As noted by a friend, Jehovah’s Witnesses is a sect that seems to “fly under the radar.” That is, they are, compared to other religions, left unexamined by media the average person would see or read: no documentaries, Time magazine expose, movies or TVs about this sect.
Wikipedia describes JWs as a “Christian denomination distinct from mainstream Christianity.” While JWs use the Christian Bible (both old and new testaments – though, conveniently, their own version/translation), worship the god of that bible (monotheists); believe that Jesus of Nazarene was Christ the son of god who died for humankind’s sins and was then resurrected, they indeed are distinct from mainstream Christianity (and, in many ways I experienced, closer to a cult):
- JWs do not celebrate Christmas, believing all birthdays are pagan celebrations (this applies to all birthdays of all people, even children), and do not celebrate Easter, arguing it too was once a pagan celebration. (NB: Historians would agree.)
- JWs observe no holidays that other Christians seem to have no problems with: Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, New Year’s, Fourth of July, any presidents’ birthday (see above re birthdays), Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.
- JWs do not believe in hell or purgatory. They do not believe people have a soul, rather, that people are souls.
- JWs believe that only 144,000 out of all humanity (starting with Adam & Eve), will go to heaven. Those 144,000 will be there to help Christ with his 1,000 year reign as the earth is restored to paradise (see my previous post for explanation of that restoration).
- JWs observe the memorial of Christ’s death yearly. It is a somber occasion, during which time a plate of unleavened crackers and a glass of wine are passed down the rows of the Kingdom Hall. Only those who believe s/he is among the 144,000 (apparently they just “know” if they are), are to sip the wine and eat a cracker. (As a child I would crane my head around to follow the plate and glass to see who might partake. In JW upbringing, I saw only one person – my piano teacher – do so.)
- Unlike mainstream Christians, JWs are required to attend a lot of bible study. Let’s see … traditionally there was …
- The “Home Bible Study” for one hour one evening a week. (Our congregation had that meeting on Tuesday nights at 7:30-8:30 p.m.) The congregations divide into groups of around 20 people, and each group is assigned a member’s home in which to meet. There they would be led in Bible study by an elder or ministerial servant (think of that as elder-in-training). That “study” consisted of people taking turns reading a paragraph from a JW publication, and then the elder/ministerial servant would read aloud the question (at the bottom of the page) for each paragraph and then select among the upraised hands for the answer to be read from the paragraph that was just read. (By the way, JW publications are written at about an 8th grade level of reading and comprehension.)
- The Theocratic Ministry School: Held weekly (in our congregation from every Thursday 7:30-9:30 p.m.) There the audience was to learn how to “minister” door-to-door and lead individual bible studies. (It was always very difficult to stay awake through the whole meetings, and I was always exhausted in school on Fridays.)
- Sunday meetings: A two-hour affair starting (at our congregation) at 10 a.m. (I’ve heard that later the length was reduced.) The first hour was a public lecture by an elder or ministerial servant or a visiting elder on something related to JW doctrine, and the second hour was a “study’ based on an article in a recent Watchtower magazine (another JW publication).
- The leader of the study hour was an elder or ministerial servant (only men). After each paragraph was read by a chosen congregant, the leader would read aloud the question at the bottom of the paragraph. Hands in the audience were ready, indicating a person’s ability to find and read the answer in the paragraph just read aloud. (See parenthetical in #1 above.)
- JWs families would have (like Mormons), a Bible study night for the family. It was based on a JW publication. When I was a child it was the Paradise Lost book. (Its gory illustrations about Armageddon gave me regular nightmares for years.)
- The most devout JW families started each morning reading a passage and discussion from yet another JW publication: that year’s (if I recall the name correctly), Examining the Scriptures Daily. There was a scripture and discussion for each day of that year. (In addition to that book on our kitchen table one would always find a stack of Norwegian flatbread and a tides table book).
- JWs had yearly circuit (so many congregations made up a circuit) and district (so many circuits made up a district) assemblies and every few years “international” assemblies. (Those were always “big” events … especially for we girls who agonized over which dress to wear on each day so as to look our best as we hunted and modestly strutted for prospective mates.)
- JW children were not allowed to play and form friendships (outside of required school) with non-JW people. Dating a non-JW is unthinkable and would, if it occurred, reveal the “weak” nature of that person’s faith.
- Like many religions, JWs are supposed to marry only other JWs. Someone who married a non-JW (a Worldly person) was considered “weak” (that is, compared to a “strong” JW), and the rest of the congregation would do their best to help convert the Worldly spouse. (My sister married two men who were both “Worldy;” my mother attended neither wedding.)
- While JWs pay are expected to pay all required taxes (“pay Cesar’s things to Cesar”), JWs will not serve on juries (only Jehovah can sit in judgment), they will not vote (they support only Jehovah’s kingdom), will not serve in the military (that puts one at risk of both serving a Worldly country and killing another person), or engage in political behavior (the only government they give their allegiance to is a theocracy).
- If a person baptized as a JW leaves the “Truth,” how s/he is treated depends on the reason for leaving: (i) Disfellowshipping (where a tribunal of elders have confronted a JW for unchristian like conduct and the accused is unrepentant), results in all other JWs (including family) shunning the disfellowshipped person until that person realizes the errors of his/her ways, repents to the elders, and can be reinstated. (ii) Disassociation (where a person simply formally severs her/his ties with the organization), results in the same thing: shunning (same as (i) above). (iii) Inactive (where a person simply stops attending meetings etc.), results in regular attempts by JWs to bring the inactive person back into the Truth.
- JWs claim a Biblical reason for refusing blood transfusions and eating anything that might have blood in it. Oddly (or maybe not!), the meat we could eat was always from a butcher or grocery store. What was claimed to have blood in it changed over time. At one point, our congregation elders announced JWs shouldn’t eat hotdogs or Tootsie Rolls, claiming both had blood in them.
Remaining Posts in this Series:
Part 3: How JWs revise/update their doctrines.
Part 4: Why JWs come to your door, and what happens (on their end) when you politely take a tract (they’ll “be back”!).
Part 5: How all this plays out in the daily life of a JW.