The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim a membership of approximately 8.6 million world-wide (How Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses Are There Worldwide?, JW.org). The number are said to total about 1.2 million in the U.S.A. (2018 Country and Territory Reports, JW.org). “Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most racially and ethnically diverse religious groups in America… 36% are white, 32% are Hispanic, 27% are black and 6% are another race or mixed race” (A Closer Look at Jehovah’s Witnesses Living in the U.S., pewresearch.org).
1. Charles Taze Russell (b.1852-d.1916). Russell was born and reared in Pennsylvania. He was born in Allegheny City (now a part of Pittsburgh) on February 16, 1852. His father owned a chain of men’s clothing stores.
Russell was brought up in the Presbyterian church but became dissatisfied with it. “By the time he was 20, Russell had left both Presbyterianism and Congregationalism because he could not reconcile the idea of an eternal hell with God’s mercy” (Charles Taze Russell, Britannica.com). “His religious background was Presbyterian and Congregational. However, he was perturbed by such teaching as predestination and eternal torment in hell fire” (Mankind’s Search for God, p. 351, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania).
He met an Adventist preacher when he was 17 or 18 years old (note: not S.D.A., but one of the splinter groups that survived The Great Disappointment). He spent the next 9 years immersing himself in Adventist doctrine (Michael S. Demory, Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘So called,’ p. 25). It is from the Adventist that Russell received the doctrine of the mortality of the soul (Editor David Brown, 2002 Spring Lectureship, Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 101, 103). “During the 1870’s, Charles Taze Russell established himself as an independent and controversial Adventist teacher. He rejected belief in hell as a place of eternal torment and adopted a non-Trinitarian theology that denied the divinity of Jesus” (Jehovah’s Witness, britannica.com).
Russell eventually separated from the Adventists. “Difference arose on Biblical interpretation, especially on the manner and object of the Lord’s return, although the chronology was left intact. Russell collaborated with the Adventist N.H. Barbour, the two publishing a book together; a year later, in 1878 they parted because they disagreed on the atonement” (Jon Karel Van Baalen, The Chaos of Cults, p. 257). “In 1878 Russell had a major disagreement with one of his collaborators, who had rejected the teachings that Christ’s death could be an atonement for sins… Russell severed all ties with his former collaborator” (Mankind’s Search for God, p. 352, Watch Tower Bible And Tract Society of Pennsylvania).
Russell continued to teach. He had organized a Bible study group, several years earlier. He continued to work with this group. “The Jehovah’s witnesses are an outgrowth of the International Bible Students Association, which was founded in 1872 in Pittsburg by Charles Taze Russell” (Jehovah’s Witness, britannica.com).
He also made use of the printed page. “In 1879 he began publishing a magazine, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence” (Encyclopedia Britannica © 1979, Vol. 10, p. 131). The first issue was a printing of 6,000 copies (Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, p. 38). Today, the magazine is known as The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom. 42 million are said to be printed every month (The Watchtower – No Other Magazine Comes Close, JW.org). “Russell formed the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (1884), with himself as President” (Jehovah’s Witness, britannica.com). One writer has suggested that “it could perhaps be said that this marked the time of the founding of the Jehovah’s Witness organization” (Leonard White, A Brief History of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Guardian of Truth, April 15, 1993).
2. Joseph Franklin Rutherford A.K.A. Judge Rutherford (b.1869-d.1942).
Rutherford was born and reared in Missouri. He was born in Versailles on November 08, 1869. His father was a farmer. Rutherford was brought up in the Baptist church.
He became a lawyer in 1892. He was first a prosecutor. He received the nickname “Judge” due to his temporarily serving as a substitute judge. He did this on four occasions. All four times were for one day each (Editor David Brown, 2002 Spring Bible Lectureship, Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 141).
His first known contact with the Watch Tower occurred in 1894, when two Watch Tower representatives came to his office. They sold him a set of Russell’s “Studies in the Scripture” (Cathleen A. Koenig, Judge Rutherford, ewtn.com).
He, in time became a Bible Student. He was baptized a Bible Student in 1906. Shortly thereafter, he moved to New York to serve as legal counsel for the Watch Tower (ibid).
Following Russell’s death in 1916, Rutherford became President of the Watch Tower. He made many changes. There were doctrinal changes. “Judge Rutherford discarded some of Russell’s beliefs, such as the notion that the measurements of the Great Pyramid of Egypt verified biblical predictions of the second advent” (Encyclopedia Britannica © 1979, Vol. 10, p. 131). There were organizational changes. Bible student congregations went from being “a loose connection of semi-autonomous congregations into a tight-knit organization” (Editor David Brown, 2002 Spring Bible Lectureship, Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 143).
These changes led to division. Several smaller groups broke away. These include: Chicago Bible Students Association; Pastoral Bible Institute; the Laymen’s Home Missionary Movement; the Standfast Bible Students Association (Demory, p. 28; Editor Brown, p. 144).
In 1931, the group, over which Rutherford presided, was renamed the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Editor Brown, p. 144; 1931 Resolution Naming “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” jw-archive.org). This name is said to be taken from Isaiah 43:10-12 (Why Are We Called Jehovah’s Witnesses? JW.org).
Other personalities could be considered. To date there have been eight Watch Tower Presidents, seven since it was incorporated in 1884. However, these two personalities, Russel and Rutherford, may be considered founders of the organization that we know as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
3. History According to Them
“The modern-day organization of Jehovah’s witnesses began at the end of the 19th century… while Russell took the lead in the Bible education work at that time and was the first editor of The Watchtower, he was not the founder of a new religion. The goal of Russell and the other Bible students… was to promote the teachings of Jesus Christ and to follow the practices of the first-century Christian congregation. Since Jesus is the founder of Christianity, we view him as the founder of our organization” (Who Was the Founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses?, JW.org).
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that there have been witnesses throughout history, beginning with Abel (cf. Hebrews 11:4; 12:1; Rev. 1:5; Acts 22:15). “At Hebrews 11:4, Paul identifies Abel as the first witness of Jehovah’s (Why Should Jehovah have Witnesses?, JW.org). It should be understood that the appearance of the word “witness” does not mean that the reference is to what is today called the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“The Watch Tower teaches that there was no true Christian church on earth at the beginning of the twentieth century… only the Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged as the one true religion” (No True Religion on Earth Until 1919? Jehovah’s Witnesses View of Church History by Robert Bowman Jr., irr.org). The Watch Tower said this in 1954, “Seventy years ago sincere worshipers of Jehovah were to be found scattered and bewildered in numerous false religious systems of this world, for in those days there was no one organization to which they could assemble together… The truths taught by Christ Jesus and his apostles have been restored” (Restoration of True Religion Today, wol.jw.org).
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the civil governments of this earth are part of Satan’s world (You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, pp. 209-210, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania). They “refuse to vote, run for public office, serve in any armed forces, salute the flag, stand for the national anthem or recite the pledge of allegiance” (Brittanica © 1979, Vol. 10, p.131).
These positions have brought them into conflict with many governments of the world. (1) “Rutherford and seven of his colleagues were sentenced to 20 years in prison (U.S. Federal Prison, B.H.) for conspiring to promote draft evasion during a time of war. These convictions were later overturned” (Religions – Witnesses: History, bbc.com). “They were freed after nine months, and the government eventually dropped its prosecution” (Britannica © 1979, Vol. 10, p. 131). (2) “At one time more than 6,000 witnesses were inmates of Nazi concentration camps. Communist and Fascist states usually forbid Watch Tower activities” (Britannica © 1979 Vol. 10, p. 131). “By the second half of World War II over 50% of German Witnesses had been sent to concentration camps. Overall, one in four German Witnesses died during the Nazi period” (bbc.com). (3) “Witnesses were also persecuted in Britain, Canada, and the United States. After the war the Witnesses brought several suits in American courts dealing with their beliefs and practices, resulting in 59 Supreme Court rulings that were regarded as major judgments on free exercise of religion” (Jehovah’s Witnesses, britannica.com). These are just a few examples.
It is easy to come across as overly aggressive when speaking with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Walter Martin writes, “an intricate part of their belief system is the conviction that Christians will always attack Jehovah’s Witnesses on a personal level as well as a religious level, hence the Witnesses readily assume a martyr or persecution complex the moment an antagonism is manifested toward Russell, Rutherford, their theology, the Watch Tower or themselves… this illusion is made to seem all the more real when unthinking Christians unfortunately accommodate the Witnesses by appearing overly aggressive toward the Watch Tower theology or the Witnesses personally” (Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, pp. 33-34). They expect to be mistreated. We must be careful how we speak, especially to these people. If we come on very aggressively, they will likely leave never to return. The opportunity for study with these people is usually found in a mild, less dominating approach.