Jehovah’s Witnesses are an indigenous American religious group that has grown throughout Georgia. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that all faith and practice should be based solely on the Bible, and their beliefs are distinct from those of orthodox Christianity. Members in the United States are estimated at more than 1 million; as of 2005 the number of Witnesses in Georgia was approximately 16,000.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were organized in Pennsylvania by Charles Taze Russell in the 1880s. Russell was deeply influenced by the eschatology, or view of the world’s end, of the Adventist movement begun by William Miller and the Millerites. After hearing an Adventist preacher in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1869, Russell developed his own apocalyptic theology, and in 1884 he incorporated the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
Since their inception, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been known as Russellites, Millennial Dawnists, Rutherfordites (after Missouri federal circuit court judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford, the successor to Russell), and International Bible Students. In 1931 the name Jehovah’s Witnesses, suggested by Rutherford, was officially adopted.
Witnesses teach that creeds are the works of men, and they proclaim that all faith and practice should be based only on the Bible. Interpretations of the Bible, when needed, are supervised by the group’s top leaders. Adherents also believe that the number of people in heaven is limited to 144,000 and that the end of history is very near. Russell and other leaders have predicted the end on a number of occasions.
Witnesses’ beliefs about the Trinity are similar to the ancient doctrine of Arius (a discipline known as Arianism). While teaching that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, they deny that Christ is both divine and human, declaring instead that he is the first creation adopted by God. Members also believe that the Holy Spirit, rather than being the third person of the Trinity, is the power of God at work.
Believing that the earth is ruled by Satan, Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that many worldly establishments—including big business corporations, churches, and civil government—are not to be trusted. Witnesses separate themselves from other religious groups, particularly orthodox Christians, by meeting in “kingdom halls,” rather than in “churches,” and rejecting the celebration of Christmas as pagan. Witnesses also do not sanction the observance of birthdays. Although not pacifists, members of the group reject military service in civil military units. During the years when the Selective Service Draft was active, many Jehovah’s Witnesses went to prison rather than serve in the military.
Witnesses also oppose the forced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, believing the act to be idolatrous. In 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, ruled in favor of a group of Witnesses who challenged a West Virginia law requiring students to salute the flag. The Court interpreted the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause to mean that freedom of conscience does not require saluting the flag.
Jehovah’s Witnesses produce numerous tracts for use in fulfilling their religious duty to witness to others, and they frequently engage in door-to-door ministries to distribute the tracts.