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Author and New Religious Movement specialist, David Barrett separates fact from fiction to explore the truth about the Jehovah's Witnesses: PLUS find out which celebrities are Ex JW's click here.

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What do Jehovah’s Witnesses Believe?

Most people know two things about Jehovah’s Witnesses: they knock on your front door (usually when you’re having dinner or watching TV) and they won’t have blood transfusions. Beyond that, they are usually ignored as one of several unorthodox Christian sects we’ve all vaguely heard of, like the Mormons or the Plymouth Brethren.

But what is it about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ (JWs) beliefs that set them apart from the more mainstream, more socially accepted Christian denominations like Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and so on? And why do mainstream denominations not accept JWs as “proper” Christians?

Probably the main difference is that JWs don’t accept Jesus is God, equal in the Trinity to God the Father and the Holy Spirit. They believe Jesus is the first of God’s creations and that he is God’s son, but not God himself; he is inferior to the Father. JWs also believe that the Holy Spirit is just God-in-action, rather than a separate Person of the Godhead. It is quite possibly this belief, much easier to grasp than the logical complexities of the Trinity, which attracts some people to the JW religion.

The main JW publications, Awake! and The Watchtower, strongly feature one of the movement’s most important beliefs: the imminent return of Christ, the Battle of Armageddon and the setting up of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The artwork in the magazines shows perfect nuclear family groups in idyllic pastoral scenes. Although JWs sometimes give the impression that they are the only Christians preaching this End-Time message, in fact their millennialist beliefs are broadly similar not only to those of other millennialist sects but also to the beliefs of many Evangelical Christians within mainstream denominations. It is only because they focus so strongly on this belief that it stands out so much.

For many years JWs taught that only 144,000 believers would be saved. They now have many more members than that (around 6 million worldwide) and their teaching is now that 144,000 will go to heaven as priests and kings, while all other believers will have eternal life on Earth after Christ’s return.

JW’s also believe…

• Non-believers will not suffer an eternity of torment and punishment in Hell, as mainstream Christianity teaches. For non-believers, the dead are dead, and simply do not exist any more. Only true believers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, will be brought back to a new life at the return of Christ.

• Jesus did not die on a cross but on a stake, with his arms stretched and nailed above him rather than out to his side (this belief became part of their teachings in 1936; before that they had accepted the cross).

• They are the only Christians with the truth. In the words of their second and most influential leader, Joseph Franklin “Judge” Rutherford (1869-1942), “The ecclesiastical systems, Catholic and Protestant, are under supervision and control of the Devil, and form a part of his visible organisation, and therefore constitute the anti-Christ.”

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Jehovah’s Witnesses – The History

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were founded by Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). Brought up in a Congregationalist family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he could not accept that a loving God would condemn countless millions to everlasting torment in hell. After death, he believed, there is nothing; death is the end – until, for believers, the Second Coming.

The return of Christ and the establishment of his millennial kingdom on Earth was a very prevalent belief in 19th century America. Seventh-day Adventism developed out of the failed prophecy of William Miller in 1843 and 1844 (“the Great Disappointment”); Christadelphianism was founded in 1848; many other small millennialist sects flourished and faded.

Russell wrote a booklet on Christ’s return in 1877, and in 1879 published the first issue of the magazine Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence. In 1881 he founded the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, which is still the name of the publishing company at the heart of the JW organisation. Over the next thirty years he wrote six volumes of Studies in the Scriptures.

It often happens that after the death of the founder of a movement there is a power struggle for the leadership; schisms occur, and splinter groups are formed. Movements sometimes take on their later distinctive character more from their second leader than from their founder.1 This was certainly the case after Russell’s death, when Joseph Franklin “Judge” Rutherford took control. His forthright attitude and his alteration of some of Russell’s teachings caused several thousand members to leave, setting up new organisations faithful to Russell: the Pastoral Bible Institute, the Laymen’s Home Missionary Movement, the Dawn Bible Students Association and some twenty others, many of which still exist.2

For the first few decades Russell’s movement was simply known as Bible Students; from 1910 they were officially called the International Bible Students’ Association. Detractors often called them Russellites or, later, Rutherfordites. They took the name Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931.

“Judge” Rutherford was succeeded in 1942 by Nathan Homer Knorr, not a charismatic preacher like his predecessors but a skilled administrator who was responsible both for systematising the distinctive door-to-door evangelism of the JW movement, and also for initiating the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own translation of the Bible, the New World Translation (New Testament 1950, whole Bible 1961). By the time of Knorr’s death in 1977 much of the leader’s power and authority had passed to the organisation’s Governing Body.

1. See Chapter 6, “After the Prophet Dies”, in David V Barrett, The New Believers, Cassell 2001, pp. 58-69.
2. There is a useful list at http://www.biblestudents.net/history/daughters_tower.htm.

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Medical Controversies

JWs are well known for their refusal to have blood transfusions even when they, or their children, might die without one. This teaching, which was only introduced in 1945, is based on biblical prohibitions against eating blood (Genesis 9:3-6, Acts 15:29). The Bible shows that blood is sacred, the religion teaches, and that it is not to be used for human consumption; and they interpret this to include transfusions. There is a small reform group of JWs which argues that this policy is misguided, but generally the religion has held firmly to this belief. Even “autologous transfusion”, the storing of a patient’s own blood for transfusion back into the same person, is forbidden.

Over the years JW policy on other related medical practices has changed several times. At one time they were opposed to vaccinations; now they accept them. Similarly, serum injections, the use of blood fractions, Factor VIII etc have at different times been forbidden or accepted, or left to the conscience of individual members.

Similarly, JW policy on organ transplants used to be that this was a form of cannibalism, and so forbidden. This policy was reversed in 1980, and transplants are now permitted as a matter of personal conscience.

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Social Problems

One social difficulty, especially for young people growing up in the religion, is that JWs don’t celebrate Christmas, birthdays or national holidays. Their reasoning is that Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter are actually based on Pagan festivals, and that “birthday celebrations were giving undue honour to creatures”; they ignore national holidays “because Jehovah’s Witnesses are no part of the world”. This can cause awkwardness and embarrassment for children at school, who do not receive presents at Christmas, and who cannot go to (or have their own) birthday parties. Although JW pupils may take Religious Studies as a subject with other pupils, they must withdraw from school assemblies. They are also discouraged from taking part in any after-school activities.

Such restrictions make JW teenagers different from their peers, at the time in their life when they most want to be accepted by them. Socially and emotionally, at what is already a potentially fraught time of developing from childhood to adulthood, such difference makes life for a JW teenager even more difficult.

The JW religion is very strict on sexual morality. Teenagers in JW families are not allowed to go to clubs, pubs or parties where inhibitions may be relaxed. They are discouraged from having boyfriends or girlfriends at all while still of school age. Even young adults in relationships must avoid being alone together; suspicion of physical intimacy, even sensual kissing, can bring disciplinary action from the Church elders.

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Theological Controversies

The name of the Jehovah’s Witnesses comes from Isaiah 43:10-12, which reads “Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, or “Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah” in the American Standard Version of the Bible. The name translated here as Jehovah is actually YHWH (sometimes called the tetragrammaton), the Hebrew sacred name of God. Written Hebrew did not use vowels; YHWH probably expands to something like Yahweh. But Jews regarded this name as too holy to pronounce aloud, so when they came to it in their scriptures they substituted the phrase “the Lord” or “my Lord” (Hebrew: Adonai) instead.

JWs teach that Jesus “bore witness to God’s name”, and that they must do the same. They claim that God’s personal name “had been obscured in English” by both Roman Catholic and Protestant Bible translations, but that “the name Jehovah occurs in the original-language text thousands of times”.1 Jehovah’s Witnesses produced their own New World Translation of the New Testament in 1950. “One of the outstanding features of this translation is its restoration of the divine name, the personal name of God, Jehovah, 237 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures.”2

In fact the name Jehovah doesn’t appear in either the original Hebrew Old Testament or the original Greek New Testament. The name is a relatively modern construction formed by adding the vowels of Adonai to the tetragrammaton YHWH; some scholars believe it was first formulated in the 14th century, though it didn’t appear in English Bibles until 1530 (as Iehouah) and 1769 (as Jehovah).

Although many Christians believe in the return of Christ, and American Evangelicals in particular expect it imminently (note the phenomenal success of Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1973) and the Left Behind novels (1995-continuing), amongst others), most don’t set dates. Those who do invariably end up embarrassed. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have expected the Second Coming of Christ in 1874, 1914, 1925 and (along with the Worldwide Church of God and some other Christian sects) 1975. In each case they were shown to be wrong; they lost face, and sometimes they lost members.

The JWs’ saying “Millions now living will never die” is a highly effective religious marketing slogan. It was coined by the JWs’ second leader, “Judge” Rutherford, as the title of a brochure in 1920. Although millions of people alive in 1920 are still alive today, time is running out for this most famous claim of the JWs.

1. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society 1993, p. 124.
2. Ibid., p. 609.
3. Ibid., pp. 199, 201.

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Jehovah’s Witnesses - Further Reading

“Jehovah’s Witnesses” entry in David V Barrett, The New Believers, London: Cassell 2001, pp. 185-192.

Andrew Holden, Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement, London: Routledge 2002. A good sociological study, particularly of the difficulties young JWs face integrating with wider society.

Diane Wilson, Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness: Escape From the Watchtower Society, New York: Prometheus Books 2002. Very critical book by an ex-member about her problems leaving the JWs. Although a one-sided picture, this book is particularly useful for showing how JW teachings on everything from medical treatment to sexual behaviour have changed frequently over the years.

Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society 1993. This is a very detailed (750-page) official JW account of their origin, history, beliefs, etc.

David V Barrett, author and New Religious Movements specialist, separates fact from fiction to explore the truth about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Find out which celebrities are Ex JW's:


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JW beliefs
JW history more >>
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Copyright Rachel Underhill 2007