All religions have customs scorned by tactless unbelievers, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are no exception. The fact the earth orbits the sun and oceans still flow must be disappointing to Witnesses, who’d predicted our world would end 15 years ago.
Few produce their own eloquent critics, which brings us to Marvin James Penton, a Witness and professor emeritus of history at the University of Lethbridge. Penton’s Apocalypse Delayed, a crisp examination of the church, has been in print for 28 years and is now in its third edition.
“When the first edition came out,” Penton writes, “Jehovah’s Witnesses still believed that by the year 2000 the apocalypse would have destroyed the present world system and that they, the survivors of the battle of Armageddon, would be dwelling in a revitalized paradise earth under the millennial rule of Christ Jesus. Of course that did not happen.”
Apocalypse remains a compelling account of the faith, meticulously researched. If church leaders have “failed dismally” in their prophecies of impending doom and salvation, believers have also suffered persecution and ridicule of their beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses remain one of the few groups outlawed by Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and liberal Canada all at the same time.
Statistics Canada counts 138,000 Witnesses nationwide, outnumbering Mormons and Mennonites. They are best known for speedy construction of suburban churches, and proselytizing. House to house preaching is a hallmark of the faith, Penton notes from a 1979 Watchtower commentary: “Many well-known versions of the Bible use this expression, ‘from house to house’”; “Christians today search for spiritually inclined householders, making return visits to those homes and studying with interested persons.”
Witnesses have historically opposed aluminum cookware; blood transfusions; organ transplants; beards and moustaches (“a sign of vanity”); and observances of Christmas, birthday parties and other popular customs “described as of pagan origin, unchristian, and hence not to be celebrated or practiced.”
If Witnesses today practice a conservative lifestyle, Penton notes the church’s co-founder was sued for divorce by his wife in 1906 for scandalous relations with a 25-year old secretary. Apocalypse does not stint on details; it is a fascinating and unvarnished account of the church.
Witnesses believe the world is 6000, possibly 7000 years old, meaning end times are nigh according to clues in Scripture. “No major Christian sectarian movement has been so insistent on prophesying the end of the present world in such definite ways or on such specific dates,” Penton writes. The end of the world was forecast in 1874, then 1878, followed by 1881; 1910; 1914; 1918; 1920; 1925; 1975 and of course 2000: “When these prophesies failed they had to be reinterpreted, spiritualized or, in some cases, ultimately abandoned.”
Witnesses have also paid a high price for their convictions. Canada outlawed the church in 1940 – members refused to sing the anthem or salute the flag – and arrested numerous believers. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are not much of an asset to any country,” one letter-writer wrote the Globe & Mail in 1946. “They don’t believe in military service, and had they had their way during the recent war we would all have been vassals of the Nazis today.” As late as 1950 the Government of Québec arrested and jailed Witnesses for sedition over pamphlets critical of the Catholic priesthood; it took a Supreme Court ruling to quash mass arrests.
Apocalypse is lively, frank and smartly written. After three decades Penton’s work outlived prophecies of Armageddon, itself.
Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses, by M. James Penton; University of Toronto Press; 584 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-47930; $39.65