Modern History of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Part 19—Christian Neutrals in America During World War II
WHILE the interesting things already related were happening to Jehovah’s witnesses in other parts of the earth during World War II, what happened to the witnesses in the United States during this period? They too conducted themselves as neutrals amidst a sea of mankind that had become hysterical during days of war. This meant that the American witnesses withstood one of the hottest periods of persecution of Christians in the annals of modern history. From 1933, when figures of arrests began to be kept by the Watch Tower Society, up to 1951 where the aftermath of persecution due to military service requirements still continued, there is record of 18,886 individual arrests.* This is an almost unbelievable figure for a country claiming to be democratic and a champion of freedom.
Additionally at least 1,500 mobbings occurred, involving the witnesses from one end of the United States to the other. As previously pointed out, on June 3, 1940, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against the Society in the Gobitis flag-salute case. This touched off a terrific public reaction against the witnesses. It took great Christian fortitude and faith on the part of all of Jehovah’s people, male and female, children and grown-ups, to endure this period of trial and at the same time to continue their public preaching from house to house and on the streets. Sheer faith in Jehovah defeated persecution in the long run, even as it had done in Germany and other countries.
Three years later (1943), when the flag-salute case was brought before the United States Supreme Court for the second time, the following official description of the public’s reaction to the court’s 1940 decision was set out in the Society’s brief given to each of the nine high justices.
“Immediately following delivery of the Gobitis [adverse] opinion on June 3, 1940, a nation-wide campaign of newspaper publicity and idle gossip was launched by enemies of Jehovah’s witnesses, falsely accusing them of being ‘against the flag and government,’ solely because they refuse to salute any flag, including the American flag, for conscience’ sake. That opinion was like a lighted match applied to a field of dried grass. Prejudice created by unfavorable newspaper publicity flamed into open violence. Widespread mob attacks resulted immediately against Jehovah’s witnesses. For more than two years, in thousands of communities throughout this land, certain religious elements or ‘would-be’ patriotic elements have led men controlled neither by law nor reason to assault thousands of Jehovah’s witnesses, men, women and children; destroyed their property; drove them from their homes; burned their houses, places of worship, furniture, books and money; tied groups of them together and forced castor oil in large quantity down their throats; herded them like beasts along hot, dusty roads and railroad rights-of-way in many places; dragged them along the main streets of the city by a rope around their necks and strung up; and committed numerous other deeds of violence and wickedness against them without a cause, and continue so to do to this day without interference from the law. Public officials, influenced by well-known religionists, broke into homes of private citizens, Jehovah’s witnesses, kidnaped and carried them from one state to another, and broke up their private Bible-study assemblies. Thousands of children have been expelled from school and great numbers prosecuted as delinquents, many convicted and ordered to be taken from parents. Hundreds of parents have been threatened with prosecution for the alleged crime of contributing to delinquency and truancy of their children and many convicted—all because they have taught them the Bible and the children have humbly obeyed God’s commands.”*
On June 16, 1940, the United States solicitor general, Francis Biddle, in a radio broadcast over a coast-to-coast network made the following statement in an effort to quiet the spirit of mob violence then rampant.
“ . . . Jehovah’s witnesses have been repeatedly set upon and beaten. They had committed no crime; but the mob adjudged they had, and meted out mob punishment. The Attorney General has ordered an immediate investigation of these outrages. The people must be alert and watchful, and above all cool and sane. Since mob violence will make the government’s task infinitely more difficult, it will not be tolerated. We shall not defeat the Nazi evil by emulating its methods.”*
Note the following nontheocratic report of this period of wartime persecution.
“Not since the persecution of the Mormons years ago has any religious minority been so bitterly and generally attacked as the members of Jehovah’s Witnesses—particularly in the spring and summer of 1940. While this was the peak of the attacks upon them, hostility and discrimination have been rife for several years. Documents filed with the Department of Justice by attorneys for Jehovah’s Witnesses and the American Civil Liberties Union showed over three hundred thirty-five instances of mob violence in forty-four states during 1940, involving one thousand four hundred eighty-eight men, women, and children. The cause of this extraordinary outbreak was the ‘patriotic’ fear aroused by the success of the Nazi armies in Europe and the panic which seized the country at the imagined invasion of the United States. From California to Maine this emotion expressed itself in searching out ‘Fifth Columnists’ and ‘Trojan Horses’—phrases which sprang into almost immediate popularity to characterize those thought to be opposed to national defense. Jehovah’s Witnesses were the object of immediate and widespread attack, chiefly because of their position, on flag saluting, well advertised by their widespread distribution of the May 29, 1940, issue of the magazine Consolation giving details of the hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court of the Gobitis flag salute case. Following the decision of June 3, 1940, in which school boards were upheld in their right to expel children of this sect who refused to salute the flag, this propaganda was taken by some as seditious.”*
For relief, for refuge, the doors of the United States Supreme Court were clamored at. Finally the unusual happened. The Supreme Court reversed itself on June 14, 1943, in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, holding that Jehovah’s witnesses need not salute the flag. From the court’s historic opinion we quote:
“To sustain the compulsory flag salute we are required to say that a Bill of Rights which guards the individual’s right to speak his own mind, left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind. . . . 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. . . . We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control. The decision of this Court in Minersville School District v. Gobitis . . . [is] overruled.”*
What rejoicing this victory brought to Jehovah’s people! Now their children could return to public schools for their education and no longer would it be necessary to operate the temporary Kingdom Schools. For the first time in eight long years could the children of the witnesses take their rightful places in the schoolrooms of the nation, This without their being required to make what to them is an idolatrous salute.
Sedition was another false charge. In Mississippi, in June, 1942, R. E. Taylor and two others of Jehovah’s witnesses were arrested and falsely indicted for encouraging disloyalty to the government of the United States and that of the state of Mississippi, and for orally disseminating teachings and distributing literature calculated to encourage disloyalty to the government of the United States. These were convicted for sedition and each sentenced to imprisonment for the duration of the war but not to exceed ten years. This raised the serious stigma of sedition. One year later this came to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the Court held on June 14, 1943, in another “Flag Day” decision, 9 to 0, in favor of the witnesses’ not being seditious. In its opinion the Court said:
“The statute as construed in these cases makes it a criminal offense to communicate to others views and opinions respecting governmental policies, and prophecies concerning the future of our own and other nations. As applied to the appellants it 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, or to have threatened any clear and present danger to our institutions or our government. What these appellants communicated were their beliefs and opinions concerning domestic measures and trends in national and world affairs. Under our decisions criminal sanctions cannot be imposed for such communications.”*
Here was another victory, a unanimous decision, that the witnesses could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be branded and legally punished by their religious opposers as being subversive. This favorable decision was a large contribution toward raising the bulwark of defense as to freedom of worship and freedom of speech, and that in the midst of global war.
After many battles in the lower courts, where license-tax laws designed for peddlers were made to apply to ministers of religion (that is, Jehovah’s witnesses in the distribution of their literature), the United States Supreme Court on June 8, 1942, had ruled against the Society in Jones v. City of Opelika (Alabama).* This opinion was aimed for dealing a body blow against the house-to-house work of the witnesses. It was, in fact, an outright suppression of freedom of worship, speech and press—in total disregard of guarantees in the federal Constitution. Undisturbed, the witnesses kept on with their preaching work, refusing to apply for licenses. There was thus forced an issue from a slightly different angle, to be brought again before the United States Supreme Court. This came in the case of Murdock v. Pennsylvania, where the high court remarkably reversed itself in favor of the witnesses on May 3, 1943. Note the following classical legal principles announced that day in the court’s opinion.
“The hand distribution of religious tracts is an age-old form of missionary evangelism—as old as the history of printing presses. . . . It is more than preaching; it is more than distribution of religious literature. It is a combination of both. Its purpose is as evangelical as the revival meeting. This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits. It has the same claim to protection as the more orthodox and conventional exercises of religion. It also has the same claim as the others to the guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. . . . But the mere fact that the religious literature is ‘sold’ by itinerant preachers rather than ‘donated’ does not transform evangelism into a commercial enterprise. If it did, then the passing of the collection plate in church would make the church service a commercial project. . . . A state may not impose a charge for the enjoyment of a right granted by the federal constitution. . . . The power to impose a license tax on the exercise of these freedoms is indeed as potent as the power of censorship which this Court has repeatedly struck down. . . . The judgment in Jones v. Opelika has this day been vacated. Freed from that controlling precedent, we can restore to their high, constitutional position the liberties of itinerant evangelists who disseminate their religious beliefs and the tenets of their faith through distribution of literature.”*
Grand, gemlike words these! Another signal victory to raise higher the growing bulwark against the invasion of freedom of worship. Before the witnesses there now lay a clear legal field for their house-to-house ministry. Their apostolic way of preaching had been written into the law of the land.*
(To be continued)
Statistics supplied by the Watch Tower Society’s legal department, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Appellees’ Brief, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, pp. 71, 82.
Ibid., p. 74.
The Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, by American Civil Liberties Union, January, 1941, p. 3.
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624.
Taylor v. Mississippi, 319 U.S. 583, 589, 590.
Jones v. Opelika, 316 U.S. 584.
Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943), 319 U.S. 105.
Douglas v. Jeannette (May 3, 1943), 319 U.S 157, 181.