On Tuesday September 22nd we lost one of the most beloved athletes in modern times, the witty New York Yankee known as Yogi Berra. He was 90 years old. Yogi won 10 world series victories during a 19 year career in major league baseball. In addition to his many athletic accomplishments, he was known for some of the most famous and humorous quotations of the 20th century.
Attributed to Yogi are sayings such as “The future ain’t what it used to be” and “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
People seem to love that déjà vu quote. Perhaps it’s the humor of it. Maybe it’s because we love to throw out a French phrase now and again. Makes us feel that much more sophisticated. Who knows.
What we do know is that the phrase is indeed French, and literally means “already seen” when translated into English. It refers to that feeling you get when something happens which causes you to feel that this is not the first time this has happened, that you have “already seen” this before.
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the longer you stay connected to the organization, the more chances you have of experiencing JW Déjà vu.
I didn’t want to admit this to myself at first, but ultimately I had no choice. As each decade of my life passed, it became clear that the next generation of Witnesses was being taught that the end was “closer than ever” and that Jesus was ready to take charge of his invisible kingdom. There were prophecies, scriptures, types, antitypes, dates – on and on it went, until finally I realized that I was experiencing a kind of religious déjà vu
Volumes of Watchtowers, Awakes, books and booklets lined my bookshelves until I ran out of space, wondering just how long this would continue. I knew about the year 1975 and its significance for Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the real significance was not so much the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses got the date wrong, but that they influenced an entire generation of persons who gave up careers, education and even forsook having a family, all in the name of Matthew 24 verse 14, which said there would be preaching, “and then the end will come.”
I was 8 years old in 1975. 8 years later I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was just becoming aware of the world around me, and I was told that we were not just in the last days, but that we were in the final part of the last days. The urgency was something you could taste. No sooner was I baptized when the Watchtower printed an article which said the end would be here before the elderly persons alive in 1914 had died. The visual image of those aged persons on that Watchtower cover was haunting; it was a clear message that Armageddon was real, and that it was happening.
One year later, on October 24th 1985, the United Nations declared that 1986 would be the International Year of Peace. This news sent chills up and down the spines of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who pulled out their Bibles and read from 1 Thessalonians 5:3:
“Whenever it is that they are saying, “Peace and security!” then sudden destruction is to be instantly on them”
1986 came and went, along with every subsequent year, without any signs of Armageddon. The inertia of my childhood indoctrination along with my involvement in “theocratic” endeavors carried me all the way up through 2013, when my gas tank ran dry. Somewhere I could hear Yogi saying “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
It was not until after I quietly walked away from the organization that I began to see the picture of what had happened in the past 150 years. From Charles Taze Russell through the present day, I saw that each and every generation of “Bible Students” or “Jehovah’s Witnesses” had pinned its hopes on the end of the world.
Think about it – was there ever period of time for Jehovah’s Witnesses during which there was no expectation of the end?
It is fascinating to me that even opposing clergymen viewed the end-of-the-world prophecies of Jehovah’s Witnesses as utter nonsense. I discovered evidence of this while scouring newspaper articles from the late 1800s through the 1920s. On July 1st 1922, the Evening Star of Washington DC posted a column about a religious lecture given by A.H. Macmillan in Baltimore Maryland. Macmillan was known as a pastor and close associate of Watchtower president J.F. Rutherford. He was imprisoned with Rutherford back in 1918, then released following the end of the first world war. Macmillan’s autobiography “Faith on the March” was published in 1957 and was promoted and sold by the Watchtower organization for many years.
As mentioned in the newspaper article, Macmillan declared that “Christ would come again to earth not later than the year 1949.” The writer then states that “a great deal of doubt that the date can be so accurately forecast seems still to exist in the minds of the clergymen of Baltimore.”
He goes on to quote the pastor of St. Marks Reformed Church, who said:
“Frankly I think that it is all bosh. It is nothing unusual for the second coming of Christ to be foretold for the near future, of course. Almost every year some one predicts that it is close at hand. So far, they have been wrong every time.”
“I am sure that most of the people who predict the second coming of Christ are entirely sincere. But I think they take the words of the Bible too literally. The Bible is written in the fanciful style of another age, and if it now is interpreted too literally one can predict and prove almost anything by it.”
I have to admit, even with a healthy knowledge of Watchtower history, I was not aware of the significance of 1949. It is yet another date in history which came and went, adding to the long line of speculations which characterize Jehovah’s Witness teachings. Can you imagine where the organization would be without promoting the “last days” and “Armageddon” and other “signs of the times”? Without the fear and the sense of urgency, interest would wane and be diverted elsewhere.
Yogi Berra once said “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
I watched for years. Jehovah’s Witnesses are professional watchers. They are spectators to life but not allowed to participate. I’m glad Yogi was not a Jehovah’s Witness. The world would never have know the talent of a man who was immensely skilled, who played the game, and who became equally beloved for his words. While Watchtower leaders Rutherford, Knorr and Franz coerced tens of thousands at Yankee Stadium with lengthy 8 day assemblies consisting of repetitive and endless speeches about the end of the world, Yogi Berra played baseball at that same stadium and gave people what they really wanted.
One thing which people do not want is to be lied to. In the newspaper article posted here, A.H. Macmillan gave “assurance” to his listeners that Christ would return no later than 1949. And while we know nothing at all happened, the cycle of false predictions continues, decade after decade, year after year. Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to “assure” the flock that we are “closer than ever.” The youth of Jehovah’s Witnesses are being indoctrinated and baptized younger and younger, the organization locking them in for life.
Well, I have news for Jehovah’s Witnesses – the future ain’t what it used to be. It’s not the end of the world. There is no Armageddon. There are no overlapping generations.
It’s just déjà vu, all over again.