“The Fastest-Growing Religion in the World”
by Robert Anton Wilson
from Ralph Ginzburg’s fact:
Volume 1, Issue 6
Despite a history of horrible persecution and despite a theology that makes even the Holy Rollers seem rational, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been so successful they’ve got all good Catholics and Protestants worried.
Of the three major religions that have been born in America-Mormonism, Christian Science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses-it is the last that has met with the most success. Today, 1,200,000 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are knocking on doors and distributing literature on all six continents and reaping 5000 new converts a year-in the last 20 years the Witnesses have increased their membership by an amazing 700%. Total circulation of the religion’s main magazine, The Watchtower, published in 66 languages and in Braille, is 4,300,000 – only 10 U.S. magazines have larger circulations. Another Witness magazine, Awake!, is published in 25 languages and has 3,950,000 subscribers. And the religion’s main textbook, Let God Be True, published in 194 countries, has a circulation second only to that all-time best seller, the Holy Bible. Not only is the Jehovah’s Witnesses the fastest growing religion in the world, but a Catholic writer, William J. Whalen, has stated (in Armageddon Around the Corner, 1962), “Should the growth of Jehovah’s Witnesses continue at anywhere near the pace set during the past 30 years, the cult may very well become a serious threat to organized Christianity .”
And there isn’t the faintest sign of any let-up. Even now the Witnesses’ 1,200,000 “pioneers” (members engaged in door-to-door missionary work) are tirelessly circulating throughout the ten zones into which the world has been divided by strategy planners at the Jehovah’s Witnesses International Headquarters in Brooklyn. Each zone has already been covered again, and again, and again. A pioneer has probably been to your own door once or twice already. He will be back, in a month, or a year, or a decade. Meanwhile, a continuous program of conventions goes on in all the major cities of the world. The United States alone had 22 such conventions this summer, everywhere from Yuba City, California, to Austin, Texas, to Brewer, Maine. Each of these conventions averages about 10,000 in attendance; the largest attendance so far has been 253,000 (in New York).
My main task, in writing this article about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was to find out why this particular religion is gaining converts so easily and quickly while Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism are lucky to make even slight gains. What, in short, is the secret of the phenomenal success of the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
First off, I betook myself to the Witnesses International Headquarters in Brooklyn, which I found to be a startlingly modern building complex on the East River, with an unsurpassed view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the looming Manhattan skyscrapers. Like all Jehovah’s Witnesses enterprises, it has never been segregated. A staff of 400 co-ordinates and organizes the preaching activities of the pioneers throughout the world. A few blocks away, in a somewhat slummier neighborhood, stands the factory where an additional staff of 300 produces the Watchtower magazine. Every single employee, from Witnesses’ President Nathan Knorr on down, receives the same compensation: lodging, food, clothing, and $14 a month. Yet the morale in this factory is amazing. In 3 hours of sightseeing, I didn’t meet a single bored-looking worker. Everybody, devoutly convinced he is doing Jehovah’s work, is happy, enthusiastic, and efficient. Many of the machines were designed by the workers, who put together parts of previously-existing machines. One contraption, which looked like an illustration for a science-fiction magazine, was made from three other machines. Those three machines had taken ten men to operate, but the new monster needs only three operators. “Seven more men,” the manager told me, “released to return to pioneer work in spreading the Message!” Unique among printing plants, nowhere on the floors in this factory will you find a piece of scrap paper. Each department has a chute for scrap paper, and on the second floor one department receives all this waste and wraps it into 1200-pound bales, averaging about 20 bales a day, which are then sold. The factory also generates its own electricity and makes its own ink.
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All this modern technology and wonderful efficiency really jolted me, knowing what I did about the ideology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If someone sat down and deliberately dreamed up all the most nonsensical clap-trap he could think of, he probably couldn’t top what the Jehovah’s Witnesses actually believe. Among other things, the Witnesses are opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, Protestantism, Judaism, Christmas trees, religious crosses, segregation, the theory of evolution, fishing, hunting, blood sausages, movies, cigarettes, voting (no Witness voted in the recent election), the doctrine of the Trinity, yoga, extrasensory perception, fortune-telling, Communism, Fascism, and saluting national flags – all of which they regard, literally, as Devil-inspired plots to lead mankind away from Jehovah God. The battle of Armageddon, foretold in Revelations, has already begun (in 1914) and is drawing to a close. Contrary to the leading Jewish and Christian scholars, Yahweh is not the correct name of the Old Testament God. The correct name is Jehovah (which, according to most historians, wasn’t invented until the 11th Century). Scientists who think the earth is 2 ½ billion years old, and Fundamentalists who think it is 6000 years old, are both wrong. It is 42,000 years old. Jehovah, who resides in the constellation Pleiades, is very touchy about his name and can’t abide being called any such general noun as “Lord,” “God,” or “Almighty” unless “Jehovah” is included before or after it; otherwise, for all He knows, you might be invoking some upstart deity of the heathens. Only 144,000 people will be admitted to heaven, and sinners will not go to hell (which doesn’t exist) but will merely be annihilated. Millions who are neither saints nor sinners, but who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, will happily remain on earth after the Last Judgment. As for the secular world, the Witnesses regard every government on earth as a devilish conspiracy. They firmly believe that Satan himself-a real Fallen Angel dedicated to fighting against Jehovah God-is the hidden ruler of every government based on force. Nor are they internationalists, at least in the secular, liberal sense. When the League of Nations was founded, Jehovah’s Witnesses denounced it as another clever plot by the Devil; they have the same attitude toward the United Nations. Add to this carnival of eccentric dogma the orthodox Christian repugnance towards physical love, and you have the whole theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Despite their theological hodge-podge, the Witnesses themselves are far from being oddballs, as I discovered when I attended a convention at West Springfield, Massachusetts, from July 23 to July 26 of this year. A Jehovah’s Witnesses’ convention is not what you would expect if you identify them with Billy Graham or the Holy Rollers. They make no attempt at Instant Christianity; indeed, they positively avoid quick, emotional conversions. Their speakers may crack a few jokes and shout occasionally, but the basic tone is one of what they call “intellectual” persuasion. And if you accept their fundamental premises-which are that the Bible contains prophecies and that their readings of controversial Hebrew and Greek words are the correct readings-much of what they say is logical.
* * *
A mass baptism was going on when I arrived early on the morning of the 24th. Like many Protestant ‘sects, the Witnesses believe in, total immersion. The ministers and the candidates all wear bathing suits, and the women are baptized separately from the men. The actual baptism is a striking spectacle. The candidate wades out to a depth of about 4 feet, where the minister is waiting. No words are exchanged (the verbal part of the ceremony has been performed on shore). The candidate holds his hand tightly over his nose, as if smelling a vat of Liederkranz, and the minister, wasting no motion, smartly grabs his shoulders, leans him backward, and dunks him. I watched 300 baptisms, including that of a one-legged woman, and I chatted with a few Witnesses, who explained to me that the ceremony was symbolic only, and not a magic ritual.
The Witnesses – like the ones I’ met in Brooklyn – were conspicuously polite and conspicuously middle-class in appearance. (Actually, the appearance is deceptive. A sociological study has clearly demonstrated that the majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses belong to the lower-income brackets.) I noticed one interesting pattern when I began asking various Witnesses why they had been converted: A significant number who had lost faith in the religion of their parents investigated several other religions and settled on Jehovah’s Witnesses for ethical reasons. Some of the remarks I heard were, “It’s the only religion that practices what it preaches,” “It’s the only desegregated church in America,” and, “Every time I met an honest man in business, he was a Jehovah’s Witness.” One man told me how he had accidentally discovered that his parent’s church was involved in local business corruption, so he set out to find for himself a church that wasn’t corrupt. “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he said, “is the only one I found that isn’t up to its neck in political and commercial graft.”
One of the factors, I discovered, that helps explain the’ sky-rocketing growth of the movement is, not the conventions or the pioneers, but the Hydrogen Bomb. All the speakers at the convention eventually got around to paying their respects to the Bomb. It is their boffola, their clincher. It condemns the society which made it, justifies their own withdrawal from that society, and provides a suitably apocalyptical vocabulary for the letting-off of personal anger and pain. If the Bomb didn’t exist, they would have had to invent it.
But they don’t really need the Bomb to cheer them. In 3 days with the 12,000 Witnesses at this convention, and 2 days with the 700’at the Brooklyn headquarters, I never saw an unhappy Witness. Bomb or no Bomb, they are sure the Great Day is coming soon, when Dad can throwaway his truss, and Mother’s dental plate will be replaced by newly sprouted real teeth, and Aunt Sally’s cancer will be cured, and Junior won’t have pimples anymore, and the Lion will lay down with the Lamb.
During my sojourn in Massachusetts I got a chance to catch up on my reading, and naturally delved a bit into the history of this remarkable religious movement. And I learned that, just as the Witnesses manage to combine Medieval ideology with modern technology, their history is an outrageous combination of buffoonery and bravery. It all began in 1813 when a self-educated seaman named. William Miller, after mulling over some obscure passages in the Bible, decided that the world was coming to an end in 1844. His followers, known as the Millerites, multiplied rapidly and created considerable qualms throughout the country as the year 1844 approached. When 1845 finally arrived and the world went on, the movement fell to pieces. Within a few years, however, new messiahs arrived to put the pieces together again by offering different interpretations of the same Bible passages. One sect decided that the correct date for the end of the world was 1864, and others picked 1866, 1870, and 1889. In 1870, Charles Taze Russell, a self-proclaimed Greek scholar who knew no Greek, attended a meeting of one of these groups, the Second Adventists, who had picked 1889 as their year, and was inspired to go home and search the Scriptures himself for enlightenment. He quickly discovered the theological and mathematical errors of the other groups-especially those who had picked 1844, 1864, 1866, and 1870. He decided, however, that even the Second Adventists were wrong with their choice of 1889, and that the correct year was 1914.
Russell quickly communicated this news to the Second Adventists, but they, probably misled by Satan, refused to listen to him. In 1889 Russell had his first vindication: The world did not end, proving that he was right and they were wrong. By this time he had a few thousand followers who, cheered by his success in not picking another wrong year, enthusiastically went forth to warn the world about the cataclysm of 1914. In those days, his followers called themselves simply “Bible Students” and were usually mockingly called “Millennial Dawners” by others. The name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was not officially adopted until 1931. (The word “Witnesses” refers to their belief in their God-given command to go forth and “testify to the world.”)
Some readers will claim that the world did not end in 1914. The Witnesses will quickly explain that the world began to end then and is still in the process. Of course, after 1914 a few minor changes had to be made in Russell’s books. The 1908 edition of his Millennial Dawn, for instance, states “That the deliverance of the saints must take place sometime before 1914 is manifest.” Eleven similar changes were incorporated into the 1916 edition, to make Jehovah’s plan clearer. Even so, some persons, misled by worldly vanity, dropped out of the movement after 1914.
In the 1920s the Witnesses were among the first groups to denounce Mussolini and the Vatican. This led to widespread attempts by the Catholic Church to prevent the distribution of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature. In many American cities, especially in Connecticut and New Jersey, new laws were passed making it a crime to hand out leaflets without first having them approved by local officials. The Witnesses bravely defied these laws, went to court, and fought until all such precensorship regulations were declared unconstitutional. A boycott organized by the Roman Catholic bishop of Philadelphia did, however, force them off the radio there. The battle grew more bitter when Hitler came’ to power, -signed a pact with the Vatican, and, shortly thereafter, banned the Witnesses in Germany in a statement explicitly attacking them for “damaging the Catholic faith.” Henceforth, throughout the ’30s and ’40s, all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications carried blistering assaults on what they called “the Catholic-Nazi-Fascist plot” to destroy them.
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Probably no other religionists of modern times have been persecuted more cruelly than these same Jehovah’s Witnesses. Open the official history of the movement at any page and you will find a story like the following; which occurred at the Neuengammer concentration camp outside Nuremberg on Sept. 12, 1943:
Seven Jehovah’s Witnesses, newly arrived at the camp, were led into the yard, where an SS officer asked the first of them, “How long will you be a Jehovah’s Witness?” “Until my death,” the prisoner replied. He was flogged 25 times. The next prisoner was asked the same question. “Until my death,” came the reply a second time. After all seven had been questioned and flogged, the first prisoner was again asked, “And how much longer will you continue to be a Jehovah’s Witness?” The same level-voiced reply: “Until my death.”
After all seven prisoners had been questioned three times, and flogged 75 times, they were led, their backs raw and bleeding, into the shower rooms, where alternating jets of freezing-cold and red-hot water were turned on them. They were then paraded into the yard, naked, and forced to do calisthenics until one of them fell dead of a heart attack.
All six survivors were now asked in turn, “How much longer will you continue to be Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
Each replied, levelly and firmly, “Until my death.”
This anecdote is entirely typical of the History of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany, where 11,000 of them were incarcerated in similar camps, leading some observers (including an official English government report, “Treatment of German Nationals in Germany,” by Sir Neville Henderson) to say that they were actually treated “worse than the Jews.” Old Jews, in most cases, were murdered quickly. Young Jews were forced to work under brutal conditions, then killed. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were tortured continuously in a scientific program intended not to exterminate them, but to force them to repudiate their religion. The program failed: Not one .of the 11,000 ever signed the official statement of repudiation prepared for therapy the Nazi government, although 7000 perished. They actually organized and carried through the only successful resistance movement in the concentration camps, refusing to work on the construction of munitions boxes until the Nazis gave up and assigned them to other work. (Many of them became barbers. The Nazis were sufficiently convinced of the Witnesses’ nonviolent principles to let themselves be shaved by Witnesses without fear of having their throats cut.)
That was Nazi Germany. Here is a story from the democratic United States a few years earlier:
Seven Jehovah’s Witnesses drove up to the Town Hall in Richwood, West Virginia, on June 29, 1941, and applied to Martin L. Catlette, deputy sheriff, for a permit to distribute literature. According to subsequent court testimony, Catlette held the Witnesses prisoner and called the local American Legion post, saying, “We have the sons of bitches here.” Some 1500 American Legion members gathered outside the Town Hall and, under Catlette’s leadership, forced the Witnesses to drink 16 ounces of castor oil each. Bound with ropes, the Witnesses were led to the local Post Office where the mob abused and manhandled them in an attempt to force them to salute the American flag, an act that violates their religion. Deputy Sheriff Catlette then read aloud the Constitution of the United States while the Witnesses were led out of town and their car . inscribed with obscene and abusive ‘slogans. They were released and warned never to come back to Richwood.
Similar stories could be collected from any country on earth. Jehovah’s Witnesses have suffered worse in totalitarian Germany and Russia than in more democratic’ countries, but even England and Canada, traditionally the two nations most fair to heretical minorities, have much to be ashamed of in their treatment of this sect. Persecution has befallen the Witnesses in every country they have entered since their founding 94 years ago. In the United States, which is neither the best nor the worst example, the American Civil Liberties Union has reported 335 cases of mob violence against the Witnesses in one typical year, and during the 1930s lower courts pronounced nearly 30,000 convictions against them. These convictions, usually an trumped-up charges of “disorderly conduct,” were overturned with monotonous regularity because higher courts found palpable bias on the part of the lower-court judges. This did not stop similar convictions from the benches of other lower-court judges. Charles A. Beard, the distinguished historian, has written of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in his book The Republic (Viking Press, 1943): “They have money to hire lawyers and fight cases through the courts. As a result in recent days they have made more contributions to the development of the constitution allow of religious liberty than any other cult or group.”
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In the United States today, the only persecution (if it should, be called that) faced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses is connected with their refusal to submit their children to blood transfusions, even in cases where life is at stake. Courts, in several cases, have taken the children into custody by following custody determination claims and ordered the transfusion to proceed. The Witnesses’ skilled legal department is fighting every case with its usual vigor, and the most passionate advocates of civil liberties are – for once – divided. Does religious liberty include the right to sacrifice one’s child to one’s God? (The whole issue arises out of the well-known text in which God commands his worshippers not to eat meat with blood in it, which Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpret as a condemnation of taking blood in any form.)
Perhaps all this persecution has helped to make the J.W. movement the success that it is. Call it masochism, call it sympathy for the underdog, call it what you will, people tend to flock into a religion that is being persecuted. When the Witnesses were banned by dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic in 1950, there were only 217 of them on that unfortunate island. When the ban was lifted in 1956, there were 469.
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But I still did not, I felt, really have the answer. I did not know why people are drawn into this grandiose carnival in ever-increasing hordes while other churches are lucky to hold onto the members born into them, why no other religionists since the first Christians have made so many converts so quickly. Persecution helps. So does the up-to-date efficiency of the staff at International Headquarters. So does the pioneer program (while other churches sit back and wait for converts to walk in, the J.W.’s are out on the street busily hawking the message from door-to-door). Yet the key to the mystery, I had to admit, was missing. That is, until August 11, 1964, when I accompanied a team of pioneers on their door-to-door calls in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn.
The pioneers were an attractive young couple, Dick and Jeanne DeChaine. He is a salesman for World Book encyclopedias and she is a hostess for Trans WorId Airlines, but under Witness rules they must devote 10 hours a week to pioneer preaching. Since the Witnesses never send more than two persons to a door (“If they see three of us,” Dick DeChaine explains, “they’ll feel we’re ganging up on them and won’t answer the door”), I accompanied only one of them, Mrs. DeChaine.
The first door we tried was answered by a harassed-looking, middle-aged Italian housewife. Mrs. DeChaine informed her we were making door-to-door calls to encourage home Bible reading. “I’m Catholic,” the woman snapped. “I got enough religion.” The door closed.
Cheerfully, Mrs. DeChaine tried the next door. Another middle-aged Italian housewife, who also looked harassed. Mrs. DeChaine got further along with her spiel this time, but the woman hastily resorted to the Great Housewife’s Ploy that every salesman knows and dreads. “The baby’s crying,” she said, “I-gotta run-upstairs-sorry-good-bye. ”
Next was an elderly woman so gushingly feminine that she reminded me of a homo in drag (but, of course, a great many women of that generation are exaggeratedly feminine in that way). She cut into Mrs. DeChaine’s spiel immediately: “Oh, darling, you don’t need to tell me. I know my Lord, I know my God. I talk to Him all day long. I have lived with His companionship for 20 years now, darling, and I grow closer to Him every day.” Mrs. DeChaine complimented her and commented on how few there are these days who have this treasure. The old woman fluttered her hands excitedly, “Oh, darling, they don’t know what” they’re missing,” she cried. Mrs. DeChaine sold both magazines and left an advertisement of the next Watchtower lecture. Amid a shower of “Bless yous” we made our way down the stairs.
The next three calls were brief. “Busy.” “Not interested.” “The baby is crying.” Next was an adorable blonde creature in white shorts and halter who broke my heart by using the crying-baby ploy just when I thought we were going to get in.
The next door was opened by a tall, good-looking Negro who listened politely for a few moments and invited us in. Like most Negro apartments in white neighborhoods, his was conspicuously clean and neat (“Can’t have ’em thinking I’m running down their real-estate values”). When Mrs. DeChaine, rather intuitively, asked about his health, he poured out a wretched story: After years of hard work as a longshoreman, he finally achieved a salary high enough to move into “this nice neighborhood,” and then, 2 months ago, he suffered a heart attack, and the doctors told him he couldn’t do hard work anymore. “But what other kind of work is anybody going to offer me?” he told us bitterly. He had only one consolation, he told us: the Bible. “I’ve been reading it a lot since I got home from the hospital,” he said, “and it’s the only comfort in this whole world.” Mrs. DeChaine asked if he was familiar with the following passage from Revelations 21:4:
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for all the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write, for i these words are true and faithful.
“Isn’t that a wonderful promise?” Mrs. DeChaine exclaimed, her eyes shining. “And, look, it tells you deliberately that it isn’t a symbolic passage or an allegory. ‘These words I are true and faithful,’ it says. And it’s the word I of Jehovah God Himself, who would never deceive us. But the really exciting thing is this: Do you know when all this will happen? It tells you: ‘When Babylon the Great has fallen.’ Now what is Babylon the Great?” And she went on into the usual Witnesses’ line-Babylon is our whole cruel civilization that is obviously about to pass away, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and so on. I watched the man closely as he listened. Skepticism flickered in his eyes, and then a painful longing, and then his mouth turned down in rejection and he unconsciously shook his head-too often he had heard promises that were not fulfilled. But then, as she continued, the longing came back into his eyes, and he looked at the Bible himself to check that the words were really there, and then something frightened and hungry bloomed in his face: He might have been fighting for his life, which in a sense, I suppose, he was. “And we can be sure it will be soon,” Mrs. DeChaine went on. “Ever since 1914 the prophecies have been coming true, year after year.” A great determination was coming into his face, washing away the fear, which I now recognized as fear that she might be wrong. I looked away, embarrassed. It is a beautiful, terrible sight to see hope appearing in a face where despair has lived for a long time.
“I want to talk to my minister about this on Sunday,” he said finally, “and I want you to come back again, so I can talk to you some more.”
Mrs. DeChaine made an appointment for herself and her husband to drop back the following week for an hour of Bible study. We shook hands, and I muttered, “Good luck.” They were the first words I had spoken since entering, and my throat was hoarse and my voice cracked.
* * *
And the Heavens were rent asunder and the veils fell from my eyes. And, behold, a voice spoke to me saying, Now it is revealed unto you how Jehovah’s Witnesses are made – out of the depth of despair that lies in one apartment out of nine on any street. And I knew not whether to laugh or cry, and so I did both, and came home and wrote this article.