Flying Under the Radar, Part 1

Occasionally in my posts I have mentioned some of the, ummm – what’s the polite word here – oddities I experienced and witnessed raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) by an über-devout mother.  Over time, I have received several emails from people who (1) were also raised as JWs, (2) have friends/family who are JWs and are puzzled as to what’s goes on inside the JW world, or (3) simply were curious – or perhaps disbelieving :) – as to the experiences I recounted.

I shared this with my friend and crochet guru Summer who said, quite thoughtfully, that it seemed that Jehovah’s Witnesses have always “flown under the radar.”  What Summer meant by that is there are numerous documentaries and news shows (e.g., PBS, Frontline, American Experience, etc.), about the Amish, Mormons, the Catholic Church and all it scandals through the centuries, and so on but, she noted, people don’t really seem to know much about JWs.

In fact, Summer – a highly educated, intelligent and religious woman – didn’t know that the JWs were an American religious sect founded in the late 1870s.  (By the way, neither of its two founders went to university, nor could they speak, read or write Latin, Greek or Hebrew – or, for that matter, any other language most Biblical scholars need.)  Nor did she know that JWs use “Jehovah” as God’s name, versus “God” being merely a descriptive title.  We were told it was taken from Hebrew characters (יהוה).  (If you’re curious, see Wikipedia for more.)

In any event, my conversation with Summer those many months ago never left my mind.  While I work through the design on Thor’s sweater (I’m on the sleeves now), and trying to keep accurate notes (yikes – a LOT of work!), I decided to shed some light inside the world of the JW.

As described by Wikipedia, “Jehovah’s Witnesses is a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity.”  What exactly does that mean?

Here’s the explanations and (in italics) the JW twists, my examples, or clarifications to that one-line description of the JWs:

Millenarian:

  • JWs believe a war called Armageddon (“the war of god the almighty”), will come during which anyone who has not become a JW will be destroyed (no chance of life thereafter) by Jehovah.

Holding my baby, my mother crooned:  “Too bad your father is an adulterer and your mother will be killed by Jehovah in the Battle of Armageddon.”

The year of its coming has changed over time.  In the early 20th century, it was 1914; when I was a teenager, it was 1975.  Yes – an actual date.  I remember sitting in the hot sun on a bench at a huge JW “assembly” (huge meeting of thousands) when the speaker explained – to a rapt and increasingly terrified audience – when Armageddon would come.  A simple addition yielded the year 1975.  As the year 1975 has come and gone, the JWs changed its organizational tune, claiming that the date was spread around by a few JWs who were overzealous and misunderstood.  But I was there when the “new light” was revealed.

I remember thinking that I would turn 18 years old in 1975 but maybe Armageddon would come early that year so I wouldn’t have to finish high school.  People in our congregation put off buying homes, dropped out of high school, or ran up lots of purchases on credit all secure in the knowledge that as of sometime in 1975, Armageddon would have taken care of it all.  (See below.)

  • After Armageddon, a thousand-year rule by Christ will begin during which time the faithful who survived Armageddon (all JWs, of course) will restore the earth to its original paradise form.
  • After the earth is restored to paradise, God will start resurrecting – in reverse chronological order – two groups of people:
  1. Those people who served Jehovah and died faithful to him.  This gamut runs from Abel, killed by Cain (remember, it’s in reverse chronological order so he would be the last resurrected), and all the JWs killed by religious persecution or simply died from natural causes up to moments before the bloodbath of Armageddon starts.
  2. Those people who died without ever having a chance to hear about Jehovah.

This explains the near-frenzied door-to-door activity.  (So those of you who send JWs packing, take heed!)  Armageddon can’t come, we were taught, until all of the people alive today have had a chance to learn about Jehovah.  (Now take a moment to think about that … could that ever be possible?!)

Those people resurrected who still refuse to accept the “Truth” would be killed/die once again, never to be resurrected.

Everyone else (those who accept Jehovah), would get to live forever.  (My questions as to what would happen when the earth could support no more people weren’t satisfactorily answered by the standard JW responses:  “Have faith in Jehovah” or “pray.”  (I knew not to ask too many questions, as that would indicate we were “questioning the Holy Spirit.”)

Restorationist:

  • JWs believe, as do many sects and groups, that they are restoring biblical/god’s beliefs in line with what Jehovah truly meant as set forth in the Bible.  (Of course, it’s eminently useful that the JWs use their own version of the Bible.)

Of course, many groups and people have worked to do this in their own way, including (but not limited to) Martin Luther (remember, he didn’t intend to start a new religion but merely bring Catholicism back in line with God’s intent), Hussites, Puritans, and 7th Day Adventists.  By definition, any religious group – whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim – is “radical” when it seeks to get back to the “roots” of its faith.

The language of the JWs dichotomizes their beliefs and clearly establishes their restorationist approach:  They divide all people as (1) “in the Truth” (JWs), and (2) “in the World” (everyone else). Some examples of how those phrases are used:

  • “Oh, that boy’s cute.  Too bad he’s Worldly.”
  • “This is my cousin Donna.  She is now in the Truth!”
  • “Karen left the Truth” [and joined the World].”

Nontrinitarian Beliefs :

  • JWs do not believe in the doctrine of the trinity which posits the coexistence and coequality of God-the-father, God-the-son and God-the-holy-spirit.  They believe in Jehovah as God, Jesus as Christ (and God’s son), and the Holy Spirit – but they are all separate.

Next post: 

My next post will explore the Distinct from Mainstream Christianity part of Wikipedia’s description.  Some good examples coming …

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About sweatyknitter

Fiber artist, practitioner of yoga, author, consultant and amateur chef.
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16 Responses to Flying Under the Radar, Part 1

  1. tgonzales says:

    Very interesting. I enjoy reading about all the different things that you do so much research on. I can’t even imagine how long it takes you to write a post. :) Thanks for sharing the religion that you grew up with. :)

    • Thanks for reading my posts! I sort of work out my posts in my head and then sit down to write them. :) Re the religion I was raised it, it was bizarre, to say the least. Wait until you see the next couple of posts. :/

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      • tgonzales says:

        I know how much time it takes to prepare a post and am in awe of how much information you provide in yours. I can only imagine how different it was to grow up in the JH religion. I am looking forward to reading more. Hugs, Tamara

  2. remilyknits says:

    Really interesting to read this from an insider’s perspective! I spoke with a very nice local JW for a while, but it became obvious we were never going to agree on religious stuff. She still brings me pamphlets from time to time.

    • Yes, the ones who come to the door are always nice. They’re there to convert, and as the old saying goes, one catches more flies with sugar than vinegar. (Which also never made much sense, as you’d probably catch even more flies with poop.) By the way, the lady will keep coming back as long as she thinks you’re a possible convert, and by your accepting the literature … well that’s what they interpret as a sign that you might be. When they go door-to-door, they have a little “map” of the “territory” (the piece of your town they are working through). Anyplace where no one is home is marked down on a list as a “not-at-home” and the jWs will try again in a few days or so. If you take any literature, they mark you down as “interested” and make note of the address, what they gave you and, if you gave it, your name. They will be back with more. I very well know the routine; I was training to be a missionary by the time I bolted … as a child I started out having 10 hours per month door-to-door and by the time I was 18 had worked it up to between 80-100. I have a LOT of experience with that. :(

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  3. jengolightly says:

    Blimey ! We have a JW church near me and the believers stand in front of the train station. I find it odd that the literature being handed out only shows white folks in heaven, its not very inclusive.

  4. Clire says:

    So interesting! Yes, it seems the media doesn’t shine much light on the JW’s for some reason.

    • Yes, I’ve always wondered why. The JWs tend to have a “goody two shoes” reputation … the local newspaper covering one of their grand “assemblies” described them as “polite, well-dressed, earnest” … Some, of course, are (as with any religious group), but there’s a dark, insidious side. And they are extraordinarily harsh when people leave the “flock” … case in point, my mother and sister have shunned me since 1983 (or thereabouts). Why? Because I formally withdrew from the organization. For them to have “fellowship” with me would result in their disfellowshipping (excommunication).

  5. jenyjenny says:

    My ex-mother-in-law was a Baptist, but she also bought into that World-coming-to-an-end time frame. I remember back in the 70’s, she bought a big new color TV on credit, thinking she might as well enjoy it for a little while until “the rapture” came…

  6. This is interesting stuff! I’m teaching two Jehovah’s witnesses this year, and they’re like night and day. One is a member of a recently converted family though, so I think they’re a little more Worldly, to use your word, than my other student’s family. I’m mostly only aware of what the kids are and are not allowed to do in school, so this is really insightful.

    • School was a nightmare for me when it came to social interaction with other children. (Did you ever see DiPalma’s movie Carrie?) JW are not allowed to do and participate in so many things that the other children look at them as oddities. It can be a very alienating experience. And all the bible study, bible meetings and door-to-door work cut into sleep, homework and just plain enjoying the things kids are supposed to enjoy. I had really wonderful teachers, though, who encouraged my love of learning. My studies in class became my escape from my home life. I hated summer vacation! >

      • It is sad how many of my students, JW and non-JW alike, hate summer vacation these days. So different from the way you would hope the extra freedom and family time would make people feel…

  7. My parents became JWs in 1975 after the “re-assessment” of the Armageddon date and I grew up being told that there would be some people still alive who were old enough to understand what was happening in 1914 – (which would make them over 100 now) when it happens. I have been wondering recently with the 100 year anniversary if this is still what they teach…I may ask my Mum but it’s a touchy subject as she is still a JW and I am disfellowshipped!
    Looking forward to your next posts…

    • Oh, I forgot about the JW doctrine that when Armageddon came, there would be people alive who saw WWII! As you note, those left from that group are getting very old. I assume there has been or will be another “re-assessment.” (I’m not “disfellowshipped” but “disassociated” though the impact is, as you know, the same. My mother and sister have shunned me since the early 1980s.) >

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