Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States

Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States

Throughout the history of Jehovah's Witnesses, their beliefs, doctrines and practices have engendered controversy and opposition from governments, communities, or religious groups. Many Christian denominations consider their interpretation and doctrines to be heresy. Thus some religious leaders have accused Jehovah's Witnesses of being a cult. Members of the religion have also met with objection by governments for refusing to serve in the military, particularly in times of war. Many individuals view their door-to-door proselytizing as intrusive. These issues have at times led persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States and other countries.

Political and religious animosity against them has at times led to mob action and government oppression, in countries such as the United States, Canada and Nazi Germany. According to the eminent jurist Archibald Cox, in the United States, 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" [cite book |last=Cox |first=Archibald |title=The Court and the Constitution |location=Boston, MA |publisher=Houghton Mifflin Co. |year=1987 |pages=p. 189]

Negative attitudes towards Jehovah's Witnesses

In his 1964 study of prejudice toward minorities, Seymour Martin Lipset found that the Jehovah's Witnesses were among the most disliked of all religious minorities he researched. 41% expressed open dislike of them. [Lipset, Seymour Martin. "The Sources of the "Radical Right" in The Radical Right, Ed. by Daniel Bell, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1964. p.435] These attitudes persisted two decades later. 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 [ cite journal |author=Brinkerhoff, Merlin B. and Marlene M. Mackie |title=The Applicability of Social Distance for Religious Research; An Exploration |journal=Review of Religious Research |volume=Vol. 28 number=No. 2 |date=Dec. 1986]

1910s and 1920s

Strong resentment and anger were sometimes directed at the Jehovah's Witnesses (then called Bible Students) in the 1910s and 1920s. This was largely due to the Watch Tower Society's outspoken manner; members carrying placards outside many churches and in the streets proclaiming the imminent destruction of church members, along with both church and government institutions if they did not flee from "false religion" was not an uncommon sight. Typical examples of the Watchtower's attitude are found in the Watch Tower Society's book publication "The Finished Mystery" (SS-7), 1917 edition: "Also, in the year 1918, when God destroys the churches wholesale and the church members by millions, it shall be that any that escape shall come to the works of Pastor Russell to learn the meaning of the downfall of 'Christianity.'" ( [ Page 485] ) "The people who are the strength of Christendom shall be cut off in the brief but terribly eventful period beginning in 1918 A.D. A third part are 'burned with fire in the midst of the city.' Fire symbolizes destruction. . . .After 1918 the people supporting churchianity will cease to be its supporters, be destroyed as adherents, by the spiritual pestilence of errors abroad, and by the famine of the Word of God among them." (Pages 398, 399) The Bible Students believed religion was a "racket and a snare" and refused to be identified as a 'religion' for some time.

World War I

"The Finished Mystery", published in 1917, was controversial in its criticism of Catholic and Protestant clergy and Christian involvement in war. ["The Finished Mystery" [ pp. 247-253] [ 468] and [ 474] . ] Citing this book, the United States federal government indicted Rutherford and the new board of directors for violating the "Espionage Act" on May 7, 1918. They were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. However, in March 1919, the judgment against them was reversed and they were released from prison. The charges were later dropped. [cite book|title=Apocalypse Delayed|author=M.J. Penton|url=|pages=55–56 cite book|title=Jehovah's Witnesses—Proclaimers of God's Kingdom|publisher=Watchtower|year=1993|pages=647-654 Rutherford gives his defense against the charges in cite book|title=Souvenir Report of the Bible Student's Convention (1919)|url=|publisher=Watchtower|pages=62-63 and in the tract [ "The Case of the IBSA"] ] Patriotic fervor during World War I fueled persecution of the Bible Students both in America and in Europe. [cite journal|journal=The Golden Age|title=Distress of Nations: Cause, Warning, Remedy|pages=712–718|year=1920|month=September 29|url=]

The Watchtower Society's opposition to clergy support of World War I resulted in prosecution by the United States federal government. Rutherford and the new board of directors were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for violating the "Espionage Act". They were released on bail in March, 1919 and the judgment against them was reversed and charges dropped. ["Apocalypse Delayed", M.J. Penton, pp. 55-56]

1930s and 1940s

During the late 1930s and '40s, the Jehovah's Witnesses attacked the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations so vigorously that many states passed laws against their inflammatory preaching. [cite book |title=Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution |first=Shawn Francis |last=Peters |year=2000 |ISBN=978-0-7006-1182-9]

Pledge of Allegiance

Mandatory flag pledges in public schools were motivated by patriotic fervor in wartime America. The first known mandatory flag pledges were instituted in a number of states during the Spanish-American war. During World War I, many more states instituted mandatory flag pledges with only a few dissents recorded by the ACLU. It wasn't until World War II was drawing close that the practice was challenged directly in a way that rose through the court system.

In 1935, Rutherford pronounced a doctrine that declared saluting the flag to be a form of idolatry "contrary to the Word of God" [Radio discourse, October 6, 1935 as cited in "Jehovah's Witnesses--Proclaimers of God's Kingdom", pp. 196-197] , which in the US drew mob violence against Witnesses as they preached and caused many Witness children to be expelled from public schools.

This opposition so enraged local authorities, the American Legion, and other protectors of patriotism that the Witnesses were the only group during the World War II period to endure the kind of vigilante violence that had been so prevalent during World War I. Mob attacks upon Witnesses occurred in 335 communities in 44 different states in the six months running from May to October 1940 alone. Many of the injured were women and children.

In 1940, the Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that a school district's interest in creating national unity was sufficient to allow them to require students to salute the flag. The Supreme Court's Gobitis decision unleashed a wave of virulent anti-Jehovah's Witness persecution across the nation. Lillian Gobitas later characterized the violence as “open season on Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The American Civil Liberties Union recorded 1,488 attacks on the Witnesses in over 300 communities between May 1940 and October 1940.

One Southern sheriff told a reporter why Witnesses were being run out of town: "They're traitors; the Supreme Court says so. Ain't you heard?" Angry mobs assaulted Witnesses, destroyed their property, boycotted their businesses and vandalized their houses of worship. Less than a week after the court decision, a Kingdom Hall was stormed and torched in Kennebunk, Maine.

American Legion posts harassed Witnesses nationwide. 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. The Witnesses' cars were disabled and many overturned. The Governor was compelled to call out the state militia to quell the mob which reached 1,000 at its peak. [cite book |last=White |first=Timothy |title=A People For His Name; The History of Jehovah's Witnesses and an Evaluation |location=New York |publisher=Vantage Press |year=1967 |pages=p.330] Witness missionaries were chased and beaten by vigilantes in Texas. Their literature was confiscated and even burned.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appealed publicly for calm, while newspaper editorials and the American legal community condemned the Gobitas decision as a blow to liberty. Several justices signaled their belief that the case had been “wrongly decided.”

On June 16, 1940, the United States attorney general, Francis Biddle, made a radio broadcast over a coast-to-coast network in an effort to quiet the mob action, saying in part:

Partly because of this violent reaction to its decision, the Supreme Court reversed itself only three years later. The 1943 West Virginia v. Barnette decision reversed the decision of Minersville School District v. Gobitis. Argued by Witness attorney Hayden C. Covington, the case revisited the issue of mandatory flag salute. Justice Jackson penned the majority opinion stating, in part, that, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

World War II

During this time period, Witnesses also experienced mob violence in America and were temporarily banned in Canada and Australia because they were perceived as being against the war effort. [cite book|title=The Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses|author=American Civil Liberties Union|url='s_Witnesses_-_ACLU.pdf|year=1941|pages=1-24 cite book|title=Visions of Glory|author=Barbara Grizzuti Harrison|pages=185, 281|year=1978|url= cite web|title=The Banning of Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia in 1941|url=|author=Jayne Persian|date=December 2005]

Post World War II

After wartime, violent actions against Jehovah's Witnesses subsided, but, they were viewed with continued suspicion especially due to their doctrine of "neutrality," and especially during the red scare in the 1950s were viewed as possibly communist. As legal battles were won to establish their rights to preach from "door to door" and abstain from patriotic activities in schools, and the US society increasingly became more tolerant of non-mainstream viewpoints in the 1960s and 1970s, active targeting and persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses diminished.Facts|date=July 2007


Further reading

* "The Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses: The Record of Violence Against a Religious Organization Unparalleled in America Since the Attack on the Mormons.", American Civil Liberties Union, New York, 1941

ee also

*United States Supreme Court cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses
*Jehovah's Witnesses and civil liberties

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