International Bible Students Association Becomes Jehovah’s Witnesses Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Joseph Franklin Rutherford, president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, addressed a convention assembly of the society’s London-based affiliate, the International Bible Students Association, he presented a stirring discourse and resolution that called for a distinctive name—Jehovah’s Witnesses—to be given to those who claimed to be servant-witnesses of God.

Summary of Event

In 1872, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), Charles Taze Russell founded the religious sect that would later become known as the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Russell successfully advanced the new movement’s presence through far-ranging speaking tours and extensive publication and distribution of his writings. The organization’s growth led to the relocation of its headquarters to Brooklyn, New York, in 1909. [kw]International Bible Students Association Becomes Jehovah’s Witnesses (July 26, 1931) [kw]Bible Students Association Becomes Jehovah’s Witnesses, International (July 26, 1931) [kw]Students Association Becomes Jehovah’s Witnesses, International Bible (July 26, 1931) [kw]Jehovah’s Witnesses, International Bible Students Association Becomes (July 26, 1931)[Jehovahs Witnesses, International Bible Students Association Becomes (July 26, 1931)] International Bible Students Association Jehovah’s Witnesses[Jehovahs Witnesses] Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society Religious movements;Jehovah’s Witnesses[Jehovahs Witnesses] Bible Student movement [g]United States;July 26, 1931: International Bible Students Association Becomes Jehovah’s Witnesses[07880] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;July 26, 1931: International Bible Students Association Becomes Jehovah’s Witnesses[07880] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 26, 1931: International Bible Students Association Becomes Jehovah’s Witnesses[07880] Rutherford, Joseph Franklin Russell, Charles Taze Knorr, Nathan Homer

One of the more prominent doctrines that Russell and his Bible Student movement espoused was the belief that the year 1914 marked the end of the “gentile times.” Before 1914, Russell said, Christ had ruled in heaven on his throne of authority, but the time had come for him to cleanse the earth of its wickedness by defeating evil, personified as Satan, at the Battle of Armageddon. Following this cataclysmic event, the earth would be restored to paradise. Russell also promised that a “little flock” of 144,000 faithful, “born-again” Christians would rule with Christ in heaven while a great multitude of the righteous would live forever in a peaceful post-Armageddon earthly kingdom. Although the Bible’s chronology does not reveal the exact year of Armageddon, Russell admitted, biblical prophecy indicated that humankind had been living in the “last days.” As a result of this belief, the concept of an imminent end of time was often obvious in the organization’s activities and doctrines.

After Russell’s death in 1916, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (nicknamed “Judge”), who had been serving as the society’s chief legal counsel, was elected in January of 1917 to become the organization’s president. Challenges to Rutherford’s election and Rutherford’s own determination to squelch opposition within the society’s board of directors created a bitter schism that resulted in a significant drop in membership. Another challenge to the president’s leadership came in 1918, when Rutherford and several close associates from the society were arrested and charged with sedition under the terms of the Espionage Act (1917). Espionage Act (1917) These charges stemmed from the society’s opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I. Rutherford and his associates were found guilty and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, but they were released after nine months. After his release, Rutherford continued to exert tremendous influence on the society’s doctrines through his extensive writings in Watch Tower publications and numerous speaking appearances. Under Rutherford’s leadership, the organization became significantly more doctrinally orthodox and autocratic.

From the inception of Russell’s movement, the members were commonly referred to as Bible Students, but they were also called Russellites, Watch Tower Bible people, Rutherfordites, and Millennial Dawn people. The 1931 convention of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and the International Bible Students Association, the organization’s London-based affiliate, was held in Columbus, Ohio, from July 24 to 30. Attendees noticed the prominent display of the initials “J. W.” on the program and other convention literature, but the meaning of these letters was not revealed until the gathering’s third day.

At noon on Sunday, July 26, Rutherford addressed the convention with a discourse titled “The Kingdom, the Hope of the World.” In the talk, he referred to Jehovah’s Witnesses as the proclaimers of the kingdom of God, and he presented the resolution “Warning from Jehovah,” in which he asserted that existing governments were unrighteous and would be judged accordingly by Jehovah (God). The true hope of the world, Rutherford said, was the righteous kingdom of God that had Christ as its head.

The speech received an enthusiastic response from the audience, and at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, Rutherford again addressed the assembly. He followed his earlier “warning” by engaging the audience with a second discourse that focused on the need for a distinctive name for the organization. Rutherford believed that such a title would help define the true loyalties of the various Bible Student groups as well as provide a rallying point for expanding the organization’s evangelism. To provide biblical support for the new name he was about to introduce, Rutherford read several passages from the Scriptures that address the religious duty of being a witness of Jehovah. He placed special emphasis on Isaiah 43:8-12, the concluding passage for his stirring presentation.

Rutherford presented a resolution declaring that the group’s name should not be tied to any specific person (including founder Charles Taze Russell) or derived from any of the titles of the society’s various affiliates. The resolution also declared that Bible Students was an unsuitable name, although that name had been long associated with Russell’s movement. Finally, Rutherford concluded his resolution by stating that the new name, which had been ordained by God, would be Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rutherford’s dramatic speech was broadcast around the world via radio, and millions of print copies were distributed in a booklet titled The Kingdom, the Hope of the World. Kingdom, the Hope of the World, The (Rutherford)

Significance

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah issued the imperative for adopting the name Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Book of Isaiah indicated that Jehovah is the personal name of God and that his chosen servants are to be witnesses who give testimony to their sovereign and his purpose for creation. On a more practical level, however, adopting this name afforded Watch Tower supporters recognition and differentiated them from others who remained aligned with the Bible Student movement still closely identified with Russell. Rutherford’s bold move was, in effect, an effort to distinguish his followers from the many disaffected Bible Students who had left the society during Rutherford’s tenure as president. This event enabled Rutherford to centralize his authority in the society, the structure of which had shifted from somewhat democratic to increasingly theocratic.

Following Rutherford’s death in 1942, Nathan Homer Knorr, who had served as vice president of the Pennsylvania affiliate (the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania), became the third president of the organization. During Knorr’s twenty-five-year tenure as president, the Jehovah’s Witnesses increased attention to public relations, published a translation of the Bible in modern English called The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, Rendered from the Original Languages by the New World Bible Translation Committee (1961), and undertook a significant international expansion of the Witnesses’ message. In 1943, Knorr helped establish “theocratic ministry schools” in local congregations and a missionary training school called Gilead at South Lansing, New York. Knorr’s presidency also saw the last great international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in one place, an event held in 1958 in New York City. International Bible Students Association Jehovah’s Witnesses[Jehovahs Witnesses] Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society Religious movements;Jehovah’s Witnesses[Jehovahs Witnesses] Bible Student movement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holden, Andrew. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement. London: Routledge, 2002. Well-researched analysis of the Jehovah’s Witnesses from a sociologist’s viewpoint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penton, M. James. Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. A readable, comprehensive overview of the sect by a former member.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stroup, Herbert Hewitt. The Jehovah’s Witnesses. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967. Detailed study and analysis of the Witness movement from its beginning to the early 1940’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom. Brooklyn: Author, 1993. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own detailed account of their history and culture.

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