Do you know that the modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses (known most commonly for their door-to-door evangelizing work) have been around since the late 1800s? There is more to them than you ever thought.
It was around that time (1800) that a Bible study group based in Pennsylvania began analyzing, comparing, and dissecting Biblical scripture only to arrive at conclusions not taught by the majority of mainstream Christian religions. This group used zealous proselytizing to spread their scriptural discoveries. They also used their hope for the future that they gathered from the Bible to spread their beliefs across the US. Eventually, they spread their message into many different countries. Though they are currently based in hundreds of lands around the globe, the general populace knows relatively little about this far-flung faith.
Here are ten things you probably haven’t heard about the witnesses of Jehovah:
1. They do not go to war or bear arms.
When it comes to war, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to bear arms or engage in war or conflict of any kind—even when refusing means imprisonment or execution.
Claiming to be a continuation of a first-century Christian congregation, they cite the ancient faith’s refusal to participate in war as one reason for their own refusal. They also cite their obedience to God, who they call Jehovah and Jesus Christ’s commands (including His admonition to the Apostle Peter to return his weapon to its place in more than one of the Gospels)—as well as their love of those around them—to be additional reasons for their refusal to participate in military action. They have faced resentment and ostracism from political parties around the world. Countries such as Armenia, Turkey, and Eritrea in recent times have convicted, fined, imprisoned, and even tortured members for their conscientious objection. As of mid-2013, one country—South Korea—held 93 percent of imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses.
2. They do not use the cross
The fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t wear the cross or use it in their worship isn’t because they don’t like the shape—the symbol of the cross is actually completely against their beliefs.
Both encyclopedias and scholarly works attest to the cross’s pre-Christian origin as well as its ties with worship of Egyptian, Babylonian, Norse, and other gods, not to mention it being regarded as a historical symbol of the male genitalia and the coupling of the reproductive organs by some authorities.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also claim that Jesus Christ did not die on a cross but rather on a simple upright torture stake with no crossing beams. Looking into earlier manuscripts, they have argued that some words usually rendered as “cross” in most modern translations, instead originally carried the meaning noted above. Though there are some scholars and Bible translators that agree with this view, it continues to be a hotly debated topic.
Rejecting anything that smacks of what they refer to as paganism—and without seeing support for the cross’s use in Jesus’s execution—Jehovah’s Witnesses thus discourage the use of the cross in worship.
3. Their clergies are not paid, and they don’t believe in tithing.
If you’ve ever wondered how Jehovah’s Witnesses print all their literature and organize their work, the simple answer is “voluntary contributions.”
The Witnesses do not practice tithing and do not take collections at meetings in their places of worship (called kingdom halls). They are funded by the donations given by members if, when, and however they want to contribute. These finances are then distributed to local headquarters called branch offices that can be found in many countries. According to their website, these branch offices apportion the money to causes like the construction of kingdom halls, aid in areas affected by natural disasters, support for missionaries, and the publication and distribution of religious literature.
Within the organization, no money is given in compensation for the door-to-door work. There are also no salaried clergy members. Contrary to most Christian faiths, all members are unpaid volunteers ordained as ministers and are expected to share in the evangelizing work regardless of age, race, or social status. Only a few—known as elders—oversee individual congregations.
4. They were persecuted by Hitler.
While most are acquainted with the infamous dictator’s persecution of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other minorities, many are not familiar with his imprisonment, torture, and execution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Starting in 1933 and ending in 1945, the Witnesses faced persecution due to their different ideology in regards to government and war.
While they did—and still do—claim to abide by government laws and decrees, they do so wherever it does not conflict with their devotion to the Bible. Thus, they refused to fight in World War I and refused to support the National Socialism party in Germany.
Because of this, Witness schoolchildren were humiliated, beaten, or expelled for their refusal to sing political songs and do the notorious salute. Their literature was banned, their work benefits eradicated, and about 10,000 were sent to concentration camps and prisons where they could be identified by the purple triangle they were forced to wear on their uniforms. It is estimated that up to 5,000 perished.
Unlike other persecuted groups, it is of note that the Witnesses were the only group that were offered the chance to renounce their beliefs and be set free—a choice that the great majority declined. Also, according to a commanding officer in Auschwitz, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler often used the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a model for his own troops, and it was not uncommon for them to be used as domestic servants by guards and officers due to their strong, Bible-based ethics.
Because of this and other intense opposition carried on by different countries and parties, the religious group has been called perhaps the most persecuted religion of the 20th-century.
5. They don’t celebrate holidays
Many are surprised to learn that Jehovah’s Witnesses, who come under the grouping of Christian religions, reject holidays that have Christian undertones—Easter and Christmas included. Why?
The main argument of the Witnesses is that the far majority of these holidays—as well as birthdays—have pagan origins, or roots that are not Bible-based or based in Christian teachings. They base their organization around the structure and doctrines of the first-century Christian congregation, a group that also rejected many similar customs.
For instance, the World Book Encyclopedia notes that “the early Christians did not celebrate [Jesus’s] birth because they considered the celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom.” Various scholars and authors have also connected the Christmas tree and such customs as gift giving, putting up Christmas lights, and the use of mistletoe with Roman festivals and Druid practices. It is also a recognized fact that the date of Christ’s birth is not known. December 25 actually correlates to a celebration of the infant god of light by the Cult of Mithras.
Examination of such holidays as Easter, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween also reveal similar origins. The Witnesses claim that practices and customs that are directly disapproved by God—or are practiced by people that He does not approve of—merit censure. Thus, even though it has been hundreds or thousands of years since these un-Christian practices originated or mixed in with popular holidays and celebrations, Jehovah’s Witnesses feel that these would displease Jehovah.
6. They do not accept blood transfusion
Many misinterpret the stand of Jehovah’s Witnesses and believe they’re against all medicine and medical care or think they believe in faith healing as preferred to any medical procedures. In truth, they do not practice faith healing and they visit doctors and hospitals and accept any procedures that are bloodless.
The Witnesses view blood transfusions as an act against the Bible’s commands to refrain from taking in blood both in the New and Old Testament. An example of one such command that they cite is in the scripture in Acts 15:28–29 which states: “For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you except these necessary things: to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper.”
Although their stance against blood transfusion is mainly a religious one, they cite medical journals, such as The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, that note that those who do not receive transfusions usually fare as well as or better than those who do accept transfusions. Of course, many other medical experts will share contrary views. They also feel that rejecting such keeps them safe from blood transfusion complications such as blood-borne diseases and immune system reactions.
Though this position has been criticized for years as being a huge risk—and even as suicide—and has resulted in much hate, persecution, and countless court battles.
7. They believe Christians will witness paradise on earth
Unlike the majority of Christian religions—and even religions like Islam—that believe in the prospect of going to heaven for the righteous, Jehovah’s Witnesses stand in stark contrast.
Although they do believe that a certain select group will receive a heavenly reward, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jehovah will cleanse the Earth of wickedness in the near future. They also believe that Jehovah will reintroduce the paradise conditions that He intended for the human race in the beginning. They refer to this time as the re-creation, the paradise, or the new system of things.
To support this belief, they refer to the model prayer recorded in Matthew, where Christ prayed for Jehovah to carry out His will for Earth as He wills for heaven. According to their interpretation of the Bible, His will for the Earth includes a resurrection of the dead (based on Acts 24:15 and John 5:28–29), harmony between animals and humans (based on Isaiah 11:6–9), an absence of crime or war (based on Psalm 37:10–11, 29 and Isaiah 2:4), and a removal of all illnesses, the aging process, and death (based on Isaiah 35:5–6 and Revelation 21:3–4) among other things.
8. They believe the earth is in its last days
While many will acknowledge that we are now living in times and conditions that are momentous for one reason or another, Jehovah’s Witnesses take modern events and conditions as signs that the end of modern society as we know it is approaching.
To prove this, the Witnesses highlight Bible prophecies that they feel are being fulfilled increasingly in the last 100 years. One account is recorded in Matthew 24, when Christ predicted future events that would precede “the end”; He pointed to an increase in wars, food shortages, diseases, and earthquakes which would all intensify during the same time frame.
They also point to the Apostle Paul’s description of the last days in 2 Timothy 3:1–5, a time when people’s traits would be characterized by a lack of self-control, fierceness, love of pleasure, selfishness, and a turning away from religion and spirituality by the majority. They also cite what they feel are positive developments, such as the fact that the “good news” would be preached on an unprecedented scale before “the end.” This is a work that the Witnesses claim they are doing at an unparalleled rate.
Confident of Biblical predictions because of already fulfilled predictions—according to their interpretation—such as the specific way the empire of Babylon would fall and be desolated, the rise and fall of the League of Nations, and the rise of the United Nations, they are awaiting paradise and in the meantime a-knocking and a-talking everywhere about “the good news,” a hope for the future, and their beliefs.