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 Church.
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 this doctrine.
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 failed prophecy.
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, theNew 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 God.”
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 the corner.
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 several steps.
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 Hall.
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 literature distributed.)
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. A disfellow-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. 10:2, NIV).