Perhaps it is pushing it a little to put Dwight Eisenhower as the up-front representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not that it is not true. He was raised in this cult. But, like so many of the well known people who have ties with this group, he was not active throughout his life.
While we virtually never hear high profile Jehovah’s Witnesses talk of their faith, there are several very well known people who have a connection to the cult. This list includes people such as tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, pop music icons Michael Jackson (along with his whole family), Prince and Selena. Then you have model Naomi Campbell and best selling novelist Mickey Spillane.
It is interesting that the Mormon church is increasingly working to up their profile in modern society by trying to make themselves seem more like a mainstream Christian organization. In doing this, high profile Mormons are putting themselves in the public square and standing up for their faith.
In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though, it seems that most of the high profile people who have connections with them are either folks who have fallen away or who try to hide their affiliation. Jehovah’s Witnesses, as an organization, are proud of their exclusiveness and distinctive beliefs. But that doesn’t really play well in the public square, so those who are concerned with their public persona keep it under wraps.
Let’s begin our journey of understanding the Jehovah’s Witnesses by getting a little background information. Just where did these folks come from?
The Jehovah Witnesses are officially known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. The group was founded, in 1879, by Charles Taze Russell. As a teenager Russell rejected his Presbyterian roots and affiliated with the more theologically liberal Congregational Church. He later left this group, as well.
Russell had no formal Bible training but borrowed doctrines from many of the popular theological trends of his day. For example, Adventism influenced his denial of hell, and a splinter Adventist group led by N.H. Barbour spurred his interest in end time prophecies.
While he was still a teenager, Russell organized a Bible class in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The members of that class eventually made him their pastor. In 1879, as his ideas became more developed, he set out to try and popularize them. To do this, he co-published a magazine called The Herald of the Morning with the periodical’s founder, N. H. Barbour. By 1884, Russell had managed to gain operational control of the magazine and renamed it The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom. Around that time, he also founded Zion’s Watchtower Tract Society (now known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society). During his lifetime, Russell served as the teacher and guide for the organization.
The next leader, following Russell’s death, was Joseph F. Rutherford, the society’s legal counselor. Under his leadership the name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was adopted. He moved the society toward a theocratic form of control which gave him the power to make all policy decisions.
The third leader was Nathan Knorr who assumed leadership upon Rutherford’s death in 1942. Under his leadership the society increased from 115,000 to over 2 million members. They also produced their own translation of the Bible, called The New World Translation of Holy Scriptures. Knorr died in 1977.
Frederick W. Franz became the fourth president of The Watchtower Society. He served from 1977 until his death in 1992.
Franz was followed by Milton G. Henschel who was the leader of the organization from 1992 to 2000. The current president is Don A. Adams, who took the reigns in 2000.
Instruction and training for Jehovah’s Witness members is provided at frequent meetings held primarily in their worship centers, which are called “Kingdom Halls.”
The Watchtower Society currently claims a worldwide membership of over six million. About one million of these are in the U.S. They maintain that they have over 91,000 congregations in 235 countries. The church takes in approximately 300,000 new members each year and establishes an average of 45 new congregations every week. The Watchtower society claims to field over 500,000 full and part-time missionaries.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
There are several distinctive beliefs that characterize the theology and practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is considered to be God’s sole channel for the flow of Biblical truth to men on earth.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to accept the Bible as their only authority. However, the Bible must be explained according to Watchtower Society interpretations. Initially a six volume set of Scripture Studies written by Russell were touted as containing the knowledge of how to correctly interpret the Bible. Russell claimed that people are unable to see the divine plan by studying the Bible alone and that the Scripture Studies were necessary to inform their understanding. He even stated that if a person lays the Scripture Studies aside and tries to study the Bible alone, they will soon fall into darkness. However, it is possible for a person to study the Scripture Studies alone and receive all of the light of the Scriptures. Over the years, elements of Jehovah’s Witness theology have changed and it seemed prudent for the Watchtower Society to withdraw the Scripture Studies from circulation.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that their interpretation of Scripture has been “passed to the Holy Spirit who invisibly communicates with Jehovah’s Witnesses – and the Publicity Department.” In practical terms, the truth that Jehovah’s Witnesses accept is believed to ultimately come from Jehovah God who passes it on to Jesus Christ, who then passes it on to a ruling class of humans. They, then, pass it to the governing body of the church who forward it to the individual kingdom halls. This authoritative word from God is communicated to church members by means of the Watchtower Magazine.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the doctrines of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, his bodily resurrection, salvation by grace through faith and eternal punishment of the wicked.
- Witnesses believe that there is no hell as a place of everlasting punishment for the wicked. They claim that the concept of hell is: 1) wholly unscriptural; 2) unreasonable; 3) contrary to God’s love; and 4) repugnant to justice.
- Over the years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have made many prophesies concerning the end of the world which did not come true. These prophesies were later reinterpreted in a way which made them appear to have been fulfilled.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are unitarian in their belief about God and, thus, deny the doctrine of the Trinity. They claim that neither Jesus Christ nor the Holy Spirit is God. They believe that God has many titles but only one name, and that name is Jehovah. Jehovah is understood to have a body, but it is not like ours. As a spirit, God is a life form that is much higher than our own. The Watchtower considers Him to be the only true eternal God.
They assert that there was a time when Jehovah was all alone in universal space and that his first creative act was to create his son, Jesus Christ. Christ is not acknowledged to be God in human form. Rather, he was God’s first creation and is, thus, called the “firstborn Son of God.” Witnesses believe that Jehovah God and Jesus Christ together constitute the superior authorities. Jesus was a god, but not Almighty God.
Further, Witnesses believe that prior to his coming to earth, Jesus existed in the form of Michael the Archangel. They also believe that after his resurrection, when he returned to heaven, he re-assumed his former state. Lucifer, who rebelled against God, is understood to be the brother of Jesus.
Jesus is the only Son that Jehovah created by himself. He then used Jesus as his “master worker” to create all other things in heaven and on earth. At the appropriate time, God sent Jesus to the earth by transferring his life to the womb of Mary. He is not believed to have had a human father, which is why he did not inherit any sin or imperfection. When Jesus died, he was resurrected as a spirit creature and returned to heaven. Upon his return, God made him to be King.
The Holy Spirit is not recognized as a personality in any way and is not part of the Godhead. It is understood to be an “invisible active force of Almighty God which moves his servants to do his will.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that mankind is a purposefully created being formed in God’s image. The first man, Adam, disobeyed Jehovah when he was tempted by Lucifer. As a result of his disobedience, Adam and all his descendants lost the right to life and became subject to death. The loss of the right to life only applies in the physical sense of the word.
In his essence, man is seen to be completely mortal. The word “spirit,” for Jehovah’s Witnesses, is interpreted to mean literal physical breath. The result of that interpretation is that man is not a spiritual being, only a physical, breathing being. Therefore, there is no spiritual part of a person to live on after death.
In the end, all the faithful (meaning Jehovah’s Witnesses) will be resuscitated to life. There will be 144,000 people who will be transformed into spiritual beings and taken to heaven to live there with God. The rest of the faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses will be given new bodies and allowed to live on earth eternally. Those who did not become Witnesses will simply not be resurrected.
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, salvation is accomplished by a combination of faith and works. In order to be rewarded with everlasting life, individuals must devote themselves to do God’s will, and faithfully carry out his work. There are four steps to salvation:
1. Taking Knowledge – Knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ includes knowing the Watchtower’s interpretations of God’s purposes regarding the earth and Christ’s role as earth’s new King.
2. Obey God’s Laws – A person must conform their life to the moral requirements set out in the Bible according to the teachings of the Watchtower Society.
3. Be Associated with God’s Channel – A person must be part of the Jehovah’s Witness church.
4. Loyalty – God requires that prospective subjects of his Kingdom support his government by loyally advocating the rule of his Kingdom to others (that is. to go out and witness).
Faith Foundation (How Jehovah’s Witnesses answer the seven worldview questions)
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
Jehovah is the one and only God and exists as a unitary being. He lives in universal space and is creator of all things. Heaven exists and is where God dwells with his son Jesus Christ. Material reality is the domain of mankind.
2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
Material reality is a creation of Jehovah. He created it for his own purposes and personally guides its existence.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
Humans beings are creatures which were created by God. They are strictly physical beings (a soul) and do not have a spirit that survives the death of the body. The soul cannot exist apart from the body.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
At death, the human soul ceases to exist. When the body dies, the corpse remains in an unconscious state in the grave waiting for the resurrection. At the resurrection, those who did not accept Jehovah’s Witness beliefs will have a second chance to be saved. If they do not accept it, their bodies will simply die and they will cease to exist. There is no hell where the wicked are punished. Those who are righteous will be resurrected and given a soul that exactly duplicates the personality they had as they lived life on earth. They will have their lives reunited with a physical body and live eternally on the new earth. The 144,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been chosen by God to be part of the ruling class are changed into spirit beings and go to heaven and live out their eternity there.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
Knowledge is possible because God created mankind with the ability to know.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
Right and wrong are revealed in the Bible. However, it must be interpreted by the Watchtower Society. The primary interpretations are found in the Watchtower Magazine.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
History is a linear series of events which began with God’s creation of the world and humanity. There will come a moment when God ends the world as we know it, but will transform it into a place where all the faithful will live forever. This blissful earth will fulfill God’s purpose for material reality.
There are no authoritative doctrinal statements issued by the Watchtower Society. Their theological views are found in their various publications, and all doctrines that proceed from these works are considered authoritative. They contend that the Bible is their final source of authority, but they establish their own particular beliefs by quoting Scripture verses out of context while omitting other passages relevant to a given topic. The foundation of their beliefs are the teachings of Charles Taze Russell. These were initially recorded in his Scripture Studies. The primary tool which is now used to educate members in the faith is the Watchtower Magazine which is written by the church’s leaders in the home office. Jehovah’s Witnesses also have their own translation of the Scriptures, The New World Translation, which was published in 1961. This version reflects the binding interpretations of the group’s leaders.
Evidence for the Authority
The authoritative interpretations of The Watchtower Society come from the original writings of Russell and from subsequent proclamations of the home office. When authoritative statements are issued, no rationale is given except that it is the new official position which has been passed on to them from God. Individuals are not permitted to question these pronouncements as they are believed to be revelations from God to those chosen by him to lead the church. It is unknown who these people are. Other than the church’s claim of authority, there is no evidence that what they teach is true.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have a reputation for being good, moral people. In general, this is quite true. They have a very strong sense of morality and the foundation for that morality comes from the Bible. It is not stretching it to say that the moral sense of Jehovah Witnesses is, in many ways, quite similar to Biblical Christianity.
But the most important issue regarding faith does not relate to one’s sense of morality, as important as that is. There are many groups which have an admirable moral code. Rather, the most important question is, “How does one come to know a relationship with God? On this one, Jehovah’s Witnesses are completely off base. In order to come up with their approach to salvation they have taken Scripture out of context, changed previous doctrinal pronouncements and hidden where their beliefs come from.
In our dealings with Jehovah’s Witnesses, we don’t need to be intimidated or contemptuous. They are very good, sincere people who are devoted to their religion. Rather, we need to be educated about how to show them that what they believe is wrong so that we can be effective in sharing the truth with them.