History and Practices
The Jehovah’s Witnesses were organized by Charles Taze Russell in the 1880’s. The group grew out of the Bible Student movement and the publishing company that Russell founded in the late 1870’s. In 1879, Russell launched the magazine Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence. The group continued its preaching making converts and publishing its magazine as its membership grew and infiltrated surrounding states. By 1880, there were numerous congregations throughout the United States. In 1881, the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society was launched. The group incorporated in 1884, named Russell as president, and later changed the name to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Those who followed the teachings at this time were known as Bible Students. In 1890, the society published its first hymn book, which was a collection of 300 hymns and numerous poems entitled, Poems and Hymns of the Millennial Dawn.
The group saw great growth during the early 1900’s. By 1909, the group was known internationally, and its headquarters were moved to Brooklyn, New York. Sermons were being printed in four languages in 3000 newspapers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe by 1913. The group was gaining popularity as they quickly approached Russell’s prediction that the anointed would be called to heaven in 1914. This date came and went, and Russell changed his prediction citing a mathematical error in his calculations, but the second date was missed as well. Russell died shortly thereafter in 1916 while on a speaking tour.
1916 saw big changes with the appointment of Russell’s successor, Joseph Franklin Rutherford to lead the group. Rutherford made significant changes in the organization’s staff and to some of its doctrines, which led to some of the followers splitting off from the movement to form their own groups.
Another significant occurrence in 1916 was the persecution of followers for their pacifism towards the war. The governments of Britain, Canada, and the U.S. took action against those who refused to be conscripted into the military. Rutherford and seven of his colleagues were sentenced to 20 years in prison for promoting draft evasion during the war. Those convictions were overturned the next year, but the experience turned Rutherford against public institutions. Later, he referred to politics, commerce, and religion as the “three chief instruments of the Devil.” The significance of this is that he determined that the proper interpretation of Romans 13 indicates that Witnesses are not required to cooperate with secular law unless it is in agreement with God’s laws. This further deteriorated the relationship between the Witnesses and the authorities.
In the 1920’s Rutherford called for the introduction of “Theocratic Government” into the organization. This removed much of the democratic process and brought a highly centralized structure that equated obedience to its authority as equal to obedience to God. With this, Rutherford refocused the movement on missionary work, requiring members to take part in the conversion effort in order to maintain their status as members.
It was in 1931 that the group gained its name as we know it today. In this year, the group officially became known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. During this same time, and throughout the second half of World War II, the Witnesses were among those who were persecuted by the Nazis. They tried to reach an agreement with the Nazi government to allow them the freedom to do their missionary work, but the Witnesses refused to give the Nazi salute, and refused to salute the swastika, saying that doing so constituted idolatry. The Nazis were very hostile towards the Witnesses, and punished them. Near the end of the war, over half of all German Witnesses had been sent to concentration camps. One in four of all German Witnesses died during the time of the Nazis.
It was not only the Nazis that...