In 1870, Charles Taze Russell and others formed a group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to study the Bible. During the course of his ministry, Russell disputed many beliefs of mainstream Christianity including immortality of the soul, hellfire, predestination, the fleshly return of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the burning up of the world. In 1876, Russell met Nelson H. Barbour; later that year they jointly produced the book Three Worlds, which combined restitutionist views with end time prophecy. The book taught that God's dealings with humanity were divided dispensationally, each ending with a "harvest," that Christ had returned as an invisible spirit being in 1874 inaugurating the "harvest of the Gospel age," and that 1914 would mark the end of a 2520-year period called "the Gentile Times," at which time world society would be replaced by the full establishment of God's kingdom on earth. Beginning in 1878 Russell and Barbour jointly edited a religious journal, Herald of the Morning. In June 1879 the two split over doctrinal differences, and in July, Russell began publishing the magazine Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence, stating that its purpose was to demonstrate that the world was in "the last days," and that a new age of earthly and human restitution under the reign of Christ was imminent.
From 1879, Watch Tower supporters gathered as autonomous congregations to study the Bible topically. Thirty congregations were founded, and during 1879 and 1880, Russell visited each to provide the format he recommended for conducting meetings. In 1881, Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society was presided over by William Henry Conley, and in 1884, Russell incorporated the society as a non-profit business to distribute tracts and Bibles. By about 1900, Russell had organized thousands of part- and full-time colporteurs, and was appointing foreign missionaries and establishing branch offices. By the 1910s, Russell's organization maintained nearly a hundred "pilgrims," or traveling preachers. Russell engaged in significant global publishing efforts during his ministry, and by 1912, he was the most distributed Christian author in the United States.
Russell moved the Watch Tower Society's headquarters to Brooklyn, New York, in 1909, combining printing and corporate offices with a house of worship; volunteers were housed in a nearby residence he named Bethel. He identified the religious movement as "Bible Students," and more formally as the International Bible Students Association. By 1910, about 50,000 people worldwide were associated with the movement and congregations re-elected him annually as their "pastor." Russell died October 31, 1916, at the age of 64 while returning from a ministerial speaking tour.
In January 1917, the Watch Tower Society's legal representative, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, was elected as its next president. His election was disputed, and members of the Board of Directors accused him of acting in an autocratic and secretive manner. The divisions between his supporters and opponents triggered a major turnover of members over the next decade. In June 1917, he released The Finished Mystery as a seventh volume of Russell's Studies in the Scriptures series. The book, published as the posthumous work of Russell, was a compilation of his commentaries on the Bible books of Ezekiel and Revelation, plus numerous additions by Bible Students Clayton Woodworth and George Fisher. It strongly criticized Catholic and Protestant clergy and Christian involvement in the Great War. As a result, Watch Tower Society directors were jailed for sedition under the Espionage Act in 1918 and members were subjected to mob violence; the directors were released in March 1919 and charges against them were dropped in 1920.
Rutherford centralized organizational control of the Watch Tower Society. In 1919, he instituted the appointment of a director in each congregation, and a year later all members were instructed to report their weekly preaching activity to the Brooklyn headquarters. At an international convention held at Cedar Point, Ohio, in September 1922, a new emphasis was made on house-to-house preaching. Significant changes in doctrine and administration were regularly introduced during Rutherford's twenty-five years as president, including the 1920 announcement that the Hebrew patriarchs (such as Abraham and Isaac) would be resurrected in 1925, marking the beginning of Christ's thousand-year earthly Kingdom. Because of disappointment over the changes and unfulfilled predictions, tens of thousands of defections occurred during the first half of Rutherford's tenure, leading to the formation of several Bible Student organizations independent of the Watch Tower Society, most of which still exist. By mid-1919, as many as one in seven of Russell-era Bible Students had ceased their association with the Society, and as many as three-quarters by the end of the 1920s.
On July 26, 1931, at a convention in Columbus, Ohio, Rutherford introduced the new name – Jehovah's witnesses – based on Isaiah 43:10: "'You are my witnesses,' declares Jehovah, 'Yes, my servant whom I have chosen, So that you may know and have faith in me And understand that I am the same One. Before me no God was formed, And after me there has been none.'" (New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures 2013 Edition) —which was adopted by resolution. The name was chosen to distinguish his group of Bible Students from other independent groups that had severed ties with the Society, as well as symbolize the instigation of new outlooks and the promotion of fresh evangelizing methods. In 1932, Rutherford eliminated the system of locally elected elders and in 1938, introduced what he called a "theocratic" (literally, God-ruled) organizational system, under which appointments in congregations worldwide were made from the Brooklyn headquarters.
From 1932, it was taught that the "little flock" of 144,000 would not be the only people to survive Armageddon. Rutherford explained that in addition to the 144,000 "anointed" who would be resurrected—or transferred at death—to live in heaven to rule over earth with Christ, a separate class of members, the "great multitude," would live in a paradise restored on earth; from 1935, new converts to the movement were considered part of that class. By the mid-1930s, the timing of the beginning of Christ's presence (Greek: parousía), his enthronement as king, and the start of the "last days" were each moved to 1914.
As their interpretations of the Bible evolved, Witness publications decreed that saluting national flags is a form of idolatry, which led to a new outbreak of mob violence and government opposition in the United States, Canada, Germany, and other countries.
Worldwide membership of Jehovah's Witnesses reached 113,624 in 5,323 congregations by the time of Rutherford's death in January 1942.
Continued development (1942–present)
Nathan Knorr was appointed as third president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in 1942. Knorr commissioned a new translation of the Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the full version of which was released in 1961. He organized large international assemblies, instituted new training programs for members, and expanded missionary activity and branch offices throughout the world. Knorr's presidency was also marked by an increasing use of explicit instructions guiding Witnesses in their lifestyle and conduct, and a greater use of congregational judicial procedures to enforce a strict moral code.
From 1966, Witness publications and convention talks built anticipation of the possibility that Christ's thousand-year reign might begin in late 1975 or shortly thereafter. The number of baptisms increased significantly, from about 59,000 in 1966 to more than 297,000 in 1974. By 1975, the number of active members exceeded two million. Membership declined during the late 1970s after expectations for 1975 were proved wrong. Watch Tower Society literature did not state dogmatically that 1975 would definitely mark the end, but in 1980 the Watch Tower Society admitted its responsibility in building up hope regarding that year.
The offices of elder and ministerial servant were restored to Witness congregations in 1972, with appointments made from headquarters (and later, also by branch committees). It was announced that, starting in September 2014, appointments would be made by traveling overseers. In a major organizational overhaul in 1976, the power of the Watch Tower Society president was diminished, with authority for doctrinal and organizational decisions passed to the Governing Body. Since Knorr's death in 1977, the position of president has been occupied by Frederick Franz (1977–1992) and Milton Henschel (1992–2000), both members of the Governing Body, and since 2000 by others who are not Governing Body members. In 1995, Jehovah's Witnesses abandoned the idea that Armageddon must occur during the lives of the generation that was alive in 1914 and in 2010 changed their teaching on the "generation".