By Sarah Harvey
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe we are living in the last days before Armageddon and are known for their door-to-door evangelising and their refusal of blood transfusions
Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) are the followers of a Christian-based religion perhaps best known for their door-to-door evangelising and distributing the magazines, The Watchtower and Awake!
It is a millennialist religion, with followers believing that we are living in the last days and that Armageddon is approaching fast.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are also known for their refusal of blood transfusions; for not participating in politics or bearing arms; and for not celebrating Christmas, Easter or birthdays.
The name Jehovah’s Witnesses is said to identify both God and their mission. In Isaiah 43:10 God says: “You are my witnesses.”
In 2019, there were just over 8.5 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in 240 “lands and territories”. In the 2011 Census, 63,073 people in England and Wales, 8,543 in Scotland and 1,728 in Northern Ireland identified as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
How did the Jehovah’s Witnesses begin?
Jehovah’s Witnesses originated in the United States in the latter half of the 19th century with the teachings of Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). In the early 1870s, Russell established a Bible study movement — which heralded the International Bible Students Association — in his home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This was a Bible study group in the Adventist tradition, although Russell claimed never to have been an Adventist and was not a part of Ellen G. White’s Seventh-day Adventist tradition.
In 1879, Russell published the magazine Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, which would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ main publication, The Watchtower. In the early 1880s, Russell established the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society.
In 1909, the headquarters moved from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn, New York, where it remained until it moved to Warwick, New York, in 2017.
Russell was succeeded by a lawyer, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942), who became the second president of the Watch Tower Society and who coined the name Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. Rutherford introduced many of the distinctive features of JWs including the acceleration of house-to-house evangelism, not participating in politics and military service, and not celebrating Christmas.
In 1942 Rutherford was succeeded by Nathan Homer Knorr (1905-77), who began a training programme for office-bearers that won the movement more converts. Knorr oversaw the 1961 publication of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, a modern English Bible. It is the version of the Bible that most Jehovah’s Witnesses use today, primarily in its 2013 revision.
How is the religion organised?
Jehovah’s Witnesses have two main legally incorporated institutions in the United States — the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW) is responsible for disseminating official policy.
In Britain, there are also two organisations: the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain and the International Bible Students Association (IBSA). Both are registered charities; individual congregations are also registered charities.
“Watch Tower Society” is commonly used to refer to the organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a whole. The names Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watch Tower Society are sometimes used interchangeably.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ governing body has overall authority for the movement. In 2019, it was composed of eight men, although this is not a fixed number and has changed over the years. The current presidents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (who are not members of the governing body) are Robert Ciranko (born 1947) and Harold L. Corkern (born 1951) — presidents of the New York and Pennsylvania Societies, respectively.
Women are not able to join the governing body and are not eligible to hold office within congregations (as either elders or ministerial servants), as women are not permitted to teach or to hold authority over men. They can, however, hold senior positions as administrators and researchers in a bethel — a “house of God”, or branch office of the religion — and at its headquarters.
Growth is largely through conversion rather than “internal growth”, with the fastest-growing membership populations currently in Africa, Asia and South America.
What do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a millennial, restorationist, and non-trinitarian Christian movement. They believe in God, whom they refer to as Jehovah, and the complete Bible as his “inspired message”.
Jesus is believed to be the Son of God and the saviour but not part of a Trinity. He is fully human, a perfect man, rather than God incarnate. God provided his son as a “ransom sacrifice” as a gift to humankind: the death of Jesus paid the “ransom” for human sin. Jehovah forgives those who have faith in the ransom sacrifice, are repentant and seek to imitate Jesus in their lives.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that we are in the “end times” or “last days” and that the battle of Armageddon is imminent. Present world conditions are taken as signs of the end: all current government systems are believed to be dominated by Satan.
There are a number of dates significant in JW history: Russell taught that Christ had invisibly returned to Earth in 1874 and he would visibly return in 1878, revised to 1914. 1914 marks the moment when Jesus began to rule the Kingdom of God in heaven. It remains an important date in the movement, as it is believed to mark the start of the “end times”.
Members alive in 1914 expected to be the generation that would witness Armageddon; this was reiterated in a 1984 Watchtower article “1914 — The Generation That Will Not Pass Away”. However, in 1995, the governing body revised the “generation doctrine” and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Armageddon will occur within the lifetimes of those whose lives overlap with the 1914 generation.
1975 was another date of significance, interpreted as the start of the “seventh millennium” — many Witnesses expected this date to mark the start of Christ’s reign. Since 1975, no new dates have been set by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During Armageddon, it is believed, Christ will lead an army of angels to defeat Satan and the Earth’s rulers. Then will follow the millennium — a period of 1,000 years, which will be a time of paradise on earth, led by Christ as ruler in heaven.
A chosen 144,000 will be co-rulers with Christ in heaven. They are known as the “anointed class”. It is believed that the 144,000 are already in heaven: JWs believe that they began to be chosen in the time of Jesus and they began to take their places in 1918-19.
It is not only JWs who have the opportunity to be saved. During Judgment Day, God will resurrect both the righteous and the unrighteous, who are currently “sleeping”. All can be saved through accepting Jehovah. Those who accept Jehovah (but who are not part of the 144,000) will form the “great crowd” — people from all nations who will survive the “great tribulation” leading up to Armageddon and who will live in the paradise on earth.
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the “ultimate destiny” for the majority of true Christians is not heaven but everlasting life on earth: “The righteous will possess the earth, and they will live forever on it” (Psalm 37:29).
How do they practise their faith?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for their missionary activities — “witnessing” for Jehovah — usually through the distribution of literature, either going door to door in their neighbourhood or, in more recent years, operating literature stands in public places such as railway stations and shopping centres. Their main magazines are The Watchtower and Awake!
If a member of the public expresses interest, Jehovah’s Witnesses will attempt to establish regular home visits for free Bible study courses. Baptised JWs engage in this practice and they are known as “publishers”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses practise baptism by immersion of adults and older children (typically aged 13 to 16).
Congregational life is very important to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Members meet together in Kingdom Halls for a weekend meeting and a meeting on one weekday evening. The weekend meeting includes a public service (including singing, prayer and a Bible talk) followed by the study of a passage outlined in the study edition of The Watchtower magazine. All congregations study the same passage on the same day.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate religious festivals usually marked by other Christian traditions, such as Christmas or Easter, because of their “Pagan” undertones. Instead, they have only one annual festival — the Memorial of Christ’s Death or the Lord’s Evening Meal, which is the commemoration of Jesus’s death and ransom sacrifice on behalf of humankind.
The service takes place in March or April, during the month of Nisan, when Passover is celebrated by Jewish people. The service takes place after sunset on the 14th day of Nisan — a date that usually corresponds to the first full moon after the spring equinox. Members are encouraged to bring guests, and attendance at the service is higher than for other Witness services. In 2019, there were more than 20 million attendees worldwide.
What are the main controversies and issues?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for their opposition to blood transfusions. They believe blood is sacred and its ingestion is prohibited in several Biblical passages (Genesis 9:3-4, Leviticus 17:14 and Acts 15:8-29). These passages are interpreted to include taking blood into the body intravenously.
Witnesses carry a “no blood” “advance decision document” at all times so that in cases of emergency, medical staff will know their position. Witness children carry an “identity card” signed by their parents. Witnesses have been proactive in advocating alternative treatments and have established hospital liaison committees responsible for education on and facilitation of bloodless surgery.
A Jehovah’s Witness who accepts a blood transfusion may be disfellowshipped (cut off from the community).
Disfellowshipping, one of the controversial disciplinary methods that Jehovah’s Witnesses use, is cutting off or expelling the individual from the community.
This does not happen automatically if a member sins, but only if she or he is unrepentant of that sin. Removing the unrepentant sinner is believed to maintain the purity of the congregation and to be commanded in the Bible (1 Corinthians 5:11-13).
If there is sin, the elders appoint a judicial committee of three elders to investigate the case through interviewing the accused and witnesses. In accordance with biblical requirements, there must be at least two witnesses (Matthew 18:16) to the offence — sometimes called the “two-witness rule”. This has caused problems with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ handling of reported abuse cases.
When a Witness is disfellowshipped, other members — including friends and family — are expected to have no contact with the shunned individual. JWs claim that the disfellowshipped member is able to repent and return to the faith.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ handling of reported cases of child abuse and sexual abuse within the movement has caused controversy. While victims and their families could report abuse to the appropriate secular authorities, elders also conduct a scriptural investigation into the sins of the alleged perpetrator.
There are historical reports of young women having to recount their claims of sexual abuse before both the committee of male elders and the accused.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been included in the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-17) and the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (2017-21).
There have been a number of recent legal cases in the UK in which former elders or ministerial servants have been imprisoned for abuse of minors.
In 2019, the Ministry of Justice and Safety in the Netherlands also commissioned a report on Jehovah’s Witnesses and sexual abuse.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take part in interfaith activity or movements. They claim that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul discouraged interfaith engagement, in the belief that it could harm the believer’s faith.
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that they are “Jehovah’s one true organisation” — all other religions, including “nominal Christianity” (the term for all other denominations), are part of “Babylon the Great”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are famously apolitical, refusing to participate in political organisations or bear arms — members have lost their lives through conscientious objection and through refusing to denounce their faith in the most appalling circumstances, including the concentration camps of the Second World War and modern-day prison camps.
In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were an “extremist” religious group, defining this as a group which teaches that its theology is the only way to salvation. The court liquidated the Witnesses’ legal entities, banned their activities and confiscated their property. As of November 2020, 43 Witnesses are in prison with more under house arrest or under investigation.
Their persecution is taken as confirmation of the imminence of Armageddon.
Dr Sarah Harvey is senior research officer at Inform, an independent, educational charity based at King’s College London, which provides information about minority religious, spiritual and political movements
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Dr George Chryssides, honorary research fellow at York St John University and Birmingham University
Dr Sarah Harvey, senior research officer, Inform
Dr Zoe Knox, associate professor of modern Russian history, Leicester University