Brief History of the Jehovah ‘s Witnesses

By Leonard White

To find the roots of the modern-day Jehovah’s Witness organization we need only go back 140 years. On February 16, 1852 Charles Taze Russell was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. His parents were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, but at an early age Charles joined a nearby Congregational Church because of its “more liberal views,” While still a teenager, Russell became troubled and confused by the teaching and preaching he heard, particularly the idea that God would create human beings which he foreknew and predestined to be eternally tormented. According to Russell’s own account, a turning point in his thinking came at the age of 18 when he chanced to hear a ‘Second Adventist” preacher named Jonas Wendell. About this same time Russell organized a Bible class in Pittsburgh. Six years later, at the ripe age of 24, he ‘vas elected ”Pastor” of this group, a title which he wore until the time of his death. Russell was fascinated by the prophetic speculations and chronologies of the Adventists. For a brief time he joined with Adventist N.H. Barbour in the publication of a magazine called The Herald of the Morning. Though this collaboration did not last long, there is little doubt that Russell’s later penchant for date-setting and his views on such things as biblical chronology, the soul of man and eternal punishment were largely influenced by these early associations with heirs of the ”Millerite” movement.

In 1879 Russell began publication of a magazine which he called Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, known today as The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom, with an initial circulation of 6000 copies. In 1884 he incorporated Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society, followed in 1896 by the formation of The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the name still used today. It could perhaps be said that this marked the time of the founding of the Jehovah’s Witness organization. Russell served as president of the Society and for a time personally owned 99 percent of its capital.

Russell’s life was very colorful, to say the least. He was a dynamic (some would even say charismatic) leader who had proven his abilities as an entrepreneur by establishing, with his father, a chain of clothing stores. Now he was able through his writing and lecturing to promulgate his aberrant religious views and at the same time build a vast financial empire. The career of the organization’s founder and first president was a turbulent one indeed. He was involved in numerous legal battles, publicly exposed as a perjurer, charged by his wife and others with immoral conduct, implicated in fraudulent business schemes — all of which were viewed by his devoted followers as simply signs of the persecution which was to be expected from the wicked enemy, “organized religion.”

Russell’s greatest contribution to the movement’s theology came in a serious of seven books, known collectively as Studies in the Scriptures. The first volume appeared in I 886 and the seventh was added in 1917, after his death. It is somewhat of an embarrassment to modern Jehovah’s Witnesses that the “Pastor” encouraged the study of these books as being of greater value than reading of the Bible alone (Watchtower, Sept. 15, 1910).

In 1908 the Society purchased property in Brooklyn, New York and established headquarters there. Under the name Bethel, this continues today to serve as the hub of their world-wide operations.

Upon his death in 1916 Russell was succeeded as president by (Judge) Joseph Franklin Rutherford, who had previously acted as legal counselor for the organization. Rutherford was quick to take complete control, eliminating those who might be a threat to this authority. He proved to be a more prolific writer than his predecessor, producing over 100 books and pamphlets.

During World War I Rutherford’s outspoken denunciation of war made the Society very unpopular in the United States and even created suspicion in the minds of many as to whether he and his organization were loyal to this country. In 1918 Rutherford and several other leaders of the organization were brought to trial, found guilty of violation of the Espionage Act and sentenced to twenty years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Although they actually only served less than a year of this sentence, the Brooklyn head-quarters was temporarily closed and the activity of the Society was curtailed for several months. This episode made Rutherford a hero and martyr to his followers. Thereafter he served as a model for others in the organization who might be called upon to suffer for their faith.

In 1920 Rutherford followed in Russell’s footsteps by at-tempting to prophesy the time of the end. In a booklet en-titled Millions Now Living Will Never Die, he boldly pro-claimed that in 1925 faithful Old Testament worthies would be resurrected, and the existing world order would come to an end. Needless to say, Rutherford’s predictions about 1925 failed to materialize, just like those made earlier by Russell. Seemingly unwilling to admit the failed predictions, in 1929 the Society purchased a mansion in San Diego, California, ostensibly for purpose of providing a residence for the Old Testament “princes” when they returned to earth. While awaiting their arrival. Rutherford lived in the house, which came to be called Beth Sarim. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the others never made the promised appearance, and the house was finally sold after Rutherford’s death.

One significant development which took place during Rutherford’s tenure was the adoption of a new name for the individual members of the movement. Based upon the statement in Isaiah 43:10, “Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah,” in 1931 they became officially designated as “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

When Judge Rutherford died in 1942 he was followed in the presidency by Nathan H. Knorr. Though never the highly visible autocrat the first two leaders had been, Knorr was a powerful and effective administrator. He soon established a thorough program of training for those members who would devote time to spreading the Society’s message to the world. In 1946 a new magazine, Awake!, was begun as a companion to The Watchtower.

For a long time the Witnesses had struggled to answer the charge that their peculiar doctrines were in disagreement with the Bible. They had found some help in the use of the Emphatic Diaglott, an interlinear text produced by Christadelphian Benjamin Wilson. What was really needed, however, was a new translation that harmonized with Watchtower theology. In 1950 the first volume of The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures came from the press. In 1961 the translation of the entire Bible (The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures) was completed. Witnesses claim that previous English translations had been corrupted in order to uphold traditional religious errors, but that with the introduction of the NWT fidelity to the original text was at last achieved. Much can be, and has been, written to show- the fallacy of such claims. The NWT is a transparent attempt to bring the Bible into conformity with Watchtower doctrine. One reviewer aptly observed, “A close examination, which gets beneath the out-ward veneer of scholarship, reveals a veritable shambles of bigotry, ignorance, prejudice, and bias which violates every rule of biblical criticism and every standard of scholarly integrity.” The Society has consistently refused to reveal the names of the “scholars” who worked to produce the NWT. However William Cetnar, who was employed at Bethel when the translation took place, has given their names as: Nathan H. Knorr, Fred W. Franz, Albert D. Schroeder, G.D. Gangas and M. Henschel. None of these men had the training to quality them to undertake such a work. Fred Franz is said to have been the best qualified member of the team, but it was he who was embarrassed before a Scottish court by being forced to admit that he could not translate Hebrew into English.

In the early 1960’s Witness leaders became concerned over declining growth. Something had to be done to rejuvenate the movement. The decision was made to employ the technique used so successfully by Russell and Rutherford: prophetic speculation and date-setting to create great expectation of momentous events looming on the horizon. A series of books and articles (beginning in 1966 with Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God) rolled from the Brooklyn presses announcing that September 1975 would mark the end of 6000 years since the creation of Adam. It was clearly suggested time and again that the seventh millennium of mankind’s existence could be expected to run parallel with the millennial reign of Christ. Readers were assured that they were living in the “last days.” The book, The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life (containing a chapter entitled, “The Last Days of This Wicked System of Things”) stated that these “last days” began in 1914 and will end with-in one generation. The warning is then given, “this means that only a short time is left before the end comes!” (p. 95)

The result of these startling pronouncements was a phenomenal increase in activity and conversions. The number of world-wide baptisms went from 58,904 in 1966 to 295,073 in 1975. During those same years the number of “publishers” (Witnesses involved in preaching activities) rose from 1,058,675 to 2,062,449.

But just as had happened with 1874, 1914 and 1925, the year 1975 came and went without the climactic events that had been predicted. As might be expected, disappointment and disenchantment swept through the organization. By 1978, the number of baptisms reported was back down to 95,052. Since 1975 the Society has been denying that they ever made any definite statements to the effect that the end would come in that year, claiming that “there has been considerable individual speculation on the matter.” There can be no doubt, however, that the expectations for 1975 were the result of the published statements of the Watchtower Society.

The current president of the Jehovah’s Witness organization is Fred W. Franz, who succeeded Knorr at his death in 1977. In spite of glaring errors in doctrine and a long trail of failed prophecies, the organization still boasts millions of active workers, enormous holdings world-wide and an incredibly prolific publishing enterprise.

The Watchtower Society likes to point with pride to the uniformity of doctrine among its members around the globe. However, they usually fail to mention how this is achieved. Jehovah’s Witnesses are absolutely bound to accept without question the pronouncements handed down from Brooklyn. In recent years the Society has seen the defection of many of its members, some of whom were leaders. One notable example of this is Raymond Franz, nephew of Fred Franz. A former member of the Society’s top policy-making “governing body,” Raymond Franz has written a book, en-titled A Crisis of Conscience, which tells how he became increasingly disillusioned by observing the machinations and blatant dishonesty of the organization’s top leadership. As the title of the book suggests, Franz ultimately found himself in a crisis of conscience which led him to resign his position and sever all association with the Witnesses. Many others who have left the Society in recent years describe their experience as brainwashing and total domination by a heavy-handed organization which demands blind loyalty. Stories are told of members being disfellowshiped for such things as sending a birthday card or voting in an election. It is not difficult to see why those who remain in the organization are careful to adhere to what they are told by those above them.

This article has obviously been only a brief overview of the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even a cursory look at the activities and doctrines of this organization are sufficient to establish it as one more modern example of that concerning which the apostle John wrote long ago: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I Jn. 4:1).

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 8, p. 2
April 15, 1993