Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Adventist sect that arose in the United States under the influence of Millerite millennialism in the 1870s. Jehovah's Witnesses (the name adopted in 1931) now claim an international membership of over 5 million, with a significant majority located outside the United States. The group is legally incorporated under the names Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (1884, United States) and International Bible Students Association (1914, United Kingdom). C. T. Russell served as president of the WTS until his death (1916); the able leadership of Russell and his successors (including J. F. Rutherford, N. Knorr, and F. Franz) has contributed significantly to the organizational stability and expansion of the Witnesses in the twentieth century.

Jehovah's Witnesses are strongly tied to their printed literature. The society's biweekly magazines The Watchtower and Awake! are important sources of information about Witness beliefs and practices. Witness life is based on a regimen of active proselytizing and participation in weekly meetings at their Kingdom Halls, where they study WTS literature and learn new-member recruiting skills. The society's Bible translation, the New World Translation (revised edition 1984), is an important source of Witness doctrine (e.g., John 1:1); the Witnesses' distinct communal argot ("theocratic English") is based in part on the NWT 's unique English style. In 1993, the WTS published its most thorough history to date, Jehovah's Witnesses: Proclaimers of God's Kingdom . The WTS's Yearbook is an important resource for social scientists as it includes thorough membership and growth statistics from the WTS's previous service year.

Some early studies of the Witnesses are still worth consulting (e.g., Stroup 1945, Cohn 1955). But the works of James Beckford (e.g., 1975), Joseph F. Zygmunt (e.g., 1967, 1970), and Bryan Wilson (e.g., 1970) constitute the most significant bodies of literature on the Witnesses from a social scientific perspective. This literature clusters around three principal theoretical foci: the Weber-Troeltsch-Niebuhr model of sect-to-church development, the theory of relative deprivation, and the problem of millennial delay and disconfirmation (see Festinger et al., When Prophecy Fails , Harper 1956). It is commonly assumed that the WTS draws its membership principally from the working classes, although Beckford has strongly contested the "neatness" of such an analysis. Sociologists often treat Witnesses as an "established sect." In spite of multiple disappointments and prophetic recalculations (most recently in 1975), Witnesses maintained their sectarian style and apocalyptic fervor. The history of the WTS suggests that its institutional identity and momentum have insulated the organization from the destabilizing potential of the society's eschatology.

Other studies of the Witnesses have explored issues of race, ethnic identity, and migration (e.g., Cooper 1974), cross-cultural dynamics (e.g., Wilson 1974, Long 1968), conversion processes (Beckford 1978), and rhetoric and symbolism (Botting and Botting 1984).

See also Adventism, Cognitive Dissonance, Church-Sect Theory, Deprivation Theory, Millenarianism

Joel Elliott


J. A. Beckford, The Trumpet of Prophecy (New York: Wiley, 1975)

J. A. Beckford, "Accounting for Conversion," British Journal of Sociology 29(1978):249-262

H. Botting and G. Botting, The Orwellian World of Jehovah's Witnesses (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984)

W. Cohn, "Jehovah's Witnesses as a Proletarian Movement," American Scholar 24(1955):281-298

L. R. Cooper, " 'Publish' or Perish," in Religious Movements in Contemporary America , ed. I. I. Zaretsky and M. P. Leone (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974): 700-721

N. Long, Social Change and the Individual (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1968)

H. H. Stroup, The Jehovah's Witnesses (New York: Russell & Russell, 1945)

B. R. Wilson, Religious Sects (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970)

B. R. Wilson, "Jehovah's Witnesses in Kenya," Journal of Religion in Africa 5(1974): 128-149

J. F. Zygmunt, Jehovah's Witnesses , Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1967

J. F. Zygmunt, "Prophetic Failure and Chiliastic Identity," American Journal of Sociology 75(1970):926-948.

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