At some point during the late 1980s Jehovah’s Witnesses published their 10-billionth (10,000,000,000th) piece of literature. It took more than one hundred years to produce all those books, booklets, magazines, and tracts since the first Watch Tower magazine rolled off the press in the summer of 1879, but the next 10 billion pieces of literature may take little more than a decade, if the sect continues to grow at its present rate.
With a twice-monthly printing in excess of 16 million copies per issue, The Watchtower magazine now approaches the circulation of such all-time favorites as Reader’s Digest and T.V. Guide and easily outsells the combined total of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report.
The 1991 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses reports more than eleven thousand full-time factory and office workers (up from five thousand in 1980). The January 1, 1993 Watchtower reports nearly 4.5 million active participants in the work of distributing literature from house to house worldwide. Some 11.5 million people are to be found at kingdom halls studying Watchtower literature.
Compared with a half-billion Muslims or Hindus or Roman Catholics, the Jehovah’s Witness sect is still very small, but its influence is way out of proportion to its numbers. Indeed, in many lands nearly the entire population receives visits from the Witnesses, and they produce enough literature to supply most of the world. In fact, that is precisely their aim: to reach everyone on earth with “this good news of the kingdom” (Matt. 24:14 New World Translation).
But in quoting Matthew 24:14 or reading it aloud, Jehovah’s Witnesses will often put their vocal emphasis on the word this rather than on good news or kingdom. They are making the point that the good news or gospel they are preaching is “this good news,” different from what others have preached over the centuries since Christ:
The Kingdom witnessing of Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1914 has been something far different from what Christendom’s missionaries have published both before and since 1914. “Different”—how so? … the preaching of this good news of the Messianic kingdom as having been established in the heavens in 1914. (The Watchtower, October 1, 1980, pp. 28–29)
Briefly, “this” good news or gospel is the teaching that Jesus Christ (who is not deity, in JW theology, but the first created angel) returned invisibly in 1914 and put the Watchtower organization in charge of his interests, pending the battle of Armageddon, during which he will soon destroy everyone else on earth and leave only Jehovah’s Witnesses alive to transform the planet into paradise.
The problem with “this” gospel is that it is not the original one preached by the twelve apostles. So these words of Paul apply:
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8 kjv)
Since the abundance of literature produced and circulated around the world by Jehovah’s Witnesses is devoted to spreading another gospel, one different from the biblical gospel of Christ, those lured into distributing this material are in a dangerous position.
In view of the fact that JW literature is the chief means of propagating this false gospel, Christians engaged in defending the faith cannot afford to be ignorant of the books and magazines being delivered to their doors and to the doors of their relatives, friends, and neighbors. As Paul quoted Greek altar inscriptions and “your own poets” when he talked to the men of Athens, we may find it helpful to be familiar with what the Watchtower has written when we talk with Jehovah’s Witnesses (Acts 17:23, 28). But, since the sheer volume of such material is overwhelming, a guide to Jehovah’s Witness literature is needed. This book is intended to meet that need.
“The special messenger to the last Age of the Church was Charles T. Russell, born February 16, 1852. He has privately admitted his belief that he was chosen for his great work from before his birth.” Thus begins a brief biographical sketch of the founder of the Jehovah’s Witness sect in Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 7, The Finished Mystery (1917 edition, p. 53). The 1918 Karatol edition of this same work lists “The Seven Messengers to the Church” as “St. Paul, St. John, Arius, Waldo, Wycliffe, Luther, Russell” (p. 64). These remarks explain the importance attached to Russell’s writings by those who rank him with the apostles Paul and John.
How did he make the move from membership in a mainline denomination to leadership of a new sect that today draws 11.5 million followers to its meetings? The Finished Mystery goes on to quote from autobiographical remarks Russell published in The Watchtower:
We begin the narrative at the year 1868, when the Editor, having been a consecrated child of God for some years, and a member of the Congregational Church and of the Y.M.C.A., began to be shaken in faith regarding many long accepted doctrines. Brought up a Presbyterian, indoctrinated from the catechism, and being naturally of an inquiring mind, I fell a ready prey to the logic of infidelity, as soon as I began to think for myself. But that which at first threatened to be the utter shipwreck of faith in God and the Bible, was, under God’s providence, overruled for good, and merely wrecked my confidence in human creeds and systems of Bible interpretations.… for the first time, I heard something of the views of Second Adventism, by Jonas Wendell, long since deceased. Thus I confess indebtedness to Adventists as well as to other Bible students.1
Early in 1876 Russell came into possession of a copy of the Second Adventist magazine The Herald of the Morning, published by N.H. Barbour of Rochester, New York. Spiritual descendants of the Millerites, who had expected Christ’s return in 1844, the Second Adventists had expected the second coming to occur in 1874, but were likewise disappointed. Barbour, however, refused to accept such a disappointment; he chose instead to proclaim that Christ did indeed return in 1874, only invisible to human eyes. He based his argument on Benjamin Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott, a Greek interlinear New Testament in which the translator, a member of the Church of God (Faith of Abraham), rendered Christ’s coming at Matthew 24:27, 37, and 39 as presence, which Barbour interpreted as an invisible presence.
Meeting with Barbour in Philadelphia, Russell offered him badly need
ed financial backing, in exchange for which he was added to the staff of the Second Adventist magazine The Herald of the Morning as an assistant editor. And the following year, at the age of twenty-five, Russell helped Barbour complete and publish a book called Three Worlds, or Plan of Redemption.
A couple of years later, however, Russell came into conflict with Barbour over the doctrine of Christ’s ransom. Intent on publishing his own views, Russell resigned his post as an assistant editor of The Herald of the Morning and in July 1879 released the first issue of his own religious magazine, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence. He took with him a number of Second Adventist followers who believed that “Pastor Russell took the place of Mr. Barbour who became unfaithful and upon whom was fulfilled the prophecies of Matthew 24:48–51 and Zechariah 11:15–17.”2
Zion’s Watch Tower served as the rallying point for followers Russell accumulated through his dynamic public speaking in city after city. And when he began to write a series of books outlining his theology, the magazine proved to be an effective advertising medium. Not merely a writer and preacher, however, Russell was also an apt organizer and administrator. During 1879 and 1880 he organized “some thirty congregations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, Ohio and Michigan,” personally visiting each group of Watch Tower subscribers (1975 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 39). His aim was to gather not passive audiences but active preachers and distributors of his materials. “Are you preaching?” asked Zion’s Watch Tower of July–August, 1881 (p. 241, reprints). “We believe that none will be of the little flock except preachers,” was the motivating follow-up to the question. Thus in 1881, when his committed followers numbered only around one hundred, Russell was able to distribute 1,400,000 copies of his tract “Food for Thinking Christians” at the doors of Protestant churches across the United States, Canada, and Britain.
Some expected the movement to fade away when the world failed to end in 1914 as predicted. Russell himself died suddenly two years after the prophetic failure, but his successors Joseph Franklin Rutherford and later Nathan Homer Knorr took the organization Russell left behind and built it into a worldwide publishing empire. From a few thousand Watch Tower readers meeting in largely independent, democratically run congregations, the sect has been transformed into a tightly-knit hierarchical organization that controls the lives of 11.5 million people and influences millions more.
All books and magazines are, of course, expressions of their authors. So the first thing that strikes many readers about recent Jehovah’s Witness literature is that no author is listed. Since the early 1940s all literature published by the Watchtower Society has been anonymous, with the rare exception of small personal testimony articles “contributed by” or “as told by” the individual discussed. In fact, the authorship of Watchtower publications is such a closely guarded secret that the few disclosures that have been made public have been revealed by “apostate” ex-Witnesses, persons whom loyal JWs are forbidden to speak to and whose works they are forbidden to read.
But it was not always that way. The sect’s founder and first president, Charles Taze Russell, published all of his books and articles in his own name. In fact, it was his personal name that attracted readers and lecture audiences long before the organizational names Watchtower or Jehovah’s Witnesses became well known. Commenting on this today the sect’s current leadership accuses Russell’s followers of “exalting creatures, indulging in a personality cult that focused on Charles T. Russell” (The Watchtower, May 1, 1989, p. 4).
Although lacking Russell’s charm and wit, his successor, Joseph Franklin (“Judge”) Rutherford, likewise published books and articles in his own name. Often characterized as rough and stern compared with his predecessor, he put greater emphasis on “the Society” and “the organization” to secure the organizational loyalty of followers not attracted by his personality. Taking control following Russell’s death in 1916, he pledged that “the policies which Brother Russell inaugurated I will attempt to carry forward” (The Watchtower, January 15, 1917, p. 6034, reprints). But, in fact, he steered the organization in a different direction altogether, and the literature produced prior to his own death in 1942 bears the distinct stamp of his character.
The third president, Nathan Homer Knorr, was reputed to be more of an administrator than a theologian. In fact, insiders who later defected from the group credit Frederick W. Franz (who eventually became president in 1977) with guiding the organization’s doctrinal development during Knorr’s administration. But neither Franz’s name nor Knorr’s appears as author on any Watchtower literature.
Although outsiders may initially see Jehovah’s Witness publications as a monolithic library upholding a unique doctrinal perspective, closer inspection reveals considerable fluctuation in belief over the years. Much like a collection of White House news releases written during successive Democratic and Republican administrations, the Watchtower Society’s books and magazines reflect the sect’s changing leadership over the years. Publications produced under Russell’s presidency, for example, contain repeated references to the Great Pyramid of Egypt, promoting it as “God’s Stone Witness and Prophet.”1 During the first years of Rutherford’s administration, while he was still consolidating power, the teaching remained essentially the same: “The great Pyramid of Egypt, standing as a silent and inanimate witness of the Lord, is a messenger; and its testimony speaks with great eloquence concerning the divine plan.”2 But, after gaining firm control of the organization, Rutherford reversed the teaching, causing The Watch Tower to say the exact opposite of what it had been saying only three years earlier. It now identified the Great Pyramid as “Satan’s Bible, and not God’s stone witness.”3 And it attacked “those who have devoted themselves to the pyramid,” accusing them of “being led by vain philosophy and false science and not following after Christ.”4 This completely ignored the fact that “those” had received such teaching from the Watch Tower Society itself over a period of some fifty years.
Perhaps the most violent clash among the leaders responsible for Watchtower literature took place at the beginning of Rutherford’s presidency, when he had his helper A.H. Macmillan call the police into the Brooklyn headquarters offices. A policeman “twirling a long night
stick around in his hand” was used by Rutherford to forcibly remove Governing Body members who sought to limit his authority—“four of them, which was a majority of the board. There were seven on the board.”5 The result of such tactics was that, although Russell had left behind instructions for a committee to run the organization’s publishing operations, Rutherford seized personal control.
Named as a co-defendant in a libel suit brought by a former headquarters staff member, Fred Franz was questioned on the witness stand before the New York supreme court in 1940 as to who “became the Editor of the magazine, the main editor of the ‘Watch Tower’ magazine?” Fred Franz replied, “Jehovah God.” Then, after further questioning produced evasive replies as to the humans responsible for the magazine’s contents, the presiding judge asked Franz, “Who had the final say?” He then admitted that “Judge Rutherford supervised everything that went into the magazine, sir.”6
Following the strongman presidencies of Russell and Rutherford the Watchtower organization began a slow transition toward more collective leadership. Changes in teaching during the successive administrations of Nathan Homer Knorr and Frederick W. Franz often resulted from power struggles among their underlings at Brooklyn headquarters. Thus there was a softening of the sect’s stand on several issues during the mid-to-late 1970s while Raymond Franz (President Fred Franz’s nephew) and his liberal associates wielded influence and wrote many of the books and magazine articles. But conservatives rallied early in 1980, put several of the liberals on trial before “judicial committees,” and expelled them as “apostates.”7Time of February 22, 1982, devoted a full page to the purge after it culminated in the expulsion of Raymond Franz himself (p. 66). This shift in power at the top was reflected by a dramatic reversal in teaching as new Watchtower publications began once again to proclaim views that had been espoused earlier but that were rejected during the liberal period. For example, the September 15, 1981, Watchtower reinstituted strict excommunication policies that had been rejected as “extreme”8 in the August 1, 1974, issue of the same magazine.
One can only guess at the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering at Brooklyn headquarters that caused repeated flip-flops on the question of whether or not the men of Sodom and Gomorrah will be resurrected. The answers given in Watchtower publications are as follows:
1. Yes. The Watchtower, July, 1879, p. 8
2. No. The Watchtower, June 1, 1952, p. 338
3. Yes. The Watchtower, August 1, 1965, p. 479
4. No. The Watchtower, June 1, 1988, p. 31
5. Yes. You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (1982 edition), p. 179
6. No. Revelation—Its Grand Climax at Hand! (1988), p. 273
7. Yes. Insight on the Scriptures, vol. 2, 1988, p. 985
8. No. You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (1989 revision), p. 179
Introduced in the June 1, 1988, Watchtower magazine, the latest reversal evidently caught the press run for Revelation—Its Grand Climax at Hand! but missed being incorporated into the more complex Insight on the Scriptures, so that Jehovah’s Witnesses who received both books at their convention that summer found that their new books contradicted each other. An additional problem surfaced when it was noticed that the 1982 book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (still in daily use as the basic text for indoctrinating new converts) taught the now out-of-favor affirmative answer on this matter of resurrection. So, a revised edition was printed with this doctrine reversed, and Jehovah’s Witnesses with existing copies were encouraged to pencil in the change:
Some adjustments will be made in future printings of the Live Forever book. The only significant change is with regard to the Sodomites, on pages 178 and 179. This change appeared in the Revelation book, page 273, and in The Watchtower of June 1, 1988, pages 30 and 31. You may wish to note it in earlier printings that you have on hand. (“Announcements,” Our Kingdom Ministry, December 1989, p. 7)
The 11.5 million people who attend JW kingdom halls and who read these publications are taught to view such changes not as the product of shifts in majority opinion at headquarters but as “new light” or “new truths” from God. (This view of the resurrection reversal was facilitated by the fact that the vast majority of Witnesses had converted to or grown up in the organization after 1965, so most were not aware that the new truth of 1988 had been taught between 1952 and 1965 until it was rejected then as error.) Whenever this sort of reversal occurs, a small number of JWs leave the organization after discovering that their doctrines derive from back-room politics rather than divine revelation; but, since such ones are punished severely with mandatory shunning by family and friends, it is impossible to guess how many others see through the charade but keep silent as did those in the tale of the emperor’s new clothes.9
In any case, it is important to locate a Watchtower Society book or magazine in its proper organizational and historical setting to understand it and its relationship to Jehovah’s Witnesses today and their current beliefs. A change in administration at Watchtower headquarters, or even the passing of a year, can mean an entirely different context. Therefore, this Guide groups the literature under the organization’s presidents and arranges it chronologically within that grouping.
While this book was in production, fourth Watchtower president Frederick W. Franz passed away at the age of ninety-nine. Franz was the guiding force behind JW literature for some fifty years, from the death of “Judge” Rutherford in 1942 until now. But his longevity protected his doctrine from replacement long after much of it went past its shelf life and began to spoil. Current Watchtower books are filled with details claiming fulfillment of Bible end-times prophecies upon Franz’s generation, with only the battle of Armageddon remaining—to occur before that generation passes away.
It had been expected that “the battle of Armageddon will be all over by the autumn of 1975,” with a possible “difference of weeks or months, not years” (The Watchtower, August 15, 1968, p. 499). But weeks and months have indeed stretched into years, and now Franz, one of the last remaining members of the final “generation” has died. The “Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world before the generation that saw the events of 1914 passes away,” found on page 4 of each Awake! magazine as recently as the issue of April 8, 1993, is obviously overdue for replacement.
Franz was succeeded by long-time vice president Milton G. Henschel. No new books have yet been published under his presidency, but the JWs writing them face the formidable task of leading the sect in a new direction while maintaining some semblance of continuity with the existing volumes of Jehovah‘s Witness literature catalogued here.
© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.