Jehovah's Witnesses

views updated Jun 27 2018


JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES are one of the few religious movements that originated in the United States. Like other sectarian Protestant groups founded in the later nineteenth century, they claim to restore Christianity to its original doctrines and practices. The organization adopted the name Jehovah's Witnesses in 1931 to emphasize the belief that the most accurate translation of the personal name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures is "Jehovah" (Ps. 83:18), and that as believers they are his "witnesses" (Is. 43:10; Acts 1:8). They fulfill the responsibility to witness by distributing literature, leading Bible studies, attending congregational meetings, and maintaining separation from secular culture. In matters of faith and practice, Jehovah's Witnesses submit to the theocratic authority of the Watchtower Society.

Central to Watchtower teaching is the belief that Jesus Christ will soon rule as king over the earth from heaven in fulfillment of prophecies. In the apocalyptic battle of Armageddon, Christ will destroy all human governments and establish the millennial kingdom of God. The vision of a perfect world order, in which people of all ethnic origins live in peace and justice in an earth restored to pristine condition, attracts followers across the globe. In 2002, Jehovah's Witnesses reported an active membership of over six million people in 234 countries. Over 80 percent of the members live outside the United States, with concentrations in Canada, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, and Scandinavia.


Jehovah's Witnesses trace the origin of their movement to Charles Taze Russell (18521916), who was raised in the Presbyterian tradition but became dissatisfied with Calvinist doctrines of original sin, everlasting punishment of unbelievers, and predestination. He was attracted to the Adventist teaching that Christ had returned in 1874 as an invisible presence, inaugurating a forty-year period of gathering true Christians. Russell began publishing his views in 1879 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in a monthly journal called Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence. In 1884 he organized his readers, who met in small congregations of Bible students, into the Zion Watch Tower and Tract Society, and he began holding annual conventions in 1891. Russell traveled extensively, giving lectures on Bible prophecy and holding audiences spellbound with his dramatic oratory and charismatic presence. His followers, known popularly as "Russellites," gave him the honorary title of "Pastor."

Russell wrote prolifically, including a six-volume series of books called Millennial Dawn (18861904). In a pattern that continued into the twenty-first century, his students, called "publishers," distributed literature door-to-door, sometimes using phonographs and dioramas. Russell taught that the "presence" of Christ would begin to dawn with the end of Gentile domination over Israel (prophesied in Lk. 21:24), an event he later believed occurred with the onset of World War I. In 1909 Russell established operations in Brooklyn, New York, in a complex of buildings called Bethel, where Jehovah's Witnesses still serve as volunteers.

Russell's personal life was marked by controversies. He based some of his biblical interpretations on analyses of the Great Pyramid, he was committed to Zionism as a necessary condition for the fulfillment of prophecy, and he was accused of fraud in a commercial venture. His contentious divorce from Maria Ackley Russell arose from conflicts over her authority in the organization, resulting in her removal as associate editor of the Watch Tower (the original two-word spelling of the organization's journal). While Watchtower historians claim she was motivated by "her own desire for personal prominence" (Jehovah's Witnesses: Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, 1993, p. 143) critics charge that she was asserting her right to independent judgment.

The specific problem, according to the Watchtower Society, was that Maria "sought to secure for herself a stronger voice in directing what would appear in the Watch Tower " and resisted the editorial policy that required Charles's approval of the entire contents of every issue (Jehovah's Witnesses: Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, 1993, p. 645). Maria and Charles separated in 1897. In 1903 Maria published a tract with allegations of immoral conduct by Charles and initiated divorce proceedings, which were completed in 1908. Witnesses teach that a wife should respect and obey her husband as head of the family, whether he is a Christian or not (Eph. 5:2224), and that she does not have authority to refuse sexual relations with her husband (1 Cor. 7:34). In that light, Maria serves for Jehovah's Witnesses as a cautionary example of a rebellious wife and a woman exceeding her authority as prescribed in the Bible. According to Watchtower Society interpretations of the New Testament texts, women are excluded from serving as overseers (elders) and ministerial servants (deacons) in Kingdom Halls, and from holding offices in the Watchtower Society.

Russell's death created a crisis of leadership that was resolved by the election of Joseph Franklin Rutherford (18691942) as president of the Watch Tower Society. Because Rutherford had trained as a legal apprentice and served occasionally on the circuit court, he was known as "Judge." While Rutherford was a charismatic speaker, his disposition was more confrontational than Russell's and his style of management more authoritarian. His forceful advocacy of refusal of military service led to his imprisonment in 1919, along with seven other directors of the Watch Tower Society, under the Sedition Act. They won release on appeal, but many members suffered harassment for their antigovernment teachings. Accusations of lack of patriotism, as well as disappointment in the failure of the kingdom to arrive after the end of the war, discouraged many. Rutherford responded by strengthening the efficiency and discipline of the organization. He introduced a monthly "service sheet" to record in detail the activities of members, increased the construction of Kingdom Halls, and began publishing a new monthly magazine called The Golden Age (later, Awake!). To reinforce apocalyptic hope he introduced the slogan, "Millions Now Living Will Never Die!"

Rutherford wrote extensively, revising many of Russell's views. He identified "Babylon the Great" of Revelation 17 with the League of Nations in alliance with the Roman Catholic Church and predicted the return of biblical patriarchs, for whom he built a mansion in San Diego. In 1935 Rutherford declared that membership of the "anointed class" of 144,000 Witnesses called to reign with Christ in heaven (Rv. 14:1) was "sealed" and that new members of the growing movement belonged to that "great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples" (Rv. 7:9), who would not ascend to heaven but live in the earthly paradise.

Between the world wars Rutherford led Jehovah's Witnesses through a series of court battles over freedom of speech and press, right of assembly, and distribution of literature. His death from colon cancer in 1942 began the transition from charismatic to institutional authority.

Nathan Homer Knorr (19051977) became the third president of the Watch Tower Society in 1942. His presidency was marked by increased growth, greater uniformity in the programs of local congregations, and more effective methods of promotion, including training in public speaking through Theocratic Ministry Schools. Knorr traveled extensively and established international organizations in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands. He also began the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead for training missionaries. Known as "Brother," Knorr was more modest than his predecessors, and in 1943 he established a policy of anonymous publications on the principle that authority resides in official interpretations of the Bible, not in the views of any individual. In 1960 the Watchtower Society published its own New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. During the cultural upheaval of the time, the society expelled many young people for sexual misconduct. This severe punishment, called "disfellowshipping," forbids social interaction with any Jehovah's Witnesses, including members of one's own family, and is based on 1 Corinthians 5:911. Witnesses have also been disfellowshipped as apostates for renouncing official teaching.

Under Knorr's leadership the board of directors of the Watchtower Society reorganized into a Governing Body that issued binding directives, held all legal authority over the vast holdings of the Watchtower Society, approved all publications, and was the final arbiter of doctrinal and behavioral questions. Knorr also restored to local congregations the authority to elect their own ruling body of male elders. In his last years the organization faced a crisis of confidence. Based on Watchtower articles, many Jehovah's Witnesses began to expect that the kingdom would come in 1975. Despite official warnings that such hope was speculative, many left the organization when the kingdom failed to appear.

Frederick W. Franz (18931992), fourth president of the Watchtower Society, responded to the decline in membership after 1975 with a series of publications in defense of official teaching, including a revised reference edition of the New World Translation (NWT; 1984). Franz also expanded local programs of education and developed the Ministerial Training School in 1987. Under his leadership the number of pioneers (full-time evangelists) nearly tripled, and the list of congregations grew to seventy thousand. His emphasis on greater dedication led him to develop formal courses of instruction for newly baptized members of Kingdom Halls and to enforce stricter standards for disfellowshippingresulting in the expulsion of his own nephew and member of the Governing Body, Raymond Franz.

Milton G. Henschel (19202003) rose to the presidency of the Watchtower Society in 1992 after decades of service at Bethel. During his administration the organization completed the transition from strong individual authority to corporate bureaucracy. Key to this move was severing the connection between the coming of the kingdom and the life span of the generation of 1914. Since the days of Rutherford, the official teaching was that the cohort of the anointed class would not all die until the kingdom arrives on earth, but by the mid-1990s they had dwindled to less than nine thousand. In 1995 the Watchtower Society revised its interpretation of Jesus' promise that "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Mt. 24:34) to mean that there will always be those who oppose the truth until the kingdom arrives. Consequently, Jehovah's Witnesses began to teach that the time of the kingdom cannot be predicted by any human measure.


In October 2000 the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, the parent corporation of Jehovah's Witnesses, separated its president and board of directors from the Governing Body of the Watchtower Society. Don Adams replaced Henschel as president, and the assets and properties of the Watchtower Society were assigned to separate corporations with their own presidents. The new officers were all younger men and were responsible for the management of ongoing operations. While the Governing Body has no legal authority, its members all belong to the anointed class and continue to provide guidance as the "faithful and discreet slave" (Mt. 24:45, NWT), to whom Christ gave spiritual authority on earth until his return. Critics charge that the change was instituted to protect the Governing Body from litigation over controversial practices, such as refusal of blood transfusions even for minor children (see article by Randall Watters in Christianity Today 45, no.4 [2001]: 25).

For administrative purposes, the global community of Jehovah's Witnesses is divided into thirty zones. Each zone is composed of branches; branches are made up of districts; and districts are divided into circuits. Each circuit includes twenty congregations. A circuit overseer visits each congregation twice a year. When membership in a Kingdom Hall (congregation) reaches two hundred, another congregation is formed. The 2002 Yearbook reported 94,600 congregations. Besides the national headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, there are Bethel complexes in Paterson, New Jersey, and Wallkill, New York, as well as several farms that produce food for the volunteers in these locations.


Jehovah's Witnesses claim that all of their beliefs are derived from the Bible, which they believe is inspired by God and is accurate in every statement. They interpret the Bible literally, except where they detect figurative language, and they offer "proof texts" for all of their teachings. They reject conventional Christian doctrines and practices that are not explicitly found in the Bible, such as the Trinity, deity of Christ, immortality of the soul, everlasting punishment of unbelievers, salvation by grace, and ordination of clergy. For Jehovah's Witnesses there is only one supreme God, known as Jehovah. He created the world in six "days" (each a period of time lasting several thousand years) without evolution but through the agency of Jesus in his preexistent form as the Word of God, also known as Michael the archangel. Jesus is not eternal, but he was the "firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15) and is properly called "a god" (Jn. 1:1, NWT). Jehovah's Witnesses pray to God in the name of Jesus. They understand "holy spirit" to refer to Jehovah's "active force."

Jehovah's Witnesses believe in a personal Devil, the rebellious angel who became Satan, the "adversary" of God. Satan tempted the first human couple to commit their free act of disobedience. As a result all humans became subject to sin, sickness, and the oblivion of death. As Adam became a living soul when God created him (Gn. 2:7), so the soul dies with the body: "The dead are conscious of nothing at all" (Eccl. 9:5). Their future existence depends upon resurrection in the kingdom. In the meanwhile, Satan opposes God's rule by leading humanity to worship the false gods of material success, sexual indulgence, and national pride. Because they believe the "world system" is under satanic control, Jehovah's Witnesses reject political, economic, and interfaith alliances. They insist that theirs is the only true religion.

To save humans from sin and death, Jesus was born through the virgin Mary and anointed at his baptism by God's holy spirit as Messiah. Jesus' sinless life qualified him to be the perfect sacrifice, a ransom that was the equivalent of the perfect life Adam forfeited in Eden. Christ's utter obedience to the divine will vindicated Jehovah's authority and restored the possibility of living eternally in earthly paradise for all who exercise faith in Jesus by following his example of obedience. In Watchtower interpretation, Jesus was executed on a "torture stake" rather than a cross, a symbol Jehovah's Witnesses associate with ancient false religions. Jehovah raised Jesus from the dead as an "immortal spirit person" (1 Pt. 3:18) with authority to rule over the messianic kingdom.

The anointed class, also called "little flock" (Lk. 12:32), will rule with Christ "as kings over the earth" (Rv. 5:10). They will not be resurrected but are raised upon death to heaven as "spirit beings." They are the subjects of the new covenant Jesus announced at his last meal, and therefore only they are qualified to partake in the annual Memorial. (A few younger members have declared a "heavenly calling" on the basis of inner conviction, and they are regarded as replacements for unidentified apostates.) They will administer divine government over the paradise on earth, populated by the "great crowd" of resurrected believers, also known as "other sheep" (Jn. 10:16). The present role of the "great crowd" is to assist the anointed class in bearing witness to Jehovah's kingdom.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that 1914 is a key date in understanding Bible prophecy. Using numerical references in the books of Daniel and Revelation, they calculate that 1914 was when Christ returned to cast Satan out of heaven and be enthroned as king of the universe (Rv. 12:79). The natural disasters and human catastrophes that have occurred since then fulfill prophecies about worsening conditions in the last days. Jehovah's Witnesses regard such events as signs that the kingdom is imminent. Articles in the Watchtower often quote Jesus' promise that "the conclusion of the system of things" is near at hand (Mt. 24:3, NWT). As ruler of the kingdom Jesus will separate all people on earth into loyal "sheep" and rebellious "goats" (Mt. 25:3134). The faithful will enter paradise, a thousand years of peace and harmony in a restored earth. All of those who opposed Jehovah's kingdom will not be resurrected and so will cease to exist. The dead who did not hear the gospel during their lives will be resurrected to join the "great crowd." At the end of the millennium, Satan will be released briefly to test all those on earth. Those who succumb to Satan's temptation will suffer "the second death" (Rv. 20:1415) or annihilation. Only those who persevere in faith will be rewarded with eternal life.


Jehovah's Witnesses meet several times a week in buildings with spare furnishings called Kingdom Halls. Services consist of serious study of the Bible using Watchtower literature and of training in techniques of promoting their teachings in local neighborhoods. Worship also involves singing hymns, written in a distinctive doctrinal vocabulary and sung to recorded music supplied by the Watchtower Society. All members are expected to "publish" their beliefs by door-to-door visitation. Those who spend fifteen hours a week in fieldwork are called "regular pioneers," whereas those who devote more time are designated "special pioneers." In 2002 Jehovah's Witnesses collectively recorded over one billion hours of service. To supply them with material, the Watchtower Society invests heavily in communications technology. The publishing center in Brooklyn annually produces millions of copies of the Watchtower (which is translated into 146 languages) and Awake! (printed in 87 versions). Jehovah's Witnesses do not broadcast on television, but the Watchtower Society maintains an official site on the World Wide Web.

Jehovah's Witnesses observe two rituals: water baptism and the Lord's Supper. They baptize only adults who have qualified by extended study. Baptisms are performed by public immersion, often at annual district conventions, as a sign of dedication to kingdom work. The Lord's Evening Meal, also called the Memorial, is observed once a year on Passover eve. The 2002 Yearbook reported that 8,760 of the anointed class partook of the "emblems" of bread and wine, and nearly 16 million attended the Memorial.


Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas, Easter, or birthdays because they are associated with pagan celebrations. They abstain from tobacco and drugs and use alcohol in strict moderation, as required by the Bible. They denounce gambling because it is motivated by the sin of greed. Their sexual ethic forbids homosexuality, adultery, and premarital sex; abortion and some forms of birth control are also proscribed. Following the biblical injunction to "separate yourselves quit touching the unclean thing" (2 Cor. 6:17, NWT), Jehovah's Witnesses shun occult practices, such as magic, divination, and necromancy.

While Jehovah's Witnesses respect secular authorities (Rom. 13:1), they imitate Jesus in maintaining strict neutrality toward human governments, refusing to serve in the military, pledge allegiance to national flags, or serve in public office. For their dissent they have been imprisoned in many countries, and in Nazi Germany they were consigned to concentration camps. However, they do not call themselves pacifists, mainly because they believe in the righteous war Christ will wage against worldly governments at Armageddon. Their right to refuse to engage in patriotic demonstrations was upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of Barnette vs. West Virginia (1943), which excused Jehovah's Witnesses schoolchildren from saluting the flag. That victory is one among many through which Jehovah's Witnesses have secured more civil rights by legal challenge than any other American religious group.

Jehovah's Witnesses place a high value on strong families. While women are not prevented from working outside the home, they are expected to fulfill traditional roles as wives and mothers. Watchtower Society publications also instruct husbands to respect and honor their wives. At the same time, women are excluded from leadership on the basis of biblical prohibitions against women speaking in church (1 Cor. 14:3435) and the denial of permission for a woman "to teach or to have authority over a man" (1 Tm. 2:1112).

Perhaps the most controversial Watchtower Society policy is the prohibition of intravenous blood transfusion, first made binding in 1945. Jehovah's Witnesses interpret the apostolic command to "abstain from blood" (Acts 15:20) as unconditional because any means of taking blood into the body violates the principle that the "life (soul) is in the blood" (Gn. 9:4, Lv. 17:11). Transfusions of one's own blood are not allowed because storage would violate the Bible's command that the blood of a sacrifice must be poured on the earth "as water" (Dt. 12:16). Kidney dialysis is permitted as long as the blood circulates continuously through the filtering apparatus and returns to the patient's body. Since 1978, hemophiliacs have been allowed to choose treatment with blood components. Questions of parents' right to refuse transfusions for their children and of a pregnant woman to refuse transfusion that might save her life and that of her fetus, however, continued to challenge hospital ethics committees and courts in the early twenty-first century.

Jehovah's Witnesses maintain apocalyptic expectation of the imminent end of the world, a strict separation from popular culture, and adherence to a rigorous moral code, while abandoning attempts to set specific dates for the coming kingdom. The reorganization of the Watchtower Society separated religious from temporal authority, but critics continue to object to the conformity of thinking and behavior required by Watchtower Society teachings. Former Witnesses who have lost contact with family members through disfellowshipping bear bitter testimony to their experiences. While such exclusionary discipline strengthens group loyalty, it provides little opportunity for the free exchange of ideas that enables many religious movements to adapt creatively to changing historical conditions.

See Also

Law and Religion, overview article; Millenarianism, overview article.


The most important primary sources are official publications by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. Besides the annual Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, important works are You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1982); RevelationIts Grand Climax at Hand! (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1988); Insight on the Scriptures (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1988); Jehovah's Witnesses: Proclaimers of God's Kingdom (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1993), a compendium of the history, teaching, and organization of Jehovah's Witnesses that is free of the polemical tone of earlier writings; Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1995); and Worship the Only True God (Brooklyn, N.Y., 2002). The Watchtower Society maintains a World Wide Website at, which includes current Watchtower articles. The complete works of Charles Taze Russell are available online from Jerry Bergman compiled a list of resources in Jehovah's Witnesses: A Comprehensive and Selectively Annotated Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1999), and David A. Reed made a nonsympathetic survey in Jehovah's Witness Literature: A Critical Guide to Watchtower Publications (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1993). Herbert Hewitt Stroup wrote an early account that is analytical and scholarly in tone, The Jehovah's Witnesses (New York, 1945; reprint, 1967). Melvin D. Curry assessed academic scholarship in Jehovah's Witnesses: The Millenarian World of the Watch Tower (New York, 1992). James A. Beckford's The Trumpet of Prophecy: A Sociological Study of Jehovah's Witnesses (New York, 1975) analyzes the organization and ideology of the Watch Tower Society in Britain. Andrew Holden provides an ethnographic study in Jehovah's Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement (New York, 2002). Paul K. Conkin places Jehovah's Witnesses in the context of other forms of apocalyptic Christianity in American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997), chap. 3. David L. Weddle, "A New 'Generation' of Jehovah's Witnesses: Revised Interpretation, Ritual, and Identity," Nova Religio 3, no. 2 (April 2000): 350367, investigates the 1995 change in the status of the anointed class. William Kaplan traces the history of court cases in State and Salvation: The Jehovah's Witnesses and Their Fight for Civil Rights (Toronto, 1989).

Jehovah's Witnesses have drawn pejorative comment in many published studies, particularly by former members. See, for example, William J. Schnell, Thirty Years a Watch Tower Slave: The Confessions of a Converted Jehovah's Witness (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1956), and Heather Botting and Gary Botting, The Orwellian World of Jehovah's Witnesses (Toronto, 1984). David A. Reed has attacked both the teachings and the practices of the Watchtower Society in several books, including Blood on the Altar: Confessions of a Jehovah's Witness Minister (Amherst, N.Y., 1996). Two accounts by former members that provide more balanced reflections on the nature of their original commitments and eventual disappointments are Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses (New York, 1978), and M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses (Toronto, 1985). For a revealing look inside the Watchtower Society, see Raymond Franz's account of his disfellowshipping as a member of the Governing Body in Crisis of Conscience: The Struggle between Loyalty to God and Loyalty to One's Religion (Atlanta, 1983). Greg Stafford mounts a detailed and reasoned response to critics in Jehovah's Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, 2d ed. (Huntington Beach, Calif., 2000).

David L. Weddle (2005)

Jehovah's Witnesses

views updated May 18 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses

Otherwise known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Jehovah's Witnesses are one of the largest, and among the most prominent, of sectarian movements arising out of Christianity in the nineteenth century.

With approximately 5.5 million followers worldwide and almost a million adherents in America alone, Jehovah's Witnesses are popularly known for their fervent opposition to war and military service and to important medical procedures such as blood transfusions, skin grafts, and organ transplants. They also gained notoriety throughout the twentieth century with their predictions of Armageddon, the final battle between God and the legions of Satan, and the end of the world.

The phrase "Jehovah's Witnesses" is taken from the following passage in the Book of Isaiah: " 'You are my witnesses,' says [Jehovah]." (Isaiah 43:10, Revised Standard Version). The word "Jehovah" derives from an early English transliteration of the Hebrew title for the Deity. The word today is generally rendered by Biblical translators and scholars as "Yahweh," but Jehovah's Witnesses hold that the earlier pronunciation is accurate. Moreover, they maintain that "Jehovah" is the one, true, proper name for the Deity. Jehovah's Witnesses reject a number of the main tenets of orthodox Christianity, specifically the doctrine of the Trinity and the belief that Jesus was equal with God. Instead they look upon Jesus as an incarnation of the Archangel Michael, a created being.

The movement that later became known as Jehovah's Witnesses began with a Bible fellowship in Pennsylvania founded by Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916) shortly after the Civil War. These early "Russellites" radically reinterpreted traditional Protestant doctrine in light of what they took to be the proper interpretation of Scripture. Incorporated in the 1880s as Zion's Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the movement had grown by the advent of World War I to a sizable sect of Christianity. The sect adopted the name Jehovah's Witnesses in 1931 to avoid confusion with other Bible-based associations.

Jehovah's Witnesses, as in the Protestant faith, recognize the twin sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. However, they only celebrate the Lord's Supper once a year as a "memorial" to Christ's death. The memorial service, which has attracted as many as eleven million people on a global scale at any given time, usually coincides with the Jewish holiday Passover.

Jehovah's Witnesses uphold the same strict posture as fundamentalist Christian groups concerning the infallibility of Scripture, the condemnation of abortion, the status of women, and the prohibition of homosexuality and sexual relationships apart from marriage. But they are even more rigorous when it comes to observing what they consider "pagan" celebrations such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. Jehovah's Witnesses can be excommunicated for certain practices or observances that are an accepted part of modern, secular society. Jehovah's Witnesses do not have a weekly Sabbath.

The leadership and governance structure of Jehovah's Witnesses is distinctive among twentieth-century religious movements. Those who belong to Jehovah's Witnesses are not called "members" in the normal sense of the term, but "pioneers" and "publishers." The distinction between these two groups is based on the amount of time each spends going door to door involved in the pursuit of evangelism. There is no formal ministry or clerical hierarchy. All Jehovah's Witnesses are expected to proselytize. The most intensive practitioners are the "pioneers." "Regular pioneers," the organization's elite, commit to a minimum of one thousand hours per year of spreading the word. At the low end, "publishers" spend about one hour a week.

The congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses are known as Kingdom Halls. Kingdom Halls are under the leadership and authority of elders and "overseers." Groups of twenty congregations are termed "circuits." Circuits are contained within districts, which are included within branches and zones. The supreme headquarters for Jehovah's Witnesses is in Brooklyn, New York.

Besides the reading of Scripture, the worship and evangelism of Jehovah's Witnesses is built around articles in their Watchtower magazine.

Jehovah's Witnesses sponsor missionary activity in almost every nation on Earth and recently have been especially active in the former Soviet Union, where they have reportedly made about a hundred thousand converts. After the Russian parliament passed legislation in 1997 restricting recruiting efforts by "nontraditional" religious groups, prosecutors in that country targeted Jehovah's Witnesses in particular. Jehovah's Witnesses also have clashed with both religious and political authorities over their recruitment policies in the State of Israel.

The theology of Jehovah's Witnesses centers on their unique brand of eschatology. They believe that Armageddon is close at hand, and have predicted its arrival on various occasions, including the years 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, and 1975. The failure of these predictions to prove true has been an ongoing source of tension between Jehovah's Witnesses and the rest of American Christianity. According to Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs, Christ returned in 1914 and was enthroned as King of Kings and Lord of Lords but his kingdom remains invisible and is peopled by the 144,000 members of the elect mentioned in the Book of Revelation. In addition, Jesus' enthronement resulted in the expulsion of Satan from Heaven and his fall to Earth, unleashing the woes of the twentieth century.

World War I forced Jehovah's Witnesses to confront the issue of obedience to the state. They were pacifists from the outset, and the war experience prompted a hardening of their views on the relationship between believers and the government. Jehovah's Witnesses not only refuse to support war, even indirectly, they also will not salute the flag or take loyalty oaths. Their overtly "unpatriotic" attitudes have made them objects of fierce persecution in many different countries and principals in numerous court tests of the meaning of religious freedom in the United States.

Various critics and ex-members in recent years have wrongly labeled Jehovah's Witnesses a "cult." These accusations are usually in response to the demanding system of administration, doctrine, and morality that Jehovah's Witnesses exercise over their flock. Cults as a rule are focused on the charismatic leadership of a single individual, or small cadre of individuals. The historical strength of Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, has been their ability to mobilize advocates at the grassroots level without reliance on any "cult of personality."

The rapid expansion of Jehovah's Witnesses, both inside and outside the United States, can probably be explained by its message concerning the surety of redemption for those caught up fearfully in the apocalyptic currents of the twentieth century. Within the United States the movement has spread rapidly among both white and African-American populations. As old social and economic orders crumble, especially in the Third World, the appeal of Jehovah's Witnesses will most likely continue to accelerate.

See alsoApocalypse; Christian Science; Conscientious Objection; Eschatology; Fundamentalism; Missionary Movements; Proselytizing; Trinity.


Beckford, James A. The Trumpet ofProphecy:ASociological Study of Jehovah's Witnesses. 1975.

Penton, M. James. Apocalypse Delayed:The StoryofJehovah's Witnesses. 1986.

Carl A. Raschke

Jehovah's Witnesses

views updated May 23 2018


A sect, originally called Russellites, founded in the early 1870s by Charles Taze russell. In 1931 the title Jehovah's Witnesses was proclaimed by Joseph F. ruth erford, the second president of their legal corporation, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, at their convention in Columbus, Ohio.

"Judge" Rutherford introduced important changes in the Witnesses' creed and transformed the congregational structure of the sect as it was under "Pastor" Russell into a rigid theocracy. The third leader, "Brother" Nathan H. Knorr, gradually replaced the offensive convert-making tactics of the Rutherford era by suave manners that have gained the Witnesses their current reputation as one of the best-behaved groups in the world. In legal battles that they have often carried to the highest courts of many free countriesand by appealing to freedom of speech and religionthey have acquired the right to exercise their proselytism without interference. They hold that other religions and worldly power are the devil's instruments in keeping people away from the Truth.

Doctrine. According to Witness doctrine, there is but one God, and since 1931 they have insisted that He should be called Jehovah (Ex 3.15; Is 42.8). They condemn the Trinity as pagan idolatry and accordingly deny Christ's divinity.

They consider Jesus as the greatest of Jehovah's Witnesses, "a god" (so they translate John 1.1), inferior to no one but to Jehovah. Before existing as a human being, he was a spirit creature called the Logos, or Word, or Michael the Archangel. He died as a man and was raised as an immortal spirit Son. His Passion and death were the price he paid to regain for humanity the right to live eternally on earth. Indeed, the "great multitude" (Rev 7.9) of true Witnesses hope in an earthly Paradise; only 144,000 faithful (Rev 7.4; 14.1, 4) may enjoy heavenly glory with Christ. The wicked will undergo complete destruction.

Russell had announced that Armageddonthe final clash between the forces of good and evilcould not happen later than 1914. From 1920 on Rutherford proclaimed that "millions now living will never die"; he also expected the princes of old, Abraham, Isaac, and the others, to come back to life by 1925 as rulers over the New World. The Watch Tower Society of the mid-20th century no longer specified an exact date; but it repeated that "this generation will by no means pass away until all things occur" (Lk 21.32). Thus, Witnesses are deeply convinced that the end of the world will come within a very few years. This vivid belief appears to be the strongest driving force behind their indefatigable zeal.

Way of Life. The fundamental obligation of each member of the sect is to give witness to Jehovah by announcing His approaching Kingdom. He may do this by door-to-door calling, by meeting with others for home Bible studies, or by standing at street corners to display Watch Tower literature. Preaching the good news is the only means of salvation. Baptismwhich Witnesses practice by immersion and usually in mass demonstrationsis in no way a Sacrament but only the exterior symbol of their dedication to the service of Jehovah God.

Jehovah's Witnesses have attracted publicity by refusing blood transfusions even when it meant death to themselves or to their children. Except for birth control, which they leave to the couple's own decision, their conjugal and sexual morality is quite rigid. They abide by taboos such as those against smoking and the celebration of any kind of feast.

They regard the Bible as their only source of belief and rule of conduct, but the Witnesses' Bible aids are apparently used more abundantly than the Bible itself. They are allowed no other books than the Bible and the society's own publications, which includes its own translation of the Bible with an impressive critical apparatus. The work is excellent except when scientific knowledge comes into conflict with the accepted doctrines of the movement. In their so-called New World Translation, the term Kyrios is rendered Jehovah instead of Lord everywhere in the New Testament (237 times) except at Philippians 2.11, where St. Paul refers the word to Christ. In their book Jesus' words at the Last Supper become: "Take, eat. This means my body" (Mt 26.26). And they add but one word to the phrases of Col 1.1617: "By means of him [Christ Jesus] all other things were created in the heavens and upon the earth. All other things have been created through him and for him. Also he is before all other things and by means of him all other things were made to exist."

The rate of growth of the movement reached a peak in the late 1930s, when membership increased almost 25 percent annually: from 1938 to 1942 it grew from less than 50,000 to more than 100,000. Since then, growth has slowed somewhat.

Bibliography: Sources. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (rev. ed. Brooklyn 1961); Let God Be True (rev. ed. Brooklyn 1952), 18,900,000 copies in 54 languages; From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained (Brooklyn 1958). Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses (1926). The Watchtower (1879), pub. semimonthly or monthly in 68 languages; Awake! (Brooklyn 1919), pub. semi-monthly or monthly in 26 languages. Literature. h. h. stroup, The Jehovah's Witnesses (New York 1945). w. j. whalen, Armageddon Around the Corner: A Report on Jehovah's Witnesses (New York 1962). g. hÉbert, Les Témoins de Jéhovah: Essai critique d'histoire et de doctrine (Montréal 1960).

[g. hÉbert/eds.]

Jehovah's Witnesses

views updated May 18 2018


JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, one of the most prominent Adventist and apocalyptic sects to have emerged in America. Charles Taze Russell—raised a Presbyterian and heavily influenced by Adventist teachings—founded the denomination in the early 1870s, when his loosely structured Bible study groups evolved into a discernible movement. In 1879, Russell published Zion's Watchtower and the Herald of Christ's Presence (later known as The Watch-tower), which served as the principal means of spreading the Witnesses's prophetic interpretations and doctrines. In 1884, Russell incorporated the movement as the Watch-tower Bible and Tract Society, which would become known as the Dawn Bible Students, the Russellites, and the International Bible Students before adopting its current name in 1931.

Although the church has no ordained ministry, it has been led by a succession of powerful directors. After Russell died in 1916, leadership passed to the charismatic and volatile Joseph Franklin Rutherford, who expanded the fledgling sect into an organized international movement. Upon Rutherford's death in 1942, the more bureaucratic Nathan Homer Knorr took over. He further developed the Witnesses's publishing enterprise and instituted a series of international and regional assemblies. Frederick Franz succeeded Knorr in 1977, and Milton Henschel replaced Franz in 1994.

Like other Adventist groups, Jehovah's Witnesses emphasize the apocalyptic sections of the Bible, particularly the books of Daniel and Revelations. They worship Jehovah (the term comes from the name for God in the Jewish Bible) and believe in universal atonement through the crucifiction; in an Arian Christology—the nontrinitarian belief that Christ was an archangel who chose to become a human; and in the imminence of the millennium. In that golden age, they believe, 144,000 elected will share in Christ's rule as citizens of a messianic kingdom based in Jerusalem. According to Russell, the movement had reached 144,000 converts by 1881 (although, because of apostasy [abandoning one's faith], no one could know the absolute number of spiritually baptized saints). The numerical limit of saved converts has necessitated a unique doctrine in which there are two "classes" of Witnesses: the 144,000 elected, and others who may escape destruction and achieve limited rewards provided they join the Witnesses during their lifetimes.

Today, this tightly organized movement engages in widespread evangelism. Their principal activities include Bible study, door-to-door witnessing, and the publication and sale of religious literature. In the United States, Jehovah's Witnesses have attracted legal controversy due to their claim of exemption from military service, which is based on their commitment to fight in no battle except Armageddon; their proselytizing activities; their rejection of blood transfusions; and their refusal to pledge allegiance to the American flag (Witnesses pledge obedience to Jehovah alone). Popular animosity notwithstanding, the courts have consistently affirmed their right to dissent. Despite increasing defections, the Jehovah's Witnesses estimate their membership to be nearly one million in the United States and approximately six million worldwide, with international membership concentrated in Latin America and Africa. U.S. headquarters, including the Watchtower publishing center, are located in Brooklyn, New York.


Conkin, Paul K. American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti. Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of the Jehovah's Witnesses. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Newton, Merlin Owen. Armed with the Constitution: Jehovah's Witnesses in Alabama and the U. S. Supreme Court, 1939–1946. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Peters, Shawn Calvin. Judging Jehovah's Witnesses. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Glenn T.Miller/ShelbyBalik

See alsoAdventist Churches ; Conscientious Objectors ; Conscription and Recruitment ; Evangelicalism and Revivalism ; Protestantism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; Religious Liberty .

Jehovah's Witnesses

views updated May 14 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses

The Jehovah's Witness movement was founded in the United States in the late nineteenth century. From there the movement spread to Europe, and in Germany it came face to face with the demands of the Third Reich for total allegiance to National Socialism. The result was a bitter and heroic conflict as Witnesses refused to yield to a regime they perceived as evil.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that humans are living in the last days of a world where Satan rules, and that at the end they will join with the forces of good to defeat Satan and his troops. God, whom the Witnesses address as Jehovah, will then establish his kingdom of peace and plenty on earth. In the meantime, Jehovah's Witnesses spread knowledge of Jehovah and his plans through door-to-door missionary work.

With a strong belief in family and personal ethics, Witnesses see themselves as citizen of God's kingdom and soldiers in his army. Thus, they will not bear arms, vote, belong to a political party, or swear on oath. They are therefore not able to offer allegiance to a state or regime that demands total obedience and loyalty from its citizens.

In democracies Witnesses are generally tolerated, but in repressive regimes they are not. Under the Third Reich the Witnesses stood out from the two hundred other minority Christian groups that the Gestapo investigated as posing a special danger to National Socialism. Their survival as a group and as individuals could have been negotiated in return for total, public obedience, but Witnesses, because of their religious beliefs, chose not to compromise.

As a result, members were rounded up and imprisoned. Jehovah's Witnesses were among the first groups to be transported to concentration camps and later death camps throughout the Reich. They were the special focus of torture and ridicule by prison and camp guards. Witnesses lost their civil rights, families were separated, and some of their children were taken away to be brought up in Nazi homes. Nevertheless, their public meetings and door-to-door missionary work continued.

Witnesses could buy their freedom from prison or a camp by signing a paper denying their faith. Very few opted to do this. The majority continued to preach and pray, and cling to their convictions within the confines of prisons and camps. Many survivors of the Holocaust recounted stories of Witnesses' courage, their willingness to share meager rations, and their ability to support each other.

Deaths from torture and disease, and a great deal of suffering, occurred among Witnesses in the camps, but their suicide rate was low. Their beliefs afforded them a framework by which they might understand the reasons for the seemingly mindless horror of the camps. To their way of thinking, the Holocaust was Satan's work and the role of Witnesses was clear: to bear witness to Jehovah in the midst of so much destruction. Witnesses not only kept their faith, but also made converts. When the camps were liberated at the end of World War II, there were more Jehovah's Witnesses freed than had entered them.

Jehovah's Witnesses have continued to face persecution in a number of totalitarian regimes around the world, for example, in Malawi where the religion was banned in 1967, and its members suffered the destruction of their property and brutal physical attacks. The atrocities and ban persisted until international pressure forced the government to restore human rights. In 1993 the ban was lifted, and by 1995 the Witnesses were fully and openly operating once again in Malawi. Nonetheless, Witnesses continue to be harassed and imprisoned in a number of nation-states.

SEE ALSO Persecution; Religious Groups


Berenbaum, Michael (1993). The World Must Know: A History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

King, Christine E. (1990). "Jehovah's Witnesses under Nazism." In A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis, ed. M. Berenbaum. New York: New York University Press.

King, Christine E. (2000). "Responses Outside the Mainstream Catholic and Protestant Traditions." In The Holocaust and the Christian World, ed. C. Rittner, S. D. Smith, and I. Steinfeldt. London: Kuperard.

Reynaud, M and S. Graffard (2001). Jehovah's Witnesses and the Nazis—Persecution, Deportation and Murder 1933–1945. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Christine E. King

Jehovah's Witnesses

views updated May 29 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses

A popular millenarian Christian religious group that grew out of the ministry of Pastor Charles Taze Russell in the late nineteenth century. It is also known by reference to its corporate entity, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Its members have become a common sight in many countries as they go from door to door preaching their message and distributing their literature, especially the Watchtower magazine. Originally known as Bible Students, the group adopted the name Jehovah's Witnesses in 1931.

The Witnesses have, like many Christian churches, shown a marked aversion to Spiritualism and other occult phenomena. Very early in the group's history Russell attacked Spiritualism (which he called Spiritism), and periodically over the years the organization has published booklets and numerous articles warning members to eschew any association with the occult. The Witnesses' primary biblical doctrinal handbook, Make Sure of All Things, Hold Fast to What Is Fine (1965), includes an assemblage of texts believed to refute Spiritualism as well as a separate set dealing with reincarnation. Address: 25 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, NY 11201-2483. Website:


Bergman, Jerry. Jehovah's Witnesses and Kindred Groups: A Historical Compendium and Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.

Can the Living Talk with the Dead? A Clear Explanation of Spiritism. Brooklyn, N.Y.: International Bible Students, 1920.

Russell, Charles Taze. Unseen SpiritsDo They Help Us? or, Do They Harm Us? Brooklyn, N.Y.: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1978.

. What Do the Scriptures Say about "Survival of Death?" Brooklyn, N.Y.: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1955.

. What Say the Scriptures about Spiritism? Brooklyn, N.Y.: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1897.

Watchtower: Official Site of the Jehovah's Witnesses. March 27, 2000.

Jehovahs Witnesses

views updated May 23 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses. A sect derived from Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916), emphasizing biblical literalism and the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus is not God but the son of God, the first of his creations. The fulfilment of the promise of God's kingdom will be inaugurated by the battle of Armageddon, an event which was predicted for 1914—hence the saying of Rutherford, Russell's successor, that ‘millions now living will never die’. 1914 is now interpreted as the establishment of the kingdom. Jehovah's Witnesses engage in persistent door-to-door proselytizing, endeavouring to sell The Watchtower, in which the movement's interpretation of world events is contained.

Jehovah's witnesses

views updated May 29 2018

Jehovah's witnesses. An exclusive millennialist sect developed out of Charles Russell's International Bible Students Association (founded in Pittsburgh, 1872), now world-wide. Russell's successor, Judge Rutherford, sought to affirm Jehovah as the true God and developed the concept of a ‘theocratic Kingdom’ which will emerge after Armageddon. Date setting and prophecy have lessened, but they refuse any association with other denominations and regard civil authorities and secular governments as allies of Satan. Baptized by immersion, witnesses insist on high moral probity, oppose blood transfusions on scriptural grounds, write and publish prolifically (chief periodicals: The Watchtower and Awake!), and, after training, preach enthusiastically on doorsteps. The British headquarters functions as The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.

A. S. Hargreaves

Jehovahs Witnesses

views updated May 18 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses Religious sect founded in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916) of Pittsburgh. The sect believes in the imminent end of the world for all except its own members. They hold to the theory of a theocratic kingdom, membership of which cannot be reconciled with allegiance to any country. They deny most of the fundamental Christian doctrines. The sect is active worldwide.