Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses
Jw headquart.jpg
World headquarters in Warwick, New York
OrientationMillenarian, Restorationist
GovernanceGoverning Body
HeadquartersWarwick, New York, U.S.
FounderCharles Taze Russell[2]
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Branched fromBible Student movement
Statistics from 2017 Grand Totals[3]

Jehovah's Witnesses is a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity.[4] The group reports a worldwide membership of approximately 8.5 million adherents involved in evangelism and an annual Memorial attendance of around 20 million.[3] Jehovah's Witnesses are directed by the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, a group of elders in Warwick, New York, which establishes all doctrines[5] based on its interpretations of the Bible.[6][7] They believe that the destruction of the present world system at Armageddon is imminent, and that the establishment of God's kingdom over the earth is the only solution for all problems faced by humanity.[8]

The group emerged from the Bible Student movement founded in the late 1870s by Charles Taze Russell, who also co-founded Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society in 1881 to organize and print the movement's publications.[2] A leadership dispute after Russell's death resulted in several groups breaking away, with Joseph Franklin Rutherford retaining control of the Watch Tower Society and its properties.[9] Rutherford made significant organizational and doctrinal changes, including adoption of the name Jehovah's witnesses[note 1] in 1931 to distinguish them from other Bible Student groups and symbolize a break with the legacy of Russell's traditions.[10][11][12][13]

Jehovah's Witnesses are best known for their door-to-door preaching, distributing literature such as The Watchtower and Awake!, and refusing military service and blood transfusions. They consider the use of God's name vital for proper worship. They reject Trinitarianism, inherent immortality of the soul, and hellfire, which they consider to be unscriptural doctrines. The group does not observe Christmas, Easter, birthdays or other holidays and customs they consider to have pagan origins incompatible with Christianity.[14] They prefer to use their own Bible translation, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures,[15] although their literature occasionally quotes and cites other Bible translations.[16][17] Adherents commonly refer to their body of beliefs as "The Truth" and consider themselves to be "in the Truth".[18] They consider secular society to be morally corrupt and under the influence of Satan, and most limit their social interaction with non-Witnesses.[19] Congregational disciplinary actions include disfellowshipping, their term for formal expulsion and shunning.[20] Baptized individuals who formally leave are considered disassociated and are also shunned. Disfellowshipped and disassociated individuals may eventually be reinstated if deemed repentant.[21]

The group's position regarding conscientious objection to military service and refusal to salute national flags has brought it into conflict with some governments. Consequently, some Jehovah's Witnesses have been persecuted and their activities are banned or restricted in some countries. Persistent legal challenges by Jehovah's Witnesses have influenced legislation related to civil rights in several countries.[22]

The organization has received criticism regarding biblical translation, doctrines, and alleged coercion of its members. The Watch Tower Society has made various unfulfilled predictions about major biblical events such as Christ's Second Coming, the advent of God's Kingdom, and Armageddon. Their policies for handling cases of child sexual abuse have been the subject of various formal inquiries.


Background (1870–1916)

In 1870, Charles Taze Russell and others formed a group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to study the Bible.[23] 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.[24] 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[24] inaugurating the "harvest of the Gospel age," and that 1914 would mark the end of a 2520-year period called "the Gentile Times,"[25] at which time world society would be replaced by the full establishment of God's kingdom on earth.[26][27][28] Beginning in 1878 Russell and Barbour jointly edited a religious journal, Herald of the Morning.[29] 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,[30] 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.[31]

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.[32][33][34] 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.[35][36][37] By about 1900, Russell had organized thousands of part- and full-time colporteurs,[30] and was appointing foreign missionaries and establishing branch offices. By the 1910s, Russell's organization maintained nearly a hundred "pilgrims," or traveling preachers.[38] Russell engaged in significant global publishing efforts during his ministry,[39][40] and by 1912, he was the most distributed Christian author in the United States.[41][42]

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.[43] By 1910, about 50,000 people worldwide were associated with the movement[44] and congregations re-elected him annually as their "pastor."[45] Russell died October 31, 1916, at the age of 64 while returning from a ministerial speaking tour.[46]

Reorganization (1917–1942)

Joseph F. Rutherford, founder of Jehovah's Witnesses

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.[47][48] The divisions between his supporters and opponents triggered a major turnover of members over the next decade.[49][7] 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.[50][51][52][53] It strongly criticized Catholic and Protestant clergy and Christian involvement in the Great War.[54] 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.[55]

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.[56] At an international convention held at Cedar Point, Ohio, in September 1922, a new emphasis was made on house-to-house preaching.[57] 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.[58][59][60][61] 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,[62][63][64][65] most of which still exist.[66] 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.[67][68][69][64][70]

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.[10][11][12] 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.[56]

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.[71][72] 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.[73]

Nathan H. Knorr, the third president of the Watch Tower Society

As their interpretations of the Bible developed, 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.[74][75]

Worldwide membership of Jehovah's Witnesses reached 113,624 in 5,323 congregations by the time of Rutherford's death in January 1942.[76][77]

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.[78] 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.[79][80]

From 1966, Witness publications and convention talks built anticipation of the possibility that Christ's thousand-year reign might begin in late 1975[81][82] or shortly thereafter.[83][84][85][86] 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.[87][88][89][90] Watch Tower Society literature did not state dogmatically that 1975 would definitely mark the end,[83] but in 1980 the Watch Tower Society admitted its responsibility in building up hope regarding that year.[91][92]

The offices of elder and ministerial servant were restored to Witness congregations in 1972, with appointments made from headquarters[93] (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.[94] 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".[95][96][97][98]

Other Languages
العربية: شهود يهوه
azərbaycanca: Yehovanın Şahidləri
беларуская: Сведкі Іеговы
emiliàn e rumagnòl: Testimòṅ ad Géuva
føroyskt: Jehova Vitni
Bahasa Indonesia: Saksi-Saksi Yehuwa
interlingua: Testes de Jehovah
íslenska: Vottar Jehóva
עברית: עדי יהוה
Kreyòl ayisyen: Temwen Jewova
Lëtzebuergesch: Zeie vum Jehova
македонски: Јеховини сведоци
Bahasa Melayu: Saksi Jehovah
Nederlands: Jehova's getuigen
norsk nynorsk: Jehovas vitne
Pangasinan: Tasi nen Jehovah
Simple English: Jehovah's Witnesses
slovenčina: Jehovovi svedkovia
slovenščina: Jehovove priče
ślůnski: Śwjodki Jehowe
Sranantongo: Jehovah Kotoigi
српски / srpski: Јеховини сведоци
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Jehovini svjedoci
українська: Свідки Єгови