Jehovah's Witnesses History

Brief History of the Jehovah's Witnesses, or Watchtower Society

Charles Taze Russell. Public Domain

One of the most controversial religious groups in the world, Jehovah's Witnesses have a history marked by legal battles, turmoil, and religious persecution. Despite opposition, the religion numbers more than 7 million people today, in over 230 countries.

Jehovah's Witnesses Founder

The Jehovah's Witnesses trace their beginnings to Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), a former haberdasher who founded the International Bible Students' Association in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1872.

Russell began publishing Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence magazines in 1879. Those publications led to scores of congregations forming in nearby states. He formed Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society in 1881 and incorporated it in 1884.

In 1886, Russell began writing Studies in the Scriptures, one of the group's early key texts. He moved the organization's headquarters from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn, New York in 1908, where it remains today.

Russell prophesied Jesus Christ's visible Second Coming in 1914. While that event did not come to pass, that year was the beginning of World War I, which began an era of unprecedented world upheaval.

Judge Rutherford Takes Over

Charles Taze Russell died in 1916 and was followed by Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942), who was not Russell's chosen successor but was elected president. A Missouri lawyer and former judge, Rutherford made many changes in the organization.

Rutherford was a tireless organizer and promoter. He made extensive use of radio and newspapers to carry the group's message, and under his direction, door to door evangelism became a mainstay. In 1931, Rutherford renamed the organization Jehovah's Witnesses, based on Isaiah 43:10-12.

In the 1920s, most Society literature was produced by commercial printers. Then in 1927, the organization started printing and distributing the materials itself, from an eight-story factory building in Brooklyn. A second plant, in Wallkill, New York, contains printing facilities and a farm, which supplies some of the food to the volunteers who work and live there.

More Changes for Jehovah's Witnesses

Rutherford died in 1942. The next president, Nathan Homer Knorr (1905-1977), increased training, establishing the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, in 1943. Graduates dispersed all over the world, planting congregations and engaging in missionary work.

Shortly before his death in 1977, Knorr oversaw organizational changes to the Governing Body, the commission of elders in Brooklyn charged with administrating the Watchtower Society. Duties were divided and assigned to committees within the Body.

Knorr was succeeded as president by Frederick William Franz (1893-1992). Franz was succeeded by Milton George Henschel (1920-2003), who was followed by the current president, Don A. Adams, in 2000.

Jehovah's Witnesses History of Religious Persecution

Because many Jehovah's Witnesses beliefs differ from mainstream Christianity, the religion has encountered opposition almost from its beginning. In the 1930s and 40s, Witnesses won 43 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in defending their freedom to practice their faith.

Under the Nazi regime in Germany, Witnesses' neutrality and refusal to serve Adolf Hitler earned them arrest, torture, and execution. Nazis sent more than 13,000 Witnesses to prisons and concentration camps, where they were forced to wear a purple triangle patch on their uniforms. It's estimated that from 1933 to 1945, nearly 2,000 Witnesses were executed by the Nazis, including 270 who refused to serve in Germany's army.

Witnesses were also harassed and arrested in the Soviet Union. Today, in many of the independent nations that made up the former Soviet Union, including Russia, they are still subject to investigations, raids, and state prosecution.

(Sources: Jehovah's Witnesses Official Website,,, and