“The Principal Victims of Religious Persecution”
RELIGIOUS persecution has existed throughout history. Cain’s murder of Abel was motivated by religious differences. Cain didn’t like the fact that God approved Abel’s sacrifice but did not look favorably on his. He grew angry and finally murdered his brother.—Genesis 4:3-8.
Jesus Christ prophesied that his followers would be persecuted, especially in the time of the end. He warned: “You will . . . be handed over for punishment and execution; and men of all nations will hate you for your allegiance to me.”—Matthew 24:9, The New English Bible.
Over the millenniums, the major religions have persecuted one another as each religion has seen its monopoly control over the people threatened. Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others have indulged in mutual bloodletting. In the name of orthodoxy, infallible truth, and the salvation of the soul, persecution has been justified. The Jews have been persecuted for both their religion and their race. In some countries in this 20th century, atheistic communism has turned against religion as ‘the opium of the people.’
Yet, in this same century, there is one group that has been persecuted from every quarter—whether religious or political. Who are they, and what have been the motives?
“The Principal Victims”
In his recent book The Court and the Constitution (1987), former Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, writes: “The principal victims of religious persecution in the United States in the twentieth century were the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” What provoked this situation? He continues: “They began to attract attention and provoke repression in the 1930s, when their proselytizing and numbers rapidly increased. Drawing on Divine revelation from the Bible, they stood on street corners and canvassed from house to house, offering the tracts of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and preaching that the evil triumvirate of organized churches, business, and the State are the instruments of Satan.”
As the nations became embroiled in World War II, the Witnesses became victims and martyrs of the rampant spirit of nationalism that was encouraged by the warring governments. In some nations obligatory flag salute was imposed in the schools. Compulsory military service became the rule. While Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in paying to Caesar what is Caesar’s—and perhaps few groups pay their taxes and obey the laws of the land more conscientiously—they also pay to God what they believe he requires, namely, worship and supreme loyalty. They respect the fine principles that the flag of a nation often stands for, but to them the flag salute is divisive image worship. That stand landed them in trouble in the United States in the 1930’s and ’40’s.
Hundreds of children were expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag. As Professor Mason stated in his book Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law: “Their refusal did not mean that they were unpatriotic or that they did not love their country. It simply meant that, as they read the Scriptures, the flag salute violated the Biblical injunction against bowing down to a graven image.”
The issue was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1940, by a vote of 8 to 1, the Witnesses’ appeal was rejected. The lone and courageous dissenter was Justice Harlan Fiske Stone. Professor Mason explained how some reacted: “John Haynes Holmes, chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Stone’s dissent would ‘rank as one of the great dissenting opinions in American history.’ Press comment was highly favorable. One hundred and seventy-one leading newspapers promptly condemned the decision; only a handful approved it.” But what happened then?
Professor Cox continues his account: “Persecution of the Witnesses increased. In some quarters, notably Texas, Witnesses were attacked by mobs for their refusal to salute the flag, and they were sometimes held as ‘Nazi agents.’” In Maine, one Kingdom Hall was burned. In one town in Illinois, the whole population “turned out to attack some sixty Witnesses.” And what did the authorities do? “For the most part, the police stood idly by or actively participated.” As Professor Mason comments: “The Department of Justice traced this wave of violence directly to the Court’s decision in the first Flag Salute case. The Court itself thus became a weapon in the struggle for men’s minds.”
A Dramatic Reversal
In spite of this atrocious persecution, Witness children, similar to the three faithful Hebrews, refused to salute a national emblem, in this case the flag. (Daniel, chapter 3) The Legal Department of the Watchtower Society continued to push flag-salute cases through the appeal courts. In fact, “Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to press their claims so furiously that [Justice] Stone suggested they ‘ought to have an endowment in view of the aid which they give in solving the legal problems of civil liberties.’”—Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law, page 598.
Then on June 14, 1943 (Flag Day), the U.S. Supreme Court took an unusual step. It reversed itself in a different flag-salute case (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette) and exonerated the Witnesses. On the same day, in another case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, the justices stated: “As applied to the appellants [Witnesses] it [the statute] punishes them although what they communicated is not claimed or shown to have been done with an evil or sinister purpose, to have advocated or incited subversive action against the nation or state. . . . Under our decisions criminal sanction cannot be imposed for such communication.”
Justice Jackson, as the Court’s spokesman, included an opinion of Gamaliel-like wisdom: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” This decision has been called “one of the most dramatic reversals in the Court’s history.”—Compare Acts 5:34, 38, 39.
Why was it only reasonable that the Witnesses should not be obligated by law to venerate the flag? Professor Cox explains: “The offense to the Gobitis and Barnette children [Witnesses] was State compulsion to proclaim a political orthodoxy that they did not believe.” All the Witnesses had done was follow the Biblical principle: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
Why Protect the Minority?
In his analysis of these cases, Cox raises a significant question: “Why should we worry about the spiritual liberty of that tiny minority which refuses to salute the flag? Or about protecting the opportunities of troublemakers like the evangelical Jehovah’s Witnesses?” He responds: “Part of the answer lies in the premise of individual dignity on which our society rests, a dignity belonging to both orthodox and nonconformist. Part lies in the awareness that if the State may silence the speech of Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . , our own may be next.”
Yes, the suppression of freedom of worship for an unpopular minority can be the thin edge of the wedge that leads to the suppression of other freedoms for all citizens. But there is another interesting factor that Professor Cox includes:
“And part lies in the awareness that some far-out minority may hit upon the truth—a truth postponed or forever lost by its suppression.” And among the truths that were being made an object of suppression is that preached by Jehovah’s Witnesses, namely, that mankind’s only hope for peace and salvation is God’s Kingdom government by Christ Jesus.—Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:9, 10.
When Cox refers to the Witnesses as “troublemakers,” let it be remembered how the early Christian disciples were described by their opposers: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here . . . They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:6, 7, New International Version) How similar to the situation in which Jehovah’s Witnesses have found themselves in many countries! And why is that? For the same reasons that the early Christians suffered—their allegiance to Christ Jesus, their King, and to his Kingdom.
The Witnesses’ successful preaching stirs the orthodox clergy to seek aid from the secular authorities. This is similar to what happened after Paul’s successful ministry. The account tells us: “But the Jews in their jealousy recruited some low fellows from the dregs of the populace, roused the rabble, and had the city in an uproar. . . . They dragged Jason himself and some members of the congregation before the magistrates.”—Acts 17:5, 6, NEB.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have suffered unjust persecution in many countries, in times of war and of peace. On many occasions the promoters of such persecution have been the religious leaders who have used their influence with their contacts in the current ruling elite to curtail the activities of the Witnesses. One outstanding example was the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Catholic Spain during the period from 1950 to 1970. Men, women, and children were hounded, fined, and imprisoned just for studying the Bible in the privacy of their own homes. Hundreds of young men each spent more than ten years in military prison for maintaining Christian neutrality.a
The case of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Spain is so outstanding that one prominent lawyer, Señor Martín-Retortillo, wrote: “As one studies ten years of Jurisprudence, and observes the governmental sanctions for reasons of public order that affect religious conduct, there is one fact that decidedly catches the attention: It is that in almost all cases considered, those who have [been involved] are members of only one religious group . . . ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses.’”
Persecution Fails to Halt Witnesses
Since 1970, Jehovah’s Witnesses have enjoyed legal recognition in Spain, and instead of the 10,000 that were active then, there are now some 70,000 associated with about a thousand congregations! A similar rate of progress is true for the United States. In the period to which Professor Cox refers (1930’s-1940’s), there were only some 40,000 to 60,000 Witnesses in the United States and a total of some 115,000 in the entire world. Today, there are more than 770,000 Witnesses in the United States, and 3,400,000 in the world in 55,000 congregations. Persecution has failed to stop the progress of their worldwide educational work.
When faced with persecution, there is only one answer that the Witnesses can give: “Whether it is righteous in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, judge for yourselves. But as for us, we cannot stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.”—Acts 4:19, 20.
a For a detailed report on this persecution in Spain, see the 1978 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pages 164-247.
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Courts ruled that refusal to salute a flag is not disrespectful
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Only Justice Stone supported the stand of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940 Supreme Court decision
Office of the Curator, The Supreme Court of the United States
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By a majority vote, these justices ruled in favor of the Witnesses in the flag-salute issue
Office of the Curator, The Supreme Court of the United States