Great Controversy Errors Investigated: Josiah Litch's Predictions about Turkey
Edited by Dirk Anderson
In 1838, Millerite leader Josiah Litch made a prediction based upon his understanding of a prophecy found in Revelation 9:15. He predicted the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) would fall on August 11, 1840. Ellen White gives a glowing endorsement of Litch's prediction in the Great Controversy:
"In the year 1840 another remarkable fulfillment of prophecy excited widespread interest. Two years before, Josiah Litch, one of the leading ministers preaching the second advent, published an exposition of Revelation 9, predicting the fall of the Ottoman Empire. According to his calculations, this power was to be overthrown "in A.D. 1840, sometime in the month of August;" and only a few days previous to its accomplishment he wrote: "Allowing the first period, 150 years, to have been exactly fulfilled before Deacozes ascended the throne by permission of the Turks, and that the 391 years, fifteen days, commenced at the close of the first period, it will end on the 11th of August, 1840, when the Ottoman power in Constantinople may be expected to be broken. And this, I believe, will be found to be the case."--Josiah Litch, in Signs of the Times, and Expositor of Prophecy, Aug. 1, 1840.
Litch's Embarrassing Failure
The truth of the matter is that the month of August, 1840, came and passed without any evidence of Turkey falling. This placed Litch in a quandary. He waited until November, and then came out with a statement saying that Turkey's rejection of a European peace offer on August 15, 1840, assured war with Europe, and doomed the Ottomon Empire. However, by early 1841, it became evident that war was not going to happen. So, Litch came up with a new story, arguing that the fulfillment of prophecy had occurred exactly on August 11, 1840, as predicted. The "fall" of Turkey consisted of a "voluntary surrender of Turkish supremacy in Constantinople to Christian influence." He claimed the Turkish ruler was now a puppet "of the great Christian powers of Europe."
Many Christians questioned Litch's new story. In 1840 the Ottoman Empire covered a vast territory, including a large part of North Africa, Arabia, Palestine, Iraq, southern Russia, and most of the European Balkan states. The Millerite critic Reverend O.E. Daggett argued that Turkey did not "fall" in August of 1840. James Hazen, a Massachusetts clergyman, said the European intervention had kept Turkey from falling. Hazen said the argument that in accepting European aid Turkey fell was "ridiculous."2
When Did Turkey Really Fall?
The Russians defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1829, and in 1833 they signed a treaty establishing a protectorate over the Ottoman Empire. The other European nations were displeased with this arrangement, and in 1841, the powers of Austria, Britain, and France, replaced this treaty with a general European protectorate. If the signing of a protectorate agreement did indeed signal the fall of the Ottoman Empire, then the agreement with Russia in 1833 would have marked the "fall" of Turkey. If the signing of a protectorate marks the fall of an empire, then Turkey fell in 1833, not 1841. The 1841 treaty was simply a replacement of the existing 1833 treaty! Furthermore, the treaty was signed in 1841, not 1840.
In actuality, the Ottoman Empire did not fall in either 1833 or 1841. In fact, in part because of the 1841 treaty, Britain and France later came to the aid of Turkey in 1853, and defeated Russia in the Crimean War. Despite this victory, the Ottoman Empire gradually weakened and lost territory until World War I, when it sided with Germany. Early in the war, Turkey won a dramatic victory over the invading British and French armies at Gallipoli, resulting in over 250,000 allied casualties. However, Turkey eventually succumbed to the invading armies and sued for peace in 1918. It was at this point that the Turkish government was placed under control of the allied powers. It could be argued that this was the real "fall" of Turkey. Under the ensuing treaty, large parts of Turkey were occupied by Greek, British, French, and Italian soldiers. However, Turkey soon rebelled against the treaty and attacked the occupying troops. They drove the Greeks out of Asia Minor, and expelled the British, French, and Italian occupation forces by 1923. After regaining independence, the Ottoman Empire officially came to an end in 1923, with the establishment of a new form of government called the Turkish Republic.
Did Litch's prediction convince multitudes?
Ellen White claimed that "multitudes were convinced of the correctness" of Miller's calculations because of Litch's successful prediction. But is that truly the case? It has already been noted that clergymen quickly refuted Litch's claim that Turkey had fallen. Litch himself lamented the lack of acceptance of his teaching:
"There are few persons, in New England at least, whose minds were not arrested and turned to the 11th of August; and vast multitudes were ready to say, ay, did say, If this event takes place according to the calculation, at the time specified, we will believe the doctrine of the advent near. But how is it with them now? Why, just as it was with the old Jews in the days of Christ; when he was every day performing the most stupendous miracles in their sight, they said to him, "Master, we would see a sign of thee." So now: men desire a sign from heaven. But let them be assured, they can never have a more convincing one than this..."3
Here we find Litch complaining about the widespread rejection of his prediction. This is quite different from the picture painted by Ellen White! From Litch's point of view it is evident the multitudes were not convinced that Turkey had fallen, nor were they convinced that prophecy had been fulfilled. And who would be in a better position to judge whether the people were convinced? Litch himself? Or the 14-year-old Ellen Harmon? You decide!
Later in life, Litch abandons earlier views
The older and wiser Josiah Litch abandoned the views held by the younger and brasher Litch. In 1867, he published a rejection of the prophetic year-day rule as a general principle of hermeneutics. For example, he concluded the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14 were literal days4. In 1873, Litch wrote on the 6th trumpet of Revelation 9:15:
"The exact hour for [the angels] to be loosed was fixed. They were prepared unto an hour, day, month, and year. That is, the exact time for their loosing was fixed, to a year, a month, a day, and an hour; it is not an exact period during which they should act."5
This commentary is more profound for what it does not say rather than what it says. Gone are the claims that the events of August 11, 1840, fulfilled the prophecy of Revelation 9:15. Instead, Litch takes a position that is more in accordance with the original Greek, that the emphasis is not upon a specific period of time.
What does Rev. 9:15 really say?
Revelation 9:15, in the original Greek, is not conveying that angels would release the Ottomans for a specified length of time. Rather, the Greek is saying that the fifth trumpet would be released upon a specific date. Notice how all modern translations accurately render the passage:
NKJV - So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, were released to kill a third of mankind.
Prescott finds errors in Great Controversy6
Before preparing the new edition of Great Controversy Prescott wrote a lengthy list of errors he felt needed correcting. Among these were the historical positions taken by it on the French Revolution and the sixth trumpet. Prescott pointed out that there was no evidence the Bible had been banned in France for three and a half years, and that since Litch's prediction regarding August 11 had not only been given after the fact (contrary to a statement in Great Controversy, which said it was given before), it was also quite invalid.
When Daniel and Revelation 7 came in for revision in the 1940s, Prescott's criticisms were revived and confirmed. The fruitless scouring of libraries in Europe and America that took place before the 1911 edition of Great Controversy now witnessed a replay. We quote the official statement of
the revising committee on the matter of the trumpets.
"It is interesting to note that when James White and later Uriah Smith came to the seven trumpets they did not attempt an original interpretation but frankly appropriated an interpretation by Josiah Litch--one that Litch himself had already repudiated. Like them your committee has found nothing better to recommend. We therefore--
During the work of the committee we find such comments as the following exchanged in letters:
"I am still struggling with the problem of atheism and the French Revolution, and do not know yet just how we will come out.
"I especially looked up Item Number 7 to find some quotations to take the place of these old ones, but I cannot find any good material
"The date Aug. 26, 1792, should not be used. I can find nothing in any history of the French Revolution to show cause why this should be an outstanding day against Christianity."
Such comments only echo ones made years earlier by Prescott and
Spicer. We offer typical instances.
"I notice that in the issue of the Signs for Nov.21, you have let loose the Turk--and some other things besides. I had known for some time that the date, August 11, 1840, would not stand examination. Two years ago we presented full information on this at the Fall Council, but nothing has been done and in the meantime our books and publications are repeating the old unwarranted statements ...
"If the Emperor John, who died in 1448, 'never forgot that he was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire,' how can we assert that the Byzantine Empire did not become subject to Turkey until 1449?" (W.W. Prescott letter)
Here is W. A Spicer (Nov. 30, 1914)--
"I will also enclose some material on the dates of the prophetic periods of Rev. 9. Some time ago, Professor Prescott and I went to the Library of Congress. He looked up the history of Pachymeris, translated into Latin by Possinus. It is from this book that Gibbon got his date, July 27, 1299. 1 looked up Von Hammer, who is the heaviest German author on Ottoman history, and it is clear that Gibbon made an error which Von Hammer and others have corrected. The way Gibbon arrived at his mistake is easily seen by looking at the Possinus translation of Pachymeris. Gibbon saw July 27 at the opening of chapter 25, and then over in the chronological tables given by Possinus he saw the date 1299. Combining these he got July 27, 1299. But he failed to note that the chapter began with July 27, but then went back and dealt with earlier events. These earlier events were the events of 1299. [Thus the 1299 date in the table given by Possinus.] It was not until 1301 that the battle of July 27 took place.
"About this time Professor Benson received documents showing conclusively that the ultimatum of the Powers was not delivered to the Pasha of Egypt on Aug. 11, 1840. Then we began to look the thing up a bit, and presented some of these features to the recent council. You may well understand that the brethren had to sit up and take notice. It is remarkable how loath people are to look at facts, or to correct anything."
The August 11 prediction, supposedly fulfilled "to the very day," is worthless:
It is obvious the August 11 date was wrong, as even Litch himself later admitted. And yet, Mrs. White endorsed this date and claimed that this erroneous prediction "convinced multitudes" that Miller's calculations were correct. This is in spite of the fact that Litch himself complained very few accepted his calculation and Prescott said Litch did not make his calculations known until after the fact. These discrepencies provide conclusive evidence that angels were not guiding Ellen White in the writing of the Great Controversy.
1. Ellen White, Great Controversy, p. 335.
2. Eric Anderson, The Disappointed, "The Millerite Use of Prophecy", p. 87.
3. Ibid., p. 86.
4. See Prophetic Significance of Eastern and European Movements, pp. 15-16.
5. Josiah Litch, A Complete Harmony of Daniel and the Apocalypse, p. 170.
6. Section taken from Daniel 8:14, by Desmond Ford, Ph.D.
7. Daniel and Revelation by Uriah Smith is said to be one of Mrs. White's sources of "inspiration" in writing the Great Controversy. Large parts of Smith's book were incorporated into the Great Controversy.