Tuesday, September 23, 2014

G. D. Chryssides
on Jehovah's Witnesses /

Ο G. D. Chryssides
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Jehovah’s Witnesses

Of all the offshoots of Adventism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably the best known. The organisation, legally incorporated as The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, owes its origins to Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). Russell dissociated himself with Adventism, although he had been acquainted with a number of Adventist groups. None of them had satisfied him, until he heard the Adventist preacher Jonas Wendell (1815-1873) preaching. This prompted him to start his own Bible study group in 1870, which grew to become the International Bible Students’ Association (IBSA). Although Russell and the subsequent Jehovah’s Witnesses do not regard themselves as Adventist, they have much in common with them. Like Adventists, they believe that the final battle of Armageddon is imminent, that biblical prophecies have a present-day application, and a pattern of end-time events can be given dates in accordance with biblical predictions. Russell and his followers also were unable to accept the mainstream Protestant Christian doctrines of predestination and eternal damnation.

In common with Adventism, Russell and his followers had an implicit belief in the inerrancy of scripture, and his emphasis on the Bible caused him to question certain key doctrines that had become part of mainstream Christianity. One such doctrine was the Trinity, to which he could find no explicit references in the Bible, but which was nevertheless affirmed by the mainstream churches, including the Adventists. The Adventists taught that Roman Catholicism was a corruption of Christianity, equating it with Babylon the Great (Revelation 17:5). Russell went further, claiming that all the churches were corrupt, not just Rome. The IBSA and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been entirely lay-led, unlike most branches of Christianity, including Adventism, which have clergy. Russell also disagreed with the Adventist belief that the earth would be burnt at the end of time, teaching that it would be renewed, to be inhabited by God’s faithful who had lived before Christ’s ministry.

After Russell died in 1916, a power struggle among some of the early leaders ensued. A number of schismatical organisations emerged as a result, while Joseph Franklin (‘Judge’) Rutherford (1869-1941) gained control of the Watch Tower organisation and its assets. Possibly to distinguish his own organisation from the splinter groups, he gave the name ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ to the organisation in 1931. Rutherford introduced a number of new features that have become the Witnesses’ hallmarks. He maintained a firm anti-war stance, causing his followers to be regarded as unpatriotic; to this day Witnesses will not take part in armed combat. Rutherford also wanted to purge the organisation of all the ‘pagan’ practices that had crept into Christianity: the celebration of Christmas and birthdays, and ideas that had entered Christianity through pagan philosophy, such as the immortality of the soul. He also introduced house-to-house evangelism, in accordance with early Church practice (Acts 5:42). During the Rutherford period, Witnesses came to believe that the Watch Tower Society exclusively offered the means of salvation.

Witnesses are publicly perceived as setting dates for ‘the end of the world’, but continually changing them when they fail to materialise. This is somewhat of a misunderstanding. Two predicted dates — 1925 and 1975 — resulted in failed expectations, even on the Society’s own admission. (Rutherford had predicted that the ancient patriarchs would return from the dead in 1925, and 1975 was believed to mark the end of the sixth millennium, possibly heralding Armageddon.) Some dates have been re-assigned to different events, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are now much less prone to associate prophetic dates with earthly political events. One key date proposed by Russell, which Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to regard as significant, is 1914. At one time Russell expected God’s kingdom to have been established on earth by that date, but later came to assign it to Christ’s parousia (‘presence’), teaching that Christ began his heavenly rule on that date, preparing his kingdom for his faithful ones.

According to Watch Tower teaching, Christ is gathering his faithful — the ‘anointed class’ of 144,000 — into heaven. Initially it was expected that all Russell’s Bible Students would attain the heavenly kingdom, but of course the number of Witnesses is now well in excess of 144,000. (In 2008, some 17,790,631 people attended the annual Memorial, the service commemorating Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. Not all of those were active Witnesses, however.) In 1935 Rutherford declared that there were two classes of individual: those who belonged to the ‘heavenly class’ (the 144,000) and those who belonged to the ‘great crowd’ (Revelation 7:9-10). Most present-day Witnesses regard themselves as belonging to the latter class, and expect everlasting life on the renewed earth after Armageddon.

Mention should be made of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ stance on blood — another source of public comment. During World War II, blood transfusion was becoming a common medical procedure, and the Governing Body defined its stance on the matter. It was perceived as a violation of God’s command to Noah: ‘. . . you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it’ (Genesis 9:4). Two points are noting about this injunction. First, the reference is primarily to a food law, and Witnesses typically avoid foods that are made from blood, such as black pudding. Second, Witnesses do not hold that all the Old Testament laws have force. They represent the ‘old covenant’, and are only binding if they are reinforced by the New Testament. Witnesses find reinforcement for this commandment in the First Jerusalem Council’s ruling, that the Gentiles should ‘abstain . . . from blood’ (Acts 15:20). It should be noted that the word is ‘abstain’ here, which is taken to have a wider application than simply eating. As in all matters, the Bible is regarded as the final arbiter, and the Watch Tower Society has never produced any independent creed or set of principles. Its teachings are disseminated to the public principally through its monthly magazines The Watchtower and Awake!

* George D. Chryssides,
Christianity at the Edges”,
George D. Chryssides & Margaret Z. Wilkins (eds),
Christians in the Twenty-First Century
Routledge, 2014,
pp. 405-407 [399-428].


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