Historical Overview of the Jehovah’s Witnesses

A historic black-and-white photograph of Charles Taze Russell, with a goatee and bowtie
Charles Taze Russell in 1879 at age 27

A sepia image of the Watchtower magazine, featuring an illustration of a large tower with cross-shaped windows
1909 Watch Tower cover

A historic black-and-white photograph of an older Taze Russell, with a long black coat and a bushy beard
Russell c. 1909 in Brooklyn, NY

Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) is considered the founder of what would become modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses. Russell did not intend to form a new religious movement, and he never claimed to have received a “special revelation” or divine inspiration. He was most deeply affected by his encounters with Millenarian movements, groups that believed Christ’s Second Coming would soon usher in the Millennium, a prophesied thousand-year reign. Although Russell initially avoided time prophecies that set dates on future events, his studies eventually convinced him that some of William Miller’s chronological ideas had merit.

Russell began authoring pamphlets and tracts to disseminate his findings. In 1879, he launched what is known today as the Watchtower magazine. The Watch Tower Society would become the legal and publishing corporation for Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide. Traveling representatives of the Society fanned out throughout the northeastern United States, spreading the word. Rationality rather than revivalist fervor characterized their approach. Although Russell’s message appears to have been quite popular among the general population, clergy of various denominations quickly branded it as heretical and launched public attacks against him. Nevertheless, Russell became an internationally recognized figure on the religious scene, touring and speaking extensively throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

In 1910, Russell established the International Bible Students Association (IBSA), creating the faint outlines of a distinct religious community. The IBSA would later become known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Later that year, this movement had spread to Europe and had moved Bethel, its headquarters operation, from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn, New York, in order to take advantage of the city’s shipping facilities. In January 1914, the IBSA announced an innovative moving picture and color-slide production entitled the Photodrama of Creation, which aimed to show the scientific basis of scripture. An estimated nine million people viewed the presentation in 1914.

Four decades earlier, Russell predicted 1914 was a marked year that would change the course of mankind. The Millennium he anticipated did not happen, but World War I started—which Russell said was a sign that the “last days” leading to Armageddon were underway. During the war, IBSA literature intimated that Christians ought to abstain from the bloodshed. IBSA students who were drafted generally chose non-combatant service or refused induction altogether, resulting in prison terms and even death sentences (later commuted to ten years). In 1916, Russell died while on a speaking tour.

Today Witnesses contend that 1914 is an important year, marking the start of the “last days.” But they no longer assign any timeline to the conclusion of the last days, preferring to say now that any generation that has lived since 1914 could be the one to see Armageddon.

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