UBC Community, Partners, and Alumni Publications

Jehovah's Witnesses Smith, Joanna


The religious movement that would grow into the Jehovah’s Witnesses first coalesced in Pittsburgh in the 1870s around a young founder named Charles Taze Russell. Though previously disillusioned with religion, Russell was strongly influenced by Adventist ideas of Jesus’ imminent return. He began gathering friends and followers at a Bible Study and publishing a periodical called “Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence.” By the 1880s, Russell’s congregations had proliferated, and he had formally founded the organization that would become the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the guiding institution behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a prophetic challenge as a mounting number of revised dates that Russell continued to set for the apocalypse came and went without Christ’s tangible return. After another apparently failed prophecy in 1914, Witnesses began to argue that Jesus had indeed returned, but had done so invisibly, beginning a heavenly rule and ushering in the “last days” that will lead up to an imminent Battle of Armageddon. Soon, they believe, Jesus will purge the earth of sin and wickedness, creating a paradise. A small group of elite believers will rule over it with him, while the rest of the righteous will be reawakened to live eternally on the new earth. Nonbelievers will be punished with eternal death. Because of their belief that the Apocalypse is imminent, Witnesses are hyper focused on proselytizing in their home communities and around the world. They do this through door-to-door outreach and by distributing literature in public places like train and subway stations. Through a tight organizational structure led by the Governing Body at a global level and elders at a congregational level, Jehovah’s Witness’ variations in practice, belief, and biblical interpretation are kept in check. Beyond their outreach efforts, Jehovah’s Witnesses are fairly insular, maintaining strong boundaries between insiders and outsiders. They are a relatively “high cost” religious group in terms of the demands they place on members’ time, energy, and autonomy. They also stand out from other Christian groups for their rejection of the trinity, as well as for their refusal to celebrate holidays, participate in politics or shows of patriotism, or receive blood transfusions. Over the last century, Jehovah’s Witnesses have often faced intense persecution around the globe.

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