The Bible Students are a small religious body founded in the 1860s by young businessman Charles Taze Russell, who began studying with a small band of Christians independent of the creeds of the Churches, they soon discovered that many of the doctrines that were popularly taught and believed were inconsistent with the Bible. Dissatisfied, Mr. Russell devoted himself to a careful independent study of the Scriptures. He made no claim to any vision or personal revelation.
Russell attracted the support of others in America and Britain who were convinced of the truth of his conclusions. As a result the Bible Students was formed. In July 1879, he published the first issue of the journal Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence and in 1884 incorporated Zion's Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. In 1909 he moved the headquarters to Brooklyn, New York and incorporated the People's Pulpit Association and later in 1914 he would incorporate the International Bible Students Association in Europe.
The name Bible Students was originally used as a way of advertising their meetings, but soon it would be adopted as their official name. Bible Student communities are located in many parts of the United States with many groups in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America, South East Asia and Africa. Like the first century Christians, they meet in homes, rented rooms and, in some cases, their own meeting halls.
The Bible Students are autonomous, they governed themselves and cooperated with the Watch Tower Society, distributing its literature. After the death of Russell in 1916, the Bible Student movement was in chaos. A bitter power struggle occurred at Watch Tower headquarters over control of the Society.
In 1917 Joseph Franklin Rutherford succeeded Charles Taze Russell as Watch Tower president. He tried and succeeded in gaining complete control over the Society’s activities. The illegal introduction of new by-laws gave the President full control over the affairs of the Society. However, this was not Russell’s wishes. In his last will and testament he had provided for a seven-man board of directors to succeed him. Four members of the Society’s Board of Directors, a majority of the Board, took strong exception to what they regarded as Rutherford’s high-handed behavior and opposed him. Eventually tension between Rutherford and the directors grew and on July 17, 1917, Rutherford simply announced at the headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, during meal time that he had replaced the four directors with his own appointees, using the legal jargon that the directors who had opposed him did not hold their positions legally under Pennsylvania law.
During this time Bible Students classes and individuals were withdrawing their support from the Society. The four directors formed an institute to continue the work of Russell independent of the Society. Others would form corporations of their own. Some Bible Students followed the lead of their favorite elder or teacher. Still others, leery of organization and societies, stayed independent of all others.
As the years went by, more and more Bible Students seeing a change of direction and attitude within the Society soon departed and thus the exodus started. By 1930 the majority of the Bible Students who worked closely with Russell had left the Society, many had been forced out. By this time, all of Russell’s writings were discarded in favor of the writings of Rutherford. By 1929 over a hundred changes in doctrines had been made; the Society no longer resembled that which was established by Russell and his early associates. The Society had a new look and a new attitude. No longer was it simply a publishing house for the dissemination of Bible literature. Now it was “God’s Theocratic Organization.” To disagree with it was tantamount to treason against God himself.
In 1931 Rutherford adopted the name Jehovah's Witnesses to differentiate between the two groups. Here started the separation between the two groups. While there are similarities, they are major differences between the two groups, who trace their histories to Pastor Charles Taze Russell.