It is useful to know a bit about who Jehovah’s Witnesses actually are as I’m aware not many people know much about this sometimes elusive and often secretive group.
A Short History of Jehovah’s Witnesses
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (also known as the Watchtower Society, the followers of which are known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses) is an offshoot of the Adventist Movement which, using a complex and incomprehensible method of calculating Biblical numerology arrived at October 1844 as the end of the world. In said year, a large number of people went up to a hill expecting the return of Jesus Christ and when it obviously didn’t occur, the event was named the “Great Disappointment“.
Two main groups formed from that so-called “Great Disappointment”: the Seventh Day Adventists (of which Audrey from the “Association of Black Humanists” was a member) who thought the date was correct, but they were expecting the wrong thing, and the Bible Students Movement, who thought we were expecting the right thing, but chosen the wrong date (and which included about 15 splinter groups, the largest of which by far is the Jehovah’s Witnesses led by the Watchtower Society.
In July 1879, a man named Charles Taze Russell who was also a freemason, began publishing a monthly religious journal, “Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence”, and in 1881 he co-founded Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society which he incorporated in 1884 and the Bible Students Movement emerged from his teachings.
One of the dates he predicted for the end of the world was October 1914, which of course led to another “great disappointment”. However, the fact that World War 1 happened within a few weeks fo that date validated his claims and drew in more and more members.
In 1917, Russell died and passed control of the Watchtower Society to a committee in his will. Joseph Franklin Rutherford, who had been a prosecutor and a special judge in the 14th Judicial District of Missouri, seized control of Watchtower Society and “disfellowshipped” (expelled or excommunicated) the committee that Russell had chosen. These people set up their own Bible Student groups but never achieved the same numbers.
As a former judge, Rutherford was adept at using the courts to his advantage and many of the religious freedom laws enjoyed by people in the United States, Canada and in other countries stem from his litigations.
Rutherford introduced the name “Jehovah’s witnesses” in 1931 and the term “Kingdom Hall” for houses of worship in 1935, and he banned Christmas and birthdays, blood transfusions, the saluting of national flags and the singing of national anthems. Membership under Rutherford increased sixfold from 100,000 to 600,000. “Judge Rutherford” is actually the one who started most of the unique beliefs that Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for.
He predicted the end of the world for 1925 and after that didn’t happen, in 1929, he built a lavish mansion called “Beth Sarim” to accommodate Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Isaiah and Samuel upon their resurrection. He ended up living in the mansion himself until his death in 1942.
The group then focused its efforts on increasing numbers, and their Golden Age came between the 1940s and the 1970s, when membership soared from 600,000 to 2.5 million.
They experienced a slight dip in 1975 when they last predicted the end of the world and it didn’t come, but their consistently active membership worldwide now stands at 8.5 million (this means only active members who turn in a report monthly), so their actual membership, including lapsed and irregular members has been estimated at 20 million worldwide. This is comparable to the 25 million Seventh Day Adventists and the 15 million Mormons worldwide.
Obviously, this is nothing compared to the 1.8 billion Muslims, or the 1.2 billion Catholics, but it is a major world religion.
For regular members they have 4 compulsory meetings a week (which was 5 when Terri and Ste, the co-chairs of XJW Friends were in the religion).
Every person has a role in the congregation and some of the names are very corporate.:
- Unbaptised publisher (usually a newly converted person or a child before baptism)
- Publisher (a baptised member who doesn’t have any major responsibilities)
- Auxiliary Pioneer (preaches about 60 hours a month – now 50)
- Regular Pioneer (preaches about 90 hours a month – now 70)
- Special Pioneer (preaches about 150 hours a month – now 130)
- Ministerial Servant (a deacon-like role, assisting the Body of Elders)
- Elder (leaders of the congreagtion who have different roles)
Elders can serve on various committees.
- The Hospital Liaison Committee (HLC)
- Patient Visitation Group
- Regional Building Committee
- Assembly Hall Committee
- District Convention Committee[
- Disaster Relief Committee
On the supra-congregational level they have:
- Circuit Overseer (oversees about 20 congregations and visits them each twice a year)
- District Overseer (oversees an entire region of around 200-800 congregations)
- Branch Overseer (oversees an entire country’s operations)
Other roles within the JWs include:
- Missionary (JWs who are sent abroad to lead the preaching work in another country).
- Bethelite (people who volunteer and live full-time at Bethel buildings, and could be doing anything from cleaning toilets to operating printing presses).
They have split the organisation into literally thousands of corporations each registered as a charity, the main ones of which are:
- The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (for handling legal matters worldwide).
- The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. (and for managing real estate, finance and the stock market worldwide, as well as publishing in the USA, commonly known as “Bethel”).
- Kingdom Support Services, Inc., New York (for construction, quick-builds (the Prefabricated Buildings system that they developed) and the management of their fleets of ships, lorries and aeroplanes).
- The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (for administrating congregational affairs ie. circuit overseers, elders, disciplinary action and judicial committees)
- The Religious Order of Jehovah’s Witnesses, New York (for worldwide administration of preaching activities)
Every country where they operate also has a “Bethel”. In Britain, this is one of two corporations:
- The Watch Tower Bible And Tract Society of Britain (which owns the printing presses and other equipment) (https://beta.charitycommission.gov.uk/charity-details/?subid=0®id=1077961)
- The International Bible Students Association (IBSA) https://beta.charitycommission.gov.uk/charity-details/?regid=216647&subid=0 which owns the “Bethel” building as well as the Special Pioneer Accommodation and the Jah-Jirah retirement homes).
- Jah-Jireh Charity Homes are for retired Circuit, District and Branch Overseers, Bethelites, Missionaries and Special Pioneers who have given up their life to serve the organisation. Sometimes long-serving Elders and Regular Pioneers are admitted too (https://beta.charitycommission.gov.uk/charity-details/?regid=1062023&subid=0).
Each of the 120,000 congregations worldwide is also a separate and legally independent charity in its own right, which protects the parent organisations from legal action against it. But even though the Congregations are independent, since 2000, the Kingdom Halls have not been owned by the congregation itself but by regional Kingdom Hall Trusts the main UK based one of which is:
- The Kingdom Hall Trust of England and Wales – in 2000, all elders received a letter which stipulated the handover of ownership of Kingdom Halls from the congregation to this new organisation. The congregations are independent charities, but the Kingdom Hall . buildings themselves are held by this separate charity – https://beta.charitycommission.gov.uk/charity-details/?regid=275946&subid=0
The Organisation’s Reach
The organisation is very litigious, even about the smallest of things. “The Judge” wasn’t a mere nickname for the second leader, Joseph Rutherford, he had been a special state judge before his conversion. The original founder, Charles Taze Russell, was also a freemason.
Because of the broadly uneducated and not-so-wealthy status of most ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, we have a tendency to think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a smallish religion which has no political reach.
However, the truth is that they were at the forefront of every major religious freedom law in the USA. The right to conscientious objection and the right not to have to salute the flag or say the pledge of allegiance were a few of their major legal victories.
In terms of technology, they have always been at the forefront of technological advances which have suit their needs.
“The Watchtower” and “Awake!” magazines, occupy the first and second spots in the Guinness Book of Records for most widely-circulated magazines in the world.
Its website is translated into 978 languages (more than the world’s most translated document, Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is translated into “only” 370 languages).
The Watchtower Society is in the top 40 revenue-generating companies in New York, and as such, functions more like a corporation than a religion.