For Jehovah’s Witnesses, their Bethel headquarters in New York is the place from which their work is governed and directed. Pastor Charles Taze Russell, the first president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, moved their headquarters to Brooklyn from Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1909. Except for a short stint during World War I, Brooklyn remained the nerve center of the Witness Organization until much of its operations were transferred upstate to near Wallkill and Patterson, New York in the last decade. The Witnesses still maintain a high profile visibility in Brooklyn Heights but it appears they will continue to transfer the rest of their operations upstate in the near future and may soon put their buildings in Brooklyn up for sale.
I blogged a few months ago how Witness leaders were trying to salvage their teaching that Christ had returned invisibly in the year 1914 and inaugurated the last generation before Armageddon by re-interpreting how long that generation will be. In short, at last summer’s assemblies Witnesses were told that this generation actually was two generations that overlap each other — thus extending the deadline for Armageddon many more years. (A video explaining how this new interpretation was explained to the rank and file membership can be watched here or listened to here.)
This “generation of 1914″ teaching has fueled great zeal among Jehovah’s Witnesses for many years and many watchers of the movement feel its demise would be catastrophic to the membership. This is perhaps one reason Watchtower leaders are still trying to retain the “generation of 1914″ teaching, even if it’s now interpreted as two generations that somehow overlap into one long “generation” over 100 years long.
The first indications of a crisis of faith over this “generation of 1914″ teaching began to appear in the late 1970s. Part of this was precipitated after the failure of predictions for the year 1975 that had been referenced in Watchtower publications. Some Witnesses started questioning the chronology Watchtower leaders had developed for the 1914 date for Christ’s return. One Swedish Witness submitted a study to the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses suggesting that a reevaluation was in order. (The correspondence between this Swedish Witness and Watchtower headquarters can be downloaded here.) Former Governing Body member Raymond Franz revealed in his memoir Crisis of Conscience how a secret meeting of this ruling council discussed a proposal by 3 of its members to change the beginning of the “generation” from 1914 to 1957, an idea that was voted down. (The memorandum for the 1957 proposal can be seen about 2/3 of the way down this webpage.)
The significance of 1914 in Jehovah’s Witness’ belief came under more scrutiny as it was challenged after a schism began in 1980 which involved some Witnesses at Bethel headquarters. Eventually, the Swedish Witness who had submitted the study calling for a reevaluation of the 1914 chronology was expelled from membership, but his study was later published under the title The Gentile Times Reconsidered. In turn, Watchtower publications began to heavily emphasize 1914 and anyone who questioned the chronology or 1914′s significance could similarly face disfellowshipping or expulsion from membership and experience shunning from family and friends still within the religion.
As an example, the May 15, 1984 Watchtower magazine pictured several older Bethelites from Brooklyn headquarters as tangible evidence that there were still faithful elderly Witnesses of this “1914 generation” who would not pass away before the End:
When I first saw this magazine cover back in 1984 I recognized many of these people from when I worked at Bethel headquarters in the mid-seventies. Looking back at it now many years later I have struggled with the names and with some help from other former Bethelites we were able to identify many of these Bethelites pictured in this 1984 Watchtower. All names are identified but there are two names that we only have the last names of (a chiropractic doctor and his wife who were temporary workers at Brooklyn Bethel) and I welcome readers who may recognize them to help me get their full names for this listing. UPDATE 4/26/11: All names have now been identified — thanks for those readers who helped in the identification.
Now, nearly 27 years later, they have all passed away, along with the rest of the 1914 generation.
To use another example:
Here is a picture of the Witnesses’ Governing Body taken in 1975 at Brooklyn Bethel:
Many long-time Witnesses will remember these former leaders. These members of the Governing Body from 1975 were:
upper row, left to right: Daniel Sydlik (deceased April 19, 2006), Theodore Jaracz (deceased June 2010), Raymond Franz (resigned in 1980, deceased in 2010), Lyman Swingle (deceased), Lloyd Barry (died in 1999), Milton Henschel (deceased 5th president, top), William Jackson (deceased, bottom) Karl Klein (died Jan 2001), Grant Suiter (deceased), Albert Schroeder (deceased March 9, 2006), Leo Greenlees (forced to resign, now deceased)
bottom row: Ewart Chitty (forced to resign, now deceased), Frederick Franz (deceased, 4th president), Nathan Knorr (deceased, 3rd president), George Gangas (deceased), John Booth (deceased), Charles Fekel (deceased).
The Governing Body “Generation of 1914″ have all passed away. (Some of the above pictured Governing Body members were born after 1914, however.)
Not shown in this picture are Governing Body members appointed since 1975. Three of these newer members have also passed away. They are: John Barr (deceased), Carey Barber (deceased), Martin Poetzinger (deceased). (Poetzinger was also pictured on the 1984 Watchtower cover above.)
The current Governing Body members have all been appointed since 1994. The current members are: Gerrit Losch, Samuel Herd, Geoffrey Jackson, Steven Lett, Anthony Morris, Guy Pierce, and David Splane.
Recently, a video that was shown to new Bethelites (made in the mid-eighties) was posted onto You Tube. I include it here as it includes commentary from older Bethelites and older Governing Body members who have now all passed away:
Still, Witness leaders still cling to the 1914 teaching and explain the “generation of 1914″ as still in effect, reaching back with an overlap to those older Bethelites, who have all passed away.
It’s not surprising that Witness leaders are forced to try to prop up their 1914 generation teaching, even if it strains credulity. As Wikipedia points out, there are only 3 surviving veterans from World War I (fought from 1914-1918). The power of the Witness’ leadership is tied to receiving a “divine appointment” soon after the supposed invisible return of Christ in 1914. So, to change the 1914 teaching could undermine their spiritual authority over Jehovah’s Witnesses. This “overlapping” of generations to make up the “generation of 1914″ before Armageddon has bought them more time.
For further reading:
1914: The Touchstone of the Watchtower (study that demonstrates the falsity of the Watchtower Society’s 1914 chronology)
1914 and “This Generation” by Raymond Franz