Jehovah's Witnesses

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Jehovah's Witnesses is a nontrinitarian, millenarian, restorationist Christian denomination. As of 2023, the group reported approximately 8.6 million members involved in evangelism, with around 20.5 million attending the annual Memorial of Christ's death. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the destruction of the present world system at Armageddon is imminent, and the establishment of God's kingdom over earth is the only solution to all of humanity's problems.

Jehovah's Witnesses
ClassificationRestorationist
OrientationPremillennialist
ScriptureBible
TheologyNontrinitarian
GovernanceGoverning Body
StructureHierarchical
RegionWorldwide
HeadquartersWarwick, New York, U.S.
FounderCharles Taze Russell (Bible Student movement)
Joseph Franklin Rutherford
Origin1870s
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Branched fromBible Student movement, Adventism
SeparationsJehovah's Witnesses splinter groups
Congregations118,117 (2023)
Members8,625,042 (2023)
Missionaries4,091 (2021)
PublicationsJehovah's Witnesses publications
Official websitejw.org

The group emerged in the United States from the Bible Student movement founded in the late 1870s by Charles Taze Russell, who also co-founded Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society in 1881 to organize and print the movement's publications. A leadership dispute after Russell's death resulted in several groups breaking away, with Joseph Franklin Rutherford retaining control of the Watch Tower Society and its properties. Rutherford made significant organizational and doctrinal changes, including adoption of the name Jehovah's witnesses in 1931 to distinguish the group from other Bible Student groups and symbolize a break with the legacy of Russell's traditions.

Jehovah's Witnesses are known for their door-to-door preaching, distributing literature such as The Watchtower and Awake!, and for refusing military service and blood transfusions. They consider the use of God's name vital for proper worship. They reject Trinitarianism, inherent immortality of the soul, and hellfire, which they consider unscriptural doctrines. They do not observe Christmas, Easter, birthdays, or other holidays and customs they consider to have pagan origins incompatible with Christianity. They prefer to use their own Bible translation, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Witnesses commonly call their body of beliefs "The Truth" and consider themselves to be "in the Truth". They consider human society morally corrupt and under the influence of Satan, and most limit their social interaction with non-Witnesses.

The denomination is directed by a group of elders known as the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, which establishes all doctrines. Congregational disciplinary actions include disfellowshipping, their term for formal expulsion and shunning, a last resort for what they consider serious offenses. Baptized people who formally leave are considered disassociated and are also shunned. Members are not allowed to socialize with a shunned individual. Disfellowshipped and disassociated people may eventually be reinstated. Former members may experience significant mental distress as a result of being shunned, and some seek reinstatement to keep contact with their friends and family.

The group's position on conscientious objection to military service and refusal to salute state symbols (like national anthems and flags) has brought it into conflict with some governments. Some Jehovah's Witnesses have been persecuted, and their activities banned or restricted in some countries. Persistent legal challenges by Jehovah's Witnesses have influenced legislation related to civil rights in several countries. The organization has been criticized regarding biblical translation, doctrines, and alleged coercion of its members. The Watch Tower Society has made various unfulfilled predictions about major biblical events, such as Christ's Second Coming, the advent of God's kingdom, and Armageddon. Their policies for handling cases of child sexual abuse have been the subject of various formal inquiries.

History

Background (1870–1916)

 
Pastor Russell, founder of the Watch Tower Society

In 1870, Charles Taze Russell and others formed a group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to study the Bible. During his ministry, Russell disputed many of mainstream Christianity's tenets, including immortality of the soul, hellfire, predestination, the fleshly return of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the burning up of the world. In 1876, he met Nelson H. Barbour. Later that year they jointly produced the book Three Worlds, which combined restitutionist views with end time prophecy.

The book taught that God's dealings with humanity were divided dispensationally, each ending with a "harvest", that Christ had returned as an invisible spirit being in 1874, inaugurating the "harvest of the Gospel age", and that 1914 would mark the end of a 2,520-year period called "the Gentile Times", at which time world society would be replaced by the full establishment of God's kingdom on earth. Beginning in 1878, Russell and Barbour jointly edited a religious magazine, Herald of the Morning. In June 1879, the two split over doctrinal differences, and in July, Russell began publishing the magazine Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence, saying its purpose was to demonstrate that the world was in "the last days" and that a new age of earthly and human restitution under Christ's reign was imminent.

From 1879, Watch Tower supporters gathered as autonomous congregations to study the Bible topically. Thirty congregations were founded, and during 1879 and 1880, Russell visited each to provide the format he recommended for conducting meetings. In 1881, Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society was presided over by William Henry Conley, and in 1884, Russell incorporated the society as a nonprofit business to distribute tracts and Bibles. By about 1900, Russell had organized thousands of part- and full-time colporteurs, and was appointing foreign missionaries and establishing branch offices. By the 1910s, Russell's organization maintained nearly a hundred "pilgrims", or traveling preachers. Russell engaged in significant global publishing efforts during his ministry, and by 1912, he was the most distributed Christian author in the United States.

Russell moved the Watch Tower Society's headquarters to Brooklyn, New York, in 1909, combining printing and corporate offices with a house of worship; volunteers were housed in a nearby residence he named Bethel. He identified the religious movement as "Bible Students", and more formally as the International Bible Students Association. By 1910, about 50,000 people worldwide were associated with the movement and congregations reelected him annually as their pastor. Russell died on October 31, 1916, at the age of 64 while returning from a ministerial speaking tour.

Reorganization (1917–1942)

 
Joseph F. Rutherford, founder of Jehovah's Witnesses

In January 1917, the Watch Tower Society's legal representative, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, was elected as its next president. His election was disputed, and members of the Board of Directors accused him of acting in an autocratic and secretive manner. The divisions between his supporters and opponents triggered a major turnover of members over the next decade. In June 1917, he released The Finished Mystery as a seventh volume of Russell's Studies in the Scriptures series. The book, published as Russell's posthumous work, was a compilation of his commentaries on the Bible books of Ezekiel and Revelation with numerous additions by Bible Students Clayton Woodworth and George Fisher. It strongly criticized Catholic and Protestant clergy and Christian involvement in the Great War. As a result, Watch Tower Society directors were jailed for sedition under the Espionage Act in 1918 and members were subjected to mob violence; the directors were released in March 1919 and charges against them were dropped in 1920.

Rutherford centralized organizational control of the Watch Tower Society. In 1919, he instituted the appointment of a director in each congregation, and a year later all members were instructed to report their weekly preaching activity to the Brooklyn headquarters. Significant changes in doctrine and administration were regularly introduced during Rutherford's 25 years as president, including the 1920 announcement that the Hebrew patriarchs (such as Abraham and Isaac) would be resurrected in 1925, marking the beginning of Christ's thousand-year earthly kingdom.

Because of disappointment over the changes and unfulfilled predictions, tens of thousands of defections occurred during the first half of Rutherford's tenure, leading to the formation of several Bible Student organizations independent of the Watch Tower Society, most of which still exist. By mid-1919, as many as one in seven of Russell-era Bible Students had ceased their association with the Society, and as many as three-quarters by the end of the 1920s.

On July 26, 1931, at a convention in Columbus, Ohio, Rutherford introduced the new name Jehovah's witnesses, based on Isaiah 43:10: "'Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me'" (King James Version). It was adopted by resolution. The name was chosen to distinguish his group of Bible Students from other independent groups that had severed ties with the Society, as well as to symbolize the instigation of new outlooks and the promotion of fresh evangelizing methods. In 1932, Rutherford eliminated the system of locally elected elders and in 1938, he introduced what he called a theocratic (literally, God-ruled) organizational system, under which appointments in congregations worldwide were made from the Brooklyn headquarters.

From 1932, it was taught that the "little flock" of 144,000 would not be the only people to survive Armageddon. Rutherford explained that in addition to the 144,000 anointed who would be resurrected—or transferred at death—to live in heaven to rule over earth with Christ, a separate class of members, the "great multitude", would live in a paradise restored on earth; from 1935, new converts to the movement were considered part of that class. By the mid-1930s, the timing of the beginning of Christ's presence (Greek: parousía), his enthronement as king, and the start of the last days were each moved to 1914.

 
Nathan H. Knorr, the third president of the Watch Tower Society

As their interpretations of the Bible evolved, Witness publications decreed that saluting national flags is a form of idolatry, which led to a new outbreak of mob violence and government opposition in the U.S., Canada, Germany, and other countries.

Continued development (1942–present)

Nathan Knorr was appointed as third president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in 1942. He commissioned a new translation of the Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the full version of which was released in 1961. He organized large international assemblies, instituted new training programs for members, and expanded missionary activity and branch offices throughout the world. Knorr's presidency was also marked by increased use of explicit instructions guiding Witnesses' lifestyle and conduct and a greater use of congregational judicial procedures to enforce a strict moral code.

From 1966, Witness publications and convention talks built anticipation of the possibility that Christ's thousand-year reign might begin in 1975 or shortly thereafter. The number of baptisms increased significantly, from about 59,000 in 1966 to more than 297,000 in 1974. By 1975, the number of active members exceeded two million. Membership declined during the late 1970s after expectations for 1975 were unfulfilled. Watch Tower Society literature did not say that 1975 would definitely mark the end, but in 1980 the Watch Tower Society admitted its responsibility in building up hope for that year.

The offices of elder and ministerial servant were restored to Witness congregations in 1972, with appointments made from headquarters (and later by branch committees too). It was announced that, as of September 2014, appointments would be made by traveling overseers. In a major organizational overhaul in 1976, the power of the Watch Tower Society president was diminished, with authority for doctrinal and organizational decisions passed to the Governing Body. Since Knorr's death in 1977, the presidency has been held by Frederick Franz, Milton Henschel, Don Alden Adams and Robert Ciranko. In 1995, Jehovah's Witnesses abandoned the idea that Armageddon must occur during the lives of the generation that was alive in 1914. In 2023, the Watch Tower Society announced that most Jehovah's Witness members would no longer be required to report the number of hours spent proselytizing.

Organization

Jehovah's Witnesses are organized hierarchically, in what the leadership calls a theocratic organization, reflecting their belief that it is God's visible organization on earth. The organization is led by the Governing Body—an all-male group that varies in size. Since February 2023, it has comprised nine members, all of whom profess to be of the "anointed" class with a hope of heavenly life—based in the Watch Tower Society's Warwick headquarters. There is no election for membership; the existing body selects new members. Until late 2012, the Governing Body described itself as the representative and "spokesman" for God's "faithful and discreet slave class" (then approximately 10,000 self-professed "anointed" Jehovah's Witnesses).

At the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Watch Tower Society, the "faithful and discreet slave" was defined as the Governing Body only. The Governing Body directs several committees that are responsible for administrative functions, including publishing, assembly programs and evangelizing activities. It appoints all branch committee members and traveling overseers, after they have been recommended by local branches, with traveling overseers supervising circuits of congregations within their jurisdictions. Traveling overseers appoint local elders and ministerial servants, while branch offices may appoint regional committees for matters such as Kingdom Hall construction or disaster relief. The leadership and supporting staff lives in properties owned by the organization worldwide, called "Bethel", where they operate as a religious community and administrative unit. Their living expenses and those of other full-time volunteers are covered by the organization along with a basic monthly stipend.

Each congregation has a body of appointed unpaid male elders and ministerial servants. Elders maintain general responsibility for congregational governance, setting meeting times, selecting speakers and conducting meetings, directing the public preaching work, and creating judicial committees to investigate and decide disciplinary action for cases involving sexual misconduct or doctrinal breaches. New elders are appointed by a traveling overseer after recommendation by the existing body of elders. Ministerial servants—appointed in a similar manner as elders—fulfill clerical and attendant duties, but may also teach and conduct meetings. Witnesses do not use elder as a title to signify a formal clergy-laity division, though elders may employ ecclesiastical privilege regarding confession of sins.

Baptism is a requirement for membership in the Jehovah's Witnesses. Witnesses do not practice infant baptism, and baptisms performed by other denominations are not considered valid. People undergoing baptism must affirm publicly that dedication and baptism identify them "as one of Jehovah's Witnesses in association with God's spirit-directed organization," though Witness publications say baptism symbolizes personal dedication to God and not "to a man, work or organization." Their literature emphasizes that members must be obedient and loyal to Jehovah and "his organization," and that people must remain part of it to receive God's favor and survive Armageddon.

Publishing

The organization produces a significant amount of literature as part of its evangelism activities. The Watch Tower Society has produced over 227 million copies of the New World Translation in whole or in part in over 185 languages. In 2010, The Watchtower and Awake! were the world's most widely distributed magazines.

Funding

Much of the Witnesses' funding is donated, primarily by members. There is no tithing or collection. In 2001 Newsday listed the Watch Tower Society as one of New York's 40 richest corporations, with revenues exceeding $950 million. The organization reported for the same year that it "spent over $70.9 million in caring for special pioneers, missionaries, and traveling overseers in their field service assignments."

Beliefs

Sources of doctrine

Jehovah's Witnesses believe their denomination is a restoration of first-century Christianity. Doctrines of Jehovah's Witnesses are established by the Governing Body, which assumes responsibility for interpreting and applying scripture. The Governing Body does not issue a single, comprehensive statement of faith, but expresses its doctrinal positions in a variety of ways through publications published by the Watch Tower Society. The publications teach that doctrinal changes and refinements result from a process of progressive revelation, in which God gradually reveals his will and purpose, and that such enlightenment or "new light" results from the application of reason and study, the guidance of the holy spirit, and direction from Jesus Christ and angels. The Society also teaches that the holy spirit helps the Governing Body discern "deep truths", which the Governing Body considers before making doctrinal decisions. The group's leadership, while disclaiming divine inspiration and infallibility, is said to provide "divine guidance" through its teachings described as "based on God's Word thus ... not from men, but from Jehovah."

The entire Protestant canon of scripture is considered the inspired, inerrant word of God. Jehovah's Witnesses consider the Bible scientifically and historically accurate and reliable and interpret much of it literally, but accept parts of it as symbolic. They consider the Bible the final authority for their beliefs. Sociologist Andrew Holden's ethnographic study of the group concluded that pronouncements of the Governing Body, through Watch Tower Society publications, carry almost as much weight as the Bible.

Regular personal Bible reading is frequently recommended. Witnesses are discouraged from formulating doctrines and "private ideas" reached through Bible research independent of Watch Tower Society publications, and are cautioned against reading other religious literature. Adherents are told to have "complete confidence" in the leadership, to avoid skepticism about what is taught in the Watch Tower Society's literature, and to "not advocate or insist on personal opinions or harbor private ideas when it comes to Bible understanding." The organization makes no provision for members to criticize or contribute to its teachings. Witnesses must abide by its doctrines and organizational requirements.

Jehovah

 
The Tetragrammaton

Jehovah's Witnesses emphasize the use of God's name, and they prefer the form Jehovah—a vocalization of God's name based on the Tetragrammaton. They believe that Jehovah is the only true God, the creator of all things, and the "Universal Sovereign". They believe that all worship should be directed toward him, and that he is not part of a Trinity; consequently, the group places more emphasis on God than on Christ. They believe that the Holy Spirit is God's applied power or "active force", rather than a person.

Jesus

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus is God's only direct creation, that everything else was created through him by means of God's power, and that the initial unassisted act of creation uniquely identifies Jesus as God's "only-begotten Son". Jesus served as a redeemer and a ransom sacrifice to pay for the sins of humanity. They believe Jesus died on a single upright post rather than the traditional cross. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus was resurrected with a "spirit body", and that he assumed human form only temporarily after his resurrection.

Biblical references to the Archangel Michael, Abaddon (Apollyon), and the Word are interpreted as names for Jesus in various roles. Jesus is considered the only intercessor and high priest between God and humanity, appointed by God as the king and judge of his kingdom. His role as a mediator (referred to in 1 Timothy 2:5) is applied to the "anointed" class, though the "other sheep" are said to also benefit from the arrangement.

Satan

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Satan was originally a perfect angel who developed feelings of self-importance and craved worship. Satan influenced Adam and Eve to disobey God, and humanity subsequently became participants in a challenge involving the competing claims of Jehovah and Satan to universal sovereignty. Other angels who sided with Satan became demons.

Jehovah's Witnesses teach that Satan and his demons were cast down to earth from heaven after October 1, 1914, at which point the end times began. They believe that Satan rules the current world order, that human society is influenced and misled by him and his demons, and that they are a cause of human suffering. They also believe that Satan controls human governments, but that he does not directly control every human ruler.

Life after death

Jehovah's Witnesses believe death is a state of nonexistence with no consciousness. There is no Hell of fiery torment; Hades and Sheol are understood to refer to the condition of death, termed the common grave. Witnesses consider the soul a life or a living body that can die. They believe that humanity is in a sinful state, from which release is possible only by means of Jesus' shed blood as a ransom, or atonement, for humankind's sins.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that a "little flock" of 144,000 selected humans go to heaven, but that God will resurrect the majority (the "other sheep") to a cleansed earth after Armageddon. They interpret Revelation 14:1–5 to mean that the number of Christians going to heaven is limited to exactly 144,000, who will rule with Jesus as kings and priests over earth. They believe that baptism as a Jehovah's Witness is vital for salvation, and do not recognize baptism from other denominations as valid. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that some people who died before Armageddon will be resurrected, will be taught the proper way to worship God, and face a final test at the end of the millennial reign. This judgment will be based on their actions after resurrection rather than past deeds. At the end of the thousand years, Christ will hand all authority back to God. Then a final test will take place when Satan is released to mislead humankind. Those who fail will die, along with Satan and his demons. They also believe that those who rejected their beliefs while still alive will not be resurrected and will continue to experience a state of non-existence.

God's kingdom

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that God's kingdom is a literal government in heaven, ruled by Jesus Christ and 144,000 "spirit-anointed" Christians drawn from the earth, which they associate with Jesus' reference to a "new covenant". The kingdom is viewed as the means by which God will accomplish his original purpose for the earth, transforming it into a paradise without sickness or death. It is said to have been the focal point of Jesus' ministry on earth. They believe the kingdom was established in heaven in 1914, and that Jehovah's Witnesses serve as the kingdom's representatives on earth. Due to their belief in God's kingdom as the only legitimate form of governance, Jehovah's Witnesses do not participate in political activities, such as voting in elections.

Eschatology

A central teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses is that the current world era, or "system of things", entered the "last days" in 1914 and faces imminent destruction through intervention by God and Jesus Christ, leading to deliverance for those who worship God acceptably. They consider all other present-day religions false, identifying them with Babylon the Great, the "harlot" of Revelation 17. They believe they will soon be destroyed by the United Nations, which they believe is represented in scripture by the scarlet-colored wild beast, and that this development will mark the beginning of the "great tribulation".

Satan will subsequently use world governments to attack Jehovah's Witnesses, which will prompt God to begin the war of Armageddon, during which all forms of government and all people not counted as Christ's sheep will die. After Armageddon, God will extend his heavenly kingdom to include earth, which will be transformed into a paradise like the Garden of Eden.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus Christ began to rule in heaven as king of God's kingdom in October 1914, and that Satan was subsequently ousted from heaven to the earth, resulting in "woe" to humanity. They believe that Jesus rules invisibly, from heaven, perceived only as a series of "signs". They base this belief on a rendering of the Greek word parousia—usually translated as "coming" when referring to Christ—as "presence". They believe Jesus' presence includes an unknown period beginning with his inauguration as king in heaven in 1914, and ending when he comes to bring final judgment against humans on earth. They thus depart from the mainstream Christian belief that the "second coming" of Matthew 24 refers to a single moment of arrival on earth to judge humans.

Gender roles

Jehovah's Witnesses have a complementarian view of women. Only men may hold positions of authority, such as ministerial servant or elder. Women may actively participate in the public preaching work, serve at Bethel, and profess to be members of the 144,000. They are not typically allowed to address the congregation directly. In rare circumstances, women can substitute in certain capacities if there are no eligible men. In these situations, women must wear a head covering if they are performing a teaching role. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that transgender people should live as the gender they were assigned at birth and view gender-affirming surgery as mutilation.

Practices

Worship

 
Worship at a Kingdom Hall in Portugal
 
Kingdom Hall in Kuopio, Finland

Meetings for worship and study are held at Kingdom Halls, which are typically functional in character, and do not contain religious symbols. Witnesses are assigned to a congregation in whose "territory" they usually reside and attend weekly services they call "meetings", scheduled by congregation elders. The meetings are largely devoted to study of Watch Tower Society literature and the Bible. The meetings' format is established by the group's headquarters, and the subject matter for most meetings is the same worldwide.

Congregations meet for two sessions each week, comprising five distinct meetings that total about three-and-a-half hours, typically gathering midweek (three meetings) and on the weekend (two meetings). Until 2009, congregations met three times each week; these meetings were condensed, with the intention that members dedicate an evening for family worship. Gatherings are opened and closed with hymns called Kingdom songs and brief prayers.

Twice each year, Witnesses from a number of congregations that form a "circuit" gather for a one-day assembly. Larger groups of congregations meet annually for a three-day "regional convention", usually at rented stadiums or auditoriums. Their most important and solemn event is the commemoration of the "Lord's Evening Meal", or "Memorial of Christ's Death", on the date of the Jewish Passover.

Evangelism

 
Jehovah's Witnesses outside the British Museum, 2017

Jehovah's Witnesses are known for their efforts to spread their beliefs, most notably by visiting people's homes, distributing Watch Tower Society literature. The objective is to start a regular "Bible study" with anyone who is not already a member, with the intention that the student be baptized as a member of the group; Witnesses are advised to consider discontinuing Bible study with students who show no interest in becoming members. Converts as a result of their door-to-door evangelism are rare and happen at a rate comparable with other religions that practice similar preaching methods.

Witnesses are taught they are under a biblical command to engage in public preaching. They are instructed to devote as much time as possible to their ministry and required to submit an individual monthly "Field Service Report". Those who do not submit reports for six consecutive months are termed "inactive". From 1920 to 2023, every active Jehovah's Witness was expected to submit the amount of hours they spent preaching in their monthly field service report. As of November 1, 2023, this requirement was modified to only members who have agreed to a specific hour requirement (for example, pioneers). Other members will only be required to check to indicate they engaged in some form of ministry during the month, along with any Bible studies they conducted.

Ethics and morality

All sexual relations outside marriage are grounds for expulsion if the person is not deemed repentant; homosexual activity is considered a serious sin, and same-sex marriage is forbidden. Abortion is considered murder. Modesty in dress and grooming is frequently emphasized. Gambling, drunkenness, illegal drugs, and tobacco use are forbidden. Drinking of alcoholic beverages is permitted in moderation.

The family structure is patriarchal. The husband is considered to have authority on family decisions, but is encouraged to solicit his wife's thoughts and feelings, as well as his children's. Marriages are required to be monogamous and legally registered. Marrying a non-believer, or endorsing such a union, is strongly discouraged and carries religious sanctions.

Divorce is discouraged, and remarriage is forbidden unless a divorce is obtained on the grounds of adultery, which is called a "scriptural divorce". If a divorce is obtained for any other reason, remarriage is considered adulterous unless the ex-spouse has died or is considered to have committed sexual immorality. Extreme physical abuse, willful non-support of one's family, and what the denomination terms "absolute endangerment of spirituality" are accepted as grounds for legal separation.

Disciplinary action

Jehovah's Witnesses require individuals to be baptized by the denomination in order to be subject to their disciplinary procedures. Baptized children are also subject to the same moral standards. Members accused of persistent wrongdoing are brought to the attention of the elders who will then evaluate possible consequences. Members that have violated the group's interpretation of Bible principles but not otherwise committed a serious sin may be marked. One situation that can result in marking is if a member dates outside the religion. Marked individuals have limited social contact within the group until the elders remove the mark. Elders may decide to form a judicial committee in cases involving serious sin(s), which will either result in the member being reproved or disfellowshipped. This process requires three elders to meet with the accused. Disfellowshipped individuals are shunned by other members until their reinstatement. These cases usually involve sexual misconduct or apostasy for disputing Jehovah's Witness doctrines.

Procedures related to congregational discipline are primarily described in the book, Shepherd the Flock of God, provided only to elders. Witnesses are taught that avoiding social and spiritual interaction with disfellowshipped people keeps the congregation free from immoral influence and that "losing precious fellowship with loved ones may help [the shunned person] to come 'to his senses,' see the seriousness of his wrong, and take steps to return to Jehovah." The practice of shunning may also serve to deter other members from dissident behavior. Disfellowshipping members also helps maintain a "uniformity of belief". Contact with disfellowshipped or disassociated people is limited to direct family members living in the same home, and with congregation elders who may invite disfellowshipped people to apply for reinstatement. As of March 2024, members are permitted to invite shunned individuals to congregation meetings or offer brief greetings at meetings, unless the individual is deemed to be an apostate. Formal business dealings may continue if contractually or financially obliged. Former members may experience significant mental distress as a result of being shunned, and some seek reinstatement to keep contact with their friends and family. Expelled individuals may eventually be reinstated to the congregation if deemed repentant by congregation elders. Reinstatement is a long process, which may be mentally and emotionally draining.

Separateness

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Bible condemns mixing religions, on the basis that there can only be one truth from God, and therefore reject interfaith and ecumenical movements. They believe that only Jehovah's Witnesses represent true Christianity, and that other religions fail to meet all the requirements set by God and will soon be destroyed. Jehovah's Witnesses are taught that it is vital to remain "separate from the world." The Witnesses' literature defines the "world" as "the mass of mankind apart from Jehovah's approved servants" and teach that it is morally contaminated and ruled by Satan.

Witnesses are taught that association with "worldly" people presents a danger to their faith. Attending university is discouraged and trade schools are suggested as an alternative. Post-secondary education is considered "spiritually dangerous". Anthony Morris III, a member of the Governing Body, has said, "the most intelligent and eloquent professors will be trying to reshape the thinking of your child, and their influence can be tremendous."

Jehovah's Witnesses believe their allegiance belongs to God's kingdom, which is viewed as an actual government in heaven, with Christ as king. They remain politically neutral, do not seek public office, and are discouraged from voting, though individual members may participate in uncontroversial community improvement issues. Although they do not take part in politics, they respect the authority of the governments under which they live. They do not celebrate religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter, nor do they observe birthdays, national holidays, or other celebrations they consider to honor people other than Jesus. They feel that these and many other customs have pagan origins or reflect nationalistic or political spirit. Their position is that these traditional holidays reflect Satan's control over the world. Witnesses are told that spontaneous giving at other times can help their children to not feel deprived of birthdays or other celebrations.

Witnesses do not work in industries associated with the military, do not serve in the armed services, and refuse national military service, which in some countries may result in their arrest and imprisonment. They do not salute or pledge allegiance to flags or sing national anthems or patriotic songs. Witnesses see themselves as a worldwide brotherhood that transcends national boundaries and ethnic loyalties. Sociologist Ronald Lawson has suggested that the group's intellectual and organizational isolation, coupled with the intense indoctrination of adherents, rigid internal discipline, and considerable persecution, has contributed to the consistency of its sense of urgency in its apocalyptic message.

Rejection of blood transfusions

Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions, which they consider a violation of God's law based on their interpretation of Acts 15:28, 29 and other scriptures. Since 1961, the willing acceptance of a blood transfusion by an unrepentant member has been grounds for expulsion from the group. Members are directed to refuse blood transfusions, even in "a life-or-death situation". Jehovah's Witnesses accept non-blood alternatives and other medical procedures in lieu of blood transfusions, and their literature provides information about non-blood medical procedures.

Jehovah's Witnesses do not accept the transfusion of "whole blood, packed red cells, platelets, white cells or plasma". Autologous blood donation, where one's blood is stored for later use, is also considered unacceptable. Members may accept some blood plasma fractions at their own discretion. The Watch Tower Society provides pre-formatted durable power of attorney documents prohibiting major blood components, in which members can specify which allowable fractions and treatments they will accept. Witnesses have established Hospital Liaison Committees as a cooperative arrangement between individual Witnesses and medical professionals and hospitals to provide information about bloodless treatment options. Patients who accept certain blood products in the committee's presence are disassociated from the religion and shunned.

Demographics

Jehovah's Witnesses have an active presence in most countries. For 2023, Jehovah's Witnesses reported approximately 8.6 million publishers—the term they use for members actively involved in preaching—in about 118,000 congregations. For the same year, they reported over 1.8 billion hours spent in preaching activity, and conducted Bible studies with more than 7.3 million individuals (including those conducted by Witness parents with their children). 4,091 members served as missionaries in 2021.

In 2023, Jehovah's Witnesses reported a worldwide annual increase of 1.3%. Over 20.5 million people attended the annual memorial of Christ's death. According to the Watch Tower Society, more than 25,600 members have died of COVID-19.

The official published membership statistics, such as those above, include only those who submit reports for their personal ministry; official statistics do not include inactive and disfellowshipped people or others who attend their meetings. As a result, only about half of those who self-identify as Jehovah's Witnesses in independent demographic studies are considered active by the faith itself.

The 2008 US Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey found a low retention rate among members of the denomination: about 37% of people raised in the group continued to identify as Jehovah's Witnesses. The next lowest retention rates were for Buddhism at 50% and Catholicism at 68%. The study also found that 65% of adult U.S. Jehovah's Witnesses are converts.

Sociological analysis

Sociologist James A. Beckford, in his 1975 study of Jehovah's Witnesses, classified the group's organizational structure as Totalizing, characterized by an assertive leadership, specific and narrow objectives, control over competing demands on members' time and energy, and control over the quality of new members. Other characteristics of the classification include likelihood of friction with secular authorities, reluctance to cooperate with other religious organizations, a high rate of membership turnover, a low rate of doctrinal change, and strict uniformity of beliefs among members.

Beckford identified the group's chief characteristics as historicism (identifying historical events as relating to the outworking of God's purpose), absolutism (conviction that Jehovah's Witness leaders dispense absolute truth), activism (capacity to motivate members to perform missionary tasks), rationalism (conviction that Witness doctrines have a rational basis devoid of mystery), authoritarianism (rigid presentation of regulations without the opportunity for criticism) and world indifference (rejection of certain secular requirements and medical treatments).

Sociologist Bryan R. Wilson, in his consideration of five religious groups including Jehovah's Witnesses, noted that each of the denominations:

  1. "exists in a state of tension with the wider society;"
  2. "imposes tests of merit on would-be members;"
  3. "exercises stern discipline, regulating the declared beliefs and the life habits of members and prescribing and operating sanctions for those who deviate, including the possibility of expulsion;"
  4. "demands sustained and total commitment from its members, and the subordination, and perhaps even the exclusion of all other interests."

A sociological comparative study by the Pew Research Center found that U.S. Jehovah's Witnesses ranked highest in getting no further than high school graduation, belief in God, importance of religion in one's life, frequency of religious attendance, frequency of prayers, frequency of Bible reading outside of religious services, belief their prayers are answered, belief that their religion can only be interpreted one way, belief that theirs is the only one true faith leading to eternal life, opposition to abortion, and opposition to homosexuality. In the study, Jehovah's Witnesses ranked lowest in interest in politics. It was also among the most ethnically diverse U.S. religious groups.

Opposition

Controversy about various beliefs, doctrines and practices of Jehovah's Witnesses has led to opposition from governments, communities, and religious groups. Religious commentator Ken Jubber wrote, "Viewed globally, this persecution has been so persistent and of such intensity that it would not be inaccurate to regard Jehovah's Witnesses as the most persecuted group of Christians of the twentieth century."

Persecution

Political and religious animosity toward Jehovah's Witnesses has at times led to mob action and government oppression in various countries. Their political neutrality and refusal to serve in the military has led to imprisonment of members who refused conscription during World War II and at other times where national service has been compulsory. Their religious activities are banned or restricted in some countries, including China, Russia, Vietnam, and many Muslim-majority countries.

 
Countries where Jehovah's Witnesses' activities are banned

Authors including William Whalen, Shawn Francis Peters and former Witnesses Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Alan Rogerson, and William Schnell have claimed the arrests and mob violence in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s were the consequence of what appeared to be a deliberate course of provocation of authorities and other religious groups by Jehovah's Witnesses. Harrison, Schnell, and Whalen have suggested Rutherford invited and cultivated opposition for publicity purposes in a bid to attract dispossessed members of society, and to convince members that persecution by the outside world was evidence of the truth of their struggle to serve God. Watch Tower Society literature of the period directed that Witnesses "never seek a controversy" nor resist arrest, but also advised members not to cooperate with police officers or courts that ordered them to stop preaching, and to go to jail rather than pay fines.

Canada

In 1940, a year after Canada entered World War II, the denomination was banned under the War Measures Act. This ban continued until 1943. Hundreds of members were prosecuted for being members of an illegal organization. Jehovah's Witnesses were interned in camps along with political dissidents and people of Chinese and Japanese descent. Jehovah's Witnesses faced discrimination in Quebec until the Quiet Revolution, including bans on distributing literature or holding meetings. Roncarelli v Duplessis was a legal case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. The court held that in 1946 Maurice Duplessis, Premier and Attorney General of Quebec, had overstepped his authority by ordering the manager of the Liquor Commission to revoke the liquor licence of Frank Roncarelli, a Montreal restaurant owner and Jehovah's Witness who was an outspoken critic of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec. Roncarelli provided bail for Jehovah's Witnesses arrested for distributing pamphlets attacking the Roman Catholic Church. The Supreme Court found Duplessis liable for $33,123.56 in damages plus Roncarelli's court costs.

Germany

 
Jehovah's Witness prisoners were identified by purple triangle badges in Nazi concentration camps.

In 1933, there were approximately 20,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Nazi Germany, of whom about 10,000 were imprisoned. Jehovah's Witnesses suffered religious persecution by the Nazis because they refused military service and allegiance to Hitler's National Socialist Party. Of those, 2,000 were sent to Nazi concentration camps, where they were identified by purple triangles; as many as 1,200 died, including 250 who were executed. Unlike Jews and Romani, who were persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity, Jehovah's Witnesses could escape persecution and personal harm by renouncing their religious beliefs by signing a document indicating renunciation of their faith, submission to state authority, and support of the German military. Historian Sybil Milton writes, "their courage and defiance in the face of torture and death punctures the myth of a monolithic Nazi state ruling over docile and submissive subjects."

In East Germany, from the 1950s to the 1980s, Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted extensively by the State Security Service (the Stasi), which frequently used decomposition methods against them. Jehovah's Witnesses were considered a threat because their beliefs did not conform to socialist standards and their members sometimes had contact with the West.

Russia

In April 1951, about 9,300 Jehovah's Witnesses in the Soviet Union were deported to Siberia as part of Operation North.

In April 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia labeled Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization, banned its activities in Russia, and issued an order to confiscate its assets.

Legal challenges

Several cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses have been heard by Supreme Courts worldwide. They generally relate to the right to practice their religion, displays of patriotism and military service, and blood transfusions.

In the U.S., legal challenges by Jehovah's Witnesses prompted a series of state and federal court rulings that reinforced judicial protections for civil liberties. Among the rights strengthened by Witness court victories in the U.S. are the protection of religious conduct from federal and state interference, the right to abstain from patriotic rituals and military service, the right of patients to refuse medical treatment, and the right to engage in public discourse. Similar cases in their favor have been heard in Canada.

Criticism and controversy

Jehovah's Witnesses have been criticized by mainstream Christians, members of the medical community, and former members and commentators for their beliefs and practices. The movement has been accused of doctrinal inconsistency and reversals, failed predictions, mistranslation of the Bible, harsh treatment and shunning of former members, and autocratic and coercive leadership. Criticism has also focused on the rejection of blood transfusions, particularly in life-threatening medical situations, and failing to report cases of sexual abuse to the authorities.

Free speech and thought

 
Raymond Franz (1922-2010), writer of Crisis of Conscience, former member of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses and critic of the institution

Jehovah's Witnesses' doctrines are established by the Governing Body. The denomination does not tolerate dissent over doctrines and practices; members who openly disagree with the group's teachings are expelled and shunned. Witness publications strongly discourage followers from questioning doctrine and counsel received from the Governing Body, reasoning that it is to be trusted as part of "God's organization". It also warns members to "avoid independent thinking", claiming such thinking "was introduced by Satan the Devil" and would "cause division". Those who openly disagree with official teachings are condemned as apostates who are "mentally diseased".

Recent research indicates that the effects of control of free speech and thought, and shunning disciplinary practice are detrimental to the individual’s well-being, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Psychological distress, depression, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts have been also reported as possible consequences of being shunned. The psychological impact of losing family and friends caused by the shunning policy is the major cause of harm, and its effects are long-lasting. Shame and guilt, loss of social identity, social death, ambiguous loss and self-esteem issues are further consequences which underline the deep psychological and emotional impact of shunning.

Former members Heather and Gary Botting compare the cultural paradigms of the denomination to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Alan Rogerson describes the group's leadership as totalitarian. Other critics say that by disparaging individual decision-making, the group's leaders cultivate a system of unquestioning obedience in which Witnesses abrogate all responsibility and rights over their personal lives. Critics also accuse the group's leaders of exercising "intellectual dominance" over Witnesses, controlling information and creating "mental isolation", which former Governing Body member Raymond Franz argued were all elements of mind control.

Jehovah's Witness publications state that consensus of faith aids unity, and deny that it restricts individuality or imagination. Historian James Irvin Lichti has rejected the description of the denomination as "totalitarian". Sociologist Rodney Stark states that Jehovah's Witness leaders are "not always very democratic" and that members "are expected to conform to rather strict standards," but adds that "enforcement tends to be very informal, sustained by the close bonds of friendship within the group", and that Witnesses see themselves as "part of the power structure rather than subject to it." Sociologist Andrew Holden states that most members who join millenarian movements such as Jehovah's Witnesses have made an informed choice, but that defectors "are seldom allowed a dignified exit", and describes the administration as autocratic.

Some Jehovah's Witnesses describe themselves to academics as "Physically In, Mentally Out" (PIMO); these individuals privately question certain doctrine but remain inside the organization to keep contact with their friends and family.

New World Translation

Various Bible scholars, including Bruce M. Metzger and MacLean Gilmour, have said that while scholarship is evident in New World Translation, its rendering of certain texts is inaccurate and biased in favor of Witness practices and doctrines. Critics of the group such as Edmund C. Gruss, and Christian writers such as Ray C. Stedman, Walter Martin, Norman Klann, and Anthony Hoekema state that the New World Translation is scholastically dishonest. Most criticism of the New World Translation relates to its rendering of the New Testament, particularly regarding the introduction of the name Jehovah and in passages related to the Trinity doctrine.

Unfulfilled predictions

Watch Tower Society publications have claimed that God has used Jehovah's Witnesses (and formerly, the International Bible Students) to declare his will and provided advance knowledge of Armageddon and the establishment of God's kingdom. Some publications also claimed that God has used Jehovah's Witnesses and the International Bible Students as a modern-day prophet. George D. Chryssides stated, "while prediction may be part of a biblical prophet's role, the root meaning of prophecy is that of proclaiming God's word." He went on to say, "Jehovah's Witnesses ... are the recipients of prophecy, who regard themselves as invested with the interpretation of biblical writings." With these interpretations, Jehovah's Witnesses' publications have made various predictions about world events they believe were prophesied in the Bible. Some failed predictions had been presented as "beyond doubt" or "approved by God".

The Watch Tower Society rejects accusations that it is a false prophet, saying that its interpretations are not inspired or infallible, and that it has not claimed its predictions were "the words of Jehovah." Chryssides has suggested that with the exception of statements about 1914, 1925 and 1975, the changing views and dates of the Jehovah's Witnesses are largely attributable to changed understandings of biblical chronology rather than to failed predictions. Chryssides adds, "it is therefore simplistic and naïve to view the Witnesses as a group that continues to set a single end-date that fails and then devise a new one, as many counter-cultists do." Sociologist Andrew Holden wrote that since the foundation of the movement around 140 years ago, "Witnesses have maintained that we are living on the precipice of the end of time."

Handling of sexual abuse cases

 
Case Study of Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Jehovah's Witnesses have been accused of having policies and culture that help to conceal cases of sexual abuse within the organization. The group has been criticized for its "two witness rule" for church discipline, based on its application of scriptures in Deuteronomy 19:15 and Matthew 18:15–17, which requires sexual abuse to be substantiated by secondary evidence if the accused person denies any wrongdoing. In cases where corroboration is lacking, the Watch Tower Society's instruction is that "the elders will leave the matter in Jehovah's hands".

A former member of the headquarters staff, Barbara Anderson, says the policy effectively requires that there be another witness to an act of molestation, "which is an impossibility". Anderson says the policies "protect pedophiles rather than protect the children." Jehovah's Witnesses maintain that they have a strong policy to protect children, adding that the best way to protect children is by educating parents; they also say they do not sponsor activities that separate children from parents.

The group's failure to report abuse allegations to authorities has also been criticized. The Watch Tower Society's policy is that elders inform authorities when required by law to do so, but otherwise leave that up to the victim and their family. William Bowen, a former Jehovah's Witness elder who established the Silentlambs organization to assist sex abuse victims in the denomination, has claimed Witness leaders discourage followers from reporting incidents of sexual misconduct to authorities, and other critics claim the organization is reluctant to alert authorities to protect its "crime-free" reputation.

In court cases in the United Kingdom and the U.S., the Watch Tower Society has been found negligent in failing to protect children from known sex offenders within the congregation. The Society has settled other child abuse lawsuits out of court, reportedly paying as much as $780,000 to one plaintiff without admitting wrongdoing. In 2017, the Charity Commission for England and Wales began an inquiry into Jehovah's Witnesses' handling of allegations of child sexual abuse in the United Kingdom.

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that "there was no evidence before the Royal Commission of the Jehovah's Witness organisation having or not having reported to police any of the 1,006 alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse identified by the organisation since 1950." The Royal Commission also found that the Watch Tower Society legal department routinely provided incorrect information to elders based on an incorrect understanding of what constitutes a legal obligation to report crimes in Australia. In 2021, Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia agreed to join the nation's redress scheme for sexual assault survivors to maintain its charity status there.

In Japan, after the publication of the guideline for Shūkyō nisei, which aimed at addressing the problem of the Unification Church related to the assassination of Shinzo Abe, some lawyers conducted a survey on alleged Jehovah’s Witness child abuse. According to the press conference, almost ninety percent of respondents had experienced various forms of religious abuse, including sexual abuse.

See also

Explanatory notes

References

Sources

External links