Ever wondered about the history of the Jehovah's Witnesses? Find out more here.
Every day, lives are saved using the basic medical procedure of blood transfusions. Each December, millions of people in hundreds of countries prepare to celebrate Christmas. Around the world, men and women proudly participate in governing their countries through public service.
Yet for the 19 million adherents of a relatively young religious group known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, all these activities are prohibited.1
The story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a tale of resilience and growth in the face of failure and ridicule. Despite a series of unfulfilled prophecies, accusations of authoritarianism, and idiosyncratic practices, the organization continues to add new converts every year. Who are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, exactly? Where did they come from?
During the mid-nineteenth century, a religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening took America by storm. This both bolstered traditional Christian groups and helped launch new movements. Two of these movements—Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses—became their own religions.2
In the 1870s, a teenager named Charles Taze Russell found himself increasingly uncomfortable with what his church taught on doctrines like hell and predestination.3 He found solace in the teachings of another new religious group called the Adventists. This group was unique for teaching that those who reject God do not go to hell, but are annihilated altogether. They also taught “millennialism,” the expectation that Christ would soon return and set up a temporal kingdom that would last for one thousand years.4
Russell began leading Bible studies and publishing books, tracts, and magazines. He taught a mixture of traditional Christian doctrine, Adventist ideas, and his own new system of belief. This grew into a movement known as the Millennial Dawn Bible Students.5
In 1879, Russell began his own publication called The Watchtower.6 By 1880, there were over thirty congregations associated with the movement throughout the United States.7 In 1896, Russell founded The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS).
Russell’s ideas continued to develop. He taught that Jesus had returned in an invisible, spiritual manner in 1874.8 He also taught that God would destroy all forms of government in the Battle of Armageddon; in 1914, when World War I began, Russell declared it to be the beginning of Armageddon.9 Although the start of World War I had given him hope that his prediction was correct, Russell died two years later without seeing his prophecy fulfilled.
In 1917 a lawyer named Joseph Rutherford, a legal advisor for the WTBTS, was appointed the next president of the Society. He picked a new date for the end of the world in 1925. This “was widely advertised . . . as being . . . of God and ‘absolutely and unqualifiedly correct.’”10
Many were disaffected as a result of such failed prophecies, and Rutherford charged on with a major rebranding campaign. The WTBTS was officially renamed the Jehovah’s Witnesses.11 Door-to-door visitation was introduced in an effort to win over new converts. Participants were required to record their efforts in a weekly service sheet.12The Golden Age, a second monthly magazine, was introduced with the tagline “Millions Now Living Will Never Die!”13
Drawing from the apocalyptic messages in the Bible, Witnesses made bold statements to increase the urgency of their claims. For instance, Revelation 7:4 uses the image of 144,000 who are “sealed . . . from the tribes of Israel.” Unlike many who consider this a metaphor, they taught that exactly 144,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses would be saved.
As the movement approached 144,000 members, Rutherford revised their teaching. Those who joined before 1935 would reign with Jesus from heaven, while those who joined after would live “on Earth in a new paradise after Armageddon and the Millennium.”14 Throughout Rutherford’s leadership, the Jehovah’s Witnesses began a pattern of legal entanglements that continue to define them.15
Under subsequent leadership, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have continued to revise their teachings. Russell had taught that there was an exact six thousand years between the creation of Adam to the millennial reign and that Jesus had returned in an invisible form in 1874. Additionally, it was taught that “the generation that had been alive in 1914 would not pass away before Armageddon would occur.”16
In 1960, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures was published.17 It included many insertions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ theology and terminology. A third failed attempt to predict Armageddon came and went in 1975. By 1995 they needed new leadership, but the number of those who had be born before 1914 was greatly diminished. They adjusted their teaching to state that “there will always be those who oppose the truth until the kingdom arrives.”18 They no longer set specific dates for the end of the world, but they continue many distinctive practices.
Five Notable Practices
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have many unique ideas that separate them from both Christianity and mainstream culture.
While Christianity has no official statement of belief, a few core doctrines are generally recognized as key. Two ideas about God and Jesus separate Jehovah’s Witnesses from orthodox Christians.
First, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the Christian belief that God is a Trinity, three unique persons who form one God. Second, they do not believe that Jesus is God, but rather, “a god.”19
From the beginning, Jehovah’s Witnesses have focused their efforts on publishing. They publish two magazines, The Watchtower and Awake! Both include Bible teaching from the perspective of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as topical articles. These have become the most highly distributed publications of all time.20
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, proselytization is not an option; it’s a requirement. Witnesses walk door to door distributing literature and attempting to set up Bible studies. This is referred to as “publishing.”21 Individuals are expected to devote a minimum of fifteen hours a week to witnessing and to record this in a regular “field report.”22
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for standing apart from broader society. They do not recognize any special days, such as Christmas, Easter, or individual birthdays. They prohibit tobacco, drugs, military service, extramarital sex, political involvement, and blood transfusions.23
Jehovah’s Witnesses have established their rights through many court battles. In the United States, their legal proceedings have been so central to defining freedom of speech that Justice Harlan Fiske Stone once wrote, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses ought to have an endowment in view of the aid which they give in solving the legal problems of civil liberties.”24
The leader of the WTBTS and its board of thirteen members speak for “God himself.”25 This creates a “closed system that isolates its members and makes them dependent by authoritarian leadership, indoctrination and a demand for total commitment.”26 All thinking, especially regarding Scripture, is determined and stated by the leaders of the organization. Members who do not adhere to expectations are shunned.27
In the prologue to his biography of Jesus, the writer of the Gospel of John stated, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”28 Jesus taught people to worship God and love each other by their own volition.
One possible reason the Jehovah’s Witnesses have survived despite their complicated history is “clarity.” In a world with endless possibilities, the teachings of the Watchtower Society provide a black-and-white approach to lifestyle and beliefs.
The dark side of such forced clarity is legalism. Adherents must maintain an unquestioning faith in the face of constantly shifting authoritarian structure and rigorous moral standards. No matter what you think of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is obvious that their approach requires strong dedication.