM continues to be viewed as a landmark publication, a shining moment in WTS history.
TFM touched off one of the most significant events in WTS history—an event that is now relied upon as proof of their claim to be “God’s channel.”
The July 15, 1950 WT explains:
That Bible-study help, The Finished Mystery, was an exposé of the religious systems of Christendom. So the enemy seized upon it as part of their proof that the Society’s president and other members of the organization closely associated with him were guilty of sedition against the government, and Brother Rutherford and seven others were railroaded off to federal penitentiary in the spring of 1918, under sentences of 80 years in prison, and without benefit of bail for their freedom till appeal to a higher court should be effected. After nine months in the penitentiary bail was granted them on March 21, 1919, and they were released. Later the Appeal Court reversed the judgment against them, and in 1920 the indictment against them was disposed of.
This event, Witnesses are taught, fulfilled the prophecy about the “two witnesses” that are killed and come to life. (Rev 11:3-13) It is said to parallel the Jewish captivity in Babylon and their subsequent release. It is also considered to be a refining and a punishment applied by Christ Jesus upon his inspecting of the churches of the earth. Although the WTS was found faithful, they had committed some sins, and this imprisonment was their punishment. (6/15/1987 WT p.16) Upon their release, he entrusted all his earthly interests to them as the “faithful and discreet slave.” Thus, the Witnesses still believe that TFM played a large role in the fulfillment of several major Bible prophecies… although nearly every Witness alive today is wholly ignorant of the book’s contents.
To further establish the current view of the WTS, what follows is just a small sampling of what the Society has had to say about TFM in recent years:
The contents of TFM are viewed as being of such importance that the Society’s decision to “compromisingly” cut out seven pages at the time of publication is thought to be a “sin” that contributed to Jehovah’s decision to severely punish the WTS in 1918. (May 1, 1955 WT)
In the Nov 15, 1967 WT, TFM is one in a list of WTS publications about which it is said:
All these publications have received worldwide distribution and have not been revised or altered to please the religious beliefs nor the customs and practices of different peoples of earth. No, the unadulterated truth of the prophecy has been proclaimed to all.
Feb 15, 1967 WT:
‘Samson’s’ righteous anger ‘continued hot,’ reaching a climax in the publication, in 1917, of the polemic book, The Finished Mystery.
Sep 15, 1968 WT:
In July of 1917 the Society published The Finished Mystery, Volume VII of the ‘Studies in the Scriptures,’ as the books came to be called. While some were critical of it, to me it seemed to be just what we had been waiting for.
In the now-famous Apr 1, 1972 WT article “They Shall Know That A Prophet Was Among Them,” TFM is introduced as evidence to support the claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses are God’s true prophet in modern times. It says that TFM was a work “explaining the book of Ezekiel as well as that of Revelation. This book criticized the clergy as false to the Word of Jehovah.”
In the 1988 WTS book Revelation—Its Grand Climax At Hand!, TFM is said to be part of the fulfillment of Rev. 11:5,6. (p.165)
Further support of this idea is given on page 206:
In 1917 the Bible Students’ book The Finished Mystery set out many of these facts in stark detail. This was one way that the Bible Students in those days ‘struck the earth with every sort of plague.’
May 15, 1995 WT:
In 1917, Jehovah’s people published an explanation of Revelation in the book The Finished Mystery. It fearlessly exposed Christendom’s religious and political leaders, but many of its explanations were borrowed from various sources. Still, The Finished Mystery served to test the Bible Students’ loyalty to the visible channel Jehovah was using.
The claim that “explanations were borrowed from various sources” is somewhat mysterious, as nobody seems to know what this is referring to. Incidentally, the WTS never comes much closer than this to criticizing the contents of TFM. Also mysterious and contradictory is the claim that the WTS was God’s visible channel at the time (1917), since this was two years before Jehovah “commissioned” them as his “mouthpiece”. (”The Nations Shall Know That I Am Jehovah”--How?, 1972, pg. 58-67)
June 1, 1996 WT:
In imitation of Jesus Christ, true Christians have not let up in their fearless exposé of the Serpent and his seed. In 1917 the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known, published the book The Finished Mystery, in which they laid bare the hypocrisy of Christendom’s clergy.
I could go on, but you get the picture. This is but a fraction of the many references to TFM contained in the WTS’ later publications.
It is abundantly clear that the WTS still believes that TFM played a vital role in their 1919 selection by Jesus as the “one true faith.”
How Did the Society View The Finished Mystery at the Time of Publication?
At the time it was published, TFM, the seventh volume of Studies in the Scriptures, was viewed by the WTS as being of such earthshaking significance that its very appearance on the world scene was prophesied in the Bible. TFM claimed that the seven volumes of Russell’s Scripture Studieswere the fulfillment of the “voices and thunderings” of Rev 8:5 (p.145), the “seven thunders” of Rev. 10:3,4 (p.167), “the voice of a great thunder” of Rev. 14:2 (p.217), the “seven angels” of Rev. 15:1 and 16:1 (p.231, 237), the seven “bowls of anger” of Rev Chapter 16 (p.237-258), the “torment” which goes on “forever and ever” of Rev. 20:10 (p.311), the “seven last plagues” of Rev. 21:9 (p.320), “he that talked with me” of Rev. 21:15 (p.323), and the “plagues” of Rev. 22:18 (p.338).
The Scripture Studies series was “foreseen as necessary to the complete statement of the Plan, and the fulfillment of this and other Scriptures.” –TFM p.167
The interpretation of Rev. 15:6 is particularly noteworthy:
And the seven angels came out of the Temple.— The seven volumes of Scripture Studies, emerged, all in harmony with the teachings of the Tabernacle, from which they proceeded.
They thus were of no little importance; in fact, they were necessary to fulfill Scripture and proceeded from God’s heavenly tabernacle itself!
The “angels” of Rev. 14:6,8,9 were said to be the first three volumes of Studies in the Scriptures, respectively. (p.223)
Rev. 14:18, which states in part, “And another angel came out from the altar which had power over fire,” is interpreted thusly: The angel represents “the corporate body which Pastor Russell organized to finish his work.” The “power over fire” represents “authority over the publication and distribution of expositions of Ezekiel and John the Revelator, symbolical ‘coals of fire.’” –TFM, p. 227
Thus no doubt was left as to the Society’s Divine authority to publish this work. Logically, the same holy force would then influence the accuracy of the divinely-commissioned interpretations it contained.
In Rev. 20:1 the “Great chain” in the hand of the angel of the abyss is said to represent “The TRUTH, as contained in the Seven Volumes of Scripture Studies.” –TFM, p. 299 (Thus we see an early example of ‘truth as contained in _____,’ a rhetorical technique used to this day by the WTS, with only the nature of the “truth” and the publication name changing. For examples, see 12/15/1970 WT p.758, 1980 Yearbook p.187, 2004 Yearbook p.135, 9/1/2002 WT p.31. One wonders exactly how a so qualified “truth” differs from a mere statement of opinion.)
The previous cited or quoted passages referred to all seven volumes collectively. But TFM was to be given especially high honor.
The Finished Mystery declared itself, the seventh volume, to be:
the “censer” in the angel’s hand at Rev. 8:5 (p. 145), the “winepress” of Rev. 14:18 (pg. 229), the “angel” of Rev. 17:1,7 (p. 259, 263), the “heaven opened” of Rev. 19:11 (p. 293), the “winepress” of Rev 19:15 (p. 295), and the “amethyst” of Rev. 21:20. It announces itself as “Divinely provided.” (p. 145)
The seven-book series is also frequently mentioned in the Ezekiel portion of the commentary, but my time is not unlimited and I think by now you have a fair idea of the fact that much of TFM reads like a love letter to itself. It would be difficult to conceive of a purported “Bible commentary” that refers to itself so often as actually being the subject about which the Bible is speaking!
This statement in the book’s Preface sums up nicely the WTS attitude:
It seemed pleasing to the Lord that Brothers C. J. Woodworth and George H. Fisher should prepare the Seventh Volume, under the direction of the WATCH TOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY. While both residing in the same city, they have worked separate and apart from each other, not even comparing notes. The reader will be able to judge how fully the work of each harmonizes with that of the other and with the Divine Plan, thus giving further evidence of the Lord’s direction in this matter.
How did the WTS and the Bible Students View C.T. Russell?
TFM does not allow WTS leadership to go unshowered by its praise. Pastor Russell is especially venerated and shows up plenty of times in the Revelation and Ezekiel interpretations in his own right. The book was advertised as the posthumous work of Pastor Russell. What was the significance of that to the Bible Students?
TFM wastes no time in making bold declarations that state its position while insulting those who do not agree:
Those consecrated Christians who have read and fully appreciated the Truth as contained in the preceding six volumes of STUDIES IN THE SCRIPTURES readily see and agree that Charles Taze Russell was the messenger of the Church of Laodicea. In the mind of every one who believes the Bible the evidence set forth in this volume will establish that fact beyond the question of a doubt.
So if you do not agree that Pastor Russell was the Laodicean messenger, you simply don’t believe the Bible. (Again note “truth as contained in ____.” Incidentally, the WTS no longer believes that Russell was the Laodicean messenger. By their own measure, they do not believe the Bible.) Splendid. But they’re just getting warmed up.
The examination of the contents of this book will disclose the fact… that the earthly creature made prominent therein above all others is the messenger of the Laodicean Church— “that wise and faithful servant of the Lord”— CHARLES TAZE RUSSELL. In view of the facts stated, is it at all surprising that the Lord spared him the publication of the Seventh Volume?
But the fact is, he did write it. This book may properly be said to be a posthumous publication of Pastor Russell. (italics theirs)
Anyone can see that the praise heaped on Russell may rightly be called “lavish.”
The amount of work that Pastor Russell performed is incredible, and it is doubtful whether it was ever equaled by any other human being. (italics theirs)
In the early seventies Charles Taze Russell found himself engaged in commerce, but earnestly studying the Word of God, and striving to teach what he found therein. In fulfilment of the Divine promise the Heavenly things were opened to him (Matt. 3:16), and he saw the significance of the visions, prophecies, given in olden times by the Almighty.
It was thus taught that Russell’s understandings came from Heaven itself, and the Scripture cited to support that notion (Matt 3:16) is particularly cringe-inducing when one considers the comparison they are making.
It was also taught that Russell alone (not a class) was the “the faithful and wise steward” of Jesus’ parable:
In 1878 the stewardship of the things of God, the teaching of Bible truths, was taken from the clergy, unfaithful to their age-long stewardship, and given to Pastor Russell.
The whole of Ezekiel Chapter 3 was thought to apply to Russell, and thus this chapter in TFM is entitled, “The Pastor’s Divine Ordination.” (p.381-390)
But nothing sums up the WTS view of Russell like the following assertion from page 65:
Pastor Russell was the most prolific writer of Biblical truth that ever lived.
These passages only constitute a small fraction of the honor heaped upon Russell throughout the book. I could go on; however, it is not my purpose to dissect every goofy teaching presented in TFM; that could fill seven volumes in itself. I merely want to provide background and understanding as to how the book was viewed at the time—that is, not as a work of mere man, but as a provision from God of such import that a significant portion of the Bible itself was devoted to simply prophesying its future arrival.
Now, with a clear understanding that the book was self-proclaimed at the time of publication as “divinely provided” and containing TRUTH worthy of printing in all capitals, we will examine some of the TRUTH, foretold 1900 years previous, that God issued by means of his “angel.”
What Did The Finished Mystery Predict For 1918?
Most Witnesses, out of ignorance, don’t believe the WTS predicted anything for 1918, and therefore it cannot be called a false prophet. Considering the effort TFM spends in establishing its credentials, it stands to reason that any affirmative statement it makes about future events would be considered a prophecy, since it not only speaks for God, but actually is “TRUTH” provided by God himself through his time-tested “messenger,” “steward,” and “prophet,” no less.
One hardly knows how it would be possible to claim the role of a prophet with greater insistence. If, after the accolades TFM bestows upon itself, it chooses to authoritatively assert what will happen at specific future times, it has nobody but itself to blame if its pronouncements fall under the definition of prophecy.
Following are quotes from TFM and my comments:
The Laodicean period of the Church extends from the fall of 1874 to the spring of 1918, three and one-half years of preparation, and forty years of Harvest.
Russell viewed Jesus’ words to the seven congregations in the first three chapters of Revelation as applying to seven different time periods, from the first century to the then-present day. The Laodicean was the last period of the “Gospel Age,” and was due to end in 1918. This is why the pyramid on Russell’s gravesite still proudly bears the (posthumously revoked) title “The Laodicean Messenger”.
A. D. 36-73 A. D. 1881-1918
Because of the overspreading of abominations, He shall make it
desolate, even until the con- summation, or utter destruction—
until all that God has predetermined shall be accomplished.
A parallel is here drawn between the Jewish system and the Christian system. It was thought that Jerusalem held out until 73 A.D. (rather than 70) and was then destroyed. This is how 1918 was calculated. The starting point 1881 was believed to be “the close of the High Calling” (p.64)
The data presented in comments on Rev. 2:1 prove that the conquest of Judea was not completed until the day of the Passover, A. D. 73, and in the light of the foregoing Scriptures, prove that the Spring of 1918 will bring upon Christendom a spasm of anguish greater even than that experienced in the Fall of 1914.
Unless this is a new and different usage of the term, something which is “proved” is completely established as true and factual. The italics are not mine; they are in the book, emphasizing the fact that these dates were viewed as “proven.”
Our proposition is that the glorification of the Little Flock in the Spring of 1918 A. D. will be half way (three and one-half years each way) between the close of the Gentile Times and the close of the Heavenly Way, A. D.1921.
Ironically, one of the few teachings introduced as a mere “proposition” is one of the very few that were actually accepted as doctrine for an extended period, as the WTS has taught since that time that the “Little Flock” with the heavenly hope were indeed resurrected (glorified) beginning in 1918 (although that doctrine was recently trashed in January 2007. 1921 was soon abandoned as the time for the “close of the Heavenly Way,” being moved to 1935 in 1966 before that date was also trashed in May 2007. But I digress).
…the seven epochs, ending, respectively, in A. D. 73, 325,
1160, 1378, 1518, 1874 and 1918.
Such was the teaching at the time. All these dates have since been stripped of this significance.
It seems conclusive that the hour of Nominal Zion’s travail is fixed for the Passover of 1918. (See Rev. 3:14.) That will be 7 years prior to 1925. At that time there is every reason to believe the fallen angels will invade the minds of many of the Nominal Church people, driving them to exceedingly unwise conduct and leading to their destruction at the hands of the enraged masses, who will later be dragged to the same fate. The great war now raging is most certainly the work of evil spirits, and the Kaiser is not the only clever ruler who has been deceived by evil spirits, as history will sometime show.
Just one of the failed predictions.
A letter from one of the Bethel workers, written shortly after Pastor Russell’s death, says: “About three months ago I asked several questions at the table, the last one being as follows, ‘Since I now see that the Jewish Time of Trouble did not end until the year 73 A. D., as I fully proved to myself by consulting the historians, what then are we to expect in the parallel year 1918?’ Brother Russell put the question to three prominent brethren, all of whom replied that they did not know, but were willing to wait and see. When he called upon me I said, ‘Since the year 73 A. D. saw the complete overthrow of nominal Natural Israel in Palestine, so in the parallel year 1918, I infer we should look for the complete overthrow of nominal Spiritual Israel; i. e., the fall of Babylon. (Rev. 18.) Brother Russell replied: ‘Exactly. That is exactly the inference to draw.’ The conclusion of the Church’s career comes first.
Considering the reverence given to Russell, it is clear that the reader is expected to take the above exchange to heart.
If, in these tests of faith and character, we come off victorious in the Lord’s sight, we shall not need to be of those who wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb, in the great tribulation with which this Age will close, but shall keep our robes unspotted so that they will not need such a general cleansing. If we have fled to the Lord before the winter time of His disfavor has come upon the man-made systems of our day, we shall be spared the rigors of the flight, of which He said, ‘Pray that your flight be not in the winter [of 1917-1918 (?)]’ (Matt. 24:20)
Perhaps the writer felt some compunction when it came to so blatantly tampering with Scripture, and the addition of the question mark in parentheses assuaged his conscience enough to allow printing this gem of an excerpt. Also notable is the idea that we may be able to keep our robes unspotted and thus have no need to wash them in the blood of the Lamb!
For Rev. 9:15, the explanation is given:
“For [an] THE hour.— The hour of judgment, 1918.” -TFM p.164
The writer apparently now feels comfortable enough to not need a question mark when making this statement.
In comments on Rev. 3:14, reasons are given for anticipating the deliverance of the Little Flock about Passover, 1918 [possibly on the Passover day, as a result of activities by the tribe of Dan. (Jer. 8:16.)] There we noted the Lord’s use of the half-week principle. In this prophecy, we have the same principle. The French Revolution is Divinely provided as a picture of events now at hand, and we therefore expect three and a half years of proscription of the Truth, from the spring of 1918 to the fall of 1921.
Now they are narrowing it down to a (possible) day. Why would the Lord, when providing this “meat in due season,” need to include such specific speculation?
Applying Rev 11:13:
We anticipate that the “earthquake” will occur early in 1918, and that the “fire” will come in the fall of 1920.
The interpretations of Rev. 18:8, 10, 17 include the following matter-of-fact statements:
Come in one day.— The year of 1918.
For in one hour is thy judgment come.— In the one year 1917-1918.
For in one hour so great riches is come to nought.— In one short year, 1917-1918, the vast and complicated system of sectarianism reaches its zenith of power, only to be suddenly dashed into oblivion.
The 390 days of Ezekiel 4:5 are applied as follows:
Priestcraft of the larger division of Christendom was to be under attack for 390 years, during which time the besieging element, the reformers, were to be protected from Papacy by the “iron wall” of the civil powers. This began in 1528 and ends in 1918. The year 1528 is one of the turning points of history.
The WTS has since abandoned this explanation—despite the facts of history.
Commenting on Eze 5:1:
In Samson’s case the hair represented his strength; and here the hair cut off signifies that the people who are the strength of Christendom shall be cut off in the brief but terribly eventful period beginning in 1918 A. D.
Applying Eze 5:3,4:
After 1918 the people supporting churchianity will cease to be its supporters, be destroyed as adherents, by the spiritual pestilence of errors abroad, and by the famine of the Word of God among them. The Sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17), which is the Word of God, will be wielded in the hands of “Present Truth” believers in such a manner as to cause, conscientious supporters of ecclesiasticism to cease to be supporters.
Applying Eze 7:1-6:
The trouble is due to the dawning of the Day of Christ, the Millennium. It is the Day of Vengeance, which began in the world war of 1914 and which will break like a furious morning storm in 1918
Applying Eze 24:25,26:
Also, 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 famous quote. It is not taken out of context, as this is the ENTIRE explanation given for that Scripture.
Applying Eze 26:2:
This system and its adherents will manifest their essentially non-Christian nature when Christendom (Jerusalem) falls at the hands of the revolutionists in 1918.
Applying Eze 33:21:
Pastor Russell’s voice was stilled in death on October 31, 1916. If an application of Ezekiel’s period of dumbness is valid here as a time feature, the tidings, the realization that Christendom is smitten by the onslaughts of revolution, might be expected to flash throughout the world on or about April 27, 1918, a year, five months and twenty-six days after the death of God’s great watchman. As in Ezekiel 24:27, this would be a sign, an indication to Christendom of the truth of Pastor Russell’s commission from the Almighty.
For unknown reasons, the Divine confirmation of Russell’s commission was withheld.
Applying Eze 35:15:
As the fleshly-minded apostates from Christianity, siding with the radicals and revolutionaries, will rejoice at the inheritance of desolation that will be Christendom’s after 1918, so will God do to the successful revolutionary movement; it shall be utterly desolated, “even all of it.” Not one vestige of it shall survive the ravages of world-wide all-embracing anarchy, in the fall of 1920.
And thus we get a bonus prediction for 1920 as well, which first made its appearance on page 258: “Even the republics will disappear in the fall of 1920,” is the application of Rev 16:20.
The Time of the establishment of the Kingdom in power is indicated as ‘in the fourteenth year after that the city (Christendom) was smitten’— or fourteen years after 1918, viz., in 1932.— Ezek. 40:1.
Please keep in mind that this is but a portion of the references to 1918 and the prophetic expectations attached thereto. It is no exaggeration to call 1918 the main theme of TFM as a whole. 1918 is mentioned 53 times in TFM. 1914 only receives 25 mentions. Which was the more important date to the WTS?
I’d like to share one more amusing but pertinent quote:
Satan is a diligent student of time prophecy (Luke 12:39); but not having the Holy Spirit he is unable to reach accurate conclusions.
And that of course speaks for itself.
Hopefully this overview of The Finished Mystery and 1918 has been edu-taining. You should now be conversant in some of the important WTS predictions regarding 1918. To honor the Faithful Wise Servant and Laodicean Messenger Pastor Russell, let’s all hyphenate a few extra words in his memory.