Jehovah's Witnesses: Origin, Founder & History

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we look at the origins of the Jehovah's Witnesses to better understand their faith today. Of note, we will discuss their Adventist origins, founder Charles Taze Russell's writing, and when the group adopted their name.

Jehovah's Witnesses: Origin, Founder & History

In this lesson, we look at the origins of the Jehovah's Witnesses to better understand their faith today. Of note, we will discuss their Adventist origins, founder Charles Taze Russell's writing, and when the group adopted their name.

How Much Do We Know?

While you might have met one or two Jehovah's Witnesses in your life, or remember that the music icon Prince was a Jehovah's Witness, how much do you really know about this organization? Where did they come from and who founded them? What is the history of their church? Although there are many rumors surrounding this religious group, we'll take a look at their history, beginning in the late 1800s, through the present to understand them better.


The Jehovah's Witnesses trace back to the Adventist movement of the 19th century when William Miller, a Baptist preacher, predicted Christ would return and the world would end in 1843. From his prediction in 1816, his following grew to nearly 50,000 members. As the date he predicted approached, Miller was forced to recalculate his date several times, changing from March of 1843 to March of 1844 and finally October of 1844. When these dates passed uneventfully, the main body of the movement fell apart while only small, splinter groups kept the movement's spirit alive. Each group found their own way to explain the prediction's failure.

One such group, led by Nelson H. Barbour reasoned the prediction did not fail and that Christ actually returned invisibly in 1874. They also believed that the Rapture, a prophecy that God will whisk his faithful away to Heaven at the end of the world, would happen in 1948. Barbour published these beliefs in his magazine, The Herald of the Morning. While readership declined in rejection of the invisible return doctrine, Barbour's ideas captured the attention of Charles Taze Russell who would eventually found the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Herald of the Morning Cover
Herald of the Morning Cover


Charles Taze Russell, born in 1852, grew up in a devoutly Presbyterian family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of 16, however, he found himself losing faith in his church, the Bible, and God. He questioned the existence of God because so many religious sects claimed to be followers of the true interpretation of the Bible yet their doctrines were greatly opposed.

Charles Taze Russell
Charles Taze Russell

When Russell discussed doctrine with an Adventist at a chance meeting, he found his interested sparked and his faith rekindled. Russell soon joined a Bible study group led by Jonas Wendell, a Second Adventist preacher, while also continuing his study of scripture with the Adventist minister George Stetson and with George Storrs, publisher of The Bible Examiner magazine. Eventually, Russell would start his own Bible study group named the Millennial Dawn Bible Study.

In 1876, after receiving a copy of Barbour's magazine, Russell arranged a meeting with Barbour to discuss doctrine and the future of the publication. With significant financial support from Russell, who was then named Assistant Editor, readership began to grow again. Unfortunately, this did not last long. When Barbour's predictions failed, many lost confidence in his leadership.

Russell rejected many of Barbour's attempts to justify his predictions and change prior doctrine, even encouraging others to reject Barbour's efforts. This led Russell and a significant number of followers to break away from Barbour's group. Russell left his position with The Herald of the Morning, and the following year, Russell launched his own publication, Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence, distributing his magazine to Barbour's readers via a stolen mailing list.

Russell's Doctrine

Through Watch Tower, he published increasingly divergent doctrine, including rejecting the Trinity, the belief that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three aspects of a single God. Additionally, he wrote a series of six books titled The Millenial Dawn, sharing the title with his original Bible study group. He also predicted, in the third volume of the series, that the world would end in 1914, a date determined by the measurements of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Unfortunately, his predictions shared the same failed results as Barbour's earlier predictions.

The Church After Russell

After Russell's death in 1916, his friend Judge J.F. Rutherford took leadership of the group, known at the time as Russellites. He also added a seventh and final volume in The Millenial Dawn series which he titled The Finished Mysteries. Later, the organization would rename the series Studies in the Scriptures while keeping each volume's individual title.

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