Abstract. The author argues that sociological and economic theories do not adequately explain the changes in the structure of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society through time. The history of the Society’s organization is traced from its inception to the present day, and is divided into five broad phases: (1) The C. T. Russell era, in which the Society was set up for the distribution of publications, with loosely organized Bible Students; (2) J. F. Rutherford’s leadership, under which the name ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ was assumed, with consolidation and closely structured centralized organization; (3) the period under Nathan H. Knorr, where the organization became referred to as the ‘new world society’ and prepared for the expected paradise on earth, with emphasis on the ‘great crowd’ (i.e. those who do not belong to the 144,000 anointed ones); (4) further restructuring in the 1970s through to the 1990s, when further power was given to the great crowd, after the 1975 eschatological expectations were unfulfilled; (5) the 2000 restructuring, as a result of which the Society’s new President no longer belongs to the anointed class, and where the Governing Body became separated from the legally constituted Board of Directors. Although the 144,000 are dwindling in numbers, and most of them are ageing, the author argues that the Society can continue its policy of replenishing the Governing Body indefinitely. However, more importantly, the Witnesses have made changes for definite theological reasons, and are actively seeking to create an organization that will maintain continuity through Armageddon to the earthly paradise, which will be theocratically governed.
The Watch Tower Society possesses all the features of a multi-national organization. With over nearly 100,000 congregations, 6.6 million house-to-house ‘publishers’, some 16.5 million attendees at its annual Memorial, and its standardized publication The Watchtower, available in 154 languages, the Society operates as a single unit, worldwide. As Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves have noted, The Watchtower publication Revelation Its Grand Climax At Hand! describes Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘the only truly united multinational organization on earth today’ (Watchtower, 1988: 122-23).
Students of religion have typically appropriated Weber’s models for explaining the development of religious organizations, claiming that they develop from charismatic leadership, through routinization, to institutionalization. Economists identify the reasons for multinational operation as the attempt to ensure the maximization of market share and profits, economies of scale, and other corporate interests. In this article I shall argue that these models do not adequately explain the evolution of the Watch Tower organization, and that one has to understand its structure as an earthly necessity arising from its theological position.
Commercial reasons cannot feature in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ thinking about organizational structures, since commerce is one of the three aspects of Babylon the Great, the world system that is ruled by Satan and opposed to Jehovah, and which consists of false religion, earthly government, and commerce. The last of this trio was a characteristic of ancient Babylon, the origin of all false religion, and whose fall is viewed as a divine judgment. Moreover, commerce represents greed, oppression, individual and national self-interest, and exploitation of the weak.
Jehovah’s Witnesses expect an imminent eschaton, resulting in the 144,000 anointed class, governed by God and Jesus Christ, and who will rule with them, with dominion over the paradise on earth, which will be enjoyed by the ‘great crowd’ of Christ’s followers, who are described in the Book of Revelation. The restoration of this paradise will not be instantaneous, however. Battle of Armageddon must first occur, in which Satan will be defeated, together with the earthly powers of Babylon the Great: false religion, earthly government, and materialism. Only Jehovah’s organization will remain to enjoy Christ’s thousand-year rule, during which the dead will be raised and the earth restored. There is therefore continuity between the Watch Tower organization and the expected new world, and hence it is necessary for Jehovah’s multinational organization to prepare itself for its expected future.
This is not quite as straightforward as it sounds, however. During the earth’s current pre-millennial period, the Watch Tower Society has to reside in the midst of earthly governments, and be subject to the laws of rulers, who are acting under Satan’s authority. Although this does not entail that the Society itself obeys Satan, earthly requirements of legal incorporation, boards of directors, share-holding, and voting, are all aspects of multinational organization that are inappropriate to a society that accepts theocratic rule. I therefore wish to explore some of the tensions that these aspects of earthly organization have caused for the Society, and how they have been progressively resolved, in the course of the developments in Watch Tower theology and the Society’s structure.
Phase 1: The Russell era
The first phase of the society was as a small group of Bible students centering on Charles Taze Russell. Previously a spiritual seeker, Russell attended a lecture by the Adventist Wendell, and believed that he had discovered the truth. His response consisted in assembling a group of like-minded men, who became known as the Bible Students, and who met regularly to study the scriptures. Russell’s brand of Adventism was promoted through pamphlets and tracts, the best known of which is Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of God’s Presence, and the Watchtower magazine was then known.
Zion’s Watch Tower was received by a number of Adventists, both individuals and congregations. For this purpose Russell established his own premises for printing and distribution Bible House, a four-storey building in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, which was completed in 1880, with printing facilities and meeting accommodation, and this became the organization’s first headquarters. Legal incorporation was the next stage, and Russell set up Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society in 1884, the stated purpose of which was ‘the dissemination of Bible Truths in various languages by means of the publication of tracts, pamphlets, papers and other religious documents’.
At this early stage in Watch Tower history, the Society had no aspirations to be Jehovah’s exclusive organization on earth. Russell’s Bible students were simply another Adventist group, who did not teach that they offered the sole means of salvation. His followers regarded themselves as ‘anointed ones’, who could expect everlasting life in heaven as part of the 144,000 mentioned in the Book of Revelation, but not exclusively so. At the end of the age, the earth would remain: unlike some other Adventist groups, Russell did not teach that the earth would be burnt. The Society’s Charter named seven directors: their period of office had no time limit, and they were accorded the power to fill any vacancies that arose through death or resignation. The Society’s shareholders would elect its office-bearers (president, vice-president and secretary-treasurer) from this board. Anyone was entitled to become a shareholder on payment of ten dollars per share, and no limit was set to the number of shares, and hence votes, that any individual possessed. Russell himself held most of the shares, however, and hence controlled the organization.
During the Russell period, there was really no conception that the earthly community of Bible students should replicate the state of the coming kingdom. They were all ‘anointed ones’, members of the 144,000, who could expect to experience Christ’s heavenly rule in heaven after death, or else be translated into heaven at the appointed times regarded variously as 1878, 1914, and 1919. There was no understanding that it was only those who adhered to the Watch Tower organization that could expect to be translated into heaven.
Phase 2: Rutherford becomes the new President.
A number of issues caused changes in the Society’s structures under Rutherford. First, Rutherford’s early years in office witnessed a marked distancing between the Society and the rest of Christianity. This was largely due to the question of participation in World War I something to which Rutherford was opposed. Matters came to a head in 1917, when The Finished Mystery was published. This book purported to be a posthumous volume by Russell, but which was completed by George H. Fisher and Clayton J. Woodworth, under Rutherford’s supervision. The publication had two consequences. First, its anti-war stance caused Rutherford and several other Watch Tower leaders to be charged under the Espionage Act, for which they were imprisoned during the years 1918-1919. Rutherford believed that mainstream clergy were behind the arrests, and this period marks the beginning of the Society’s teaching that Christendom became apostate and is part of Babylon the Great.
The Finished Mystery had internal as well as external repercussions. There were those within the Society who believed that the book was a travesty of Russell’s teachings, and it should not have been published. A number of senior Watch Tower leaders withdrew from the Society at this juncture, founding their own groups, which sought to restore Russell’s teachings, shedding Rutherford’s innovations. Schisms went further, however. When Rutherford assumed office, the Watch Tower Society was in essence still a vehicle for disseminating literature. Its moves towards institutionalization consisted of the establishment of national branches, the first of which was the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, which had oversight of the preaching work in the U.S.A. Other branches were established in Britain, Germany and Australia in the early parts of the 20th century. The congregations which came under the aegis of the various branch headquarters were independent ecclesias (as they were called). All of them received Watch Tower Society literature, but did not necessarily study it systematically in their services. Rutherford wanted to ensure a greater uniformity among the Bible Students, with regard to literature distribution, governance and accountability. While many congregations complied, others refused to fall into line, and maintained their existence independently of the Watch Tower organization. In order to distinguish his own group from the schismatics, many of whom continued names alluding to Bible Students, Rutherford proposed a new name for the organization. At the 1931 convention in Columbus, Ohio, he gave a closing address, entitled ‘A New Name’, in which he stated they would now assume the name ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’.
‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ is no more than a name. It is not a legal entity like an incorporated company. However, this is precisely its strength: not being an earthly organization, it is not subject to the constraints of any earthly organization; it is a global gathering together of the faithful, and, most importantly, it is governed by Jehovah. Further, while Russell had placed outside his organization the faithful who would inherit the earth, Rutherford placed them inside, thus emphasizing the exclusive nature of Jehovah’s multi-national organization as the sole vehicle of the truth and the only means of salvation.
Now that the organization was stabilized, it moved into a period of renewed growth. This created a further problem, however. In Russell’s period it was believed that the Bible Students were a part of the 144,000 anointed ones who would rule with Christ, and he made no claim to exclusivity. Rutherford’s reorganized society, however, had a more prescriptive definition of the 144,000: they would be drawn from the early Church before its apostasy, Russell’s students who had maintained their allegiance, and the emergent Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although this limited the number of the faithful, the Watch Tower Society was moving to a point where its membership would be greater than 144,000. Rutherford’s method of addressing this problem was by reference to the notion of the ‘great crowd’ mentioned in the Book of Revelation. There had been a sizeable number of adherents to the organization, who attended conventions and assemblies, but who did not undertake all of the responsibilities of full membership, including the partaking of the emblems at the Memorial. At a convention in Washington D.C., Rutherford announced that they were that ‘great crowd’, and invited them all to stand, as a token of their recognition that they belonged to the class whose spiritual hopes were earthly, rather than heavenly. This action on Rutherford’s part might appear superficially to be a friendly gesture to the adherents. However, its implications reached much wider: Russell and other Adventists had spoken of the earthly class as being outside their communities, whereas Rutherford was now asserting that all those who would experience salvation heavenly or earthly were invariably inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization.
One significant issue that Rutherford addressed was the system of ‘elective elders’ within congregations. Until 1938 congregations were accustomed to electing their own leaders, and this practice had been justified by appealing to the early Church practice described in the Book of Acts, where it is stated that the appointment of elders and deacons was by ‘the stretching forth of the hand’ (Acts 14:23), which was taken to mean by a show of hands in a vote. A Watch Tower article in 1938, however, re-appraised this interpretation, contending that the phrase signified the laying on of hands, rather than an electoral process.
Phase 3: The Society under Nathan H. Knorr
Rutherford’s health had been failing, and he died on 8 January 1942. The appointment of his successor was swift and unanimous: on 13 January Nathan H. Knorr (1905-1977) was elected as President. Knorr is also noteworthy for his introduction of the expression ‘the new world society’ a phrase that continues to be used extensively among Jehovah’s Witnesses. This underscored the belief that the ‘great crowd’ had an important role to play, both in the Society, and in Jehovah’s plan of salvation. Jehovah’s Witnesses were striving not merely to bring more men and women into the truth, but to lay the foundations for the new earth that would come into being, as a renewed paradise, after the Battle of Armageddon. The anointed class remaining on earth was declining and the ‘great crowd’ increasing.
This change of balance raised an inevitable question. How could one ensure that Jehovah’s organization continued to be governed by the anointed ones, and that the great crowd did not exercise authority over them? The changes under Knorr’s presidency were designed to ensure the maintenance of power by the anointed. In the organization’s earlier years, the Society was defined as the anointed Christians, together with the Governing Body, which from a legal point of view was the Society’s Board of Directors. The system of appointing office-bearers in the Board was still dependent on shareholders’ voting. Knorr re-appraised this system, believing that the right to vote should not depend on members’ financial means. The new system that he devised, and which came into operation on 1 October 1945, was one whereby between 300 and 500 members of the incorporated society were directly appointed by the Board, and who had the right to vote for its office-bearers. Since the Board of Directors all belonged to the anointed class at that time, this ensured that control of the Society did not pass out of the hands of the 144,000.
Knorr introduced a further, less theologically-driven change in congregational affairs. Instead of a sole ‘congregation overseer’, a group of elders, with a rotating chairman, would henceforth be responsible for a congregation’s affairs. A new category of office-bearer was introduced the ministerial servant. Ministerial servants would assist the elders, where there were insufficient numbers, and they would deal with the material aspects of the congregation, such as financial account, keeping records, and organizing the house-to-house evangelism. This system facilitated the involvement of the ‘great crowd’, while enabling the anointed class to retain overall control.
Phase 4: Further changes in the 1970s and 1990s
The 1960s and early 1970s saw little by way of attempts to re-organize the Society, the only noteworthy change being an increase in the size of the Governing Body from seven to eleven members, with the total number being unlimited. The chairman would rotate annually, by alphabetical order of surname. Lack of significant organizational change can no doubt be explained by the expectation that 1975, held to the 6,000th year of creation, might result in some decisive eschatological event. When this failed to happen, it was apparent that Jehovah’s organization would probably remain on earth under Satan’s rule for some time. Accordingly, on 4 December 1975, it was decided that the Society’s work would be carried out by six committees: a Personnel Committee, a Publishing Committee, a Service Committee, a Teaching Committee, a Writing Committee, and a Chairman’s Committee. At Branch level, instead of a single branch overseer, each Branch would be governed by a committee of at least three and up to seven members, depending on its size, and with a rotating chairman.
As the relative proportions of the anointed and the earthly classes continued to shift, further adjustments were needed. The anointed class was dwindling in numbers, and many of those who survived were failing in health. In 1992, the decision was taken that the committees, previously consisting exclusively of the anointed, could be open to the great crowd, the one exception being the Chairman’s Committee, which included the chairman of the Governing Body, together with its past and future chairmen.
Phase 5: Changes in 2000
The year 2000 witnesses a further, highly significant, change in the Society’s organizational structure. President Milton G. Henschel had come to office in 1992, at the age of 72 years. (Even so, he was the second youngest of the Governing Body at the time; the average age was 82.) In 2000 Henschel resigned as president of the Board of Directors of both the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, together with the entirety of both boards of directors. The seven directors of the former were replaced by a different group of seven men, none of whom were members of the Governing Body. For the first time, we find a separation between the Governing Body and the Society’s Board of Directors. Three new legal corporations were created: the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Religious Order of Jehovah’s Witnesses; and the Kingdom Support Services. The first was to oversee religious and educational issues; the second dealt with personnel, principally Bethel staff, full-time pioneers and Branch officers; and the third for the Society’s property buildings and vehicles. The professed reason for the changes was to free the Governing Body to attend to its ‘ministry of Word’, without being preoccupied with the Society’s administrative affairs.
For the first time in the Society’s history, the new presidents of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York were not members of the anointed class: Don A. Adams (b.1926) heading the former, and Max H. Larson (b.1915) the latter. Their names are relatively unknown, even to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their taking office was not announced either in the Watchtower or in the Society’s Year Book. Although their roles are important administratively, they are not involved in formulating doctrine or planning the strategic policy of the Society’s work a task that is carried out by the (separate) Governing Body.
The issue of a seemingly ageing anointed class has also been addressed. Although theoretically the year 1935 marked the sealing of the anointed class, when Rutherford identified the great crowd, a recent Watchtower (2007) article explains that some past members of the anointed class may have become unfaithful to Jehovah, and their number subsequently replenished. This recognition is evidenced by the fact that, in contrast with the 1992 Governing Body, the present one has an average age of 68, not 82, and only two out of nine members were born before 1935.
The current system whereby the Society is governed by the anointed class is therefore capable of continuing indefinitely. However, if anointed class on earth dies out, this need not be a matter of serious concern for Jehovah’s Witnesses, since in the new world, which is awaited, God’s people will be governed from heaven by God and Christ, assisted by their 144,000 anointed ones, with the great crowd remaining on earth in the state of paradise that existed before sin entered the world.
My discussion has shown that the organization of the Watch Tower Society is not driven primary by economic considerations, and is not readily explained in terms of sociological theories concerning religions’ development. The continued restructuring of the Society is an enactment of its progressive doctrinal revisions, culminating in an organization that is ready for the new world government under Jehovah’s eternal rule.
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Anon (2000). ‘New Members of the Governing Body’. Watchtower, 1 January 2000, p.29.
Anon (2007). ‘Questions From Readers: “When does the calling of Christians to a heavenly hope cease?”’. Watchtower, 1 May 2007, pp.30-31.
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