Jehovah's Witnesses : A sociological definition.
By Philippe Barbey, September 2009, updated January 2015
It is Charles Russell (1852-1916) who, starting from 1870 in Pennsylvania, a state of the United
States, founds this Christian religious movement. Of Scottish-Irish origin, he is Presbyterian-Congregationalist. He cooperates a time with an Adventist newspaper then, in July 1879, he launches
the publication of the Watch Tower, religious magazine always published by the Jehovah's Witnesses. He officially declares his religious association of the same name, the Watch Tower, in 1884.
His Biblical Society is always directed today by the Jehovah's Witnesses.
His Christian message is simple : Jehovah (it is the name of God in the Bible) will send soon his son Jesus-Christ to destroy the irreligious people and to restore the paradise on Earth. The pastor Russell points, more than thirty years before, the date of 1914 as the year during which Jesus-Christ would begin his reign and would cause the end of the times. The Jehovah's Witnesses always believe that the thousand-year kingdom of Christ is close.
With his death in 1916, in spite of dissensions inside the movement, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942) is elected as president of the Watchtower biblical Society. In 1931, by a vote of the members of the local assemblies, the movement takes the name of Jehovah's Witnesses. They wanted to clearly show their difference with other Christian movements. They did not want to be called any more Russellists or Rutherfordists or Bible Students, too vague terms for them.
Nathan Homer Knorr (1905-1977) succeeds Joseph Rutherford after his death in 1942 in charge of the Watchtower Society. He launches the movement in a great missionary campaign. The number of faithful ones appreciably increases during this period. The last historical president of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement is Frederick Franz, an academic who translated the Bible with a committee of translators.
A movement close to the evangelic Protestant pole
Even if they refuse this assimilation, Jehovah's Witnesses can be identified with Protestants in the historical-sociological meaning of the term.
Their beliefs systematically refer to the Bible, faith, Christian life (Sola scriptura), refusal of papacy, of worship of Maria and the saints, of the Latin cross - symbol of the Roman Catholic Church, the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception, of the Assumption but also of the Trinity, without biblical base (Christianity Restitution), assertion of the free donation (kharisma) of salvation (Sola gratia) with the amendment brought by Saint James on works essential to the faith.
Jehovah's Witnesses take most verses of the Bible in the literal sense but are not fundamentalist. For example, they do not believe thatthe world was created in six 24 hours days but rather in an unspecified long period of time. They believe nevertheless in creation by God of the first men, thus rejecting the Evolution theory. Jesus-Christ is for them, as for all the other Christians, the Son of God. But he is not God. God the Father is Jehovah, name under which he is designated in the Old Testament (Yahve, Yahweh or Jehovah in classical English).
Jehovah God transferred his Son's life, named in heavens Emmanuel or the archangel Michael or Michel, in the womb of the Jewish virgin Maria so that he is born as the man Jesus-Christ. By giving his life for humankind on Nissan, 14, 33 BC, he became the Redeemer.
By this ransom, the men who died will be resurrected (recreated). The Man does not have a soul, he is a soul. When he dies, he completely disappears. Only remains his memory in the memory of God who will be able to recreate him on the earth after the final war and the introduction of the Paradise. As the Bible clearly stipulates it at the same time in the Old one as in New Testament, soul, blood and life being bound and exclusively belonging to God, Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusion and not bled meat consumption. Jehovah's Witnesses always expect the end of this world distant from God. For them, their movement is the only one that God can approve because of its position of neutrality in policy or wars. Christianity cannot agree any violence. Christian religions having required of their clergymen to bless armed conflicts, they were definitively disqualified by God.
Theirpractices consist in personal piety, Bible individual study, observance of collective practices, weekly worship regular participation, central place for preaching, at the pulpit and in a systematic domiciliary evangelization activity reserved for each Witness (universal priesthood of the believers), refusal of a sacral clergy, adults baptism by immersion (Baptist doctrines), uselessness of confirmation, Communion celebrated once the year at the date corresponding to the 14 of nisan of the Jewish calendar (movable feast) as Christ's Passion memorial (according to the Zwinglian tradition), refusal of transubstantiationdoctrines.
Only those which estimate, in all conscience, to be part of the 144 000 elected which speak the book of Revelation or Apocalypse, which will sit at the sides of God after their death consume the bread and the wine this day.
The religious services are not very emotional. They consist of study meetings during which the faithful ones listen to speeches, read the Bible, comment on the biblical publications of the movement, mainly the Watch Tower, or are involved with preaching.
In the daily life, Jehovah's Witnesses refuse, by pacifism, to achieve a military service but agree, by good citizenship, to carry out a civil service. They regard the salute to the colours as a brand of idolatry. They do not smoke to avoid soiling their body but drink alcohol with moderation.
Their pastors (elder, of the Greek presbyteroï) are the laic voluntary ones who exert to live a paid activity, are often married and fathers, profit from a long internal continue formation, ensure the worships but also the various worship acts (baptisms, marriages, burials), animate various activities (biblical studies groups, visits of patients and isolated ones), represent their local congregation outside, act without hierarchy within a presbyter council (college of elders) for the local congregation direction, assume for some of them specialized ministries – worship places building(Kingdom Hall), particular support to hospitalized patients, media activities. Some of them, a very few, assume a full-time ministry within worship organization at regional level.
A millenarian Christian movement
To say it like Régis Dericquebourg, Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian, eschatological millenarian, utopian, voluntary, elitist, protester, militant and radical movement.
Jehovah's Witnesses feverishly expect the end (eschatology) of thisworld at the battle of Armageddon. Earthquakes, epidemics, world famines announced by Christ in the Gospels would be the irrefutable proof.
They expect Kingdom of God re-establishment, a reign which, according to the Apocalypse, will last thousand years (millenarianism). At the end of this period, the men will have the possibility of disavowing God. Those which will do it will definitively die. The others will remain for an everlasting life in a restored paradise. The utopian character is the corollary of millenarianism. Witnesses conceive the restored paradise as a theocracy where death, disease, exploitation of man by man will be abolished. For the moment, their organization constitutes in the spirit of faithful ones a spiritual paradise, a sort of 'already there' Kingdom.
They form a voluntary group. Candidate for baptism receives it after having made personally the request of it. Baptismal water can be refused to him if he does not act in accordance with the Christianity principles such as they are understood by Jehovah's Witnesses. This Christian confession can be described as elitist insofar as she claims to be the only accepted by God salvation organization. On a side, the laymen whom it is necessary to respect but not to attend because they belong, without knowing it, to a world which rests between Devil's hands, on another side the faithful ones. Only the converts will be saved.
Indeed, Jehovah's Witnesses condemn violent current societies and refuse total blood transfusion, a commonly allowed although increasingly framed and supervised medical practice.
The movement is radical, it rejects by principle compromises with the political systems on the questions of militarism and patriotism. Lastly, the militancy is one of their fundamental feature, perhaps their label. Their obstinate preaching of world God's Kingdom close arrival is now legendary.
The movement is radical in the sense it rejects by principle all compromises with political systems about questions of militarism an patriotism. Its members regard themselves as neutral, i.e. they do not take a stand. Essentially Christian, they are completely non-violent and thus never constitute any threatens neither for the goods, neither for the people, nor for the public order. Even if they are persecuted or threatened, they always refuse violence. If they are prohibited, they continue to practice their religion in clandestinity.
This religious group has thus all the characteristics of a sect in the sociological meaning : voluntary adhesion, membership granted according to the merit, exclusiveness (its members regard themselves as a people), personal perfection ideal asserted by the faithful ones, no clergy but only laics, important militant commitment, life centred around jehovean Christianity, refusal of compromising and strong Christian identity assertion. Nevertheless, it is impossible to consider it as a sect from the standpoint of media but well as an important Christian minority religious movement at the world plan.
In 2014, Jehovah's Witnesses gathered more than 20 millions assistants in their Kingdom Halls for their Memorial annual celebration in almost all the countries of the world. They were nearly 8.2 million actives members in more than 115,400 local assemblies. In USA, their historical hearth, they are more than 2.5 million; 2.3 million in Mexico, 1.7 million in Brazil, more than 450,000 in Italy, cradle of Catholicism, 307,000 in Argentina.
In France, their community counts more than 261,000 people (metropolis and overseas departments), which makes this Christian religious group the fifth religion in France.