History of the Jehovah's Witnesses
Fifty years ago the Jehovah's Witnesses numbered fewer than 100,000.
Now there are several million of them around the world. They don’t have
churches; they have "Kingdom Halls" instead. Their congregations are uniformly
small, usually numbering less than two hundred. Most Witnesses used to
be Catholics or Protestants. Let’s look a little at their history, because
that will help us understand their unique doctrines.
The sect now known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses was
started by Charles Taze Russell, who was born in 1852 and worked in Pittsburgh
as a haberdasher. He was raised a Congregationalist, but at the age of
seventeen he tried to convert an atheist to Christianity and ended up being
converted instead—not to outright atheism, but to agnosticism. Some years
later he went to an Adventist meeting, was told that Jesus would be back
at any time, and got interested in the Bible.
The leading light of Adventism had been William
Miller, a flamboyant preacher who predicted that the world would end in
1843. When it didn’t, he "discovered" an arithmetical error in his eschatological
calculations and said it would end in 1844. When his prediction again failed,
many people became frustrated and withdrew from the Adventist movement,
but a remnant, led by Ellen G. White, went on to form the Seventh-Day Adventist
It was this diminished Adventism which influenced
Russell, who took the title "Pastor" even though he never got through high
school. In 1879, he began the Watch Tower—what would later be known as
the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the teaching organ of the Jehovah’s
Witnesses. In 1908 he moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, where it has
remained ever since.
Before he got his religious career well underway,
Russell promoted what he called "miracle wheat," which he sold at sixty
dollars per bushel. He claimed it would grow five times as well as regular
wheat. In fact, it grew slightly less well than regular wheat, as was established
in court when Russell was sued. Later he marketed a fake cancer cure and
what he termed a "millennial bean" (which a wag has said probably got that
name because it took a thousand years to sprout).
Russell taught his followers the non-existence
of hell and the annihilation of unsaved people (a doctrine he picked up
from the Adventists), the non-existence of the Trinity (he said only the
Father, Jehovah, is God), the identification of Jesus with Michael the
Archangel, the reduction of the Holy Spirit from a person to a force, the
mortality (not immortality) of the soul, and the return of Jesus in 1914.
When 1914 had come and gone, with no Jesus in sight,
Russell modified his teachings and claimed Jesus had, in fact, returned
to Earth, but that his return was invisible. His visible return would come
later, but still very soon. It would result in the final conflict between
God and the Devil—the forces of good and the forces of evil—in which God
would be victorious. This conflict is known to Witnesses as the battle
of Armageddon, and just about everything the Witnesses teach centers around
Russell died in 1916 and was succeeded by "Judge"
Joseph R. Rutherford. Rutherford, born in 1869, had been brought up as
a Baptist and became the legal adviser to the Watch Tower. He never was
a real judge, but took the title because, as an attorney, he substituted
at least once for an absent judge.
At one time he claimed Russell was next to Paul
as an expounder of the gospel, but later, in an effort to have his writings
supplant Russell’s, he let Russell’s books go out of print. It was Rutherford
who coined the slogan, "Millions now living will never die." By it he meant
that some people alive in 1914 would still be alive when Armageddon came
and the world was restored to a paradise state.
In 1931 he changed the name of the sect to the
Jehovah’s Witnesses, which he based on Isaiah 43:10 ("‘You are my witnesses,’
is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘even my servant whom I have chosen . . .
,’" New World Translation). As an organizer, he equipped missionaries
with portable phonographs, which they took door to door along with records
of Rutherford. They didn’t have to say much when they came calling; all
they had to do was put on Rutherford’s record. He displayed a marked hatred
for Catholicism on his radio program and in the pamphlets he wrote. Later
his successors tempered the sect’s anti-Catholicism, but Awake!
and The Watchtower still carry anti-Catholic articles every few
issues, though the tone tends to be more subtle than the overtly lurid
style of Rutherford’s day.
Rutherford said that in 1925 Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
and the prophets would return to Earth, and for them he prepared a mansion
named Beth Sarim in San Diego, California. He moved into this mansion (where
he died in 1942) and bought an automobile with which to drive the resurrected
patriarchs around. The Watch Tower Society quietly sold Beth Sarim years
later to cover up an embarrassing moment in their history, namely another
Trained to Give Testimonies
Rutherford was succeeded by Nathan Homer Knorr,
who was born in 1905 and died in 1977. Knorr joined the movement as a teenager,
working his way up through the ranks. He got rid of the phonographs and
insisted that the missionaries attend courses and be trained in door-to-door
evangelism techniques. The Witnesses now have a reputation as skillful
deliverers of "personal testimonies."
Since the Bible, as preserved through the centuries,
did not support the peculiar doctrines of the Witnesses, Knorr chose an
anonymous committee to produce the New World Translation, which
is used by no sect other than the Witnesses. By means of former Witnesses,
the names of the five members of the translation committee eventually came
to light. Four of the five members completely lack credentials to qualify
them as Bible translators, and the fifth member studied non-biblical Greek
for only about two years.
The New World Translation was produced because
it buttresses Witnesses’ beliefs through obscure or inaccurate renderings.
For example, to prove that Jesus was only a creature, not God, the New
World Translation’s rendering of John 1:1 concludes this way: "and
the Word was a god" [italics added]. Every other translation, Catholic
and Protestant—not to mention the Greek original—has "and the Word was
What Happened to Armageddon?
Knorr was succeeded as head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,
by Frederick Franz. He had been the Witnesses’ leading theologian, and
his services were often called upon. For some years the sect’s magazines
had been predicting that Armageddon would occur in 1975. When it didn’t,
Franz had to find an explanation.
Witnesses believe that Adam was created in 4026
B.C. and that human beings have been allotted 6000 years of existence until
Armageddon and the beginning of the millennium. This figure is based on
a "creative week" in which each of six days is equal to 1,000 years, with
the Sabbath or seventh day being the beginning of the millennium. Simple
arithmetic gives 1975 as the year Armageddon would arrive. Franz explained
that Armageddon would actually come 6000 years after Eve’s creation. But
when 1975 came and went, the Witnesses had to "adjust" their chronology
to cover up a failed prediction. They accomplished this by maintaining
that no one knew exactly how long after Adam’s creation Eve came on the
scene. Franz said that it was months—even years. Hence he was able to "stretch"
the 1975 date to some indeterminate time in the future. In any case, Franz
said that Witnesses would just have to wait, knowing the end is right around
When the final battle does occur—remember, it will
be during the lifetime of "millions" of people alive in 1914, which means
it can’t be too far off—Jehovah will defeat Satan and the elect will go
to heaven to rule with Christ. But, following a literal interpretation
of the number mentioned in Revelation, chapters 7 and 14, only 144,000
are among the elect. They will go to heaven as spirit persons (without
resurrected bodies). The remaining faithful (Jehovah’s Witnesses), who
are known as Jonadabs, will live forever on a renewed, paradise Earth in
resurrected bodies. The unsaved will cease to exist at all, having been
annihilated by Jehovah.
Franz was succeeded as president of the Watchtower
in 1993 by Milton Henschel, who has continued the aggressive evangelization
tactics of his predecessors. In 1995 the Watchtower quietly changed one
of its major prophetic doctrines. Until this point, they had maintained
that the generation alive in 1914 would not pass from the scene until Armageddon
occurred. Now that this generation has almost entirely died out—and Armageddon
has not occurred and does not seem like it will happen immediately—they
had to change their doctrine. Now, the Watchtower says that Armageddon
will simply occur "soon," and it is no longer tied to a particular, literal
generation of people.
How They Make Converts
Most religions welcome converts, and the Witnesses’
very reason for existence is to make them. To accomplish this they follow
First they try to get a copy of one of their magazines
into the hands of a prospective convert. They lead off with a question
designed to tap into universal concerns such as, "How would you like to
live in a world without sickness, war, poverty, or any other problem?"
If the prospect is willing to speak with them, they arrange what’s known
as a "back call"—that is, they return in a week or so for more discussions.
This can be kept up indefinitely.
At some point the missionaries invite the prospect
to a Bible study. This is not the usual sort of Bible study, where passages
are examined in light of context, original word meaning, relevance to other
verses in Scripture, etc. Instead, this "Bible study" is really an exposition
of Witness doctrine by means of Watchtower literature. Simple questions
are presented in the literature which are derived directly from the text.
The answers, therefore, are readily discernible, making the prospective
convert feel spiritually astute, since he or she can answer all the questions
"correctly." The Bible study is directed along lines mandated by the officials
in Brooklyn, and the prospect is there to learn, not to teach. If he progresses
well, he’s invited to a larger Bible study, which may be held at a Kingdom
About this time he’s invited to attend a Sunday
service. At the Kingdom Hall, which resembles not so much a church but
a small lecture hall, the prospect hears a Witness discuss a few verses
of Scripture and how those verses can be explained to non-Witnesses or
how to "refute" standard Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, hell,
the immortality of the soul, etc. The service includes taped music to accompany
the singing of hymns, and there is always time allotted for obtaining Watchtower
literature and publications.
The prospective convert gets still more of this
if he proceeds to the next step, which consists of going to meetings on
Wednesday or Thursday nights. At those meetings Witnesses trade stories,
explaining how they’ve done that week in going door to door, giving advice
to one another, figuring out better ways to get the message across, and
logging their hours. (Every month each Kingdom Hall mails to the headquarters
in Brooklyn a detailed log of activities, including hours spent "witnessing"
door-to-door, the number of converts made, and the number of pieces of
If the prospect goes through all these steps, he’s
ready for admission to the sect. That involves baptism by immersion and
agreeing to work actively as a missionary. Many missionaries take only
part-time jobs so they can devote more time to their evangelization. Witnesses
will typically spend 60-100 hours each month in their evangelizing work.
Some will even go so far as to work full time for the WTS, receiving little
more than room and board for their efforts.
Life as a Witness
Although not every Witness can put in so many hours,
every Witness is expected to do what he can by way of missionary work.
There is no separate, ordained ministry as is found in Protestant churches.
Their sect operates no hospitals, sanitariums, orphanages, schools, colleges,
or social welfare agencies. From their perspective it will all disappear
in a few years anyway, so they don’t expend their energies in these areas.
Jehovah’s Witnesses live under a strict regimen.
They may be "disfellowshipped" for a variety of reasons, such as attending
a Catholic or Protestant church or receiving a blood transfusion. Disfellowshipping
is the sect’s equivalent of excommunication, though somewhat more harsh.
shipped Witness may attend Kingdom Hall, but he
is not allowed to speak to anyone, and no one may speak to him. The others
are to act as though he no longer exists. This applies even to his family,
who may only communicate with him as much as absolutely necessary.
They recognize the legitimacy of no governmental
authority, since they believe all earthly authority is of Satan. They will
not serve in the military, salute the flag, say the Pledge of Allegiance,
vote, run for office, or serve as officials of labor unions.
No matter how peculiar their doctrines, they deserve
to be complimented on their determination and single-minded zeal. However,
as Paul might have said concerning them, "I can testify about them that
they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge" (Rom.
I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004