Jehovah's Witnesses

{juh - hoh' - vuhz}

General Information

Jehovah's Witnesses are a society of Christians who promote home study of the Bible, which they hold to be the complete Word of God. They believe that God's kingdom is an actual government now ruling in heaven that will soon restore the earth to its original paradisaic condition. They expect an early end to the present world system in a "great tribulation" from God that will rid the earth of wickedness and suffering. Following Armageddon will come a millennial reign over the earth by Jesus. The gaining of eternal life depends on complete obedience to Jehovah God and faith in the provision of Jesus Christ's ransom sacrifice.

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The Witnesses encourage adherence to the Bible's moral standards. Because of their neutrality as to affairs of secular government, their refusal to salute any flag, and their rejection of the practice of blood transfusion (which they believe is forbidden by the Bible), the Witnesses have been the subject of controversy.

The activities of Jehovah's Witnesses are coordinated by a governing body at international headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. In the more than 63,000 congregations worldwide, elders, male members meeting certain scriptural qualifications, preside as a body. Instruction and training are provided for all at five meetings a week, held primarily in "Kingdom Halls." The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., are the legal agencies of Jehovah's Witnesses. They print and distribute the Bible. Their principal periodical, The Watchtower, has a circulation of 15,290,000 copies in more than 100 languages.

The Witnesses acknowledge Jehovah God as their founder. The modern movement was organized in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell. By 1990, Jehovah's Witnesses numbered 4.2 million in more than 200 lands.

F W Franz

J Bergman, Jehovah's Witnesses and Kindred Groups (1984); M J Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses (1988); Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses (annual).

Jehovah's Witnesses

Advanced Information

This name was adopted in 1931 by the movement founded by Charles Taze Russell in the 1870s. Russell was born in 1852 in Pittsburgh, Pa. His family were Congregationalists but Russell reacted strongly against his religious upbringing. At the age of eighteen he started a Bible class in Pittsburgh, and this group grew into the organization which we now know as the Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1876 Russell became the group's pastor, and in 1879 he started a magazine, Zion's Watchtower, the forerunner of today's Watchtower. Russell's organization became the Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society in 1884. In 1908 Russell moved the headquarters of his organization to Brooklyn, New York. The organization has been based in Brooklyn ever since.

In 1886 Russell published the first of a series of seven books entitled Studies in the Scriptures. Volume 6 appeared in 1904 and the seventh volume in 1917, a year after Russell's death. The publication of Volume 7 of Studies in the Scriptures led to a schism in the organization. The majority of members followed J F Rutherford, while a smaller group formed itself into the Dawn Bible Student's Association. This group is still in existence and publishes the Dawn magazine, which has a circulation of about 30,000 copies. The larger group following Rutherford became today's Jehovah's Witnesses. Their magazine, The Watchtower, has a circulation of over 64 million worldwide.

Following Russell's death in 1916 Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford became the leader of the organization. An able organizer, he developed the group into its present organization. Rutherford wrote over a hundred books and fundamentally shaped the group's theology. He increased its hostility toward organized religion and developed a variety of highly successful missionary methods. Rutherford, who was born in 1869, died in 1942, leaving behind an organization which has continued to grow at a remarkable rate.

In 1981 the Jehovah's Witnesses were shaken by a series of schisms which led to a large number leaving the organization. The leader of the opposition to the Brooklyn headquarters group was Professor James Penton, a Canadian, whose family had been among Russell's earliest converts. Penton and those who sided with him sought to reemphasize the doctrine of justification by faith and return the group to its original interest in Bible study. The intention of Penton and other Witnesses who shared his ideas appears to have been to reform the group from within. The Brooklyn leadership strongly rejected their arguments and expelled anyone who supported their views. Although this division was a serious one, it appears that the majority of Witnesses remained within the official organization, which retained control over all of the group's assets.

As a religious organization the Jehovah's Witnesses are typical of many nineteenth century groups. Although their theology bears some resemblance to that of the Arians in early church history, they are essentially a modern group strongly influenced by rationalism. Like many other new religions in the nineteenth century the Witnesses represent a strong reaction to the scientific world view. The rationalism of the group can be seen in their rejection of Trinitarian doctrines and traditional teachings about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Their rationalistic attitude toward the Bible comes out in their literal interpretation of prophecy and failure to appreciate the symbolic character of biblical language. Their rejection of blood transfusions reflects this rejection of modern science as well as the extreme literalism of their exegesis.

In attempting to justify their interpretation of Christianity and rejection of orthodoxy the Witnesses produced their own translation of the Bible, The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures and The New World Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, in 1950. Although this work claims to be a translation, the Witnesses have yet to name the translators or prove their credentials as competent scholars. What one finds in fact is a rendering of the Bible in terms of the theology of the organization.

Probably the best introduction to the theology of the Jehovah's Witnesses is their book Let God Be True. In addition to their rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity they teach a number of distinct doctrines. In their view the atonement is a ransom paid to the God Jehovah by Jesus Christ which removes the effects of Adam's sin, laying the foundation for a new righteousness and enabling men to save themselves by their good works. They teach that Jesus was resurrected a divine spirit after offering this ransom to God. At death humans either sleep until the resurrection or, if they are evil, suffer annihilation.

In their view Jesus Christ returned to earth spiritually in 1914 and is now proceeding to overthrow Satan's worldly organization and to establish a theocratic millennial kingdom.This kingdom will arrive in the near future with the battle of Armageddon. After Armageddon true believers will be resurrected to a life on earth while a select group of 144,000 will rule in heaven with Christ. In addition to holding these doctrines Jehovah's Witnesses reject a professional ministry and, until recently, the idea of church buildings. They are pacifists and call upon their members to have nothing to do with worldly politics.

Today there are over three million Witnesses worldwide. They have an extensive missionary network throughout the world and operate in most countries. In some places, particularly in Africa, the Witnesses have suffered severe persecution. In others, especially North America, they are rapidly coming to resemble a religious denomination.

I Hexham
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

W R Martin and N Klawn, Jehovah of the Watch Tower; T Dencher, The Watch Tower versus the Bible; J Penton, The End Delayed; A Hoekema, The Four Major Cults.

Charles Taze Russell

General Information

Charles Taze Russell, b. Pittsburgh, Pa., Feb. 16, 1852, d. Oct. 31, 1916, called Pastor Russell, was the first president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, the legal agency of Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1870, at the age of 18, Russell began a systematic study of the Bible with a small group of associates. Becoming convinced of the imminence of Christ's millennial reign, he began to preach and spread his teachings, and in 1879 he founded the Watch Tower journal. In 1884 he established the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, of which he was president until his death. Notable among Russell's writings is a 6 volume collection, Millennial Dawn (1886 - 1904).

Frederick W Franz

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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