Summary of the Jehovah's Witnesses
Jehovah's Witnesses is a restorationist, chiliastic Christian religion. They consider the Bible to be the ultimate authority for their teachings and practices. This denomination emerged from the Bible Student movement, founded in 1872 by Charles Taze Russell, with the creation of the Watch Tower Society. It underwent significant structural alterations between 1917 and the 1940s, having its authority organization centralized and its preaching techniques brought under greater regimentation. The religion reports international membership of over 7 million adherents involved in preaching; they report annual convention and memorial attendance between 12 and 18 million.
They are prominently known for their door-to-door preaching, and for their refusal of military service and blood transfusions even in life-threatening situations. The religion's stance of conscientious objection to military service has brought it to contend with governments that draft citizens for military service, and activities of Jehovah's Witnesses have been consequently banned in some nations. Jehovah's Witnesses have had a major impact on US constitutional law concerning civil liberties and conscientious objection to military service. They endeavor to remain unattached from secular society, which is regarded as a place of moral contamination and under the control of Satan the Devil, and limit their social contact with non-Witnesses.
Since its inception, the Watch Tower Society has taught that humanity is enduring the last days of the present world order. In the years leading up to 1914, 1925 and 1975, the Society's publications expressed strong expectations of Armageddon occurring in those years, resulting in surges in membership and following defections. The Watchtower later stated that it "regretted" the expectations that had been raised concerning 1975 by "persons having to do with the publication of the information".
Their belief system greatly diverges from traditional Christian theology, which has caused several major Christian denominations to denounce the group as either a cult or sect. Studies of the religion have described it as authoritarian, claiming it demands unquestioning obedience from followers, with the consequence of expulsion and shunning facing those who oppose its doctrines.
Jehovah's Witnesses are organized under a hierarchical layout, which their leadership calls a "theocratic government", reflecting their belief that it is God's organization on earth.
The organization is headed by the Governing Body – an all-male group that varies in numbers, but since 2007 has comprised nine members, all of whom profess to be of the "anointed" class with a hope of heavenly life – based in the Watch Tower Society's Brooklyn, New York headquarters. There is no election for governing membership, with new members appointed by the existing body. The Governing Body is described as the "spokesman" for God's "Faithful and Discreet Slave class" (the approximately 10,000 remaining "anointed" Jehovah's Witnesses), and is said to supply "spiritual food" for Witnesses worldwide on behalf of the "Faithful and Discreet Slave". In practice it seeks neither advice nor approval from any "anointed" Witnesses other than high-ranking members at Brooklyn Bethel when formulating policy and doctrines or when creating material for publications and conventions.
The Governing Body directs multiple committees that are responsible for various administrative functions, including publishing, assembly programs and evangelizing activity. It directly appoints all branch committee members and District and Circuit Overseers, with traveling supervisors overseeing groups of congregations within their jurisdictions.
Jehovah's Witnesses have no formal clergy-laity division. Each congregation has a body of selected male elders and ministerial servants. Elders maintain general responsibility for congregational governance, setting meeting times, choosing speakers and conducting meetings, directing the public preaching work, and creating "judicial committees" to investigate and determine disciplinary action for cases that are seen as breaching scriptural or organizational laws. New elders are chosen by the Watch Tower Society after recommendation by the existing body of elders. Ministerial servants – appointed in a fashion similar to that of the elders – fulfill clerical and attendant duties, but may also teach and conduct meetings.
Doctrinal positions are obtained by what Witness publications describe as "progressive revelation". The term is not explicitly defined in Watch Tower literature, but is commonly explained as the application of reason and study as well as the undefined guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Watchtower has also implied that the organization has received direct, latter-day revelations, including messages from "invisible angels".
The entire Protestant canon of scripture is considered the inspired, correct word of God. The Witnesses accept the Bible as scientifically and historically accurate and reliable, and interpret much of it literally, while also accepting it is abundant in symbolism. They claim to use the Bible as the basis for all of their beliefs, although studies of the religion show that the traditional teachings of Russell, as well as the pronouncements of the Governing Body, through Watch Tower publications, carry at least as much weight as the Bible, if not more. The leadership of Jehovah's Witnesses claims to be the single visible channel of Jehovah and asserts that the Bible cannot be understood without its assistance.
Also pronounced YAHWEH, the name "Jehovah" is a hybrid rendering of the biblical Hebrew letters "yod-hey-vav-hey" (YHWH), the Tetragrammaton combined with the vowel sounds of Adonai, the Hebrew name for God.
Emphasis is given to the use of God's biblical name, the Tetragrammaton, and in English they favor using the name, Jehovah. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jehovah is the one and only true God, the creator of all things, and give him the title "Universal Sovereign". They believe that all of their worship should be directed toward him.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus was Jehovah's first creation, that Jehovah then created everything else by means of Jesus, and that the initial unassisted act of creation uniquely identifies Jesus as God's 'only-begotten Son'. Jesus served as a ransom sacrifice to pay for the sins of all humankind. They believe that Jesus was a killed on a single upright torture stake rather than the traditional cross. They believe that bilical references to the Archangel Michael, Apollyon and Abaddon, and the Word all refer to Jesus.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Satan is the evil, invisible ruler of the world. He was at one time a perfect angel, but he developed feelings of self-importance and craved worship that belonged to God the Father. Satan persuaded Adam and Eve to obey him rather than God, and mankind subsequently became participants in a challenge involving the competing claims of Jehovah and Satan to universal sovereignty. Other angels who also followed Satan in rebelling against God became demons. They teach that Satan and his demons were cast down to earth from heaven in October 1914, at which point the end of times began. Satan continues to mislead people and he and the demons are said to be the cause of much pain and anguish.
Witness publications teach that all of humanity lies in a sinful state. Release from this is possible because Jesus' shed blood provided a payment, or atonement for the sins of all people. Witnesses believe there are two destinations for those who are saved by God. They say the number of Christians going to heaven is limited to exactly 144,000, who will rule with Jesus as kings and priests over earth. The remainder have the hope of living eternally in an earthly paradise. Jehovah's Witnesses teach that the only scriptural hope of surviving Armageddon comes through cleaving to the biblical teachings, including faith in Jesus' shed blood. Those who do not present such faith and become part of God's "organization" face destruction at Armageddon. Following Armageddon, most people will be resurrected with the prospect of living forever.
God's Messianic Kingdom
Witness publications teach that God's Kingdom is a government in heaven, ruled by Jesus Christ and 144,000 people selected from the earth. The kingdom is viewed as the means by which God will accomplish his original purpose for the earth, bringing about a world free of crime, illness, death, and poverty, ultimately transforming earth into a paradise. The kingdom is said to have been the focal point of Jesus' ministry on earth. It was established in heaven in 1914.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that death is a condition of non-existence without consciousness. They do not believe in any Hell of fiery torture. Hades and Sheol are understood to refer to the state of death, termed the common grave. They consider the body and soul to be the living entity that expires. Their hope for life after death involves being resurrected by God, either with a new body on earth after Armageddon, or to heaven as one of the limited number of 144,000.
Watch Tower publications stress that members of the religion are not compelled to remain part of the congregation. However, Jehovah's Witness doctrines provide no legitimate reason for baptised members to leave the religion. Those who do choose to depart and announce their decision to terminate their membership are described as apostates and antichrists. Watch Tower publications direct that they are to be shunned by other Witnesses, including even close relatives. Sociologist Andrew Holden claims his research indicated many Witnesses who would otherwise defect because of disillusionment with the organization and its teachings retain affiliation for fear of being shunned and losing contact with friends and family members.
Meetings for study and worship are held at Kingdom Halls. Witnesses are assigned to a congregation in whose "territory" they reside and are expected to attend meetings weekly as scheduled by congregation elders. The meetings are essentially devoted to study of the Bible and Witness doctrines. The form and content of the meetings is established by the religion's Brooklyn headquarters, with the content of meetings in any week largely synchronized around the world. The week's two meetings are divided into five distinct sections, lasting a total of about four hours, with meetings opened and closed with hymns and brief prayers delivered from the platform. The Kingdom Halls are generally functional in character, and do not contain religious symbols. Each year, Witnesses from multiple congregations that form a "circuit" gather for one-day and two-day assemblies. Several circuits meet annually for a three-day "district convention", usually at rented stadiums or auditoriums. Their most important and sacred event is the celebration of the "Lord's Evening Meal", or "Memorial of Christ's Death".
Jehovah's Witnesses are probably best known for their efforts to spread their beliefs throughout the world. They do this mainly by visiting people from door to door. Free home Bible studies are offered to any people who show interest in their beliefs, which they present with the aid of their publications, such as The Watchtower. Witness literature is published in many languages through a wide variety of books, magazines and other publications, with a small selection available in over 440 languages. Witnesses are instructed to devote as much time as possible to preaching activities, and are required to submit a monthly report to their congregation on their 'witnessing' activity.
Ethics and Morality
The Jehovah's Witness view of morality reflects conservative Christian values. All extra-marital sexual relations are grounds for expulsion (disfellowshipping) if the accused is not deemed repentant. Abortions are considered murder. Modesty in wardrobe and grooming is frequently emphasized. Gambling, drunkenness, illegal drugs, and use of tobacco are forbidden. Drinking of alcoholic beverages is permitted, but in moderation.
The family is of a patriarchal structure. The husband is considered the final authority on family decisions, but is encouraged to solicit the thoughts and feelings of his wife, as well as those of his children. Marriages must be monogamous. Divorce is allowed only for adultery. If a divorce is obtained for any other reason, remarriage is considered adultery (as long as the previous spouse is still alive). Abuse and willful non-support of one's family are actions considered to be remedied by separation.
Formal discipline is conducted by congregation elders. When an accusation of major sin is made concerning a baptized member, a tribunal or judicial committee is formed to determine guilt, administer help and possibly apply sanctions. Disfellowshipping is the ultimate form of discipline administered, which requires the person to be shunned by all baptized members. Exceptions to this would include cases where a member was forced to have commercial dealings with a member who is disfellowshipped, or if the disfellowshipped member is living with baptized family members. The stated purpose of disfellowshipping is to keep the congregation free from immoral influences and to shame wrong-doers into repentance, but the threat of shunning also serves to deter other members from dissident behavior. Reproof involves sins that may lead to disfellowshipping. Those considered "truly repentant" are reproved rather than disfellowshipped. Marking is practiced if a member's course of action is regarded as a violation of Bible principles, reflecting badly on the congregation, but is not a disfellowshipping offense. An announcement is made, stating that the actions in question are wrong, while keeping the name of the individual anonymous. Congregation members limit social contact with the accused. The purpose of this is to shame the sinner into correcting their actions.
Avoidance of Interfaith Activity
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Bible condemns the mixing of religions and their doctrines on the basis that there can only be one truth from God. They believe that only their religion represents true Christianity, and that all other religions fail to meet all of the requirements set by God and will be destroyed, and therefore reject interfaith and ecumenical movements.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe their allegiance belongs to God's Kingdom, which is viewed as a literal government in heaven. They are taught that it is vital they remain "separate from the world" in harmony with Jesus' description of his followers found in John 17:14-16. Watch Tower publications define the "world" as "the mass of mankind apart from Jehovah’s approved servants" and teach that it is ruled by Satan, and is therefore a place of danger and moral contamination. Witnesses express their world-renouncing beliefs in many ways. They avoid involvement in social controversies, remain neutral in their political views, do not seek public office, and are discouraged from voting. They abstain from celebrating religious holidays and birthdays and reject many customs that they claim to have pagan origins. They do not work in industries associated with the military, do not serve in the armed forces and refuse national military service, which in some countries may result in their arrest and imprisonment. They do not salute or pledge allegiance to the national flag or sing national anthems and patriotic songs and demand high standards of morality within their ranks.
Witnesses are advised to minimize social contact with non-members because of their perceived dangers of worldly association. A study by sociologist Andrew Holden indicated they are therefore highly selective in choosing who they spend leisure time with and usually select the company of other Witnesses.
Jehovah's Witnesses are opposed to blood transfusions, based on their interpretation of how the Bible describes the proper treatment of blood. In 1961, accepting a blood transfusion resulted in expulsion from the religion. They do not accept the threat of death as sufficient to dissuade them from rejecting blood transfusions for themselves or for their children. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Bible prohibits blood transfusions based on their understanding of Acts 15:28-29.
Jehovah's Witnesses are forbidden from accepting red cells, white cells, platelets or plasma, though they may accept fractions made from these components at their own discretion. The Watch Tower Society provides members with Power of Attorney documents to indicate which optional fractions they may accept, with preformatted wording prohibiting major components. If a fraction "makes up a significant portion of that component" or "carries out the key function of a primary component", it may be objectionable to some but is still permissible.