Apologist Joel Furches explores the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their central beliefs. Are they a Christian cult or just another denomination?

Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) have a unique relationship to Christianity in comparison to other religions. That relationship being that, while the majority of Christian sects throughout the world would consider JWs to be a completely different religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, or claim to believe, that they are just another denomination of Christianity.

Well known for their missionary practices, this is often how JWs represent themselves in evangelical encounters with Christians: we believe all of the same things that you do with a few minor disagreements.

Before we examine the ways in which JWs differ from the orthodoxy of classic Christianity, it is worth taking a brief look at the history of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.


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History of the Jehovah’s Witnesses

From its inception, the Jehovah’s Witness is a Millenarianism religion, meaning that they were founded and operate on the belief that there is a coming event, which is imminent and will fundamentally transform the world.

This transformative event was first predicted in the 1830s by William Miller, who said that Jesus would return to Earth in 1843 or perhaps 1844. The anticipation of Jesus’ return in these years was high within the Adventist Church in general. However, as the calendar continued to advance into the year 1845 with no Messiah apparent, the Adventist movement fractured.

In the 1870s, a leader of one of these factions, Charles Taze Russell, rescued the Adventist movement from its embarrassingly unfulfilled prophecies by modifying the Church’s doctrine on a few points. The first of these points was to look at the meaning of the Greek word ‘Parousia’ used in conjunction with predictions of Jesus’ second coming. A literal translation of this word in English would be ‘presence’. 

By suggesting that Jesus had returned to Earth in presence while not in body, Russell was able to explain away the several failed messianic prophecies. Although Russell said that the presence of Jesus had returned to Earth in the year 1874 – a 30 year modification to Miller’s original prophecy. This return of Christ’s presence to Earth had not fully ushered in the Millenium, however, and Russell predicted that Jesus would return bodily in the year 1914.

With the failure of Jesus to materialise in 1914, Russell and his followers made something of a hobby out of predicting the Second Coming, and circulated pamphlets and books with these predictions and Miller’s unique theologies under the title ‘The Watchtower’.

The Watchtower, its unusual theology and the sizable following it had gained transferred to the leadership of Joseph Franklin Rutherford in 1917. It was Rutherford that gave the movement the name ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’. The idea behind the naming was partly due to the fact that Rutherford insisted that the true name of God was ‘Jehovah’, and that his loyal followers would refer to him by this title alone. Further, Rutherford taught that the members of JW were specially chosen by Jehovah, and had as their sole duty to recruit other witnesses.

While Miller had made the doctrinal modifications which distinguished the JWs from orthodox Christian theology, Rutherford completed the job of distinguishing the JWs from the rest of Christendom and establishing the practices that made them what they remain to this day.

Of these practices, radical and aggressive evangelism is the most prominent and well known. While many churches are happy to send evangelists out to preach on street corners, Rutherford utilised the technology of the day to equip his ministers with portable phonographs from which his followers played his sermonettes in the open air.

Following Rutherford’s administration, the JWs transferred to the leadership of Nathan Homer Knorr in 1942. Knorr continued to organise and expand the movement, his most significant contribution being the formation of the Watch Tower Bible School of Gilead for the training of Jehovah’s Witness ministers and missionaries. Knorr also oversaw a re-translation of the Bible, which aligned in vocabulary and message with the beliefs and doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The JWs have remained remarkably consistent in practice and belief since Knorr’s administration.


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In order to make the distinction between Jehovah’s Witnesses and orthodox Christianity, it is worth defining some of the ideas that unite Christians from every sect and denomination.

The most basic of these is that Jesus was a real, historical person who died and then was resurrected, and that it is by way of belief in Jesus that one is reconciled with God.

Slightly more complex is the idea of the Trinity: that God is three persons in one being. The three persons being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is by no means simple, but at its most simplified, it says that Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit are equally divine without being separated.

Having established the essentials of Christian doctrine, Jehovah’s Witnesses would share many of the tertiary beliefs of orthodox Christianity, however their beliefs on the nature of the Trinity and salvation are what truly distinguish them from the rest of Christendom.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jehovah God is the most high being, distinct from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is an agent of Jehovah, and the first creation of God. Jesus occupies a position as the archangel of archangels; powerful, but not fully divine.

Like Christians, JWs believe that reconciliation with God comes through Jesus, but unlike Christians, they believe that the Holy Spirit is a power or active force of God within the world. The Holy Spirit is less a person and more a kind of power.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the human race is living in the end times, that Christ has already returned to Earth in power but not yet in body – an event which will happen at any moment. When that event does happen, Jesus will rule the Earth along with 144,000 hand-picked humans for eternity.

Salvation in the JW’s theology consists of simply acknowledging that Jehovah is God (by name). When Jesus returns, those who have done so will be part of the kingdom. Those who have not done so will go to hell. However, under Jehovah’s Witness theology, hell is a place of execution, not torture. When one goes to hell, one ceases to exist entirely.

Social practices

Jehovah’s Witnesses are separatists. This applies especially to social participation. The organisation tends to be extremely suspicious of governments in general. Consequently, they will refuse social expectations with respect to nationalism – refusing to salute the flag, say pledges, participate in voting, taking political offices, or participating in military drafts.

In fact, during the Second World War, JWs in Germany were sent to concentration camps due to their refusal to participate in German nationalism or the war.

JWs have also been known to refuse certain kinds of medical treatment, such as blood transfusions, for religious reasons.

Is Jehovah’s Witness a cult?

It is not uncommon for Christians to consider Jehovah’s Witness to be a Christian cult – maintaining some similar features to Christianity but disagreement on the fundamentals, most especially the divinity of Christ, which, since the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, has been held to be a position essential to all forms of Christianity.

The idea that Jehovah’s Witness is a cult was especially advocated by the 1965 book Kingdom of the Cults written by a Baptist minister and counter-cultist who put JWs and Mormons in the same category. That book remains in publication with several revisions over the years.

The definition of cult is difficult to peg down. Some of the features that most cults share are a charismatic leader around which the practice is organised, isolation from society and extremely counter-cultural practices. Since one may find Christians in positions of government, in academies, in the performing arts and in all stations of society, Christianity falls under the general definition of ‘religion’ and escapes the category of ‘cult’.

Cults are generally small groups, which would not apply to the JWs who have members worldwide. It can be argued that the first several chairmen of the Watch Tower Society were charismatic leaders around which the entire organisation was formed – and indeed the teachings of its original leaders are still part of the core curriculum that makes up the training for members. The organisation claims, however, that they do not worship or serve any chairman – current or former, but rather Jehovah alone.

The social isolation and nonparticipation of JWs does share features with known cults, as opposed to most Christians who hold to a sort of ‘two kingdoms’ theology, which permits both religious and social participation without conflict.

The features Christians regard as most cult-like are some of the extreme recruitment and dismissal tactics. Those unfortunate souls who have left participation in Jehovah’s Witness are frequently subject to total ostracisation – with friends and family shunning them, refusing to speak to or be in proximity with them.

While many sects of Christianity can be quite dogmatic about their beliefs, JWs rate as highly dogmatic in general.

One wishes to be cautious about the use of the term ‘cult’ in reference to sincere practitioners of religion. Cults are usually so-called because of some overt harm that they do. Aside from whatever spiritual harm Christians may believe their doctrines cause, the most common object of criticism aimed at JWs is their denial of certain life-saving medical treatments, such as blood transfusion, to children.

Christianity and Jehovah’s Witness

It is not unknown for orthodox Christians to hold a position similar to JWs in regards to hell. Known as ‘conditional immortality’ or ‘annihilationism’, this position suggests that individuals who go to hell are entirely destroyed and cease to exist, which superficially agrees with the JW position. While not the majority position of Christians, it is a position that has persisted for centuries among some Christians and is gaining in popularity today. So, this specific doctrine of hell is arguably heterodoxy at worst.

Squabbles about eschatology (end times) are not uncommon amidst many Christian churches. Whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses’ end-times beliefs are very specific and bizarre-seeming, even to extreme dispensationalists. They are, nevertheless, not grounds for refusal of membership into Christendom on most accounts.

Ultimately, what separates Jehovah’s Witnesses from the rest of Christendom is their doctrine of Christ. As mentioned earlier, in order to be considered Christian on most counts, one must believe that Jesus was a historical person who physically died, was buried (as a corpse) and resurrected. 

Jesus’ divinity has been established as orthodoxy since the 4th Century. It is this disagreement above all others which causes the greater part of Christendom to deny that Jehovah’s Witness is a Christian religion. 


Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.