When he died last week at the age of 57, pop singer Prince was arguably the most famous Jehovah’s Witness in the world. Here are nine things you should know about the obscure religious group that emerged from the Bible Student movement in the late 1870s:
1. Jehovah’s Witnesses—their name is intended to designate them as “a group of Christians who proclaim the truth about Jehovah”—compose less than 1 percent of U.S. adults, yet are among the most racially and ethnically diverse religious groups in America. According to Pew Research, no more than 4 in 10 members of the group belong to any one racial and ethnic background: 36 percent are white, 32 percent are Hispanic, 27 percent are black, and 6 percent are another race or mixed race. Roughly two-thirds (65 percent) are women, while only 35 percent are men. They also also tend to be less educated, with a solid majority of adult Jehovah’s Witnesses (63 percent) having no more than a high school diploma (compared with, for example, 43 percent of evangelical Protestants).
2. Jehovah’s Witnesses (hereafter JWs) consider themselves to be Christians (but not Protestants), even though they reject the doctrine of the Trinity. JWs claim that Jesus was not divine and that the Holy Spirit is an “active force” and not a person. JWs believe that Jesus is God’s only direct creation, “the firstborn of all creation” and therefore rightly entitled to be called the “son of God.” However, they believe that as a created being “he is not part of a Trinity.” They believe Jesus lived in heaven before coming to earth and, after his death and resurrection, he returned to heaven. They also believe Jesus “gave his perfect human life as a ransom sacrifice” and that through his death and resurrection “make it possible for those exercising faith in him to gain everlasting life.”3. JWs believe that the kingdom of God is a real government in heaven that will soon replace human governments and accomplish God’s purpose for the earth. They believe that Jesus is the King of God’s kingdom in heaven and that he began ruling in 1914. A relatively small number of people—144,000—will be resurrected to live with Jehovah in heaven and rule with Jesus in the kingdom. They believe that God will bring billions back from death by means of a resurrection and that “many now living may yet begin to serve God, and they too will gain salvation.” However, those who “refuse to learn God’s ways after being raised to life” will pass out of existence forever (they will not suffer in a “fiery hell of torment”).
4. JWs practice door-to-door ministry because they believe it is an effective way to fulfill the Great Commission and that first-century Christians continued to spread their message both “publicly and from house to house” (they cite Acts 5:42; 20:20). They do not believe that door-to-door ministry is a means of earning salvation by doing good works. They also believe that “pressuring people to change their religion is wrong” though they do believe in attempting to argue for their particular beliefs. In their door-to-door ministry they generally distribute two magazines, Awake!, a general religious magazine, and The Watchtower, a magazine whose content is focused on “the significance of world events in the light of Bible prophecies.”
5. JWs believe the Bible is “God’s inspired message to humans.” In 1961 a JW corporation, The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, published its own formal equivalence translation of the Bible: the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT). As of 2015, the NWT has been translated in whole or in part into 129 languages. Since the release of the NT translation in 1950, this version has been criticized for changing the meaning and words of the text to fit JW doctrine. A prime example is John 1:1. Both the ESV and NIV translate that verse as, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The NWT version translates the passage as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” The addition of the indefinite article “a” is added to avoid the conclusion that Jesus is God. Referring to this verse, Bruce M. Metzger wrote in 1953, “It must be stated quite frankly that, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses take this translation seriously, they are polytheists.” Despite a preference for the NWT, JWs still use other translations of the Bible in their witnessing work.
6. JWs do not celebrate either Christmas or Easter, because they believe the Bible teaches that it’s Jesus death—not his birth or resurrection—that should be celebrated. They also believe that Christmas and Easter are not approved by God because they are rooted in pagan customs and rites. They also do not celebrate birthdays because they believe “such celebrations displease God.”
7. JWs have a number of beliefs that are peculiar to their sect: While they accept medical treatments and do not practice faith healing, they don’t accept blood transfusions because they believe the “Bible commands that we not ingest blood.” They do not believe in going to war or getting involved in political matters, and they do not consider the cross to be a symbol of Christianity, because they claim “the Bible indicates that Jesus did not die on a cross but rather on a simple stake.”