They are the strangers who knock on doors most Saturday and Sunday mornings trying to give away their literature and wanting to read a couple of their “favorite” Bible verses to residents who would prefer to watch sports on TV and be left alone to read their newspaper in peace. These door-to-door evangelists will even offer a “free Bible study” to total strangers. While calling themselves “Christians,” they worship in buildings with absolutely no steeples, crosses, clergymen, altars, or Sunday schools – and often – no windows!
(In other words, they are the ones knocking on doors who are not Mormons. Unlike Mormon missionaries, Witnesses prefer riding in 4-door sedans or mini-vans rather than bicycles.)
Who are these people? Exactly who and what are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Why do they knock on doors to give away free magazines and books to strangers, many who also consider themselves Christians? Why do they keep going back time after time to knock again at houses where the residents have shown no interest, have refused their free magazines, and have even been unpleasant or threatening? Why and for what purpose?
To understand Jehovah’s Witnesses you must first be familiar with their history and their beliefs. You must realize that:
- Jehovah’s Witnesses are far more than they appear to be, and
- They are far less than they appear to be.
What do I mean by those two statements? How can a group of people be both more AND less than what they are?
In a future series of articles I will present the highlights of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ history including their doctrines, leaders, organization, and membership. At the end of each article I will provide resources for readers who want to learn more about this intriguing religion that might even be considered a “sub-cultural phenomenon.”
The story of the Watchtower Society began in the 1870s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. First known simply as “Bible Students,” they were actually a local sect of the “Second Adventists,” a religious movement that originating in the 1830s.
William Miller, a Baptist preacher in Vermont, began preaching that the “Second Advent” (return) of Jesus Christ would occur sometime in 1843 or early 1844. He was soon joined by hundreds of traveling lecturers promoting Miller’s prophecy and sowing the seeds that became known as the “Millerite Movement.” Thousands of North Americans, mostly Protestants, actually believed in Miller’s end-time prediction.
William Miller’s promised “Second Advent” did not occur by Passover 1844. One of his followers named Samuel Snow suggested October 22, 1844 as the new probable date of the “Advent.” Miller himself did not promote Snow’s new date until the first week of October. Nearly all Millerites accepted this new prediction because it was promoted by George Storrs, a Millerite lecturer whom William Miller personally disliked.
George Storrs was promoting his own doctrines to the Millerites, doctrines that Miller refused to support. Among Protestants Storrs’ teaching of “soul sleep” and “conditional immortality” were considered “heretical.” (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and other followers of Storrs and Charles Russell still teach these doctrines.
When the “Advent” did not occur that October of 1844, the reaction was swift and devastating to the Millerite movement. Most Millerites simply returned to their local churches and more orthodox beliefs. Those that remained faithful to Miller or Storrs soon formed small groups and became known as “Adventists” or “Second Adventists.” Separate Second Adventist groups formed their own churches (including some that believed that Saturday was the “true sabbath” and became the Seventh Day Adventists). Smaller “Church of God” Second Adventist subgroups formed, the source for groups like Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. Most of these Second Adventist sub-sects continued to predict Jesus second coming would occur on various dates between 1845 and 1880.
Among these breakaway groups “prophets” appeared who continued to set dates for the return of Christ. Eventually, due to being disappointed by dozens of false prediction and the resulting public backlash, most Adventist church leaders stopped setting dates. Although they continued to preach that Jesus return would occur in the near future, mostly simply stopped publishing their hunches and focused on more traditional preaching.
That is except for one Second Adventist, Nelson Barbour, who continued to calculate “dates” based on his own understanding of Bible prophecies. He eventually went public with his prediction that Jesus Christ would return and establish his kingdom sometime in 1873 or early 1874.
One of Barbour’s faithful followers was a Second Adventist pastor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Jonas Wendell. Teenaged Charles Taze Russell heard Wendell preach and was fascinated by the suggestion that Jesus would return in 1874.
Nelson Barbour tried to regain followers by claiming that Christ had actually returned in October 1874, and was actually “present,” but “invisible.” He claimed that the Advent would be a forty-year process ending in 1914. According to Barbour, Jesus was using that time to prepare for his eventual “visible” return. Armageddon would begin at the end of that invisible return in October 1914.
Russell and Storrs placed their faith in Barbour and considered his latest teachings as “The Truth.” Russell financially backed Barbour’s stalled ministry, and became Assistant Editor for the Second Adventist magazine. Barbour, Russell, and a few followers began preaching that “the rapture of the remaining living 144,000 heavenly co-rulers” would occur on Passover 1878.
In 1879, after that prediction also failed, Russell and Barbour split after a series of heated arguments over interpretations of other doctrines and beliefs.
The Beginning of the Watch Tower
In 1879, after his break from Nelson Barbour, Charles Taze Russell started publishing his own Second Adventist magazine, called “ZION’S WATCH TOWER and HERALD OF CHRIST’S PRESENCE.” It’s goal was to publish “The Truth” that Christ had already returned “invisibly” in 1874, but would return “visibly” in October 1914. After expropriating Nelson Barbour’s teachings and mailing lists, Russell used them to attract hundreds of Second Adventist followers.
Russell formed Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society in 1881 with William Henry Conley as its first president. Henry Conley, his wife, Sarah, and the Russell’s family (his father Joseph and sister Margaret) called themselves “Bible Students.”
Those five “Bible Students” of 1881 were effectively the “seedlings” who gave birth to our modern Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, its multiple US and international corporations, and nearly 8,000,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide.
Henry Conley was a prominent Pittsburgh business person involved, like Andrew Carnegie, in the growing steel industry. He provided most of the seed money for printing and distribution of literature during the Watch Tower Society’s first year. Conley and his wife Sarah left in 1882 when Russell began to deny the deity of Jesus Christ, later returning to the Presbyterian Church.
The Watch Tower Society’s growth as a religious movement was minimal. Magazines and a few books were distributed locally and through subscriptions, but it barely survived through the end of the century. Russell’s real goal was to become a writer, publisher and public speaker. He took on the title Pastor (with a capital “P”) and began to make public appearances and occasionally help set up a new group of “Bible Students.”
Russell began to publicly predict that Jesus Christ would return visibly in October 1914, providing his publishing company some increased growth. Membership and meeting locations began to increase. Russell’s preaching was introduced to Great Britain and western Europe between 1900 and 1914. In 1914 there were 15-25,000 International Bible Students (including future US president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mother and cousins). As 1914 approached, Russell’s Zion’s Watch Tower magazine found new readership and growing income. Russell’s book and magazines were gaining new readership and notoriety as the predicted date approached.
Charles Taze Russell’s predictions for October 1914 failed. Jesus Christ did not appear in visible form., he simply repeated what his Second Adventist predecessors had done decades earlier. Russell reset the date for Jesus Christ’s “visible” return for October 1915. However, even before October 1915 arrived, Russell had already started losing what eventually amounted to half or more of his followers — including losing their financial support.
End of Part One
Watchtower’s Official Version [for time period described above]
A Video Extra
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Ten Major Beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses