By Mathew Schmalz
Six adults were killed March 9, 2023, in Hamburg, Germany, in what police described as a “rampage” after an evening religious service. Several others were wounded during the attack at a Jehovah’s Witness center, called a Kingdom Hall, including a woman who lost her pregnancy. The suspected shooter was reported to be a former member of the religious group.
The attack has put a focus on the religious group, which has some 8 million members across 240 countries. In Germany, more than 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are associated with 2,020 congregations, according to the organization’s records.
In many countries, Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for their outreach work, going door to door or standing in public areas to try to distribute religious material. But many people are unfamiliar with their beliefs, and when the group makes headlines, it is often for reasons related to persecution abroad.
So who are they?
The story of Jehovah’s Witnesses begins in the late 19th century near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a group of students studying the Bible. The group was led by Charles Taze Russell, a religious seeker from a Presbyterian background. These students understood “Jehovah,” a version of the Hebrew “Yahweh,” to be the name of God the Father himself.
Russell and his followers looked forward to Jesus Christ establishing a “millennium” or a thousand-year period of peace on Earth. This “Golden Age” would see the Earth transformed to its original purity, with a “righteous” social system that would not have poverty or inequality.
Russell died in 1916, but his group endured and grew. The name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was formally adopted in the 1930s.
Early Jehovah’s Witnesses believed 1914 would be the beginning of the end of worldly governments, which would culminate with the Battle of Armageddon. Armageddon specifically refers to Mount Megiddo in Israel, where some Christians believe the final conflict between good and evil will take place. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, expected that the Battle of Armageddon would be worldwide, with Jesus leading a “heavenly army” to defeat the enemies of God.
They also believed that after Armageddon, Jesus would rule the world from heaven with 144,000 “faithful Christians,” as specified in the Book of Revelation. Other faithful Christians would be reunited with dead loved ones and live on a renewed Earth.
Over the years, members have reinterpreted elements of this timeline and have abandoned setting specific dates for the return of Jesus Christ. But they still look forward to the Golden Age that Russell and his Bible students expected.
Given the group’s belief in a literal thousand-year earthly reign of Christ, scholars of religion classify Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “millennarian movement.”
What are their beliefs?
Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the idea of the Trinity. For most Christians, God is a union of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Instead, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is distinct from God – not united as one person with him. The “Holy Spirit,” then, refers to God’s active power. Such doctrines distinguish Jehovah’s Witnesses from mainline Christian denominations, which hold that God is “triune” in nature.
But like other Christian denominations, Jehovah’s Witnesses praise God through worship and song. Their gathering places are called “Kingdom Halls,” which are ordinary-looking buildings – like small conference centers – that have the advantage of being easily built. Inside are rows of chairs and a podium for speakers, but little special adornment. Jehovah’s Witnesses are best known for devoting a substantial amount of time to Bible study and door-to-door evangelizing.
Their biblical interpretations and missionary work certainly have critics. But it is the political neutrality of the group that has attracted the most suspicion.
Jehovah’s Witnesses accept the legitimate authority of government in many matters. For example, they pay taxes, following Jesus’ admonition in Mark 12:17 “to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
But they do not vote in elections, serve in the military or salute the flag. Such acts, they believe, compromise their primary loyalty to God.
A history of persecution
Jehovah’s Witnesses have no political affiliations, and they renounce violence. However, they make an easy target for governments looking for internal enemies, as they refuse to bow down to government symbols. Many nationalists call them “enemies of the state.”
As a result, they have often suffered persecution throughout history in many parts of the world.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were jailed as draft evaders in the U.S. during both world wars. In a Supreme Court ruling in 1940, school districts were allowed to expel Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the American flag. Through subsequent legal battles in the 1940s and 1950s, Jehovah’s Witnesses helped expand safeguards for religious liberty and freedom of conscience both in the United States and Europe.
In Nazi Germany, Jehovah’s Witnesses were killed in concentration camps; a purple triangle was used by the Nazis to mark them. In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of African Jehovah’s Witnesses were slaughtered by members of The Youth League of the Malawi Congress Party for refusing to support dictator Hastings Banda. Many Witnesses fled to neighboring Mozambique, where they were held in internment camps.
The ‘cult’ label
Police in Germany have said the 2023 shooting was most likely committed by a lone individual who did not leave the organization “on good terms,” although they have not released information about a possible motive.
At times, disputes between members and ex-members have revolved around criticism over practices such as refusing blood transfusions and “disfellowshipping” members who do not repent for committing what the group considers serious sins.
In popular culture, Jehovah’s Witnesses are sometimes portrayed as members of a “cult,” which has made them a convenient target for persecution and multiple forms of violence. As I and other religion scholars have written, however, that word is very difficult to define – and tends to lead to stereotypes, rather than nuanced understanding.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 4, 2017.
Mathew Schmalz is Professor of Religious Studies at College of the Holy Cross.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Dennis C Rathsam says
Personally, Im sick of them walking my street, ringing my door bell asking me “If I heard the word from god today”They leave these pamplets, handing on my door….Why ???? If I need them I know where to find them….Stop the door to door bullshit, its not apreciated.
Deborah Coffey says
A very informative article. Thank you for writing.
What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian?
Someone who knocks on your door for no reason.
Jim Rizoli says
The JW’s are a CULT, it’s not their doctrines that you should care about it’s the horrible treatment of members who question them and get kicked out for not agreeing with some excessive abuse of power. They have damaged many thousands of their followers who most likely have some mental issues today.
I had a family member who was a JW and humored him by attending some meetings.
It’s a great study into brainwashing and the practice of “love bombing…”
My relative was disfellowshipped (excommunicated) because he married a Catholic girl!
That was that!
Up in Vermont, I know of a seventeen-year-old boy (Tony Moran) who died of carbon monoxide poisoning
when he slept overnight in his old Honda because he was being shunned by his step-parents.
This underage minor was not allowed in his home anymore.
The kid had to go to friends’ homes to eat and shower. But he outstayed his welcome.
All his friends and their parents were of the milquetoast variety.
Tony made a “bad impression” on the neighbors.
At least they loved their kids…
The (link above) article makes no mention of this clear-cut case of child abuse because the local police
didn’t care. It was just another “dead Mexican.” When confronted, the elders of his guardians’
Kingdom Hall engaged in victim-blaming. The kid was caught smoking pot one day, and these
criminal “guardians” didn’t want him “infecting” their own children.
The child killers and family moved away suddenly to parts unknown.
Lots of crocodile tears at his wake though…
Beach bum says
A religion that is unified world wide, renounces violence, and teaches from the bible, reckon Jesus would approve?
Joseph godleski says
No they deny Jesus is nothing more then the archangel Michael
They deny the trinity
They hold to Arianism
They deny Jesus is god
Or that he died on a cross or was bodily raised
They hold that when we die we are no longer existing
Our body goes back to the earth and god recreates us out of memory
And the just go to a perfected earth and the others are anililated
Does that sound like a loving god that recreates you out of memory
To then destroy you forever
They believe you are not allowed to celebrate your birthday
Or vote or salute the flag the Bible does not say you can not do these things
The watchtower is a autocratic organization that rules without question and
If you do they shun you and throw you out of the jehovah witnesses
Where is Christian love and compassion in that none
Gloria Reed says
No wrong! I was a JW pioneer for 25 years and woke up thanks to the overlapping generation. That’s right, they took a singular word and made it plural to fit there teaching. A teaching that GOD will come and destroy mankind for NOT being a JW. Trust me when I say, there is plenty of division, hypocrisy, malice (esp from elders). There is only “fake” love..This religion has destroyed families and that is why we need to speak the TRUTH ABOUT THE TRUTH
Joe Rizoli says
JW’s, The EVIL SLAVE
Every religion has the right to ask its members to live a moral life but the JW’s hierarchy goes beyond that…They will kick a person out for whatever reason they feel like that doesn’t even have anything to do with morality…
If you just ask certain questions that rightly deserve answers that can put you out of the group…They manipulate the scriptures whatever way the want, even sometimes opposite the original meaning of the scripture expecting you to believe their opinion and if you don’t you can be put out of the group…This is not some little thing…People can lose many years of friendships, business and associations within days and some witnesses have ONLY known the group as their friends and now are out knowing no one..This has caused suicides and even murders of revengeful members…Thet JW’s are the “slave” that beats the other members…
That is not Christian but evil…Their group is basically Christianity gone amok, not based on Jesus teachings but wild decisions set by a Governing body of male crazies. They now are just waiting for the koolaid to drink, not because of Christian love but madness, and FEAR , they truly are the Biblical EVIL SLAVE that they so many times they have preached about…They have kicked out some fine Christian members and will be punished by God for it.. Read the book Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz and his other one, In Search of Christian Freedom, You’ll get your eyes opened to the abuse of the Watchtower…
Joe Rizoli says
The JW’s are a militant form of Christianity who basically let their church leaders think for them…NOT a good idea…They have numerous times misinterpreted the Bible and a member can’t correct the error..If you do you could be ejected from the group…The error could be fixed by other groups writings or maybe not….YOU have to live with it…They are one step away from drinking the koolaid…They do not let you read anything negative about them by ex-members, if you persist, you will be kicked out by their spy network ready to pounce on you…That spy network could be your family, wife, kids, JW friends all around you..You have to be very careful what you say around these people if you are associated with them..Love does not run the group, FEAR does…Great reads, Ray Franz, “Crisis of Conscience” and “In Search of Christian Freedom”…
Don’r overlook Lloyd Evans’ book: Thr Reluctant Apostate…
Now there’s an audiobook version by popular demand…
You wanna laugh? I own a hardcover version of Chrisis of Conscience.
It’s worth hundreds of dollars now, but it’s not for sale.
I purchased the book from Mr. Franz’ wife.
Ray Franz was shafted by the Watchtower society, but he made them regret it.
Some readers here will think that you are exaggerating, but you’re being kind
in your remarks.
Bravo to you sir!
Sounds like Democrats….
Darrik Marshall says
To the author of this article. Jehovah’s Witnesses are 100% a cult. I would know, I was born into it and have done years worth of research on cult dynamics from commonly accepted cults and JW’s and compared the results. Jehovah’s Witnesses check over 80% of the boxes on the BITE Model.
Guess what? JW’s aren’t allowed to read these apostate comments!
Beach bum says
I too was raised a Jehovah’s witness, I was disfellowshiped twice, I am now what’s known as an inactive witness. ( meaning I haven’t officially gone door to door for years), however I 100 percent disagree with the lies from some of the last comments. You will not be disfellowshiped for simply questioning JW teaching, they at the core encourage bible reading and discussion, now if you dogmaticly teach something in opposition of bible truth, as a baptized JW, then yes you gotta go (1 Peter 3 vrs 8).
How could it be a cult when its open to the public, everyone is invited, no collection plate is passed, no preacher paid.
I doubt I will reply further to this forum because as they say ” haters are gonna hate” but if you want to learn for yourself from a people who are kind, loving, peaceful, not racial segregated, bible truth ask one, visit a kingdom hall or go on JW.ORG
No Soliciting! says
Stop sending young, attractive ladies to my door while “elders” lurk in the street observing and entering information about my address into your tablets/database. Stop creeping in front of every single playground where my children play while discretely flipping your camera phones up. Remove whatever data you are storing on the unsuspecting public, stay in your places of worship and don’t even set eyes on me, my property, my vehicle or my kids. Your “Religion” should not give you a license to stalk people. You ARE a cult and unfortunately the Palm Coast Watchtower has now settled in to Palm Coast since 2014 thanks to Embry Riddle practically giving their former location and data base to you. As if their farts in the sky wasn’t enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if Embry Riddle is using you to stalk their complainers out of town in exchange for such a great property deal. You can only hide behind “religious freedom” and pull that discrimination card for so long before the law eventually shuts you down. Your twisted days are numbered… globally.
I was raised in the Catholic faith and growing up my best friend converted from being Catholic to Jehovah’s Witness. And guess what we are still friends for 60 years. Yes, we have different faiths but did not let it come between us. I never knew her to be mean or trying to convert me. I was there to comfort her through some sad times in her life and she was there for me.
There was a Kingdom Hall shooting in Germany.
The murders were perpetrated by an excommunicated member.
8 people are dead.