Beliefs, Teachings, Wisdom, Authority

 

Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;

 

Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.

 

Basic Beliefs

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a millennial, restorationist and nontrinitarian Christian movement with roots in 19th century America. They believe in God, whom they refer to as Jehovah, and the complete Bible (the Old and New Testaments which they call the ‘Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures’ and the ‘Christian Greek Scriptures’) as his ‘inspired message’. Jesus is believed to be the Son of God and the saviour but not part of a Trinity. The name, Jehovah’s Witnesses, adopted in 1931, is said to identify both their God and their mission – in Isaiah 43:10-12 God says ‘you are my witnesses.’Religious scholars have tended to see the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a millennial religious organisation with roots in the Adventist movement. The Adventist movement developed from the teachings of an American Baptist minister, William Miller, who claimed that Jesus Christ would return to Earth in 1843. When this event failed to materialise, his followers revised the date to October 1844. When this date also passed (in what has been termed the ‘Great Disappointment’), different groups emerged under various leaders who explained the failed prophecy in different ways. The Seventh-day Adventists, perhaps the best known of the Adventist groups, grew out of the teachings of one such leader, Ellen G. White. White claimed that rather than returning to Earth on the expected date in 1844, Jesus had, instead, moved into the heavenly sanctuary in order to prepare for his return.

Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) led a Bible study group in the Adventist tradition, although he claimed never to have been an Adventist (Chryssides 2016: 47), and was not a part of Ellen G. White’s tradition. The Jehovah’s Witnesses developed as a distinct movement in the 1870s when Russell began to publish the magazine, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence. He argued that Christ had invisibly returned to Earth in 1874 and that his visible return was imminent. 1878 was one date given for his return, and then 1914. This latter date was reinterpreted as marking the moment when Jesus began to rule the Kingdom of God in Heaven. Members alive in 1914 expected to be the generation that would witness Armageddon and the end of the present system that is ruled by Satan.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that we are currently 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. During Armageddon, it is believed, Christ will lead an army of angels to defeat the earth’s rulers. Satan will be imprisoned for 1,000 years, which will be a time of paradise on earth, led by Christ as ruler in heaven, with all suffering finally eradicated.

A ‘great crowd’ of people from all nations will survive the ‘great tribulation’ at Armageddon. A chosen 144,000 will be co-rulers with Christ in heaven, forming a theocratic government to replace human-made ones. The majority of the 144,000 are already believed to be in heaven. The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the 144,000 began to be chosen in the time of Jesus and they began to take their places in 1918/1919. In contrast to traditional Christian teaching, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in Hell. Instead they believe that those judged adversely by Christ will be destroyed.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are non-Trinitarian Christians. They believe that God – whom they call Jehovah – is the ‘Most High’. Jehovah is an ‘invisible spirit’ without a body of flesh and blood, but he is also an individual with thoughts and feelings, as well as infinite wisdom and power. Jesus Christ is recognised as God’s son and one can only be saved from sin through faith in Jesus Christ. 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 have also been described as a Restorationist movement, indicating their belief in the necessity of returning to first-century Christianity as lived and taught by Jesus and the Apostles. The holy spirit is seen as God’s active force for accomplishing his will. The holy spirit is hence another aspect of the universal God and not a separate entity.

Jehovah’s Witnesses opposition to blood transfusions is based on Biblical warnings against the ingestion of blood. (For more information see Values and Commitments section). They also believe that a Christian should keep separate from the world and should not be involved in interfaith movements.

Scriptures

Jehovah’s Witnesses accept the entire Bible as the inspired Word of Jehovah. They see it as an historical record, a blueprint for living, reliable prophecy and containing many scientific facts. However, they do not take a literalist interpretation, recognising that some parts of it were written figuratively. They have a particular interest in Biblical prophecy and its fulfilment, which has included an interest in symbolic meanings of numbers in the Bible.Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible called the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures or NWT. The first edition of the translation was completed in 1961, whilst Nathan Homer Knorr (1905-1977) was the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ third president. It is an original translation of ancient Hebrew and Greek texts. It is distributed worldwide in more than 150 languages without charge and is also available online. Jehovah’s Witnesses also publish online Bible study guides and offer free Bible study classes as a primary means of evangelization.

In addition, Jehovah’s Witnesses publish a number of magazines through their own publishing company and printing presses located in a number of countries. The UK printing press is located at the group’s UK headquarters in North London (although there are plans to relocate it to Germany). From here, more than 200 million magazines (11–12% of the Jehovah’s Witnesses magazines) are printed and distributed each year. The best known of these are The Watchtower and Awake!, which are, in early 2018, quarterly publications for public distribution, with a ‘study edition’ of The Watchtower produced monthly for meeting attenders.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses place importance on people being able to read Scripture in their native language and they have a huge translation programme. They also try to ensure that people have access to meetings in their own language as well as offering services and apps in sign language.

Founder and Successors

Originally known as Bible Students, Jehovah’s Witnesses originated in America in the latter half of the 19th century with the teachings of Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916) and his associates. Russell was something of a religious seeker, establishing friendships with teachers in the Adventist movement including Jonas Wendell, George Stetson and Nelson Barbour. Like these individuals, he engaged in studying the Bible and he sold the cloth merchant and haberdashery business he had inherited in order to finance his preaching and publishing activities. In the early 1870s, he established a Bible study movement – the International Bible Students Association – in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 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. This magazine, as the title suggests, had an apocalyptic theme and discussed the imminence of Armageddon. In the early 1880s, Russell established the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society. In 1908, he moved the headquarters of the organisation from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn, New York, where it remained until it moved to Warwick, New York in 2017. (However there are two incorporated societies in America – The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York).Russell was succeeded by a lawyer, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1852–1942), who became the second president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and who coined the name Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. Rutherford also introduced some of the distinctive Jehovah’s Witnesses’ practices, such as not participating in politics and military service, not celebrating Christmas and the acceleration of house-to-house evangelism. It was under Rutherford’s leadership that the Jehovah’s Witnesses became a large and stable organisation. During this time the organisation changed from being democratic to theocratic and hierarchical; directors of local congregations were no longer elected by local assemblies but appointed by the Governing Body in New York.

Rutherford was succeeded by Nathan Homer Knorr (1905–1977) in 1942, who began a public relations programme which won the movement more converts. As mentioned above, Knorr oversaw the 1961 publication of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, a modern English Bible translated from original language texts – the version of the Bible that Jehovah’s Witnesses use today, primarily in its 2013 revision.

The fourth president was Frederick W. Franz (1893–1992) and the fifth was Milton Henschel (1920–2003). Henschel stepped down from the presidency in 2000 (all four previous presidents had remained in post until they died). Subsequent presidents have not been members of the Governing Body, and are believed to be part of the ‘great crowd’ rather than the 144,000. Henschel was succeeded by two presidents: Don A. Adams (1926–) became president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, and Max H. Larson (1915–2011) became president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. They were succeeded by Leon Weaver Jr (the Society’s first black president) and by Robert Ciranko, respectively.

Structure and Authority

The overall direction of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is in the hands of the Governing Body, which is based at the headquarters in New York. There are two incorporated societies in America: The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York which oversees printing operations. The Governing Body currently, in early 2018, has eight members, all of whom are believed to be of the 144,000 ‘anointed class’.Individual congregations are led by elders, comparable in some ways to clergy in other denominations, but without special titles, and without being paid for their work. Elders are assisted by ministerial servants who fulfil such practical tasks as welcoming attendees to services and handing out literature, in order that elders can focus on teaching and shepherding duties. In some ways, the Jehovah’s Witnesses can be considered an egalitarian movement – any man can become an elder or ministerial servant and the lack of clergy titles and remuneration creates a sense of equality. However, women cannot become elders or ministerial servants. (See also the Values and Commitments section for information on the practice of disfellowshipping and the authority which elders can hold over parts of their congregation).

Governing Body representatives visit the 240 lands where Jehovah’s Witnesses are present to meet with branch representatives. Each branch is divided into circuits and each circuit has about 20 congregations (based at a Kingdom Hall, which several congregations might share) ranging in size from a few to 200 people. A circuit overseer visits each congregation in his circuit twice a year. Each congregation is mapped out into territories and individual Witnesses endeavour to visit every home in the territory.

As in the USA, there are two main Jehovah’s Witnesses organisations in the UK, both of which are registered charities: The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain and The International Bible Students Association (IBSA) (individual congregations are also registered charities). These manage the printing, literature distribution, translation work and related administrative functions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Around 300 staff live ‘on-site’ at the IBSA headquarters located in North London. This complex, spread along and around a residential road in an affluent, suburban area, includes a printing press; offices; purpose-built residential complexes with communal living areas, including a cafeteria where members eat communally; large houses which have been purchased for additional accommodation; and a Kingdom Hall. The building in which the offices and printing press are located is open to the public, who can walk in for guided tours and talks. It is also open to schools and there are interactive displays for children. There are similar complexes around the world which are called ‘Bethels’ (Hebrew for House of God).

However, in 2019, the Jehovah’s Witnesses UK headquarters will be relocated to Chelmsford in Essex, to a purpose-built complex at a property formerly called Temple Farm. Jehovah’s Witnesses report that this is because they have out-grown the London site in Mill Hill, but it also parallels a move in New York to move from the city centre to an out-of-town location for financial reasons.

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the terminology of membership. A distinction is made between those who are baptised and those who are not yet baptised. (Children are not usually baptised until between the ages of 13-16.) Baptised Jehovah’s Witnesses are known as ‘publishers’ – those who go door to door spreading the word and distributing and materials. Publishers are engaged in ‘witnessing’ for Jehovah and they are asked to report their preaching activity to their local congregation each month (it is in this way that the number of Witnesses in each congregation is determined). Some share in the publishing work prior to their baptism (if they are on the path to converting, for instance) and are known as ‘unbaptised publishers’. A wider number of people attend services, including the annual Memorial Service.

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not practice tithing (donating a regular amount of money to the Church, often 10% of earnings, which is common in some Christian traditions). However, they are encouraged to make modest donations to the Church and to leave legacies. The Church also has some income from investments.

Membership Figures

In 2017, there were just over 8.4 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in 240 lands worldwide.

In the 2011 Census, 63,073 individuals in England and Wales, 8,543 in Scotland and 1,728 in Northern Ireland identified as Jehovah’s Witnesses by writing in their religious affiliation.

Growth is largely through conversion rather than ‘internal growth’, with the fastest growing membership populations currently in Latin America, Asia and Africa.