End of the World of the Week #51
What do you do if you throw an apocalypse and nobody comes? That was the challenge faced by the Watch Tower Tract Society, an American offshoot of Christianity, when the end of the world failed to show up on schedule in 1914. That date had played a central role in the Society’s prophecy since 1876, when the movement’s founder Rev. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson Barbour, a former Millerite, wrote a book predicting the Second Coming for that year. As Russell’s original International Bible Students Movement morphed into the Watch Tower Tract Society, that prophecy became ever more central to the movement’s hopes.
As church bells rang in the year 1915, though, it became evident even to the most devout Watch Tower follower that Christ had pulled another one of his frequent no-shows. Admitting that your prophecy was just plain wrong is rarely a good career move for an apocalyptic prophet, and the Watch Tower organization had made so much of a ballyhoo about the upcoming end that it couldn’t get away with the usual fallback strategy of ignoring the failure and announcing a new date (though this was tried). It fell to Russell to come up with a third option, one of the most ingenious in the history of apocalypses.
The Second Coming, he announced to his followers, had indeed occurred—in heaven. Christ was now reigning in glory there, but the effects would take a little while to filter down to earth, so they just had to be patient. They’re still waiting patiently; in the 1930s, the movement renamed itself the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and its members are still convinced that the Second Coming took place 98 years ago and its prophesied results will be showing up any day now.