Most Christians do not know the origin of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs).  They think the JWs are just fundamentalist Christian cranks.  Let’s look at the history of the most famous door-to-door believers around.

The Witnesses of Jehovah began in the United States.  A man by the name of Charles Taze Russell was born in Pennsylvania in 1852.  He was the son of a Presbyterian minister.  Russell left the Presbyterian Church when he was 16 and became a member of another then-Calvinist church, the Congregationalists (now less Calvinistic and known as the United Church of Christ).  However, this left him unsatisfied, especially when he tried to convert an agnostic and failed. He, too, became a sceptic and said he could not believe in a Gospel which stated that Hell was literal. He, therefore, looked for a church without the doctrine of Hell.  Eventually, he drifted towards the Seventh-Day Adventists.  It wasn’t long  before he was leading Bible classes in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, with his father, who, by then, had also left the Presbyterian Church. 

Russell followed the teachings of Second Adventist preacher Nelson K Barbour. These included a purely spiritual (not physical) Resurrection and the belief that Christ had recently returned to Earth as an invisible spirit. Russell would build his own movement on the Adventist beliefs that Christ’s Resurrection was purely spiritual and that the ‘end times’ were here. 

Russell worked by day as a draper in Pittsburgh. Yet, he had a nagging doubt that the Bible was not being preached or understood properly. So, in the 1870s, he broke away from the Adventists and founded the Witnesses of Jehovah, the first of a series of names for his movement. He soon became known as Pastor Russell, although he had no formal seminary training.   

Russell preached what he termed the ‘Millenial Dawn’.  His followers soon became known as Millenial Dawnists or as Russellites.  In 1879, he founded a publication called Zion’s Watchtower and Herald of Christ’s Presence. Its success allowed him to establish the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. He changed this briefly in 1909 to the People’s Pulpit Association before switching back to the original name.  However, in 1914, the name changed again to the International Bible Students’ Association. He also wrote a seven-volume work called Studies on Scripture, which he promoted more heavily than he did the book on which it was based, the Bible.  (Rick Warren, anyone?)

Unfortunately, Russell had problems in his private life.  In 1912, he was called out by a Baptist pastor who accused him of not knowing Greek.  Russell sued the man for libel and ended up perjuring himself in court — he really didn’t know Greek, not even the alphabet.  The following year, Mrs Russell sued her husband for divorce, claiming he was arrogant and egotistical.  She also cited his ‘improper conduct in relation to other women.’  Russell died in 1916 on a train journey from Pampa, Texas, to Kansas City.

A self-styled ‘judge’, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, succeeded him.  Rutherford was a lawyer and an ex-Baptist who had joined the movement in 1906. One account says that he had previously served a prison sentence in Atlanta for sedition. His authoritarian manner provoked a schism in 1918.  Rutherford wanted to erase the bad publicity some of Russell’s actions had brought the movement.  He also wanted to expunge the name Russellites from popular memory. So, in 1931, the movement became known as the Witnesses of Jehovah.  The name carried with it a change of focus, from its original Bible study to actual witnessing. In 1940, members began public distribution of the now-famous publication, The Watch Tower.  Rutherford was angry with Christian churches and this showed in the tone of The Watch Tower’s articles.  He died in 1942 in an expensive villa in San Diego, constructed specifically for the Final Judgement.

In 1942, the aforementioned Nathan Homer Knorr succeeded Rutherford.  Under his leadership, the new Watchtower Bible School of Gilead trained JWs for public witness. Also, as Knorr had worked in publications for the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, he was able to expand the number and type of print offerings. In 1950, they published their own translation of the Bible, The New World Translation.  It was also thanks to Knorr that the JWs expanded their missionary efforts abroad.  They operated underground behind the then Iron Curtain and today are actively proselytising around the world.  Knorr died in 1977.  Upon his death, in accordance with his plans, the movement’s Governing Body was greatly expanded.  There is no overall head of the JWs today.  The organisation still has its headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, in a building called Bethel House.  It offers specialist training in Paterson, New York.

More on Monday

For more information, read:

Incredible Creed of the Jehovah’s Witnesses

‘Jehovah’s Witnesses — Who Are They?  What Do They Believe?’

‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ – Father Alexander

‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ – Gary A Hand