Jehovah’s Witnesses are known in the community for going door-to-door to share their religion and hand out literature—but the group’s belief structure and history within the United States are much more complex, with roots dating back to more than a century ago.
The group’s central beliefs are structured around the idea that the world is facing impending doom and that those who aren’t a member of the religion will not survive the Armageddon while the faithful will go on to enjoy paradise on earth.
“Jehovah’s witnesses believe the earth is going to end and it’s going to end soon,” investigative reporter Trey Bundy said in a video made by Reveal, the web site for the Center for Investigative Reporting, about the group’s history. “They started predicting this more than a century ago.”
Bundy, who has been investigating allegations of sex abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, appears in the upcoming two-night Oxygen special “The Witnesses,” airing Saturday, Feb. 8 and Sunday, Feb. 9 at 7/6c, which takes a fresh look at the issue.
The religion was formed in the 1870s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—although initially group members were called “The Bible Students.” Bundy said the group was based on the teachings of Charles Taze Russell, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses have said that the organization began after a small group began to do a “systematic analysis” of the Bible.
While Russell was a part of that group and “took the lead” in the Bible education work, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consider him the religion’s founder.
“The goal of Russell and the other Bible Students, as the group was then known, was to promote the teachings of Jesus Christ and to follow the practices of the first-century Christian congregation,” the organization’s website said. “Since Jesus is the Founder of Christianity, we view him as the founder of our organization.”
The group first believed the world would end in 1914 and that the destruction that soon followed would mark the beginning of Armageddon. But when that didn’t come, members thought that their timeline had been off and that World War I was the start of the apocalypse, Bundy said.
When that also failed to be the end of world, Jehovah’s Witnesses began to believe that the world would end in 1975.
Mark O'Donnell later recalled to The Atlantic that after his parents were baptized into the religion just after he was born in 1968, he grew up believing the end of the world was imminent and was even encouraged by his parents not to attend college because of the dark prediction about the world’s fate.
“My parents basically told me, ‘You’re not even going to live to graduate from college,’” he said.
Although the 1975 prediction had passed, O'Donnell said members at the time then believed the world would end before the passing of the generation that was alive in 1914.
More than a hundred years after the first prediction was made, Jehovah’s Witnesses now believe the end of the world is imminent but no longer tie Armageddon to a specific date.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that whenever the world does come to an end, 144,000 members of the religion will be chosen to go to heaven and believe this is predicted in the Revelations chapter of the Bible. The 144,000 number comes from a prediction that 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel will be selected, according to Reveal.
The remaining Jehovah’s Witnesses—including those who died earlier and are resurrected—are expected to live in a paradise on earth, where animals and people will live their lives in harmony. Those who don’t prescribe to the religion’s beliefs will perish, the organization believes.
“Essentially, Armageddon is God's war to end wickedness. So that means that anyone who isn't following the true faith - which in Jehovah's Witness' mind is themselves - will be cut off, destroyed, leaving over in this paradise only the people who are abiding by God's laws, aka the Jehovah's Witness doctrine,” former Witness Amber Scorah said on an episode of “Fresh Air.”
Members of the group do not believe in celebrating holidays that honor people other than Jesus, including Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Halloween or their own birthdays, CTV reports.
They also don’t celebrate Christmas because Witnesses believe there is no proof Jesus was born on Dec. 25, and that some of the traditions incorporated into the present-day holiday, including Christmas trees and lights, have pagan roots.
Members also don’t serve in the military because they believe God is the leader of the true government. They don’t salute the flag or stand for national anthems.
“Since the governments of this world are not under God’s authority, Jehovah’s Witnesses see no reason to adhere or submit themselves to the authorities of the world, including government, the courts and police, especially when laws go against their beliefs,” André Gagné, a theological studies’ professor at Concordia University told CTV.
Today the Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate that there are nearly 8.6 million members across the world including more than 13,000 congregations in the United States.
The group is overseen by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, a nonprofit organization headquartered in New York.
Spreading the Word
A central aspect of the religion’s tenants has always been to pass on their beliefs to others. Russell often used pamphlets to get the group’s message out, while the Jehovah’s Witnesses later founded the radio station WBBR in New York, used custom-rigged sound cars with portable record players and made pioneering films to communicate with a larger audience.
“They made a religious film with synchronized sound ten years before Hollywood released its first commercial talkie,” Bundy said in the report from Reveal.
As technology has advanced, so has the group’s efforts to spread their message. In November of this year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses announced they had reached a “new milestone” and now have articles, videos and audio available in 1,000 different languages including 100 sign languages, according to a news release.
The group also continues to rely on less tech-savvy efforts such as going door-to-door to spread their message in person.
The practice is derived from Jesus’ followers’ earlier efforts to “make disciples of people of all the nations.” Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they are continuing on that mission.
“We follow the example of those early Christians and find that the door-to-door ministry is a good way to reach people,” the organization’s website said.
Bringing Reproach on Jehovah
While Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that adhering to the religion’s rules and philosophies will mean the believer can ultimately enjoy Heaven or paradise on earth—there can be harsh consequences for those who break the rules.
The organization frowns upon those who bring reproach—or disgrace or scorn—on Jehovah and urges members to avoid bringing reproach to God by avoiding any wrong doing, according to the Watchtower Online Library.
However, critics have questioned whether this and other positions held by the religion have protected child sexual abusers by keeping deeds secret.
Martin and Jennifer Haugh told The Philadelphia Inquirer last year that after seeing a teen in their congregation molesting their young daughter in a coat closet they wanted to go to the police but were warned by elders within the congregation.
“They said we would bring reproach on Jehovah’s name,” Martin told the paper.
In 2018, The Guardian reported it had been contacted by 100 people who claimed to have been victims of child sexual abuse and other abuse in Jehovah’s Witness communities in the United Kingdom. Many reported they were discouraged by elders to report the alleged abuse because of fear that they would bring “reproach on Jehovah.”
Members who commit acts that are not in line with the religion’s beliefs can also be disfellowshipped, a form of ex-communication that cuts the person off from other members.
Scorah, who wrote the book “Leaving the Witness,” said on “Fresh Air” that she had been disfellowshipped and shunned as a teenager after she had sex with her boyfriend. Her congregation made the announcement that she had been disfellowshipped at a congregation meeting and other members soon began to stop talking to her.
“Disfellowshipping was just a complete shunning of the sinner,” she said. “So what that effectively meant was that you lost your contact with your entire community, including your own family.”
Scorah was not even allowed to go to her father’s funeral—but said at the time she understood the decision.
"When my father died, it just gave me more impetus to want to go back to the faith," she said, adding that she knew it was “the only way I would see him again was if I were a Jehovah's Witness who survived Armageddon, because after Armageddon, the faithful would be resurrected to Earth, in our beliefs."
She was eventually allowed back into the religion after showing repentance by regularly attending meetings in the back row to show her faithfulness.
Leaders of the religion have said the organization does not require any one to cut off communication with disfellowshipped members and even encourages other members to reach out to those who have been disfellowshipped. Those who are disfellowshipped are also allowed to attend religious meetings and seek religious counsel, they said.
“We do not automatically disfellowship someone who commits a serious sin,” they wrote on their website. “If, however, a baptized Witness makes a practice of breaking the Bible’s moral code and does not repent, he or she will be shunned or disfellowshipped.”
However, former members have described being ostracized from the close-knit community.
Ali Bautista told The Sheboygan Press she was disfellowshipped at the age of 24 for having sex with a man she planned to marry. After being cut off from her friends and her family, she struggled with depression.
"I would wake up every day just not wanting to be alive," she told the paper. "My whole world was being a Jehovah's Witness."
She would eventually be allowed back into the religion after writing letters for 18 months. Fifteen years after she was allowed back in, she left the religion.
Those who don’t act in line with the religion’s teachings can also be marked an apostate—a term used in the community for someone who has abandoned or deserted their service to God.
Bautista earned the distinction after she began posting a series of YouTube videos that chronicled her difficulties with the religion. The organization decided to declare her an apostate because she had expressed doubts to other members about aspects of the religion.
More than a century after the religion began, those who remain devoted members continue to assert that the Bible and Jehovah are at the center of the decisions they make.
“As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we strive to adhere to the form of Christianity that Jesus taught and that his apostles practiced,” they said on jw.org.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Mark O'Donnell's name and misstated that his birth year was 1967. It is 1968.