Mark Owen writes

Jehovah's deluded Witnesses


Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Witnesses (a name they were not known by at first, incidentally) was born in 1852 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bang in the middle of America's 19th century outbreak of prophecy-mania.  Already such groups as the Mormons and the Seventh-Day Adventists, among others, had sprung into being, visionary, prophetic movements that seemed to answer some inner need among the poor and ignorant masses.

Russell was born into a deeply religious family of Presbyterian persuasion, with its stern Calvinistic teachings, including the eternal damnation of the unbeliever.  The notion of 'everlasting torment in hell' worried him a lot.  Restless of mind in his youth, Russell was for a time fascinated by oriental things.  He may have drifted away altogether from his religious roots had it not been that an evangelist, Jonas Wendell, convince him that the Bible was the Word of GOD.  Thus does the virus of religious belief get passed on from one infected person to another!

At first Russell laboured as a pastor under the Congregationalist tag but his independent frame of mind soon resulted in a break with that body.  While at Alleghany, Pittsburgh, Russell gathered a group around him to study the Bible. Russell began publishing his interpretations of the scriptures in a magazine, Food for Thinking.  This journal was to be transformed in time into that more familiar and ubiquitous publication, The Watchtower (at first bi-monthly).  It was not altogether an inspired outpouring, though, for Russell, then but a young man, based much of his writings on the teachings of a Second Adventist, J.H. Paton.

It came as a fortuitous circumstance for 'Pastor' Russell that, just when, in 1874, he needed to cement his position, he was able to raise funds by selling off a chain of five haberdashery shops he had inherited from his father.  The sale fetched what was then an enormous sum of money, a quarter of a million dollars. It was a happy event for Russell but one with dire consequences for the converts he was eventually to win, the homes he was to disrupt and the lives he was to blight through his teachings.

The group was known as the Zion's Watch Tower, launched officially in 1879.  It was followed five years later by the formation of Zion's Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.  This had contributors, each of whom subscribed ten dollars and were given voting stock.  Towards the close of his life there were two hundred thousand voting shares on issue.  However, Russell always maintained very tight control on his followers and there was never a vote cast against his views.

Russell was a tireless worker, a good organizer and a forceful speaker.  Apart from preaching and writing tracts and magazines he also produced a seven-volume series entitled Studies in the Scriptures.   Soon the movement had spread beyond the United States to England and several other countries.  

Russell's followers seem to have surfaced under numerous names, including Rutherfordites (after the second leader of the sect) and The Millennial Dawn. Another name the Russellites went by was the International Bible Students Association.  Much later, after Russell's death, in 1931 (or, according to some accounts, 1925), this body of people began calling themselves the Witnesses of Jehovah, a name taken from the text, 'Ye are my witnesses, says Jehovah.' (Isaiah 43:10, A.V.)  It is amusing that this name is derived from an Anglicized misreading of the Hebrew name of the Jewish tribal god, described by the Jews with the mysterious Tetragrammaton, YHVH, more correctly rendered nowadays as Yahweh.


From the start Russell had some peculiar interpretations of the scriptures, marking him out from other groups.  Particularly distinctive among his religious doctrines was the rejection of the concepts of heaven and hell, places or states so beloved of other Christian groups. It is easy to see why this was so, when hell played upon his mind so much as a young man. Also rejected is the celebration of such events as Christmas and Easter and personal birthdays. 

But two doctrines have probably landed the Witnesses in more strife than any other - refusal to partake of military service and refusal to allow blood transfusions.   It must be said here that, however disturbing these views are, in these as in other teachings, at least the Witnesses try to live by the doctrines they espouse, unlike so many who call themselves 'Christians.'   And they have often suffered grievously for doing so!  Rejecting all human government as being futile, Russellites refuse also to vote and to salute national flags.

Russell, like so many in his day (and, for that matter, even our own day), was caught up in the fever over Christ's Second Coming, and he, like so many of his kind, did a bit of calculating. The date he arrived at was 1874. (All these dates, and earlier and subsequent, dates announced by innumerable prognosticators only proves once again how uncertain is that certain message of the Christian scriptures!) 

Now I know it will not surprise you to discover - as we are all still here today - that the Christ-god did not return in 1874.  Well, not quite, or perhaps he did after all!  You see, Russell had a streak of rat-cunning.  He wasn't about to shed the mantle of Prophet.  He came up with a brilliant idea - the Return of Christ had been invisible!  Thereafter Christ had ushered in his reign but the actual end of the present world order would occur in 1914.

So Russell still put his credibility on the line by setting another date, albeit well down the road (40 years down the road).  It is with some satisfaction that I report that Russell lived just long enough to see, yes, the outbreak of World War in - 1914.  This surely was the End.  I guess Russell was still a trifle puzzled when he died in 1916.  Certainly it was a huge war, it must have seemed like the End to many people.  Tragically it was  the End to several million humans.  But this, too, passed and the End of Ends, as one might put it, still had not arrived.


Russell married in 1879 but the marriage proved to be childless and eventually an orphan girl, Rose Ball, then aged 10, was adopted in 1889.  Russell's marriage was not an altogether happy one for he once apparently made an oblique reference to it in the comment: 'Many of the Lord's most faithful children live in a matrimonial furnace of affliction.' In 1897 Mrs Russell left her husband and lived apart from him but in a house Russell provided for her.  In 1903 she brought suit for separation and after five years of litigation, public disclosure and general scandal, divorce was granted.

The Judge commented that Russell's 'course of conduct towards his wife evidences such insistent egotism and extravagant self-praise that it would be manifest to the jury that his conduct toward her was one of continual domination that would necessarily render the life of any sensitive Christian woman a burden and make her condition intolerable.'

Although it was never proved in a court of law there appears to be strong evidence that Russell had been intimate with his adopted daughter in 1894, when she was just 15.  

By the time the divorce petition had reached the court Rose herself, now 18, had married a Russellite convert and been spirited off by the disciples to distant Australia, from whence she could not, under the laws then operating, be subpoenaed.  But the Judge commented on the matter, saying that the incident had allegedly taken place in 1894, according to Mrs Russell's testimony, and that the girl at that time 'could not have been more than fifteen.'

Mrs Russell did not accuse her husband of adultery but did testify under oath that after one of his (several) affairs, he had said to her: 'I am like a jellyfish.  I float around here and there.  I touch this one and that one, and if she responds, I take her to me; if not, I float on to others.'  On another occasion Mrs Russell found her husband had locked himself into a room with another young woman, Emily Matthews. 

Confronted on the matter, Russell came up with a specious argument about Emily having been sick and because of some noise from the passageway he had been unable to hear what she had been saying to him so had turned the key in the lock!

Needless to say Russell himself claimed absolute unblemished purity of life.  He swore out an affidavit to this effect, claiming he had never committed any immorality nor cohabited with any person at any time.  The court ordered Russell to pay alimony to his wife; however, he neatly avoided responsibility by having his personal property transferred into the ownership of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.  This was tantamount to giving it to himself!


The taint of deception was never far away from Russell.  It hung about other prophets too, such as Joseph Smith (Mormon).  There is a fundamental dishonesty in the way in which many such people twist the Bible's verses to their own purposes.  Like the Latter-Day Saints with their Book of Mormon,  so the Witnesses, too, have their own special book, The New World Translation  of the Bible.  It was necessary to produce such a work in order to fit in the JW's special views concerning Jesus, not to mention other doctrines.

The parallels with Smith are many.  Smith had claimed a special revelation from an angel; Russell was not so bold; he did come on the scene a little later and perhaps the world had become a bit more sophisticated by then.  But like Smith (who claimed he could translate the Reformed Egyptian of his golden plates) Russell claimed he was a competent Greek and Hebrew scholar and thus well equipped to translate the New Testament. 

This bold claim was actually tested in a Canadian court of law in 1913.  Russell had sworn under oath that he could read Greek.  Before the assembled court it was easily demonstrated that he could not; in fact, he could not even recognize certain Greek letters!  

Then there was the famous Miracle Wheat.  Russell and his followers  hawked this amazing grain to farmers at $1 per pound (or $60 per bushel), claiming it would outgrow other seeds by as much as five times!  They announced that its emergence was a sign that the Millenium was at hand! A newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle,  long an opponent of Russell, labelled the claims as fake and Russell foolishly sued, seeking $100,000 in damages.

The Russellites produced no less than eleven witnesses before the court, who testified that the wheat was really superior.  But Government examiners tested the Miracle Wheat and announced they could find no distinct superiority in the grain.  Russell actually admitted that there was 'some element of truth' in the charges of deceit and he lost his case. 

But that did not stop them.  At one stage the group was selling a paste supposed to cure cancer.  Russell was also accused of working on sick people, to persuade them to make over their fortunes to the sect before they died. In spite of these deceptions, the followers still followed!  As they continued to do even when further deceptions, issuing from the leadership, were the order of the day, as we shall soon see.


When Russell died in October 1916 his successor, 'Judge' Rutherford of Missouri, asserted that Charles Taze Russell would be placed next to St Paul in the history of the Christian Church. 

Rutherford was caught up in the prophecy-mania,too.  Believe it or not, in 1925 he was confidently telling people that 'millions now living will never die.'  This slogan was splashed about on billboards, rocks, mountainsides and barns along America's roads.  So confident were the Russellites as to their claims that they prepared handsome accommodation for the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not to mention other holy worthies, at their headquarters.  

Three-quarters of a century later millions of the people who saw those billboards are well and truly dead.  But does all this stop the Witnesses in their obsessive tracks?  I think not.  Still they come, knocking on our doors and pestering us.

They are, after all, witnesses.   An essential part of the life of every JW is to go forth and doorknock.  It must be a sore trial to many a timid housewife to find herself expected to undertake this unpaid labour to help swell the numbers of the faithful.  Ordinary members are required to put in at least ten hours of doorstopping each month and sell at least 12 magazines.  More advances workers, known as Pioneers, not only have to support themselves financially with part-time work but are expected to give at least 100 hours per month to witnessing.  Full-time workers get a small allowance. 

Who was this new leader? Judge was not a title but the man's first name; however, it sounded good when bandied about among ignorant people. At least that is one story. The histories give his name variously, some as Judge Frederick Rutherford,  others as Joseph Franklin Rutherford.   I cannot say for sure which is correct.   Anyway, Judge Rutherford (born 1869) soon got himself into hot water with U.S. authorities in 1917 when he and six other leaders of the movement were each jailed for 20 years because of their anti-war preaching.  Rutherford had been legal advocate for the Witnesses since 1907.  The Witnesses certainly needed legal assistance.  Not only were they actively opposed to the Great War (and to every war) but refused to pledge allegiance to any country or flag.  This did not go down well among patriotic Americans. 

During World War 2 JWs were banned from the radio because they preached that some of their deductions from the Bible 'proved' that the United States and the British countries were the 'agents of Satan.'  In Australia in 1941 the Commonwealth Government banned their organization as seditious and subversive.  However, they won a case on appeal to the High Court, which declared the National Security Regulations under which they had been closed down, were invalid.  The JWs were awarded large damages.

Eventually, when the hue and cry in America had died down, Rutherford  was released.  He had served but nine months behind bars.  For the next quarter of a century he was to rule with an iron hand and under his leadership the movement spread around the world.  He was a prolific writer and added greatly to the store of writings left by Russell.  But when he died in 1942, aged 72, he did so, like his mentor, without seeing his prophecy fulfilled.

Around the world the sect has many times come into conflict with authorities over its anti-state doctrines.  The Nazis treated Jehovah's Witnesses with contempt and great cruelty, imprisoning an estimated 6,000 of their number in concentration camps, many of whom died.  In the postwar world a notable case occurred in 1966 in Greece when Christos Kaazamis, a young army recruit, was in a court-martial sentenced to death for refusing to take up arms while in military service.  A later trial saw the young man reprieved.  He was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison.


The third leader of the sect was Nathan H. Knorr, who took the reins of power when he was only 36.  Under Knorr the group grew in leaps and bounds.  He founded schools, a college and a radio station.  He was followed by Frederick W. Franz.

During the seventies the sect suffered some reverses and membership actually declined with more than a quarter of a million people defecting.  The leadership had taken to prophecy again and proclaimed that the final Battle of Armageddon (see further below) would occur in October 1975.  Naturally the date came and went, as all such dates do.  But not before many members had disrupted their lives by selling up homes and giving up jobs, in order to be ready for the big event. 

At this time, too, there was an increase in membership.  With the passing of that date defections began. However, the sect has since recovered some of the lost ground.  It is estimated that there are upwards of three million Witnesses worldwide today.

Orthodox Christian churches will have nothing to do with the Witnesses; they are quite beyond the pale.  Curiously, in Canada in 1947 the Supreme Court ruled that the group was not even a religion!  Their basic concept is unitarian in nature, that Jehovah (Yahweh) is the only god; Jesus being but a created being, originally living in heaven as the Archangel Michael.  Sent to earth he was born as a man; he was not divine.  This was a doctrine similar to that espoused by the 4th century Arians. 

The death of the Nazarene on the torture stake (as they like to call the cross) did not atone for sin.  The only salvation is through becoming one of the Witnesses of Jehovah and by living good lives.  All other religious bodies, and governments for that matter, are under the control of the Devil. 

The beginning of the end of the present world order was in 1914, as I have already mentioned.  In this year GOD'S kingdom on earth was established (naturally through the Witnesses!).  The present world system will eventually face Armageddon.  This great battle, so beloved of the prophetic preachers, has but scant support from the scriptures, but that doesn't faze them!


Eventually, at the end of 1,000 years all the dead shall be raised and a group, numbering exactly 144,000 (a figure plucked from that fanciful document, the Book of Revelation) who reach the required standard of holy living will live and reign in heaven; the rest will be consigned to earth.  Those who reject the JW truth shall be annihilated.

Now as there are millions of Witnesses presently in the world, a simple calculation will serve to raise a question:  If 144,000 reign from the heavens what of the other faithful JWs?  As in all religious systems, no difficulty is too great for dogma.  Somehow or other everything is accommodated in the system.  In this case the 144,000 are described as 'choice spirits' or the 'heavenly class.'  All true Christians,  they say, since the first Apostles are members of this class.

They believe that only a few of this heavenly group have been born since 1914 but that when the last member of the 144,000 dies, the Kingdom of God will be complete.  How does one know he/she is a member of this exalted inner circle?  'By an inner conviction or revelation.'  And those who feel this, and only those, partake of the bread and wine at the annual communion service.  Thus thousands may attend this great annual event but only a few go forward.

As for the rest, they will still enjoy a happy life on a renewed earth, where they are to live forever.  But woe to them who do not believe Pastor Russell's teachings; they are condemned to everlasting death.

It is amusing to read the nonsense penned by the sect as to how everybody is to live on the restored earth.  Rutherford once worked out some figures indicating that there would be sufficient room for all but world population has exploded - and will explode further - since then.  

Strangely other groups have through the centuries fancied they were the elect and exclusive 144,000.  Now they can't all be this right, for if they were things would not add up at all!   But, then, all religion poses this dilemma:  Who is right and who is wrong?  Who can tell?   


Like many Christian fundamentalist groups and other sects the Witnesses take literally the words they find in the Scriptures concerning water baptism.  Baptism is by full immersion and must be a pleasurable experience for the male officiants when handling the young females.  On occasions mass public baptisms have taken place.  In 1978 the Witnesses took over the Twickenham sports grounds in London for just such a spectacle.  And in Australia in August 1963 some 347 poor deluded followers were plunged beneath the waters in Melbourne, but then Melbourne has always been a hotbed of radical ideas.

Then there was one giant ceremony back in 1958, the largest.  In New York relays of ministers, seventy of them in all, washed the sin from the bodies of no less than 7,136 believers!

To be fair to them, the Witnesses generally appear to have been more circumspect in sexual matters than were many other sects, for example, the Mormons.   The JWs are so intensely serious about their religion there is probably little opportunity given to think naughty thoughts, although as we have already seen, Pastor Russell himself was not above a little dalliance on the side.

But, as with the Mormons, women are kept firmly in their place.  None holds an executive post, probably never will.  It is not permitted for a woman to instruct a baptized male disciple.  And they are barred from most other public activities, such as preaching and praying, except in an emergency situation.   But, apart from baby-making, they are good for one thing - door-knocking.  Strange that this activity, which must bring the greatest degree of anguish to members embarking on it (I know, for I once did it for my faith), is thrust happily upon the ladies who are otherwise barred from ecclesia office.   But then that's always the way of patriarchal religion.  Oh, yes, I forgot, the ladies are good for providing food at communal functions.


There have been doctrinal changes made in some of the literature put out by the Witnesses.  Members will be found from time to time poking about second-hand bookstores trying to seek out certain books in order to buy and destroy them.  However, I cannot say just what it is they seek; but they do engage in this activity.  Perhaps it involves the various changes that have occurred in the dates?

Some years back another date was being bandied about by the sect - 1984.  Perhaps they were inspired by George Orwell!   The End was to come by then and people like me would find we had been grievously wrong!  Oh well, they are not the only mistaken ones.  I'm waiting for a new date to be proposed.  Will any among their number be brave - or foolish - enough to set one?


The general public gets to think about the Witnesses in two contexts - as pests on their doorsteps and over their attitude to blood transfusions.  This latter has ever been a bone of contention.  Based on a literal reading of certain Old Testament verses, the Witnesses believe they should not take blood into their bodies in the event of a medical emergency.

Many have died for this belief but the greatest problems arise when the child of a Witness is involved and this has led to heated debate around the world.  In 1960 a baby died in Melbourne as a result of its parents refusing to allow a transfusion.  A court case resulted but a good behaviour bond was the lenient sentence handed out!  Since that time some state governments (NSW, Queensland and Victoria) have enacted legislation to allow doctors power to enforce transfusions in the case of endangered children.  Western Australia legislated so that children had to be declared neglected and wards of the state before blood could be given.

It is particularly in cases such as these, together with others involving war service and suchlike matters, that splits have developed within many families.  Thus the Witnesses of Jehovah have developed an unsavoury reputation for destroying homes and disrupting family life.  This is especially the case where only one member of the household believes.  And the pain and suffering endured by those who have had to see family members being 'steadfast unto death' in their obstinate beliefs is hard to imagine.   To see them hauled off to a concentration camp, jailed for refusal of military service or dying for lack of a blood transfusion must be a source of great dismay and despair.   

So brainwashed are the Witnesses that they think there is no hope of salvation outside belief in their doctrines.  This leads to a harsh, judgmental attitude to those 'beyond the pale'.  And to the adoption of the typical 'martyr-complex,' rejoicing masochistically in suffering. Indeed. I must conclude by saying that this religion is in most respects one of the most joyless and miserable of any on earth.  No wonder its adherents look to a better life in the world to come!  They must be terribly unhappy in this one. 

Mark Owen, 1990 & 2010 -

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