The Armageddon Business: Cults can survive failed predictions and QAnon probably will too…

The Jehovah’s Witnesses promised Armageddon for decades. That “The Storm” failed to arrive won’t stop QAnon’s most committed.

Predicting that ‘the end is nigh’ has been a favoured trick of zealots and cult leaders throughout history. A good example is the sterling work of The Watchtower, the Jehovah’s Witness magazine, which has been predicting the coming of the four horsemen on and off since the 1870s, when the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was formed.

Charles Taze Russell, the society’s co-founder, thought of himself as a “mouthpiece” of God and it turned out that God liked to predict impending doom without actually, you know, going through with it. In an eschatology which actually shares a lot with the QAnon canon, the Watch Tower argued that God was permitting the world to run to ruin before he stepped in free humanity from evil, suffering, and death with the Second Coming.

The arrival of God’s kingdom is apparently going to be a two-part process — the first being the apocalypse with a raging “Battle of Armageddon”, involving a bloody clash between the wealthy and the workers, leading to terror and anarchy. After that the Witnesses believe there will be an era of reconstruction in which sickness, pain, and death would come to an end.

In 1876, Russell predicted that the “End of the Harvest” would occur two years later with the saints returning to exercise God’s power.

When that didn’t happen, Russell just shifted the goalposts, writing in 1881 that 1878 had been a milestone year and that other churches had “been cast off God’s favour”. He also predicted that 1881 would be a year in which God’s judgement arrived and… it didn’t again.

Some members of the Society started to get a little irritated with Russell and despondent about his failed prediction. He settled most of them down by making another prediction, giving himself a little more wiggle room by pinning it to October 1914. He said that then the world would see “the end of human rulership”.

In September 1914, Russell told Watch Tower readers that “Armageddon may begin next spring, yet it is purely speculation to attempt to say just when.” When he was once again proved wrong, he pointed to some bet-hedging he’d built in to his previous predictions and said it might actually be 1915 that saw the apocalypse’s arrival and that transition could take “a good many years.”

The outbreak of World War I in July 1914 gave Russell a little more to work with. It definitely seemed apocalyptic and in 1916, shortly before his death, he wrote:

We see no reason for doubting, therefore, that the Times of the Gentiles ended in October 1914; and that a few more years will witness their utter collapse and the full establishment of God’s Kingdom in the hands of Messiah.

Russell’s death didn’t put an end to The Watchtower’s wont for failed apocalyptic predictions. His successor J.F. Rutherford changed what Russell’s final prediction of the end times in 1918 meant and predicted that ancient prophets and patriarchs would be resurrected in 1925. That… didn’t happen. But Rutherford kept making predictions, delivering talks as late as 1935 in which he suggested the armageddon was just around the corner.

Rutherford died in 1948 and The Watchtower dropped his resurrected prophets prediction two years later. In 1966, The Watchtower picked a new year — 1975 — as the one when Christ would return and Armageddon would come. This was based, it claimed, on a “trustworthy Bible chronology”.

Perhaps learning from Russell and Rutherford’s history of rickety predictions, the society’s then vice-president, Frederick Franz, made sure to stick in an uncertainty clause to give him an out if 1975 ended with no spiritual big bang. He wrote:

Does it mean that Armageddon is going to be finished … 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 … But we are not saying.

“We are not saying…” We are just heavily implying.

By as early as 1968, Watch Tower publications were hedging their bets at a remarkable rate. Moving from saying apocalypse in 1975 was “feasible” and “apparent” to just “a possibility”. They also revised their view on that ‘trustworthy’ Bible chronology, deeming it only “reasonably accurate (but admittedly not infallible)”.

Despite the get-out-clauses, the Society’s publications still pushed the 1975 date hard, encourages adherents to increase their proselytising as time was running out fast. In a 1968 edition of its monthly bulletin, Kingdom Ministry, it warned:

“Less than a hundred months separate us from the end of 6,000 years of man’s history. What can you do in that time?”

Unfortunately what some Witnesses did do in the time they thought left was cash in insurance policies, sell off possessions, and postpone surgery, so certain were they that the end was coming. The Watch Tower assured readers that this was “a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.” At Witness conventions the slogan “Stay alive ‘till ‘75!” became a common refrain.

In 1970, the academic Joseph F. Zygmunt, who studied prophetic failure in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, wrote:

“While return to this old strategy [of predictions] would seem to expose the sect once again to prophetic failure, the risks are balanced by the potent ideological reinforcement accruing from this forthright renewal of faith, which thirty-five years of diffuse watchful waiting seem to have made necessary. The risks of another prophetic failure actually appear to be minimal. The new prophecy is being phrased in a manner that lends itself to ‘confirmation’ by the old device of claiming partial supernatural fulfilment.”

When 1975 came and went without incident, the Watch Tower Society’s leaders didn’t lean on the old move of saying something had happened. Instead, they purged the membership, blaming them for failing to properly understand the predictions. The magazine scolded its readers:

“It was not the word of God that failed or deceived [the individual Jehovah’s Witness] and brought disappointment, but … his own understanding was based on wrong premises.”

By 1980 though, the Society had changed tack again, saying its claims about 1975 were a source of regret but also demanded that Witnesses understand there was never an explicit prophecy. The Society’s membership dropped by thousands in the years after the 1975 prophetic failure but it started to creep back up again over time.

Many of those who had believed in the 1975 prophecy suffered for their faith. In his study of Jehovah's Witnesses, the sociologist Andrew Holden spoke to former adherents who left the movement in its aftermath. One told him:

I said [the world was going to end] from the platform! We told everyone the end was near. When I became a Witness I gave up my insurance policies, I cancelled all my insurance endowments, I never bought a house because I knew I wouldn’t need one, we didn’t even want to put the kids’ names down for school.

The Watchtower continued to predict that the end of the world was coming soon throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

It hedged its bets even further than it had in the past though, stating that the work of missionaries “would be completed in our day” rather than “in our 20th century”. It was a ‘hurry up and wait’ clause which allows Witnesses to belief armageddon is just around the corner forever.

The resilience of the Witnesses’ beliefs in the face of failure after failure of prophecy upon prophecy shows the power of the sunk cost fallacy combined with faith. For the most fervent of QAnon believers, the same is likely to be true. They are angry and doubtful and despondent now, but they will find a way to rationalise that. Q will not have been wrong. Instead, they will have misinterpreted the prophecies. The Storm will still be coming… soon.

Just look at the mental gymnastics in the above tweet, twisting time entirely to explain why Q’s promises did not come to pass. It is not that Q is a liar and the tenets of the cult that formed around their posts are fantasies. It’s just that Q works on a different ‘clock’ to the rest of us. I suspect Charles Taze Russell would be impressed with such commitment to the faith or rather the grift.

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