Preaching "the good news" - door to door to door

Philadelphia Inquirer / August 4, 2000
By David O'Reilly

Jehovah's Witnesses: A century of knocks, a lifetime of certainty The doorbell lets go a zin-n-n-g outside a brick twin on Cedarbrook's Sydney Street. Footsteps thump inside, and a woman's friendly voice sings out, "Hell-ohhh-oh, who is it?" from an upstairs window.

"It's Michelle Kellum," a young woman on the front steps says. "What do you want?" the unseen homeowner asks. "We're with Jehovah's Witnesses," Kellum, 33, calls out. "Can we speak with you?" "This is not a good time," the resident says, hesitating. "We'll leave some information for you," Charles Duncan replies, tucking a copy of Awake! magazine and a "What Does God Require of Us?" pamphlet in the screen door.

It is said every front door in America has been knocked on by the Jehovah's Witnesses, a worldwide denomination of nearly six million clannish, Bible-quoting fundamentalists who believe they know the truth of God's - Jehovah's - plan for mankind.

There are about one million Witnesses in the United States, and each one healthy and old enough to knock on doors is expected to "preach the good news" a few times a week.

Young Witnesses start in grammar school. And it's year-round, all-weather work. With so many Witnesses using vacation time to spread the word, summer is the season to expect a knock on the door.

"We believe there's one God, one faith, one baptism, not a multitude of different ways of reading the Bible," Bob Shaughnessy said as he worked the other side of Sydney Street on a rainy Friday morning.

"We go door to door because we are obedient [to the injunction in Matthew to] go forth and preach unto the nations," said the retired pharmaceutical worker, who converted from Roman Catholicism 20 years ago when a Witness knocked on his door.

Witnesses believe that Jehovah will soon raise the dead, condemn the wicked to annihilation, call His 144,000 anointed ones to heaven, and establish His everlasting kingdom on Earth for the righteous.

But the sight of these polite, neatly dressed men and women strolling up the path, the Watchtower in hand, has been known to make otherwise sensible people squirmy or rude and send them ducking for cover.

"Most people know who we are," Kellum, a science teacher at IMHOTEP Charter High School, says as the group continues along the 1200 block of Sydney.

On this day, they are having a hard time getting past the door. "I'm not interested," one woman calls out sternly. As a baby wails inside another house, a woman says, "I can't come to the door." "I'm a little busy," says a third, a white wireless phone pressed to her ear. "Can we come back later?" Duncan asks. "I'm just about to go out," the woman replies.

The Witnesses sometimes give their names before saying, "Jehovah's Witnesses," says Duncan, a Springfield Township school bus driver, "because people are sometimes a little more pliable if we can engage in conversation first."

On this day, they get answers at only about half of the 20 homes they visit. And no one invites them in. Witnesses average 740 random calls for each convert.

"It doesn't hurt our feelings when they say no," Kellum says. "We're here to give them an opportunity to learn the truth. When people are ready, they listen."

The truth is a favorite term of the Witnesses, who believe that only those who share their understanding of the Bible have a chance of receiving everlasting life.

The Witnesses began in the 1870s when Curtis T. Russell, a young Pittsburgh Presbyterian disturbed by the thought that a loving God would create hell, started his own reading of Scripture.

Based on several biblical and extra-biblical calculations - including measurements of the Great Pyramid - Russell concluded that Christ had returned to Earth in 1874 in nonbodily form.

Russell also declared that in 1914 - a number found in Revelation 14:1 - Jehovah would overthrow man's rule on Earth and call 144,000 chosen humans to share paradise with Him.

What separates Russell's teachings from mainstream Christianity is his conclusion that Jehovah, the God of the Bible, is not a trinity. Jesus is Jehovah's unique son and messenger, Russell said, but not divine, and the Holy Spirit is not a person but Jehovah's "active force."

Russell also taught that humans have no eternal soul and that there is no hell. All bodies will be resurrected at Armageddon, he said, but Jehovah will simply annihilate those He does not call to paradise.

Calling themselves the Dawn Bible Students' Society, Russell and several companions began to preach and, in 1879, began publishing a pamphlet called Zion's Watch Tower, the precursor of the Watchtower magazine. The organization moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1909.

In 1914, Russell reset the date for Armageddon to 1915. Later, he said it would come in 1918. After he died in 1916, his successor, Joseph Rutherford, declared that Christ's reign had indeed begun in 1914 but was not yet visibly manifest.

In 1923, Rutherford and the Governing Body in Brooklyn expanded their understanding of who would be saved to include the millions who abide by Jehovah's teachings, as understood by the Witnesses: that after Armageddon, they will live in God's peaceful kingdom, ruled over by Jehovah, Jesus and the 144,000.

The denomination changed its name to Jehovah's Witness in 1931 and no longer predicts a date for Armageddon, saying only that these are "the last days."

Living fully as a Witness can be a challenge. Witnesses are strictly traditional on sexual morality, do not celebrate birthdays, Christmas, Easter or national holidays, and have only recently eased their ban on attending college or participating in school sports.

Witnesses do not participate in politics, do not vote, do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and do not serve in the military - beliefs for which they have fought and won landmark First Amendment battles in the Supreme Court.

And Witnesses read Paul's admonition, in Acts 21:25, to "abstain . . . from blood" to include a ban on transfusions - even if death seems certain. (The infusion of synthetic blood products and certain blood derivatives is now permitted.)

Committing to being a Witness is, in fact, so life-changing that if someone answering the knock on the door were to cry, "Sign me up," the answer would be a polite no. The Witnesses spend months guiding a prospect through studies before the subject of baptism even arises.

"To become a Jehovah's Witness, one has to become a Bible student," said James Bush, city overseer to Philadelphia's 91 congregations and an elder in the Erlin Congregation, based in the 6700 block of Ogontz Avenue.

Because the Witnesses so vigorously assert that they alone will be saved, socialize mostly among themselves, and expel and shun members who consistently violate church teachings, the group has been described as a cult.

"They tell you how to dress, how to walk, who you talk to, what you can read," said Randy Watters, 48, of Los Angeles, a former congregational elder and former employee of the Watchtower publishing house in Brooklyn. "They make you report violations by any other Witness. And they can be very abusive of anyone who challenges them."

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