The Jehovah’s Witnesses in scholarly perspective:
What's new in the scientific study of Jehovean movement?
April 21-22 2016 - Antwerp, Belgium
The European Observatory of Religion and Secularism
In partnership with CLIMAS, Bordeaux Montaigne University, CESNUR (Turin) and the
Faculty of Comparative Studies of Religion and Humanism (FVG), Bist 162. 2610 Wilrijke
This presentation is only a summary. The text in his integrality will be published in FVG - ACTA COMPARANDA Subsidia III in June, 2016.
Jehovah's Witnesses: Between Tradition and Modernity
Dr Philippe Barbey, Sociologist of Religions and Secularism, January 2016.
It is in 1870 in Pennsylvania, a state of the United States, that Charles Russell (1852-1916) founded the Christian religious movement of Jehovah's Witnesses. Charles Russell was of Scottish-Irish origin and he was Presbyterian-Congregationalist. He cooperates a time with an Adventist newspaper then, in July 1879, he launched the publication of the Watch Tower, a religious magazine always published by the Jehovah's Witnesses today. He officially declared his religious association of the same name, the Watch Tower, in 1884. His Biblical Society is always directed nowadays by the Jehovah's Witnesses.
His Christian message was 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 a paradise on Earth. The pastor Russell pointed, 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. 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) was elected as president of the Watchtower Biblical Society. In 1931, by a vote of the members of the local assemblies, the movement took 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 as Russellists or Rutherfordists or Bible Students, too vague terms for them.
Nathan Homer Knorr (1905-1977) succeeded Joseph Rutherford after his death in 1942 in charge of the Watchtower Society. He launched the movement in a great missionary campaign. The number of faithful ones appreciably increased during this period.
The last historical president of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement was Frederick Franz (1893-1992), an academic who translated the Bible with a committee of translators.
Jehovah’s Witnesses make great efforts to avoid the so common ‘crumbling’ very often seen in the evangelical Protestant confessions (a district, a church, a pastor).
Their mode of organization and their teaching are everywhere similar in the world so that a Jehovah’s Witness is never disoriented or disconcerted when he changes of local assembly (congregation).
In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses organization today is a particularly integrated structure. The governing body, located for the moment in Brooklyn New York, regularly sends representatives to their national offices called Bethels (Bethel is a name drawn from the Bible which means in Hebrew House of God).
There, they give the same instructions than in all other countries in the world. These methods of organization are then relayed by regional representatives to the local assemblies where they are applied.
A movement close to the evangelical Protestant pole
Even if they refuse this assimilation, Jehovah's Witnesses can be identified with Protestants in an historical-sociological meaning of this term.
Their beliefs systematically refer to the Bible in matter of faith and Christian life (Sola scriptura). They refuse papacy, the worship of Mary and of the saints, the Latin cross - symbol of the Roman Catholic Church, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption but also the Trinity, that they consider without biblical base (Christianity Restitution), the assertion of gift of salvation (kharisma) without works of faith (Amendment of saint James about works essential to the faith).
Jehovah's Witnesses take most verses of the Bible in the literal sense but they are not fundamentalists. For example, they do not believe that the world was created in six 24 hours’ days but rather in an unspecified long period of time. They believe in a creation by God of the first men and reject the theory of Evolution. For them as for all the other Christians, Jesus-Christ is 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).
For Jehovah's Witnesses, Jehovah God transferred his Son's life, Son formerly named Emmanuel or archangel Michael or Michel, from heavens into the womb of the Jewish virgin Mary so that he is born on Earth as the man Jesus-Christ. Giving himself his life for humankind on Nissan, 14th, 33 CE, he became the redeemer of every human. 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.
Jehovah's Witnesses are always expecting the end of this world distant of God. For them, their movement is the only one that God can approve because of its position of neutrality face policy and wars. They firmly think that Christianity cannot agree any violence. To their standpoint, Christian religions having required of their clergymen to bless armed conflicts, they were definitely disqualified by God.
Their practices consist in personal piety, Bible personal study, observance of collective practices such as regular participation in weekly worship,
central place for preaching at pulpit both in a systematic domiciliary evangelization activity shared by each Witness (universal believers’ priesthood), refusal of a sacral clergy, adults’ baptism by immersion (Baptist doctrines), uselessness of Confirmation.
They celebrate Communion once a year at the date corresponding to the 14th of nisan of the Jewish calendar (movable feast) as Christ's passion memorial. According to the Zwinglian tradition, they refuse the transubstantiation doctrine. Only those estimating, in all conscience, to make part of the 144.000 elected ones which the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) speaks about and take a seat at the side of God after their death, consume the bread and drink the wine this celebration day.
Their pastors (elders, from the Greek presbyteroï) are secular volunteers, exert a job to live, are often married and fathers, benefit a long life training, ensure the worships and the various worship acts (baptism, marriages, burials), animate various activities (biblical studies groups, visits of patients and isolated ones) and represent their local congregation outside.
These ministers act without hierarchy within a presbyter council (college of elders) for the direction of the local congregation, 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 the worship organization at a regional level.
Their religious services are not very emotional. They consist in study meetings during which the faithful ones sing songs, listen to prayers and talks, read the Bible, comment on the biblical publications of the movement, mainly the Watch Tower study magazine, or are involved with preaching (faithful ones’ universal priesthood). Young people are trained to public talk and public reading during the middle week meeting called Christian life and Ministry.
According to their comprehension of the Bible, soul, blood and life being bound and exclusively belonging to God, Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to receive blood transfusion and to eat not bloodless meat according to the apostolic order contained in the Book of Acts of Apostles (chapter 15, verses 28 and 29 – New testament). In the same way, they do not smoke to avoid soiling their body but drink alcohol with moderation.
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 form of idolatry but respect it as a national symbol. They do not sing the national anthem but they rise up when it is played. Jehovah’s Witnesses are registering on the electoral lists and go to the polling stations.
For the worship, men wear tie and lounge suit, women skirt or dress (at the level of the knee), tops which cover the shoulders and the chest without low neckline. In the daily life, they get dressed according to their own taste but always in a modest way by avoiding everything considered as suggestive.
A millenarian Christian movement
To say it like Régis Dericquebourg, Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian, eschatological, millenarian, utopian, voluntary, elitist, protester, militant and
Jehovah's Witnesses eagerly expect the end (eschatology) of this world at the battle of Armageddon. Earthquakes, epidemics, world famines announced by Christ in the Gospels would be the irrefutable proof of the end.
They expect Kingdom of God re-establishment, a reign that, according to the Apocalypse, will last one thousand years (millenarianism). At the end of this period, men will have the possibility to disavowing God. Those who 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 faithful ones’ minds a spiritual paradise, a sort of an ‘already there’ Kingdom.
They form a voluntary group. The 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 Christian principles such as they are understood by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This Christian confession can be described as elitist insofar as it claims to be the only salvation organization accepted by God. On one side, the laymen whom it is necessary to respect but not to frequent because they belong without knowing it to a world which rests into Devil’s hands; on another side, the faithful ones. Only the converts will be saved.
Indeed, Jehovah’s Witnesses condemn the present violent 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 God’s Kingdom close arrival is now legendary.
Its members regard themselves as neutral, in the way they do not take any stand. Essentially Christians, 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, they always refuse violence. If they are prohibited, they continue to practice their religion clandestinely.
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 clergymen but only secular ones, important militant commitment, life centred around jehovean Christianity, refusal of compromising and strong Christian identity assertion.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to consider Jehovah’s Witnesses as a sect from the media standpoint but well as an important Christian worldly movement.
movement in plainly development
Jehovah’s Witnesses propose the Good News without any prejudice. Their urban local assemblies are rather multi-coloured. They currently make a colossal effort of translation in order to touch the least particular ethnic group.
Their religious monthly magazine The Watch Tower is published today besides 190 languages. Each issue is printed in more than 42 million copies. It is the most diffused review in the world. Furthermore, everybody can read it on the Jehovah’s Witnesses official website, JW.org, currently available besides 700 languages.
In 2015, Jehovah’s Witnesses are nearly 20 million in the world including 8 million of evangelizers (publishers). Jehovah’s Witnesses count themselves by different ways. They insist on the fact that for us are Jehovah’s Witnesses only those who preach the Gospel each month. In this very restricted meaning, they are 8 million.
Nevertheless, a certain number of them do not preach regularly or do not preach any more but are always baptized. Others had been excommunicated but remain close to the movement. Lastly, a certain number of sympathizers present themselves as Jehovah’s’ Witnesses although they are not or not yet baptized. All these people are sometimes present in Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls and very often for the festival of the memorial of Christian Passover on each spring. In this broader meaning, Jehovah’s Witnesses movement counts around 20 million affiliated people.
On a world level, the jehovean movement increases by approximately 1 to 2 % a year what represents more than one quarter of million additional baptized each year.
In a quantitative sociological study conducted in February 2001, one noted that 59 % of jehovean faithful ones devoted regularly to preaching.
They mainly attend the worship with approximately more than 70 %. They thus have a strong rate of practice. They support their evangelic work by their own gifts and their religious organization builds worship halls (Kingdom Halls) everywhere in the world at an accelerated rate.
In spite of the polemics which were caused against it, the movement acquired an official recognition in France and in European Union.
In France, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious entities are all legally registered at local, regional and national levels. These associations for worship profit from the tax exemption as well as the Roman Catholic Church and the other recorded worships on the French territory.
According to the law of separation between Churches and State of December 9th of 1905, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not receive any subsidy for their operations of worship and the maintenance of their religious meeting halls. The faithful ones provide entirely for these needs. Jehovah’s Witnesses donations also profit from the legally tax deductions.
In France, a lobby wanted to make Jehovah’s Witnesses described as a sect with the aim to cause their prohibition. This lobby acted on a certain fringe of the opinion by means of some media. They sought to cause controversies mainly about Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal of blood transfusion. In spite of Jehovah’s Witnesses had never been condemned about this subject or about any other else, a parliamentary Inquiry Commission made appearing Jehovah’s Witnesses in a negative report of 1995 called “Sects in France”.
The final condemnation of France by the European Court of human rights (ECHR) on June 30th, 2011 for violation of religious freedom (Jehovah’s Witnesses Association against France) put definitively and end to the false charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses and raised any ambiguity on the authenticable religious character of this movement firmly established in France as well as in Europe today.
Jehovah’s Witnesses fully enjoy their rights as a genuine religious entity. Their associations benefit from tax exemptions, since 2014 they have obtained the statute of chaplain for their ministers acting in penal institutions and hospitals. They do not have military nor school chaplaincies but do not ask any because of their position of strict neutrality.
Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses aspire being able to build their worship places in serenity especially their big regional assemblies halls, they desire to feel accepted within the framework of the standardisation of their relationship with the society in general.
In fact, their evangelization activity is now an effective part of the worldly religious panorama.
Sociologist of Religions and Secularity,
Doctor of social sciences of Paris V Descartes – Sorbonne,
French Association of Religious social sciences.
Principal French bibliographical references
- M. Introvigne, Les Témoins de Jéhovah, Paris, Cerf, 1990.
- Cercle Européen des Témoins de Jéhovah Anciens Déportés et Internés - CETJAD, Mémoire de Témoins, 1933-45, septembre 1994.
- R. Dericquebourg, Les résistances aux groupes religieux minoritaires en France, in Le débat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire, pp.73-84; Les Témoins de Jéhovah et le rapport, idem, pp. 255-260, Paris, Dervy, 1996.
- S. Besson, Droit de la famille, religions et sectes, préface de Paul Bouchet (Ancien président de la Commission Consultative des Droits de l'Homme), Éditions EMCC, Lyon, 1997.
- G. Canonici, Les Témoins de Jéhovah face à Hitler, Préface de François Bédarida, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998; Précisions, Le Christianisme au XXème siècle, Hebdomadaire protestant, n°702, p.11, 12 au 18 septembre 1999.
- Ph. Goni, Les Témoins de Jéhovah: Pratique cultuelle et loi du 9 décembre 1905, Préface de Michel de Guillenchmidt (Doyen de la faculté de droit de l'Université René Descartes Paris V, avocat au barreau de Paris, conseiller d'État honoraire), Éditions L'Harmattan, Paris, 2004.
- Ph. Barbey, Les Témoins de Jéhovah – La survivance du christianisme antitrinitaire: une résistance spirituelle pour la foi en un Dieu unique, thèse de diplôme de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) – Sorbonne, Vème section, sciences des religions, Paris, École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) – Sorbonne, 2001;
Les Témoins de Jéhovah – Pour un christianisme original, Paris, L’Harmattan, collection religion & sciences humaines, 2003;
De la mise à l’index aux camps de concentration: le cas des Témoins de Jéhovah, in Chatelain S., Pour en finir avec les camps, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2005, pp. 61-73;
Max Weber et les charismes spécifiques - La mondialisation d'un christianisme de conversion: Un charisme d’évangélisation? - Une étude de cas: Les Témoins de Jéhovah, thèse de doctorat de sciences sociales - sociologie/démographie de l’Université Paris V René Descartes - Sorbonne, Paris, 2008.
- D. Forget, Témoins de Jéhovah en France: entre reconnaissance et discrimination, Editions ILV, 2010.
- Ph. Barbey, Les Témoins de Jéhovah – Une analyse sociologique, Max WEBER et les charismes spécifiques, la mondialisation d'un christianisme de conversion: un charisme d’évangélisation? Editions Atelier National de Reproduction des Thèses - ANRT, Université Lille 3, 2011.
- Rapport mondial annuel pour 2015, Annuaire des Témoins de Jéhovah 2016, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2016.
Founded by Charles Russell in 1870 in Pennsylvania, Jehovah’s Witnesses are close to the evangelical protestant pole. Their beliefs systematically refer to the Bible in matter of faith and Christian life (Sola scriptura). They refuse papacy, worship of Mary and of the saints, Latin cross – symbol of the Roman Catholic Church, dogmas of Immaculate Conception, Assumption, Trinity (Christianity restitution), assertion of gift of salvation (kharisma) without works of faith (Amendment of saint James about works essential to the faith).
Jehovah’s Witnesses consider that they are the only ones to have succeeded in restoring the primitive Christianity that was rested by Jesus-Christ himself. They criticize other religions as belonging to what the Book of Apocalypse or Revelation calls Babylon the great because they took part in conflicts and wars of men. As for them, they preserve a strictly neutral and apolitical attitude which brought on us cruel persecutions throughout the twentieth century particularly under Nazi and communist regimes. They always expect God’s millenary reign which will restore a paradise on earth.
Moreover, as the various Christian confessions are generally Trinitarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate themselves in complete dissension with them on this fundamental religious point for them: God is strictly one (Unitarian monotheism). That is why Jehovah’s Witnesses have no part in any way in oecumenical movement whatever it is.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are present in almost all countries. Their world report for 2015 specifies that 240 countries and territories send an activity report to their world headquarter in New York, United States.
Jehovah’s Witnesses practice a family worship. Their Kingdom Halls are adapted to receive families including small children with a quasi-systematic presence of a nursery. A strong generational mixing is noted among us. All, young and old people, take part in the same activities according to their own possibilities. Nevertheless, young people are deeply encouraged to engage as pioneers and to devote 30, 50, 70 or 140 hours in preaching each month. This commitment is personal and voluntary. Then, it is proposed to the pioneers a special training called Course for the pioneers.
On a world level, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ movement increases by approximately 1 to 2 % a year what represents more than one quarter of million additional baptized each year. In fact, their domiciliary evangelization activity is now an effective part of the worldly religious panorama.
Keywords: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles Russell, Watch Tower, Christianity, millenarianism, Unitarianism, specific charisma, evangelization, Christian minority.
Philippe BARBEY is a sociologist of religions and secularity, Doctor of social sciences of Paris V Descartes - Sorbonne and member of the French Association of religious social sciences. He is mastered in History of religions from the High studies practical school (Sorbonne). He is presently professor of History in French National Education Department. He participates in the European Observatory of Religions and Secularity and animates the website Sociological Focus.
Sociological focus: http://barbey.jimdo.com/