Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?


By Neil G. McCluskey, S. J.


(Printed as a tract by The America Press with an imprimatur from Francis Cardinal Spellman dated January 6, 1956. This is taken from the third printing of 1963. It provides an interesting mid-twentieth century look at the Witnesses from the pen of a Catholic priest. )


Fabled Brooklyn, with its Coney Island and the oft-sold bridge, bears on its swank Columbia Heights overlooking the East River and the man-poured Alps of Manhattan Island an imposing nine-storied edifice dedicated in 1950 to Jehovah. This is the Bethel headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Within this American Vatican beats the monastic heart of that puzzling amalgam of a hundred heresies and a score of cults to which nearly 250,000 doorbell-ringing Americans and Canadians bear devoted witness. Over the past fifteen years or so this remarkable group has quietly undergone a facewashing and hair-combing. Jehovah’s Witnesses have done a tactical about-face with far-reverberating results.


Recently I visited the Witnesses’ Brooklyn headquarters. Knowing of the stone wall which had blocked others trying to get information, I wasn’t too optimistic about success. However, a single phone call turned the trick. I was received most courteously by a pleasant young executive from the president’s staff who directs public relations. He answered my battery of questions in frank detail and loaded me with official publications. My request at the end of three hour’s conversation, about the possibility of touring the building caught him a bit unexpectedly: after all, here was a Roman Catholic priest and a Jesuit into the bargain! He excused himself and ten minutes later, armed with the proper clearances from higher-up, he escorted me through the vast building on a tour—a first in Witness history.




Here in this capitol of Jehovah’s “New World Kingdom” resides a colorful family comprising nearly 400 men and 75 women, carefully screened volunteer workers who live in community fashion. Meals are served at fixed times in a common dining room. Two people share each of the one-room living apartments, which are furnished in comfort with pieces generally made in the basement workshops. For purely personal expenses $14 is passed out each month to all in the “family”—to President Nathan H. Knorr as well as to the youngest teen-age dishwasher from Oklahoma.


Here in addition to the charwoman and cooks and barbers dwell the writers and propagandists and editors, the typists and printers and binders. Here are the radio announcers, copy girls and studio technicians of the Witness station, WBBR. Here also is the headquarters for the editorial board from whose ten-story ultra-modern printing plant on neighboring Adams Street goes out in deluge proportions as unending flood of printed matter: Bibles, books, magazines, pamphlets in a score of languages to spread Jehovah’s word. From here reigns the small band of corporation directors and their all-powerful president, whose newest utterances on things biblical are received by Witnesses in 61 countries around the globe as from Jehovah himself.


From a 40,000 world total some twenty years ago, the number of Witnesses has swollen to over 700,000. But this figure represents only the hard core of the fully initiated who are authorized to preach, marry and baptize. To comprehend the full dimensions of the movement you must visualize perhaps another three or four million—men, women and children—who flock regularly to the Sunday night Bible studies, buy each fortnight 2.1 million copies of the Watchtower and some 1.45 million copies of Awake, and in other ways lend moral and financial support.




There was a day when all this could be dismissed as so much religious hokum. But today new tactics cloaked with a new respectability have within fifteen years multiplied Witness membership fifteen times. In the 1958 world convention in Yankee Stadium, more than 200,000 delegates assembled under signs bearing greetings from Witnesses in Egypt, Korea, Cyprus, Japan, Australia and a dozen other lands. Catholics and Protestants alike would do well to take another long look at this growing phenomenon.


Though firmly disclaiming any part in the Protestant world, the Witnesses now move freely about in it, hailed in many quarters as champions of religious liberty. They enjoy the support of the American Civil Liberties Union. They are treated somewhat gingerly, even with a shading of respect, by most of the metropolitan press and certain national magazines. They bask in the dignity reflected from an impressive array of decisions handed down in their favor by the United States Supreme Court and similar high tribunals in other countries. In short, they walk the broad thoroughfares today with an air that recalls that of the fourth-century Christians, freshly emerged from the dangers and darkness of the catacombs.


America has always proved fertile soil for religious oddities. Today the religious landscape from one end of California to the other is colored by bizarre specimens of religious flora which bloom quickly and, mercifully soon, wither on the stalk. The formula has always been a simple one: a fistful of religious notions plucked indiscriminately hither and yon: flowing white robes or flashing neon lighting; some kind of esoteric ritual; an impressive title hinting at the mysterious; a confident assurance of peace, prosperity and a solid gold Cadillac to heaven and, come the next Sabbath, any clever cynic or religious fanatic can be in business.




But by their boot straps the newly scrubbed Witnesses of Jehovah have pretty well pulled themselves out of the category of religious clowns and fanatics. How did this come about? Who are these Witnesses of Jehovah?


Let us go back to January 13, 1942, a date which began a new chapter in Witness history. On that date Nathan Homer Knorr was unanimously elected to succeed Judge J. F. Rutherford, who had died in his San Diego mansion the week before. Within a month Knorr announced a long-range “education” program. The vicious and lurid literature of the Rutherford era began to be quietly toned down. A certain smattering of biblical and historical scholarship began to perfume the new tracts and books. Most of Rutherford’s violent polemics, meaning the bulk of his writings, along with his own redoubtable person, were by degrees assigned to the same limbo of oblivion to which he had consigned the movement’s founder, Charles Taze Russell. The one-foot-in-the-door technique and the booming intrusion of the Judge’s recorded diatribes were discarded in 1944.


The Witness who knocks at your door today is more than likely a courteous, well-dressed young fellow (or lady) who could readily be taken for the Fuller Brush man. Twenty years ago Stanley High wrote in the Saturday Evening Post:


For conscientious cussedness on the grand scale, no other aggregation of Americans is a match for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Defiance of what others cherish and revere is their daily meat. They hate all religions—and say so from the housetops. They hate all governments with an enthusiasm that is equally unconcerned  (“Armageddon, Inc.,” Sept. 14, 1940).


Twenty years after,  the cussedness has turned conformist, the defiance has taken on pastel tones, and the word “hate” has become a taboo.  In mid-summer, 1956, when President Knorr cried out to 30,000 Witnesses in Yankee Stadium that “Christendom must be cut down and thrown into the fire!”, he was faithfully echoing the old line, but his listeners understood clearly that current tactics completely eschew double-bladed axes and napalm.




Your visiting Witness today has been carefully briefed for his mission, from the impeccable shine on his shoetops to the discreet pause—and disarming smile—when you first open your door. Courtesy, tact, friendliness have been drilled into him. He has been schooled against giving the slightest evidence of fanaticism in speech or bearing. He has learned by rote the long list of salesman’s “do’s” and “don’t’s.” He has spent hundreds of hours in group Bible discussions in his local Kingdom Hall. The Brooklyn Pentagon has put into his hands detailed instructions concerning the right psychological approach to each level of Catholic or Protestant client. In 1952 a special booklet, beaming with Kelly-green cover and clusters of harps, begorrah, entitled God’s Way is Love, held out, not a shillelagh, but a palm of peace, to God-fearing Catholics.


These traveling salesmen of Jehovah have put in an exacting apprenticeship trudging alongside some veteran “pioneer” (full-time missionary) or “publisher” (part-time missionary). Only by degrees are novice missionaries permitted to solo in verbal fray. Now, though, the chances are that your Witness visitor can, and without the drop of a hat, will quote biblical rings around most householders who open their doors to him. Especially to a certain type of fundamentalist does this display of scriptural gymnastics seem impressive. However, it doesn’t require too discerning a mind to catch on to the sleight-of-hand as the Witness glibly marshals up platoons of texts to a tortuous support of dogmas that seem summoned from the realm of delirium.




Your visiting Witness may even be a graduate of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, at South Lansing, N.Y., opened in 1943 to prepare an elite assault corps to carve out and expand beachheads in missionary lands like Canada, Colombia, Korea and Kuwait. (Canadians will be flattered to note that an official Witness publication bluntly states that the “major battlefield since 1945 has been in Canada, centering around the Catholic Province of Quebec.”) For the past fifteen years, two student groups each year have taken up residence at the school for the intense five-month course of study. Of this number, well over three thousand students have received diplomas.


The most sweeping step in the new educational program, however, came on the local level, when each Kingdom Hall was ordered to establish a congregational school for the ministry. From 1943 on, tens of thousands of speakers were prepared, and to borrow again from an official Witness document:


After two years of education for the ministry, a fairly large male staff of well-trained Bible speakers became available. For this reason the Watchtower Society decided to inaugurate a world-wide speaking campaign commencing January, 1945.


And speak they did. Their trunks bulging with piles of Bible tracts and booklets, 163 of the Gilead folk turned to the lands surrounding the United States: Mexico, Newfoundland, Alaska, Honduras and Central America. By 1953 the number of these apostles had climbed to 674, with tens of thousands of neophytes won over in those countries. The evangelization of Cuba had been undertaken in 1943. In rapid succession Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas followed. For years the schooner Sibia was a floating missionary home, manned by Gilead graduates, going from island to island in the Caribbean area.


South America was opened up in 1945 in the wake of a personal visit by President Knorr. In 1953 there were 301 well-trained and well-heeled missionaries at work in a dozen South American countries who could point to a harvest of 14,000 baptized Witnesses. Over in Europe that same year 216 missionaries and 180,000 active Witness-ministers were tirelessly spreading the word. Most phenomenal of all, though, was Africa’s 800 per-cent jump in 11 years: from a 10,070 total in 1942 to 81,793 in 1953.


Earlier stories written about the Witnesses invariably hinted darkly at financial carryings-on. That steady stream of gold flowing into Brooklyn headquarters, they argued, must certainly be making somebody rich. It’s neither taxable nor liable to public scrutiny. Besides, didn’t Rutherford himself frequently remark that “religion is a racket”? Whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are an exception to an almost universal law which governs religious groups of this kind is debatable. It well may have been true, in fact it is still possibly true, that there are some highly placed individuals in the Witness movement who have found a pretty good thing and have carved a fat living out of it. Whether once true or not, however, any large-scale graft or fraud is today almost an impossibility. Yet where do the millions of dollars go? Subsidies for the extensive missionary work would account for much of it.


In any event, the sweetness-and-light approach is paying dividends, especially here and in Canada. The earlier crude attacks on religion aroused in most Protestant and Catholic listeners an instinctive reaction to defend something long lived with and cherished. But now the Witness approach is more positive and an effort is made to gild over the more grotesque features of the Witness creed.




Even the rank-and-file Witness today knows, and believes, only a carefully edited official history of the movement. Show your Witness friend a documented reference to the quackery of the Russell era, to the “Miracle Wheat” and the “Millennial Bean” and the “Wonderful Cotton Seed,” along with the “Cancer Cure” and the “Santonine Appendicitis Cure,” and you’ll hear hurt mutterings about persecution. Ask one of them about the change-over to an absolute “theocratic” dictatorship which Jehovah revealed to Rutherford in 1938 after disastrous experiments with congregational democracy, and you’ll get an indignant denial. Ask about the series of oft-fumbled predictions of the world’s end, or about the “wine vs. grape juice” controversy, or about the “Great Pyramid” schism and other important defections which several times nearly exploded the movement, and you will bring only a blank stare to their faces. On an official level you will find these difficulties smilingly waved away as personal aberrations rooted in the complex characters of either Russell or Rutherford.


Yet the membership grows. People, not all confined to the fringes of civilization, either, continue to accept the kaleidoscopic confusion boldly presented in the pages of the Watchtower “Bible Studies.” Over the years a Witness “Credo” would sound like this:




That Satan authored the pagan doctrine of the Trinity. That both Lucifer and Jesus are sons of God. That Jesus Christ is the same person as the Archangel Michael. That there is neither an immortal soul nor a hell in which it could be punished. That all business, governments and religions are the devil’s creations. That God’s spiritual heaven has accommodations for only 144,000 chosen souls. That all other faithful Witnesses of Jehovah will have their heaven upon this earth after Armageddon. That despite a dozen miscalculations the day of Armageddon is still right around the corner. That Sunday schools and Mother’s Day are tools of the devil. That smoking is a defilement forbidden by Leviticus and blood transfusions an abomination proscribed in the Acts of the Apostles. That game-hunting for sport and zoo-gazing for pleasure are contrary to the Old Testament. Amen.


The Witness dim view of flag-saluting is well known and, held by other people, for different reasons, might draw some sympathy; but the Witness belief that the celebration of Christmas and Easter is un-Christian leaves one breathless. When it is further stated as a matter of scriptural fact that Christ did not die on a cross but on a “torture stake,” and that both Easter eggs and the Christian cross are carry-overs from pagan phallic worship, Christian forbearance is strained to the breaking point. Yet the membership grows. Why? For what reasons do people become Witnesses?




To exhaust this topic would demand volumes. In America and Canada the reasons are particularly complex. The general appeal of a thing like Jehovah’s Witnesses is basically the “mentally and economically underprivileged.” The U.S. Department of Justice figures cited in Collier’s for November 2, 1946 indicate that “less than one per cent of the group have had a college education, while 15 per cent have less than grammar schooling.” The Christian Century for July, 1955 is authority for the statement that every fifth Witness is colored. The newly transplanted Puerto Ricans of New York and the Mexicans of California and the Southwest have contributed solidly to membership increase.


Still, lack of formal schooling and isolated racial patterns do not completely explain the phenomenon. The Witness religion is unblushingly materialist and hedonist. Mohammed’s faithful disciples could dream of the promised houris of Paradise. Jehovah’s faithful Witnesses are promised a life eternal right here below in the equivalent of an American Jordan flowing with beer and pretzels. This terrestrial heaven was glowingly described by President Knorr in 1950 as: “An earth on which no natural disasters occur; on which your fellow creatures enjoy complete health and permanent youthful beauty and vigor and where never a hospital or graveyard mars the grandeur of a perfectly cultivated land.” Witness theology makes no demand on the intellect but a huge one on the will. There’s no room for doubt or question. Just the one big “Yes” of the will, and everything becomes so marvelously simple.


How many Witnesses are recruited from the legion of the economically helpless? For how many others does the militant pacifism of the Witnesses lull away fears of atomic warfare? During the immediate postwar years, both here and abroad, the heavy clouds of fear and unrest sent thousands scurrying for security to the Witnesses. In European countries this is true, especially in areas ill-serviced by priest or minister. There’s something infectious about absolute conviction ringingly asserted, and the Witnesses do have conviction. They KNOW, and know with calm assurance, that tomorrow this spinning world will run down like a child’s top, fall over on its side and then—they will step forward triumphant into Jehovah’s “New World Kingdom.”


Who doesn’t like to feel important? Ah, to be looked up to as a “minister,” to go about discoursing learnedly on the Bible, to be listened to as an authority, what a powerful psychological tug this exerts on many good people who sometimes weary of sitting always in the back pews. To become a Witness minister, little or no learning is needed, no long years of college and seminary, no involved ordination requirements. Just offer yourself for baptism and you’ve become a minister!


Then there are other candidates—the bitter from whom life has stolen hope, the malcontent or anarchical who are eaten up with disgust at government, the business failures who have been bruised in competition. There are the simplest lovers of the Book who yearn for more knowledge of it and who are assured that Jehovah’s mighty truth lies plainly before their eyes, if only they will keep staring at what they are told is there.


In the market place there will always be crowds of the simple, the illiterate, the dejected, the novelty seekers, the under-privileged and the genuinely hungry for God to buy the wares of the Father Divines, Brother Robertses, Prophet Joneses, Sister Aimees and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the mingled darkness and light of our world, even people thoroughly good and sincere can confuse the blurred truth with the real truth and the tawdry copy with the precious original. That is the way his satanic majesty, the Ape of God, always works.



Historical Publications Relating to Jehovah's Witnesses