Jehovah’s Witnesses are followers of the teachings of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York and Pennsylvania. Jehovah’s Witnesses are categorized as a restorationist, millenarian Christian religious movement.
Modern religious historians classify this group as an Adventist sect. Founded in the late 19th century by Charles Taze Russell, often referred to as “Pastor Russell,” the group emerged from the Bible Student Movement and Russell’s publishing company, Zion’s Watchtower.
After Russell’s death in 1916, the movement underwent significant organizational changes. Under the leadership of Joseph F. Rutherford, popularly known as “Judge Rutherford,” between 1917 and the 1940s its traditional authority and structure as small, semi-independent groups of Bible students was centralized and controlled from the Brooklyn, New York headquarters of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
Under Rutherford, the Bible Students changed their official name to “Jehovah’s Witnesses” in 1931. Their preaching methods were brought under greater regimentation and they basically became door-to-door book and Bible salesmen. They were even referred to as “publishers” and their groups as “companies.”
The religion today claims an active worldwide membership of 6 to 10 million. Members are defined in subgroups as new unbaptized, active baptized, non-active baptized, disassociated, and disfellowshipped.
“New unbaptized” members include many thousands that are regular associates who attend meetings at Kingdom Halls, but do not do any door-to-door preaching on their own. This group includes small children and those who are still involved in primary Bible studies under a mentor Jehovah’s Witness who is “active.”
“Active baptized” members are referred to as “brothers” and “sisters.” They are expected to attend all meetings held at the local Kingdom Hall and to participate in the door-to-door preaching work on a weekly basis.
Active members are further divided into categories that include regular publishers, vacation pioneers, pioneers, special pioneers, overseers, and elders. These subgroups are defined by the number of hours they spend in door-to-door preaching, by their appointed positions within the local organization, and by their special oversight responsibilities.
“Non-active members” are those who have stopped attending meetings or participating in door-to-door “field service,” but have not publicly announced that they have left or want to leave the local organization.
“Disassociated” members have been baptized, but have chosen to stop coming to the Kingdom Hall. They have not been charged with any sinful act that would have them banned by the group. These members can often resume their active status by just coming back to the group and occasionally participating in field service.
“Disfellowshipped” members have been baptized, but have been banned from group membership except under extremely onerous conditions. They have typically been disfellowshipped or excommunicated because of some act considered sinful or for openly expressing doubt or disagreement with the teachings of the Watchtower Society. These former members are shunned by all faithful JWs and may not have any fellowship with those who are still active. This includes family members, close friends, and fellow workers. If a disfellowshipped person wants to return to the group, then he or she must undergo a probationary period, openly repent of their sins or doubt, and promise to attend all meetings and go in field service with another JW.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for their door-to-door preaching and for their refusal of military service. They also refuse to salute the flag, vote in any public election, and will not allow blood transfusions to be given to them or their children – no matter how serious their condition might be.
The religion’s stance of conscientious objection to military service has brought it into conflict with governments that draft citizens for military service. In some countries, activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned because they do not vote, join political parties or go into the military. They will also not accept national guard, police, deputy sheriff or prison guard positions.
As a result of their refusal to salute the flag or serve in the military, since 1940 Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a major influence on US constitutional law concerning civil liberties and conscientious objection to military service.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they are living in the last days of the present world order. In the years leading up to 1914, 1925 and 1975, their publications proclaimed that they held expectations that Christ would return and Armageddon would occur in those years. Making these predictions resulted in surges in membership leading up to the promised year and then massive defections in the months and years afterward when their predictions failed to be true.
Jehovah’s Witnesses say publicly that they consider the Bible as the supreme authority for their teachings and practices. In reality, private study of the Bible is strongly discouraged and most of their teachings come directly from the pages of their publications, primarily the semi-monthly Watchtower magazine and to a lesser extent the monthly Awake! magazine
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach doctrines that differ frequently from traditional Christian theology. Major Christian denominations have denounced the group as either an un-Christian cult or heretical American Protestant sect.
Medical ethicists have criticized Jehovah’s Witnesses for coercing members to reject blood transfusions. Former members have revealed that the Watchtower Society demands unquestioning obedience from members and full acceptance of every one of the current Watchtower teachings. Any open disagreement with Watchtower doctrine or its interpretaton of Bible scriptures will result in expulsion and shunning.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate most public and religious holidays. They do not celebrate birthdays or participate in any birthday parties of others. They do not vote, nor do they run for public office. Some Witnesses do work for government agencies, but only in jobs that are similar in nature to those found in private corporations such as clerical, administrative, and technical positions. They typically resist joining trade unions, but if they must as a requirement for their employment, they do not otherwise participate or vote in union elections.
Good general history of the Watchtower Society and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Basic Watchtower Society Teachings
The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures