Jehovah’s Witnesses Denomination Overview

Charles Taze Russell
Charles Taze Russell.

Library of Congress / Contributor / Getty Images

Jehovah's Witnesses, also known as the Watchtower Society, is one of the most controversial Christian denominations. The church is best known for its door-to-door evangelism and its belief that only 144,000 people will go to heaven and the rest of saved humanity will live forever on a restored earth.

Jehovah's Witnesses

  • Also Known As: Watchtower Society; Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
  • Known For: Non-trinitarian religious denomination best known for their Kingdom Halls, door to door evangelism, and belief that only 144,000 people will go to heaven.
  • Founder: Charles Taze Russell
  • Founding: 1879, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • Headquarters: Office of the General Counsel, Warwick (Tuxedo Park), New York, United States.
  • Worldwide Membership: 8.5 million worldwide.
  • Leadership: Governing Body: Kenneth Cook, Jr., Samuel Herd, Geoffrey Jackson, Stephen Lett, Gerrit Lösch, Anthony Morris III, Mark Sanderson, and David Splane.

Brief History

Jehovah's Witnesses was founded in 1879 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). Russell’s chief claim was that Jesus Christ, the perfect man, had returned invisibly to earth in 1874 and would establish God’s visible kingdom after the Battle of Armageddon in 1914.

Initially, Russell established Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society, the forerunner of the current Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. The society sold books, magazines, and other literature for door-to-door evangelism. In 1904, Russell completed his six-volume Studies in the Scriptures.

Russell believed the main responsibility of believers was to study the Bible and to warn as many people as possible of the imminent end of times. Only a small number of people (144,000) in human history would be resurrected to life in heaven to rule with Jesus in the eternal Kingdom.

When 1914 passed without the prophecy coming true, and then Russell died in 1916, he was replaced by Joseph Rutherford, who taught that Christ’s invisible return began, rather than ended, in 1914, and that God’s kingdom would arrive in 1925. Rutherford's prophecy also failed, and he died in 1942. His successor, Nathan Homer Knorr, was best known for implementing door-to-door training programs and for his work on the New World Translation of the Bible, which “restored” the name Jehovah to the New Testament.

Nathan Homer Knorr (1905 - 1977)
Nathan Homer Knorr (1905 - 1977), third president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) at his home in Brooklyn, New York, August 1949. Al Gretz / Stringer / Getty Images

After a third failed prediction by Knorr of Christ's return in 1975, he died in 1977. But by then an administrative restructuring of the organization allowed leaders to downplay the setting of dates and concoct explanations for the failure of previous prophecies. Likewise, Jehovah’s Witnesses have always been discouraged from questioning their leaders’ teachings.

Jehovah's Witnesses Today

Today, Jehovah's Witnesses number 8.5 million worldwide, with the largest concentration, 1.2 million, in the United States. The religion has more than 105,000 congregations with a presence in 236 countries. The church's texts include the New World Translation of the Bible, The Watchtower magazine and Awake! Magazine.

The governing body of Jehovah's Witnesses consists of a group of experienced elders, overseeing the church's activities from world headquarters in Warwick, New York. In addition, more than 100 branch offices around the world print and ship Bible literature and also direct the organizing of the preaching work. About 20 congregations form a circuit; 10 circuits form a district.

Notable members of the church include Venus and Serena Williams, Prince, Naomi Campbell, Ja Rule, Selena, Michael Jackson, Wayans brothers and sisters, Mickey Spillane.

Beliefs and Practices

Jehovah's Witnesses hold services on Sunday and twice during the week, in a Kingdom Hall, an unadorned building. Worship services begin and end with prayer and may include singing. While all members are considered ministers, an elder or overseer conducts services and usually gives a sermon on a Bible topic. Congregations usually number fewer than 200 people. Baptism by immersion is practiced.

Witnesses also gather once a year for a two-day circuit assembly and annually for a three or four-day district assembly. About once every five years, members from around the world get together in a major city for an international convention.

Jehovah's Witnesses' theology rejects the Trinity and the deity of Christ. They believe that hell does not exist and that all condemned souls are annihilated. They hold that only 144,000 people will go to heaven, while the rest of saved humanity will live on a restored earth.

Basing their stand on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament’s teaching that the soul of a person resides in his or her blood, Jehovah's Witnesses do not receive blood transfusions, even if one would mean the saving of a child’s life.

Witnesses are conscientious objectors as far as military service and do not participate in politics. They do not celebrate any non-Witness holidays, religious or national, or even birthdays since they view a holiday as giving honor to someone or something other than Jehovah. They reject the cross as a pagan symbol. Each Kingdom Hall is assigned a territory for evangelization, and meticulous records are kept noting contacts, tracts distributed, and discussions held.