The History and Theology of Jehovah's Witnesses
Jehovah's Witnesses originated from the nineteenth century Adventist movement in America. William Miller was a Baptist preacher who began teaching that Christ would return in 1844. But, that date passed uneventfully.
After the "Disappointment of 1844" Miller's following fell apart. Many went back the churches they attended before his death in 1849. But some other disappointed followers kept the movement alive and set a new date of 1874. Their activities eventually led to the creation of several sects under the broad heading of "Adventism" including the Advent Christian Church, the Life and Advent Union, the Seventh-Day Adventists, all these Second Adventist groups.
The founder of the organization was Charles Taze Russell. He was born on February 16, 1852, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was raised a Presbyterian. When Russell was 16 years old he lost his faith, because he could not accept certain doctrines like Hell or the Trinity. For a time he left the Church, God, and the Bible. While in this vulnerable condition, Russell almost by chance, decided to attend an Adventist meeting. At this encounter Russell heard a lecture denying that Hell was a real place, this restored his faith and interest in the Bible. He then put himself under the teaching of Second Adventist preacher Jonas Wendell.
For a few years after that Russell continued to study Scripture with and under the teaching of various Adventist leaders. He met locally on a regular basis with a small circle of friends to discuss the Bible, and this informal study group came to regard him as their leader or pastor.
At 23 years old, Russell got a copy of The Herald of the Morning, an Adventist magazine published by Nelson H. Barbour. One of the interesting things about Barbour's group was their belief that Christ returned invisibly in 1874. This idea found in The Herald caught Russell's attention. Although young Charles T. Russell liked the idea, the readers of the magazine apparently didn't. They refused to 'buy' the story of an invisible Second Coming. Barbour's magazine The Herald of the Morning was failing financially. Russell, who was wealthy, helped to dig Barbour out of his whole [hole]. Russell became the magazine's financial backer and became an Assistant Editor. He contributed articles for publication as well as monetary gifts, and Russell's small study group became affiliated with Barbour's.
Russell and Barbour believed and taught that Christ's invisible return in 1874 would be followed in 1878, by the Rapture. When this didn't happen on time in 1878, The Herald's editor, Mr. Barbour, came up with "new revelations" on this and other doctrines. Russell, however, didn't like the new ideas and got other members to oppose them. Russell, broke all ties with all other religious groups, quit the staff of the Adventist magazine and started his own magazine. He called it Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence and published its first issue with the date July, 1879. Russell believed and began to teach in his magazine, based upon the measurements of the Great Pyramid, that 1914 was the new date of the Rapture and Armageddon.
Russell traveled about speaking and gathering his own followers. Many local congregation were created who came to recognize him as "Pastor." Russell's following grew as 1914 approached.
Russell died on a train in Texas, on October 31, 1916. Russell lived to see the failure of various dates he had predicted for the Rapture. As soon as he died, Russell's secretary sent a telegram to the Brooklyn Headquarters telling them about his death. A. H. Macmillan intercepted the telegram and immediately contacted vice president Joseph Franklin Rutherford, telling him the old man has died. Rutherford immediately came to New York and began to take control.
According to instructions Russell left behind, his successor would share power with an editorial committee and with the Watch Tower corporation's board of directors. But Rutherford soon set about concentrating all organizational authority in his own hands. Rutherford was a skilled lawyer who had conveniently served as Russell's chief legal advisor. He used legal prowess together with a plotting behind closed doors and a behind-the-scenes scheming type approach to internal corporate politics. He removed the majority of the Watch Tower directors without calling a membership vote by using a loophole in their appointment. During this time period, the Society was split in two. After Rutherford had gained final control, he order a subordinate to summon the police into the Society's Brooklyn headquarters offices to break up the final board meeting with the former directors and evict them from the premises.
After securing the headquarters complex and the sect's corporate entities, Rutherford turned his attention to the rest of the organization. By gradually replacing locally elected elders with his own appointees, he managed to transform a loose collection of semi-autonomous democratically-run congregations into a tight-knit organizational machine run from his office. Rutherford renamed the organization to "Jehovah's Witnesses" in 1931, to distinguish them from these other groups. Rutherford also introduced the concept of door to door preaching.
In the decades following the death of founder Charles Taze Russell, his successor J. F. Rutherford found himself forced to re-write many of the sect's major doctrines. Like Russell, Rutherford also tried his hand at prophecy. He predicted that 1919 would see the destruction of Christendom and that biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be resurrected in 1925 to rule as princes over the earth. Rutherford had a mansion named Beth Sarim built in San Diego,California for Abraham,Isaac, Jacob etc whom he taught were expected to be resurrected soon. However for some strange reason the patriarchs failed to show up. So the Society conveniently and quietly sold the house.
Vice President Nathan Homer Knorr inherited the presidency upon Rutherford's death in 1942 but left doctrine to Frederick W. Franz, who joined under Russell and had been serving at Brooklyn headquarters since 1920. Franz worked behind the scenes to restore faith in the sect's chronological calculations, a subject largely ignored following Rutherford's prophetic failure in 1925. The revised chronology established Christ's invisible return as having taken place in 1914 rather than 1874, and, during the 1960's, the Society's publications began pointing to the year 1975 as the likely time for Armageddon and the end of the world. The refusal of blood transfusions was introduced during the Knorr era.
In the past 60 years there have been many changes in the Watchtower Society. Training programs were initiated to transform members into effective recruiters. Lacking the personal magnetism and charisma of Russell and Rutherford, the following presidents focused followers' devotion on the 'Mother' organization rather than on themselves.
There were also changes in leadership. In the 70's it was noted that the Organization should not be under one-man rule, but rather should be governed by a body similar to the twelve apostles. After the failure of the 1975 prophecy, the late 70's and early 80's became a turbulent time for the Organization. Many were forcibly excommunicated for questioning the Organization's authority and doctrines.
The nineties were a time of extreme growth for the society. They jumped over one million members, from 5 million to 6 million. Since the advent of the Internet at the turn of the millennium, the society has been experiencing the worst turn over rate of any organized religion in the United States. According to Time magazine, 2/3 of everyone who becomes a Jehovah's Witness, eventually leave.
What do modern Jehovah's Witnesses believe?
They don't believe in the Trinity. They believe that God is only the Father, and his name is Jehovah. They believe that Jesus is Michael the Archangel. He was the first and greatest creation of Jehovah. He was the only thing that Jehovah created by himself. Jehovah then used Michael, aka Jesus, to create everything else. The Holy Spirit to them is God's power, or impersonal active force. They equate it to electricity, gravity, or magnetism, just an invisible force that is impersonal.
They do not believe in the soul. They are materialists. They don't think that death is the end of it. Hell is just non-existence. When Jesus became a man, he ceased to exist as Michael, and God recreated him as Jesus. When Jesus died he ceased to exist and God recreated him as Michael. Resurrection for them is something more like recreation. You cease to exist at death and God make a copy of you from memory and that is what they call resurrection.
They also don't believe that Jesus rose physically from the grave. They believe that he was resurrected with a spirit body, like an angel. They have a two tiered, two class salvation. They believe that only 144000 are born again and go to heaven. The rest are given perfect life in a restored Eden on Earth. Salvation for a Jehovah's Witness is a works based legalism.