This study will provide an examination of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The study will include consideration of the religion’s philosophy, its history and development, family life, religious practices, beliefs and practices regarding blood transfusions, and other related aspects of the religion.
Even the quickest glance at the literature on religion, particularly the religions of the United States, will reveal to the reader that Jehovah’s Witnesses are members of a truly unique religion.
In the first Place, the Witnesses are the only religion known best for its proselytizing door-to-door. As Whalen writes, “Chances are at least three people call at your home year after year: the tax assessor, the Fuller Brush man, and a Witness of Jehovah. The Witness considers his ‘product’ far more important than the life insurance, brushes or pots and pans of other doorstep salesmen. What he offers householders is nothing less than the opportunity to live through the impending battle of Armageddon and help repopulate the New World” (Whalen 15).
The second most unique element of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is their emphasis on the end of the world theme of Armageddon.
As we read in Sterling:
There is one rather large group of people for whom the threat of continuing wars, or an atomic holocaust, means very little. They feel no anxiety over the doings of men or the cataclysms of nature. They have learned to live with some serenity through the trials and deterioration of the nation-states. Actually, they look forward toward the time when any one of these catastrophes might be totally fulfilled. They receive considerable private pleasure out of anticipating the final collapse of the works of man – and Satan (Sterling vii).
The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a fairly simple one with much continuity in its relatively brief existence, as we read, for example, in Whalen.
Whalen writes that the name itself dates to 1931, when second leader Judge Rutherford “settled a long-standing problem
. . . when he told a convention in Columbus, Ohio, that he had decided on ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ as the proper name for the brethren.” His inspiration for the name came from Isaiah 43:12 “Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord.” Rutherford changed “the Lord” to “Jehovah,” and came up with the name (Whalen 59).
Before settling in 1931 on the name Jehovah’s Witnesses, the group “had been known as Bible Students, Millenial Dawnists, Russellites, Watchtower people, Rutherfordites, etc. The new name emphasized the growing significance of the proper name of God in the doctrines of the cult” (Whalen 59).
In addition, of course, the new name gave the group an “aura of antiquity.” That is, every time the Bible, New or Old Testaments, mentioned the word “witnesses” it could be interpreted as giving credence to the group. Accordingly, the group believes that Abel was the first Witness.
The founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses, although Judge Rutherford would give the organization its ultimate name, was Charles Taze Russell, who was born in 1852. He helped his father run and expand a clothing business in his younger years, a time during which he lost his faith in Christianity after losing an argument about the existence of hell as a place of eternal punishment.
This early experience was to lead to two of the major tenets of the religion which separates it so fundamentally from Christianity – the Witnesses believe neither in the divinity of Jesus nor in the existence of hell, though they do believe that Jesus was the human embodiment of the archangel Michael, and that Satan definitely exists and is doing spiritual battle with Jesus.
In any case, Russell was sparked by Seventh Day Adventism to come up with some alternative to the Christianity of his childhood which he had summarily rejected.
It should be noted that he dabbled in Eastern religion, a phase which led him to consider that God would not punish the creatures he had created with eternal punishment, a philosophical position which bolstered the conclusion of his earlier argument about hell.
Russell’s encounter with Adventism, however, was the key to the process whereby Russell came up with what would become Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Russell heard a sermon by an Adventist in which the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was explained. Russell concluded that “Though his scripture exposition was not entirely clear and though it was very far from what we now rejoice in, it was sufficient, under God, to reestablish my wavering faith in the divine inspiration of the Bible, and to show that the records of the apostles and prophets are indissolubly linked” (Whalen 27).
He began a small group of Bible students in 1870, focusing on the proposition that Jesus’ Second Coming might be in an invisible form, as an invisible angel, a belief which coincided with the work of a radical Adventist named N.H. Barbour.
Barbour and Russell joined forces to advance their new religion, co-authoring a book in 1877 in which they revealed the basic tenets which revolved around the invisible Second Coming.
Whalen recounts that he was summarily rejected by leaders of orthodox Christianity: “One would think that even at a green twenty-five, Russell could not have seriously imagined that (those Christian leaders) would rush to adopt his self-taught scriptural discoveries. All his life, however, he harbored the bitterest feelings toward the clergy of all denominations. Some of this bitterness can no doubt be attributed to the humiliating unveiling of his doctrine in 1877” (Whalen 29).
The essence of the Russell-Barbour effort was the claim that the invisible Second Coming had occurred already in 1874 and that the culmination of Apocalyptic events would occur in 1914.
In 1879 Russell broke with Barbour and started his own magazine – The Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, which would evolve into the Watchtower Magazine of today. The first press run was 6000, while today the magazine has a circulation of over 5 million copies, semimonthly.
For his new religion, Russell relied heavily on the Books of Daniel and Revelation. Russell believed that humanity was experiencing the final days of the battle between Jesus and Satan, the latter having ruled the Earth since the sin of disobedience committed by Adam. He rejected Jesus’ divinity as well as the doctrine of the Trinity. Men, he believed, did not have an immortal soul but would survive physically in some form.
By a complex and highly personal method of calculation, Russell arrived at the conclusion that 1914 would be the end of the Gentile times, which meant the end of the world as it was then known and “their translation (that is, the transformation of the followers of the religion) into spirit creatures and associates of Jesus” (Whalen 31).
The first followers of the religion were called Russellites and by the 1880s had grown into 30 groups in seven states. The groups, also called Millenial Dawnists, met together once a year in a communion service which was then known as the Anniversary Supper and which is today known as the Memorial or Evening Meal. The dinner symbolizes the Last Supper.
Russell advocated an administrative system for the religion which would be based on democratic principles, but this approach “would give his successor, Judge Rutherford, some bad times in later years when he jettisoned this system in favor of the centralized appointment of all congregational officials. Not a few old-timers would abandon the Society in the 1930s when the new autocratic methods were imposed . . .” (Whalen 32).
In 1884 Russell founded the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society, which would later become one of the legal elements of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.
The book which spelled out Russell’s beliefs – which continue as beliefs today among the members of the religion – was The Divine Plan of the Ages. In that book Russell set out his apocalyptic beliefs and condemned the Church of Rome and the Pope as the anti-Christ. Protestants were also largely condemned for their near-worship of their leaders. Another important element of the religion spelled out in the book was the Witness disbelief in evolution.
With regard to the latter issue, Nelkin writes that during the Depression and after the Scopes trial, the battle over evolution in the schools faded momentarily but “Antievolution sentiment persisted, mostly among millennial sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their tracts continued to denounce evolution theory as both incorrect and responsible for ‘the progressive worsening of crime, delinquency, immorality, and even war . . . . Morals are broken down and for evolution multitudes, faith in God has been shattered . . . evolution has paved the way for an increase in agnosticism and atheism as well as opening the door for communism'” (Nelkin 32-33).
So, it should be noted that the Witnesses are not opposed to evolution simply on a philosophical basis, but rather on both a philosophical basis and on the belief that evolution is a destructive force in social and spiritual matters which rely on faith in God for their structure.
As monumental as Russell was in the founding of the religion, he is relatively unknown today even among the members of the group. His books are no longer reprinted and his works are rarely quoted. As Whalen writes, “One understandable reason for letting (Russell’s) books slide into practical oblivion . . . is that these books often contradict current Witness interpretations” (Whalen 34).
Most of these changes, however, have to do with administrative matters, although a few touch on more basic matters of belief. For example, Russell believed that Jesus died on a cross, while the Witnesses of today believe that the weapon of death was a torture stake without a cross-bar. Russell believed that Witnesses should serve in the military if required to do so, while modern Witnesses refuse such service.
In addition, as Whalen writes “Russell seems to know nothing about the evil of blood transfusions, the Theocracy, the ‘other sheep’ and Jonadabs, the wickedness of saluting the flag” (Whalen 34).
However, we see there that these were not so much differences as additions to the creed since Russell’s time.
One problem which plagues the Witnesses today as in Russell’s time is the failure of the religion to accurately predict the end of the world as we know it, a failure which was repeated as recently as 1975 when the leaders of the religion failed to predict the Second Coming.
Russell himself was plagued by scandals of both sexual and economic matters in his later years and these controversies also played a part in his being given less than his due for the founding of the Witnesses.
The Society’s legal adviser, Joseph Rutherford, was the “natural successor” to Russell upon the latter’s death. Political struggles ensued, but Rutherford was able to maintain leadership until 1942, when he died. His works, as was the case with Russell, then went out of print: “To modern converts, Judge Rutherford, like Russell, has become a shadowy figure in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses” (Whalen 67).
The home and the family are at the center of Witness religious activities, not simply in the sense that the family is an entity which holds the church together as can be said about any religion. At the heart of Witness worship is the regularly practiced home Bible study plan, which occurs in conjunction with community activities which take place in the Kingdom Hall. The Kingdom Hall is “a meeting place for the Witnesses to gather more and more Bible instruction and further constant training in their publishing ministry” (Sterling 139).
At the time of their baptism through full immersion, members of the religion become official members of the clergy of the church and are thereafter allowed to participate in the house-to-house ministry, another central part of the church which is shared together by family members.
The Bible study method is one of question and answer, in which the members grill one another with the dogma of the religion. As Sterling notes, the Witnesses do not debate scriptural matters but engage in thorough indoctrination so that no doubt about Witness doctrine is allowed into the mind of the member: “This type of thought control and conformity of both thought and action is a main trait of the Society . . . Believing that every word of the Bible is absolutely and literally true, and that equal weight can be placed on each and every word, they can naturally ignore the literary and historical context of the verses they choose to demonstrate the truth of their beliefs” (Sterling 143).
The family serves as the atom in a structure in which the church itself is seen as the ultimate family. All Witnesses “see the scene as one great family with Jehovah God as father, and everyone else as brothers and sisters” (Sterling 129).
The basic belief today as in Russell’s time is that 144,000 of the elect elite Will assist Jesus in ruling the – heavens after the end of the world as we know it. The non-elect can nevertheless be saved on Earth – a new Earth – as long as they accept the creed. The Jonabads are the non-elect believers who will be restored to perfect human nature and will be able to survive Armageddon (Sterling 102).
One controversial aspect of the Witnesses is their refusal to receive blood transfusions. This tenet is based on the Old Testament quotation in which Jehovah entered a covenant with mankind after the Flood: “If any human soul ate blood he would be breaking the rainbow covenant” (Whalen 85). This “eating” of blood had been interpreted more broadly to mean receiving the blood of another through transfusion. In more recent years, the church has also decreed that it was not acceptable to eat meat containing the blood of the animal.
It is believed further that the soul of a being is in his blood and the member who agrees to a transfusion risks “disfellowship” from the church, although it is a rare form of punishment and exceptions are regularly made, particularly in cases where legal authorities force the member to take the transfusion, as happens occasionally in the case of children.
The Witnesses are much maligned for their attacks on the beliefs of other religions, for their door-to-door work, and for the refusal to take blood transfusions, but the world has quickly forgotten one of the greatest victories of the church, as we read in Johnson. That author writes that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were the “bravest” sect in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The Witnesses “proclaimed their outright doctrinal opposition from the beginning and suffered accordingly. They refused any cooperation with the Nazi state which they denounced as totally evil . . . . Many were sentenced to death for refusing military service and inciting others to do likewise; or they ended in Dachau or lunatic asylums. A third were actually killed; 97% suffered persecution in one form or another” (Johnson 489).
Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the few religions today in the United States which are increasing in number, certainly due in part to the door-to-door work of the members of the church. The number of churches has increased to over 8000, and membership has more than doubled since 1960 to over 700,000 (Nelkin 61).
Jehovah’s Witnesses again are a much maligned sect which does not deserve the castigation and mockery it receives. They are aggressive, as a proselytizing church, and that aggression, especially carried out door-to-door, is the source of much of that disrepute.