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The Rise of Jehovah’s Witnesses

The group known today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses has had a colorful but controversial past. Although they see themselves as Christians, they break away from the mainstream of the faith in several key aspects. At the same time, some of their practices have raised concerns that they are more of a cult than a true faith. Still, the group has managed to grow in the one and a half centuries since it was founded. Since its founding as an offshoot of a bible study group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have become well known, but not as well understood.

Their refusal to accept blood transfusions and their assertive recruitment techniques are the two facets of the group most well known. Their actual doctrine is less well known because the group is insular in nature and, critics argue, because the JW’s are deceptive to newcomers regarding their true beliefs. The group exhibits several characteristics common to cults. For that reason, convincing a member to leave can be a difficult proposition. Origins The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a modern-day religious organization based, in part, on Christian theology.

The group was officially founded in 1884, but did not adopt the name Jehovah’s Witnesses until over a half century later. The early geographical center of the faith was in western Pennsylvania. Later, the headquarters was moved to Brooklyn, New York. The group was originally called the Zion’s Watch Tower and Tract Society. Over the succeeding years, a number of changes in both name and doctrine took place. According to Biblical Discernment Ministries, the doctrine of the group was changed 148 times between 1917 and 1928. 1 Doctrine changes have ranged from minor details to the conception of God himself.

In 1936, one such change denoted the JW’s new belief that Jesus was crucified on a stake instead of a cross. 2 During the early decades of the 20th century, the Witnesses became a frequent presence on the new medium of radio. Despite facing government oppression, the group flourished in the middle part of the 20th century. The official internet site of the Jehovah’s witnesses states that membership has grown from only 50 in 1888 to over 700,000 in 2007 3. Belief System For the Witnesses, the Bible is the central text of the religion. However, they rely on an interpretation of the Bible that divides them from the rest of the Christian faith.

Much of this interpretation is based on the writings of Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). The group has also commissioned its own translation of the Bible called the New World Translation. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not endorse the Christian belief in the holy trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Instead, they believe in a “Jehovah God” which is not separated into three parts. To JW’s, this is polytheistic, or at least it encourages polytheism. Jehovah’s Witnesses often will refuse nationalistic gestures, such as singing the national anthem or serving in the military. They also may not celebrate holidays, such

as Christmas or birthdays. 1. Biblical Discernment Ministries. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Christian or Cult? 2001. Available from: http://www. rapidnet. com/~jbeard/bdm/Cults/jw. htm, accessed 6 Apr. 2007. 2. David V. Barrett. The New Religions: sects, cults and alternative religions. (London: Cassell & Co. , 2001). P. 187. 3. The Watchtower Society. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Their Modern Development and Growth. 2007. Available from: http://www. watchtower. org/e/jt/article_01. htm, accessed 6 Apr. 2007. Once a part of the group, a Jehovah’s Witness undertakes a rigorous, disciplined training program.

The official publication of the group, The Watchtower, serves as a guide for bible study. The organization is managed by a rigid hierarchy called an “autocracy”. By author Walter Martin. 4 The Jehovah’s witnesses separate themselves from the influences of the outside culture. At times, their anti-government stance has resulted in arrests and persecution. They also separate themselves from the larger Christian church. Author Benjamin Beit-Hallami writes “Witnesses regard their group as a world religion separate from all other traditions, but they still claim to be the true Christians”. 5 Contradictions

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the Apostolic Creeds and other Christian writings, calling them “man made” and therefore not legitimate. At the same time, much of JW doctrine is based on the writings of a few self-proclaimed theologians in the late 19th century. Walter Martin and others criticize the group on the grounds that it a self-serving creation of some terribly flawed men. In the late 1800’s Charles Taze Russell published an article called “Gentile Times; When will they end” in which he makes a number of bold predictions, in effect claiming that the apocalypse will occur in the year 1914.

Obviously, it did not occur. Unable to denounce one of the creators of the movement, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that 1914 was “a turning point in human history”. 6 The onset of World War I and statements of its importance by historians are 4. Walter Ralston Martin. Kingdom of the Cults. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997). 5. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. The Annotated Dictionary of Modern Religious Movements. (Danbury, CT: Grolier Educational Corporation, 1993), p. 256. 6. The Watchtower Society. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Their Modern Development and Growth. 2007.

Available from: http://www. watchtower. org/e/jt/article_01. htm, accessed 6 Apr. 2007. provided as evidence that Russell was, in some way, correct. None the less, it is a typical tactic of cultism to make specific predictions about the future. It is a lure for those who need an assured future in this world and are unable to cope with uncertainty. The hope is that by the time the prediction does not come true, members will be fully indoctrinated and the movement will be able to engage in “spin control”. Their have been a number of other apocalyptic predictions.

Failed predictions in 1925, 1975 and other years resulted in some dispirited Witnesses leaving the group. However, these predictions provide a powerful draw for new members and overall membership has increased. Despite rejecting government and other secular influences, the Jehovah’s Witnesses use the system when it benefits them to do so. In the 1920’s and 30’s Witnesses were being arrested for various reasons, from lacking permits to canvas communities to refusal to register for military service. James Lewis writes “…the Witnesses formed a legal wing for the express purpose of challenging these arrests on First Amendment grounds”.

7 Using this legal wing, the JW’s were able to win a number of important cases. Traditionally, Jehovah’s Witnesses have rejected modern medical treatment. This has gradually begun to change, however. In yet another doctrinal change, the JW’s now endorse such practices as vaccinations and organ transplants. 8 JW’s also dispense with traditional Christian titles, such as sermon, church and pastor. In a direct contradiction to Christian faith, the JW’s do not believe that Jesus Christ is God. Instead, they view Jesus as God’s initial creation. This is also a 7. James R. Lewis.

Cults in America. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. ), p. 137. 8. Biblical Discernment Ministries. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Christian or Cult? 2001. Available from: http://www. rapidnet. com/~jbeard/bdm/Cults/jw. htm, accessed 6 Apr. 2007. contradiction to their claim of being the “true Christians”. After the apocalypse predicted for 1914 did not occur, the Witnesses changed their doctrine. They now claim that Jesus cast Satan out of heaven and down to earth in that year, which explains the state of the world today. 9 Sensitive to criticism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are an insular organization.

Doctrine is not open for discussion or argument. Doing so could result in a “dis-association” with the member. Remaining members are then instructed to isolate themselves from the rejected member. After joining, Jehovah’s Witnesses begin training to represent the group out in the larger world and draw new members. This activity is expected of all Witnesses. Bible study is closely directed and individual study is discouraged. Walter Martin writes: “As to its continually waffling position on its role as God’s “prophet for today it is inconsistent and self-contradictory”.

10 Outreach and Conclusion Reaching out to members of any cult-like organization is a particularly challenging endeavor. Members, in many cases, have been psychologically manipulated into a new reality. In some cases, there is an actual physical fear of leaving the organization or even challenging its precepts. The most important step for one wishing to counter the belief of a JW or a person involved in a cult like organization is to know where they are coming from. Having a solid grasp of the doctrine allows a person to point out the contradictions present.

Results may not be instant, but a seed of doubt can be planted that will lead to later action. It may 9. Walter Ralston Martin. Kingdom of the Cults. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997), p. 114. 10. Walter Ralston Martin. Kingdom of the Cults. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997), p. 93. be necessary to bring the person away from their normal environment to foster free thought and discussion. The contradictions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses group are obvious to outsiders. Still, the faith and willingness to serve God of the members should be respected.

Non-argumentative discussions in which the two sides exchange opinions and questions can pave the way to a trusting relationship. Offering the member support and a secure path to another alternative can pay dividends over the long run. As with most cult-like groups the Jehovah’s Witnesses provide a strong lure to potential members. Once in the church, the process of indoctrination begins. The free will of the member is broken down over time. This stands in contrast to most other Christian religions, which emphasize the role of free will within the belief system.

This should be a point of emphasis for anyone attempting to present a new reality to a Jehovah’s Witnesses member.

Notes 1. Biblical Discernment Ministries. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Christian or Cult? 2001. Available from: http://www. rapidnet. com/~jbeard/bdm/Cults/jw. htm, accessed 6 Apr. 2007. 2. David V. Barrett. The New Religions: sects, cults and alternative religions. (London: Cassell & Co. , 2001). P. 187. 3. The Watchtower Society. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Their Modern Development and Growth. 2007. Available from: http://www. watchtower. org/e/jt/article_01. htm, accessed 6 Apr. 2007.

Walter Ralston Martin. Kingdom of the Cults. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997). 5. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. The Annotated Dictionary of Modern Religious Movements. (Danbury, CT: Grolier Educational Corporation, 1993), p. 256. 6. The Watchtower Society. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Their Modern Development and Growth. 2007. Available from: http://www. watchtower. org/e/jt/article_01. htm, accessed 6 Apr. 2007. 7. James R. Lewis. Cults in America. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. ), p. 137.

Biblical Discernment Ministries. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Christian or Cult? 2001. Available from: http://www.rapidnet. com/~jbeard/bdm/Cults/jw. htm, accessed 6 Apr. 2007. 9. Walter Ralston Martin. Kingdom of the Cults. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997), p. 114. 10. Walter Ralston Martin. Kingdom of the Cults. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997), p. 93. Bibliography Barrett, David V. 2001. The New Religions: sects, cults and alternative religions. London: Cassell & Co. Beit-Hallahmi. Benjamin. 1993. The Annotated Dictionary of Modern Religious Movements. Danbury, CT: Grolier Educational Corporation. Biblical Discernment Ministries. 2001. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Christian or Cult? On-line.

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