The sect now known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses was started by Charles Taze Russell, who was born in 1852 and worked in Pittsburgh as a haberdasher. He was raised a Congregationalist, but at the age of seventeen he tried to convert an atheist to Christianity and ended up being converted instead—not to outright atheism, but to agnosticism. Some years later he went to an Adventist meeting, was told that Jesus would be back at any time, and got interested in the Bible.
The leading light of Adventism had been William Miller, a flamboyant preacher who predicted that the world would end in 1843. When it didn’t, he "discovered" an arithmetical error in his eschatological calculations and said it would end in 1844. When his prediction again failed, many people became frustrated and withdrew from the Adventist movement, but a remnant, led by Ellen G. White, went on to form the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
It was this diminished Adventism which influenced Russell, who took the title "Pastor" even though he never got through high school. In 1879, he began the Watch Tower—what would later be known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the teaching organ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1908 he moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, where it has remained ever since.
Before he got his religious career well underway, Russell promoted what he called "miracle wheat," which he sold at sixty dollars per bushel. He claimed it would grow five times as well as regular wheat. In fact, it grew slightly less well than regular wheat, as was established in court when Russell was sued. Later he marketed a fake cancer cure and what he termed a "millennial bean" (which a wag has said probably got that name because it took a thousand years to sprout).
Russell taught his followers the non-existence of hell and the annihilation of unsaved people (a doctrine he picked up from the Adventists), the non-existence of the Trinity (he said only the Father, Jehovah, is God), the identification of Jesus with Michael the Archangel, the reduction of the Holy Spirit from a person to a force, the mortality (not immortality) of the soul, and the return of Jesus in 1914.
When 1914 had come and gone, with no Jesus in sight, Russell modified his teachings and claimed Jesus had, in fact, returned to Earth, but that his return was invisible. His visible return would come later, but still very soon. It would result in the final conflict between God and the Devil—the forces of good and the forces of evil—in which God would be victorious. This conflict is known to Witnesses as the battle of Armageddon, and just about everything the Witnesses teach centers around this doctrine.
Russell died in 1916 and was succeeded by "Judge" Joseph R. Rutherford. Rutherford, born in 1869, had been brought up as a Baptist and became the legal adviser to the Watch Tower. He never was a real judge, but took the title because, as an attorney, he substituted at least once for an absent judge.
At one time he claimed Russell was next to Paul as an expounder of the gospel, but later, in an effort to have his writings supplant Russell’s, he let Russell’s books go out of print. It was Rutherford who coined the slogan, "Millions now living will never die." By it he meant that some people alive in 1914 would still be alive when Armageddon came and the world was restored to a paradise state.