Jehovah’s Witnesses

Rodney Stark and Laurence Iannaccone (1997) noted that, despite their millions of members, until recently Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to attract the attention of most sociologists of religion (Beckford 1975 is one of the rare book length studies). The difficult access to their international archives was a factor, together with a general under evaluation of non mainline Christian groups by certain sociologists. In the 1990s and 2000s, however, the situation changed. Sociologists became interested in testing on such a large group hypotheses about the relative success of different religious movements, cognitive dissonance, routinization of charisma, and mainstreaming of once marginal religions, while a new Witnesses leadership was ready to cooperate.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the largest among a group of several religious movements that claim the heritage of Pastor Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Russell became involved in theological controversies within the American Adventist movement, which had predicted the end of the world for the year 1844 based on numerological speculations drawn from the Bible. After 1844, Adventists divided into several competing groups. Those who renounced any further date setting eventually became the Seventh Day Adventists, a large international denomination. Some of those who would still calculate prophetic dates focused their hopes on the year 1874, and constituted a loosely organized movement. After the new disappointment, the young Russell emerged as one of the leaders of those who had placed their hopes in 1874. Russell both predicted the end of the world as we know it for the year 1914 and shifted his focus on teachings other than prophetical date setting.

In 1878, Russell separated himself from other factions of the movement and started editing a magazine, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, which is still published today as The Watchtower. Russell’s followers were known simply as Bible Students, but in 1884 the preacher formally established an organization known as the Zion’s Watch Tower Society, later the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Russell’s ideas involved the denial of Trinity (Jesus Christ was regarded as God’s first creature). He also preached conditionalism, a rejection of the traditional view of the immortality of the soul. These doctrines would later seem highly heterodox to mainline Christians. In the late nineteenth century, however, they were shared by quite a few preachers. Russell’s notable success (almost all his books sold millions of copies) did not come so much from the alleged revolutionary character of his teachings as from the fact that they were perceived as being in continuity with, if not part of, mainline Christianity. This confirmed to later social science that new religious movements, in order to gain a large following, should exhibit only a moderate discontinuity with respect to mainline religion.

The prophetic failure of 1914 did not stop the movement’s progress. The Bible Students, however, were radical Christian pacifists, who adamantly refused to be drafted and to fight in war. In several countries they were arrested in significant numbers. In this climate, the election as president of the Watch Tower Society of Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942) was not welcome by everybody, and several schismatic groups  separated  from the mainline movement, although all these splinter organizations remained quite small.

Not only did Rutherford promote speculations about a new date for the end of the world, 1925, he also transformed the loose network of Russell’s times into a strongly centralized organization, changing its name in 1931 into the current one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. With a peculiar and abrasive populist rhetoric, Ruther ford consistently attacked organized religion, politics, and big business as “rackets” and corrupt monopolies up to no good. Although Rutherford would be later criticized for his early and, in retrospect, naive attempt in 1933 to contact the Nazi regime and present a positive image of the German Jehovah’s Witnesses, such contacts quickly failed and the Witnesses were severely persecuted in Nazi Germany, as in Fascist Italy and Communist Russia. Several hundred died in Nazi concentration camps.

Nathan Homer Knorr (1905-77) succeeded Rutherford in 1942. Again, the transition from one president to the next took place during a world war. The 115,000 active Witnesses, still committed to radical pacifism, were again experiencing difficult times in most countries of the world. Presiding over the Witnesses in an era that was now suspicious of charismatic leadership, Knorr struggled to depersonalize the movement’s hierarchy and almost consciously organized a sustained routinization of charisma within the group. Articles in the Witnesses’ magazines and books were now published anonymously, concluding a process initiated during the Rutherford era. Although still emphasizing the Witnesses as the only authorized organization representing the Lord’s true church in the world, the style became less abrasive than it had been during the Rutherford administration. Missionary endeavors, now much more systematically organized, became the top priority.

At Knorr’s death in 1977, the movement had grown to more than 2 million “publishers” (i.e., Witnesses engaged in the active ”field service” of proselytization, mostly conducted by systematically visiting all homes in a given neighbor hood) and more than 5 million participants to the memorial of the Lord’s Supper, the only yearly ”liturgy” of the movement. This difference emphasizes the problem in assessing the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses statistically. While the Witnesses themselves would count only the “publishers” as members in full standing, adherents of other denominations are not counted by taking into account only those active in missionary enterprises. Participants in the yearly memorial offer a statistical assessment closer to how members of other religious organizations are normally counted, although it is true that the yearly memorial is occasionally attended also by friends and sympathizers. On the other hand, it is also true that the traditional Christian slogan ”every member is a missionary” is taken much more literally by the Witnesses than by most other Christian denominations, and everybody is encouraged to devote a substantial amount of time to missionary endeavors. Although the effectiveness of the systematic door to door strategy has been called into question, sociologists have noted that the internal effects of the effort in reinforcing the members’ identity and commitment are almost as important as its external success (see Beckford 1975).

A new prophetic enthusiasm seized the movement before 1975, a date regarded by many Witnesses as a likely end of this world. The disappointment many Witnesses experienced created several difficulties and energized an oppositional movement which received considerable media attention but in fact involved only a limited, if vocal, number of former members. The fact that the Witnesses survived prophetic failures in 1914, 1925, and 1975 has been regarded by some sociologists as a confirmation of the theory of cognitive dissonance as applied by Festinger et al. (1956) to instances ”when prophecy fails.” In order to avoid admitting their previous gullibility, members reinforce their missionary efforts and, by persuading others, re persuade themselves. The theory would predict that, counterintuitively, movements can grow rather than enter into a crisis after a prophetic failure. More recently, however, others have argued that cognitive dissonance has very little to do with Witnesses’ reactions to prophetic disconfirmation. First of all, in the immediate aftermath of failed date setting, Witnesses lost members, and started growing again only after years of painful reorganization (Singelenberg 1989). On the other hand, prophecy in fact only fails for the outsiders; from the point of view of the movement itself, prophecy does not fail but is regarded as having come true at other levels: perhaps a world, rather than the world, has ended, or the prophecy needs to be understood differently (Melton 1985).

In 1995 The Watchtower announced a ”new point of view” on prophetic date setting, still regarding the end of the world as we know it as quite near, but discouraging members from calculating precise dates. This evolution, as it did for Seventh Day Adventists one century earlier, had the gradual effect of reducing the ”other worldliness” of the Witnesses, facilitating their further evolution toward the religious mainline. International expansion resumed (with more than 15 million participants at the yearly memorial in 2004), and the bureaucratization process continued. In 1976 the Witnesses started adopting a rotating presidency among the members of the governing body, the spiritual presiding body of the organization, thus further deemphasizing the presidency’s charisma which had been so crucial in the Russell and Rutherford eras. In October 2000, after Milton Henschel (1920-2003) had succeeded Frederick Franz (l893-1992) as president of the Watch Tower Society, all members of the governing body voluntarily stepped aside from the board of directors of that Society, thus separating the spiritual from the administrative governance of the Witnesses.

In the late 1990s, renewed discrimination in countries such as Russia and France (where the Witnesses were involved in campaigns against so called ”cults” and ”sects”) led to what Pau line Côte and James Richardson (2001: 14) called a ”deformation” or ”reconfiguration” of the group’s relationships with the external world. The two sociologists believe that external pressure, including persecution and legal harassment, may cause important changes in religious organizations. In other words, even when groups successfully resist pressure, how exactly they resisted may involve significant internal changes. In the cases of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Celte and Richardson report a first phase of ”disciplined litigation” during and immediately after the Rutherford era. In the face of sustained legal discrimination, prominent Witnesses leader and lawyer Hayden Cooper Covington (1911-79) both reacted through any available legal means, and counseled the Witnesses to avoid the most abrasive slogans against ”big business,” politics, and other religions, which would not have fared well in courts of law. The introduction of ”theocratictact” showed how legal strategy contributed to mainstreaming the Witnesses after World War II (Zygmunt 1977).

However, after they had scored important victories before the US Supreme Court and other jurisdictions, the Witnesses did not continue with the ”disciplined litigation” strategy and even appeared concerned not to lose their distinctiveness. Similar processes of backing off from what may be perceived as a too rapid integration into the religious mainstream have been described by Mauss (1994) with respect to the Mormons, and defined as ”retrenchment.” These retrenchment strategies may be very successful in terms of church growth because, as Stark and Iannaccone (1997: 152-3) have argued precisely with reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses, keeping the ”strict” features of the group may both reduce the number of free riders and make a movement more attractive to the large conservative niche of the religious market.

In the case of the Witnesses, a certain retrenchment in the 1960s involved the closing in 1963 of the movement’s in house legal office, which had served as an important tool for contacts with religious liberty advocates and other religious groups, although limited to legal issues rather than involving ecumenical dialogue. However, renewed attacks led to the reopening of the legal office in 1981 and the emergence in the 1990s of a new strategy that Cote and Richardson (2001: 11) have defined as ”vigilant litigation.” Court cases are now used to prove to opponents, the media, and the members themselves that the Witnesses’ lifestyle should no longer be regarded as marginal or controversial but is part of the mainline, although their theology remains unique. Law and the courts have thus been consciously used as a vehicle for moving toward the mainstream, although the results in countries like Russia or France remain quite uncertain.


  1. Beckford, J. A. (1975) The Trumpet of Prophecy: A Sociological Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Wiley, New York.
  2. Cote, P. & Richardson, J. T. (2001) Disciplined Litigation, Vigilant Litigation, and Deformation: Dramatic Organization Change in Jehovah’s Wit­nesses. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40(1): 11 25.
  3. Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956) When Prophecy Fails. University of Minne­sota Press, Minneapolis.
  4. Mauss, A. L. (1994) The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
  5. Melton, J. G. (1985) Spiritualization and Reaffirma­tion: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails. American Studies 26(2): 17 29.
  6. Singelenberg, R. (1989) ”It Separated the Wheat from the Chaff:” The ”1975” Prophecy and its Impact on Dutch Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sociologi­cal Analysis 50: 23 40.
  7. Stark, R. & Iannaccone, L. R. (1997) Why the Jeho­vah’s Witnesses Grow So Rapidly: A Theoretical Application. Journal of Contemporary Religion 12: 133 57.
  8. Zygmunt, J. R. (1977) Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USA, 1942 1976. Social Compass 24(1): 45 57.

Back to Sociology of Religion