Jehovah’s Witnesses derive a strong sense of religious identity from belonging to the organisation. Whilst Witnesses might not be easily distinguishable in terms of dress codes or physical markings, they are from their distinctive beliefs and practices, including not accepting blood transfusions, not celebrating birthdays, and proselytising through knocking on doors in their neighbourhood. It is baptism which makes one a Witness – a Witness is baptised by full immersion as an adult (or typically between ages 13–16 if they have been raised in the movement), even if they have been previously baptised in a different Christian denomination. This is because Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves the one ‘true’ church – which again contributes to a strong sense of identity amongst believers.Jehovah’s Witnesses, who can be found in all countries and across all ethnic groups, seek to have a global identity through being united in their beliefs. Their website states that they “work hard” to have “no social, ethnic, racial, or class divisions.” They place great emphasis on all being equal in the eyes of God, as well as on reaching everyone in their own language. The Jehovah’s Witnesses publish material in over 900 languages and establish specific language-based congregations when there is the need.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are famously apolitical, refusing to vote or bear arms. Neither will they support any movement motivated by racial or ethnic hatred. This commitment to peace and equality has meant that members have lost their lives through conscientious objection and through refusing to denounce their faith in the most appalling circumstances, including the concentration camps of the Second World War and modern-day prison camps. As of January 2018, Jehovah’s Witnesses are imprisoned in Eritrea, Singapore, South Korea and Tajikistan for conscientious objection, and in Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan for ‘religious activity’.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ conscientious objection and imprisonment in concentration camps during the Second World War is not as well-known as the imprisonment and murder of other groups such as Jewish people, Roma, homosexuals, communists and trade unionists. During the Second World War, the Nazi regime considered the Witnesses ‘ideologically unfit’ as they would not salute the flag, say ‘Heil Hitler’, or take part in any military service. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only Christian denomination to be assigned their own distinctive badge in the concentration camps – a purple triangle (Jews wore the Star of David and all other Christian dissenters a red triangle). Jehovah’s Witnesses were also the only faith group to be given the option of release if they renounced their faith – the huge majority did not do so. Around 13,400 Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned in the camps. Around 2000 did not survive (which is a relatively small proportion compared to the Jewish population imprisoned). 270 Witnesses were executed – not through the gas chambers but by being shot or decapitated so as to be made an example of and to encourage others to renounce the faith. Chryssides writes that the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses at various times and in various countries has, from their perspective, “served to confirm the belief in the truth of the Society’s teachings (as) Jesus predicted that persecution would be one of the marks of the end-times.” (2016: 123).
- See https://www.jw.org/en/news/legal/by-region/world/jehovahs-witnesses-in-prison-2/ for a list of the number of prisoners by country.