1878: End of the harvest
In 1876 Russell adopted the belief promulgated by some Adventist preachers that Jesus' parousia, or presence, had begun in 1874 and that the gathering of the little flock preliminary to the grand climax was already in progress. Using a form of parallel dispensations that incorporated "types" and "antitypes"—historical situations that prefigured corresponding situations later in time—he calculated the harvest would extend only to 1878, at which time the gathered saints would be translated into spirit form. The year would also bring the beginning of the "exercise of power" of God's kingdom, with evidence that God's favor was returning to the Jews.
The failure of Russell's prediction did not significantly alter the movement's short-term, date-focused orientation. In early 1881 Russell asserted that 1878 had, indeed, been a milestone year, marking the point at which "the nominal Christian churches were cast off from God's favor".
1881: A revised end of the harvest
By 1881 Russell had found a biblical basis for extending the harvest to a new date, later that year. He explained:
Coming to the spring of 1878 ... we naturally and not unreasonably expected some change of our condition, and all were more or less disappointed when nothing supernatural occurred. But our disappointment was brief, for we noticed that the Jewish church (and not the Gospel church) was the pattern of ours, and therefore we should not expect parallels to Pentecost or to anything which happened in the beginning of this church.
Russell wrote that "the light upon our pathway still shines and is more and more glorious" and that since 1878 the light had glowed stronger. The timing of their translation to heaven seemed nearer, he wrote: "We know not the day or hour, but expect it during 1881, possibly near the autumn where the parallels show the favor to Zion complete and due to end, the door to the marriage to shut, and the high calling to be the bride of Christ, to cease."
The second failure in 1881 precipitated a more serious crisis in the Bible Student ranks and for several years Russell's followers waited for the belated translation to occur. Russell's chronological timetable had already identified 1914 as the ultimate end of the "time of trouble", and this preserved the commitment of followers who might have been discouraged by their failed expectations for 1881. Yet many members found it inconceivable that their earthly departure might be delayed that long. Russell consoled members with the news that 1881 had still marked the time when "death became a blessing" in the sense that any saint who died would henceforth be instantaneously changed into a spirit being. The revised view provided comfort for early believers who had held the view that the living faithful would never experience a physical death, and yet had seen other members in fact dying while they awaited their upward call. After 1881 physical death was defined as one of the ways in which some of the saints might undergo their translation.
1914: The end of human rulership
Russell's Studies in the Scriptures series had explicitly identified October 1914 as the "full end of the times of the Gentiles" and consequently the "farthest limit" of human rulership. It would bring the beginning of Christ's millennial reign and all his followers expected the immediate "translation of the saints" to rule with the revealed Christ that year. Following the earth's tribulation and unrest, the Jews would return to God's favor, the "nominal Church" would have fallen, the final battle between Christ and Satan would have ended, the kingdoms of the world would be overthrown, and Christ would have gathered his saints into heaven, where they would reign with him, and when the millennium would begin. The belief was unequivocal, based on his study of the Bible and the Great Pyramid, and satisfied only upon the establishment of an earthly paradise; Russell remarked that by altering the prophecy even one year would destroy the perfect symmetry of its biblical chronology. In the second book of his Studies in the Scriptures series he described it as "an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, will be accomplished at the end of A.D. 1914". The result, he wrote, was that "all present governments will be overthrown and dissolved", along with the destruction of "what God calls Babylon, and what men call Christendom". In an 1894 Watch Tower, responding to readers who questioned whether—because of recent political upheavals—the world could last until 1914, he wrote:
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 the trouble.
As 1914 approached, excitement mounted over the expected "change" of anointed Christians. Early that year some Bible Students, convinced the end of the world had arrived, began distributing their material belongings, abandoning their jobs and eagerly anticipating the future. In May 1914—five months from the expected end—Russell warned followers against succumbing to doubt:
There is absolutely no ground for Bible students to question that the consummation of this Gospel age is now even at the door, and that it will end as the Scriptures foretell in a great time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation. We see the participants in this great crisis banding themselves together ... The great crisis, the great clash ... that will consume the ecclesiastical heavens and the social earth, is very near.
But by September, Russell was preparing Watch Tower readers for the possibility that "Armageddon may begin next spring, yet it is purely speculation to attempt to say just when." Yet the evidence, he wrote, still pointed "to the year just before us—particularly the early months".[2