What Do Jehovah's Witnesses Believe?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Fr. William Saunders

Recently a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door. Could you please explain to me their background and what they believe?—A reader in Springfield

The Jehovah's Witnesses were founded by Charles Taze Russell, a former haberdasher from Philadelphia, in early 1872 in Alleghany, Pa. Russell was born on Feb. 16, 1852 in Pittsburgh, and died on Oct. 31, 1916. He was baptized a Congregationalist, and was raised in a strict Protestant family. His later study of the Bible led him to deny the existence of hell and the doctrine of the Trinity, and to express Arian views concerning the nature of Jesus Christ, denying His divinity.

In 1879, Russell founded the journal <The Watchtower> and in 1884 formed the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. He traveled on preaching missions throughout the United States and Europe, organizing his followers, who were called Russellites, Millennial Dawnists, International Bible Students and finally Jehovah's Witnesses. During his missionary work, he faced several scandals including separation from his wife after 18 years of marriage, and the accusation of fraud for selling "miracle wheat" for a very high price.

Upon Russell's death in 1916, Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford, a Missouri lawyer who had defended Russell in several of his legal battles, succeeded him as president of the society. Rutherford officially incorporated the group in 1931 as the Jehovah's Witnesses with the legal title, "The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society." Rutherford developed Russell's ideas into a formal doctrinal system. He also transformed the congregational structure of the sect as it was under Russell into a rigid theocracy. Rutherford laid the foundation for the sect as we know it today.

According to the Jehovah's Witnesses, there is one God, and since 1931, they have insisted that He be called "Jehovah." This is a corruption in the pronunciation of the Hebrew <Yahweh>, which occurred about the third century B.C. and was carried into the King James Bible's translation of <Yahweh> in Exodus 6:3. The Jehovah's Witnesses say that Jesus is God's Son, but is inferior to God. They condemn the Trinity as pagan idolatry and accordingly deny Christ's divinity. Russell even claimed that the Trinity was the idea of Satan. Ironically, however, when they baptize, they use the formula, "...In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Nevertheless, the Jehovah's Witnesses consider Jesus as the greatest Witness of all, inferior to no one except Jehovah Himself. Before existing as a human being, Jesus was a spiritual creature called the Logos, or Word, or even Michael the Archangel. He died as a man and was raised as an immortal Spirit-Son. His passion and death were the price He paid to regain for mankind the right to live eternally on earth. Indeed, the great multitude of true Witnesses hope in an earthly Paradise (These teachings echo the heresies which the early Church condemned beginning at the council of Nicea in 325).

They believe that the Bible is the only source of belief and rule of conduct. However, their Bible aids seem to have more strength. They are only allowed to use their own translation of the Bible and other official publications. Unfortunately, many purposeful mistranslations exist in their version to support their tenets. For example, in the New Testament, "Lord" is translated <Jehovah> except where it refers directly to Christ. In the Last Supper account, they translate, "Take, eat. This is My body." To "Take, eat. This means My body." To affirm that Jesus was created, they add the word other to Colossians 1:16, "By means of Him, everything was created...,"; "By means of Him, all other things were created in the heaven and upon the earth... All other things have been created through him and for him. Also, He is before all other things and by means of Him all other things were made to exist."

The Jehovah's Witnesses also deny the immortality of the soul, the existence of hell, and the seven sacraments. (Although they have ritual of baptism, they regard it as merely the exterior symbol of their dedication to the service of Jehovah.) They observe no feast—including Christmas—except the Memorial of the Last Supper, which they hold once a year after sundown on the 14th day of Nisan (a former method of computing the date of Easter and Passover) and during which only those who consider themselves as being among the celestial 144,000 may partake of the "emblems"—the bread and wine. They refuse blood transfusions. They also refuse to salute the flag, seeing this as an act of idolatry. They also condemn smoking.

The Jehovah's Witnesses are also preoccupied with Armageddon—the final clash between the forces of good and evil. Here God will destroy the old system of creation and establish Jehovah's Kingdom. A group of 144,000 spiritual sons of God will rise to heaven, rule with Christ, and share their happiness with the others. However, the wicked will undergo complete destruction. Russell said that this Armageddon could not happen later than 1914. (He had given specific dates and times on three earlier occasions, but was wrong). From 1920, Rutherford proclaimed that "millions now living will never die"; he also expected the "princes of old"—Abraham, Isaac, and the others—to come back to life by 1925 as rulers over the New World.

After so many mistaken predictions, the Watch Tower Society of the mid-20th century no longer specified an exact date for all of this to happen; but it repeated that "this generation will by no means pass away until all things occur." More recently, Nathan Knorr, who succeeded Rutherford in 1942 as head, predicted that the world would end in 1974; the world itself did not end, but this world did for Knorr—he died in 1974. Nevertheless, Witnesses are deeply convinced that the end of the world will come within a very few years.

Each member is considered an ordained minister to give witness to Jehovah by announcing His approaching Kingdom. He may do this by door-to-door evangelization, by meeting with others for home Bible studies, or by standing at street corners to display Watch Tower literature. Preaching the good news is the only means of salvation. Ordinarily, the entry level Jehovah's Witness is called a "servant". A "publisher," attends five hourly meetings a week and is to devote 10 hours a month witnessing. A "pioneer" gives 100 hours a month to the society.

The main office is in Brooklyn, New York. The Jehovah's Witnesses are highly centralized. Branch offices in important countries supervise the work and channel the distribution of publications. District and circuit servants regularly visit local congregations to meet local servants, pioneers and publishers. Exact statistics are kept of all activities. As of 1994, about one million Witnesses belong to more than 22,000 congregations in some 80 countries.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.