History and Techniques of the Jehovah's Witnesses


Courtesy of Catholic Answers

If you walk through the downtown area of a large city, you see them standing in pairs on street comers, usually not smiling. They hold up copies of Awake! or The Watchtower. They'd like you to purchase a copy, but they'll give you one for free if you ask. They're the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Fifty years ago they numbered fewer than 100,000. Now there are several million of them around the world. They don't have churches; they have what are called Kingdom Halls. Their congregations are uniformly small, numbering usually less than two hundred. Most Witnesses used to be Catholics or Protestants.

Let's look a little at their history, because that will help us understand their singular doctrines.

The sect now known as the Jehovah's Witnesses was started by Charles Taze Russell, who was born in 1852 and worked in Pittsburgh as a haberdasher.

He was raised a Congregationalist. At the age of seventeen he tried to convert an

atheist to Christianity and ended up being converted himself instead—not to outright atheism, but to agnosticism.

Some years later he went to an Adventist meeting, was told that Jesus would be back any time, and got interested in the Bible. The leading light of Adventism had been William Miller.

Miller predicted the world would end in 1843. When it didn't, he discovered an arithmetical error and said it would end in 1844. When his prediction again failed, many people became frustrated and withdrew from the Adventist movement, but a remnant, led by Ellen G. White, went on to form the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

It was this diminished Adventism which influenced Russell who took the title "Pastor" even though he never got through high school. He began the Watch Tower—what would later be known as the Jehovah's Witnesses—in 1879. In 1908 he moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, where it has remained ever since.

Before he got well underway in his religious career, Russell promoted what he called "miracle wheat," which he sold at sixty dollars per bushel. He claimed it would grow five times as well as regular wheat. In fact, as established in court when he was sued, it grew slightly less well than regular wheat. Later he marketed a fake cancer cure and what he termed a "millennial bean" (which a wag has said probably got that name because it took a thousand years to sprout).

Their Unusual Doctrines

Doctrines peculiarly identified with the Witnesses and taught by Russell include the non-existence of hell and the consequent annihilation of unsaved people, the non-existence of the Trinity (only the Father, Jehovah, is God), the identification of Jesus with Michael the Archangel, the Holy Spirit not thought of as a Person but just as a force, the mortality (not immortality) of the soul and the return of Jesus in 1914.

When 1914 had come and gone, with no Jesus in sight, Russell modified his teachings and claimed Jesus had, in fact, returned to Earth, but his return was invisible. His visible return would come later.

Russell died in 1916. He was succeeded by "Judge" Joseph R Rutherford. Rutherford, born in 1869, had been brought up as a Baptist and became the legal adviser to the Watch Tower. He never was a real judge, but took the title because, as an attorney, he at least once substituted for an absent judge.

At one time he claimed Russell was next to St. Paul as an expounder of the Gospel, but later, in an effort to have his writing supplant Russell's, he let Russell's books go out of print.

It was Rutherford who coined the slogan, "millions now living will never die." By it he meant that some people alive in 1914 would still be alive when Armageddon came and the world was restored to a paradisaical state.

In 1931 he changed the name of the sect to the Jehovah's Witnesses. An organizer, he equipped missionaries with portable phonographs, which they took door to door. They didn't have to say much when they came calling; all they had to do was put on Rutherford's record.

Rutherford displayed a marked hatred for Catholicism on his radio program and in pamphlets he wrote. Later his successors tempered the sect's anti-Catholicism, but Awake! and The Watchtower still carry anti-Catholic articles every other issue or so, though the tone is subtle, not, as in Rutherford's day, lurid.

Rutherford said that in 1925 Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets would return to Earth, and for them he prepared a mansion in San Diego. Into this mansion Rutherford himself moved. and he died there in 1942.

Trained to Give Testimonies

He was succeeded by Nathan Homer Knorr, who was born in 1905 and died in 1977. Knorr joined the movement as a teenager, working his way up through the ranks. He got rid of the phonographs and insisted that the missionaries attend courses and be trained in door-to door techniques. The Witnesses now have a reputation as skillful deliverers of "personal testimonies."

Since the Bible as preserved through the centuries did not support the peculiar doctrines of the Witnesses as strongly as they might have desired, Knorr chose an anonymous committee to produce the New World Translation, which is used by no sect other than the Witnesses. It buttresses their beliefs through tendentious renderings. For example, to prove that Jesus was only a creature, not divine, John 1:1 concludes this way: "and the Word was 'a' god" [italics added]. Every other translation, Catholic and Protestant—not to mention the Greek original— has "and the Word was God."

What Happened to Armageddon?

Knorr was succeeded by the current head of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Frederick Franz, who is in his late nineties. He had been the Witnesses' leading theologian, and his services were often on call. For some years the sect's magazines had been predicting that Armageddon would occur in 1975. When it didn't, Franz had to find an explanation.

Witnesses believe that Adam was created in 4026 B.C. and that human beings have been allotted 6000 years of existence until Armageddon and the beginning of the millennium Simple arithmetic gives 1975 as the year Armageddon would arrive.

Franz explained that Armageddon would actually come 6000 years after Eve's creation. We don't know how long after Adam's creation she came on the scene, said Franz— maybe it was several years. In any case we'll just have to wait, knowing the end is just around the comer.

When the final battle does occur—remember, it will be during the lifetime of "millions" of people alive in 1914, which means it can't be too far off—Jehovah will defeat Satan and the elect will go to heaven. But only 144,000 will go there as spirit persons (without resurrected bodies). The remaining faithful will live forever on a renewed Earth in resurrected bodies. The unsaved will cease to exist at all.

Jehovah's Witnesses live under a strict regimen. They may be "disfellowshipped" for a variety of reasons, such as attending a Catholic or Protestant church or receiving a blood transfusion.

Disfellowshipping is the sect's equivalent of excommunication. A disfellowshipped Witness my attend Kingdom Hall, but he is not allowed to speak to anyone, and no one may speak to him. The others are to act as though he no longer exists. This applies even to his family.

How They Make Converts

Most religions welcome converts. The Witnesses' very reason for existence is to make converts. To accomplish this they follow several steps.

First they try to get a copy of one of their magazines into the hands of a prospective convert. They lead off with a question such as this: "How would you like to live in a world without sickness, war, poverty, or any other problem?" If the prospect is willing to speak with them, they arrange what's known as a "back call"—that is, they return in a week or so for more discussions. This can be kept up indefinitely.

At some point the missionaries invite the prospect to a Bible study. This is not the usual sort of Bible study, which may resemble a free-for-all. The Bible study is given in the home of a Jehovah's Witness and is directed along lines mandated by the officials in Brooklyn. The prospect is there to learn, not to teach. If he progresses well, he's invited to a larger Bible study, which may be held at a Kingdom Hall.

About this time he's invited to attend a Sunday service. The service is quite unlike the standard Protestant service, which consists of hymn singing, prayers, and a sermon. At the Kingdom Hall, which resembles not so much as church as a small lecture room, the prospect hears a Witness discuss a few verses can be conveyed to non-Witnesses.

Sharing Techniques

The prospect gets still more of this if he proceeds to the next step, which consists of going to meetings on Wednesday or Thursday nights. At those meetings Witnesses trade stories, explaining how they've done that week in going door to door, giving advice to one another, figuring out better ways to get the message across, logging their hours. (Each month each Kingdom Hall mails to Brooklyn a detailed log of hours spent proselytizing and number of converts made.)

If the prospect goes through all these steps, he's ready for admission to the sect. That involves baptism by immersion and agreeing to work actively as a missionary. Many missionaries take only part-time jobs so they can devote more time to their religious work. It's not uncommon for a Witness to log more than 150 hours monthly in house calls.

Although not every Witness can put in so many hours, every Witness is expected to do hat he can by way of missionary work. The Witnesses believe, following Luther's teaching on the universal priesthood of believers, that each of them is a minister, and they act on this belief.

There is no separate, ordained ministry as is found in Protestant churches. Their main task is to enlarge the rolls. Their sect operates no hospitals, sanitariums, orphanages, schools, colleges, or social welfare agencies. Why bother, since it will all disappear in a few years anyway?

They recognize the legitimacy of no governmental authority, since all earthly authority is of Satan. They will not serve in the military, salute the flag, say the "Pledge of Allegiance," vote, run for office, or serve as officials of labor unions.

Everything they do is focused on the imminent end of Satan's rule and the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on Earth. No matter how peculiar their doctrines, they deserve to be complimented on their determination and single-mindedness.

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