The Jehovah's Witnesses originally started under the leadership of one Charles Taze Russell in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1870. Dissatisfied with his Congregationalist upbringing, particularly over the doctrine of eternal torment, Russell started his own Bible study group, The Dawn Bible Students, which he would later incorporate into Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society in 1884. Russell was a prolific writer and used the written page to propagate his new religion, which not only was a composite of old Arianism, but the failed prophecies of William Miller and Seventh Day Adventism. Perhaps the most influential of his teachings involved the prediction of Armageddon and the end of the current world order in the year 1914.
The man who gave the current organization its current title, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, and its followers their name, Jehovah's Witnesses, was Joseph F. Rutherford, the second leader. In fact, because of his renaming insistence, and shift from the biblical study that Russell stressed to a more missionary outreach, Zion's Watchtower ended up splitting between The Dawn Bible Students and Jehovah's Witnesses. Rutherford was equally a prolific writer, as well as false prophet. His command to build both Beth Sarim and Beth Shan in San Diego to house the ancient patriarchs of the Old Testament, as indicative of closeness of the end times, is perhaps his most noteworthy blunder. The Watchtower Society has since sold both properties, leaving very few Jehovah's Witnesses with any knowledge of this history and cover-up.
Other Watchtower leaders who were instrumental in implementing various facets of Watchtower programs, but whose persons were less in the public limelight were Nathan H. Knorr, who was known for his educational efforts of the Jehovah's Witnesses, including the building of the Gilead Watchtower Bible School. Also, he instilled the "Theocratic Ministry School" in all local congregations, which were intended as weekly training seminars to equip the laity in their missionary outreach and to help provide an apologetic response to criticisms and questions they might encounter when they went out on visitation. It was also during Knorr's reign that the Watchtower Society changed their official version of the Bible from the American Standard Version to the New World Translation, with the latter reflecting Watchtower doctrine rather than a clean translation of the biblical languages.
Frederick W. Franz was the Watchtower's fourth president, succeeding Nathan Knorr. Aside from being the principle Greek "scholar" behind the translation of the NWT, and an address at Yankee Stadium in 1958, where a record audience attended to listen to him speak, he failed to produce anything of the magnitude that his predecessors did. The same could be said of his successor, Milton Henschel and the current president Don Adams.
Originally Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society was located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but was moved to its current location in Brooklyn, New York in 1908.
A group of men known as the "Governing Body" comprises the ruling hierarchy for the Watchtower Society. Those who belong to the GB are not selected or elected by the majority of Jehovah's Witnesses, but are invited by those who are current members within the GB. The size of the GB may vary in size, supposedly taking the early New Testament church and the number of apostles as an example of the first "governing body" which fluctuated as to the number in that exclusive class. All GB member must, though, be committed to the Watchtower organization.
Another group of influential men within the Watchtower ranks is the Board of Directors. They are the legal arm that at one time was included as a part of the Governing Body. A distinction was made in 1971 which separated the two entities, not only because of the number involved in each class, but as to their spiritual values as well. Whereas the number in the GB was basically unlimited, the Board of Directors only comprised seven members. Also, those belonging to the GB were supposed to be spiritually called by Jehovah and duly committed to the Society, whereas those on the Board were elected periodically, and may not necessarily be of the same spiritual calling as Body members.
After the Governing Body and Board of Directors, with the Governing Body providing all of the organizational direction to the laity, there are zones, districts, and circuits over which branch representatives, and district and circuit overseers, carry out operations on gradually smaller scales. The smallest organizational structure is the local congregation, called Kingdom Halls, where elders are in charge of congregations typically smaller than 200 people. From those congregations come pioneers and publishers, with the former fully dedicated to the propagation of Watchtower beliefs, while the latter are committed, just not on a fulltime basis.
Currently the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society publishes its own version of the Bible called the New World Translation (1950). Also, it publishes two bi-weekly magazines entitled The Watchtower and Awake! The former is a doctrinal treatise on Watchtower beliefs that Witnesses read and cite weekly in their Watchtower studies held in the Kingdom Halls after some qualified to do so gives a public talk, which is somewhat analogous to a sermon. The latter is a human interest-type magazine, which is designed to address topics and issues of contemporary interest, along with an occasional doctrinal statement reflecting Jehovah's Witness beliefs. Finally, the Watchtower has published hundreds, if not thousands, of additional books, booklets, and pamphlets to further its atypical religious ideals. In fact, it may be argued that the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society uses the printed page with more copious zeal than any other religious entity in the world.
The eccentric or unconventional beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses are numerous. Only a few will be mentioned to serve as examples.
Jehovah's Witnesses subscribe to an extreme monotheism, meaning that they deny the biblical teaching of the Trinitarian nature of God. JWs also make much out of God's name, YHWH, which they have presumptuously translated as "Jehovah," and then criticize all Christians and Christian translations of the Bible which rightfully refuse to follow their unjustified linguistic imposition on the Hebrew language.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus Christ, prior to his incarnation on earth, was the pre-existent Michael the Archangel. Commensurate with such an identity is the belief that Jesus was a created being, as well as a mere man while on earth. When Jesus was crucified, it did not occur on a cross, but on a torture stake, and when his body was laid in the tomb, it dissolved into gases, while Jesus arose as a spirit-being. After spending some time with his disciples, Jesus ascended back into heaven where he returned to his original identity as Michael the Archangel.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Holy Spirit is God's impersonal "active force" that Yahweh uses to compel people to carry out His divine will.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that only 144,000 people are qualified to enter heaven upon death, with the remaining Jehovah's Witnesses destined to take up residence on "Paradise Earth" one day. Non-Jehovah's Witnesses will one day be resurrected and then have 1,000 years to attain self-perfection. Those who fail in the endeavor will be annihilated.
There is no belief in a literally burning hell, where the unrepentant sinner will spend eternity. Rather, the Jehovah's Witness believes that hell is the "common grave," where the deceased have no conscious recollection of what is going on. One day all those in the grave will be resurrected, with some to enjoy their reward on paradise earth, with the remainder given a second opportunity to conform to Watchtower teachings.
For the Jehovah's Witness in need of a lifesaving blood transfusion, the Watchtower has placed a complete moratorium. Receiving a blood transfusion is analogous to eating dinner at one's favorite restaurant. Therefore, the Witness is to refrain from accepting a blood transfusion, even though such a decision may cost the Witness his life, which has already occurred thousands of times.
Jehovah's Witnesses are discouraged from celebrating birthdays on the grounds that too many bad things occurred during biblical times when a birthday was celebrated, plus the fact that "celebrating birthdays is rooted in superstition and false religion." Even celebrating Jesus' birthday, Christmas, is frowned upon by the Society because of its alleged ties to the Roman holiday Saturnalia.
It is forbidden for a Jehovah's Witness to salute the national flag, serve in government, join or serve in the military, or even be a part of Boy Scouts. All are assumed to be associated with pagan practice, worship, and idolatry. Therefore, since "Jehovah" is the only one who deserves such salutation and recognition, directing one's attention to something other than "Jehovah" is seen as an act of unbecoming of one of His Witnesses.
Initially organ transplants were forbidden by the Society under the same rationale as that pertaining to blood transfusions. Later the Watchtower changed its position and left the decision to have a transplant up to the individual Witness. According to the Tower, "While the Bible specifically forbids consuming blood, there is no Biblical command pointedly forbidding the taking in of other human tissue."
Jehovah's Witnesses were initially forbidden to take a vaccine, since the Watchtower opined that a "Vaccination has never saved a human life." Instead, in order to overcome disease, consuming good food, water, and practicing sanitary living conditions are the real answers to health problems. Later, the Watchtower changed its position and recanted of its opinion when it discovered that not only does a vaccine help prevent health issues related to tetanus, but it helped to prevent debilitating and death inducing diseases like small pox.
Still a taboo among Jehovah's Witnesses is the Watchtower injunction against "Independent Thinking." By this it is meant that no Witness should engage in critical thought independent of what the Watchtower has deemed correct. In fact, no Witness should criticize the Watchtower in errors in judgment either, given that such errors are merely variations on the route to ultimate truth. Any such kind of thought is considered "dangerous," "an evidence of pride," and a sign that a "crash" is imminent. According to the Society, "Would we know the way of truth if it had not been for guidance from the organization? Really, can we get along without the direction of God's organization? No we cannot!" (The Watchtower, January 15, 1983, p. 27).
According to 2008 statistics provided by the Watchtower, there were approximately 7.1 million members worldwide, with an additional 10 million non-Witnesses who had attended the Watchtower's Memorial Service (which is similar to a Christian church's Easter Sunday Service). Interestingly, of the 17.7 million that attended the Easter Memorial, only 9,986 Witnesses, or those who are supposedly of the 144,000 destined for heavenly glory on day, partook of the Memorial elements.