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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Their Modern Development and Growth

THE modern history of Jehovah’s Witnesses began more than a hundred years ago. In the early 1870’s, a rather inconspicuous Bible study group began in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., which is now a part of Pittsburgh. Charles Taze Russell was the prime mover of the group. In July 1879, the first issue of the magazine Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence appeared. By 1880 scores of congregations had spread from that one small Bible study into nearby states. In 1881 Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society was formed, and in 1884 it was incorporated, with Russell as president. The Society’s name was later changed to Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Many were witnessing from house to house offering Bible literature. Fifty persons were doing this full time in 1888—now the average number worldwide is about 700,000.

By 1909 the work had become international, and the Society’s headquarters was moved to its present location in Brooklyn, New York. Printed sermons were syndicated in newspapers, and by 1913 these were in four languages in 3,000 newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Books, booklets, and tracts had been distributed by the hundreds of millions.

In 1912 work began on the “Photo-Drama of Creation.” By slides and motion pictures with sound, it covered from earth’s creation to the end of Christ’s Thousand Year Reign. Showings started in 1914, with 35,000 seeing it daily. It was a pioneer in motion pictures with sound.


A crucial time was drawing close. In 1876 the Bible student Charles Taze Russell contributed the article “Gentile Times: When Do They End?” to the Bible Examiner, published in Brooklyn, New York, which said on page 27 of its October issue, “The seven times will end in A.D. 1914.” The Gentile Times is the period referred to in another Bible translation as “the appointed times of the nations.” (Luke 21:24) Not all that was expected to happen in 1914 did happen, but it did mark the end of the Gentile Times and was a year of special significance. Many historians and commentators agree that 1914 was a turning point in human history. The following quotations illustrate this:

“The last completely ‘normal’ year in history was 1913, the year before World War I began.”—Editorial in the Times-Herald, Washington, D.C., March 13, 1949.

“Increasingly, the 75-year period from 1914 to 1989, covering two world wars and the cold war, is being seen by historians as a single, discrete epoch, a time apart in which much of the world was fighting war, recovering from war or preparing for war.”—The New York Times, May 7, 1995.

“The whole world really blew up about World War I and we still don’t know why. Before then, men thought that utopia was in sight. There was peace and prosperity. Then everything blew up. We’ve been in a state of suspended animation ever since . . . More people have been killed in this century than in all of history.”—Dr. Walker Percy, American Medical News, November 21, 1977.

More than 50 years after 1914, German statesman Konrad Adenauer wrote: “Security and quiet have disappeared from the lives of men since 1914.”—The West Parker, Cleveland, Ohio, January 20, 1966.

The Society’s first president, C. T. Russell, died in 1916 and was succeeded the following year by Joseph F. Rutherford. Many changes took place. A companion magazine to The Watchtower, called The Golden Age, was introduced. (Now called Awake!, with a circulation of more than 20,000,000 in over 80 languages.) Door-to-door witnessing received greater emphasis. To distinguish themselves from the denominations of Christendom, in 1931 these Christians embraced the name Jehovah’s Witnesses. This name is based on Isaiah 43:10-12.

The radio was used extensively in the 1920’s and 1930’s. By 1933 the Society was using 403 radio stations to broadcast Bible lectures. Later, the use of the radio was largely replaced by increased house-to-house visits by Witnesses with portable phonographs and recorded Bible talks. Home Bible studies were started with anyone who showed interest in Bible truth.


During the 1930’s and 1940’s, there were many arrests of Witnesses for doing this work, and court cases were fought in the interest of preserving freedom of speech, press, assembly, and worship. In the United States, appeals from lower courts resulted in the Witnesses’ winning 43 cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. Similarly, favorable judgments have been obtained from high courts in other lands. Concerning these court victories, Professor C. S. Braden, in his book These Also Believe, said of the Witnesses: “They have performed a signal service to democracy by their fight to preserve their civil rights, for in their struggle they have done much to secure those rights for every minority group in America.”


J. F. Rutherford died in 1942 and was succeeded in the presidency by N. H. Knorr. A concerted program of training began. In 1943 a special training school for missionaries, called the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, was established. From that time onward, graduates from this school have been sent to lands all over the earth. New congregations have sprung up in countries where there had been none, and branches established internationally now number more than 100. From time to time, special courses have been established for training congregation elders, voluntary workers at branches, and those engaged full time (as pioneers) in the witnessing work. A number of specialized types of schooling for ministers have been offered at an educational center operated in Patterson, New York.

N. H. Knorr died in 1977. One of the last organizational changes in which he shared before his death was the enlargement of the Governing Body, located at the world headquarters in Brooklyn. In 1976 administrative responsibilities were divided up and assigned to various committees made up of members of the Governing Body, all of whom have many decades of experience as ministers.


Additional Reading:

The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern times has been filled with dramatic events. From the one small Bible study in Pennsylvania back in 1870, the Witnesses by the year 2000 grew to some 90,000 congregations worldwide. All literature was, at first, printed by commercial firms; then, in 1920, the Witnesses produced some literature in rented factory buildings. But from 1927 on, much more literature was turned out in the eight-story factory building in Brooklyn, New York, owned by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. This has now expanded into other factory buildings and an office complex. There are additional buildings nearby in Brooklyn to house the ministers who volunteer to operate the publishing facilities. In addition to this, a combination farm and printery is operated near Wallkill, in upstate New York. It handles printing of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines and produces some of the food for the ministers serving in the various locations. Each volunteer worker receives a small monthly reimbursement to cover incidental expenses.


In 1893 the first major convention was held in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. It was attended by 360, and 70 new ones were baptized. The last big single international convention was held in New York City in 1958. It used both Yankee Stadium and the then-existing Polo Grounds. Peak attendance was 253,922; new ones baptized numbered 7,136. Since then international conventions have been held as a series in many countries. In all, such a series may involve a thousand conventions in lands around the globe.

- Published by the WTB&TS in 2000