Why the Name “Jehovah’s Witnesses”?
“WHAT’S in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Shakespeare. True, but still it would need a name to distinguish it from other flowers.
Names are important. Without them we could not properly identify specific persons, places or things. A name, according to Webster, is “a word . . . by which an individual or class of individuals (persons or things) is regularly known or designated. . . . A distinct and specific designation.” Among some very primitive peoples individuals are not given specific names but merely identified by some physical peculiarity as to height, size and suchlike. But what happens when two or more persons greatly resemble one another? To try to do without names does present difficulties.
God, in his Word, the Bible, repeatedly stresses the importance of names, especially that of his own name Jehovah. That he also considers the names of his servants important can be seen from the fact that at times he himself changed their names: Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel. And Jesus changed Simon’s name to Cephas, which is translated Peter. Nor may we overlook the fact that it was “by divine providence” that the disciples at Antioch were called “Christians.”—John 1:42; Acts 11:26.
So long as the Christian congregation numbered comparatively few thousands and the apostles were alive, the name “Christian” was sufficiently distinctive and specific. All who professed to be Christians but whose beliefs or conduct belied their claim were forthwith excommunicated from the Christian community. In those days the name “Christian” had an unequivocal, unambiguous meaning, for it was limited to the sincere, enlightened, dedicated, genuine followers of Jesus Christ.
But after the death of the apostles an enemy, Satan the Devil, sowed seeds of imitation Christians in the field, and so before long it became a field of apostates and counterfeits, yet bearing the name Christian, Christendom. (Matt. 13:24, 25) This, in turn, attracted still more non-Christians to its fold. Others became Christians in name only to escape persecution. Two striking examples of this were the old Saxons of Germany, forcibly converted by Charlemagne, and the Marranos of Spain, Jews who posed as Christians to avoid persecution by the state’s Roman Catholic Church. Thus for many centuries in Europe a man was considered a Christian regardless of what his beliefs or morals were, so long as he did not claim to be a Jew, Moslem or atheist.
This state of affairs posed a problem for the Reformers when they appeared on the scene. What should they and their followers call themselves, since the name Christian was used so loosely? How could they distinguish themselves from the rest? Unwisely they time and again followed the lines of least resistance by adopting the derisive nickname their enemies gave them. How this came about in the case of the Lutherans a historian relates:
“The term ‘Lutheran’ was already used in Luther’s time. Luther objected to this term, certainly not as a result of any special modesty, which he did not possess if his doctrine was at stake, but just because he thought that his theology was the only right and true Christian doctrine and that there was no way of being a real Christian except by being a ‘Lutheran.’ If he needed a term for describing his followers as distinct from Popish people (Papisten), he preferred the word ‘Evangelicals,’ followers of the Gospel. Later, however, he acquiesced in the use of his name, and he himself says: ‘We so-called Lutherans.’”—The Theology of Martin Luther, H. H. Kramm.
Other authorities give further details. The name was used in derision by Roman Catholics, the first ones to do so being the German theologian Johann Eck and Pope Hadrian VI. Among the reasons given for the followers of Luther accepting the name “Lutheran” was to distinguish themselves from the Protestants who followed the Swiss reformers Calvin and Zwingli and with whose theology they disagreed. However, in accepting this name they ignored the apostolic counsel: “When one says: ‘I belong to Paul,’ but another says: ‘I to Apollos,’ are you not simply men? What, then, is Apollos? Yes, what is Paul?”—1 Cor. 3:4, 5.
Those who joined the eighteenth-century John Wesley in his reform movement while at the university at Oxford, England, were taken in a similar snare. Having noted the lack of spirituality on the part of most students, they came together “to deepen their spiritual life by prayer and study of the Scriptures. They were called ‘Methodists’ first in a taunting spirit, because they were unusually precise and ‘methodic’ in the observation of their religious duties, and in the regulation of their lives.” Thus the followers of Wesley also let their foes give them their distinguishing name.—Cyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Sanford.
Another example is furnished by the Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers. “The epithet of Quakers was given in derision, because they often trembled under an awful sense of the infinite purity and majesty of God, and this name, rather submitted to than accepted by them, has become general as a designation.”—McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. 3, p. 668.
And then there are the Baptists. At first they were derisively nicknamed Anabaptists, or rebaptized ones, because they required that all who had been sprinkled in infancy be immersed upon accepting Christ due to their own convictions. They themselves did not acknowledge this term but insisted that they were to be known only as “Christians,” “Apostolic Christians,” “Brethren,” and “Disciples of Christ.” But in the end they also accepted their nickname, given in derision, as their proper name and called themselves Baptists.
THE BIBLE STUDENTS
The facts show that the question of a name also faced those sincere Christian students of the Bible who began to gather together for the study of God’s Word from about 1870 onward. At one time they had been Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. But now by what name should they be known? Thus at one of their early assemblies a former Presbyterian deacon got up and told of having seen a goat in a shipping crate at a railroad station that could not be sent to its destination because the goat had eaten up its shipping tag. “Now folks,” he continued, “I’m like that goat. At one time I had a tag, but I ate it up,” as a result of reading The Divine Plan of the Ages, “and now I don’t know where I belong.”
True, they were Christians and the Scriptures use the name “Christian,” but with literally hundreds of millions claiming to be Christians, that name of itself could not serve to identify them specifically. Besides, there is a particular religious denomination that bears the name “The Christian Church,” as well as one known as “The Disciples of Christ.”
Others had derisively nicknamed them “Millennial Dawnists,” “Russellites,” “Rutherfordites,” and “Watch Tower People.” Wisely they refused to give official recognition to any such derisive nicknames. The truth about Christ’s millennial reign was but one of their teachings; they were not following any human leader but only their Master, Jesus Christ; the Watchtower magazine was merely one of the publications they used to disseminate the truth of God’s Word.
For the time being they kept referring to themselves as “Bible Students,” one of their international organizations being known as the International Bible Students Association. But was that name sufficiently distinctive, specific and adequate? No, it was not. Why not? Because, on the one hand, they were not by any means the only Bible students. There were all manner of Bible students who were still bound by the various creeds of Christendom: Bible students who were Fundamentalists, Modernists, and some who were Deists. Yes, all these made a study of the Bible. More than that, there were some who had created divisions, such as those referred to at Romans 16:17, and who had separated themselves and still referred to themselves as Bible students. So the term Bible Student was far from being specific, distinctive.
But, even more important, the term Bible Students was not at all adequate. For one thing, it had no Scriptural precedent. Then also, these Christians were not only Bible students but they were Bible students who accepted the Bible as the inspired Word of God; Bible students who had dedicated themselves to do God’s will and follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ; Bible students among whom every last one was also a preacher of God’s name and kingdom.
However, there was one name in the Scriptures that God had applied to his servants, which name no one else had taken, which name no one else wanted to take. It was a name that uniquely fitted them, namely, Jehovah’s witnesses, based on Isaiah 43:10, 12: “‘You are my witnesses,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘even my servant whom I have chosen.’” “‘You are my witnesses,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘and I am God.’”
That the followers of Christ were to be primarily a people for Jehovah God’s name, the Scriptures unequivocally state. Thus the prophet Amos foretold that Jehovah God would restore all those “upon whom my name has been called.” The apostle Peter “related thoroughly how God for the first time turned his attention to the nations to take out of them a people for his name.” And in the book of Revelation the anointed Christians are repeatedly shown as having the name of their God written in their foreheads, prominently displayed for all to see.—Amos 9:11, 12; Acts 15:14; Rev. 3:12; 14:1; 22:4.
Leaders of Christendom assert that the true God, the Creator, the God of the Bible, does not need a distinctive name. In this they err. Thereby they shut their eyes to the fact that there are many false gods that men have set up as rivals of the one true God and that he therefore needs a specific designation to distinguish him from all the rest; even as the Scriptures clearly show: “On all the gods of Egypt I shall execute judgments. I am Jehovah.” “All the gods of the peoples are valueless gods; but as for Jehovah, he has made the very heavens.” “I am Jehovah. That is my name; and to no one else shall I give my own glory, neither my praise to graven images.” “For even though there are those who are called ‘gods,’ whether in heaven or on earth, just as there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’ there is actually to us one God the Father, out of whom all things are, and we for him.”—Ex. 12:12; Ps. 96:5; Isa. 42:8; 1 Cor. 8:5, 6.
But why should it be necessary for anyone to witness to the one true God? someone might ask. For at least four distinct reasons. In the first place, because Jehovah God is invisible; no one can see him and live. (Ex. 33:20) Visible creation does witness to Jehovah’s existence and power and wisdom, but it cannot tell humankind what the Creator’s name is and what his other attributes and purposes are. For making known these things Jehovah requires human, intelligent witnesses.
Secondly, because of the challenge of Satan the Devil to the sovereignty of Jehovah and the conditions Satan has brought about on the earth that reflect unfavorably upon Jehovah, it is necessary that He have witnesses to let all men know the truth about himself.—Gen. 3:1-6; Rev. 12:12.
And fourthly, the time is rapidly approaching when Jehovah will once and for all time vindicate himself as the Universal Sovereign by destroying all his foes and delivering his people. Because of these facts witnesses are needed to sound an urgent warning; so that lovers of righteousness can flee to safety and so that the wicked will know why they are being destroyed when Armageddon comes upon them.—Rev. 16:14, 16.
From their early beginnings the modern witnesses of Jehovah have witnessed to Jehovah’s name. However, it was not until 1931 that they were specially moved by the fact that the words of Isaiah 43:10, 12, specifically apply to them, and so in that year, at a convention, they officially went on record as accepting this as their designation.
In taking that name, Jehovah’s witnesses were not acting presumptuously. Had they not been witnessing to that name and were they not determined to continue to do so? Most assuredly! Others questioned whether the name would stick or not. Has it stuck? It has, for, thirty years later, the third edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary states: “Jehovah’s witnesses: Members of a group that witness by distributing literature and by personal evangelism to beliefs in the theocratic rule of God, the sinfulness of organized religions and governments, and an imminent millennium.”
Jehovah’s witnesses are proud to bear their name and are concerned with measuring up to it at all times, not only by witnessing verbally, but also by conducting themselves so as to bring no reproach to Jehovah’s name. It is indeed a name that sets them apart from all others professing to be Christians.