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Whither the Watchtower?

An Unfolding Crisis for Jehovah's Witnesses

by David A. Reed


Newly installed Watchtower president Milton G. Henschel, 73, has inherited two major problems from his predecessor, Frederick W. Franz. When Franz died on December 22, 1992 at age 99 he left in power a Governing Body mostly in their 80s and 90s, who, in turn, are dying off without eligible successors. Franz also left in place an official dating system that pointed Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) to 1975 as the time Christ's millennial rule should have begun. Turning from these dead ends will require a major revision of JW beliefs. With new doctrine and new leadership up for grabs, Jehovah's Witnesses face the potential of severe internal upheaval.

Although it put him in charge of a corporation with real estate holdings in New York City alone valued at $186 million,[1] and comparable properties elsewhere, the appointment of Milton G. Henschel as president of the Watch Tower[2] Bible and Tract Society made few headlines. Even the Jehovah's Witness (JW) sect's principal magazine, The Watchtower, confined its mention of the new leader to a single sentence at the end of former president Frederick W. Franz's two-page obituary: "On December 30, 1992, Brother Milton G. Henschel was chosen as the Society's fifth president, to succeed Brother Franz."[3] But the switch in leadership is of immense significance to Witnesses, as it portends convulsive changes for the 11.5-million-strong[4] sect -- namely, doctrinal reversals and organizational restructuring on a magnitude not seen since the shakeup which followed the death of Watchtower founder Charles Taze Russell in 1916.


Russell, born in Pittsburgh in 1852 and raised a Presbyterian, was 16 years old and a member of the Congregational church when he came under the influence of Advent Christian Church preacher Jonas Wendell in 1868. Nearly a generation had passed since the "Great Disappointment" of 1844 when Christ failed to return as predicted by Baptist lay preacher William Miller, and the successors of the Millerite movement had regrouped and regained respectability as Second Adventists (a family of denominations including the Seventh-Day Adventists and such Sunday-sabbath observing groups as the Advent Christian Church and the Life and Advent Union). Now certain Adventists were pointing forward to another date, 1874, with the same expectations. But that year, too, came and went without the promised Second Advent.

Russell was still sharing fellowship with disappointed Adventists in 1876 when he learned that a small Adventist magazine, Herald of the Morning, was affirming that Christ did indeed return in the autumn of 1874 -- only invisibly -- and that believers would be raptured three-and-one-half years later in the spring of 1878. With money from his successful men's clothing store, Russell at age 24 provided financial backing for the struggling magazine. In return, publisher and editor Nelson H. Barbour of Rochester, New York, appointed him an assistant editor.

When the expected Rapture failed to occur, Barbour came up with "new light" on this and other doctrines. Russell, however, began opposing Barbour. In the summer of 1879 he made a formal break, using his nearly three years of experience with Herald of the Morning -- and a borrowed copy of Barbour's mailing list -- to start his own magazine, Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence.

Russell quickly repudiated the "Adventist" label and fashioned a distinct denomination of his own. Followers referred to themselves as "Bible Students" and named their organization the International Bible Students Association (IBSA), but outsiders called them "Russellites."

The Watch Tower and Russell's books retained much of Barbour's eschatological chronology, focusing on 1874 as the beginning of Christ's invisible "presence," and predicting other end-times events by calculating from that date. He also incorporated measurements of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh in his chronological calculations. Calling it "God's Stone Witness and Prophet, the Great Pyramid in Egypt," he figured a year for each inch of measurement in various internal passageways, and used these numbers to predict that believers would be raptured in 1910 and that the world would end in 1914.[5]

In 1882 Russell began leading Watch Tower readers away from orthodox theology. After Trinitarian assistant editor John Paton broke with Russell and ceased to be listed on the masthead, Russell openly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity as "totally unscriptural."[6]

The Bible Students viewed Russell himself as the "faithful and wise servant" of Matthew 24:45 and as "the Laodicean Messenger," God's seventh and final spokesman to the Christian church. But he lived to see the failure of various dates he had predicted for the Rapture, and finally died on October 31, 1916, more than two years after the world was supposed to have ended. Followers buried Russell beneath a headstone identifying him as "the Laodicean Messenger," and erected next to his grave a massive stone pyramid emblazoned with the cross and crown symbol he was fond of, and also with the name "Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society." (The pyramid still stands off Cemetery Lane in Ross, a northern Pittsburgh suburb, where it serves as a tourist attraction.)


According to instructions Russell left behind, his successor to the presidency would share power with the Watch Tower corporation's board of directors, whom Russell had appointed "for life." But former vice president Joseph Franklin ("Judge") Rutherford noted that the formality of re-electing the directors at an annual meeting of the corporation had been omitted, and he used this technically to unseat the majority of the Watch Tower directors without calling a membership vote. He even had a subordinate summon the police into the Society's Brooklyn headquarters offices to break up their board meeting and evict them from the premises.[7]

After securing the headquarters complex and the sect's corporate entities, Rutherford turned his attention to the rest of the organization. By gradually replacing locally elected elders with his own appointees, he managed to transform a loose collection of semiautonomous, democratically run congregations into a tight-knit organizational machine controlled from his office. Some local congregations broke away, forming such Russellite splinter groups as the Chicago Bible Students, the Dawn Bible Students, and the Laymen's Home Missionary Movement, all of which continue to this day. But most Bible Students remained under his control, and Rutherford renamed them "Jehovah's Witnesses" in 1931 to distinguish them from these other groups.

Meanwhile, he shifted the sect's emphasis from individual character development to public witnessing work. By 1927 door-to-door literature distribution had become an essential activity required of all members.[8] The literature consisted primarily of attacks against government, Prohibition, "big business," and the Roman Catholic church. Rutherford also forged a huge radio network and took to the airwaves, exploiting populist and anti-Catholic sentiments to draw thousands of additional converts. His vitriolic attacks blaring from the loudspeakers of sound cars also drew down upon the Witnesses mob violence and government persecution in many parts of the world.

Rutherford largely avoided end-times prophecies after the failure of his prediction that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be resurrected in 1925.[9] In fact, referring to that prophetic failure he later admitted, "I made an ass of myself."[10]


Vice President Nathan Homer Knorr inherited the presidency upon Rutherford's death in 1942. Doctrinal matters, however, were left largely in the hands of Frederick W. Franz, who joined the sect under Russell and had been serving at the Brooklyn headquarters since 1920. Lacking the personal magnetism and charisma of Russell and Rutherford, Knorr focused followers' devotion on the organization rather than on himself.

A superb administrator, he initiated training programs to transform members into effective recruiters. Instead of carrying a portable phonograph from house to house and playing recordings of "Judge" Rutherford's lectures, the average Jehovah's Witness began receiving instruction on how to give persuasive sermons at people's doorsteps.

Meanwhile Fred Franz worked to restore faith in the sect's eschatological teachings. His revised chronology moved Christ's invisible return from 1874 to 1914.[11] And, during the 1960s, the Society's publications began pointing to the year 1975 as the likely time for Armageddon and the end of the world.[12]