In many conversations, when an area of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) teachings becomes unsupportable from a biblical perspective, the response from many JWs is, “Yes, but we have the fundamental teachings right”. I started asking many Witnesses just what are the fundamental teachings? Then later, I refined the question to: “What are the fundamental teachings unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses?” The answers to this question are the focus of this article. We will identify the teachings unique to JWs and in future articles evaluate them in greater depth. The key areas mentioned are as follows:

  1. God, his name, purpose and nature?
  2. Jesus Christ and his role in the outworking of God’s purpose?
  3. The doctrine of the Ransom Sacrifice.
  4. The Bible does not teach an immortal soul.
  5. The Bible does not teach eternal torment in hellfire.
  6. The Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God.
  7. The Kingdom is the only hope for mankind and it was established in 1914 in Heaven, and we are living in the end times.
  8. There will be 144,000 individuals chosen from earth to will rule with Jesus from heaven (Revelation 14:1-4), and the rest of mankind will live in a paradise on earth.
  9. God has one exclusive organisation and the Governing Body (GB), who fulfil the role of the “Faithful and Discreet Slave’ in the parable in Matthew 24:45-51, are guided by Jesus in their decision making. All teachings can only be understood through this ‘channel’.
  10. There will be a global preaching work focusing on the Messianic Kingdom (Matthew 24:14) established since 1914, to save people from the coming war of Armageddon. This major work is accomplished through the door-to-door ministry (Acts 20:20).

The above are the main ones that I have encountered in various conversations over a period of time. It is not an exhaustive list.

Historical Context

JWs came out of the Bible Student movement started by Charles Taze Russell and a few others in the 1870s. Russell and his friends were influenced by “Age to Come” believers, Second Adventists stemming from William Miller, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, and a range of other groups. In order to distribute the message that these Bible students had discerned from their study of the Scriptures, Russell formed a legal entity to enable the distribution of literature. This later became known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS). Russell became the first President of this Society.[i]

After Russell’s death in October, 1916, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (Judge Rutherford) became the second President. This led to 20 years of doctrinal changes and power struggles, resulting in over 75% of the Bible students who associated with Russell leaving the movement, estimated at 45,000 people.

In 1931, Rutherford created a new name for those remaining with him: Jehovah’s Witnesses. From 1926 to 1938, many of the teachings from Russell’s time were abandoned or revised beyond recognition, and new teachings added.  Meanwhile, the Bible Student movement carried on as a loose association of groups where differing points of view were tolerated, but the teaching of the “Ransom for All” being the one point where there was complete agreement. There are many groups spread around the world, and numbers of believers are difficult to obtain, as the movement is not focused or interested in believer statistics.

Theological Development

The first area to consider is: Did Charles Taze Russell introduce new doctrines from his study of the Bible?

This can be clearly answered by the book Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom[ii] in chapter 5, pages 45-49 where it clearly states that different individuals influenced and taught Russell.

“Russell referred quite openly to the assistance in Bible study he had received from others. Not only did he acknowledge his indebtedness to Second Adventist Jonas Wendell but he also spoke with affection about two other individuals who had aided him in Bible study. Russell said of these two men: ‘The study of the Word of God with these dear brethren led, step by step, into greener pastures.’ One, George W. Stetson, was an earnest student of the Bible and pastor of the Advent Christian Church in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.”

“The other, George Storrs, was publisher of the magazine Bible Examiner, in Brooklyn, New York. Storrs, who was born on December 13, 1796, was initially stimulated to examine what the Bible says about the condition of the dead as a result of reading something published (though at the time anonymously) by a careful student of the Bible, Henry Grew, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Storrs became a zealous advocate of what was called conditional immortality—the teaching that the soul is mortal and that immortality is a gift to be attained by faithful Christians. He also reasoned that since the wicked do not have immortality, there is no eternal torment. Storrs traveled extensively, lecturing on the subject of no immortality for the wicked. Among his published works was the Six Sermons, which eventually attained a distribution of 200,000 copies. Without a doubt, Storrs’ strong Bible-based views on the mortality of the soul as well as the atonement and restitution (restoration of what was lost due to Adamic sin; Acts 3:21) had a strong, positive influence on young Charles T. Russell.”

Then under the sub heading, “Not as New, Not as Our Own, But as the Lord’s” (sic), it goes on to state:

“C. T. Russell used the Watch Tower and other publications to uphold Bible truths and to refute false religious teachings and human philosophies that contradicted the Bible. He did not, however, claim to discover new truths” (Boldface added.)

It then quotes Russell’s own words:

“We found that for centuries various sects and parties had split up the Bible doctrines amongst them, blending them with more or less of human speculation and error . . . We found the important doctrine of justification by faith and not by works had been clearly enunciated by Luther and more recently by many Christians; that divine justice and power and wisdom were carefully guarded tho not clearly discerned by Presbyterians; that Methodists appreciated and extolled the love and sympathy of God; that Adventists held the precious doctrine of the Lord’s return; that Baptists amongst other points held the doctrine of baptism symbolically correctly, even tho they had lost sight of the real baptism; that some Universalists had long held vaguely some thoughts respecting ‘restitution.’ And so, nearly all denominations gave evidence that their founders had been feeling after truth: but quite evidently the great Adversary had fought against them and had wrongly divided the Word of God which he could not wholly destroy.”

The chapter then gives Russell’s word on the teaching of bible chronology.

“Our work . . . has been to bring together these long scattered fragments of truth and present them to the Lord’s people—not as new, not as our own, but as the Lord’s. . . . We must disclaim any credit even for the finding and rearrangement of the jewels of truth.…The work in which the Lord has been pleased to use our humble talents has been less a work of origination than of reconstruction, adjustment, harmonization.” (Boldface added.)

Another paragraph that summarises what Russell accomplished through his work states: “Russell thus was quite modest about his accomplishments. Nevertheless, the “scattered fragments of truth” that he brought together and presented to the Lord’s people were free of the God-dishonoring pagan doctrines of the Trinity and immortality of the soul, which had become entrenched in the churches of Christendom as a result of the great apostasy. Like no one at that time, Russell and his associates proclaimed worldwide the meaning of the Lord’s return and of the divine purpose and what it involved.”

From the above, it becomes very clear that Russell did not have a new teaching from the Bible but gathered together the various understandings that agreed and often differed from the accepted orthodoxy of mainstream Christianity. Russell’s central teaching was the “ransom for all”. Through this teaching he was able to demonstrate that the Bible does not teach that man has an immortal soul, the concept of eternal torment in hellfire is not scripturally supported, God is not a trinity and that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, and salvation is not possible except through him, and that during the Gospel Age, Christ is selecting a “Bride” who will rule with him in the millennial reign.

In addition, Russell believed that he had managed to harmonise the Calvinistic view of pre-destination, and the Arminian view of universal salvation. He explained the ransom sacrifice of Jesus, as buying back all of mankind from slavery to sin and death. (Matthew 20:28) This did not mean salvation for all, but an opportunity for a “trial for life”. Russell viewed that there was a ‘class’ that were predestined to be the “Bride of Christ” who would rule over the earth. The individual members of the class were not predestined but would undergo the “trial for life” during the Gospel Age. The rest of mankind would undergo the “trial for life” during the millennial reign.

Russell created a chart called The Divine Plan of the Ages, and aimed to harmonise the teachings of the Bible. In this, he included the various Biblical doctrines, along with chronology created by Nelson Barbour based on William Miller’s work, and elements of Pyramidology.[iii] All of this is the basis of his six volumes called Studies in Scriptures.

Theological Innovation

In 1917, Rutherford was elected President of the WTBTS in a manner which caused a great deal of controversy. There were further controversies when Rutherford released The Finished Mystery which was meant to be the posthumous work of Russell and the Seventh Volume of Studies in Scriptures. This publication was a significant departure from Russell’s work on prophetic understanding and caused a major schism. In 1918, Rutherford released a book titled Millions Now Living Will Never Die. This set a date for the end to come by October 1925. After the failure of this date, Rutherford introduced a series of theological changes. These included a reinterpretation of the parable of the Faithful and Discreet Slave to mean all the anointed Christians on earth from 1927 onward.[iv] This understanding underwent further adjustments in the intervening years. A new name, “Jehovah’s witnesses” (at the time witnesses was not capitalized) was chosen in 1931 to identify the Bible Students associated with the WTBTS. In 1935, Rutherford introduced the “two-class” salvation hope. This taught only 144,000 were to be the “Bride of Christ” and rule with him from heaven, and that from 1935 the ingathering was OF the “other sheep” class of John 10:16, who were seen in vision as the “Great Multitude” in Revelation 7:9-15.

Around 1930, Rutherford changed the previously held date of 1874 to 1914 for Christ beginning his Parousia (presence). He also stated that the Messianic Kingdom had begun ruling in 1914. In 1935, Rutherford decided that the calling of “Bride of Christ” was completed and the focus of the ministry was gathering in the “Great Multitude or Other Sheep” of Revelation 7:9-15.

This created the idea that a separating work of “the sheep and the goats” were taking place since 1935. (Matthew 25:31-46) This separating was done on the basis of how individuals responded to the message that the Messianic Kingdom that had begun ruling in heaven since 1914 and that the only place where they would be protected was within “Jehovah’s Organisation” when the great day of Armageddon arrived. No explanation was provided for this change of dates. The message was to be preached by all JWs and the scripture in Acts 20:20 was the basis that the work had to be preached from door-to-door.

Each of these teachings are unique and came about through the interpretation of Scripture by Rutherford. At the time, he also claimed that since Christ returned in 1914, the holy spirit was no longer functioning but Christ himself was communicating with the WTBTS.[v] He never explained who this information was transmitted to, but that it was to the ‘Society’. Since he had absolute authority as President, we can conclude that the transmission was to himself as President.

In addition, Rutherford propagated the teaching that God has an ‘Organisation’.[vi] This was diametrically the opposite of Russell’s view.[vii]

Theology Unique to JWs

All of this draws us back to the question of teachings that are unique to JWs. As we have seen, the teachings from Russell’s time are not new or unique to any one denomination. Russell further explains that he gathered the various elements of truth and arranged them in a particular order that helped people grasp them better. So, none of the teachings from that period can be viewed as unique to JWs.

The teachings from Rutherford’s time as President, revised and changed many of the previous teachings from Russell’s era. These teachings are unique to JWs and are not found anywhere else. Based on this, the ten points listed at the beginning can be analysed.

The first 6 points listed are not unique to JWs. As stated in the WTBTS literature, they clearly state that Russell did not create anything new. The Bible does not teach the Trinity, the Immortality of the Soul, Hellfire and eternal torment, but rejection of such teachings is not  unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The last 4 points listed are unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses. These four teachings can be grouped under the following three headings:

1. Two Classes of Salvation

Two-class salvation consists of a heavenly calling for 144,000 and an earthly hope for the rest, the Other Sheep class. The former are children of God who will rule with Christ and are not subject to the second death. The latter can aspire to be friends of God and will be the foundation of the new earthly society. They continue as subject to the possibility of the second death, and must wait until the final test after the thousand years have ended to be saved.

2. The Preaching Work

This is the singular focus of JWs. This is seen in action through the preaching work. This work has two elements, the method of preaching and the message being preached.

The method of preaching is primarily the door-to-door ministry[viii] and the message is that the Messianic Kingdom has been ruling from the Heaven since 1914, and the War of Armageddon is imminent. All those on the wrong side of this war will be eternally destroyed and a new world will be ushered in.

3. God Appointed a Governing Body (Faithful and Discreet Slave) in 1919.

The teaching states that after Christ’s enthronement in 1914, he inspected the congregations on earth in 1918 and appointed the Faithful and Discreet Slave in 1919. This slave is a central authority, and its members see themselves as “the guardians of doctrine” for Jehovah’s Witnesses.[ix] This group claim that in Apostolic times, there was a central governing body based in Jerusalem that dictated doctrines and regulations for the Christian congregations.

These teachings can be viewed as unique to JWs. They are the most important ones in terms of regulating and dictating the lives of the faithful. In order to overcome the objection stated at the very beginning—“Yes, but we have the fundamental teachings right”—we need to be able to examine the Bible and WTBTS literature to show individuals whether the teachings are supported by the Bible.

The Next Step

This means that we need to analyse and critically review the following topics in greater depth in a series of articles. I have previously dealt with the teaching of where does the “Great Crowd of Other Sheep” stand, in heaven or on earth? The Messianic Kingdom being established in 1914 has also been addressed in various articles and videos. Therefore, there will be an examination of three specific areas:

  • What is the method of preaching? Does the scripture in Acts 20:20 actually mean door-to door? What can we learn about the preaching work from the Bible book, Acts of the Apostles?
  • What is the Gospel message to be preached? What can we learn from Acts of the Apostles and the Letters in the New Testament?
  • Did Christianity have a central authority or governing body in the first century? What does the Bible teach? What historical evidence is there for a central authority in early Christianity? We will examine early writings of the Apostolic Fathers, The Didache and also what early Christian historians say about this subject?

These articles will be written not to incite heated debates or tear down anyone’s faith (2 Timothy 2:23-26), but to provide scriptural evidence for individuals willing to meditate and reason.  This provides an opportunity for them to become children of God and to be Christ-centred in their lives.

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[i] The records actually show William H. Conley as the first President of the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania, and Russell as the Secretary Treasurer. For all intents and purposes Russell was the one who led the group and he replaced Conley as the President. The below is from www.watchtowerdocuments.org :

Originally established in 1884 under the name Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society. In 1896 the name was changed to Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Since 1955, it has been known as Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, Inc.

Previously known as Peoples Pulpit Association of New York, formed in 1909. In 1939, the name, Peoples Pulpit Association, was changed to Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Inc. Since 1956 it has been known as Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.

[ii] Published by WTBTS, 1993

[iii] There was an immense level of interest in one of the great wonders of the ancient world, the Great Pyramid of Gisa, throughout the 1800s. Various denominations viewed this Pyramid as possibly –

being built by Melchizedek and the “Stone Altar” mentioned Isaiah 19:19-20 as evidence of it giving a further witness to the Bible. Russell used the information and presented it in his “Divine Plan of the Ages” Chart.

[iv] From the start of Rutherford’s presidency in 1917, the teaching was Russell was the “Faithful and Discreet Slave”. This had been proposed by Russell’s wife in 1896. Russell never explicitly stated this but seem to accept it by implication.

[v] See Watchtower, 15 August, 1932, where under the article, “Jehovah’s Organization Part 1”, par. 20, it states: “Now the Lord Jesus has come to the temple of God and the office of the holy spirit as advocate has ceased. The church is not in a state of being orphans, because Christ Jesus is with his own.“

[vi] See Watchtower, June, 1932 articles titled “Organization Parts 1 and 2”.

[vii] Studies in Scriptures Volume 6: The New Creation, Chapter 5

[viii] It is often referred to as the house-to-house ministry and viewed by JWs as the primary method of spreading the Good News. See Organised to do Jehovah’s Will, chapter 9, subheading “Preaching from House to House“, pars. 3-9.

[ix] See sworn testimony of Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson before the Australia Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.