When you hear of Jehovah Witnesses, what’s the first thing you think of? Have you ever invited them inside to hear what they have to say? So now ask yourself this, how much do you actually know (not what you’ve heard, what you actually know) about the Jehovah Witness faith? If you’re anything like Chris and I, then perhaps you don’t know a whole heck of a lot. Jehovah Witnesses are one of many sects of Christianity that fall under the umbrella term of Adventism. Adventism began during the Second Great Awakening, and is a core part of the story of the Burned Over District. I don’t want to get into the origins of Adventism too much because we plan to bring this to you in a future post, but just know that Adventism originated with a guy named William Miller right here in New York State, and it refers to the belief in the imminent Second Coming (or “Second Advent”) of Jesus Christ. Of course, like all other faith systems, Adventism has split many, many times, with one of these splits being the Jehovah Witnesses.
To be completely honest, Chris and I were a bit hesitant to visit any Kingdom Hall, but we finally got over it and I called the closest one to my house that I could find on the internet. A woman answered the phone and introduced herself, so I did the same. Like most times when I cold-call a place, I explained why I was calling and what I was hoping they could do for me. This time however, the woman who answered the phone did not seem overly concerned about what I wanted, but seemed completely thrilled that two non-Jehovah Witnesses wanted to come visit them. I again reiterated to the woman that I hoped to be able to really talk to somebody about the Jehovah Witness faith and their history, but again the woman simply explained that if we came someone was sure to help us. I ended the conversation with the woman and was feeling a bit unsure about whether I still wanted to visit the Jehovah Witnesses at all, because I definitely had my pre-conceived ideas as well and after this conversation, I felt like they were coming true.
After sharing my experience of this phone call with Chris, he shared in my ambivalence about going to visit. However, our list of ‘exploring the burned over district’ places to visit isn’t getting any longer, so we pulled our skirts up and proceeded to go. Chris and I showed up to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah Witnesses at 510 Helendale Road and quickly realized there is not very much to take pictures of from the outside. We would later learn that all Kingdom Halls are meant to look fairly similar and are intentionally simple and plain. We hesitantly walked in and before we sat down, I hung my coat up in a coat room as some members of the congregation kind of stared at us. We then walked in to the main meeting room and sat in the second to last row of seats in the back. Like most places we go, we were quickly approached by several different members of the congregation, all of whom were incredibly friendly. We told the story of why we were there probably 6-7 times before the service began. One of the men who introduced himself to us, introduced himself as Greg and shared with us that he is actually an Elder of the Kingdom Hall and would be available after the service to show us around a bit and answer any questions we may have. The inside of this Kingdom Hall (and we learned all Kingdom Halls) is one big room filled with several rows of chairs facing a podium, flanked by two chairs on a slightly raised landing. At the back of the building, behind the seats, in both the left corner and right corner of the building are two separate rooms, one being a small kitchen room and the other being a “role-playing” room where the skills of going door-to-door are practiced and fine-tuned. In-between the doorways to these two rooms is a counter with several piles of literature on it, and behind the counter are several cabinets stocked with even more literature.
The service commenced as a young man walked up to the podium and asked those who wished to join him to stand and begin by singing a hymn. Once the song was over, this man basically gave what I would equate to being a fairly short sermon using the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, which is the Jehovah Witness version of the Bible. I could not help myself to look at the first few pages to see where this version of the Bible was printed and learned it was printed in Brooklyn, New York at the Jehovah Witness headquarters. (Chris found it odd that the Witnesses would print their own version of the Bible, but I on the other hand think it is no different than King James of England printing his own Bible). Once this sermon was complete, the remainder of the service was spent reading an article from The Watchtower and answering the “study questions” the article posed to the reader. What this consisted of was two different men coming up on the landing, with one man standing at the podium and facilitating who was called upon to answer the study questions and to make sure that timing was considered to be able to read the entire article, while the second man would read aloud each section of the article to the audience. Greg had told us before the service started that this reading of study questions was a time for individuals in the audience to ask and discuss different questions about the faith, but what it seemed to end up being was individuals simply affirming and agreeing with what had just been read out loud.
Throughout both parts of the Jehovah Witness service, a few things were briefly mentioned that were particularly interesting and unique to their faith system, but it is also important to understand the history of the Jehovah Witness movement to even know what the individuals in the audience were talking about. In 1870, a man by the name of Charles Taze Russell formed a group with other like-minded individuals to study the Bible, which eventually became known as the Bible Study Movement. Russell and others who attended were strongly influenced by the Adventist movement and the Adventist doctrinal beliefs. In 1876, Russell received a copy of the periodical Herald of the Morning, written by Nelson H. Barbour. Liking and agreeing with what he was reading, Russell telegraphed Barbour to set up a meeting. (Something interesting of note that we found out by pure chance is that this guy Barbour studied the Adventist beliefs in Geneseo, NY and eventually moved to reside in Rochester, NY!). Russell and Barbour sooner or later get together and Barbour ultimately introduces Russell to the view that Christians who have passed away would be raised from the dead in April 1878 upon Christ’s return. Russell, who had previously rejected prophetic chronology, was inspired enough to devote his life to what he was convinced were now the last two years before the invisible, spiritual return of Christ and therefore threw his support behind Barbour’s magazine. However, when Christ did not appear in 1878, Russell and Barbour’s relationship began to crack and by 1879, they had officially split. Russell ultimately removed his financial support and started his own journal, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, publishing his first issue in July 1879. This magazine of Russell’s would eventually go on and after many name changes, evolve into The Watchtower magazine which today is the primary means of disseminating the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and is the magazine Chris and I read from during the second half of today’s service. Nelson Barbour on the other hand formed The Church of the Strangers in 1879 in Rochester, NY and continued to publish Herald of the Morning. At the time of Barbour’s death in 1905, his Church of the Strangers contained approximately 50 members, but the congregation quickly disintegrated upon Barbour’s passing. (We plan to look into the life of Nelson Barbour more and we know there is a book written about him titled, “The Millennium’s Forgotten Prophet,” written by B.W. Schulz. One has to wonder how much this man influenced the creation of the Jehovah Witnesses, right here in Rochester, NY!).
In 1881, Russell founded the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society for the purpose of disseminating tracts, papers, doctrinal treatises and Bibles and began to distribute this material by “colporteurs” (persons who travel to sell or publicize Bibles, religious tracts, etc.). The Society was eventually incorporated in 1884, with Russell as President, and in 1886 its name was changed to Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (commonly referred to as the Watch Tower Society). Then by 1908, Russell transferred the headquarters of the Watch Tower Society to its current location in Brooklyn, New York. During this time, Russell’s ministry intensified and he began to attract hundreds of followers, in several other states across the country and even followers in other countries as his sermons began to be syndicated in certain newspapers worldwide. Russell and other Bible Students came to believe that Christian creeds and traditions were harmful errors and that they were restoring Christianity to the purity held in the first century. Some of the more major points where Russell and his followers differ from Catholics and some Protestant sects are listed below (NOTE: The list of bulleted items below is not my work, instead it is a pre-written list from Wikipedia.com):
- Hell: Russell rejected the notion of Hell and maintained that there was a heavenly resurrection of 144,000 righteous, as well as a “great multitude”, but believed that the remainder of mankind slept in death, awaiting an earthly resurrection.
- The Trinity: Russell rejected Trinitarianism, and while he believed in the divinity of Christ, he taught Jesus had received that divinity as a gift from the Father, after dying on the cross. He also taught that the Holy Spirit is not a person, but the manifestation of God’s power.
- Christ’s Second Coming: Russell believed that Christ had returned invisibly in 1874, and that he had been ruling from the heavens since that date. He predicted that a period known as the “Gentile Times” would end in 1914, and that Christ would take power of Earth’s affairs at that time.
- Christian Zionism: Expanding upon an idea suggested by Nelson Barbour, Russell taught as early as 1879 that God’s favor had been restored to Jews as the result of a prophetic “double” which had ended in 1878 (favor from Jacob to Jesus, then disfavor from Jesus until 1878). In 1910, he conducted a meeting at the New York Hippodrome Theatre, with thousands of Jews attending. Jews and Christians alike were shocked by his teaching that Jews should not convert to Christianity. Russell believed that the land of Palestine belonged exclusively to the Jewish race, that God was now calling them back to their land, and that they would be the center of earthly leadership under God’s Kingdom.
- Christmas, Easter, other holidays (and birthdays): Russell taught that holidays and birthdays derive from pagan origins that are incompatible with Christianity
- While not necessarily disagreeing with Catholic and/or Protestant beliefs, Russell also taught to refuse military service, refusal to salute national flags, to refuse blood transfusions and to consider secular society to be morally corrupt and under the influence of Satan, and to limit social interaction with non-Witnesses.
Charles Taze Russell died on October 31, 1916, from cystitis, or basically a bacterial infection in his bladder. In January 1917, in a very controversial election process, Joseph Franklin Rutherford was elected president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Rutherford then began to change and re-interpret things put in place by Russell, leading many to question Rutherford’s authority. By the end of the 1920s, nearly three quarters of the Bible Student congregations had rejected Rutherford’s on-going changes. An attempt was made at a re-gathering of disaffected Bible Students but ultimately never amounted to much. Those remaining supportive of Rutherford adopted the new name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” in 1931, and changed the keyword of their magazine from “Watch Tower” to “The Watchtower.” There are definitely some today that assert Russell never created or founded the Jehovah Witnesses because it was under Rutherford when the name was created. However, Greg specifically told us that he and his congregation consider Russell to be their founder.
After the service was over, Greg quickly approached us and explained he wanted to show us something. He took us to the back of the building and began to give us some free Jehovah Witness literature. While we asked several questions of Greg and other members of the congregation that introduced themselves to us, one of the questions Chris asked was, “If there was anything they hoped we got out of today’s visit, what would it be?” The man who had conducted the service of the reading of the Watchtower shared with us that it was vitally important to them that we know that God’s name is Jehovah. So where does the name Jehovah Witness come from? In the Old Testament of the Bible, the God of Israel and Judah is referred to as Yahweh and there is also some historical evidence that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the word YHWH, which is Ancient Hebrew and means Yahweh. Well guess what Yahweh is translated into English? You guessed it, it’s Jehovah and Jehovah is thought by the Jehovah Witnesses to be the actual name of God. In fact, the Jehovah Witnesses have taken their version of the Bible and everywhere in it where it would say the word God or Creator, in their version it says Jehovah.
From the time of Rutherford and when the group actually became known as the Jehovah Witnesses, the Witnesses have gone through a long and turbulent history. Due to the Witnesses stance on service in the military, plus the Witnesses outspoken criticism of the Christian involvement in both World Wars, several countries banned the religion outright and hundreds of Witnesses world-wide, especially right here in the US were jailed for their beliefs. Dozens of court cases have been fought and won by the Witnesses, and right here in the United States, it is specifically because of the Jehovah Witnesses fighting for their religious freedoms that have set the precedent for other religious denominations to be able to practice freely.
Another part of Witness history is the persecution of Jehovah Witnesses by Nazi Germany during World War II. While the Jewish population wore the yellow Star of David, Jehovah Witnesses are known for the “purple triangles” they were made to wear in concentration camps. While nothing is comparable to the horrific numbers of Jews who lost their lives, the population of Jehovah Witnesses to be sent to the gas chambers is estimated to be in the thousands and some consider the Witnesses to be the second largest population the Nazis massacred.
Additional issues to dog the Jehovah Witnesses are the several Watchtower publications that have claimed that God has used Jehovah’s Witnesses to declare his will and has provided advance knowledge about Armageddon and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. The dates of 1914, 1925 and 1975 have all been predicted as historically significant, all of which are now considered failed predictions about world events that Witnesses believed were prophesied in the Bible. Witnesses state that the changing views and dates of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are largely attributable to changed understandings of biblical chronology rather than failed predictions.
While talking to Greg after the service, Greg informed us that he and his congregation do believe that Christ’s Second Coming will occur in their lifetimes, which is why they go door-to-door, basically to save you and I before we no longer have the choice. Hanging on the wall next to Greg was a blown –up map of the south-east corner of Rochester, with certain streets and neighborhoods grouped together. Greg explained to us that his specific congregation has a specified territory that they go door-to-door in and showed us on the map where his territory is. We were surprised to learn that if a Witness congregation goes into the wrong territory, this can actually be quite a big deal and is definitely frowned upon. Should Witness go outside of his or her territory, the district representative person (basically an individual who is in charge of several Witness congregations in a specified territory) will be consulted. It is important to remember that in the Jehovah Witness faith, everything is organized and controlled more or less by the Watchtower office in Brooklyn, New York. On any given week, every Witness congregation conducts the same sermon and reads the same Watchtower article, in similar looking Kingdom Halls.
Greg and several other members of the congregation were very friendly to Chris and I and were more than willing to answer every question we had. Greg did take us into a little back room that they use as a library, but besides this, there was nothing much to see outside of the main meeting room. As people started to filter out, Chris and I felt like we should also get going. We thanked Greg for the time he spent with us and proceeded to leave. As Chris and I drove away, we both agreed that while the Jehovah Witness faith system has some unique qualities, we no longer understood what all of the fuss is about.