How did the Watchtower cult emerge and develop? The story begins with Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). His parents were Calvinists in theology and members of a Congregational church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Bible was taught faithfully.
Russell accepted the God-centred theology of the church and of his parents until, at the age of sixteen, he was ridiculed by a friend for believing in such an ‘unreasonable’ doctrine as hell.
Within weeks, Russell began his search for a more acceptable creed and rejected the orthodox Christian faith.
At an Adventist meeting two years later, Russell was delighted to hear the speaker advocating the doctrine of the annihilation of unbelievers, and scorning that of eternal punishment.
From these earlier Adventists, Russell also learned of an unsuccessful attempt by one of their leaders to propose a date (like 1843) for Christ’s return. Consequently, prophesying the end of the world and Christ’s return became a regular feature of Witness teaching.
Russell might have joined these Adventists, but differences soon emerged and he decided to lead his own group.
Further disagreement with a colleague led Russell to launch his own magazine, and this enabled him to establish over thirty Bible study groups in the following months. He then registered ‘Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society’ as a legal entity in 1884.
Only in 1956 did the movement adopt its present name — the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
Russell wrote a number of books (now known as Studies in the Scriptures) together with a weekly sermon which, between 1904 and 1914, was sent to about 3,000 newspapers in North America and Europe.
Despite his growing popularity, Russell’s last years were characterised by scandal and deceit. He was involved in several court cases and, to put it mildly, his character did not emerge unscathed.
His wife left him in 1897 and later sued him for divorce on the grounds of his ‘conceit, egotism, domination, and improper conduct in relation to other women’.
One of the legal advisers to the group, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, succeeded Russell but only after ignoring Russell’s explicit wishes and using his legal training to seize control of the organization.
In protest, many leaders from Russell’s era promptly left and formed breakaway groups upholding Russell’s teachings.
Rutherford launched a magazine, later named Awake, and reorganised the system, placing greater emphasis on witnessing and literature distribution. Those who opposed his decisions were expelled.
This led to the formation of several additional separatist groups during the early years of his leadership, including the Dawn Bible Students’ Association and the Laymen’s Home Missionary Movement.
By now, approximately twenty groups had broken away from the Watchtower.
Before he died in 1942, Rutherford nominated Nathan Homer Knorr to succeed him as the third president. The latter’s strengths lay in his administrative and intellectual gifts.
He insisted, for example, on a more thorough training of members, and encouraged the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures which was completed in 1960.
This translation is most unreliable, containing numerous examples of misleading translations of original words, as well as insertions not present in the original Greek texts.
The last president was Frederick Franz. After his death, leadership of the cult was vested in the Governing Body.
Have the views of this cult remained the same during its history? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Their position remains unchanged on major subjects such as the Holy Trinity; the deity, death and physical resurrection of Christ; the Holy Spirit; new birth, conversion and justification by faith; and eschatology.
These orthodox biblical doctrines have been rejected consistently and vehemently by its leaders.
On the other hand, details concerning these views and the interpretation of Scripture have changed significantly over the years. This raises another contemporary issue with regard to this cult, namely, their ‘New Light’ doctrine.
What is this doctrine? It is the principle that ‘the light keeps getting brighter and brighter’. This is based, wrongly, on Proverbs 4:18: ‘But the path of the righteous is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter until the perfect day’.
This verse does not, as they imply, refer to prophecy or direct revelation from God. The context establishes the point. Proverbs 4:10-19 embodies a contrast between two ways of living, namely, the ways of wisdom and of wickedness. The term ‘way’ points to a structured, purposeful movement in a single direction, whether wickedness or wisdom.
In verses 18-19 the metaphors of light and darkness are used helpfully. ‘Light’ signifies happiness, security and life, whereas ‘darkness’ points to misery, ignorance, failure and death.
Rather than referring to direct revelation as claimed by Witnesses, verse 18 assures us that believing, godly persons have the light of God’s wisdom to guide them throughout their lives.
At the beginning of their Christian experience, it is like starting a journey at dawn with welcome but limited light from the Word. However, there is increasing light and warmth given to believers through the Word as they continue their journey to heaven.
Such light enables and sustains believers in honouring God, as they become more mature in age and experience.
The Watchtower interpretation of Proverbs 4:18 is clearly wrong. But the cult still believes that in 1918 it was appointed as God’s channel of information to the human race.
When they deem it appropriate, the leadership issues modifications or ‘reversals’ in teaching even though the revisions may contradict earlier teaching. They argue that even though they have made corrections to their teaching, over the last century, they have in fact been moving closer to the truth.
There is need to pause here and question this ‘New Light’ principle in the context of some different examples of revised teaching.
For example, until 1995 Witnesses taught that their own preaching work is a ‘separating work’. By this they mean that those who join their movement are ‘sheep’ who will inherit the kingdom, but those who refuse are ‘goats’ to be annihilated at Armageddon.
From 1995 a change was made in the teaching. They now claim that it is not their preaching, but Jesus himself who will undertake this separating work at Armageddon.
Rape and blood
Another example is their teaching on rape which, incredibly, has changed about twelve times over the past thirty years.
Up to 1993, for example, if a woman was raped at knifepoint or gunpoint and did not scream, the Watchtower considered it fornication, not rape. From 1993 this has changed. ‘Rape’, they now agree, ‘is an act of violence. It is not sex’.
An example receiving current media publicity is their ban on blood transfusion. This prohibition has resulted in the unnecessary deaths of some Witnesses as well as much conflict and suffering.
Gary Busselman, a former Witness whose wife died as a result of the blood transfusion and organ transplant issues, researches the Watchtower’s changing positions regarding blood.
Now, he affirms: ‘there are two … blood-treatment procedures acceptable to Jehovah’s Witnesses … both procedures are for the benefit of “sustaining life”, a use for blood distinctly ruled out by The Watchtower as an acceptable use for blood!’ (Watchtower, 15 Jan 1995, p.6).
Additionally, both procedures utilise ‘ingesting blood through injections into the veins’, another procedure completely ruled out (Watchtower, 15 June 1978, p.24)’.
Also, he says: ‘The Watchtower for 15 June 2000 represents an “historic shift in the Watchtower Society’s blood policy”’.
Other examples of changing teaching can be multiplied, such as their many proposed dates for the end of the world, ranging from 1874, 1910-1912 and, more recently, 1975, and ‘this generation’.
In conclusion, I appeal to those involved in, or attracted to, this cult. The changing, contradictory views of Watchtower leaders illustrate their fallibility. They are false prophets, so do not listen to them.
Again, God does not give new revelations — he has already made his final revelation in Christ (Hebrews 1:2-3). Rather than heeding the fallible views of men, read the Bible for yourself, without their literature. Listen to the Son of God: ‘You must be born again’; ‘he who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 3:7; 6:35).
The Lord’s people hear and obey Christ’s voice, not the voices of fallible men (John 10:27).