M James Penton. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were known as Bible Students until 1931. In 1870 their founder, Charles Taze Russell, an Allegheny, Pennsylvania, businessman, had started a study group that became a congregation. Russell was influenced by members of the Advent Christian Church and an independent Second Adventist, George Storrs (1796-1879). Later Russell drew most of his “end-times” teachings from Nelson Barbour (1824-1906), a former disciple of William Miller.
Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the Trinity, believe that hell is the grave, teach that only 144,000 elect will receive heavenly immortality, and assert that the rest of saved humanity will live eternally on earth. The Witnesses have frequently been in conflict with other religions and secular governments. They suffered persecution under Nazism and Communism, have been banned in many countries, and were mobbed repeatedly in the United States from 1940 through 1943.
In 1876 Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Bible Students, met Nelson Barbour and accepted Barbour’s end-times chronology, which asserted that Christ had been present invisibly since 1874, that their fellowship would be taken to heaven in 1878, and that Jesus’ millennial kingdom would be established on earth in 1914. In 1879 Russell broke with Barbour. He then established the journal Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, and in 1884 he and several associates incorporated Zion’s Watch Tower and Tract Society to promote a massive publicity campaign.
Beginning about 1895 the Bible Students came to regard Russell as the “faithful and wise servant” of Matthew 24:45-47 and the channel through whom “new light” was delivered. Although Christ’s kingdom did not replace the nations of the world in 1914 as he had expected, Russell believed till his death two years later that World War I would lead to their destruction in the battle of Armageddon.
In January 1917 Joseph Franklin Rutherford was elected the second president of the Watch Tower Society. Shortly thereafter a struggle began at the Watch Tower headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, between Rutherford and a majority of the society’s board of directors. In July Rutherford ousted four board members and increased his control over the society.
Rutherford and seven associates were imprisoned briefly in the Atlanta, Georgia, federal penitentiary in 1918, allegedly for opposing conscription. Following the release of Rutherford and the others on appeal in 1919, the Bible Students grew dramatically until 1926. The cause of this growth was the revised teaching that the millennium would begin in 1925. When that did not happen, and when Rutherford began revising Russell’s teachings and assuming centralized control over Bible Student congregations, a majority of Bible Students broke with him. Yet, by his death in 1942, Rutherford had rebuilt the movement, by then known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite bitter international persecution.
Under Rutherford’s successors the Witnesses have grown into a worldwide religion. Although they count only “publishers” (persons actively involved in public religious educational work), their number of adherents is far larger. In 2002, while there were only 6,304,645 publishers, nearly 15,600,000 persons attended the annual spring Memorial of Christ’s death.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses are found in most countries, there are more in the United States than in any other. They make up a larger percentage of the population, however, in some Latin American and African nations. For example, while there was one Witness publisher for every 280 persons in the United States in 2002, there was one for every 181 in Mexico. Their numbers are growing much faster in the Third World and the former Soviet Union than in major industrialized lands.
Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves to be the only true Christians, in part because they deny many orthodox Christian doctrines as false, pagan teachings. The Witnesses hold that Jehovah is God, the Father, and that he alone exists throughout eternity. The Logos, or Word, was his first creation and only begotten son, through whom the rest of creation came into being. The Witnesses regard the Genesis accounts of creation as basically literal, although they interpret the creative days of the first chapter as six thousand-year periods.
Witnesses believe that, as a consequence of the Fall in Eden, Adam passed sin to all humankind, that the Mosaic Law was given to the Israelites as a tutor leading to Christ, and that Christ came to ransom Adam’s descendants from sin and death. Concerning these teachings, they are in general agreement with most conservative Christians, particularly Evangelicals. But they deny that Jesus was divine; rather, he was simply a sinless man. By offering a perfect atoning sacrifice to Jehovah, he bought back what Adam had lost and laid the foundation for a New Creation as the “last Adam.” This New Creation will be composed of the “church class,” which is held to be the 144,000 of Revelation chapters 7 and 14, and a “great crowd,” described in Revelation 7:9, 10. While the “church class” is literally made up of 144,000 individuals predestined as a class and saved by grace, the “great crowd” must work out their salvation and will receive eternal life on a restored paradise earth only if they remain faithful through a final testing, which is to follow a literal millennium.
Central to contemporary Witness teachings is the belief that humankind has been living in the “last days” since 1914 and that all Witnesses must bring testimony to as many as possible through house-to-house preaching work prior to an imminent Great Tribulation. At the end thereof, all—except Jehovah’s Witnesses—will be annihilated. Then Satan will be bound for a thousand years, and Christ will begin his millennial reign over the earth.
All Jehovah’s Witnesses are baptized by water immersion, but only a small group of roughly 8,000 take Communion once a year to indicate that they have a heavenly hope. This group is called the “anointed remnant” of the 144,000 and the “faithful and discreet slave” class. The Witnesses teach that all “new light” and spiritual direction must come through this class. While all members of the Governing Body must be “anointed,” other members of the class play little part in the oversight of the movement.
Moral Code of Conduct
Jehovah’s Witnesses are stern moralists. Although they have no prohibitions against any food (except blood products) or drinks, including alcoholic beverages, their Governing Body prohibits many other activities. These include the use of tobacco or any hallucinogen, saluting flags, standing for national anthems, participating in politics, serving in armed forces, working in factories producing weapons of war, and taking blood transfusions. They hold abortion and euthanasia to be murder. They permit birth control and sanction divorce for marital unfaithfulness. Otherwise, they insist on traditional, monogamous, heterosexual sexual values.
The Governing Body also asserts that questioning official Witness doctrine as promulgated through the Watch Tower Society is a serious violation of spiritual authority that may be regarded as apostasy. Any Witness who violates any of these proscriptions may face expulsion from the Witness community through “disfellowshipment” and shunning by other Witnesses, including family members.
Moral rules have often changed. For example, for some time Jehovah’s Witnesses were told that they could not accept organ transplants or perform alternative civilian service in lieu of serving in the armed forces. Furthermore, they could not accept medically administered blood fractions, such as blood plasma or platelets. Over the years, however, the bans on organ transplants and alternative civilian service have been lifted, and Witnesses can now accept certain blood fractions.
The Witnesses regard the Protestant canon of the Bible as originally written to be inspired and inerrant. They have produced their own version, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, in many modern languages.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have no sacred symbols. Since they hold that Jesus was “impaled” on an upright stake rather than crucified, they regard the cross as an emblem of “false Christianity.”
Early and Modern Leaders
Because of the nature of their community, which has emphasized withdrawal from the secular world and has generally been hostile to higher education, Jehovah’s Witnesses have produced few outstanding historical figures besides the first four presidents of the Watch Tower Society: Charles Taze Russell, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, Nathan Homer Knorr (1905-77), and Fredrick William Franz (1893-1992). Two of their outstanding lawyers, Hayden Covington (1911-79) and W. Glen How (born in 1921), however, are recognized for their civil liberties victories before the U.S. and Canadian Supreme Courts. The only other prominent Witnesses have been either entertainers or athletes. These have included George Benson, Eve Arden, and Venus and Serena Williams. Although entertainer Michael Jackson was raised a Witness, he left the movement some years ago under pressure.
Major Theologians and Authors
Although Charles Russell, Joseph Rutherford, and Fredrick Franz produced a great number of religious writings, and Franz was the primary translator of The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, none of these Watch Tower presidents was a professional theologian in the usual sense of that term.
The organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is hierarchical. At the top is the Governing Body, which selects all new members of that body as well as, indirectly, zone, branch, district, and circuit overseers, plus congregational elders and ministerial servants (deacons). All are males in these positions. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have no clergy.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
Jehovah’s Witness congregations meet in Kingdom Halls. The homes for officials and workers at their American head-quarters and branch offices are called Bethels.
What is Sacred?
Besides the Bible and their organization, Jehovah’s Witnesses place a high value on both human and animal life. They must not take human life except in self-defense, and they must not take animal life for sport. Obedience to God is, however, regarded as more important than life itself, and martyrdom for such obedience is esteemed.
Holidays and Festivals
The celebration of all religious and national holidays is condemned as either pagan or “worldly.” Witnesses do meet annually, how-ever, on Nisan 14, according to the Jewish calendar, to celebrate Communion on the Memorial of Christ’s death.
Mode of Dress
Jehovah’s Witnesses dress in the common apparel of the countries in which they live and have no unique garb. They do stress that their apparel must be “chaste and modest” since they are “God’s ministers.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses have no prohibitions against any foods or beverages except those that include blood or blood products.
Jehovah’s Witnesses gather five times a week for religious services in meetings that are practically the same in form and content throughout the world. Central to these meetings are sermons and study materials provided by the Governing Body through various legal societies. Kingdom Songs (hymns) are sung at the beginning and end of most meetings.
Rites of Passage
All Jehovah’s Witnesses at the age of understanding are encouraged to be baptized as acts of dedication to Jehovah through Christ and “Jehovah’s spirit directed organization.” Only members of the “anointed remnant”—those who hope to receive a heavenly resurrection—partake of Communion.
All baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered members of the community and may be disciplined as such. Only those involved in preaching work are counted as “active.” Witnesses regard growth in the number of converts as a sign of Jehovah’s favor.
Through their litigation in the courts of the United States, Canada, and a number of other countries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have made important contributions to such civil liberties as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. But they regard all other religions as satanic.
Because of their refusal to participate in most political activities, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not support social justice movements. In Canada during the 1940s and 1950s, however, they campaigned for a constitutionally guaranteed Bill of Rights. In their congregations they emphasize social, ethnic, and interracial harmony, and they have attracted large members of ethnic and racial minorities in many countries.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremely conservative in most personal aspects of life. They hold that monogamous marriage is sacred and can only be broken by sexual unfaithfulness. They condemn masturbation, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have often come into conflict with other religions and secular governments, even in liberal societies. Their preaching and proselytizing work, their unwillingness to engage in politics, their refusal to participate in patriotic exercises, their conscientious objection, and their rejection of blood transfusions, even in the face of death, have brought them much criticism and persecution.
Because Jehovah’s Witnesses separate themselves from everything they consider “worldly,” and because they place emphasis on their preaching work at the expense of all other activities, they have had little impact on either the fine or liberal arts.