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Intro to Jehovah's Witnesses
Monday, November 17, 2008

Jehovah’s Witnesses are members of an international religion that believes it is the restoration of first-century Christianity. Witnesses’ teachings predominantly focus on the Kingdom of God and what they call the presence of Christ, analogous to the Second Coming. For Witnesses, the Bible, excluding the Apocrypha, is the inspired word of God and is usually interpreted literally. The doctrine of sola scriptura is principal (i.e., only the Bible should be used to decide issues of doctrine). Codifying the interpretation of scripture is the responsibility of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah’s Witnesses use The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (1950). They believe that the recognition and use of God’s personal name, YHWH, translated as Jehovah in English, is vital for acceptable worship.

Jehovah’s Witnesses see themselves as a community that transcends national and ethnic loyalties because Christ proclaimed a kingdom that was not part of the world and refused to accept an earthly crown. Therefore, Witnesses are politically neutral. They maintain a degree of separation from unbelievers, social events, and secular and national observances.

Witnesses are probably best known for their door-to-door evangelical work (i.e., witnessing), in which they offer religious materials, and seek recruits and converts to their religious understanding and practice.

Initiation Rituals and Membership

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that “Christian water baptism is an outward symbol that the one being baptized has made a complete, unreserved, and unconditional dedication through Jesus Christ to do the will of Jehovah.” (Reasoning From the Scriptures, page 54.)

  • Baptism involves complete immersion in water
  • Baptism is only available to those able to make a personal decision and faith dedication
  • The Baptismal liturgy does not use the Trinitarian formula
  • Converts from all churches must be baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses

About 6.6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses are active in 235 countries, about 1 million reside in the U.S.


The modern history of Jehovah's Witnesses began more than a hundred years ago. In the early 1870’s, a rather inconspicuous Bible study group began in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, now a part of Pittsburgh. Charles Taze Russell was the prime mover of the group. In July 1879, the first issue of the magazine Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence appeared. By 1880 scores of congregations had spread from that one small group into nearby states. In 1881 Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society was formed, and in 1884 was incorporated with Russell as president. The Society's name was later changed to Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Many were witnessing from house to house offering Bible literature. Fifty persons did this full time in 1888—now the average number worldwide is about 700,000.

By 1909 the work had become international, and the Society's headquarters moved to its present location in Brooklyn, New York. Printed sermons were syndicated in newspapers; by 1913 these were in four languages in 3,000 newspapers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Books, booklets, and tracts were distributed by the hundreds of millions.

The Society's first president, C.T. Russell, died in 1916 and was succeeded the following year by Joseph F. Rutherford. Many changes took place. A companion magazine to The Watchtower, called The Golden Age, was introduced (now called Awake!, it has a circulation of more than 20,000,000 in more than 80 languages). Door- to-door witnessing received greater emphasis. To distinguish themselves from the denominations of Christendom, in 1931 these Christians embraced the name Jehovah's Witnesses. The name is based on Isaiah 43:10-12.

Radio was used extensively in the 1920's and 1930's. By 1933 the Society was using 403 radio stations to broadcast Bible lectures. Later, radio was largely replaced by increased house-to-house visits by Witnesses with portable phonographs and recorded Bible talks. Home Bible studies were started with anyone who showed interest.

During the 1930's and 1940's, there were many arrests of Witnesses for doing this work; court cases were fought in the interest of preserving freedom of speech, press, assembly, and worship. In the U.S., appeals from lower courts resulted in the Witnesses winning 43 cases before the Supreme Court. Similarly favorable judgments have been won in high courts in other lands. Concerning these court victories, Professor C.S. Braden, in his book These Also Believe, said of the Witnesses: "They have performed a signal service to democracy by their fight to preserve their civil rights, for in their struggle they have done much to secure those rights for every minority group in America.”

Joseph F. Rutherford died in 1942 and was succeeded by N.H. Knorr. In 1943 a special training school for missionaries, called the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, was established. Since that time, graduates have been sent all over the earth. New congregations have sprung up in countries where there had been none, and branches established internationally now number more than 100. From time to time, special courses have been established for training congregation elders, voluntary workers at branches, and those engaged full time (as pioneers) in witnessing work. Specialized schooling for ministers has been offered at an educational center in Patterson, New York.

N.H. Knorr died in 1977. One of the last organizational changes in which he shared was the enlargement of the Governing Body, located at the world headquarters in Brooklyn. In 1976 administrative responsibilities were divided and assigned to various committees made up of members of the Governing Body, all of whom have decades of experience as ministers.

The history of Jehovah's Witnesses in modern times has been filled with dramatic events. From the one small Bible study in Pennsylvania in 1870, the Witnesses by the year 2000 grew to some 90,000 congregations worldwide. All literature was, at first, printed by commercial firms; in 1920, the Witnesses produced some literature in rented factory buildings. But from 1927 on, much more literature was turned out in the eight- story factory building owned by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. This has now expanded into other factories and an office complex. Additional buildings nearby in Brooklyn house the ministers who volunteer to operate the publishing facilities. In addition, a combination farm and print shop operates near Wallkill, in upstate New York. It prints the Watchtower and Awake! magazines and produces some food for ministers serving in the various locations. Each volunteer worker receives a small monthly reimbursement to cover incidental expenses.

In 1893 the first major convention was held in Chicago. It was attended by 360, and 70 were baptized. The last big international convention was held in New York City in 1958, using both Yankee Stadium and the then-existing Polo Grounds. Peak attendance was 253,922; new baptisms numbered 7,136. Since then, international conventions have been held as a series in many countries. This may involve a thousand conventions in lands around the globe.


Jehovah’s Witnesses base their lives and beliefs on the example of the early Christian Church and the words of the Bible.

The Sacred Writings

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Bible was inspired by God and is historically accurate. They understand it as the main way in which God communicates his will to people; therefore it is interpreted literally. In practice, Witnesses test any religious idea or teaching against what the Bible says. An idea or teaching that doesn’t agree with scripture is considered wrong.

Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, known as the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. The New Testament is referred to as the “Christian Greek Scriptures,” and the Old Testament as the “Hebrew Scriptures.”

While they don’t regard them as scripture, Witnesses greatly respect the doctrinal articles published in The Watchtower. Charles Taze Russell’s books, “Studies in Scripture,” while respected within the community, are no longer circulated or relied upon as accurate.

Understanding of God

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses believe:
  • God the Father (whose name is “Jehovah”) is the “only true God”
  • Jesus is God’s firstborn son, created by but inferior to God
  • The Holy Spirit is not a person, but God’s active force
  • God is a single being whose personal name is “Jehovah” (also accepted is the name YHWH or Yahweh)
  • Jehovah is alone, and above all other beings
  • Jehovah created everything that exists
  • Jehovah has a son called Jesus Christ
  • Jehovah’s outstanding qualities are love, justice, wisdom, and power

Understanding of Jesus Christ

  • Jesus Christ is a mighty being, but not God. He is not equal to God in power or eternity (i.e., age). Jesus never thought of himself as God or equal to God
  • Jesus Christ is the Son of God and was God’s first creation. Since Jesus had a beginning, Jesus cannot be eternal.
  • Jesus is inferior to God but superior to the angels
  • Jesus rules as part of God’s heavenly kingdom
  • Jesus came to earth from heaven. He was a perfect human being, but not divine
  • Jesus gave his human life as a sacrifice to make human salvation possible
  • Jesus did not die on a cross but on a single pole or stake
  • Jesus had a spirit resurrection, not a bodily one
  • Jesus has been appointed by God to judge each human being and decide on his fate
  • Jesus will be used by God to resurrect the dead

Understanding of the Holy Spirit

  • The Holy Spirit is God’s active force that he uses to accomplish his will
  • The Holy Spirit is not a person
  • The Holy Spirit is not part of a Trinitarian doctrine

Understanding of the Trinity

  • The Christian doctrine that God is a “Trinity” composed of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is false and based on pagan ideas
  • The doctrine is inconsistent with the Bible
  • The doctrine contradicts what the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, and early Christians believed and taught

Understanding of the Cross

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus did not die on a cross but on a single stake. The belief is based on the Greek words used in the Bible for the cross, literally translated as stake and tree. Modern Witnesses regard the crosses a pagan symbol and do not use it, although it was accepted by the movement until 1931.

Understanding of Death, Heaven, and Hell

  • Witnesses believe that when a person dies, their existence completely stops (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10). “The living are conscious that they will die, but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all...for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom (in the grave), the place to which you are going.”
  • Witnesses believe that Hell does not exist
  • Death is not the end of everything; each person can be remembered by God and eventually be resurrected. “The hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tomb will hear [Jesus’] voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who did vile things to a resurrection of judgement” (John 5:28-29)

Understanding of End Time

Much of Witnesses’ belief concentrates on the End Times. They cite a number of dates that have Biblical significance. Witnesses believe that the End Times started in 1914. They believe that when the End finally comes only 144,000 human beings will go to Heaven and rule the Earth from there with Christ. These are known in the faith as the anointed.

Understanding of the Anointed

  • Becoming anointed is not done by voting or selection. The anointed one knows directly from God that he or she has been chosen
  • Only those who feel themselves anointed partake of the bread and wine at the annual Memorial of Christ’s death
  • The majority of Witnesses are not anointed and will not spend eternity in heaven. They will spend eternity in paradise on earth
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that billions of others will have everlasting life on earth and thus fulfill God’s original plan for humanity, when Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden