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Thursday, July 23, 2009

How We Came to Be Known as Jehovah’s Witnesses

Derisive Nicknames

From the 16th century onward, this situation posed a problem for the Reformers. Since the name Christian was being used so loosely, how could they distinguish themselves from others who claimed to be Christians?

Often they simply acquiesced to the use of a derisive nickname given to them by their enemies. Thus theological opponents of Martin Luther, in Germany, were the ones that first applied his name to his followers, calling them Lutherans. Those associated with John Wesley, in England, were labeled Methodists because they were unusually precise and methodical in the observance of religious duties. Baptists at first resisted the nickname Anabaptist (meaning, “Rebaptizer”) but gradually adopted the name Baptist as a sort of compromise.

What about the Bible Students? They were dubbed Russellites and Rutherfordites by the clergy. But adopting such a name would have fostered a sectarian spirit. It would have been inconsistent with the reproof given to early Christians by the apostle Paul, who wrote: “When one says: ‘I belong to Paul,’ but another says: ‘I to Apollos,’ are you not simply men [that is, fleshly in outlook instead of spiritual]?” (1 Cor. 3:4) Some people labeled them “Millennial Dawnists”; but Christ’s Millennial Reign was only one of their teachings. Others called them “Watch Tower People”; but that too was inappropriate, for the Watch Tower was merely one of the publications that they used to disseminate Bible truth.

Need for a Distinctive Name

In time, it became increasingly evident that in addition to the designation Christian, the congregation of Jehovah’s servants truly did need a distinctive name. The meaning of the name Christian had become distorted in the public mind because people who claimed to be Christians often had little or no idea who Jesus Christ was, what he taught, and what they should be doing if they really were his followers. Additionally, as our brothers progressed in their understanding of God’s Word, they clearly saw the need to be separate and distinct from those religious systems that fraudulently claimed to be Christian.

True, our brothers often referred to themselves as Bible Students, and starting in 1910, they used the name International Bible Students’ Association with reference to their meetings. In 1914, in order to avoid confusion with their recently formed legal corporation called International Bible Students Association, they adopted the name Associated Bible Students for their local groups. But their worship involved more than studying the Bible. Furthermore, there were others who also studied the Bible—some, devoutly; others, as critics; and not a few, as persons who viewed it simply as fine literature. Then, after the death of Brother Russell, some former associates refused to cooperate with the Watch Tower Society and the International Bible Students Association, even opposing the work of these societies. Such fragmented groups used a variety of names, some of them clinging to the designation Associated Bible Students.

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This caused further confusion.

But then, in 1931, we embraced the truly distinctive name Jehovah’s Witnesses. Author Chandler W. Sterling refers to this as “the greatest stroke of genius” on the part of J. F. Rutherford, then president of the Watch Tower Society. As that writer viewed the matter, this was a clever move that not only provided an official name for the group but also made it easy for them to interpret all the Biblical references to “witness” and “witnessing” as applying specifically to Jehovah’s Witnesses. In contrast, A. H. Macmillan, an administrative associate of three presidents of the Watch Tower Society, said concerning that announcement by Brother Rutherford: “There is no doubt in my mind—not then nor now—that the Lord guided him in that, and that is the name Jehovah wants us to bear, and we’re very happy and very glad to have it.” Which viewpoint do the facts support? Was the name ‘a stroke of genius’ on the part of Brother Rutherford, or was it the result of divine providence?

Developments Pointing to the Name

It was in the eighth century B.C.E. that Jehovah caused Isaiah to write: “‘You are my witnesses,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘even my servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and have faith in me, and that you may understand that I am the same One. Before me there was no God formed, and after me there continued to be none. . . . You are my witnesses,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘and I am God.’” (Isa. 43:10, 12) As shown in the Christian Greek Scriptures, many prophecies recorded by Isaiah have fulfillment in connection with the Christian congregation. (Compare Isaiah 8:18 with Hebrews 2:10-13; Isaiah 66:22 with Revelation 21:1, 2.) Yet, Isaiah 43:10, 12 was never discussed in any detail in The Watch Tower during its first 40 years of publication.

After that, however, their study of the Scriptures directed the attention of Jehovah’s servants to significant new developments. God’s Kingdom with Jesus as Messianic King had been brought to birth in the heavens in 1914. In 1925, the year that this was made clear in The Watch Tower, the prophetic command, in Isaiah chapter 43, to be witnesses of Jehovah was given attention in 11 different issues of the magazine.

In The Watch Tower of January 1, 1926, the principal article featured the challenging question: “Who Will Honor Jehovah?” During the next five years, The Watch Tower discussed some portion of Isaiah 43:10-12 in 46 separate issues and each time made application of it to true Christians. In 1929 it was pointed out that the outstanding issue facing all intelligent creation involves the honoring of Jehovah’s name. And in connection with the responsibility that Jehovah’s servants have regarding this issue, Isaiah 43:10-12 repeatedly came up for consideration.

Thus the facts show that as a result of study of the Bible, attention was repeatedly being drawn to their obligation to be witnesses of Jehovah. It was not the name of a group that was under consideration but the work that they were to do.

But by what name should those witnesses be known? What would be appropriate in view of the work they were doing? To what conclusion did God’s own Word point? This matter was discussed at a convention in Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A., on July 24-30, 1931.

A New Name

The large letters J W appeared prominently on the front cover of the convention program. What did they mean? It was not until Sunday, July 26, that their significance was explained. On that day Brother Rutherford delivered the public discourse “The Kingdom, the Hope of the World.” In that discourse, when identifying those who are the proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, the speaker made special reference to the name Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Later that day Brother Rutherford followed this up with another talk, during which he discussed reasons why a distinctive name was needed. To what name did the Scriptures themselves point? The speaker quoted Acts 15:14, which directs attention to God’s purpose to take out of the nations “a people for his name.” In his discourse he highlighted the fact that as stated at Revelation 3:14, Jesus Christ is “the faithful and true witness.” He referred to John 18:37, where Jesus declared: “For this I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.” He directed attention to 1 Peter 2:9, 10, which says that God’s servants are to ‘declare abroad the excellencies of the one that called them out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ He reasoned on a number of texts from Isaiah, not all of which were understood clearly at that time, but then he climaxed his presentation with Isaiah 43:8-12, which includes the divine commission: “‘You are my witnesses,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘and I am God.’” To what conclusion, then, was Jehovah’s own Word directing them? What name would be in harmony with the way God was in fact using them?

The obvious answer was embodied in a resolution enthusiastically adopted on that occasion. That resolution said, in part:

“In order that our true position may be made known, and believing that this is in harmony with the will of God, as expressed in his Word, BE IT RESOLVED, as follows, to wit:

“THAT we have great love for Brother Charles T. Russell, for his work’s sake, and that we gladly acknowledge that the Lord used him and greatly blessed his work, yet we cannot consistently with the Word of God consent to be called by the name ‘Russellites’; that the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and the International Bible Students Association and the Peoples Pulpit Association are merely names of corporations which as a company of Christian people we hold, control and use to carry on our work in obedience to God’s commandments, yet none of these names properly attach to or apply to us as a body of Christians who follow in the footsteps of our Lord and Master, Christ Jesus; that we are students of the Bible, but, as a body of Christians forming an association, we decline to assume or be called by the name ‘Bible Students’ or similar names as a means of identification of our proper position before the Lord; we refuse to bear or to be called by the name of any man;

“THAT, having been bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ our Lord and Redeemer, justified and begotten by Jehovah God and called to his kingdom, we unhesitatingly declare our entire allegiance and devotion to Jehovah God and his kingdom; that we are servants of Jehovah God commissioned to do a work in his name, and, in obedience to his commandment, to deliver the testimony of Jesus Christ, and to make known to the people that Jehovah is the true and Almighty God; therefore we joyfully embrace and take the name which the mouth of the Lord God has named, and we desire to be known as and called by the name, to wit, Jehovah’s witnesses.—Isa. 43:10-12.”

Following the presentation of the full resolution, loud, sustained applause indicated the full agreement of the audience with what had been stated.

- Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, 1993, WTB&TS


Additional Reading:

Which form of the divine name is correct—Jehovah or Yahweh?

No human today can be certain how it was originally pronounced in Hebrew. Why not? Biblical Hebrew was originally written with only consonants, no vowels. When the language was in everyday use, readers easily provided the proper vowels. In time, however, the Jews came to have the superstitious idea that it was wrong to say God’s personal name out loud, so they used substitute expressions. Centuries later, Jewish scholars developed a system of points by which to indicate which vowels to use when reading ancient Hebrew, but they put the vowels for the substitute expressions around the four consonants representing the divine name. Thus the original pronunciation of the divine name was lost.

Many scholars favor the spelling “Yahweh,” but it is uncertain and there is not agreement among them. On the other hand, “Jehovah” is the form of the name that is most readily recognized, because it has been used in English for centuries and preserves, equally with other forms, the four consonants of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton.

J. B. Rotherham, in The Emphasised Bible, used the form Yahweh throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. However, later in his Studies in the Psalms he used the form “Jehovah.” He explained: “JEHOVAH—The employment of this English form of the Memorial name . . . in the present version of the Psalter does not arise from any misgiving as to the more correct pronunciation, as being Yahwéh; but solely from practical evidence personally selected of the desirability of keeping in touch with the public ear and eye in a matter of this kind, in which the principal thing is the easy recognition of the Divine name intended.”—(London, 1911), p. 29.

After discussing various pronunciations, German professor Gustav Friedrich Oehler concluded: “From this point onward I use the word Jehovah, because, as a matter of fact, this name has now become more naturalized in our vocabulary, and cannot be supplanted.”—Theologie des Alten Testaments, second edition (Stuttgart, 1882), p. 143.

Jesuit scholar Paul Joüon states: “In our translations, instead of the (hypothetical) form Yahweh, we have used the form Jéhovah . . . which is the conventional literary form used in French.”—Grammaire de l’hébreu biblique (Rome, 1923), footnote on p. 49.

Most names change to some extent when transferred from one language to another. Jesus was born a Jew, and his name in Hebrew was perhaps pronounced Ye‧shu′a‛, but the inspired writers of the Christian Scriptures did not hesitate to use the Greek form of the name, I‧e‧sous′. In most other languages the pronunciation is slightly different, but we freely use the form that is common in our tongue. The same is true of other Bible names.

How, then, can we show proper respect for the One to whom the most important name of all belongs? Would it be by never speaking or writing his name because we do not know exactly how it was originally pronounced? Or, rather, would it be by using the pronunciation and spelling that are common in our language, while speaking well of its Owner and conducting ourselves as his worshipers in a manner that honors him?