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Who are the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Part 1 - Early beginnings

Published:Saturday | February 24, 2018 | 12:08 AMPaul H. Willams/Gleaner Writer

You see them on the streets distributing sundry religious literature. They come knocking at your door to engage you in discussions about the Bible, and to invite you to Kingdom Hall. Their perspectives on life, religious beliefs and practices are said to contradict those of other Christian denominations. And recently they were banned by the Russian Government. They are Jehovah's Witnesses.

They belong to a sect that started in the late 1870s by Charles Taze Russell, who was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on February 16, 1852. He settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was known as a Christian restorationist minister. In July 1879 he started to publish a monthly religious journal, Zion Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence.

In 1881 he cofounded Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society with William Henry Conley as president. The organisation was legally registered in 1884 with Russell as its president. Russell also initiated the Bible Student Movement, which emerged from his teachings and ministry. Members of his movement referred to themselves as Bible students, international Bible students, associated Bible students or independent Bible students.

Russell wrote many religious articles, books, leaflets, pamphlets, sermons and published a six-volume Bible study series called Millennial Dawn. It was later renamed Studies in the Scriptures. At age 64, on October 31, 1916, he died in Pampa, Texas, but the Watch Tower Society, under the leader of Joseph Franklin Rutherford, Russell's successor, continued to publish his writings until 1927.

Rutherford has always been an admirer of Russell and developed an interest in his doctrines. He joined the Bible Student Movement and was baptised in 1906. In the following year he was appointed legal counsel for the Watch Tower Society, as well as a travelling representative before his election as president in 1917.

It was a rocky start to his presidency, as in 1918 Rutherford and seven other Watch Tower members were imprisoned after they were charged with publishing The Finished Mystery, a book regarded by The Government as treacherous for its objection to World War I.




From within the Watch Tower Society itself Rutherford, a lawyer, born on November 8, 1869, in San Diego, California, was to have widespread disagreements with members of the society over his "autocratic" leadership style. Four members of the society's board of directors sought to reduce his power. This resulted in leadership fragmentations and splits.

Many members pulled away from the society, approximately three-quarters by 1931. Rutherford and the ones who remained with the society renamed it Jehovah's Witnesses in the same year, and he introduced many organisational and doctrinal changes that laid the foundation for some of Jehovah Witnesses' current beliefs and practices.

Rutherford established a centralised administrative structure, which he subsequently called a theocracy, requiring all converts to distribute literature through door-to-door preaching, and to provide regular reports of their preaching activities. In 1935, he introduced the term 'Kingdom Hall' for places of worship. He wrote 21 books and was credited by the society for the distribution of 400 million books and booklets.