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.