Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), the founder of what would become modern-day Jehovah's Witnesses, was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a Presbyterian family. As a young man, Russell felt unfulfilled by the church creeds and traditions in which he was raised. Vacillating between Protestantism and Eastern religions, and even tending toward skepticism, Russell happened upon an Adventist religious service in 1869. According to Russell's later writings, this encounter rekindled his interest in Christianity. Russell and several friends formed a nondenominational Bible study group in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1870 and searched the Scriptures on their own for what he called God's "present truth." Russell did not intend to form a new religious movement, and he never claimed to have received a "special revelation" or divine inspiration.

Russell in 1879 at age 27

Russell's religious curiosities did not arise in a vacuum. He lived during a period of intense commotion among religions in America and was surrounded by religious innovation. During the early 1800s, American Protestantism had undergone a period called the Second Great Awakening. In its wake the country became a thriving marketplace of religious ideas. Russell would have known of revivalists, such as Dwight Moody (1837-1899), who called sinners to repentance, while the International Sunday School movement sought to save the souls of child laborers. New religions arose, led by charismatic leaders who claimed they had been chosen to restore Christianity from its corrupt state. In neighboring New York, Joseph Smith (1805-1844) started the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons, in 1830. Further west in Battle Creek, Michigan, Ellen and James White (1827-1915 and 1821-1881) founded the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1863. Northward in New Hampshire, Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) established Christian Science in 1879, teaching that disease could be banished by religion's understanding. Theosophy, Spiritualism, Holiness and Christian Socialism offered alternative religious views. Fundamentalists campaigned for a return to time-honored Protestant doctrine, while "higher critics" questioned the Bible's inspiration altogether. Ecumenical movements such as the Evangelical Alliance, founded 1846, attempted to form a united front against the rising tide of heretical religious, secular and political ideologies.

Political and social events deeply impacted American religious communities. Just 200 miles from Russell's home, major Civil War battles had been fought. The Civil War and the issue of slavery tore the major denominations in two, producing southern and northern factions. Many Americans embraced a theory promoted by British naturalist Charles Darwin that challenged the creation story of the Bible. Others followed Karl Marx, who dismissed religion altogether as an exercise in unreality. Marxist and Nietzschean thought fueled the formation of atheist societies.

The explosion of urban populations and factories prompted worried cries for moral education. Waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants arrived at America's shores, where they faced anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish attitudes. Burning social issues of the day, such as women's suffrage and temperance, added to the turbulent mix.

Russell was most deeply affected by his encounters with Millenarian movements, groups that believed Christ's Second Coming (or Advent) would soon usher in the Millennium, the prophesied thousand-year reign. William Miller (1782-1849), a lay Baptist preacher from northern New York, founded the Adventist movement with his complicated explanations of Bible chronology. Miller famously predicted that Christ's return would occur in 1843. His ideas spread quickly by means of the printed page. An estimated 100,000 "Millerites" prepared for the event, some even selling homes and farms. After the date passed uneventfully, a recalculation put the date at October 22, 1844. The unfulfilled expectations of that day have been dubbed by historians the "Great Disappointment." While some disillusioned followers left the movement, others formed splinter groups.

Although Russell initially avoided "time prophecies" that set dates on future events, his studies eventually convinced him that some of William Miller's chronological ideas had merit. Being unaffiliated denominationally, Russell looked at a wide range of religious thought, even turning attention for a time to popular theories surrounding the Great Pyramid of Giza as corroborating Biblical dates and prophecies. He argued that Miller had miscalculated and that the prophesied "time of troubles," evidenced by turbulent world events, had begun in 1874. Russell proposed that a 40-year judgment period would culminate in the Autumn of 1914 with the start of the Millennium. Russell wasn't the first to consider the year 1914 as marked, but he promoted the idea more vigorously than ministers like Nelson Barbour who had introduced Russell to the concept.

SPREADING THE WORD - Charles T. Russell, The Watchtower Society & IBSA

Russell began authoring pamphlets and tracts to disseminate the study group's findings. A brief partnership with Adventist thinker Nelson H. Barbour ended in discord over the doctrine of Christ's ransom sacrifice. In July 1879 Russell launched Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence -- known today as the Watchtower magazine. From a first edition of 6,000 copies, circulation quickly grew. By 1881, nearly one million copies of themed tracts had been printed and distributed. Russell announced the formation of Zion's Watch Tower and Tract Society "for opening blind eyes to the beauties of His word." The Watch Tower Society would become the legal and publishing corporation for Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide. Traveling representatives of the Society fanned out throughout the northeastern United States, spreading the word. Rationality rather than revivalist fervor characterized their approach.

From their studies, Russell and colleagues determined that many traditional church doctrines could not be found in the Bible, for instance, hellfire, the Trinity, the inherent immortality of the soul, predestination, infant baptism, the division of clergy and laity, religious holidays and others. Although Russell's message appears to have been quite popular among the general population, clergy of various denominations quickly branded it as heretical and launched public attacks against Russell. In later years he found himself the target of sensational tabloid-style pamphlets alleging fraudulent business practices and making much of the fact that his wife had obtained a legal separation after 18 years of marriage. Nevertheless, "Pastor" Russell became an internationally recognized figure on the religious scene, touring and speaking extensively throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Russell's syndicated sermons were published in over 2,000 newspapers.

Poster for lecture “To Hell and Back”

In 1910 Russell established the International Bible Students Association (IBSA), creating the faint outlines of a distinct religious community. (The IBSA would later become known as Jehovah's Witnesses.) By 1910, Russell's movement had spread to Europe and had moved its headquarters operation, called "Bethel," (Hebrew for "house of God") from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn, New York, to take advantage of the city's shipping facilities. In January 1914 the IBSA announced an innovative moving-picture and color-slide production entitled the Photodrama of Creation, which aimed to show the scientific basis of Scripture. An estimated nine million people viewed the presentation in 1914.

Photo Drama Slides -- Creation of Eve and Noah’s Flood

Four decades earlier, Russell predicted 1914 was a marked year that would change the course of mankind. The Millennium he anticipated did not happen, but World War I started -- which Russell said was a sign that the "last days" leading to Armageddon were underway. During WWI, IBSA literature intimated that Christians ought to abstain from the bloodshed of war. Bible Students who were drafted generally chose non-combatant service or refused induction altogether, resulting in prison terms and even death sentences (later commuted to 10 years). In 1916 Russell died while on a speaking tour.

KNOCKING AMID WAR FEVER - J.F. Rutherford, (1869-1942) & Jehovah's Witnesses

Bible Student Joseph F. Rutherford (1869-1942), an attorney from Missouri, succeeded Russell as president of the Watch Tower Society publishing company and IBSA spiritual head amid a controversy stirred by other potential successors to the post. Some Bible Students withdrew from the IBSA and formed their own groups, a few of which maintain a small following until today. As is typical of schismatic movements divided by doctrinal or structural differences, various Bible Student groups claim to be the true heirs of Russell's teachings.

A sound truck with speakers pointed to a town below

In addition to the internal tension over Rutherford's appointment, he and several leading Bible Students found themselves charged with sedition by the U.S. government under the Espionage Act of 1917. At issue were alleged anti-war statements in The Finished Mystery, a posthumous volume of Russell's commentary on the Bible book of Revelation. The offending passages bitterly criticized the Christian clergy for their involvement in war and politics. Rutherford and seven associates were convicted and received long prison terms. A federal appeals court found the judgment prejudicial, however, and the prosecution later withdrew its case. The Bible Students were convinced that hostile clergy had been behind the whole affair, a suspicion that finds some support in historical sources.

Consequently, the post-World War I period saw a hardening in the Bible Students' attitude toward other Christian religions, especially the Catholic Church. The period also saw an intensified emphasis on spreading their message about the coming Kingdom. Every Christian was to be a witness. "Jehovah," the name of God, was to be advertised. The Witnesses pioneered the use of radio networks in the late-1920s that reached millions of listeners. Phonographs and sound cars were also part of the Bible Students' arsenal. IBSA literature proclaimed that "Millions Now Living Will Never Die," a reference to their belief that restored humankind would live forever in an Earthly paradise--and that this event would happen in the lifetime of those who were alive to witness the start of World War I in 1914. Only a limited number of 144,000 would be taken to heaven to rule with Christ. The wicked would be destroyed in God's war of Armageddon and spend eternity, not in a fiery hell, but in nonexistence.

The Watchtower magazine speculated that 1925 might see the resurrection of the "ancient worthies," Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets. Rutherford preached the sermon "Comfort for the Jews," intended to assure beleaguered Jews that they would soon experience deliverance. IBSA changed its name in 1931 to Jehovah's Witnesses, based on the scripture Isaiah 43:10-12 in the American Standard Version of the Bible that said, "ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and I am God." The name has been amended in popular culture to "Jehovah Witness, Jehovahs or Jehovah Witnesses" but "Jehovah's Witnesses" is the group's preferred and official name.

The interwar period saw widespread international expansion, especially among European populations still suffering from the dislocations of the war and the Great Depression. As Fascism and Nazism gained momentum, the Witnesses clarified their doctrine vis-à-vis nationalism and military conflict. They considered themselves subjects of God's Kingdom and would swear allegiance to it alone. As "aliens and strangers" in this world, they would be law-abiding, peaceful citizens, but if a conflict between God's law and man's arose, they would uphold God's law to the end.

Patriotism reached fever pitch before and during World War II, putting Witness convictions to the test. In America, the flag salute became a flash point for physical violence and courtroom battles against Witnesses. (See section "Jehovah's Witnesses and Civil Liberties.") Some 4,300 Witness conscientious objectors, or about two-thirds of the total incarcerated in the U.S., served prison sentences of up to five years. Across the Atlantic in Nazi Germany, thousands of Witnesses faced torture, imprisonment and death for their refusal to support the Hitler regime. (See section "Jehovah's Witnesses and the Holocaust.") Jehovah's Witness literature of the period is highly polemic in tone, a counter to the hostile climate in which they found themselves. Witnesses tended to interpret such opposition as a fulfillment of Bible prophecy.

J.F. Rutherford died in 1942 during the height of the war. Nathan H. Knorr (1905-1977) became president of the publishing corporation, the Watch Tower Society, and assumed the spiritual leadership of Jehovah's Witnesses. As was true of the post-World War I period, the years after 1945 saw dramatic increases in the ranks of the Witness ministers. The group considers each baptized Witness, male or female, as an ordained minister.

Vice President Frederick Franz and President Nathan Knorr in 1953


Under Knorr's leadership, training schools for missionaries and public speakers gave impetus to a new round of expansion. The Knorr years saw an increase in Witness evangelizing, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The Soviet bloc prohibited Witness activities during the Cold War, but Witnesses behind the Iron Curtain, including those who had first encountered Witness prisoners in Nazi camps, continued working underground. One year before Knorr's death in 1977, the Watch Tower Society changed the leadership structure.

A Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses

A Governing Body of 8 (October, 2010) long-time male Witnesses was created to oversee the physical and spiritual operation of the religion by consensus. No single leader would ever again hold sole primacy of the religion as past presidents Russell, Rutherford and Knorr did. The number of Governing Body members since 1976 has ranged from 8 to 18 at any given time. Women cannot serve on the Governing Body.

Doctrinal Development and Eschatology of Jehovah's Witnesses

The modern-day religion of Jehovah's Witnesses has retained much of the original doctrine held by C. T. Russell and the early Bible Students. They regard the Bible as the inspired word of God but do not believe every word should be taken literally. The Watchtower magazine, published continuously by the Watch Tower Society since 1879, continues to be the main journal of Jehovah's Witnesses. Though not accorded the weight of Scripture, the Watchtower magazine is viewed by Jehovah's Witnesses as an authoritative source of the group's theological views. In 1961, the Witnesses completed a new Bible translation of the original languages called the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. The most noteworthy feature of this translation is its literal rendering of terms and its use nearly 7,000 times of the English form of God's name, "Jehovah."

The intense focus on the interpretation of Bible chronology and date-setting begun by founder Russell in the 1870s would continue among Jehovah's Witnesses throughout most of the 20th century. In 1975, Jehovah's Witnesses looked with excitement to what they considered a landmark year: the anniversary of 6,000 years of human history. Some Witnesses, including leading individuals, believed that this milestone might bring the battle of Armageddon and the start of the Millennium and paradise on Earth. Russell had first predicted this event to happen in 1914, but the belief was later amended to mean that people alive in 1914 would still be alive when Armageddon arrived. By 1975, this population had become senior citizens, giving Witnesses reason to believe that Armageddon could not be very far off. After 1975 passed uneventfully, Witness membership underwent a decline for several years. Still, Witnesses officially maintained that Armageddon would arrive while the generation that saw 1914 remained alive. But in 1995, with the World War I generation rapidly dwindling, Witness leadership finally dropped one of the most distinctive features of Russell's theology.

Today Witnesses contend that 1914 is an important year, marking the start of the "last days." But they no longer assign any timeline to the conclusion of the "last days," preferring to say now that any generation that has lived since 1914 could be the one to see Armageddon.


Controversy still follows Jehovah's Witnesses, now a worldwide religion of about 7 million. Their apolitical doctrine continues to draw fire. For instance, during decolonization in Africa and the break-up of the Soviet Union, Witnesses experienced and have continued to face discrimination and government suppression. Mainstream religions still consider Witness doctrine heretical, at times even labeling the Witnesses a "sect" or "cult."

Witness tenets regarding certain health and behavior issues have also stirred controversy. During World War II, medics began widespread use of blood transfusions to treat the wounded. In 1945 the Watchtower magazine pointed out the Scriptural prohibition against ingesting blood and maintained that the principle applied to human as well as animal blood. Jehovah's Witnesses also considered organ transplants to be unscriptural until 1980, when it was announced among Witnesses that the decision to accept an organ should be left to individual choice. The prohibition against whole blood still stands, though new technology that uses fractions of blood is now also considered a matter of "personal conscience." Witnesses have no religious objection to any other medical treatments and procedures. (See section "Jehovah's Witnesses and Blood.")

Witness behavior has changed in other areas over the decades. Witnesses commonly smoked tobacco before the Watchtower magazine started to question the habit in the 1950s. Still there was no official ban on cigarette smoking until the early 1970s. Witnesses are expected to avoid recreational drug use, citing the scripture that "the body is a temple."

There is no restriction on caffeine and Witnesses can drink alcohol in moderation. There are no other dietary regulations. Witnesses refrain from religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas and Easter. But Witnesses did celebrate Christmas until the 1920s, when they determined that the traditions were "pagan" and offensive to Jesus. Witnesses also refuse to celebrate birthdays and other popular holidays like Halloween, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. (See section "Beliefs.")

Jehovah's Witnesses and Entertainment Choices, Morality, Disfellowshipping

Witnesses are cautious about their entertainment choices, avoiding rated-R movies and music with immoral lyrics. They dance but discourage sexually suggestive moves. Monogamy between one man and one woman and sex only within marriage are requirements. The only valid ground for divorce and remarriage is adultery. Abortion is considered sinful, but non-abortive contraception is acceptable. Witnesses consider flagrant violators of these tenets as having severed their ties with the community, a practice called "disfellowshiping" that in itself has generated negative press. A baptized Witness who insistently promotes dissenting theological views can also be ousted from the congregation, as can anyone habitually fraternizing with the dissenter.

Jehovah's Witness and Apostates

A group of activist former Witnesses, called "apostates" in sociological terms, maintain a presence on the Internet and in the news media and are bitterly critical of various aspects of Witness belief or practice. For instance, some have found fault with the Watch Tower Society's position on the use of blood, its policies on congregation discipline and other doctrinal stands. Much negative attention is paid to the religion's history on some web sites, criticizing past leaders and the historical path of Jehovah's Witness theology.

Jehovah's Witnesses Who are Inactive and Attitude Towards non-believers

A much larger number of baptized "inactive" Witnesses have quietly ceased their activities within the Witness fold. While disfellowshiped persons are formally shunned by the community until "repentance," inactive individuals are still considered part of the congregation and may return at any time. Unbaptized children and adolescents who leave the faith are viewed similarly.

Public evangelizing and Bible study continue to be the main focus of the Witness's life. The average Witness devotes about 10 hours a month in door-to-door witnessing activity and attends meetings twice weekly at their houses of worship, called Kingdom Halls, totalling approximately three and one-half hours of meetings each week, in addition to a weekly family Bible study at home. There is singing and prayer but no ritual at a Kingdom Hall meeting. There are Bible lectures, question-and-answer sessions and note-taking under fluorescent lights in a classroom-like setting. Children attend the same service with their parents. All attendees, male and female, may participate in meetings, but only males are permitted to instruct the congregation and perform pastoral functions. There are no paid professional clergy, only unpaid lay "elders" who must meet certain qualifications. Jehovah's Witnesses do not tithe or pass collection plates at religious services. Members donate money anonymously and voluntarily in boxes at the back of their Kingdom Halls.

Witnesses are encouraged to maintain cordial relationships with non-Witness relatives, neighbors, workmates and schoolmates. However, their closest friendships are reserved for fellow believers who share their outlook and goals. Marriage to non-Witnesses is deemed unwise as a possible source of tension in the relationship. Although university training is not prohibited and is becoming more common among Witnesses, a career-driven lifestyle is discouraged, as is pursuit of status or wealth through higher education. But the Witness population has increasingly become more middle class. Meticulous attention to grooming and dress standards has led to the stereotypical image of the well-scrubbed Witness bearing Bible and pamphlets.

Jehovah's Witnesses Demography and Statistics

Of the nearly seven million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide, one million reside in the United States. Only those who regularly engage in the door-to-door ministry are considered "active" Jehovah's Witnesses -- or "publishers" -- and are counted as official members. But more than 16 million people attended the most important Jehovah's Witness religious service last year: the memorial of Jesus' death. The Watch Tower Society maintains 112 branch offices worldwide, staffed by unpaid Witness volunteers. Witness "publishers" are currently active in 235 countries, and their literature is printed in nearly 500 languages. The Watchtower magazine has a monthly printing of 50 million copies. Global population shifts have motivated local Witnesses to learn new languages to reach immigrant communities, resulting in a cross-pollination of cultures and promoting multicultural congregation life. Demographic studies show that the percentage of racial minorities in the Witness population in the United States is much higher than that of the general population.

With a history of 130 years, Jehovah's Witness theology and culture is old enough that it should no longer be viewed as a "new" religious movement. But the religion is young enough that its doctrinal and organizational calibrations are still a work in progress. Course corrections are explained as a "new understanding" of the Bible. The Witness leadership even tells members to expect changes--citing scriptures such as Proverbs 4:18 which describe "the bright light that is getting lighter and lighter."

In the era of globalization, Jehovah's Witnesses have been streamlining their operations and their message in an effort to position themselves for growth in a rapidly changing world. If the past is any indication, one certainty is that the Witnesses will keep on knocking.