The popular name given since 1931 to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society which traces its origins in the 1870s to the *Adventist doctrines of the American lay preacher C. T. *Russell . His main claim was that Jesus Christ, a perfect man, had returned invisibly to earth in 1874 in order to prepare for the Kingdom of God which was expected to materialize after the Battle of Armageddon in 1914. The overriding responsibility of believers was to study the Bible and to warn as many people as possible about the impending ‘end time’ so that they might survive on earth, in turn, a First Judgement, Christ’s millennial reign on earth, and a Second Judgement. Only a ‘small flock’ of 144,000 people drawn from the whole of human history were to expect eternal life in heaven.
Schisms and reinterpretations of prophecy were frequent among Russell’s followers until his successor, J. F. *Rutherford , turned them, after the First World War, into a ‘*theocratic’ organization demanding from its members exclusive commitment, rigid adherence to ‘the Truth’, and strict indifference to the world. Rutherford’s uncompromising criticism of all political ideologies gave rise to frequent clashes with governments in many countries; it may also have helped to bring about more liberal legislation in regard to conscientious objection and the free exercise of religion. Nathan H. Knorr, who succeeded him in 1942, directed Jehovah’s Witnesses progressively away from confrontation with the world and towards missionary activity at home and abroad. Their governance became less oligarchic and more bureaucratic under the presidency of Frederick W. Franz (1977–92).
The most visible hallmarks of Jehovah’s Witnesses are their Kingdom Halls, their door-to-door ministry, the public sale of their magazines The Watchtower (1879 .) and Awake! (1946 ), and their vast assemblies held in public stadia. They are also distinctive in their taboo against blood transfusions, their practice of Baptism by complete *immersion, their own translations of the Bible, their refusal to honour symbols of nationhood, and their reluctance to mix with non-members. They have c.6 million members in 235 lands. Growth in membership is now higher in developing countries than in the advanced industrial societies, but they retain an American ethos and are still governed from the USA. The organization had about 120,000 active members in the UK in 2001.