I’ve been seeing quite a few Jehovah’s witnesses around Ipswich lately, and thought they would make an interesting topic for an address: where they came from, and what they believe. It used to be very common that every so often you would get a knock at the door, to find two Jehovah’s witnesses asking you about your belief in God and feelings concerning the Bible. In the last couple of years though, this has been curtailed a great deal in favour of a new strategy. Now they set up literature stands, and wait patiently to be engaged. They can often be found up in the Ipswich market, or down by the Ipswich docks. In January last year I did an address about the American preacher, Captain William Miller. He used various passages from the Bible to calculate when the second coming would take place. Despite obviously being incorrect in his predictions and later revisions, William Millers had a significant lasting impact upon the American religious landscape. Many American religious movements can trace their origins back to Miller - the Seventh-Day Adventist church, the Christadelphians, and the Jehovah’s witnesses. In the year 1870 eighteen-year-old Charles Russell accidently found himself listening to a William Miller inspired preacher in Pennsylvania, USA. As a result of this sermon, Charles Russell became an advocate of Miller’s approach to the Bible, and in that same year set up a small Bible study group to explore and critique many of the primary doctrines of the mainstream churches, critiquing, in particular, the doctrine of the Trinity, hellfire, and the inherent immortality of the soul. After the group had been running for about ten years, Charles Russell, or Pastor Russell as he had become known, started a monthly journal called “Zion’s Watch Tower”, and founded the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society to propagate the literature. Circulation grew and grew, from thousands to millions. After he died, there were various schisms from the group, but the primary body carried on and changed its name to the Jehovah’s witnesses. They also consolidated their position by declaring themselves God’s spokesmen on Earth. That is essentially the history of the denomination; from this starting point they grew and grew and today number over 8 million.
Now I want to unpack some of their beliefs. I think it’s interesting to note that despite the vast difference in our denominations, on paper at least, some of the historically held views of Unitarians correlate with the Jehovah witnesses. Jehovah Witnesses are small u ‘unitarians’, because they reject the doctrine of the Trinity. A few months ago, I spoke briefly to a Jehovah Witness; I told her I was a ‘Unitarian’, and her immediate response to that was to claim that she too was a ‘unitarian’. This immediately highlighted to me the difficulty with the name of our denomination. How do you give the elevator pitch explanation, that what we mean by ‘Unitarian’, and what they mean by ‘unitarian’, is completely different? Indeed, so different, that as I’ve said before, one need not even be a ‘unitarian’ (in the doctrinal sense) to be a ‘Unitarian’ (in the ‘our denomination’ sense). The impetus behind Jehovah Witnesses small u ‘unitarianism’ arises entirely from a literal reading of the Bible. They will simply point to proof texts to affirm their position. Whereas those within our movement who affirm a ‘unitarian’ position, either today or historically, have done so for a whole host reasons, be that a belief that it is more rationally coherent, being consistent with the God of philosophers, or the God of Spinoza. More in keeping perhaps with the equating of God with nature, more intuitively satisfying, as well as indeed showing up as evident from within the Bible. In other words, we Unitarians tend to take a more integrated approach, directed by our own individual rational enquiry, as opposed to simply kowtowing some party line - the top down approach. One could imagine putting all churches, all denominations, along a continuum, from prescribed at one end to non-prescribed at the other. On this continuum, Unitarians would be at one end, the non-prescribed end, and the Jehovah Witnesses at the other end, the very much prescribed end. Authority within the Jehovah Witness denomination is very much top down; there is very little wiggle room when it comes to what you must believe and do to be a Jehovah Witness. That’s because as I said, the Jehovah Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible is not considered ‘an’ interpretation, but ‘the’ interpretation. Disagreeing with their teachings amounts simply to disagreement with God. They are a close-knit community, in which their own rightness is affirmed, and everyone else’s wrongness is emphasised. Given this, family members often find themselves being alienated from one another when children fall away from the faith, or individuals are swept up into it.
The name ‘Jehovah’ is used by Jehovah Witnesses as the personal name for God, the name which is to be invoked if one is to have a relationship with God. The problem with that is that the name ‘Jehovah’ is not, and never has been, a Hebrew name for God. Rather, the name arises out of issues of translation. In the Bible translation we use each Sunday, the New Revised Standard Version, you will not find the word Jehovah, because the word Jehovah is arrived at in quite an odd way. They took the four Hebrew letters for the most common name for God in the Old Testament, which in English come out as either YHWH or JHVH, and combined it with the vowels of another Hebrew name for God - ‘Adonai’ - which gives you
J-A-H-O-V-A-H-I – or as it is pronounced, ‘Jehovah’. In other words, Jehovah is a weird kind of Latinization of a couple of Hebrew words smashed together, which was then most famously used first by William Tyndale in the first English translation of the Bible, and then later in the King James Version. It was the King James Version which was most commonly used in the United States in the 19th and early 20th Century. Hence why all these emergent American Christian movements, the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, the Seventh-day Adventists, and so on, all use King James versions, or slight variations on the King James Version. So, as the Jehovah Witnesses faith is of William Miller descent, of course the second coming, or great coming tribulation, is a central belief. Having made so many wrong predictions in the past, they eventually learned from their mistakes and stopped making predictions, today simply opting for the assertion that the end is coming soon. It is close at hand. Thus raising the pressure to be a good Jehovah Witness; and being a good Jehovah Witness is really what their faith is all about, following the rules laid down by the authority structures. And that brings me back to the missionary work I started with. To be a good Jehovah Witness, one must do at least 70 hours of missionary work a month, either of the traditional door-knocking kind or, as has become increasingly popular, simply waiting in the street to be engaged. If you’re physically able to do it, it is regarded as paramount over all else. Hence why many Jehovah Witnesses take low pressure, low paid, flexible work to ensure they can meet their churches requirements. They are also required to fill in hour sheets to show they have met their allotted time.
Finally, in contrast to this space we are currently in, Jehovah Witnesses’ churches, or as they are referred to, Kingdom Halls, are often built with no windows. In many ways, we can draw a distinction between ourselves and them, as they would emphasise a distinction with us. But the challenge for us is not simply to shut the door. Not simply to walk by upon the street. Not simply to shake our heads and wonder how anyone could believe such things. Because we are all on journeys of discovery. Rather we should strive to confound them with our love and patience, all the while allowing our critical thinking and common sense to critique what they believe. Jehovah Witnesses are in a black and white faith, a faith of absolute rights and wrongs. By simply introducing some greys, introducing some introspection and individual perspective, you begin to raise unspoken questions - unspoken questions which help us, and them, and communities move in our spiritual journeys.