No true religion on earth until 1919? Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of church history
Summary: Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that while there were isolated Christians here and there after the death of the apostles, the true religion effectively ceased to exist on the earth and was reestablished in 1919 through the Watchtower Society. These claims rest on the abuse of Scripture and in particular a prophetic chronology that has long since disproved itself.
This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
According to the teachings of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, no organized, visible community of faithful Christians existed on the earth for many centuries prior to the rise of the Jehovah’s Witness religion in 1919. In their view, soon following the death of the first-century apostles, an “apostasy” effectively decimated the organized Christian religion that had existed. For some eighteen centuries, there was no true Christian religion on the earth. There were only isolated individuals or at best small, unorganized groups of individuals who were true Christians living in a kind of spiritual captivity.
What the Watchtower Teaches
Jehovah’s Witnesses have long been taught that “the apostasy” was beginning during the first century and then radically corrupted Christianity as soon as the apostles had died:
For over 60 years, the apostles had “acted as a restraint,” endeavoring to hold back the tide of apostasy. (2 Thess. 2:7; compare 2 John 9, 10.) But as the Christian congregation was about to enter the second century, the last surviving apostle, John, died, about 100 C.E. The apostasy that had slowly begun to creep into the congregation was now ready to burst forth unrestrained, with devastating organizational and doctrinal repercussions…. After the first century, the foretold apostasy developed unrestrained. (Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Thess. 2:7-12) For many centuries the lamp of true Christianity burned low. (Compare Matthew 5:14-16)1
The Watchtower teaches that there was no true Christian church on the earth at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Clearly, when the time of the end began in 1914, none of the churches of Christendom were measuring up to these Bible standards for the one true Christian congregation.”2 Only the Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged as the one true religion. “Their modern-day history…shows that, not just as individuals but as an organization, they meet the requisites.”3
The formal establishment of this “organization” as the one true religion is dated as occurring in 1919. An article published in 2014 gives the Watchtower Society’s position:
Jesus used his parable of the wheat and the weeds to foretell that the apostasy would make it very difficult to identify the true religion…. “The conclusion of the system of things” began in 1914. At that time, there were only a few thousand anointed Christians on earth. During the war that began that year, these anointed “sons of the Kingdom” were still in captivity to Babylon the Great. But in 1919, Jehovah freed them, and the difference between these true Christians and false Christians became very clear. He gathered “the sons of the Kingdom” to be an organized people….4
A 2016 article goes into significant detail on this subject. It describes the apostasy as a period of “captivity of God’s people to Babylon the Great,” a “period during which genuine Christians were greatly outnumbered by apostates” within the professing Christian community. “That captivity began sometime in the second century C.E. and continued until the cleansing of the spiritual temple in the time of the end.” A “spiritual restoration” began gradually “during the centuries leading up to the time of the end.” The article next claims that the restoration was more fully realized in the Watchtower religion:
Then, in the late 1800’s, Charles Taze Russell and his associates worked zealously to restore Bible truths. It was as if symbolic flesh and skin were starting to be put on spiritual skeletons. Zion’s Watch Tower and other publications helped honesthearted ones to discover spiritual truths. Later, such tools as the “Photo-Drama of Creation” in 1914 and the book The Finished Mystery in 1917 also strengthened God’s people. Finally, in 1919, God’s people were given life, spiritually speaking, and were settled in their new spiritual land. As time has progressed, this remnant of anointed ones has been joined by those with an earthly hope, and together they have become “an extremely large army.”5
The Self-Serving History of the Watchtower
The Watchtower’s teaching on the history of Christianity needs to be read critically.6 Essentially, what they have done is to start with the assumption that theirs is the only true religion and then judge all part expressions of Christianity on that basis. The true religion, they say, must hold to A, B, C, D, and E; no religion from the second century until the early twentieth century held to all five of these things; therefore, there was no true religion during those eighteen centuries. But now we, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, hold to A, B, C, D, and E; therefore, we are the true religion. In their case, these criteria of true religion include such things as using the name Jehovah, abstaining from blood transfusions, holidays, and other “pagan” things, political neutrality, and the like. We will be addressing these topics in other articles in this series.
Other religious groups claiming to be true Christianity restored, however, have their own criteria. Some argue that signs and wonders or spiritual manifestations are crucial indicators of the restored faith; others claim that they alone are the true church because they have living prophets and apostles guiding them; still others claim that they are the true people of God because they keep the Sabbath, the Old Testament feasts, and the like. And all of these groups cite various biblical texts that they claim prove that these are the true criteria of the restoration. They also can tell the story of the history of Christianity in such a way as to make it seem that all of history was waiting for their sect to come along.
The claim that the true religion was formally established as “an organized people” in 1919 is not, as the Watchtower tries very hard to argue, derived from a careful and objective study of Bible chronology. The basis of the date is that it was in 1919 that J. F. Rutherford and his associates were released from prison and permitted to take control of the Watchtower Society. Charles Taze Russell, the religion’s founder, had died in 1916, and a struggle for control of the Society ensued. In June 1918, as the United States was escalating its efforts to end the First World War, Rutherford and six associates were imprisoned on charges of sedition. However, soon after the war they were released in March 1919, and Rutherford immediately returned to head the Watchtower Society. He initiated a series of changes that eventually gave him complete control of the organization. Meanwhile, many of the “Bible Students” (as they were originally called) had begun separating from the Watchtower shortly after Russell’s death and many more did so as Rutherford tightened his grip on the movement.7 This is why Jehovah’s Witnesses are told that the true religion became organized in 1919, despite the fact that the “organization” had existed since 1881 when Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society was founded by Russell.
The key premise in terms of the interpretation of biblical prophecy for the 1919 date is the Watchtower’s doctrine that the spiritual “presence” of Christ as the legal or rightful king over all the earth began in 1914. The three and a half years between late 1914 and early or the middle of 1919 is said to be the fulfillment of the prophecy in Revelation 11:2-3 of a period of 1,260 days (42 months or three and a half years) during which the “holy city” (interpreted symbolically as referring to the Watchtower organization) was “trampled” (the organizational and legal troubles of Rutherford and his associates). This period was also supposedly a period of the “inspection” and “cleansing” of the “temple” (referring to the fact that during this period of 1914 to 1919 many Bible Students opposed to Rutherford left or were kicked out of the religion), with Malachi 3:1-3 providing the biblical proof text.8
There are many dubious aspects to this argument for the 1919 date. In a separate article we will discuss the 1914 date, which is the crux around which the entire Watchtower chronology turns, and explain in some detail why this approach to biblical chronology and prophecy is itself unbiblical. If one simply reads Malachi 3 and Revelation 11, one will be hard-pressed to see any basis for claiming that they are prophetically pointing forward to the establishment of Rutherford’s power as the president of the Watchtower Society.9
The more basic question here is whether the Bible teaches the doctrine of a near-total apostasy lasting nearly two millennia followed by a restoration of true Christianity.
A significant premise of the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine of apostasy and restoration is the assumption that the true religion is an organization.10 Contrary to popular misunderstanding, Jesus Christ did not establish an organization. He founded his church (Matthew 16:18), but the church is not an organization (though it may express itself in organizations). Jesus created no organizational hierarchy, instituted no organizational structure, and left no organizational blueprint for others to follow. He gave the church no official name (referring to it simply as “my church”). The church is not an organization, but a covenant community—an association of people who publicly gather together under the terms of the “new covenant” that Jesus Christ made between God and humanity through his sacrificial death on the cross.
The information that we have in the Book of Acts and in the rest of the New Testament shows that the church of the first century never had a formal, uniform organizational system. Naturally, in the very beginning of the church, the apostles performed leadership functions, primarily as authoritative teachers (Acts 2:42). The assignment of specific ministry duties to other believers took place as the need arose and typically in an informal fashion. The lack of any formal organization “running” the church is especially clear in the case of Saul of Tarsus—better known as Paul. He became an apostle as a result of the Lord Jesus appearing to him directly, with the group of existing apostles playing no role in his receiving that commission. Indeed, the believers in Jerusalem were initially afraid of Saul because they did not believe he was one of them (Acts 9:1-28). Saul and Barnabas were part of the Antioch church’s group of “prophets and teachers,” which under the prompting of the Spirit sent them on an evangelistic mission (Acts 13:1-3). We know this mission was not conducted under the direction of the Jerusalem church because later the Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas to travel to Jerusalem to defend the ministry to uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 15:1-2). As the rest of Acts 15 makes clear, the leadership of the Jerusalem church had not yet taken a position on the matter (see 15:6-7).
The Watchtower claims that it represents God’s organization on earth. The status of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “an organized people” recognized by God as the true religion is dated by the Watchtower as having begun in 1919, as documented above. This means that prior to 1919 there was no “organized people” accepted by God as his people (although the Watchtower allows that there were a small number of individuals who personally were accepted by God). The logic of the Watchtower’s doctrine leads to the conclusion that Christ created an organization in the first century that became apostate and thus unacceptable, that no true Christian religion existed on the earth for eighteen centuries, and then true religion was restored in a newly organized people were created out of the “Bible Students” in the early twentieth century.
One searches the New Testament in vain for any support for this scenario of apostasy and restoration. The New Testament does speak of apostasy, a term that means falling away. However, nowhere does it speak of a total apostasy of the Christian religion, church, or organization as the Watchtower teaches. In the New Testament, apostasy is something that people do, never something that was to happen to the whole church. This is clear even in the very passages that Jehovah’s Witnesses cite to support their doctrine of a complete organizational apostasy.
For example, in Acts 20:29-30, the apostle Paul did warn about “wolves” who would attack the “flock” of God’s people, but then immediately urged elders to be on guard for the flock (20:31-32). Clearly, Paul was urging the elders to do the work of shepherds (v. 28) and protect the flock from the wolves that were coming (v. 29). That is the reason for mentioning the wolves: the elders’ job was to function as shepherds of the flock and protect the flock’s members from the wolves. Had it been inevitable that the church was very quickly going to become an apostate religion run by wolves, Paul’s message would not have been to guard the flock, but to abandon it!11
Similarly, Paul wrote to Timothy: “The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1 ESV). Note that he said that some people in the church would fall away, not all of them and not the church as an institution. This is the consistent teaching of the rest of the New Testament (Matt. 24:10-13; Mark 4:16-20; Heb. 6:4-10; 2 Peter 2:1-2; 3:1, 14-18; 1 John 2:18-27; Rev. 2-3).
Not only does the New Testament issue warnings only of partial apostasy by some or many people and never of the whole church, but it also makes it clear that the church will continue to exist on earth until Christ’s return.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18 NRSV).
Jesus’ expression “the gates of hell” (literally, “the gates of Hades”) echoes similar Old Testament expressions and is a metaphor for death (Job 17:16; 38:17; Psalm 9:13; 107:18; Isaiah 38:10). His meaning, then, is that death would not prevail against or overcome the church—in other words, that the church would never die. Matthew confirms this understanding of Jesus’ words when he reports that after his resurrection, Jesus made the following promise to his disciples:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV).
Here, the Lord Jesus announces that his disciples will begin a process of making disciples from all the nations of the world, a process that will continue with Christ’s backing and presence “to the end of the age.” Not only does Jesus not envision a eighteen-century hiatus in this process, but his promise explicitly states that he will be with his disciples “always” until the task of evangelizing the nations is complete and the end of the age comes. Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot reasonably deny that Jesus is speaking of the church here, because the disciples are to engage in preaching the gospel, baptizing people, and teaching them to obey his commandments, functions that go beyond the private actions of isolated individuals. Thus, Jesus’ words in this Great Commission passage clearly lead to the conclusion that the church would continue to exist until the end of the age, when Christ returns.
The church, then, never ceased to exist after Christ established it in the first century. Heresies have come and gone and come again, people have fallen away from the faith, and far too many professing Christians are Christians in name only, producing no fruit and showing no evidence of their supposed faith. The church, however, has never ceased to exist. Christ has always had his faithful disciples, those represented by the fruitful ground in his parable of the four soils, those who have risked their lives if necessary to make disciples.
1. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom (Watchtower, 1993), 34-35, 705.
2. Ibid., 706.
3. Ibid., 709.
4. “Now You Are God’s People,” Watchtower (Simplified Edition), Nov. 15, 2014, 30.
5. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower (Study Edition), March 2016, 30-31.
6. For a very brief overview of Jehovah’s Witness history through 1994, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 9-13. The best full history of the movement remains M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 3rd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015). Penton is a former Jehovah’s Witness but not an orthodox or evangelical Christian.
7. Many of these facts are included, though in a defensive and less than candid fashion, in the book Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, cited above.
8. “Who are the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation chapter 11?” Questions from Readers, Watchtower, Nov. 2015.
9. For some helpful information and analysis of these issues, see Paul Grundy, “How 1919 Is Derived” (JWFacts, 2013, last updated Oct. 2015); Lloyd Evans, “‘New light’ Watchtower magazine leaked from organization weeks ahead of general release” (JWSurvey, 27 March 2013).
10. Some of the material in this section comes from Robert M. Bowman Jr., Gospel Principles and the Bible (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2012), especially the articles “LDS Church Organization and Offices” and “The Great Apostasy: Did the Church Disappear?”