Jehovah's Witnesses, JW's,
Founder: Charles Taze Russell
Jehovah's Witnesses trace their origins to the
nineteenth century Adventist movement in
. That movement began with William Miller, a Baptist lay preacher who, in the
year 1816, began proclaiming that Christ would return in 1843. His predictions
of the Second Coming or Second Advent captured the imagination of thousands in
Baptist and other mainline churches. Perhaps as many as 50,000 followers put
their trust in Miller's chronological calculations and prepared to welcome the
Lord, while, as the appointed time approached, others watched nervously from a
distance. Recalculations moved the promised second advent from March, 1843 to
March, 1844, and then to October of that year. Alas, that date too passed
After the "Disappointment of 1844" Miller's following fell apart, with
most of those who had looked to him returning to their respective churches
before his death in 1849. But other disappointed followers kept the movement
alive, although in fragmented form. Their activities eventually led to the
formation of several sects under the broad heading of "Adventism"
including the Advent Christian Church, the Life and Advent Union, the
Seventh-Day Adventists, and various Second Adventist groups.
An interesting side-note:
The Branch Davidians who died at Waco,
Texas, under the leadership of David Koresh also trace their roots to the same
Millerite source through a different line of descent. In 1935 the
expelled a Bulgarian immigrant named Victor Houteff, who had begun teaching his
own views on certain passages on the book of Revelation. Houteff set up shop on the property at
. After first referring to his tiny new sect as The Shepherd's Rod, Houteff and
his people in 1942 incorporated and renamed themselves Davidian Seventh Day
Adventists. Houteff died in 1955, and in 1961 his wife
officially disbanded the sect, but a few followers under the leadership of west
businessman Benjamin Roden took over the real estate. Roden died in 1978,
leaving behind his wife Lois and his son George to lead the group. Then, in
1987, David Koresh took over the leadership position, and the tragedy that
followed is public knowledge.
Jehovah's Witnesses, likewise, trace their roots back to the Adventists. But
they do not often admit this to outsiders; nor do many Witnesses know the
details themselves. Jehovah's Witnesses are accustomed to defending themselves against the
charge that they are a new religious cult. They will often respond that theirs
is the most ancient religious group, older than Catholic and Protestant
churches. In fact, they assert that "Jehovah's witnesses have a history
almost 6,000 years long, beginning while the first man, Adam, was still alive,"
that Adam's son Abel was "the first of an unbroken line of Witnesses,"
and that "Jesus' disciples were all Jehovah's witnesses [sic] too." (Jehovah's
Witnesses in the Divine Purpose,
An outsider listening to such claims quickly realizes, of course, that the sect
has simply appropriated unto itself all the characters named in the Bible as
faithful witnesses of God. By such extrapolation the denomination is able to
stretch its history back to the beginnings of the human family, at least in the
eyes of adherents who are willing to accept such arguments. But outside
observers generally dismiss this sort of rhetoric and instead reckon the
Witnesses as dating back only to Charles Taze Russell, who was born on
February 16, 1852, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Originally raised a Presbyterian, Russell was 16 years old and a member of the
Congregational church in the year 1868, when he found himself losing faith. He
had begun to doubt not only church creeds and doctrines, but also God and the
Bible itself. At this critical juncture a chance encounter restored his faith
and placed him under the influence of Second Adventist preacher Jonas Wendell.
For some years after that Russell continued to study Scripture with and under
the influence of various Adventist laymen and clergy, notably Advent Christian
Church minister George Stetson and the Bible Examiner's publisher George Storrs.
He met locally on a regular basis with a small circle of friends to discuss the
Bible, and this informal study group came to regard him as their leader or
In January, 1876, when he was 23 years old, Russell received a copy of The
Herald of the Morning, an Adventist magazine published by Nelson H. Barbour of
. One of the distinguishing features of Barbour's group at that time was their
belief that Christ returned invisibly in 1874, and this concept presented in The
Herald captured Russell's attention. It meant that this Adventist splinter group
had not remained defeated, as others had, when Christ failed to appear in 1874
as Adventist leaders had predicted; somehow this small group had managed to hold
onto the date by affirming that the Lord had indeed returned at the appointed
time, only invisibly.
Was this mere wishful thinking, coupled with a stubborn refusal to admit the
error of failed chronological calculations? Barbour had some
arguments to offer in support of his assertions. In particular, he came up with
a basis for reinterpreting the Second Coming as an invisible event:
Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott translation of the New Testament the word rendered
'coming' in the King James Version at Matthew 24:27, 37, 39 is translated
instead. This served as the basis for Barbour's group to advocate, in addition
to their time calculations, an invisible presence of Christ.
Although the idea appealed to young Charles Taze Russell, the reading public
apparently refused to 'buy' the story of an invisible Second Coming, with the
result that N. H. Barbour's publication The Herald of the Morning was failing
financially. In the summer of 1876 wealthy Russell paid Barbour's way to
and met with him to discuss both beliefs and finances. The upshot was that
Russell became the magazine's financial backer and was added to the masthead as
an assistant editor. He contributed articles for publication as well as monetary
gifts, and Russell's small study group similarly became affiliated with
Russell and Barbour believed and taught that Christ's invisible return in 1874
would be followed soon afterward, in the spring of 1878 to be exact, by the
Rapture, the bodily snatching away of believers to heaven. When this expected
Rapture failed to occur on time in 1878, The Herald's editor, Mr. Barbour, came
up with "new light" on this and other doctrines. Russell, however,
rejected some of the new ideas and persuaded other members to oppose them.
Finally, Russell quit the staff of the Adventist magazine and started his own.
He called it
and Herald of Christ's Presence and published its first issue with the date
July, 1879. In the beginning it had the same mailing list as The Herald of the
Morning and considerable space was devoted to refuting the latter on points of
disagreement, Russell having taken with him a copy of that magazine's mailing
list when he resigned as assistant editor.
At this point Charles Russell no longer wanted to consider himself an Adventist,
nor a Millerite. But, he continued to view Miller and Barbour as instruments
chosen by God to lead His people in the past. The formation of a distinct
denomination around Russell was a gradual development. His immediate break was,
not with Adventism, but with the person and policies of N. H. Barbour.
Nor were barriers immediately erected with respect to Protestantism in general.
New readers obtaining subscriptions to
were often church members who saw the magazine as a para-church ministry, not
as an anti-church alternative. Russell traveled about speaking from the pulpits
of Protestant churches as well as to gatherings of his own followers. In 1879,
the year of his marriage to Maria Frances Ackley and also the year he began
Tower, Russell organized some thirty study groups or congregations scattered from
coast. Each local "class" or ecclesia came to recognize him as
"Pastor," although geography and Russell's writing and publishing
activities prevented more than an occasional pastoral visit in person.
Inevitably, Russell's increasingly divergent teachings forced his followers to
separate from other church bodies and to create a denomination of their own.
Beginning, as he did, in a small branch of Adventism that went to the extreme of
setting specific dates for the return of Christ and the Rapture, Russell went
farther out on a limb in 1882 by openly rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity.
His earlier mentor Nelson H. Barbour was a Trinitarian, as was The Herald of the
Morning's other assistant editor John H. Paton who joined Russell in leaving
Barbour to start
. The writings of Barbour and Paton that Russell had helped publish or
distribute were Trinitarian in their theology. And the
itself was at first vague and noncommittal on the subject. It was only after
Paton broke with him in 1882, and ceased to be listed on the masthead, that
Russell began writing against the doctrine of the Trinity.
By the time of his death , Charles Taze Russell had traveled more than a million
miles and preached more than 30,000 sermons. He had authored works totaling some
50,000 printed pages, and nearly 20,000,000 copies of his books and booklets had
Followers had been taught that Russell himself was the "faithful and wise
servant" of Matthew 24:45 and "the Laodicean Messenger," God's
seventh and final spokesman to the Christian church. But he lived to see the
failure of various dates he had predicted for the Rapture, and finally died on
October 31, 1916
, more than two years after the world was supposed to have ended, according to
his calculations, in early October, 1914..
His disciples, however, saw the World War then raging as reason to believe
"the end" was still imminent. They buried Russell beneath a headstone
identifying him as "the Laodicean Messenger," and erected next to his
grave a massive stone pyramid emblazoned with the cross and crown symbol he was
fond of and the name "Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society." (The
pyramid still stands off
in Ross, a northern
suburb, where it reportedly serves as the focal point of an eerie scene each
Halloween as modern-day Russellites encircle it, holding hands, in a vigil
commemorating the day of his death.)
According to instructions Russell left behind, his successor to the presidency
would share power with an editorial committee and with the
corporation's board of directors, whom Russell had appointed "for
life." But vice president Joseph Franklin ("Judge") Rutherford
soon set about concentrating all organizational authority in his own hands. A
skilled lawyer who had served as Russell's chief legal advisor, he combined
legal prowess with what opponents undoubtedly saw as a Machiavellian approach to
internal corporate politics. Thus he used a loophole in their appointment to
unseat the majority of the Watch Tower directors without calling a membership
vote. And he even had a subordinate summon the police into the Society's
Brooklyn headquarters offices to break up their board meeting and evict them
from the premises. (Faith on the March by A. H. Macmillan, pp. 78-80)
After securing the headquarters complex and the sect's corporate entities,
Rutherford turned his attention to the rest of the organization. By gradually
replacing locally elected elders with his own appointees, he managed to
transform a loose collection of semi-autonomous democratically-run congregations
into a tight-knit organizational machine run from his office. Some local
congregations broke away, forming such Russellite splinter groups as the Chicago
Bible Students, the Dawn Bible Students, and the Laymen's Home Missionary
Movement, all of which continue to this day. But most Bible Students remained
under his control, and Rutherford renamed them "Jehovah's Witnesses"
in 1931, to distinguish them from these other groups.
Meanwhile, he shifted the sect's emphasis from the individual "character
development" Russell had stressed to vigorous public witnessing work,
distributing the Society's literature from house to house. By 1927 this
door-to-door literature distribution had become an essential activity required
of all members. The literature consisted primarily of Rutherford's unremitting
series of attacks against government, against Prohibition, against "big
business," and against the Roman Catholic Church. He also forged a huge
radio network and took to the air waves, exploiting populist and anti-Catholic
sentiment to draw thousands of additional converts. His vitriolic attacks,
blaring from portable phonographs carried to people's doors and from the
loudspeakers of sound cars parked across from churches, also drew down upon the
Witnesses mob violence and government persecution in many parts of the world.
Like Russell, Rutherford tried his hand at prophecy and predicted that biblical
patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be resurrected in 1925 to rule as
princes over the earth. (Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1920, pp. 89-90)
They failed to show up, of course, and Rutherford quit predicting dates. In
fact, referring to that prophetic failure he later admitted, "I made an ass
of myself." (The Watchtower, October 1, 1984, p. 24)
Vice President Nathan Homer Knorr inherited the presidency upon Rutherford's
death in 1942 but left doctrinal matters largely in the hands of Frederick W.
Franz, who joined the sect under Russell and had been serving at Brooklyn
headquarters since 1920. Lacking the personal magnetism and charisma of Russell
and Rutherford, Knorr focused followers' devotion on the 'Mother' organization
rather than on himself.
After decades of publishing books and booklets authored by its presidents
Russell and Rutherford, the Watchtower Society began producing literature that
was written anonymously. But it was not impersonal, since the organization
itself was virtually personified, and readers were directed to "show our
respect for Jehovah's organization, for she is our mother and the beloved wife
of our heavenly Father, Jehovah God." (The Watchtower, May 1, 1957, p. 285)
A superb administrator, Knorr shifted the sect's focus from dynamic leadership
to dynamic membership. He initiated training programs to transform members into
effective recruiters. Instead of carrying a portable phonograph from house to
house, playing recordings of "Judge" Rutherford's lectures at people's
doorsteps, the average Jehovah's Witness began receiving instruction on how to
speak persuasively. Men, women, and children learned to give sermons at the
doors on a variety of subjects.
Meanwhile Fred Franz worked behind the scenes to restore faith in the sect's
chronological calculations, a subject largely ignored following Rutherford's
prophetic failure in 1925. The revised chronology established Christ's invisible
return as having taken place in 1914 rather than 1874, and, during the 1960's,
the Society's publications began pointing to the year 1975 as the likely time
for Armageddon and the end of the world.
The prevailing belief among Jehovah's Witnesses today is that the Society never
predicted "the end" for 1975, but that some over-zealous members
mistakenly read this into the message. However, the official prediction is well
documented. See, for example, the article titled "Why Are You Looking
Forward to 1975?" in The Watchtower of August 15, 1968, pp. 494-501.
Allowing for a small margin of error, it concludes a lengthy discussion with
this thought: "Are we to assume from this study that the battle of
Armageddon will be all over by the autumn of 1975, and the long-looked-for
thousand-year reign of Christ will begin by then? Possibly, but we wait to see
how closely the seventh thousand-year period of man's existence coincides with
the sabbathlike thousand-year reign of Christ. . . . It may involve only a
difference of weeks or months, not years." (p. 499) For several other
quotes pointing specifically to 1975, see the book Index of Watchtower Errors
(by David A. Reed, Baker Book House, 1990) pages 106-110.
Knorr's training programs for proselytizing, plus Franz' apocalyptic projections
for 1975, combined to produce rapid growth in membership, the annual rate of
increase peaking at 13.5 percent in 1974. All of this pushed meeting attendance
at JW Kingdom Halls from around 100,000 in 1941 to just under 5 million in 1975.
Growth since then has been slower, but fairly steady in most years, with the
result that nearly 11.5 million gathered at Kingdom Halls in the spring of 1992
for the Witnesses' annual communion or "Memorial" service
commemorating Christ's death with unleavened bread and red wine.
During the 1970's changes took place at Watchtower headquarters in regard to
presidential power. First it became accepted in theory that the Christian Church
(which Jehovah's Witnesses see their organization as encompassing) should not be
under one-man rule, but rather should be governed by a body similar to the
twelve apostles. The 7-member board of directors of the Watch Tower Bible and
Tract Society of Pennsylvania had previously been portrayed as fulfilling this
role, but in 1971 an expanded Governing Body was created with a total of eleven
members, including the seven Directors. The aim was to demonstrate that the
leadership derived authority from an apostolic source, rather than from
Pennsylvania corporate law.
This new Governing Body was displayed as further evidence of the sect's being
the one true church, but in actuality Nathan Knorr continued to rule Jehovah's
Witnesses much as Russell and Rutherford had done before him. That is, until
1975, when Governing Body members began insisting on exercising the powers
granted to them in theory but that had never really been theirs in practice.
Over the objections of Fred Franz the Body that he had been instrumental in
creating actually began governing, so that when Nathan Knorr passed away in 1977
Franz inherited an emasculated presidency.
Franz also inherited an organization troubled by discontent over the obvious
failure of his prophecies of the world's end in the autumn of 1975. Even at
Brooklyn headquarters little groups meeting privately for Bible study were
beginning to question not only the 1914-based chronology that produced the 1975
deadline, but also the related teaching that the "heavenly calling" of
believers ended in 1935, with new converts after that date consigned to an
earthly paradise for their eternal reward.
The hitherto fast-growing sect actually began losing members for the first time
in decades, as people who had expected Armageddon in 1975 became disillusioned.
When membership loss grew into the hundreds of thousands-a fact masked by new
conversions in figures released by the Society, but reported in an investigative
article in the Los Angeles Times of January 30, 1982 (pp. 4-5)-president Franz
and the conservative majority on the Governing Body took action. In the spring
of 1980 they initiated a crack-down on dissidents, breaking up the independent
Bible study groups at headquarters, and forming "judicial committees"
to have those seen as ringleaders put on trial for "disloyalty" and
By the time this purge culminated in the forced resignation and subsequent
excommunication of the president's nephew and fellow Governing Body member
Raymond V. Franz (a development Time magazine found worthy of a full-page
article, Feb. 22, 1982, p. 66) a siege mentality took hold on the world-wide
organization. Even Witnesses who left quietly and voluntarily for personal
reasons were denounced as disloyal and were ordered shunned, former friends
forbidden to say as much as "a simple 'Hello'" to them.
Thus, although Frederick W. Franz served as the sect's chief theologian for some
fifty years-from the start of Knorr's presidency in 1942 until his own death on
December 22, 1992-the fact that he outlived his failed prophecies by more than
fifteen years required him to impose a mini-Inquisition on the membership in
order to keep his doctrinal and chronological framework in force for the
remainder of his lifetime.
Milton G. Henschel's selection as fifth Watchtower president on
December 30, 1992
, is truly significant for the 13 million now attending Kingdom Halls. At first
glance the choice of a staunch conservative for the post may seem to guarantee a
continuation of the status quo, with little change in the offing for Jehovah's
Witnesses. But a closer look reveals this appointment as the conservative old
guard's last stand-an indication that radical change in the sect's leadership
and doctrines is imminent.
At age 72 Henschel became the second-youngest member of the Governing Body, and
he was selected to lead by men several years older than he is. (Both the average
age and the median age at the time of Henschel's appointment calculated out to
about 82 years.) With members in their eighties known to sleep through meetings
and to vote on matters upon being awakened (See eyewitness Raymond Franz's
account in his book Crisis of Conscience, p. 40.) the Body is losing its ability
to provide purposeful and decisive leadership. Henschel was no doubt chosen in
part due to his having vitality others lacked. Obviously, these aging leaders
will not be able to hold the reigns of power much longer. The men who shared in
building the Watchtower into what it is today will soon leave it behind for
others to run.
In the decades following the death of founder Charles Taze Russell, his
successor J. F. Rutherford found himself forced to re-write many of the sect's
major doctrines. Much the same can be expected when JWs of a new generation
inherit the positions currently occupied by Milton Henschel and his fellow
elderly Governing Body members. When new leaders eventually take over, will they
drop the ban on blood transfusions? Only time will tell. But, even if they do,
it will make no difference for those who have already died, nor for those
Witnesses continuing to die while the teaching remains in place.
Adapted by Jehovah's Christian Witness, from the book "Worse Than Waco:
Jehovah's Witnesses Hide a Tragedy" copyright © 1993 by David A. Reed,
P.O. Box 819,
. For a more detailed account of Watchtower history see the book "BLOOD ON
THE ALTAR" by David A. Reed (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Publishers, 1996).
They believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Russell says His body either dissolved into
gases or is still preserved somewhere.
They believe that God is not triune (i.e.,
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost).
They believe that there is no such thing as a
hell of everlasting torment. Hell is just the grave. The wicked are simply
They believe that man has no spirit.
They believe the Holy Ghost is not a person of
the Godhead, just a "life force" of God.
They exercise mind control over members.
They believe that man must work to be part of
"God's system of things".
They believe that only the 144,000 mentioned in
the book of Revelation will live in heaven with God.
They believe all dead people will have a second
chance for eternal life at the millennium. If you do not prove
worthiness at this time, you'll be destroyed.
The believe the blood of Christ does not forgive
sins, it gives us a "chance" to live again. They have NO
assurance of salvation as Jehovah's Witnesses who supposedly know the
They believe Jesus is the archangel Michael - Jesus
is a created being.
They believe Jesus is just an agent of God, nothing
They believe that Jesus' second coming occurred
invisibly in 1874. Russell's successor, Rutherford, says this was
confirmed by the creation of the first labor organization in 1874.
They believed Russell when he said that in 1914 the millennium
would occur and righteousness would be restored to the earth. As 1914
approached, he, and his successor, changed the date to 1915, 1916, 1924,
1928, and on and on to the present day! When you ask a Jehovah's Witness
about this, they'll give you the party line, "Well, the Watchtower
is reaching different levels of enlightenment."
Further information can be found in the book:
To My Jehovah's Witness Friends by Thomas Heinze
Here are some other informative links