By Clete Hux and Craig Branch
They knock on our doors. They distribute lots of literature. They seek to convert us to devotion to their organization. Many people in our culture ridicule them and some fear them, but few understand them. Who are these people, the Jehovah’s Witnesses? In this article, we will seek to answer that question. We will do so first by outlining the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. To understand any religious group an understanding of that group’s history is always helpful. This is especially true for the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Brooklyn, New York, which has undergone many changes in its teachings in the course of its history. Second, we will provide a sketch of the major doctrines and practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses so that you the reader might be better equipped to engage them apologetically the next time they knock on your door.
The History of the Watchtower Society1
The history of the people known as Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) can be traced to the nineteenth century Adventist movement in America, led by William Miller who predicted that Christ would return in 1843. The Adventist mindset has characterized JWs from the very beginning because their first president, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), was much influenced by this movement.
Born the son of Joseph L. and Anna Eliza Russell in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Charles Taze Russell was initially a Presbyterian, but became a Congregationalist in his teenage years. When he was 18, he started a Bible study which he named the “Millennial Dawn Bible Study.” During those early years, Russell came to reject important Christian beliefs such as eternal punishment, the deity of Christ, and the Trinity. It was early in 1876 that Russell met Nelson H. Barbour, an Adventist preacher and Millerite from Rochester, New York. Barbour convinced Russell that Christ had returned invisibly in 1874.
In 1879, Russell and Barbour co-published The Herald of the Morning magazine. By 1884 Russell controlled the publication and renamed it The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom. He also founded the organization Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, now known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTS).
Like other Adventists, Russell engaged in pyramidology (the practice of using measurements of the great pyramids of Egypt as the basis for making future predictions). He applied the result to interpreting Bible prophecy, predicting specific dates for the millennium, Christ’s second coming, and Armageddon. He published The Divine Plan of the Ages in which he projected that 1914 would witness Armageddon and the dawn of Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth. When 1914 came and went without Armageddon, he changed the prediction to 1915.2 Russell died on October 31, 1916, never seeing his prophecy fulfilled.
Russell was succeeded as president of the WTS by Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford, a former Missouri lawyer. Having served as Russell’s chief legal advisor, Rutherford was very adept at internal corporate politics. He used a legal loophole to concentrate all organizational authority in his hands and unseat the majority of WTS directors without calling for a membership vote. Under his leadership, the WTS became a very tight-knit organization, severing connections with any semi-autonomous, democratically-run congregations. Some of these congregations broke away, forming Russellite splinter groups such as “The Dawn Bible Students.” To distinguish the WTS from these other groups, Rutherford named his followers “Jehovah’s Witnesses” in 1931.
It was under Rutherford that door-to-door witnessing and literature distribution became an essential activity required of all members. He later built a radio network as well. With these outlets, Rutherford was able to widely promote WTS doctrine, attack the government, “big business,” vaccinations, and the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, he made many converts.
Like his prophetic predecessor, Rutherford got caught up in making predictions. In what was perhaps his most famous sermon, “Millions Now Living Will Never Die”, Rutherford predicted that 1925 would see the resurrection of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to rule as princes over the earth. Rutherford even directed the WTS to build these prophets a home (Beth-Sarim) in anticipation of this event. Of course, the prophets never arrived, and Rutherford died in 1942.
Upon Rutherford’s death, vice president Nathan Knorr became the WTS’s third president. Whereas under Russell and Rutherford the WTS’s focus was its presidential leadership, with Knorr the emphasis was on the membership. Some believe this was due to Knorr’s lacking the charisma which characterized his predecessors. In any case, he encouraged JWs to focus their devotion on the organization rather than on himself.
One evidence of this shift in focus can be found in WTS literature. Prior to Knorr, the WTS published books and booklets authored by presidents Russell and Rutherford. Under Knorr, the Society began producing literature that was written anonymously. Supposedly, this moved WTS followers’ attention away from any individual and directed it to the organization instead. During Knorr’s presidency, followers were to show respect for Jehovah’s organization by seeing the WTS as their mother and the beloved wife of the heavenly Father, Jehovah God. The WTS also forbade the use of blood transfusions and organ transplants, though vaccinations were now seen as helpful. The New World Translation of the Bible was made at this time as well.
Fred Franz, the WTS’s fourth president, actually began directing many of the organization’s affairs long before the death of his predecessor in 1977. Franz is perhaps most remembered as the one who set the WTS back on the track of predicting the end of the world. He prophesied that Armageddon would occur in 1975. As a result of this apocalyptic emphasis, WTS membership grew rapidly.
It was also under Franz’s leadership that a new Governing Body emerged within the WTS, moving them away from one-man rule to more shared responsibility. This Governing Body asserted itself strongly when Franz’s 1975 prediction failed to come true. When many JWs became disillusioned and the WTS started losing membership, the Governing Body cracked down on dissidents, breaking up independent Bible study groups at headquarters and forming “judicial committees” which put those seen as ringleaders on trial for disloyalty and apostasy.
Milton G. Henschel became the WTS’s fifth president on December 30, 1992. Under Henschel, the Governing Body began to show a more tolerant attitude toward practices once scorned by the WTS such as school sports, personal hobbies, psychiatry, and college education. These changes helped the public relations image of the WTS. Nevertheless, they still protested holidays (e.g., Christmas, Easter, etc.) as being pagan.
Henschel died in 2000, but the Governing Body remains in control of the WTS. In the last few years, as the “1914 generation” (predicted by the WTS to see Armageddon in their lifetimes) quickly dies off, many breakaway groups have formed. Yet, the WTS still claims to be “God’s organization.”
The Watchtower’s Doctrines of Deception and Death
Typical of pseudo-Christian cults, the WTS claims that true Christianity apostatized and was lost some time ago, and that their organization is the restoration or reestablishment of the true faith (or, as the WTS terms it, “the truth”). Their “truth,” however, stands in direct contradiction to the biblical faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Apt is the biblical warning of the Apostle Paul: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock. . . .I know that after my departure salvage wolves [‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’] will come in among you, and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). Peter also warns, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destruction heresies, even denying the Master who bought them. . .[and] many will follow them and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned” (2 Pet. 2:1-2).
The following is a description of the major heretical doctrines of the WTS with brief critical commentary at appropriate points.
Authority and Control
Russell and subsequent WTS leaders understood themselves as the “faithful and discreet slave” mentioned in Matthew 24:45-47, while all Christian churches (Christendom) are the “evil slave” (vv. 48-57). It is the WTS belief that their organization alone has been appointed by God to govern his people and conduct his business. In particular, the Governing Body, a small group of elders at the WTS headquarters in New York, alone has ruling authority on earth for Jehovah God. As their own documents put it, “Jehovah’s organization alone, in all the earth, is directed by God’s holy spirit or active force.3
Such a claim to absolute authority is a typical component of mind control techniques. Other components are the control information and the use of fear for manipulation. The WTS exemplifies all of these aspects of mind control. The WTS claims to be a prophet class operating in the same way as Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Thus, they claim that God is directing or supervising the WTS through the Governing Body, and that Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to obey the WTS as the voice of God in every area of life.4 The Governing Body asserts that it alone can interpret the Bible correctly.5 Its members are told to “avoid independent thinking. . .[and] questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization.”6
The Divine Name
The WTS teaches that God’s personal name is “Jehovah.” This is deduced from the fact that God revealed to Moses His name in Exodus 3:14 as YHWH or Yahweh. Moreover, Psalm 83:18, in the King James Version of the Bible, reads: “That men may know that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the most high over all the earth.” The third commandment asserts that we are not to take the name of the Lord in vain (Exod. 20:7). Add to that Isaiah 43:10-11 and Acts 1:8 which teach that the followers of the only true God are to be “witnesses” of Him and you know the rationale for the label “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” With its emphasis on the name “Jehovah,” the WTS has created an essential belief that allegedly sets them apart as the only true worshipers of God.
In response, Christians should point out that we do use the term Jehovah as well as other Scriptural names describing the one and only true God. But, the fact is that “Jehovah” is not God’s personal name. The term “Jehovah” is a contrivance created by superstitious Hebrew scribes who added vowels from adonai (Lord) to YHWH to arrive at Jehovah. None of the earliest Bible manuscripts used Jehovah at all!
The WTS states that the Bible is the infallible, inspired word of God and is truth.7 But in reality, they teach that their organization is the only true “faithful, discreet slave” who gives to true believers “their food at the proper time” (Matt. 24:45-47). They are also, as indicated above, a self-designated “prophet,” and thus their instructional materials (The Watchtower, Awake, etc.) are viewed as divinely authoritative. Like Roman Catholicism, the teaching office of the WTS is the infallible “magisterium” and the real authority in the church.
In addition, the WTS has produced its own version of the Bible which allegedly corrects Trinitarian-based translations. In their New World Translation, they have inserted the term “Jehovah” thousands of times and altered the text in many places to undermine the deity of Christ and to promote some of their distinctive doctrines.
As shown elsewhere in this journal, however, the WTS fails the test of a true prophet. And by using a good interlinear Bible (even their own Kingdom Interlinear translation) we can demonstrate the dishonesty in their translation of the Bible.8
The Nature of God
The WTS claims that the doctrine of the trinity is a pagan heresy, derived from Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hindu sources. They teach that the Father alone is the one true God. There is only one God and only one person who is God. They point out that the word “trinity” cannot be found in the Bible. What is more, the doctrine is confusing, and since the Bible teaches that “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33), the doctrine of the trinity cannot be true.
The WTS teaches that Jesus was the first of God’s creations, and was, in fact, Michael the archangel prior to coming to earth and will be so again when he returns to heaven.9 He is not, as Christians believe, God incarnate.
The WTS claims that Jesus was impaled on a stake, not a cross, and that the cross is a pagan symbol. They also deny His bodily resurrection teaching that He was recreated as a “spirit creature” (i.e., Michael).10 They teach that His body was sacrificed “as a ransom for obedient humans” (notice the word “obedient,” revealing the works basis of salvation).11
This portrait of Jesus is a “different Jesus,” one who cannot and does not save. This portrait serves as a flagrant example of Scripture-twisting, the source of which is demonic (2 Cor. 11:4; 2 Peter 3:16; 1 Tim. 4:1). The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is God, the uncreated second person of the trinity who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).12 Moreover, they are mistaken about the bodily resurrection. As Paul clearly teaches, our full redemption depends on Christ’s bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-8, 12ff.). Jesus specifically taught that He would raise up His physical body (John 2:19-22). If he were not bodily raised, then he would have deceived His disciples when He appeared to them after his resurrection.
The WTS denies the person and deity of the Holy Spirit, instead claiming that “it” is God’s impersonal “active force” that He uses for accomplishing His purposes.13 The WTS overlooks the fact that the Holy Spirit is referred to with the personal pronoun “He” in John 14:26, 15:26; and 16:8, 13-14. Additionally, the Holy Spirit exhibits traits only applicable to persons (e.g., teaching, praying, willing, speaking, and grieving).
The WTS teaches that there are two separate groups or classes of people who will be saved. One group is known as the “Anointed Class” or “little flock” that consists of 144,000 people who will be spiritually raised or born again, and who reign with Christ in heaven.14 The second group of faithful JWs are the “other sheep” of John 10:16 or the “great multitude” of Revelation 7:9 who will have physical bodies and enjoy a permanent, perfect human life on a paradise earth.15
Those things which gain God’s approval unto eternal life, be it in heaven or on a paradise earth, are a long list of works. Central to the “progress along the road to life” is being a member of the WTS, God’s only “channel” of faith.16 So it is really not their Jesus who saves. Rather, it is the organization with its rules and requirements which “saves” the “approved” JW. Some of those requirements are to “keep separate from the world,” to avoid blood transfusions, to obey the Bible’s laws, to be baptized by immersion for public dedication, to reject religious images like crosses, to avoid smoking, to engage in “publishing” or door-to-door witnessing, and to regularly attend meetings.17 The WTS’s “mission impossible” of salvation by works is summed up well in this comment:
Hence, before adopting them as his free sons through Jesus Christ, Jehovah God will subject all these perfected human creatures to a thorough test for all time. . . .Jehovah God will justify, declare righteous, on the basis of their own merit all perfected humans who have withstood that final decisive test of all mankind.18
The WTS denies the existence of eternal conscious punishment for the lost. Instead, they believe in annihilation, the view that the lost cease to exist at death.19 The WTS claims that the Greek words hades and gehenna and the Hebrew word sheohl mean simply “grave.”
For the WTS, the soul of man is not distinct from his body. The soul or spirit is simply the “life-giving force” of the body. Thus, they teach that “the human soul ceases to exist at death” and “hell is mankind’s common grave.”20 Thus the WTS teaches the doctrine of “soul-sleep” for both the righteous and the wicked. At death, the dead are unconscious. But those who are approved by God will awaken at the resurrection and live forever.21\
However, the Bible is clear that death does not result in soul-sleep, but a conscious existence in a disembodied state (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8). Moreover, Jesus himself spoke explicitly of the fact that unbelievers will suffer eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).
The WTS teaches that since the life force or soul is in the blood, no one should receive another’s soul into their bodies (they cite Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11-12; Acts 15:28-29). Thus, no blood transfusions are allowed.
Because of this naïve twisting of Scripture, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses—men, women, and children—have needlessly died. Interestingly, the WTS has a track record of changing its position on life and death medical issues such as vaccinations and organ transplants. Bad publicity regarding the prohibition of blood transfusions may be behind some recent changes in policy on the use of blood products in the WTS.
Other False Teachings
Because of space limitations we have focused on essential doctrines related to the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, and salvation. These are the doctrinal issues that matter most and which should be the emphasis in any witnessing encounter the Christian has with JWs. However, there are several other doctrinal issues of which you may need to be aware:
The WTS forbids its followers from celebrating birthdays or other holidays, claiming that holidays (Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day) are of pagan origin, and that in the two instances in the Bible (Gen. 40:20-22; Matt. 11:6-10) referring to birthdays they were celebrated by pagans, and bad things happened when they occurred.22
The WTS forbids the wearing of crosses because they are supposedly pagan religious symbols.23 In fact, the use of any images in worship is considered idolatrous.24
The WTS forbids pledges of allegiance or any patriotic activity, including involvement in political activities (voting, serving in a political office) and serving in the military. Their justification is that allegiance is owed to God’s government alone and not to human authority. Serving in the military also supports acts that violate the commands to love our neighbors, our enemies, and to not kill.25
The WTS discourages its members from “bad associations” (friendships with outsiders, including relatives), participating in extracurricular activities such as sports or school athletics, hobbies or clubs, homecoming festivities, or cheerleading. These things are seen as distractions from a total commitment to Jehovah’s kingdom activity.26
And lastly, there is much pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses to not pursue higher education or high paying, time-demanding jobs. Instead, because the “end is near,” members should pursue Kingdom activities such as full time “pioneering” (80-100 hours per month in door-to-door witnessing).27
Clete Hux is the Counter-Cult specialist for the Apologetics Resource Center. Craig Branch is the director of the Apologetics Resource Center.
1 All the information in the following section was gathered from the following websites: https://www.bible.ca/jw-history.htm; https:// www.religioustolerance.org/witness2.htm; https://www.gotoquestions.org/Jehovahs-Witness.html; https://www.carm.org/jw/history.htm ; https://www.believersweb.org/view.cfm? ID=723; https://www.freeminds.org/psych/propfail.htm
2 For a discussion of this and other false prophecies of Jehovah’s Witnesses, see Clete Hux’s article in this issue of Areopagus Journal, “The End that Wasn’t” (pp. 18-21).
3 The Watchtower (July 1, 1973): 402.
4 For examples of such claims see The Watchtower (June 15, 1957): 370; (Jan. 15, 1969); (May 1, 1938); (March 1, 1983): 25; and (March 15, 1969): 172.
5 The Watchtower (Dec. 1, 1981): 27; (March 15, 1981); and (May 1, 1957): 274.
6 The Watchtower (Jan. 15, 1983): 22.
7 Jehovah’s Witnesses: What Do They Believe? (Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Track Society [hereafter WTS], 2000), 13.
8 For proof of this claim, ARC has available a free information packet which thoroughly exposes the dishonesty of the WTS.
9 Jehovah’s Witnesses: Who Are They?, 13; see also The Watchtower (May 15, 1969): 307; and (December 15, 1984): 29.
10 Awake (November 8, 1972): 28; See also You Can Live Forever on Paradise Earth (Brooklyn, NY: WTS, 1982), 143.
11 Jehovah’s Witnesses: Who Are They?, 13.
12 For a defense of the trinity and deity of Christ, see the article in this journal by Ron Rhodes, pp.23-28.
13 Aid to Bible Understanding (Brooklyn, NY: WTS, 1971), 1543.
14 Jehovah’s Witnesses: Who Are They?, 15.
15 Ibid. See also Man’s Salvation Out of the World of Distress at Hand (Brooklyn, NY: WTS, 1990), 374.
16 See The Watchtower (December 1, 1981): 27; (February 15, 1983): 12-13; and (November 15, 1981): 21.
17 Jehovah’s Witnesses: Who Are They?, 15.
18 Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God (Brooklyn, NY: WTS, 1966), pp.398,400. . For an evaluation of the JW doctrine of salvation, see Keith Gibson’s article in this journal (pp. XXXX).
19 Jehovah’s Witnesses: Who Are They?, 15.
21 Aid to Bible Understanding, 1516-1517.
22 Reasoning From the Scriptures (Brooklyn, NY: WTS, 1985), 68-70, 176-182.
23 Ibid., 91-92.
24 Jehovah’s Witnesses: Who Are They?, 15.
25 Reasoning, 269-276.
26 See The Watchtower (February 1, 1974): 93; (February 15, 1960): 112-113; (September 1, 1964): 356, 535; (March 15, 1962): 178-179; Organized To Accomplish Our Ministry (Brooklyn, NY: WTS, 1983), 133; Watchtower Publications Index 1976-1980, p. 221; School and Jehovah’s Witnesses (Brooklyn, NY: WTS,1983),.23-24).
27 Our Kingdom Ministry, (August 1982): 1; The Watchtower (September 1, 1975): 543; (May 15, 1983): 14.