***This post is part of my Witnessing to the Jehovah's Witnesses series, abbreviated W2W.***
In my last post in this series, I addressed the importance of loving our Jehovah's Witness neighbors, all of whom are made in God's image and are of infinite worth to Him. Today's post will give some historical background on the Watchtower Society and the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Early Years: Adventist Influences and C.T. Russell
The group now known as Jehovah's Witnesses was begun in the late 1870's under the direction of Charles Taze Russell. Russell was interested in the Adventist teachings initiated by William Miller several decades before. Miller and the those in the Adventist movement concentrated on prophesying the Second Coming of Christ (ergo, adventist), which they did based on Biblical passages from the Book of Daniel.
Russell published a book in 1877 with Adventist preacher Nelson H. Barbour called Three Worlds and the Harvest of this World. In it, they articulated their shared beliefs, including the invisible return of Christ to earth from Heaven in 1874, the expectation that God would be "harvesting" all the saints to Heaven by 1878, and the idea that all humans would be resurrected to earth for the opportunity to live an everlasting perfect life. In 1879, Russell and Barbour split over doctrinal issues, and Russell began publishing the Zion's Watchtower and Herald of Christ's Presence monthly magazine on his own. Russell began his meetings of the then-called Bible Student movement during the same year. In 1881, Russell formed the Watchtower Society under the name Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society for the purpose of distributing his religious literature.
Over the next several decades, Russell continued to preside at meetings of the Bible Students and disseminate his Watchtower publications. He also oversaw the activities of thousands of traveling preachers. His doctrinal development reached its completion in 1904, when he published The New Creation. In it, he asserted that Revelation 7 delineated between two classes of eternal life for Christians -- 144,000 who would reign with Christ, and another "great company" who would be perfected on a lesser plane. He refined his teaching that Christ had returned to earth in 1874 and had begun ruling in 1878. He gave the year 1914 as the date for Armageddon, after which all of humanity would be resurrected in reverse order (i.e. Adam and Eve would be last) for the chance to prove themselves during the Millenial Age, which he said had begun in 1874. At the end of a thousand years of proving his or her worthiness, each person would enter his or her ultimate destiny of eternal life or death. Russell died in October 1916. For years after his death, the Watchtower Society referred to him as the "faithful and wise servant" described in Matthew 24:45-47.
The following year, the Watchtower Society elected its legal counsel, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, to succeed Russell as president. Rutherford made substantial doctrinal and organizational changes during his presidency, which lasted until 1942. He announced in 1920 that Christ's reign would begin in 1925, ushering in a time of earthly paradise. In 1925, Armageddon was redefined as a battle between God and Satan, which would culminate in the overthrow of earthly governments and heathen religion. During the next few years, the Society discarded remaining copies of Russell's books and stopped printing them; Watchtower publications ceased referring to him as the "faithful and wise servant." Rutherford announced in 1929 that the vindication of God's name (when millions of unbelievers were annihilated at Armageddon) was the primary doctrine of Christianity. In 1931, Rutherford officially changed the name of the group from the Bible Students to the Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1938, Rutherford began using the term theocracy to describe the Watchtower Society's administration, despite Russell's earlier insistence that the society itself was not a religious organization, but a literature-distributing legal entity.
Watchtower teachings on the timing of Christ's return also changed; by 1933, the date had been moved from 1874 to 1914. In 1935, it was announced that the "great company" of believers not included in the 144,000 would actually be survivors of Armageddon, who would be put to the test for a thousand years to qualify for everlasting life in a paradise earth. By 1939, it was announced that those spared would only be in God's "organization" (the Watchtower organization, of course).
Some of the more well-known peculiarities of Jehovah's Witness adherents were established during this time: they stopped celebrating Christmas in 1928 on the grounds that it was a "pagan" holiday; in 1935, Witnesses were instructed not to salute the flag, sing the national anthem, or accept alternate military service offered to conscientious objectors; in 1936, Watchtower publications stopped referring to the cross or the crucifixion, asserting that Christ had actually died on a torture stake.
Knorr's Leadership and the 1975 Anticipation
Rutherford was succeeded as president by Nathan Homer Knorr in 1942. Under Knorr's leadership, the Society progressed toward corporate leadership, and ended the practice of acknowledging individual authorship of any Watchtower publication, instead attributing them to an anonymous writing committee. Knorr expanded the central operations (headquartered in Brooklyn, NY since 1908), expanded printing production worldwide, organized international assemblies and initiated significant training programs. He also commissioned a new translation of the Bible, released in sections beginning in 1950 (and as a complete work in 1961 as the New World Translation).
Witnesses were prohibited from obtaining blood transfusions in 1945, and starting in 1951, birthday celebrations were considered "objectionable." Emphasis on disfellowshipping as a disciplinary measure was also increased under Knorr's leadership.
Beginning in 1966, Watchtower publications indicated that Christ's thousand-year reign would begin in 1975. The Witnesses were highly anticipatory of that year, and although the Society never explicitly stated that Armageddon would absolutely occur during 1975, the implication was obvious in Watchtower literature. The number of JW baptisms skyrocketed in anticipation of this event, from 59,000 in 1966 to 297,000 in 1974. When 1975 came and went and Armageddon didn't come, disappointed Witnesses were told that their hopes had been based on "false premises."
Governing Body Leadership
In 1976, the organizational structure of the Watchtower Society changed; beginning then, the Governing Body has retained authority over the doctrines, publication materials, and administration of Jehovah's Witness congregations. Subsequent presidents of the Watchtower Society have had considerably less influence and authority than did Russell, Rutherford, and Knorr. In 1980, the Watchtower Society admitted some responsibility for the frenzied anticipation of the end times in 1975. During the same year, a major housecleaning occurred within the upper-ranks of the organization, when it was discovered that some of the core members of the hierarchy disputed some of the chronology doctrines of the Jehovah's Witnesses (such as Christ's invisible return in 1914). Many of the Governing Body members were expelled and labeled as "spiritual fornicators," "mentally diseased," and "insane." This only hardened the attitude of the Society toward disfellowshipped members who dissented with JW teachings.
History of Jehovah's Witnesses
Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania