Onmanorama Explains | Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sect once SC said was 'bizarre but sincere'

Representational image: Photo: Jw.org

Kerala's first major brush with the Christian sect Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) was in 1985 when three children - Binumol, Bindu and Bijoe Emmanuel - were expelled from a school in Kottayam for not singing the National Anthem. The children stood in respectful silence as "Jana Gana Mana' was sung during the morning assembly but did not join the chorus.

It was said that Witnesses never took part in any rituals except in their prayers to Jehovah, the only God. The Witnesses do not consider even Jesus as God. The High Court upheld the expulsion saying there was nothing in the National Anthem that could hurt any religion.

However, the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that the expulsion violated the children’s rights to freedom of expression and religion. It set aside the High Court’s judgment and ordered the State of Kerala to readmit the children. The SC, after discussing a number of cases on civil liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States and Canada, said: "Even though the religion may appear strange or even bizarre to us, but the sincerity of their beliefs is beyond question."

Though their religious right to refrain from singing the national anthem was granted, some of the tenets by which they abide have been criticised the world over. Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, refuse blood transfusions for themselves and their children because they believe the procedure creates a risk of losing eternal salvation.
They form less than one per cent of the Christian population in Kerala. 

Are JWs Christians?
Yes. It closely follows the teachings and behaviour of Jesus Christ. When people become Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are baptised in the name of Jesus. Even their prayers are offered in the name of Jesus. They also believe that Jesus is the one appointed to have authority over every man.

Do JWs worship Jesus?
Nonetheless, the sect is different from other Christian groups in that it does not sanction the worship of Jesus. Since it is a sect that takes the Bible in its most literal sense, it approaches Jesus as in John's Gospel. Jesus is quoted as saying in John 14:28 thus: "I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I am." 

So Witnesses do not worship Jesus as the sect believes that he is not Almighty God. That position the sect has reserved exclusively for Jehovah. 

Which is the Bible used by JWs?
Till 1961, the sect used the Bible's King James Version but then replaced it with the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, considered the first original translation of ancient Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, and Old Aramaic biblical texts. The Witnesses say that the New World Translation is based on up-to-date scholarly research and the most reliable ancient manuscripts. In contrast, it argues that the King James Version of 1611 was based on manuscripts that were often less accurate and not as old as those used in producing the New World Translation.

How do the JW's worship?
Witnesses do not venerate the cross or any other images. Its followers desist from making any carved image, of man, animal or bird. The sect also warns its followers against nature worship. "And when you raise your eyes to the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars — all the army of the heavens — do not get seduced and bow down to them and serve them. Jehovah your God has given them to all the peoples under the whole heavens." (Deuteronomy 4:19) The usual practice is to meet together to pray in unadorned halls called 'Kingdom Halls', study the Bible and sing.

How are Witnesses organised?
The JW is organised into congregations, each of which is overseen by a body of elders. However, the elders do not form a clergy class, and followers claim that these elders are unsalaried. The Governing Body, a small group of senior believers at its world headquarters at Warwick in New York, provides direction for Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide. Notably, they are strictly neutral in their political affiliations. A major charge against JW is that its followers refuse to vote.

The origins of JW
The origins of the modern-day Jehovah's Witnesses organisation dates back to late 19th century, when a small community of Bible students residing near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, embarked on a new kind of examination of the Bible and the origins of Christian doctrine. 
This early group was mostly influenced by teachings of a Bible study group’s founder, Charles Taze Russell. He grew up in a Presbyterian household but left the faith as a teenager. Russell started taking classes and published numerous Bible interpretation works since the early 1870s. A lot of his ideas were against the core beliefs of traditional Christian denominations.

In 1884, Russell established the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, now headquartered in Warwick, New York, serving as the central body of the Jehovah's Witnesses organisation. They hold the belief in the restoration of the world to the ancient Christian doctrines before the “impending apocalypse”. They also believe that those who do not attain salvation at the time of the world's end will be the first to face mortality.

Following Russell's death in 1916, Joseph Franklin Rutherford assumed the presidency of the Watch Tower Society. Despite encountering resistance and internal divisions, he implemented substantial organisational reforms and rebranded its adherents as Jehovah's Witnesses, placing a strong emphasis on the authority of ‘Jehovah’.

In 1931, the name "Jehovah's Witnesses" was officially adopted, marking a distinct break from Russell's earlier followers. Rutherford shaped the Jehovah's Witnesses into a committed cadre of evangelists.

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