Jehovah, modern reconstruction of the ancient Hebrew ineffable name of God (Yahweh).

Jehovah's Witnesses is a restorationist, millenialist Christian denomination. The religion emerged from the Bible Student Movement, founded in the late 19th century by Charles Taze Russell, and today claims an active worldwide membership of 7.6 million. They are most well-known for their door-to-door preaching ministry, and their refusal to serve in the military and take blood transfusions.

The religion has received publicity regarding its contributions to medical practice in bloodless surgery, its assistance in the development of constitutional law concerning civil liberties and conscientious objection to military service, and its international publishing and missionary activity. The religion's pacifist stance has brought it into conflict with governments that conscript citizens for military service, and activities of Jehovah's Witnesses are banned in some countries.

The group has been criticized as authoritarian and accused of coercing members to obey doctrines including the ban on blood transfusions. The religion is said to demand unquestioning obedience from members, with the consequence of expulsion and shunning facing any who fail to comply with, express doubts about, or disagree with doctrines.


Charles Taze Russell and the Bible Students

In July 1879, Charles Taze Russell began publishing the magazine, Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence. On February 16, 1884, he formed Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society with W. H. Conley as president and C. T. Russell as secretary and treasurer. In 1884, it was incorporated, with Russell as president.

Presidency of Joseph Franklin Rutherford

Following Russell's death on October 31, 1916, an editorial committee of five was set up to supervise the writing of the Watch Tower magazine, as set forth in Russell's Last Will and Testament. On January 6, 1917, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (also known as "Judge" Rutherford) was elected unopposed as the second president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.

A power struggle soon developed between Rutherford — described as an autocrat who ruled with a rod of iron — and four of the seven-member Board of Directors of the Society. Matters reached a climax on July 17, 1917 as the book The Finished Mystery was released to the headquarters staff in Brooklyn. Rutherford announced to the staff that he was dismissing the four directors and replacing them with new members, claiming they had not been legally elected. As a consequence of the leadership controversy, a number of splinter groups formed from the International Bible Students Association.

The Finished Mystery was controversial for its criticism of Catholic and Protestant clergy and Christian involvement in war. Citing this book, the United States federal government indicted Rutherford and the new board of directors for violation of the Espionage Act on May 7, 1918. They were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. However, in March 1919, the judgment against them was reversed and they were released from prison. The charges were later dropped. Patriotic fervor during World War I fueled persecution of the Bible Students both in America and in Europe, including mob violence and tarring and feathering.

Doctrinal changes under Rutherford's presidency

At an international convention held at Cedar Point, Ohio in September 1922, a new emphasis was made on house-to-house preaching. The period from 1925–1933 saw many significant changes in doctrine. Attendance at their yearly Memorial dropped from a high of 90,434 in 1925 down to 17,380 in 1928, due to the previous power struggle, the failed expectations for the year 1925, and doctrinal changes that alienated those who sided with Russell's views.

On July 26, 1931, the name Jehovah's Witnesses was adopted by resolution at a convention in Columbus, Ohio. By 1933, the year 1914 was seen as the beginning of Christ's presence (Greek: pa'rou'si'a), his enthronement as king, and the start of the "last days" instead of being considered the terminal date in their chronology. The offices and election of elders and deacons (called "ministerial servants") were also discontinued during this era with all such positions in local congregations being appointed by headquarters.Converts to the movement after 1935 were generally identified as those who, if worthy, would survive Armageddon and live on a paradise earth. Membership before this time was generally composed of those who believed they would be resurrected to live in heaven to rule over the earth with Christ.

World War II and more persecution

Hitler's Nazi Germany persecuted Jehovah's Witnesses, and many were imprisoned in concentration camps. Their identifying badge was a purple triangle. In the book, Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi Regime, author Hans Hesse commented, "Some five thousand Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to concentration camps where they alone were 'voluntary prisoners', so termed because the moment they recanted their views, they could be freed. Some lost their lives in the camps, but few renounced their faith. During this time period, Witnesses also experienced mob violence in America and were temporarily banned in Canada and Australia because they were perceived as being against the war effort.

Nathan Knorr and reorganization

On January 13, 1942, Nathan Homer Knorr succeeded Rutherford and was named the third president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Knorr founded the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead to train missionaries, as well as the Theocratic Ministry School to train preaching and teaching at the congregational level. In 1943, the United States Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette that school children of Jehovah's Witnesses could not be compelled to recite the Pledge of Alliegance.

In 1946, Knorr proposed a fresh translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. A translation committee was formed in 1947 and the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (New Testament) was released in 1950. The translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) was gradually released as a series of separate volumes in the following years, with the release of the complete New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures as a single volume in 1961. Knorr's vice-president Frederick William Franz became the leading theologian, and is believed to have been the principal translator of the New World Translation. Also produced were a Greek-English New Testament interlinear (The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures) and a Bible dictionary (Aid to Bible Understanding).

During the 1960s and early 1970s, various references were made in Witnesses' literature and at assemblies, implying that Christ's thousand-year millennial reign might begin by 1975. The chronology pointing to 1975 was noted in the secular media at the time. From 1975 to 1980, there was a drop in membership following an uneventful 1975. The Watchtower Society later admitted its responsibility in building up hope regarding the year 1975.

Further reorganization

The offices of elder and ministerial servant were restored to Witness congregations in 1972, with appointments being made from headquarters.

In 1976, the leadership of Jehovah's Witnesses was reorganized, and authority regarding doctrinal and organizational decisions passed from the president to the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses of the Watch Tower Society. After Knorr's death in 1977, the presidents have been Frederick William Franz, Milton George Henschel and Don A. Adams.


Jehovah's Witnesses have no formal clergy-laity division. All baptized members are considered to be ordained ministers and share in the preaching and teaching work. A body of Elders supervises each congregation, in accord with guidance and instructions provided by the Governing Body.


Unless explicitly stated, statements in this section reflect the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses.


Jehovah's Witnesses give emphasis to the use of God's Biblical name, the Tetragrammaton, and in English they prefer to use the name, Jehovah. Jehovah's Witnesses see mankind as participants in a challenge involving the competing claims of Jehovah and Satan to universal sovereignty.

Jesus Christ

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus was created by Jehovah, and that Jehovah then created everything else by means of Jesus. While on earth as a human, Jesus performed miracles, but he does not perform them now. Jesus served as a ransom sacrifice to pay for the sins of mankind. They believe that Jesus died on a single upright torture stake rather than the traditional cross, and that he was resurrected as a spirit rather than bodily.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus and the Archangel Michael are the same being.


Jehovah's Witnesses believe that salvation from sin is necessary because Jehovah punishes all sin with death, but that everlasting life is possible for those who repent. Their salvation is not experienced as a sudden moment of realisation. Publications of Jehovah's Witnesses have stated that only those serving Jehovah will survive God's judgment of the world. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus' death was necessary to atone for the sin brought into the world by the first man, Adam, opening the way for the hope of everlasting life for mankind, and that 144,000 anointed Christians will receive immortal life in heaven as co-rulers with Christ, ruling over the rest of mankind during the Millennial Reign. They believe that God’s kingdom was established "in heaven with Christ Jesus as King" in 1914. During the war of Armageddon, the wicked will be destroyed, while the survivors along with millions of others who will be resurrected will form a new earthly society ruled by a heavenly government, with the possibility of living forever in an earthly paradise.

The vast majority of Jehovah's Witnesses expect to live in a renewed paradise on Earth. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus' first act as King in 1914 was to throw Satan out of heaven. Those of the 144,000 who had already died are believed to have been resurrected as spirit creatures to heavenly life 1918. Since then, any remaining members of the 144,000 who die are believed to be immediately resurrected to heavenly life, based on their understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52. They also teach that it is up to Jesus, and not people, to judge individuals. The prospect for small children and the mentally ill is unknown.

They believe that after Armageddon, the majority of mankind who have died, both righteous and unrighteous but specifically excluding those who die at Armageddon, will be resurrected, with the chance of being judged righteous and living forever in paradise. The resurrected ones have a period of 1000 years to demonstrate obedience. During this period, the 144,000 rule as kings and judges along with Jesus. After the period of 1000 years, Satan and his demons will be given a chance to mislead people again. Then Satan and any who follow him will be destroyed. Thereafter, faithful humans will live forever on earth.


Jehovah's Witnesses believe that death is a state of non-existence with no consciousness. They do not believe in any Hell of fiery torment. Hades and Sheol are understood to be the "common grave". They consider the soul to be the living being that expires. Their hope for life after death involves being resurrected by God, either bodily on earth after Armageddon, or to heaven for the limited number of 144,000.

Authority of the Bible

Jehovah's Witnesses consider the entire Bible (following the Protestant canon, hence excluding the deuterocanonical books), to be the inspired word of God, historically and mostly literally true.They believe the Bible also uses symbolism, parable, figures of speech, and poeticism. They do not consider themselves to be fundamentalist.

Because of the intellectual expounding of their interpretation of the Bible, they have been termed "a rational religion". The New World Translation reads at John 17:3 that everlasting life depends in part on "taking in knowledge" of God.

Jehovah’s Witness consider their religion the “sole visible channel” of Jehovah, and that the Bible cannot be understood without the assistance and guidance of what they call “Jehovah’s visible organization”.

Ethics and morality

Their view of morality reflects conservative Christian values. All sexual relations outside of marriage are grounds for expulsion (disfellowshipping) from the group. Abortion is considered murder. Modesty in dress and grooming is frequently emphasized. Gambling, drunkenness, illegal drugs, and tobacco use are forbidden.

The family structure is patriarchal. The husband is considered the final authority on family decisions, but is encouraged to solicit his wife's thoughts and feelings, as well as those of his children. Marriages are required to be monogamous. Divorce is condemned for any reason other than adultery. Abuse and willful nonsupport of one's family are considered grounds for separation.

Avoidance of interfaith activity

Jehovah's Witnesses contend that the Bible has always condemned the mixing of religions on the basis that there can only be one truth from God. They believe only their religion represents true Christianity and that all other religions fail to meet all the requirements set by God and will be destroyed. They are opposed to 'councils' that unite or combine different religions.


Weddings, anniversaries, and funerals are observed.

Religious holidays such as New Year's Day, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas are not celebrated, for they regard these as pagan (non-Christian) in origin. They have published information regarding the origins of these and other holidays. They also refrain from most celebrations that focus on individuals, such as birthdays.

Relationship with governments

Jehovah's Witnesses believe their allegiance belongs to God's Kingdom, which is viewed as an actual government. Thus they refrain from saluting the flag of any country or singing nationalistic songs. They believe that these acts are tantamount to worship. The political neutrality of Jehovah's Witnesses is also expressed by their refusal to participate in military service – even when it is compulsory – and by their detachment from secular politics. Voting in political elections is considered a compromise of their Christian neutrality. However, they believe that they owe the secular authorities their obedience. Members are expected to obey all laws of their native governments, so long as these do not violate their interpretations of scripture. They are instructed to pay all taxes of the country in which they reside, considering the government to be solely responsible for how they are used.


Jehovah's Witnesses are instructed to make their preaching work the top priority in their life. Members who pursue tertiary education are instructed to keep their studies secondary to 'spiritual responsibilities'.

Jehovah's Witnesses provide various religious training programs for their members. Some examples are the Theocratic Ministry School (available for everyone), Pioneer Service School, Ministerial Training School, Gilead Missionary School, and others, specifically focused on improving skills for their ministry.


Jehovah's Witnesses are opposed to blood transfusions based on their understanding of how the Bible says blood should be treated. In 1961, accepting a blood transfusion became grounds for expulsion from the religion. They do not accept the threat of death as sufficient to dissuade them from rejecting blood transfusions for themselves or their children. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Bible prohibits blood transfusions based on their interpretation of Acts 15:28-29:

“For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper. Good health to you!”

While Jehovah's Witnesses are not permitted to accept red cells, white cells, platelets or plasma, they may accept fractions made from these components at their own discretion. The Watchtower Society provides members with Power of Attorney documents to indicate which optional fractions they accept, with preformatted wording prohibiting major components. If a fraction, "makes up a significant portion of that component" or "carries out the key function of a primary component" it may be objectionable to some but is permissible.



Jehovah's Witnesses are perhaps best known for their efforts to spread their beliefs throughout the world. They do this mainly by visiting people from house to house. Free home Bible studies are offered to people who show interest in their beliefs. They use their publications, such as The Watchtower, to explain their beliefs. Literature is published in many languages through a wide variety of books, magazines and other publications, with some publications being available in as many as 410 languages. Witnesses are instructed to devote as much time as possible to preaching activities.

They believe that their preaching work is a form of humanitarian effort by helping people apply Biblical principles to improve their lives, and that their preaching work gives people hope for the future. All who qualify are encouraged to participate in the preaching work, but only active ministers are counted as current members.

Aid work

Aid work after large natural disasters is considered an important part of their work, though secondary to their preaching effort. Large sums of donated money are used in the affected areas to rebuild communities and provide aid. The focus of relief efforts is primarily on rebuilding Kingdom Halls, and helping fellow members and, but assistance is usually also provided to non-members in need near the area in which they are working. Examples of relief work include that provided to Hutu and Tutsi victims during the Rwandan genocide, to Congo refugees, and after Hurricane Katrina in the United States of America.

The Memorial

Their most important annual event is the commemoration of Jesus' death on behalf of mankind, referred to as the Memorial or the Lord's Evening Meal. It is held after sundown, on the day corresponding to the date of the Hebrew Passover (Nisan 14 on the Hebrew calendar), usually in March or April, in relation to the first full moon after the spring equinox. The event is open to anyone by invitations given out about a month before. Over 17 million attended the Memorial worldwide in 2007.

During the event, unleavened bread and wine, emblems symbolizing Jesus' perfect body and shed blood, are passed to each person in attendance. Only those members who profess to be of the anointed 144,000 partake of the emblems. They believe that those who partake unworthily of the emblems will be judged by Jehovah.


Jehovah's Witnesses have an active presence in most countries, though they do not form a large part of the population of any country. Brazil, Mexico, and the United States are the only countries where the number of active Witness publishers exceeds half a million. As of February 2008, Jehovah's Witnesses have an average of 6.8 million members actively involved in preaching. Since the mid-1990s, the number of peak publishers has increased from 4.5 million to 7.0 million. However, there has been a decline in growth rates, from over 8% per annum in the mid 1970s, to 5% per annum in the mid 1990s, to about 2%–3% per annum since 1999. Growth rates and activity reports tend to show significant geographical variation. The official published membership statistics only include those who have reported preaching activity. 'Inactive' and disfellowshipped members, and any who have either not been involved in preaching or have not submitted reports, are not included in the reported figures but may be reflected in the attendance at the Witnesses' annual Memorial. In the United States where the religion’s world headquarters is located, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a very low retention rate among individuals raised in the religion. About one-third of children among Jehovah’s Witnesses still identify themselves with the religion as adults.

Main publications used

The publishing arm of Jehovah's Witnesses, known as the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, engages in extensive publication work, with the production of books, brochures, and other media. The most widely spread are:

  • New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. (1961, revised 1984) A translation of the Bible by the New World Bible Translation Committee. It extensively uses the name Jehovah, an English version of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, also replacing the Greek word for "Lord" some 237 times in the New Testament. It is available in 72 languages.
  • The Watchtower. A 32-page magazine, published since 1879, for use in the public ministry; published twice per month, on the 1st and a 15th of each month. From 2008 onward, the issue published on the 15th of each month is a Study Edition for use at the Watchtower Study and not used in the public ministry. It is available in 169 languages.
  • Awake!. A 32-page general interest magazine, with a wider scope than the Watchtower, usually including articles on science, nature, and geography, usually with a religious slant. Earlier titles for this magazine were The Golden Age (1919–1937) and Consolation (1937–1946). Until 2005, Awake! was published on the 8th and 22nd of each month; from 2006 onwards, one issue is published each month. It is available in 81 languages.
  • What Does the Bible Really Teach? (2005) The textbook used to conduct Bible studies.


There have been several controversial issues relating to Jehovah's Witnesses, including: doctrinal differences with mainstream Christianity; their bible translation; their views on blood transfusion; their attitude towards other religions; unfulfilled predictions and changes in doctrine; cult aspects; treatment of apostates; and sexual abuse.


Further reading


  • Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses by M. James Penton. Penton, professor emeritus of history at University of Lethbridge and a former member of the religion, examines the history of Jehovah's Witnesses, and their doctrines. Read selections from: Apocalypse Delayed: the Story of Jehovah's Witnesses University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-7973-3 (Canada, 1998) (Google book search)
  • Jehovah's Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement by Andrew Holden. An academic study on the sociological aspects of Jehovah's Witnesses phenomenon. Publisher: Routledge; 1st edition 2002, ISBN 978–0415266109. 224 pages.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses—Proclaimers of God's Kingdom (1993) by Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Official history of the development of the beliefs, practices, and organizational structure of Jehovah's Witnesses. 750 pages.
  • A People for His Name: A History of Jehovah's Witnesses and an Evaluation by Tony Wills, (2006) 2nd edition. (The first edition was published under the pseudonym Timothy White.) He explores the Witnesses' doctrinal growth and shifts and notes schisms from the main body. 300 pages. ISBN 978–1-4303–0100–4 Selections from Google Books
  • ''Controversies regarding Jehovah's Witnesses#Books Critical of Jehovah's Witnesses

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