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 Jehovah's Witnesses

Introduction: overview, history,
religious texts, organizational structure

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Jehovah's Witnesses derive their name from:

bullet Jehovah, an English translation of the name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures.
bullet Witnesses which is taken from the passage in Isaiah 43:10 (and similar passages): "Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord..."

They are a high intensity faith group which expects a major commitment from its membership.

As of mid-2004, they have about 6.5 million publishers and pioneers in over 97,000 congregations in more than 200 countries. In excess of 16 million people (pioneers, publishers, adherents and potential members) attended the "Lord's Evening Meal" service at the time of Passover in 2004.  There are slightly over 1 million witnesses in the U.S., about 111,000 in Canada. 1

They have expanded widely throughout Europe and Russia. J.G. Melton, an authority on religious groups, has stated: "In every single country of Europe, with one exception, the second largest religious group in that country is the Jehovah's Witnesses....They are number two in all of Eastern Europe and they are heading that way in Russia." 2 We have been unable to verify the accuracy of these data. Jehovah's Witnesses' 2004 statistical report shows that they form:

bullet 3.5% of the population of St. Helena.
bullet 2.1% of Niue.
bullet Between 1 and 2% of the population of Cura'ao, Guadeloupe, and Martinique, and
bullet Fewer than 1% of the population of the remaining countries in the world. For example, in countries with over 50 million population: 
Country Percentage of Witnesses
Bangladesh .00007%
Brazil .34% *
Britain .22% *
Congo, Dem. Repl. .24% *
Ethiopia .01%
France .20%
Germany .20%
India .002%
Indonesia .009%
Italy .40%
Japan .18%
Mexico .55% *
Myanmar .006%
Nigeria .21%
Pakistan .0005% *
Philippines .18%
Russia .09% *
Thailand .003%
Turkey .003% *
USA .36%

* Significant increase since 1999.


The WTS traces their origin to Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). After periods of being a Presbyterian, Congregationalist, skeptic, and Adventist, he organized a Bible study group in Pennsylvania in 1870. The group's intense examination of the Bible caused them to reject traditional Christian teachings on the nature of deity, and the immortality of the soul.

By 1880, 30 congregations had been formed in 7 states. Zion's Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was incorporated in 1884. In 1896, it dropped Zion from its name. After Russell's death in 1916, the WTS's lawyer, Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford took over the presidency. Under Rutherford's leadership, the Society became more centrally controlled. Perhaps his best known phrase was "Millions now living will never die" .

Prior to World War I, the Society had recommended that Witnesses abstain from entering the armed forces. If compelled to enter they army, they should go, but work in a non-combative role (as in medical service). 3 A group of members called Steadfasters opposed all support of World War I. Later, the Society adopted the stance of the Steadfasters.

A split occurred in 1917 over the direction and leadership of the Watchtower organization. One of the largest breakoff groups was known as The Dawn Bible Students Association of East Rutherford NJ.

In 1931, the organization became known as Jehovah's Witnesses. One reason was to avoid confusion with other Bible Student groups. The main reason was that they felt led by the Holy Spirit to adopt a name that emphasized to the public their belief in Jehovah. After Rutherford's death in 1942, Nathan Homer Knorr was elected president. Under his leadership, the WTS greatly increased its publication efforts and published their a new translation of the Bible that is used mainly by Jehovah's Witnesses. Succeeding Knorr was Frederick W. Franz (Knorr's vice-president).

Their refusal to salute the flag, to assist the war effort, to vote etc. caused them to be very unpopular in some countries. Witnesses in North America and Europe were heavily persecuted during World War II, because of their non-involvement in the armed forces and war industries. Their treatment in Nazi Germany was particularly vicious. Thousands died in concentration camps. Their religion was banned in Canada in 1940 (one year following Canada's entry into the war). Some of their children were expelled from school; other children were placed in foster homes; members were jailed; men who refused to enter the army were sent to work camps. They remain banned in some countries and heavily persecuted in many others.

Jehovah's Witnesses has contributed heavily to the preservation of religious freedom in the US; they won 36 out of 45 religiously based cases that they took to the US Supreme Court between 1938 and 1955. They

"...have performed a signal service to democracy by their fight to preserve their civil rights, for in their struggle they have done much to secure those rights for every minority group in America. When the civil rights of any one group are invaded, the rights of no other group are safe. They have therefore made a definite contribution to the preservation of some of the most precious things in our democracy." 4

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Religious Texts

bullet They revere the Bible as the infallible, revealed word of God. In 1961, they published their own English version called New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. It is currently available (wholly or in part) in over a dozen languages, and will shortly be seen in 30. The translation was made by an anonymous group who donated their work to the WTS. Some Biblical scholars and other Christians who are not Jehovah's Witnesses have criticized the translation, implying that the original Hebrew and Greek texts have been distorted during translation to more suitably reflect WTS theology.
bullet Their associated group, the Watch Tower Society publishes two semi-monthly magazines for public distribution. One is the WATCHTOWER which has a circulation in excess of 22 million world-wide, in 129 languages. They also distribute the non-theologically based periodical Awake with a circulation of almost 20 million, in 81 languages. Kingdom Ministry is a monthly publication for use within the organization. (Data valid at 1998-NOV-1)
bullet They publish many anonymously-written booklets and a few videos, such as:
bullet Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, which addresses criticism of their failed predictions
bullet Should you Believe in the Trinity (1989) which denies the traditional Christian concept of the Trinity.
bullet Jehovah's Witnesses, The Organization Behind the Name (1990), a video tape depicting life inside of Bethel, their head office.

Organizational Structure

The Jehovah's Witnesses has its headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. It is organized into:

bullet Governing Body: This is a group of anointed volunteers -- all men -- in the Brooklyn NY head office. It currently consists of 11 members.
bullet Publishers and Pioneers. These are members of both genders and all ages who actively go from door to door, attempting to share the Bible with the public in their communities. Those who are dedicated, full-time preachers are given the title Regular Pioneer. They commit to preach for 840 hours per year. Auxiliary Pioneers do 50 hours a month for one or more consecutive months. Special Pioneers are selected from among the Regular Pioneers and are sent to go wherever the need is greatest. Publishers typically go door-to-door once per week, often on Saturdays. If a publisher does not turn in her/his time for six months in a row, they are considered inactive. The congregation elders give all members "shepherding calls" to encourage them in their spirituality and assist them in their ministry.
bullet Congregations: Appointed members, called Overseers or Elders are each given a specific role. For example, the Coordinator of the Body of Elders (formerly called the Presiding Overseer) leads the elder meetings. The Service Overseer handles ministry issues within the congregation. Ministerial Servants handle administrative duties and assist the Elders. A Kingdom Hall is a building where one or more congregations hold meetings.
bullet Circuits are groups of about 20 congregations, served by a Circuit Overseer. The "CO" periodically visits each congregation twice annually for a one week period. Circuits also organize two day conventions for their congregations, which are held twice a year.
bullet Districts are made up from many circuits; there are 22 districts in the United States. The District Overseer (DO) runs the district conventions which are held once a year. He also attends the circuit conventions.
bullet A number of districts form a Branch
bullet A number of branches form a Zone


  1. "Statistics: 1999 report of Jehovah's Witnesses Worldwide," at:
  2. J. Gordon Melton, "Current & Anti-Mormon Activities in Europe" a presentation given at the Sunstone Symposium West, Irvine CA on 1996-MAR-30.
  3. Article on war, Zion's Watch Tower, 1896-JAN-1, P. 5.
  4. C. S. Braden, "These Also Believe"

How you got here: Home page > Christianity > Denominations >  Witnesses > here

Copyright 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written on: 1996-SEP-29

Last updated on: 2009-AUG-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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