Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses

History
 
Jehovah's Witnesses trace the origin of their movement to Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916), 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 (1886–1904). 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. 5:22–24), and that she does not have authority to refuse sexual relations with her husband (1 Cor. 7:3–4). 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 (1869–1942) 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 (1905–1977) 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 5:9–11. 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 (1893–1992), 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 disfellowshipping—resulting in the expulsion of his own nephew and member of the Governing Body, Raymond Franz.
 
Milton G. Henschel (1920–2003) 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.
 
Organization
 
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.
 
Teachings
 
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. 12:7–9). 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. 25:31–34). 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. 20:14–15) or annihilation. Only those who persevere in faith will be rewarded with eternal life.
 
Worship
 
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.
 
Practices
 
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. 14:34–35) and the denial of permission for a woman "to teach or to have authority over a man" (1 Tm. 2:11–12).
 
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.
 
Bibliography
 
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); Revelation—Its 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 http://www.watchtower.org , which includes current Watchtower articles. The complete works of Charles Taze Russell are available online from http://www.heraldmag.org . 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): 350–367, 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

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