For some Jehovah’s Witnesses the only place they truly feel comfortable is inside a Kingdom Hall. No matter how mundane, repetitive, ridiculous, or overwhelmingly boring the weekly meetings really are, or how excessively long and redundant prayers and “Kingdom songs” are before and after those meetings, they are part of a culture that convinces them they are really in their proper element. Even those who really dislike being Jehovah’s Witnesses will just “go with the flow” rather than ever question why they put up with their environment.
The fact is that ever since the days of Joseph Rutherford, the Watchtower Society has worked overtime to make sure that its members only march to its tune, at its pace, and in its unique style. If they don’t dance with their steps, they will find themselves outside the organization AND THEIR OWN FAMILY!
That’s why, even in the middle of winter, JW sisters will wear shoes with heels and skirts when going out to do door-to-door preaching or to meetings when everyone else is wearing long wool pants and heavy boots. That’s why most JW men won’t grow a neatly trimmed beard or mustache or even wear a colored shirt to the Kingdom Hall. Even 4-door sedans or mini-vans have become the preferred style of transportation for Jehovah’s Witnesses – not convertibles or sports cars.
They have to filter their choice of reading material, entertainment, and vacation locations (usually connected with Witness conventions). “Worldly” becomes an adjective for everything not approved by the Watchtower’s literature or policies. “Theocratic” describes all things good and “approved.”
That’s also why Jehovah’s Witnesses are afraid to call the police if they discover that someone at the Kingdom Hall has molested their child. That’s why they are afraid to let a doctor give them a blood transfusion when they don’t really understand that they actually could under new guidelines (that are often undecipherable to the rank and file) and save their lives. They are also afraid to ask questions about doctrine, even when they truly don’t understand the concepts or the “proofs” of some new change from what they had been taught before. If the Society tells them they should do something that they hate and would never consider under any other situation (that’s why they will shun people they love and who love them) they will do what the Watchtower tells them.
Beckford’s theory of a Totalizing structure
In his 1975 study of Jehovah’s Witnesses, sociologist James A. Beckford[foot]James A. Beckford[/foot] classified the Watchtower’s organizational structure as Totalizing. He explains that Totalizing is characterized “…by an assertive leadership, specific and narrow objectives, control over competing demands on members’ time and energy, and control over the quality of new members.”[foot]Millenarian: Beckford, James A. (1975). The Trumpet of Prophecy: A Sociological Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.[/foot]
Those of us who have been Jehovah’s Witnesses can relate to what he is describing. We knew what we had to do every day of the week, what jobs we could apply for, what we should wear, what friends and acquaintances we could cultivate.
Other characteristics of that classification include likelihood of friction with secular authorities, reluctance to co-operate with other religious organizations, a high rate of membership turnover, a low rate of doctrinal change, and strict uniformity of beliefs among members.
Former Witnesses will recognize that Jehovah’s Witnesses and their leaders are a perfect fit for Beckford’s description.
Beckford identified the religion’s chief characteristics as:
- historicism (identifying historical events as relating to the outworking of God’s purpose),
- absolutism (conviction that the Watch Tower Society dispenses absolute truth),
- activism (capacity to motivate members to perform missionary tasks),
- rationalism (conviction that Witness doctrines have a rational basis devoid of mystery),
- authoritarianism (rigid presentation of regulations without the opportunity for criticism) and
- world indifference (rejection of certain secular requirements and medical treatments).
While there is no evidence that Beckford was ever associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses in any formal way, his treatise hits the marks and for those interested in concepts is well worth exploring if you can find a copy online or in an accessible library.
If you haven’t checked Wikipedia lately, you might want to read the recently updated and rather extensive article found there about “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Whether you are for them or against them, this encyclopedic posting has a lot to offer and some information not readily or easily available anywhere else.
About James Beckford, Phd, FBA
Professor James Beckford has also published extensively on subjects related to the work of Inform. Further information on his professional activities and publications can be found here
(2010) ‘“Cults” and “normal” religions.’ Sociology Review 19 (3): 23-6.
(2010) ‘Religious Pluralism and Diversity: Response to Yang and Thériault.’ Social Compass 57 (2): 217-23.
(2004) ‘”Laïcité”, “dystopia”, and the reaction to new religious movements in France.’ In Regulating Religion. Case Studies from around the Globe. J. T. Richardson (ed.). New York, Kluwer/Plenum: 27-40.
(2003). ‘The continuum between “cults” and “normal” religion’. In Cults and New Religious Movements. A Reader. L. L. Dawson (ed.). Oxford, Blackwell: 26-35.
Beckford, J.A. and J.T. Richardson, eds. (2003) Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker. London: Routledge.
(2000). ‘Religious movements and globalization’. In Global Social Movements. R. Cohen and S. Rai (eds). London, Athlone Press: 165-83.
(1993). ‘States, governments and the management of controversial new religious movements’. In Secularization, Rationalism and Sectarianism. E. Barker, J. A. Beckford and K. Dobbelaere (eds). Oxford, Clarendon Press: 125-43.
(1985). Cult Controversies. The Societal Response to New Religious Movements. London, Tavistock.
(1975). The Trumpet of Prophecy. A Sociological Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Oxford, Blackwell.