A Conspiracy Thwarted in “the Land Down Under”
By “Awake!” correspondent in Australia
THE people of Australia value their individual rights as citizens. They are well known for their insistence on fair play or “a fair go,” as they call it.
Fair-minded people usually favor freedom of worship. Section 116 of Australia’s Constitution provides for this, saying: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion.’’
Many inhabitants of “the land down under” have hearty spiritual appetites and enjoy it when Jehovah’s witnesses come to their homes to study the Bible with them. During 1975, more than 11,000 of such free Bible studies were held with Australians each week.
Do you realize, though, that the Witnesses were once under ban in Australia? How did that happen?
Declared Unlawful—but Why?
On January 17, 1941, Australia’s Governor-General gazetted an order-in-council that declared unlawful Jehovah’s witnesses and several legal corporations that they used.
The ban apparently was related to the closing of four radio stations operated by Jehovah’s witnesses. The shutdown occurred because certain military persons claimed that the facilities had aired seditious broadcasts that provided information for the enemy during World War II.
Did Jehovah’s witnesses really sponsor seditious broadcasts? Consider the reason given by the Federal Cabinet in Sydney when the cabinet requested that the Attorney-General of Australia not allow the radio stations to reopen for a period of time: “In order to enable the position in relation to these wireless stations to be examined and clarified.”
Does it not seem strange to you that these stations had been closed before the matter had even been “examined and clarified”? Records recently made public by the Australian Commonwealth Archives Office reveal that a conspiracy was at work. Let us consider some of the information in these records.
Pressure from Christendom’s Clergy
In July 1940, Sir Robert Menzies, then Prime Minister of Australia, received a letter from a Methodist clergyman on the island of Tasmania, part of the Commonwealth of Australia. He had written on behalf of the Methodist people of his district, who had supported a Tasmanian government request to the Australian government that Jehovah’s witnesses be declared illegal. “If necessary,” he wrote, “I can give reasons why we support the closing of the sect.”
Another Australian clergyman, objecting to the zealous public preaching of Jehovah’s witnesses, wrote to Mr. W. M. Hughes, then Attorney-General of Australia: “The sect calling themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses are a distinctly disloyal lot of people and in my estimation ought to be declared as such.”
These letters from clergymen did not contain any evidence of subversive or illegal acts on the part of Jehovah’s witnesses. They were merely assertions, including the feeble comment: “If necessary, I can give reasons.”
The Commonwealth Archives show that the Attorney-General had been pressured also by the Catholic clergy to suppress freedom of religion enjoyed by Jehovah’s witnesses. However, in a direct reply to the then Catholic archbishop of Sydney, N. T. Gilroy (later elevated to be a cardinal), the Attorney-General confirmed that the government had no legal grounds to restrain the Christian activity of Jehovah’s witnesses. He wrote:
“If it were not for the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses profess to be spreading the doctrines of Christianity, I would have no hesitation in recommending that the organization be declared an unlawful association. As you are aware the Commonwealth is, under the Constitution, prohibited from interfering with the free exercise of any religion and, although I personally have some doubts as to whether this ‘ecclesiastical curiosity’ is a religion, the High Court may think otherwise.”
In his reply, the archbishop tried to circumvent the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion by claiming that Jehovah’s witnesses were not spreading Christian teachings. Neither he nor his Protestant colleagues, however, were able to produce positive proof of seditious behavior by Jehovah’s witnesses.
The Attorney-General admitted that he had received much literature published by the Witnesses. He read it, but did not find unlawful or seditious statements. Nor was he convinced that Jehovah’s witnesses had committed any acts in violation of the law. Therefore, the Sydney Morning Herald of November 6, 1940, reported:
“The Attorney-General, Mr. Hughes, said tonight that at the moment the Commonwealth would take no further action concerning the activities of ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ . . . Mr. Hughes said it was essential to remember that we were fighting this war for liberty of opinion. The Government was asked to fight for that aim on one hand and to ban ‘these people’ on the other . . .”
Four days later, the Sydney Sun and Guardian contained a similar item:
“As long as the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,’ the Federal Attorney, Mr. Hughes, will not ban the sect. ‘I cannot reconcile it with my conscience to ban people because they don’t think the same as I do or worship God in the same way,’ he said . . . It was pointed out to Mr. Hughes that many people disputed the right of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be regarded as a religious body. That has been the mark of the sectary throughout the ages,’ he replied. ‘I am not defending the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I simply say there is a Constitution. It guarantees every man freedom of religious belief. On that I must stand . . . But the mere profession of faith in a creed, no matter how distasteful or monstrous it might appear to us, is in itself not an offence against the law.’”
Interesting, too, is the fact that a month before these news items appeared, the Cabinet had discussed subversive organizations. If Jehovah’s witnesses were then considered subversive, would the Attorney-General have made the foregoing statements? Would Australian government officials have waited until January 1941 to impose the ban?
The Australian Federal Cabinet decided to ban Jehovah’s witnesses evidently because of the closing of the Witness–operated radio stations, whose broadcasts allegedly “gave help to [the] enemy.” On January 17, 1941, when the ban became effective, the Attorney-General issued instructions to take possession of several properties held by Jehovah’s witnesses throughout Australia. Raids took place. Books, Bibles, phonographs and recordings that Jehovah’s witnesses used in their preaching work were seized everywhere. Peaceful, law-abiding citizens were arrested and incarcerated.
The claims against the radio stations, however, were baseless. There were no prosecutions of any of Jehovah’s witnesses for treason or seditious acts. Though the Navy department was involved in requesting that these stations be shut down, Sir Ragnor Colvin, a Vice-Admiral who was responsible for the safety of shipping, confirmed before a Parliamentary Committee in 1943 that no subversive broadcasts had been made by them.
Australians Send Letters of Protest
Some were appalled at the high-handed action taken against Jehovah’s witnesses. The Australian government received the following letter of protest from the Acting Secretary of the State Railway Workshop committee:
“By special resolution my committee has instructed me to protest strongly on the ban against a religious body, commonly known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“While owing no allegiance to any religious body, this committee representing 3,000 workmen feel that one of the reasons for the present war and what we are fighting for is the desire to allow an individual the right of freedom of worship, denied by Fascism, and feel that Government action of the denial of this right, savours of Fascism. The committee would welcome an assurance that the ban will be reviewed as we think that the contradiction is obvious.”
One Presbyterian minister displayed a spirit in contrast to that of many Australian clergymen when he wrote the following letter to the Attorney-General:
“I write to protest against the violation of the Constitution in forbidding freedom of worship to Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . As a Britisher . . . I never thought that I would live in any part of the British Empire which denied freedom of worship to anybody . . . Was not the action taken because the Jehovah’s Witnesses criticised the Roman Catholic Church? . . . Why did not the Roman Catholic Church make a public reply to the challenge of the Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
The Conspiracy Boomerangs
How would this arbitrary action against Jehovah’s witnesses affect their activity? Well, what did Peter and other apostles of Jesus Christ do when the Jewish Sanhedrin ‘positively ordered them not to keep teaching upon the basis of Jesus’ name? The Bible informs us: “In answer Peter and the other apostles said: ‘We must obey God as ruler rather than men.’” (Acts 5:28, 29) Though deprived of the use of printed literature, Australian Witnesses continued to preach to their neighbors by using the Bible only. As a result, the number of Jehovah’s witnesses in Australia increased from 2,532 at the start of the ban to 4,328 immediately after it was lifted, an increase of more than 70 percent during the two and a half years of the ban.
Those who conspired to ban Jehovah’s witnesses were in for even further embarrassment. How so? A test case was brought to court. The Adelaide Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose Kingdom Hall had been seized by the government, acted as plaintiff. Mr. Justice Starke heard this case on November 23-25, 1942. What was the result?
After listening to the arguments of the trial, the justice expressed his conviction “that Jehovah’s witnesses are not engaged in any seditious enterprise nor in the printing or publishing of any seditious words.” He declared the ban to be “arbitrary, capricious and oppressive.” It was Justice Starke’s opinion that the Governor-General’s order to ban Jehovah’s witnesses ought to be reviewed by the full High Court.
The High Court did hear the case and decided to lift the ban, restoring full religious freedom to Jehovah’s witnesses. With regard to the claim of some, such as Archbishop Gilroy, that Jehovah’s witnesses were not a truly Christian religion, Mr. Justice Latham commented:
“What is religion to one is superstition to another. Some religions are regarded as morally evil by adherents of other creeds . . . Section 116 proclaims not only the principle of toleration of all religions but also the principle of toleration of absence of religion . . . [it] is not required for the protection of the religion of a majority. The religion of the majority of the people can look after itself. Section 116 is required to protect the religion (or absence of religion) of minorities, and, in particular, of unpopular minorities.”
Since the lifting of the ban some thirty-two years ago, Jehovah’s witnesses in Australia have kept busy sharing Bible truths with their neighbors. Now there are more than 27,500 of Jehovah’s witnesses active in “the land down under.” In 1972, the Watch Tower Society opened up a new printery in Sydney. There some 700,000 Bible educational magazines are printed each year, supplying Bible educational material to twenty-five countries. Humble persons throughout Australia are indeed happy that the conspiracy against freedom of worship in their native land was thwarted.