Jehovah's Witnesses: A Brief History of A Century of Religious-State Conflicts


Jehovah's Witnesses

A Brief History of A Century of Religious-State Conflicts

Jerry Bergman, Ph. D.



A review of the history of the movement now known as Jehovah's Witnesses finds that the sect has long been characterized by antagonism from most secular governments, primarily because of their stand on other religions, saluting the flag, war involvement, voting, and other patriotic activities. Opposition against them has been at times extremely violent, both in the Western nations as well as in the communist and totalitarian societies. In the United States of America and several other countries, the Jehovah's Witness cases have been among the most important modern religion, press and speech cases. Their relatively high level of success in the courts was also briefly reviewed. The blame for this problem lies both with the Watchtower and government intransigence.


Discussions of religious-state conflicts invariably focus back in history to the Salem Witch trials, or even to the "throwing of the Christians to the lions" in ancient Rome. Religious persecution, though, is in many ways more of a problem in the twentieth century than it was in earlier, more infamous periods of history. Hefley and Hefley conclude in their massive study of Christian martyrs of the twentieth century that more persecution against Christians has occurred in our own age than ever before in history. In their words, "it appears likely that Dr. Paul Carlson was correct when he told Congolese believers before his martyrdom that more believers have died for Christ in this century than all of the previous centuries combined" (1979, p. 589). Although fully accurate and complete statistics are not easy to come by, the individual suffering found in the many contemporary case histories now available speaks volumes. Of those involved in religious conflicts, many include American missionaries stationed in foreign countries, and often nationalistic fervor is mixed with religious persecution. Many, though, include open hate expressed against their country's own citizens who dare to profess another faith (Bosmajian, 1988).

The Jehovah's Witness

Of all modern religions, the group which has experienced the most conflicts from citizens of their own country are members of the modern sect today known as the Jehovah's Witnesses (Bergman, 1984). As Murphy concluded in a work sympathetic to the Witnesses, "no chapter in human history has been so largely written in terms of persecution and intolerance as the one dealing with religious freedom... and the Jehovah's Witnesses are living proof of the fact that even in this nation, conceived as it was in the ideals of freedom, the right to practice religion in unconventional ways is still far from secure" (Sorauf, 1984, p. 336). According to the eminent jurist Archibald Cox, in the United States--a country that claims to champion religious freedom above all others--the Witnesses were "the principal victims of religious persecution... in the twentieth century... Although founded earlier, they began to attract attention and provoke repression in the 1930s, when their proselytizing and numbers rapidly increased" (1987, p. 189). And King concludes:

Many of the teachings have led the sect into bitter conflict with civil authorities all over the world, in democratic as well as in totalitarian states. ....[The major reasons are because the] Jehovah's Witnesses will not fight or undertake war-related work in a time of national emergency. They are not pacifist, they simply believe that they are already enlisted in the army of Jehovah and cannot give allegiance to another power, that of the civil state. Thus, whilst they are exemplary citizens in matters of tax payment and obedience to moral and criminal laws, they will not undertake civil duties which they see as conflicting with their duty to Jehovah--God. Witnesses will not vote..., salute a national flag or recognize a national anthem, and they refuse to enlist. In peace time they are normally tolerated in democratic countries, but in war-time and in totalitarian regimes they frequently face imprisonment (1982, p. 248).

A summary by The American Civil Liberties Union (1941, p. 1) which has often argued cases before the courts in favor of the Watchtower, concluded that "the record of violence against [the Jehovah's Witnesses] has been unparalleled in America since the attacks on the Mormons." They add that "not since the persecution of the Mormons years ago has any religious minority been so bitterly and generally attacked as members of the Jehovah's Witnesses... Documents filed with the department of justice by attorneys... showed over 3,035 instances of mob violence in forty five states during 1940 involving 1,488 men, women and children." The conflicts were of such intensity that then Attorney General Francis Biddle made a nationwide radio appeal to the American people to stop the violence, part of which said:

Members of... Jehovah's Witnesses have been repeatedly set upon and beaten. They had committed no crime; but the mob adjudged they had, and meted out mob punishment (Whalen, 1962, p. 183).

One of the main issues the Witnesses faced in the forties was the Watchtower requirement that Witnesses not salute the flag or buy war bonds because of their opposition to war, and in any way support war efforts (Sibley and Jacob, 1952). White summarizes an event typical of this time as follows:

At Klamath Falls, Oregon, the American Legion started to harass the Witnesses assembled with requests to salute the flag and buy war bonds. Then they attacked the Witnesses and besieged the hall, breaking windows, tossing in stink bombs, ammonia and burning kerosene rags. Some tried to get in the hall through the broken windows, only to be hit with broken benches by the Witnesses inside. The Witnesses' cars were all disabled and many overturned. Only the militia called out by the Governor of the state finally quelled the mob which reached 1,000 at its peak (1967, p. 330).

A study of the factors that led to this development concluded that this religious group, which was often most ready and willing to confront the state, was:

impressively organized, pridefully evangelistic, and often scornful of the leaders of traditional religions, the members of the sect repeatedly collided with the law. Their willingness to do battle in the courts has been crowned with remarkable success. Their record in the United States Supreme Court shows they have won more than ninety percent of the fifty or so cases brought before that tribunal. The story of this success begins with Cantwell Vs. Connecticut in 1940 (Semonche, 1986, p. 44).

As a result of their human rights struggles, Starr (1964) stated that the Watchtower has achieved greater success in arguing the basic questions concerning religious freedom before the American Supreme Court than all other religious groups combined. Professor Cushman estimated that between 1938 and 1946, the Witnesses brought twenty major religious freedom cases before the court and were victorious in a total of fourteen. They have by this means not only forced the clarification of many human rights issues, but in at least two instances have forced the high court to reverse itself. Although their stand has produced a certain vindication, the conflicts continue today, only in different forms in spite of occasional Supreme Court victories on rather basic issues. This problem has been both consistent and pervasive since their founding in 1879 (Penton, 1976).

The Watchtower has experienced conflicts in almost every nation of the world--this writer was unable to locate a single country where they have not experienced problems. At one time or another they were banned or their activities severely restricted in almost every nation of the world and are still banned in twenty-six countries according to their official world-wide activities report published in 1995. If they were a small inconsequential sect, this would be of less importance, but at over ten-million adherents with an income in the United States alone of over $1.25 billion they are now a major religious force. They are now the second largest religious denomination in Poland, Italy, Spain and Portugal and have over 100,000 members in countries that include Britain, Germany, France, Brazil and Canada. They claim almost 350,000 members in Mexico, 150,000 in Nigeria and almost 1,000,000 members in the United States. The Watchtower is a huge denomination by any standard and continue to experience significant growth.

The Cooperation of Governments

The Witness problems have often occurred with the cooperation and even the open approval of various government officials. White summarizes some of the various attempts to block the Witnesses from assembling together as a group in the forties, noting that:

The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and various Catholic groups--tried to stop completely the 1940 series of conventions... The key city chosen was Columbus, Ohio... but... the official, concerned, canceled the contract. Already Jehovah's witnesses had spent much time in preparation [for Columbus, Ohio as the key site]... and, on short notice, a petition was circulated [by Witnesses] throughout the United States requesting Governor John W. Bricker to permit the Witnesses to use the hall. 2,042,126 signed and on appointment 350 Witnesses showed up at the Governor's house, each bearing a parcel with about 6,000 signatures.... but he failed to act for the Witnesses because, he said, they didn't salute the flag. Because Bishop James J. Hartley was reported to have caused the cancellation, N.H. Knorr, the Society's second-in-command, invited him to speak to the assembled Witnesses on 'Religion as a World Remedy,' the same subject Rutherford was to use. He did not reply.

So the convention was transferred to Detroit. But troubles were not over. First, the owner of the Convention Hall was threatened with increased tax assessments if he took in the Witnesses, but he did not yield. Then on the 26th and 27th of July, 1940, more than 100 delegates were taken to the police station...On the 20th, thirty-seven Witnesses were jailed, and there were at least twelve cases of attack by priests or patriots, two of them involving sisters [female Witnesses]. One priest tore both the sign and part of the clothing from a sister advertising the convention. The police refused to come to the Witnesses' assistance in those cases [as well]. Fifty were still in jail as the convention concluded.

Similar scenes occurred at other convention cites in the network. Over twenty-five Witnesses were arrested at Boston, Massachusetts, and some [were] convicted. Twenty-four were jailed at Las Cruces, New Mexico. At Jackson, Mississippi, a mob of fifty men invaded the auditorium demanding that the Witnesses leave town. When they didn't the mobsters forcibly made them, and the convention had to be abandoned. Cancellations and denials of the use of halls were the principal reasons for other assembly stoppages (1967, p. 326-327).

In 1940, the major reason given to arrest Witnesses in the United States was the claim that their assembly was in violation of various "ordinances," a ploy which White concludes was "definitely useless" to suppress them. Consequently, different and more serious charges were brought against them, including blasphemy, ridicule, inciting violence, breach of the peace or desecration of the flag. White lists numerous separate incidents which provide a feeling for the extent and form of the conflicts the Witnesses experienced from citizens and government officials alike. Some of these are as follows:

At Biloxi, Mississippi, a Witness was likewise advertising his literature on the streets when he was heckled by a Catholic priest. He took the priest's photo. The cleric didn't like this and had him arrested. The Witness asked Chief of Police Alonzo Gabrich to see the camera as evidence. But he destroyed it and, while a policeman held him, he struck the Witness in the face with his fist.

In Connersville, Indiana, on Palm Sunday, sheriffs jailed seventy-five Witnesses on a charge of criminal syndicalism. The court set their bail at an impossible $225,000... In Topeka, Kansas, two Witness children of fourteen and nine refused to salute, and were made wards of the court. The judge sentenced their mothers to a year's imprisonment.

Mob rule continued unabated. On April 25th, 1942, a mob attacked three Witnesses advertising their literature on the streets. One had his arms pinned behind him while a mobster struck him almost unconscious. Police threatened to arrest--the Witness! ... On May 23rd, a sixteen year old Witness was beaten for not saluting the flag. In Salt Lake City, Utah, two men entered the home of a Witness and inflicted cuts, bruises and a fracture on the hip of the occupant. When friends of the Witnesses tried to file an appeal bond a mob injured them. An attorney, in Sulfur Springs, Texas, who had been defending Witnesses, was attacked by five men with a knife, but fought back and broke the noses of two of his assailants. In Little Rock 100 pipeline workers formed a mob and armed with guns and pipe attempted to break up the assembly [there]. Some entered the convention grounds and chased the Witnesses away, brandishing their weapons and firing shots...dragging the occupants out, asking them if they would salute the flag and, when they refused, beating the Witnesses and tossing them into a ditch. No arrests of the mobsters were made (1967, p. 327-330).

These hostilities were recently resurrected in former President Bush's comments during the last election relative to Governor Dukakis vetoing a bill in his state which would require mandatory flag salute by students, a bill that is contrary to the Supreme Court's ruling that these laws are unconstitutional. Dr. Robert Maddox, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), appeared on the Morton Downey television show to discuss this issue, and the enormous hostility he experienced is recounted below. my day I've endured some tough interviews under the harsh television lights. But nothing I have ever done on camera prepared me for the situation I found myself in a few weeks ago sitting on the "hot seat" of "the Morton Downey Jr. Show,"...

It all started when the Pledge of Allegiance flap broke during the presidential campaign. Americans United issued a press release tracing the history of the problem, pointing out that the constitutional questions involved in the episode stemmed from conscientious objections against reciting the pledge raised by Jehovah's Witnesses. In our release we made it plain that AU does not take positions for or against candidates but simply felt that the shrill hue and cry needed to be addressed with some sanity and accuracy. In response we received an avalanche of requests to discuss our views... To our surprise, a producer of the Downey show also called, asking if I would appear, at Mort's expense, on the program to "discuss" our views.... I discovered that the audience poses almost as much a threat to the guests as does Morton Downey... These folks love Mort, roaring frequent approval of his outrageous pronouncements. Just about anything he says pushes a button with the audience, causing them to unleash a din of approval alongside breathless threats against any guest who dares to disagree with their hero.

Fortunately, Downey and his studio herd allowed me a few uninterrupted seconds to make my statement about the religious liberty and freedom of speech problems involved in requiring a person to recite the Pledge. My protagonist ... tore into me for 'denying children the right to say the Pledge of Allegiance.' Over the tumult that broke as the audience stomped their feet and screamed its agreement with him, I insisted that no one had any notion of denying the right to say the Pledge to anyone. The "dialogue" took a decided turn from that point.... Some in the audience convinced me they would physically attack a person who refused to give the Pledge, even if saying the words violated a deeply held religious conviction. The disturbing fact that so many in the country... have little tolerance for dissenting views and even less understanding of the nuances of religious freedom issues.... (Maddox, 1988, p. 21)

Empirical studies have confirmed that these attitudes are common in the United States. For example, Lipsit concluded from his study of prejudice toward minorities that the Jehovah's Witnesses were among the most disliked of all religious minorities he researched--the group average showed Americans experienced more dislike of them than even the most hated ethnic minorities. An average of a whopping 41% expressed open dislike of them (Lipset, 1964, p. 435). Research by Brinkerhoff and Mackie concluded that the religious groups Americans found least acceptable were the so-called new cults followed by the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and conservative Christians (1986). King and Clayson found that in the United States, Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews:

had the most negative evaluations of all other religious groups for the research population. Also recent research (Wuthnow, 1982) indicates that when twelve religious groups were ranked by a national sample in terms of negative feelings, Mormons, Jews, and Jehovah's Witnesses received the most negative evaluations of the twelve groups. Thus the general public has imputed negative evaluations to these religious groups, and so in a sociological sense Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses can be defined as deviant groups. A further aim of the research is to examine how certain psychological and sociological factors influence the stereotypes associated with the above mentioned groups (1984, p. 50).

And last, a study by the Barna Research Group found that a significant number of Americans have an unfavorable view of Jehovah's Witnesses--this study polled over 600 adults and found among those who had an opinion about Jehovah's Witnesses, 26% said it was favorable, and for fully 74% it was negative (1990:3). In comparison, 88% had a favorable opinion of Protestants and 85% of Catholics (1990:2). The only other group for which this amount of antagonism existed was the Hare Karishnas, which 84% viewed them unfavorably compared to 16% favorably. For many groups the data was the reverse of the Witnesses--for Jews 84% viewed them favorably, compared to only 16% favorably (Barna, 1990:3; Haymann, 1991, p. 124).

The Sources of the Conflicts

A major cause of the conflicts of the 1940s was the hostility of citizens which was condoned by the officials who often violated the law themselves or, at the least, condoned the mob violence. As White summarizes the 1943 violence against Jehovah's Witnesses involved:

Robert Cofer and Oscar Lawrence Pillars, the latter a special representative of the governing body, were told to quit their work in Winnsboro, Texas. The marshal arrested Pillars, but promised protection if he would salute the flag. When he refused he was turned over to a mob... beaten to unconsciousness, revived with water, beaten again, dragged by a rope around his neck to the city hall and hanged to a post. Fortunately the rope broke. At 12:30 pm he was put in jail again, and a doctor at 3:45 pm said he would have to be taken to a hospital in order to remain alive. By 9:30 pm he was in a hospital. The police chief of Greenville, Mississippi (17th and 18th April, 1943), ordered all Jehovah's Witnesses out of town by 5:00 pm. None left. So he herded fifty into jail, leaving a Witnesses's three year old child unattended in the rain outside (1967, p. 330).

In addition, the police not uncommonly openly contributed to the violence, both by condoning it and by their active involvement. One case involved an Afro-American Witness who:

was picked up in Little Rock, Arkansas. When he refused to salute, the police beat him to unconsciousness. When he came to they repeated it. He was released two days later with hemorrhaging, and permanent head and brain injuries. [And in another Witness case] On December 5, 1942, August Schmidt called unintentionally on the home of Sergeant Ellis of Redondo Beach, California. Ellis returned the call, dragging him to his car, forcing him to enter at gunpoint, and beat him with a blackjack (White, 1967, p. 330-331).

Judge Henry Edgerton once summarized his long experience on the bench, concluding that during World War II the principal threat to civil liberties came:

not from the Federal Government but from the activities of local officials and from the terrorism practiced by private persons against the unpopular groups, especially the pacifist sect called Jehovah's Witnesses. Out of these activities there grew an important development of the law as to freedom of religion (Bontecou 1978, p. 2).

The following sad conclusion of the failure of the United States justice during this time is, out of the many thousands of assaults on the Witnesses in those years, the Department of Justice found courage to prosecute and convict but one. That person was Ellis (White, 1967, p. 331). Some of the violence involved local or higher level officials, including the mayor of Harlem, Kentucky, who:

ordered the police to loot the home of Witness Louis Beeler and arrest him. They tried to force him to salute the flag, struck him repeatedly on the face, and then jailed him. Witness Lindell Carr visited him in jail but was arrested, had his home searched, and finally joined him behind bars. Witness Elihu Hurst visited Beeler's hearing and joined the two in jail. Other Witnesses were arrested.... Unable to get legal help they remained in jail without trial for eighty-four days. Then trial was again postponed for three months.

At Somerset, Kentucky... Witnesses Frank Speerless and wife [were jailed] for sedition, and Everett Henry for giving him literature while in jail. Witness Willie Johnson reclined behind bars for six months under an impossible $5,000 bail until charges were simply dropped. Later mob action started. Witness Miss Eunice Lamson was attacked by a mob of women and children who tried to force her to salute, and when she called the police for protection the police arrested her. Her trial was set for the day following, not allowing her time to consult a lawyer, and she was jailed on conviction. In time an attorney got her out, but another Witness Mina Kinler was arrested for trespassing and took her place. She was released on appeal. Since they were having so much difficulty keeping Witnesses in jail for long under traditional laws, Somerset then passed a peddler's license tax ordinance requiring payment of $7.50 per day for privilege of distributing literature. Few Witnesses could afford this and would not pay it if they could, so many were arrested and convicted... (White, 1967, p. 331)

An excellent example of this antagonism by a high level court official was related by Dershowitz, who as a law student at Yale read about a Supreme Court decision:

involving a compulsory flag salute during World War II, to which some Jehovah's Witnesses objected on religious grounds. The majority agreed with the religious objectors, but Justice Felix Frankfurter dissented essentially on the ground that patriotism during war-time is more important than religious liberty. Frankfurter, a Jew, began his dissent with a remarkable self-characterization: One who belongs to the most vilified and persecuted minority in history is not likely to be insensible to the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution.' (He, of course, [then] proceeded to be quite "insensible" to the religious freedoms of the Jehovah's Witnesses!) I read the Frankfurter characterization in astonishment (1991, p. 48).

The other factor is the attitude and teachings of the Watchtower. Especially during the presidency of J.F. Rutherford, many articles in Watchtower publications were deliberately designed to stir up trouble. Rutherford's vitriolic attacks were not only against the government, but also the clergy, especially Roman Catholic. He repeatedly called them scum, roosters, jackasses, harlots, s.o.b.s, even advocating violence and encouraging Witnesses to stir up trouble. Many of the articles would today no doubt engender legal action against the Watchtower with claims that they were inciting religious hatred. And the claimants would likely prevail at least in American courts.

In a letter to Watchtower attorney O.R. Moyle dated February 28, 1937, Rutherford requested that his opponents debate him, and he wanted it to be a "national" affair, not letting his adversaries "sneak off into some isolated corner and spitting out their stuff by an insignificant rooster." In another letter to Moyle, dated April 22, 1939, about the assault cases against Witnesses, he advised that if the Witnesses would "show a little fight and peel someone's head for him" this response may have helped solve their problems then. In another letter of March 31, 1939, Rutherford requested Moyle to file a law suit "in each of everyone of the cases, against the city, against the city manager,... the commissioner, the mayor, and particular the Catholic priest, and every other SOB, that incited the mob, and see if we can't excite these roosters somewhat." True, these letters were written in responses to violence, but this response would hardly reflect the "turn the other cheek," love your enemies philosophy that the Witnesses claim to espouse. Rutherford advocated the opposite of what the Watchtower elsewhere claims to believe. Articles in the Golden Age and Consolation pictured the Catholic priest in the vilest of terms, and numerous illustrations showed especially Catholics in a slanderous light. (Photo copies of these letters appear in Duane Magnani 1987, p. 196, 197, & 245).

Shortly after Rutherford wrote the above letters, he gave a talk at Madison Square Garden titled Government and Peace. At the rally he seemingly tried to stir up trouble when he made statements such as the following, "The Catholic Church, no matter what anybody tells you, supports Hitler." Some in the audience did not agree and promptly began:

booing and hissing. Witnesses, acting as ushers and armed with canes, rushed over to the trouble spot and began cracking their sticks against heads.... Other knots of anti-Rutherfordites popped up throughout the audience and pelted the speakers' platform with rotten eggs. By the time the police had dashed in from the street it was a huge free-for-all. Among the four persons injured were a women of 42 and a girl of 14, thrown down a staircase and trampled. When the war was over, police... arrested... three Witnesses' leaders. (Newsweek. 14: 29 [July 3, 1939])

The Watchtower, as the above incident illustrates, caused many of their own problems. Unfortunately, the average Witness suffered because of both the Watchtowers' policies and the reaction of the people and state to these policies.

The Situation in Other Nations

The situation we have described in America was, Jubber concludes, that the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses was much the same in most other nations and:

has been a recurrent experience of the Society since it was founded a century ago. Viewed globally, this persecution has been so persistent and of such an intensity that it would not be inaccurate to regard Jehovah's witnesses as the most persecuted group of Christians of the twentieth century (Jubber, 1977, p. 121).

Although reports come from virtually every nation in the world, the former Communist countries and those under totalitarian governments or with records of human rights abuse tended to experience far more incidents. One example which occurred in Tanzania in 1984, involved an order to demolish:

all Kingdom Halls in Tanzania's western district. The Sumbawanga district commissioner Ediddi Mapinda ordered their demolition following reports that the members of the outlawed sect had refused to participate in government sponsored activities. The group... was banned there ten years ago for reportedly being 'in conflict with the aims' of the ruling party and the government. Since the sect's formation in the 1870s, in the United States, it has come into conflict with the governments around the world because of its beliefs in the coming theocracy and its teaching that all political powers are expressions of Satan's power over humanity. Earlier last year, Bishop Paul Malseo and about seventy other members of the sect in Mwimbi and Mapaina areas of the western district were sentenced to six months in jail for 'staying away from socialist activities.' (report by Religious News Service, March 20, 1984)

In Greece, Church-State conflicts involving Witnesses have continued for generations, especially against the young military age males (Reppas, 1980). One of the most vicious examples of physical persecution involving Witnesses occurred, not in the Communist world, but in Malawi. The savagery of the attackers in Malawi was such that thousands of Witnesses of all ages and both sexes were physically brutalized by police and citizens alike (Jubber, 1977). One Witness, a Mrs. Magola, being pregnant and heavy with child, could not outrun the M.C.P. police. When they caught her, they battered her to death in full sight of many townspeople and police officers, and not one of them came to her aid (Awake!, Dec. 8, 1972, p. 12). This brutality ostensibly revolved around the refusal of Witnesses to purchase party cards, an act which caused many Witnesses to be beaten on their backs and buttocks with planks of wood that had nails in them. When they showed signs of pain,

their attackers beat harder, saying, 'Let your God come and save you.' In addition, they broke a bottle and used the broken edge to 'shave' some Witness men. On September 22 Jasteni Mukhuna of the Blantyre area was beaten till his arm was broken. At Cape Maclear, at the southern end of Lake Malawi, Witness Zeiphat Mbaiko was covered with bundles of grass tied around him. Petrol was poured on the grass and set afire. He died as a result of the burns... In the Ntonda area, south of Blantyre, Smith Bvalani, his elderly mother and others of Jehovah's Witnesses, both men and women, were beaten ...until they lay unconscious on the ground. One of the Youth League members, searching their pockets found money on one Witness. He then used the money to buy political cards for each of them, writing their names on the cards and throwing these on the ground near the unconscious Witnesses. The Youth League now said that the Witnesses had given in and compromised their faith. When Smith Bvalani's mother regained consciousness and saw the card she told them that she would not accept it even if it meant her death. They then beat her into unconsciousness again.

Seventy three year old Israel Phiri of Khwele Village, Mchinji, related: ... we were thirty Witnesses all together. We stayed two months in the bush. However, suddenly, on October 5, we found ourselves surrounded by a large group of youths. They were all strange faces to me. 'As I tried to walk away, some of them got hold of me and began beating me with sticks and kicking me all over my body. It was impossible for me to see what was happening to the other brothers. Finally they left me lying unconscious on the ground. After regaining consciousness I tried to look for the other brothers but did not find them. I decided to leave Malawi for Zambia. Despite the fact that my whole body was swollen and my eyes were full of blood, with Jehovah's help I managed to walk many miles to get to Thamanda hospital in Zambia.'

Southeast of Blantyre, at Kavunje Village, all the Witnesses, men and women, were badly beaten and forced to walk naked on the road. One of their children died from the beating given him. In the northern region of Malawi, at Nkhotakota, a Witness woman, pregnant, was stripped of her clothing and badly beaten. The local leader of the M.C.P. told small children to kick her in the stomach, his purpose being to try to cause a miscarriage...

Sexual attacks were too numerous as well as too repugnant to set out here in full. Typical were these: Seventeen year old Rahabu Noah of Mtontho village, Kasungu, relates: 'On September 26, 1972, we received word that the youths were going from village to village attacking Jehovah's Witnesses... as we were going in a small path, we met a group of about twenty [persons]. They began asking forhcards. None of us could produce one and so they started beating us with sticks and hitting us with fists. Next they stripped all of us naked and then continued to beat us. A group of about ten youths pushed me aside and carried me away from the others. While some were holding my hands and legs the others were raping me. I saw eight of them taking turns in raping me one after another.... After beating us up savagely they left us.

... Funasi Kachipandi of Nyankhu Village, Lilongwe, gives her experience: 'On October 1, 1972, after hearing reports of attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses, I decided to run away and cross over to Zambia. I left immediately along with my nineteen year old daughter, Dailes Kachipandi. However, it didn't take long before we were captured by a group of unknown youths... In my presence five youths took turns in raping my daughter.... I tried to plead with him not to try and rape me as I was in my ninth month of pregnancy and I was so weak, but he could not show any human kindness. He raped me, doing so in the presence of my daughter. Then they left us. I reported these matters to the police. They took statements but did nothing. The following morning I gave birth to a child.... They are but a few of the hundreds of cases on file... (Awake!, Dec. 8, 1972, p. 12-13)

Hefley, in his summary of the persecution of Christians in the modern world, noted that a common reason for conflicts in Africa is because of foreign rule, but the Witness movement in Africa was controlled by native Africans, not foreign Whites, and much of the persecution occurred because they "refused to salute the national flag." These events led up to the development of the most recent example of a Hitler type concentration camp in this century:

After persuasion failed, Dr. Banda's government banned their activities. When they disregarded the order, soldiers rounded up thirty thousand of the sect and placed them in prison camps. In December, 1975, officials of the Witnesses in other countries protested that adherents in Malawi were being beaten, tortured, and raped with official approval. Malawi is now, in effect, a police state, Dr. Banda is firmly in power for 'life'...[A full story] about the persecution of the Witnesses [is] hard to determine. However, twenty evangelical foreign missions enjoy freedom of operation under the Banda regime. The Presbyterian Church of Zambia, to which the President belongs, has over six hundred thousand members (Hefley and Hefley, 1979, p. 447).

The Witnesses' problems have been most consistent in the old Soviet block countries. Soviet writer, Barmenkov, writing an official government sponsored propaganda work endeavoring to show that freedom of religion did in fact exist in the old Soviet Union, openly admitted that his government outright banned the Jehovah's Witnesses because the state cannot be:

indifferent to any actions directed against the Soviet way of life which encroach upon people's rights, honour and dignity, even if under religious cover. The socialist state protects its citizen's interests. This is the reason why it bans certain sects which grossly violate the accepted rules of social intercourse or perform cruel ceremonies. Such associations include Jehovah's Witnesses... among others. Under the guise of religious rites, the leaders of these associations instigate their members to anti-social actions, and encroach upon people's personal and human rights, sometimes even committing criminal acts.

The leaders of Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, receive slanderous publications full of malicious lies about the USSR and other socialist countries from abroad through reactionary anti-Soviet centres and try to spread them among their believers. They call the socialist system "the devil's tool" and "the world of Satan," and threaten atheists and believers with annihilation in a "holy war" (Armageddon). These fanatic sectarians urge their co-religionists to evade civic obligations, refuse to vote in elections to evade civic obligations, refuse to vote in elections, or to participate in censuses under threat of "punishment from God." Some Jehovah's Witnesses prevent their children from attending school, forbid them to go to the cinema, to watch television and to read fiction, newspapers and magazines (1983, p. 70).

The result of this, Derwinski noted, is that the Jehovah's Witnesses share:

... the distinction of being totally banned by Soviet authorities. As a result... there is not much information available about them. Judging from attacks in the Soviet media, they seem to be active in Moldavia, the north Caucasus, in southern and eastern Ulkraine, and in the Stavropol and Krasnodar regions. Samizdat sources reveal that Jehovah's Witnesses, who are imprisoned in large numbers, continue to practice their ministry in Soviet labor camps (Young, 1986, p.77) .

Now that they are allowed to openly operate in Russia, in 1994 they reported fully over 113,000 active Witnesses in the countries that were once part of the old U.S.S.R.

The Nazi Experience

The Nazi concentration camps have been studied extensively, although largely relative to only the Jewish experience. The largest subgroup of jailed conscientious objectors in both the United States and Germany was the Jehovah's Witnesses (Bettelheim, 1960, p. 280). Kogon (1958, p. 302) notes:

It would be fascinating ... to write a psychology of Jehovah's Witnesses (in the concentration camps). As a rule, they stem from middle class trades with relatively simple modes of thought and emotion, though in the concentration camps they unfolded a veritable spectrum of mental reactions and outward behavior patterns, ranging from the extreme of lofty anticipation of the hereafter down to thoroughly earthly appetites.

Little has been written about the German Jehovah Witness's experiences which is unique in many ways because the primary reason Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned was because of their refusal to fight in the German armies. Actually, of the many religions existing in Nazi Germany, the Witnesses and the Jews were the only groups to be uniformly persecuted: "The Third Reich was not willing... to tolerate [any] minority Christian sects who might prove a challenge...[but] only one group, the Jehovah's Witnesses, were the victims of total persecution" (King, 1979, p. 213). Beckford (1975, p. 33-34) concluded that their persecution in Nazi Germany far surpassed that which even the Witnesses had previously experienced, or ever expected:

Many of Rutherford's followers were already accustomed to the view that Satan was intensifying his campaign of terror against the defenders of truth on earth. Consequently, the news that Adolph Hitler had begun to persecute Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany came as little surprise, but merely confirmed most of them in their conviction that the contemporary social order was showing signs of imminent collapse. Yet, the brutality and ruthlessness of persecution in Germany must have shocked even the most hardened veterans of Watch Tower clashes with civil, military, and religious authorities. German Bible Students had been subject to periodic harassment since the First World War and were inured to being charged with alleged subversion or financial chicanery.... In February 1933, however, Hitler formally prescribed all Watch Tower activities and stipulated penalties for infraction of his edict ranging from fifteen months to five years in prison. Nazi ideologists accused them of sympathizing with the Jews, being implicated in international communism and showing disrespect for the Fuhrer. [At first, Rutherford tried to placate the Nazis; possibly this accounts for his anti-semetic manner in "Declaration" see 1934 Yearbook of Jehovah Witnesses and Penton 1985, p. 148-149].

The groups in the concentration camps which were "very aloof," and were much out of contact with their social element stuck to their values in the face of extreme hardship, and often, Bettelheim claims, as persons they "were hardly touched by the camp experience" (Bettelheim, 1960). One of these groups, Bettelheim notes, was the Jehovah's Witnesses who "not only showed unusual heights of human dignity and moral behavior, but seem protected against the same camp experience that soon destroyed persons considered very well integrated by my psychoanalytic friends and myself."

Bettelheim stresses that the behavior of the Jehovah Witnesses did not fit what would be expected according to psychoanalytic theory. We would expect that those who had well-integrated personalities would survive better under the difficulties of the concentration camp. The Jehovah's Witnesses, Bettelheim notes, were aloof and set apart from the social life of the camp. Although the Jehovah's Witnesses were not highly integrated with those around them, they were highly integrated within their own social group, i.e., other Jehovah's Witnesses. Thus, the case of the Witnesses would not necessarily contradict Bettelheim's conclusions relative to the importance of social integration and the ability to survive the concentration camp experience. The Jehovah's Witnesses were able to form intimate relationships with others of their faith, but other inmates were limited to relatives and select group members.

The Situation in Canada

The laws of many countries allow the release of official records after a certain period of time. These newly released records have revealed the behind the scenes activities of the official government which caused Jehovah's Witnesses and other groups problems in the so called "free world" (Bergman, 1995). Canada recently released a number of records which revealed that in the forties, "able bodied young Jehovah's Witnesses" were sent to "camps," and "entire families who practiced the religion were imprisoned." (Yaffee, 1984, p. 4).

To this Sallot and Yaffee, (1984, p. 1) add: "Recently declassified wartime documents suggest it [World War II] was also a time of officially sanctioned religious bigotry, political intolerance and the suppression of ideas. The federal government described Jehovah's Witnesses as subversive and offensive 'religious zealots'... in secret reports given to special parliamentarian committees in 1942." The report on Jehovah's Witnesses concluded that, "probably no other organization is so offensive in its methods, working as it does under the guise of Christianity. The documents prepared by the justice department were presented to a special house of commons committee by the government of William, Lyon, McKenzie King in an attempt to justify the outlawing of the organizations during the second world war."

Yaffee cites instances such as "a family of fifteen--including grandparents and children who were interrupted at home during a Bible study session" and taken to prison. The family, the Powleys, spent "fifteen months behind bars for 'holding a [religious] meeting'" (1984). Another case involved ten men who were interrupted during a small social gathering in a Welland, Ontario room with seven musical instruments:

Five of the men had Jehovah's Witness literature with them. Police were not sure whether the occasion was a musical gathering or a Bible study. The men were sentenced to a month in jail, appealed and got an even harsher six months in jail. By the time the case got to the Supreme Court of Canada it was dismissed with the court concluding that there was nothing illegal about ten men being together in a room.

Yaffee noted that a committee member pointed out the irony that the Klu Klux Klan was not then an illegal organization, yet the Witnesses were, and accusations that the Jehovah's Witnesses were affiliated with the Klu Klux Klan "may be a point in their favor." Yaffee concluded "documents show the government feared the group for... refusing to salute the nation's flag." Kaplan, in a work on the Witnesses and human rights in Canada, stated:

In July 1940 the government of Canada banned the Jehovah's Witnesses. Overnight it became illegal to be a member of this sect. The law, passed under the War Measures Act, was vigorously enforced. Beatings, mob action, police persecution, and state prosecution confronted the Jehovah's Witnesses as they ignored the ban and continued to go about their work spreading the word of God... The struggle was bitter indeed. Jehovah's Witness children who refused to sing the national anthem and salute the flag during patriotic exercises in public schools were often expelled from class, and in a few cases, removed from their parents' care and placed in foster homes and juvenile detention centres. Men of military service age who refused to fight spent the war trying to get out of alternative service camps established across Canada for conscientious objectors. Jehovah's Witness spent a good deal of time in the courts during the war years; they challenged government policies with which they disagreed, and were arrested in the hundreds and charged with being members of an illegal group (1989, book jacket).

An Analysis of the Conflicts

The conflicts still continue: the Witnesses are now still banned or their activities circumscribed in many countries. Yet, as Witt concluded:

It is a measure of the power of the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion that its broad interpretation has evolved almost solely in connection with one of the most reviled religious sects in American History.... Understandably, the Witnesses were not popular in many communities. On more than one occasion members of the sect met with violence from those affronted by their views. Several communities enacted laws to curb the activities of the Witnesses, and it was these laws that the Witnesses challenged in court. According to constitutional historian Robert F. Cushman, members of the sect brought some thirty major cases testing the principles of religious freedom to the Supreme Court beginning in 1938. In most of those cases, the Court ruled in their favor...[upholding] the right of Witnesses to solicit from door to door and to ring homeowners' doorbells, to refuse to salute the flag, and to be exempt from peddler's fees on sales of their literature (1988, p.85).

The major reason for their troubles was because Witnesses are taught to believe that all governments and all religions are of Satan--and under pain of excommunication all of them must follow Watchtower policy. The problems that result from the Watchtower's "hatred of things government, church and business" was well put by Cox:

Resentment, persecution, and prosecution attached themselves to the Jehovah's Witnesses partly because of the vehemence of their religious attacks on the established order and partly because of the militancy of their proselytizing ... they stood on street corners and canvassed from house to house, offering the tracts of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and preaching that the evil triumvirate of organized churches, business, and the State are the instruments of Satan. They seldom hesitated to seek attention from passersby or householders. Their attacks on the Roman Catholic Church were especially vehement (1987, pp. 189-190).

In the Watchtower's own words, they--and their members must accept this view under penalty of total excommunication--teach that:

All organizations on the earth that are in opposition to God and his kingdom [all non-Watchtower religious organizations plus the United Nations and all political organizations] therefore, necessarily take the name of "Babylon" and "harlot," and those names specifically apply to the leading religious organization, the Roman Catholic church.... That mighty religious organization ... uses the method of harlots to induce politicians and commercial traffickers and other to fall into her arms and yield to her supposed charms (Cantwell v. Conn. 31O US 296, (1940), p. 48).

The reason for their vehemence is because they are fully convinced that the world is:

evil and inimical to the virtuous rule of Jehovah, [and] ... that shortly after the second coming of Jesus Christ the forces of godliness will defeat those of worldly evil at the Battle of Armageddon. Since those events are imminent, all members much preach their approach and rally the forces of good that will inherit the earth. This they do by public evangelism--taking records, tapes, tracts, books, and speeches door-to-door and to street corners. In the 1930s and 1940s, moreover, the evangelism was more aggressive, even strident, than it has been in recent decades, and many non-Witnesses, especially Roman Catholics, found it offensive (Sorauf, 1984, p. 336).

Importantly, the Watchtower interpreted what they view as persecution as both fully expected and actually necessary because:

The Witness work for THE THEOCRACY appears to be about done in most of the countries of "Christendom." Now the totalitarian rule has suppressed the Theocratic message, and it should be expected that when they quit fighting amongst themselves all the totalitarian rulers will turn their attention to [the complete suppression of everything pertaining to] the THEOCRATIC GOVERNMENT. What then does it mean that the THEOCRATIC GOVERNMENT is now suppressed in many nations? It means that the hour is rapidly approaching when the 'sign' of Armageddon will be clearly revealed and all who are on the side of Jehovah will see and appreciate it (Watchtower, Sept. 1, 1940, p. 265).


In contrast to the common assumption that religious conflicts were far more common in the more intolerant periods of history, it has been a major problem in the twentieth century, evidently surpassing that of any other period in history. This paper examined the case of Jehovah's Witnesses which has been among the most embattled of all twentieth century religious sects. Clearly, the Watchtower have themselves brought on much of the persecution, for example, by rigidly requiring their members to follow policies which many governments deem hostile to the secular state and its authority (Bergman, 1995). An example is the Watchtower ruling that members were not allowed to buy, under pain of disfellowshipping, an identification card in Malawi which the government considered no different than having a driver's license. The Watchtower, in contrast, interpreted the card as indicating party membership, something which is forbidden to members.

The history of many conflicts between the Watchtower and the secular state often involved two unyielding and rather rigid power structures, with millions of Jehovah's Witnesses caught in the middle. The Watchtower's intransigence, though, is no excuse for the inhumane manner in which the secular state has often responded to the Witness problem. The suffering that has resulted from this conflict has been enormous and the blame falls on both the Watchtower and the secular state. Effectively dealing with the problem requires an understanding of both the extent and nature of twentieth century religious persecution, and a recognition that it is still a major human rights problem. Consequently, it is incumbent upon enlightened governments to properly and humanely respond to this concern.


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