Who are the Jehovah’s Witnesses? On a recent podcast, David and I began discussing what constitutes a cult. The word cult has taken on some rather ominous overtones since the late sixties. When someone mentions the word cult now, what typically comes to mind is Jim Jones, The Manson Family or The Heaven’s Gate cult. Cults are generally seen as extreme, dangerous and controlling. Many of the new atheists include Christianity as a type of cult.
Can We Use The Word “Cult”?
This hasn’t always been the case with the word “cult” however. Traditionally, a cult was simply a word used to describe a religion that was an off shoot of a more accepted religion. Cults deny one or more of the major doctrines of their parent religion. In the book “Kingdom Of The Cults”, Walter Martin offered this definition of what a cult is:
“By the term cult I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.” Dr. Charles Braden
And using this description clearly pegs Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult of Christianity. They are one of the two most common evangelists to show up at your door, along with the Mormons. But who exactly are the Jehovah’s Witnesses? What sets them apart from classical Christianity?
We’ll look at the beliefs of the Watchtower Society in a future post. In this blog, I’d like to give you a brief history of the organization and its leaders.
Charles Taze Russell founded what is now known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He began leading Bible studies in 1870 at the age of 18. Russell continued to grow this study in Pittsburg, PA, and in 1876 the group elected him as “pastor”.
Russell had become disillusioned with certain teachings of the Christian Church, specifically the doctrine of eternal damnation. He spent some time in the Seventh Day Adventist, but later left after several instances of false predictions of the second coming of Jesus.
Russell began publishing “The Herald of the Morning” magazine in 1879. Over time this magazine transformed into simply “The Watchtower”. The publication has grown from an initial run of 6,000 copies to 17.8 million copies per month in 110 languages today. In 1886 Russell wrote what is considered a sacred text for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Studies of the Scriptures. The group was renamed “Watchtower Bible and Tract Society” in 1896.
The church relocated to Brooklyn New York in 1908. Shortly after this Russell began making predictions about the return of Jesus. Russell predicted that Jesus would return and mark the beginning of the millennial age in 1914. Obviously, this prediction proved to be false. Faced with a failed prediction, Russell and the church began making adjustments to his original prophecy. Russell died in 1916, and Joseph Rutherford took over as leader of the organization.
Rutherford began a growth period of the church. He started a radio network that grew to 403 radio stations by 1933. He started what is now known as “Awake” magazine. Rutherford was responsible for initiating the door to door evangelism program that continue to this day.
In 1931 there was a split in the church. The name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was used to differentiate between the Watchtower organization that remained loyal to Rutherford, and “The Dawn Bible Students” and “Layman’s Home Missionary Movement” that claimed to remain faithful to Russell’s original teachings. Rutherford died in 1942, and Nathan Knorr took over as the leader of the group.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses won several law suits during World War II that allowed their members to abstain from military service. In total, they won 36 cases before the Supreme Court in defense of their passivists teachings.
Knorr oversaw “The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures” in 1960. The scholars that completed this translation were kept anonymous, supposedly to keep the authors humble and not draw glory to them. This translation has been widely criticized as inaccurate, with many changes being made to the text to fit Watchtower theology.
Knorr grew the church from a membership of a little over 100,000 members in 1942 to 2 million members in 1977. Frederick Franz took over for Knorr. Franz had previously predicted that the world would end in 1975. This marked the second time the church had incorrectly predicted the end of the world.
After Franz leadership, the church decided to continue on with a governing body consisting of 18 men. The structure remains in place to this day. Current membership in the church is around 6 million members.
This is just a brief overview of the organization. For those interest in further study, I recommend “Kingdom Of The Cults” by Walter Martin. In the next few posts, we’ll discuss the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and how best to evangelize to them. Have you ever tried to evangelize to a Jehovah’s Witness? How did it go?
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