Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) founded the Jehovah Witnesses movement from a Bible study group he later became the pastor of. He held to several beliefs that deviated from orthodox Christianity on topics such as Jesus Christ, hell, the soul, the trinity, and more.
Russell was active in his writing, traveling, and preaching, and also formed the Watchtower Society, the governing body for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1879, Russell started publishing the Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence magazine which attempted to convince readers that the world was in “the last days,” and that Christ’s return and reign were imminent. Russell died in 1916 and was succeeded by Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942). Rutherford was born into a farming family and raised a Baptist before becoming disillusioned with religion. He had a successful legal career and became the Watchtower Society’s second president, and was coined the term “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” He also increased membership in the group through door-to-door evangelizing. Rutherford passed away in 1942 and was succeeded by Nathan Homwer Knorr (1905-1977), under whose leadership the Watchtower’s own New World Translation of the Bible was produced.
View of Scripture
Jehovah Witnesses believe in the preservation and inspiration of the Bible, and therefore view it to be the inspired and inerrant word of God. The Bible is taken to be the final authority for all of their beliefs. Witnesses, however, differ to most Christians on their interpretations of certain important scriptural verses, and this is why Witnesses prefer to use their own Bible translation, the New World Translation (NWT). The NWT has translated numerous verses with the intent of rendering them friendly to their own theological interpretations, which Witnesses contend is a far more accurate translation of the Bible than other English translations. Witnesses also have reverence for materials distributed by The Watchtower Society which, explains sociologist Andrew Holden,
“are almost as significant to the Witnesses as the Bible, since the information is presented as the inspired work of theologians, and they are, therefore, believed to contain as much truth as biblical texts” (1).
View of God
Jehovah Witnesses place more emphasis on God than on Christ, and believe that people should call God by his name, “Jehovah”, rather than by his title, God (2). They believe that Jehovah is the one and only true God, and the sovereign creator of all things. They also reject the Trinity which, the Society explains,
“is in harmony with Jesus’ own words: ‘The Father is greater than I am.’ Love for Jehovah must be preeminent, accompanied by deep love for Jesus and appreciation of his precious sacrifice and office as God’s High Priest and King” (3).
Additionally, they do not consider the Holy Spirit to be an individual person but rather God’s force,
“The Scriptures make clear that the holy spirit is a force that God uses to accomplish his will… the holy spirit is not a person” (4).
View of Jesus Christ
Jehovah Witnesses believe that Christ was crucified on single upright post (as opposed to a traditional cross), and that he was originally created by God as the Archangel Michael who was later given a human body and renamed Jesus. Witnesses believe that Christ was a redeemer for humankind who paid the penalty for their sins, but reject his bodily resurrection. They do not believe him to be God or to have been God incarnate while he was alive as a man. Instead, Christ is a created being who is inferior to God. They also believe that when Christ returns he will reign on a refurbished Earth. He will, at some unknown point, come to begin battle Satan after which God will extend the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ, as God’s representative, will reign over this Earthly paradise for a thousand years. The dead will be resurrected and judged by Christ, and Satan will be released into the world as a final test. Only a select few (144 000, see View of Afterlife below) will pass this final test and go to heaven.
View of the Afterlife
Jehovah Witnesses reject the notion of hell and eternal punishment, and believe in total annihilation after death (5). They believe that the elite ruling class, the 144 000 (a number found in the book of Revelation of the New Testament), are allowed entrance to heaven. The faithful are believed to be unconscious after death (also known as soul sleep) until they are resurrected in the Millennium, and those who are not in the organization are annihilated after death.
View of Other Religions
Jehovah Witnesses believe that all other religions and all forms of present-day government are controlled by Satan, and will therefore face complete destruction in the battle at Armageddon with Satan when only the devout will be spared.
The Watchtower Society
From the year 1879, and under the guidance of Russell, Watchtower supporters (adherence numbers today standing in at roughly 8.5 million) began gathering in congregations to study the Bible. Today the Society (which consists of a small number of officials in Brooklyn, New York, who oversee the Society’s 93 branches worldwide) is the religion’s governing body with the purpose of interpreting doctrine and applying scripture (6). The Society views itself as a restoration of first century Christianity and educates its followers on its doctrinal positions through their publications. It also holds to progressive revelation (God gradually reveals his will and purpose to them) and claims that its members are helped by the holy spirit to discern “deep truths.” These truths are then considered by the body before it makes doctrinal decisions.
All followers are instructed to have complete confidence in the Society’s leadership, which includes an avoidance of all skepticism and/or criticism of it and its literature. Followers must accept the Society’s doctrines and requirements without question, and criticism/questioning runs the risk of “disfellowship.” A follower’s withdrawal is viewed as the ultimate betrayal because it signifies the person voluntarily entering into the world of Satan (7). Holden has explored this dimension to the Witnesses faith,
“From the Society’s own perspective, however, there is never any valid reason for defection. Its monopoly over truth does not allow devotees to claim that their search for salvation is causing them to seek new pastures or that their spiritual hunger has not been satisfied” (8).
Jehovah Witnesses engage in spiritual activities such as weekly meetings at a local Kingdom Hall (the name for their religious place of worship) and door-to-door evangelism, the latter for which they are particularly known. Their meetings include a study of the Society’s literature and the biblical scriptures.
Ethical Views and Committee
Jehovah Witnesses have a list of “serious sins” that if committed by a member will have him face a judicial committee hearing. These include, although are not limited to, adultery, abortion, homosexual practice, blood transfusions, boxing, drug use, joining the military, verbal abuse, violence, and more (9). Also advocating or promoting these serious sins without committing them can result in disfellowship. It is also sinful for one member to know of the sins of another member yet conceal them from other believers. Judicial committee hearings are held in private without an audience, and the accused is allowed to make a personal statement and bring in a witness to speak in his or her defense. The committee considers the evidence presented in private before reaching a verdict. If the committee finds that a serious sin had been committed then there are two possibilities for the guilty individual: “reproof” or “disfellowshipping.” Reproof is when the committee attempts to get the accused to repent of his or her sin, which is considered sufficient if the individual is repentant. Reproof does result in some form of punishment such as not being allowed to lead prayer or comment in services (10). The guilty individual can also be met with disfellowship. This results in the shunning of the unrepentant individual and fellow Witnesses are encouraged to avoid interacting with him. There is a chance for reinstatement through which the disfellowshipped individual can rejoin the society.
1. Holden, A. 2002a. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement. p. 67.
2. Holden, A. 2002b. Cavorting With the Devil: Jehovah’s Witnesses Who Abandon Their Faith. Available.
3. Watchtower Online Library. Rekindle That First Love! Available.
4. Watchtower Online Library. What Is the Holy Spirit? Available.
5. Watchtower Online Library. A Royal Priesthood to Benefit All Mankind. Available.
6. Watchtower Online Library. Cooperating With the Governing Body Today. Available.
7. Watchtower Online Library. Cooperating With the Governing Body Today.
8. Holden, A. 2002b. Ibid. p. 2
9. Watchtower Online Library. Does God Forgive Serious Sins? Available.
10. Watchtower Online Library. Always Accept Jehovah’s Discipline. Available.