JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES TIMELINE
1852: Founder-leader Charles Taze Russell was born.
1870: Russell began his Bible study group in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.
1876: Russell was designated Pastor of the Bible Study Group.
1877: Russell collaborated with Nelson H. Barbour, publishing Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World.
1879: The first edition of Zion’s Watch Tower (now The Watchtower) was published.
1881 (February 16): Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society began its tract distribution.
1884: Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society was legally incorporated in Pennsylvania.
1886: Divine Plan of the Ages by Charles Taze Russell was published as the first volume of Millennial Dawn (later retitled Studies in the Scriptures).
1909: The Society’s headquarters relocated to Brooklyn, New York.
1914: The audio-visual production The Photo-Drama of Creation was screened for the first time.
1916 (October 31): Charles Taze Russell died.
1917 (January 6): Joseph Franklin (“Judge”) Rutherford became the Society’s president. The Finished Mystery was published.
1919: The first issue of The Golden Age was published (now titled Awake!).
1920: Millions Now Living May Never Die! by J. F. Rutherford was published.
1925: The ancient patriarchs were expected to return from the dead in that year.
1931: The name Jehovah’s Witnesses was adopted.
1932: The system of “elective elders” came to an end.
1933-1945: Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted by the Third Reich and taken to concentration camps.
1935: Rutherford identified the “great crowd” as part of the “two hopes” doctrine. Saluting the national flag was denounced.
1942: Joseph Franklin Rutherford died. Nathan H. Knorr became the Society’s third president.
1950: The first part of The New World Translation of Holy Scriptures was released.
1961: The New World Translation of Holy Scriptures was published in its entirety.
1971: The Governing Body was defined, and subsequently reorganized in 1976, with six subordinate committees.
1977: Nathan H. Knorr died, and was succeeded by Frederick W. Franz.
1992: Frederick W. Franz died, and was succeeded by Milton G. Henschel.
1997: The Jehovah’s Witness website was launched (now JW.org).
2000: Henschel stood down as president, and the Society’s structures were reorganized.
2017: The new world headquarters at Warwick New York became open to the public. In Russia, the Supreme Court declared Jehovah’s Witnesses to be “extremist,” and liquidated group assets.
2020: Many Kingdom Halls closed, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Congregational meetings, assemblies, and conventions went online.
Although the name Jehovah’s Witnesses was not adopted until 1931, the group’s origins can be traced back to Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), [Image at right] who was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and whose father owned a haberdashery business. Russell came to have doubts about mainstream Christian doctrines, particularly the notion of hell, the Trinity, and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. He associated with a number of Adventist preachers, and accepted their expectation of Christ’s imminent return. He established a small group of Christian men, who met to study the Bible between 1870 and 1875; they particularly emphasized the doctrine of Christ’s “ransom sacrifice” for sin, and rejected the notion of the soul’s immortality, regarding everlasting life as a divine gift that was only available to those who merited it. Further, they believed that Christ’s return would not be as a physical, but rather an invisible presence. In 1876, Russell began an association with the Adventist Nelson H. Barbour, who edited a journal entitled The Herald of the Morning, and they jointly wrote a volume entitled Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World, which appeared in 1877. Barbour was particularly interested in biblical and end-time chronology, to which he introduced Russell, but the two parted company in 1878 because Barbour denied the “ransom sacrifice” doctrine of atonement. Russell then decided to produce his own journal, initially called Zion’s Watch Tower and the Herald of Christ’s Presence. The magazine was used by a number of congregations (called “ecclesias”) throughout the country, who met to study the Bible, together with Zion’s Watch Tower. An early edition of the magazine claimed that all Christian denominations were apostate, and were “Babylon the Great,” described in the Book of Revelation, and urged their members to leave.
In 1884 Russell set up Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society, which was legally incorporated in Pennsylvania. Russell also organized some 300 colporteurs, who distributed his literature, initially in the U.S. and Canada, and travelled to other countries worldwide. Russell himself travelled widely, journeying as far afield as Europe, the Middle East, India, and parts of Asia. One important achievement was the Photo-Drama of Creation, a highly advanced audio-visual production that presented the biblical account of human history from Adam and Eve to the coming everlasting paradise. Eight hours in duration, it was screened to the public in four installments, all free of charge.
After Russell died in 1916 on one of his preaching tours, he was succeeded by Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942), an attorney who had acted as the Society’s legal adviser. [Image at right] Rutherford made major changes to the Society’s structure, and he was responsible for many of its longstanding distinctive features. He ordered the previously autonomous ecclesias into one single unified society. Organized house-to-house evangelism began, and became an expectation, first of the elders, and subsequently of all members, who reported the number of publications distributed, and the number of hours spent on “publishing” (the Society’s term for evangelism).
In 1920, Rutherford published a short book entitled Millions Now Living Will Never Die!, which was an expanded version of a lecture that he had given in various locations. The publication contained numerous chronological calculations, concluding that the “faithful worthies” (ancient Hebrew patriarchs) would return in 1925, heralding the inception of everlasting life on earth. Although this failed to occur, Rutherford remained convinced that the biblical patriarchs would soon return, and a mansion called Beth Sarim (“House of the Princes”) [Image at right] was built in the suburbs of San Diego to accommodate some of them.
After Rutherford’s death in 1942, Nathan H. Knorr (1905-1977) became president. Knorr made significant strides in increasing membership, especially abroad. He emphasized the importance of training, and he set up the Bible School of Gilead to prepare foreign missionaries, and the Theocratic Ministry School (TMS) in all congregations to instruct publishers in public speaking and house-to-house ministry. (In 2016 the TMS was subsumed within the three-part congregational Christian Life and Ministry meeting.) In 1971, the Governing Body was set up as an entity distinct from the governance of the two incorporated Societies, and it continues to define the Society’s doctrines and policies worldwide. Also under Knorr’s leadership, the authorship of all Watch Tower publications became anonymous, in the belief that only Jehovah should be given credit for “spiritual food” (the expression Witnesses typically use for edifying literature and teaching). Knorr was succeeded by Frederick W. Franz (1893-1992), during whose period of office there were few changes to the organization; however, he promoted the Society’s work by travelling worldwide and speaking at conventions. More far-reaching changes (discussed below) came about under the fifth leader, Milton G. Henschel (1920-2003), who took the unprecedented step in 2000 of resigning the presidency: all four previous leaders had held office until they died.
Jehovah’s Witnesses base their beliefs on the Bible, which they regard as inerrant in all matters, including history, science, doctrines, guidance for life, and prophecy. They acknowledge no new prophets or extra-biblical revelation. Their key teaching is that Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden caused sin to enter the world, and that Jesus Christ offered himself as the ransom sacrifice to restore humanity’s relationship with God. “Jehovah” is regarded as God’s personal name, by which he should be addressed, rather than generic names such as “God” or “the Lord.”
Witnesses hold that Jesus was God’s first created being. He was not “eternally begotten,” as mainstream creeds assert, but rather was created as the Archangel Michael, whose life entered the Virgin Mary’s womb, enabling him to have a human birth. After his death, Jesus rose again as a spirit being, and ascended into heaven with a spiritual body. Jesus Christ cast Satan down to earth in 1914, where he continues to rule the world and multiply evil. The date of 1914 is arrived at through interpreting biblical chronology, being 2,520 years after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, which they believe to have occurred in 607 BCE, in accordance with Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 4:32; see Chryssides 2010). For Witnesses, the year 1914 marks the “end of the Gentile Times,” and the beginning of Christ’s “invisible presence.” (They do not expect Jesus to return spectacularly on the clouds.). From around 1919, after preparing the kingdom of heaven, Jehovah and Christ began to gather up those who belong to the 144,000 “anointed class.” Rutherford defined the distinction between the anointed class and the “great crowd” in 1935, and Witnesses believe that almost all of the 144,000 are now gathered. When Jesus said, “this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen” (Mark 13:31), they believe he meant the generation who were alive in 1914. This doctrine has been reappraised in recent times, however.
Witnesses expect a decisive conflict between Christ and Satan at the battle of Armageddon, which they believe to be “just around the corner.” This will be a spiritual battle in which Michael and his angels will defeat Satan, who will be bound and placed in an abyss for 1,000 years. This thousand-year period is known as the millennium, during which the dead will progressively be raised and judged. People who have not had a chance to hear “the truth” (Christian teachings, as interpreted by the Governing Body) will be given a further opportunity to hear “the truth” (as they call their teachings) and decide whether to accept. Those who accept will be allowed to live under Christ’s rule in an everlasting paradise on earth, while God will destroy those who reject the message, and they will experience no further state of consciousness.
Jehovah’s Witnesses describe themselves as being in the world, but not “of the world” (John 17:16). Since they believe that the world is currently ruled by Satan, Jehovah’s Witnesses strive to keep themselves uncontaminated by worldly values. Hence, apart from those who work full-time for the Society, Witnesses engage in normal occupations, but are careful to avoid “bad associations” (1 Corinthians 15:33), that is, having unduly close relationships with those who might entice them away from “the truth.” Witnesses tend to draw their friends from among their fellow members, and spend much of their time on Society activities, which include attending Kingdom Hall meetings twice a week, undertaking house-to-house “publishing,” and attending assemblies and conventions. Since 2012, publishing now includes staffing the literature carts that are evident in town and city centers; these publishers follow the example of Paul, who preached the Christian message in public places. Publishers maintain the tradition of distributing literature, and the key publications are The Watchtower and Awake! magazine: their frequency has now been reduced to three issues of each per year (monthly in the case of The Watchtower Study Edition, which is aimed at members), but the Society encourages interested individuals to visit the JW.org website, which contains a wide variety of audio-visual resources, including material for children.
In their lifestyle, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ moral values may be viewed as conservative: they disapprove of sexual relationships outside marriage, and deplore modern liberal attitudes that encourage same-sex relationships. Divorce is only permitted on the grounds of adultery. They do not smoke or gamble, although consuming alcohol is acceptable in moderation. They may watch television and go to the cinema or theatre, but are careful to avoid material that involves violence, sexual content, or the occult.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are renowned for not celebrating Christian or national festivals. They have never celebrated Easter, Saints’ days, or Halloween, and came to believe that Christmas was a pagan festival. The last Christmas to be observed at the Brooklyn Bethel was in 1926. The celebration of birthdays was discontinued around 1950. Witnesses note that the Bible only mentions birthdays in two places (Genesis 40:20-22; Matthew 14:6-10), and both had unfavorable outcomes. Festivals of other religions, such as Holi, Diwali, or Ramadan are equally regarded as “pagan,” and celebrations such as Thanksgiving are associated with nationalism. Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that any activity that exalts a person or country above Jehovah should be avoided. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not object to giving and receiving presents, and some families organize their own occasional “present days” when they exchange gifts. Witnesses have no objection to sending greetings cards to mark the birth of a child, which they do not regard as a birthday celebration as such; they also mark wedding anniversaries, acknowledging the value of lasting marriages. Marriage ceremonies are conducted in Kingdom Halls, as are funerals.
Witnesses stress that Jesus specifically instructed his followers to perform two rites: baptism and the Memorial (also known as the Lord’s Evening Meal). Baptism [Image at right] is undergone publicly, by total immersion, usually at a convention, and it is administered to those who are judged to be old enough to understand the Society’s teachings and practices. Candidates are expected to undergo a period of instruction, and to satisfy the elders who ask a large number of questions relating to doctrine and lifestyle. Once baptized, they are known as “publishers,” and referred to as “Sister” or “Brother.”
The Memorial commemorates Jesus’ last evening meal with his disciples, at which he said, “Keep doing this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). This event takes place on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nisan, after sunset, and consists of singing, prayer, and a Bible talk that explains the rite. At two points in the talk, the speaker pauses to allow the distribution of unleavened bread and red wine. Only the “anointed” consume the emblems (their preferred term). The rest, often the entirety of the congregation, simply handle the vessels and pass them on. Witnesses do not believe that any miracle takes place during the prayers over the emblems, such as transubstantiation. The service is simply a memorial, as its name implies.
For legal reasons, the Watch Tower organization consists principally of two main corporations: the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. The name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” does not designate a legally incorporated organization, although many congregations are registered individually by names that include “Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Until recently, it was customary for both Watch Tower societies to have the same president, who presided over the Governing Body. In 1975, six subcommittees were created to further the Society’s work: a Personnel Committee, a Publishing Committee, a Service Committee, a Teaching Committee, a Writing Committee, and a Chairman’s Committee (subsequently renamed Coordinator’s Committee). The last of these deals with urgent matters, such as natural disasters and reports of persecution.
However, a major reorganization took place in 2000 when the fifth president, Milton G. Henschel, stepped down, and the two organizations came to have separate presidents, neither of whom belonged to the 144,000. Legally, the Governing Body is separate from the incorporated organizations, and does not have a president, but a rotating chairman. Additionally, three new corporations came into existence: the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which focuses on religious and educational matters; the Religious Order of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has responsibility for the Society’s full-time workers; and the Kingdom Support Services Inc., which deals with physical resources.
To organize its work, the Society has a number of branch offices (87 in 2019), each of which is responsible for a country or a cluster of countries throughout the world. In 2019, the Society reported 8,683,117 Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, with 119,712 congregations in 240 lands, and 20,919,041 attendees at the annual Memorial. Over the past decade membership has grown by 1.56 percent, slightly more than the world’s population growth of 1.1 percent. The greatest growth has occurred in Africa, and to a lesser extent in South America.
Each country is divided into circuits, with a circuit overseer for each. He is responsible for overseeing around twenty congregations, each of which is presided over by elders, who are responsible for the congregation’s spiritual well-being. This responsibility includes exercising discipline. When serious offences are brought to their attention, they may form a judicial committee with the powers to disfellowship (excommunicate) baptized members until such time as they demonstrate repentance. Elders are assisted by ministerial servants, who are responsible for the material and administrative aspects of congregational life, such as the accounts, literature distribution, and the sound system. All office bearers are men; women may not address a congregation directly, although they may take part in “demonstrations,” which are role-plays performed on the platform to demonstrate how publishing work can effectively be carried out. Women may serve in Bethels (national headquarters) and most of the central Committees, and they are included in the 144,000 who will reign in heaven.
From its beginning mainstream, Christians have expressed disquiet regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrines. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept the Trinity, and regard the holy spirit (always spelt in lowercase) as God’s active force rather than a person. Moreover, Witnesses do not accept the full deity of Christ, regarding him as created and not eternally begotten by God the Father (as the Nicene Creed states), viewing Jesus as entirely human rather than fully human and fully divine. Christ’s sacrifice was therefore the offering of a perfect man rather than the incarnate God, as mainstream Christian theology asserts. Criticism has also been made of the Society’s own translation of the Bible, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, which has been accused of bias. One particular cause of concern has been its reference to Christ at John 1:1, which reads, “the Word was a god,” suggesting that Christ in his pre-existent form was one supernatural being among many.
The Watch Tower Society has frequently been accused of prophetic failure. In particular, the dates of 1914, 1925, and 1975 are cited as points at which the present system of world affairs was expected to end with the commencement of Armageddon. Although there have been failed expectations, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attitude to prophecy has been misunderstood. Numerous dates that they have cited refer to several different occurrences in a series of end-time events, and some refer to supernatural events, such as Christ taking up his throne in heaven, which are empirically unverifiable. Over a century has now passed since 1914, causing Jehovah’s Witnesses to re-examine what Jesus meant by the generation that would not pass away. They now interpret “generation” as referring to those whose lives have overlapped with the 1914 generation.
One of the most publicized objections to Jehovah’s Witnesses relates to their stance on blood. Since 1944, the Society has maintained that imbibing blood, whether by mouth or by transfusion, is contrary to Jehovah’s law. The organization has championed the use of blood substitutes in medical treatment, and it has set up 1,170 Hospital Liaison Committees in over 110 countries in order to facilitate bloodless treatment. Although diseases such as hepatitis, HIV, and AIDS have been transmitted through blood transfusion, the potential practical consequences of blood transfusion are regarded as less important than obeying Jehovah. The media have frequently portrayed the Society’s blood policy unfavorably, and the subject has featured sporadically in numerous feature films, television documentaries, and soap operas.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been viewed as unpatriotic due to their refusal to participate in war or to engage in acts of homage to the state. In the United States, they fought a number of legal cases in the 1930s and 1940s, establishing schoolchildren’s right of exemption from pledging allegiance to the national U.S. flag. In this same period in Nazi Germany, Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned and sent to concentration camps, where around 2,000 of their members died. Their political neutrality worldwide has caused them to refuse military service; this has resulted in fines and, more usually, imprisonment, and in some cases torture by civil authorities. They have experienced serious opposition in South Korea, and have been banned in Russia and China, among numerous other countries, although this has not prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from practicing their faith and continuing to evangelize.
Recently, controversy has surrounded allegations of child sexual abuse. For example, a Royal Commission in Australia in 2015 investigated child sexual abuse across several religious and secular organizations, and the Ministry of Justice and Safety in the Netherlands commissioned a report on Jehovah’s Witnesses and sexual abuse in 2019. Criticisms related to the Society’s policy of requiring two witnesses before commencing their own judicial action, in accordance with ancient biblical practice (Deuteronomy 19:15), and alleged failures to involve the police. Witnesses, however, will not abandon the “two witness” rule in their own judicial matters, but elders have been reminded to comply with state laws regarding reporting accusations. From 1982, numerous articles in The Watchtower and Awake! have condemned child abuse and offered advice on avoidance and victim support, and there are few opportunities for such practices in Kingdom Halls, [Image at right] where there are no separate activities for children.
Until recently, the majority of publications about Jehovah’s Witnesses have been written by critics and ex-members, with only a small handful of academic publications. In the past decade, scholarly attention has grown, with the prospect of more balanced treatment of the Watch Tower Society.
Image #1: Charles Taze Russell.
Image #2: Joseph Franklin Rutherford.
Image #3: Beth Sarim (“House of the Princes”)
Image #4: A Jehovah’s Witnesses baptism.
Image #5: The Kingdom Hall in Walsall, England.
** Unless otherwise noted, this profile is drawn from George D. Chryssides. 2016. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change London: Routledge.
Baran, Emily. 2014. Dissent on the Margins: How Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Beckford, James A. 1975. The Trumpet of Prophecy. Oxford: Blackwell.
Besier, Gerhard and Stokłosa, eds. 2016, 2018. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Europe: Past and Present. Three Volumes. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Chryssides, George D. 2019. Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Lanham Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.
Chryssides, George D. 2010. “How Prophecy Succeeds: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Prophetic Expectations.” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 1:27-48.
Henderson, Jennifer Jacobs. 2010. Defending the Good News: The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Plan to Expand the First Amendment. Spokane: Marquette Books.
Hesse, Hans (ed.) 2001. Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses During the Nazi Regime 1933-1945. Bremen, Germany: Edition Temmen.
Knox, Zoe. 2018. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Secular World: From the 1870s to the Present. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
New World Bible Translation Committee. 1961 (Revised Editions: 1970, 1971, 1984, 2013). New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.
Peters, Shawn Francis. 2000. Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Russell, C. T. 1886. The Divine Plan of the Ages. London: International Bible Students Association.
Russell, C. T. and N. H. Barbour 1877. Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World. Rochester NY: N. H. Barbour and C. T. Russell.
Rutherford, J. F. 1920. Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Brooklyn, N.Y.: International Bible Students Association.
Watch Tower. 1917. The Finished Mystery. Brooklyn, NY: International Bible Students Association.
7 November 2020