Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement
Date of Publication:
I picked up this book because I’ve been working on a paper comparing LDS and Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) growth and I needed a better understanding of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This book definitely fits the bill.
The author is very clear in his intentions from the outset, “I write for an academic community, or indeed for anyone with a sociological interest in religious movements.” (p. xi). That said, the book is readable by a non-sociologist, but there is a substantial amount of sociological jargon in the book that might make it onerous reading for non-academics.
As I see it, the book basically has three elements. The first is the background information on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, from their history to their theology. However, it is not a detailed summary of the JW’s background nor their theology, and this is not, generally, laid out with the specific intent of describing the background or theology, but it is interlaced with the other information in the book. The second element is a description of the author’s research into the JWs. The author conducted interviews with many JWs and attended meetings and other activities for years. He also read much of their literature. In short, the book reports the results of the author’s ethnographic research into the JWs in the UK over a 5 to 10 year period in the mid to late 1990s. The third element of the book is the theoretical explanations provided for why people join, why the JWs are growing as fast as they are, and why people leave.
Just in case anyone reading this review is interested in some of the unique characteristics of the JWs, I thought I’d include a few explanations provided by the author. You may know that JWs don’t celebrate most holidays, either religious or national. But do you know why? “The Society forbids its members to participate in annual events such as Christmas, Easter, birthdays and national festivals. It teaches that Jehovah does not acknowledge these events since, wherever they are cited in the scriptures, they are always in the context of sin or apostasy… Though they recognise that the birth of Christ is presented as a joyful occasion by the synoptic writers, devotees refuse to partake in the celebration on the grounds that we do not know the precise date of an event that has, in any case, become tainted with secular images such as lights, trees, tinsel and mistletoe. As far as Easter is concerned, the egg is historically a pagan symbol for the celebration of the return of spring and the rabbit was an emblem of fertility, neither of which is connected with the resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, the Witnesses associate annual celebrations with immodest behaviour and excessive alcohol consumption…” (pp. 25-26).
Also, JWs don’t vote nor salute flags. Again, there is an explanation, “Despite their belief that Satan controls the world, the Witnesses do not generally go as far as members of religious organisations such as the Plymouth Brethren in isolating themselves completely from outsiders. None the less, their persistent refusal to engage in political activities such as voting in elections or joining pressure groups shows their disdain for secular society. The Witnesses continue to object to both jury and military service (on the grounds of pacifism and neutrality), and they do not support local or national charities.” (pp. 25-26).
The belief and behavior for which JWs are most well-known, however, is the refusal of blood transfusions. Ever wonder why they refuse transfusions? “The Society teaches that blood transfusions are strictly forbidden since blood is a source of life that is sacred to Jehovah… Genesis 9: 4 and Leviticus 17: 11-12 are among the scriptural references used by the Society in support of the doctrine, but it is Acts 15: 28-9 that is most frequently quoted in Watch Tower literature: ‘For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.’ Blood transfusions are thus considered physically and morally unclean… receiving blood is tantamount to polluting oneself as well as offending the community.” (p. 28)
Something I didn’t know much about before reading this book was the behavioral codes of the JWs regarding appearance, alcohol and drugs, and sex. JWs believe cleanliness and nice clothing are illustrations of their purity, so they tend to wear nice, clean clothes. As far as the others are concerned, “Adultery, fornication, masturbation and homosexuality all flout the organisation’s teachings on sexual conduct. Anything other than highly controlled heterosexual activity is regarded as immoral, and sexual intercourse is confined to marriage. Drug abuse, smoking and the excessive consumption of alcohol, although not symbolically polluting, are believed to be physically polluting and offensive to Jehovah.” (pp. 25-26). None of this is particularly surprising, but I didn’t realize how anti-homosexual JWs are, “Of all these sexual activities, homosexuality is regarded as probably the most vile and unnatural. In a much earlier tract, but one still widely used by devotees, we read: masturbation can lead into homosexuality. In such instances the person, not satisfied with his lonely sexual activity, seeks a partner for mutual sex play. This happens much more frequently than you may realize. Contrary to what many persons think, homosexuals are not born that way, but their homosexual behaviour is learned. And often a person gets started when very young by playing with anothers’ sexual parts, and then engaging in homosexual acts.” (p. 27). I guess from a “control” standpoint, combining masturbation with homosexuality makes sense, but it obviously flies in the face of the preponderance of empirical evidence: masturbating doesn’t make people homosexual.
The author also describes the organization of the JWs, which was also something with which I was not that familiar. JWs don’t have paid clergy and all the members in good standing (called “pioneers”) are the missionary force. But I was never sure who ran the organization, “The Witnesses make use of two corporations – namely, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and New York, and the International Bible Students Association. The Pennsylvanian Corporation has voting members who live in all parts of the world. They meet annually and elect or re-elect seven directors of the corporation, who themselves elect officers. The President of the corporation is therefore, elected not by popular vote but by the directors, who choose one of their members for the post. The International Bible Students Association is a London Corporation. It owns property in Britain and is responsible predominantly for British affairs. The President is responsible for the central administration of door-to-door evangelism and travels extensively to check on the progress of the movement worldwide. Doctrinal edicts are the responsibility of a larger body of Jehovah’s Witnesses known as the remnant class – a spiritual committee comprising the President and other devotees.” (pp. 29-30). This makes the leadership of the organization seem as though it is more of a corporation than anything else, but this next quote illustrates some of the differences, “Until recently, members of the Governing Body remained completely anonymous to Witnesses at grass roots level. Their photographs were never to be seen in Kingdom Halls or in any of the organisation’s literature. Witnesses everywhere continue to believe that God is using the Governing Body as his channel of communication, and any correspondence for which it is responsible is endorsed only by the Society’s official rubber stamp… The structure of the movement and the intense loyalty demanded of each individual at every level demonstrates the characteristics of totalitarianism… namely, an elaborate total ideology making chiliastic claims with a promise of a utopian future, a single mass party, a monopoly of the means of communication and central direction and control of activity through bureaucratic co-ordination… the Watch Tower Society controls millions of people who are denied freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of conscience yet, paradoxically… devotees regard themselves as free, and non-members as oppressed or ‘in shackles’” (pp. 32-33).
Another tidbit about the JWs that most may be somewhat familiar with is the fact that it is a millenarian movement awaiting the return of Christ. The JW leadership claimed Christ was going to return multiple times, “The years of 1874, 1914, 1918, 1925 and 1975 were all earmarked, to a greater or lesser extent, as times for the Second Coming of Christ, yet all brought bitter disappointment.” (p. 1). As is the case with many religious movements, disappointments like these are easily justified (e.g., followers lacked faith or the coming was spiritual, not physical, etc.).
Why are the JWs growing (and growing faster than Mormons, by the way)? The author attributes their appeal to two factors: the close-knit community converts find upon joining and the certainty provided by the totalitarian belief system that converts find comforting in light of the uncertainty brought about by modernization (p. 56). It is the chaos of modernity that pushes people toward the JWs, who provide answers and certainty for individuals who feel lost in the modern world.
The author also notes that JWs use some tools of modernity to convert others, namely they try to persuade through reason and logic rather than through appeals to emotion. While the “logic” is generally fallacious and tortured, appeals to reason are attractive to potential converts. The lack of charismatic worship is also somewhat unique to JWs, “…preparation for Watch Tower ministry is largely devoid of supernatural invocation. One indicator of this is the fact that the familiar stories in which born-again Christians declare how lost they were before they saw the light were missing in the testimonies of Witness converts.” (p. 60). The author also notes that JW meetings are devoid of glossolalia, weeping, and other displays of intensity or emotion – they are pretty rational affairs. Thus, JWs benefit from the very modernity they use as their foil in trying to attract converts.
The author is actually quite fair to quotidian members of the organization, but is dutifully critical of the leadership, particularly the founder of the JWs, “In a court in Ontario, Canada, in 1913, he [Russell, the founder of the JWs] declared under oath to be an expert scripture scholar, but when handed a Greek New Testament he was forced to admit that he did not even know the Greek alphabet. Neither did he know Latin or Hebrew. Few, if any, academic theologians in the universities of the world today acknowledge Russell as a scholar in any sense of the word.” (p. 19). The author is skeptical of many of the claims of the movement, but he is quite respectful of those who affiliate with the movement. It seems as though his years of experience around these people have led him to admire them for their devotion even though he does not find their beliefs compelling.
One claim of the author that I was skeptical about was the assertion that JWs are not particularly interested in education, “It would be a mistake, however, to think that, because Witness children are disciplined readers and listeners, they are high academic achievers. There are two main reasons why this is not generally the case. First, the passive ‘learning’ that takes place in the Kingdom Hall and at Book Study meetings fails to procure the critical thinking, less still the analytical skills, required for high-level academic performance; and, second, the Society’s message is unequivocally spiritual, which means that, whatever the academic potential of its younger members, evangelistic activities take priority over educational success. Young Witnesses who intend to undergo baptism rarely progress to college or university.” (pp. 134-135). While I’m not really surprised by this claim considering there are no social scientists studying religion who are Jehovah’s Witnesses are far as I know, I did think it warranted closer scrutiny. So, I pulled out the General Social Survey and ran a quick analysis on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the data set. The mean educational attainment reported for JWs from 1972 to 2006 is 11.29 years, which means just less than a high school diploma. The mean for the US generally is around 12.40, which means some college. Intriguingly, when you limit the GSS to just 2006, the mean for JWs drops to 11.24; JW educational attainment is not improving. This would seem to indicate that the author is right: JWs do not value educational attainment nearly as much as they value devotion to the religion.
I only have two very minor criticisms of the book. First, the author doesn’t clearly spell out his methods, though there is a brief section on his approach early in the book. A little more detail on his ethnographic methods would have been nice. Second, the book is missing one bit of information I was hoping it would have: The membership increase ratio of converts to children. In other words, what percentage of new members are converts vs. what percentage are children of existing members? Given my interests in religious growth, I was hoping he would answer this but he didn’t, even though he did say that about 70% of the children of JWs remain members.
Overall, this is a superbly-written book that does a remarkable job explaining a religious movement. The book details the theology and history sufficiently for his purposes and for readers to understand the movement, but it is not a detailed exegesis. The theoretical arguments for the appeal of the religion and its growth are also sound and well-reasoned. Finally, the author presents a good balance between skepticism of the movement’s claims and respect for the adherents. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding how sociologists think about religious movements.