Trouble at the Watchtower

The Tablet/November 3, 2001
By Stephen Bates

For decades the Jehovah's Witnesses have condemned the United Nations as the Scarlet Beast of Revelation, but privately they were still affiliated to it. When he stumbled on their secret, the religious affairs correspondent of the Guardian uncovered a hornets' nest of recrimination amongst the faithful.

The smiling middle-aged women who called at my door on a Saturday morning were most polite. They were from the Jehovah's Witnesses, they said, and could they interest me in coming along to their Kingdom Hall? No, I said, in grave dereliction of my duty as a religious affairs correspondent, I attended another church. And they smiled again and we wished each other a cheery good morning.

Had I known what I know now I might have been a shade less polite, for not many days after that an email flickered on to my computer screen from a senior academic asking whether I knew of a strange little secret in his religious sect, the Witnesses. There was, he said, a glaring inconsistency between its extreme opposition to the United Nations and its private decision to affiliate to the United Nations as a non-governmental organisation.

Like most outsiders, I knew that the Witnesses - there are 6 million worldwide, including 130,000 in Britain - had peculiar ideas about blood transfusions (they don't allow them even at risk of death); that they didn't like governments, and did not vote at elections; that they were governed by a group of elders based in Brooklyn, New York; and that they were Bible-based fundamentalists. But what on earth could they have against the UN?

Surely, such a position for a religious group must be like being in favour of sin? But there it was, stark in black and white: for 80 years the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS) of New York, as the Witnesses are formally known, has not just criticised but condemned first the League of Nations and then the UN. The UN appears there as the Scarlet-Coloured Beast of the Book of Revelation, Babylon the Great, a disgusting thing in the eyes of God and man.

Yet there also the Watchtower Society sat on the UN's website as one of 1,500 accredited non-governmental organisations.

"It's certainly a bit strange", said a UN spokeswoman. "I guess we didn't know what they really thought of us."

No, said the Witnesses' British spokesman, they would never be associated with the UN - though they might make representations to it.

But there they they were. The WTBTS had been affiliated to the organisation since it first applied in 1991. To be recognised, it would have had to agree that it supported the UN charter and was prepared to disseminate and publicise its objectives and policies. Not once, but every year. There was no mistake. I wrote the story, which limped into the Guardian, deep in the paper on the day the bombing of Afghanistan started. That, I thought, was that, until the emails started arriving, from Hawaii, California, Nebraska and Ukraine. Somehow, within a few hours, it had been posted on a Witnesses' website in English and translated into French, and 14,000 followers across the world had read it. Hundreds commented on the article, others demanded to see a copy of the original newspaper (as if they could not truly believe it if it was just on their computer screens). Only one response was hostile: our subeditors had cut the word "coloured" from "scarlet-coloured", which was enough to damn the article as being riddled with inaccuracies, according to a chapel elder in Illinois.

Then the most surprising thing of all happened: two days after the article appeared, the WTBTS disaffiliated from the UN. Surely not a guilty conscience? Under pressure from incredulous Witnesses, the UN issued a statement on headed notepaper confirming it. The sect's followers besieged the office of the head of public information demanding an original of his letter, or at least a copy. Word filtered back that, when queried about the story, loyal elders were telling their congregations that it was a lie disseminated by apostates. Or that the UN's website had evidently been infiltrated by forgers. Or that it was the work of the devil. At the least it was a mistake - though one, as critical Witnesses pointed out, that had been continuing for 10 years. Or had the elders just ignored the correspondence they received?

Witnesses who showed copies of the article to colleagues and relatives, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, had them torn up or thrown on the floor, or simply handed straight back unread. They were accused of apostasy. The Witnesses' talkboard was abuzz with hundreds of messages, virtually all of them outraged with the elders of the Watchtower. One said that when he had shown a friend the UN website, he was summoned to a two-hour judicial hearing with his local elders and he and his wife were subjected to a public reproof in front of the entire congregation at their next meeting.

"My wife's 16 years of faithful service are about to be null and void for merely having a private conversation with a friend about some factual and private information", he wrote. "We heard the scripture applied to us about 'those that arise and speak twisted things' . The elders' decision was presented as good news. They said: 'We've decided to show mercy and not disfellowship you' - it was something that had to be cut out of the congregation like a gangrene."

"Disfellowshipping" is a serious matter because Witnesses are discouraged from having close friendships with outsiders. "Disfellowshipping" means other Witnesses, including your own family, should cease contact with you and shun you if you meet them. It is done - the Illinois elder told me - only in a loving way and after attempts to make you see the error of your ways.

There is a sense in this row, which must seem footling to outsiders, in which disaffected Witnesses feel they have been misled once too often. In the deeply introspective, defensive and suspicious world of the WTBTS, questioning is discouraged, so an issue of hypocrisy such as this causes all the more anguish. This is felt particularly strongly on the blood-transfusion issue. Over the years hundreds of Witnesses and their children are thought to have died because they refused life-saving operations on the basis of Acts 15:20. But then, last summer, the elders met in Brooklyn and, after an apparent divine revelation - but more precisely following a vote of eight to four - decided that in certain circumstances the transfusion of blood components such as plasma might be acceptable, so long as the recipient genuinely repented afterwards. This was not publicised to congregations and, under questioning, was said to be no change at all.

Then there is the issue of child abuse, in which official guidance is that accusations should be investigated only if there are two independent witnesses - a near impossibility. I have seen instructions sent to elders which tell them that written allegations should be burned. This may, or may not, constitute an obstruction of justice, but is hardly helpful. The outside world appears to impinge very little on the cast-iron biblical certainties of the Jehovah's Witnesses - which is what makes their tangle with the UN all the more embarrassing. The disfellowshipped join the rest of humanity and are known informally as "bird seed" after - actually, a long way after - Ezekiel 39:18. For, as the Watchtower magazine says, Jehovah holds the proud and mighty in contempt, letting the wild beasts and vultures feed upon them as worthless carrion.

The Witnesses are told to engage in a "theocratic war strategy": "in times of spiritual warfare it is proper to misdirect the enemy by hiding the truth. It is done unselfishly; it does no harm to anyone. On the contrary it does much good."

The trouble is that the elders appear not only to have misled the enemy but their own followers as well. To have such a growing body of disillusioned members cannot be right. No wonder some of the disaffected believe Armageddon is coming for the WTBTS, sooner even than the Watchtower predicts.

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