Jehovah’s Witnesses responded to the coronavirus before government restrictions came into force. House-to-house visits were suspended, and literature carts were no longer to be displayed in towns and cities. In accordance with the lockdown that has been imposed by the British government, Witnesses discontinued the practice of holding public meetings in their Kingdom Halls.
Witnesses do not believe that the Bible specifically predicted Covid-19; it is not regarded, for example, as one of the seven plagues mentioned in the Book of Revelation, but they view it as one of several signs of the end, which include war, famine, earthquakes, and “pestilences”, the last of which is taken to mean widespread diseases or epidemics. The coronavirus is simply another indication that Armageddon is, as they typically put it, “just around the corner”.
Because Jehovah’s Witnesses expect massive disruptions of these kinds, they are well prepared. An article in Awake! magazine recommended that readers should anticipate such emergencies by having a “go bag” ready, containing items such as blankets, warm clothes, a torch, a first aid kit, toilet utensils, and even a face mask. Now that they are being forced to stay at home rather than leave, some Witnesses jokingly refer to these supplies as their “stay bag”.
The Watch Tower Society is also well prepared technologically, having had an Internet presence since 1997, and offering means of evangelism online, for example their Online Bible Study Course. Despite their conservative theology, Jehovah’s Witnesses have always been amenable to using the latest technology. Isaiah said that Jehovah’s people would “drink the milk of nations” (Isaiah 60:16), which they interpret as meaning that they can use the benefits of those outside the Society.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are committed to obeying civil authorities, unless a state requires them to be disloyal to Jehovah’s laws, as set out in the Bible. Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the gospel to all and, although they believe that house-to-house evangelism was a first century Christian practice, Jesus’ “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19) did not specify the precise method of doing so. Witnesses therefore continue, in the meantime, to engage in “informal witnessing”, telephoning acquaintances (but not cold calling), and using electronic media, where possible, and to carry on with Bible instruction that inquirers have requested.
However, Jesus gave one definite instruction to his disciples: they should continue celebrating the Last Supper – or, as Jehovah’s Witnesses prefer to call it, the Lord’s Evening Meal, or the Memorial – “Keep doing this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Witnesses believe that the meal was the annual Jewish Passover celebration, and that it occurred on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month Nisan, which fell on 7 April in 2020. This event was observed each year by founder-leader Charles Taze Russell and his International Bible Students Association, from the very inception of Zion’s Tract Society (as it was initially called). It is the only celebration in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ entire year, and it has been observed faithfully throughout their history, despite the movement’s banning in Nazi Germany and by hostile governments such as present-day Russia. To abandon the commemoration now would be unthinkable, yet Witnesses are aware of the health risk that would be posed by holding a large gathering in a Kingdom Hall. While a Bible study or a regular Kingdom Hall meeting can fairly readily be conducted in cyberspace, the Memorial presents more of a challenge, since the “emblems” of bread and wine should be present, and passed around the congregation.
Not only do the vast majority of all active Witnesses attend the celebration, but they are encouraged to invite friends and distribute leaflets inviting the public to join them. Consequently, the number of attendees typically exceeds the number of active members: worldwide nearly 21 million attended in 2019, compared with an active membership of 8.7 million, and in Britain there were 220,000, just over 137,000 of whom were active members. The fact that many countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, banned large gatherings, making no exceptions for religious organisations, presented Jehovah’s Witnesses with the dilemma of whether to defy the law, or to find some alternative way of celebrating the festival. In other situations, the Witnesses have defied bans on assembling, meeting secretly to celebrate the Lord’s Evening Meal. However, such defiance has been practised in the face of hostile governments, whose aim has been the elimination of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The situation surrounding Covid-19 is different, since the cessation of physical gatherings is only temporary, and Witnesses fully support the state’s goal of safeguarding public health. In any case, posing a health risk by continuing with house-to-house witnessing, or assembling recklessly would do little to enhance the reputation of a controversial organisation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses therefore felt obliged to find a way of celebrating the Memorial, as well as offering the usual special talk to which the public are invited during the preceding weekend. Accordingly, the Society decided to put the special talk and the Memorial talk online. This was no mean task, since the Society exists in 240 lands and has at least some online material in over 1,000 languages, and in the end a Memorial talk was made available online in over 500 of these. However, the Memorial itself requires attendance, not merely viewing a video talk; members and friends were therefore encouraged to meet in groups in cyberspace, using the video-conferencing facilities of Zoom and Teams. Those without computer facilities used a telephone link: this has been standard practice in the past for Witnesses who are unable to attend the event. Since guests are invited and welcomed to the more conventional versions of the Memorial, I had no difficulty in securing attendance, and was able to join the Carnforth congregation in the north of England. The congregation typically has around 100 members, split into five study groups who have met regularly before the lockdown, so this division was used for the purpose of online meetings, enabling groups of around twenty to assemble online for the Memorial. Although in theory 100 or more people could be part of a Zoom or Teams meeting, the Memorial is not a solemn occasion, but allows members of the congregation to arrive early and stay on to socialise for a short time. Smaller groups therefore enabled this to happen successfully. Despite the fact that the attendees were meeting in cyberspace rather than in physical reality, they were expected to dress appropriately, as they would for a conventional Memorial – in the West it is suits and ties for men, and dresses extending below the knee for women, not trousers. Splitting the congregation into smaller groups for the Memorial, of course, requires more elders to give a Memorial talk and to lead the prayers. This was not a problem in the Carnforth congregation, where there are 14 elders – more than sufficient for five gatherings instead of one.
The Memorial follows a predetermined pattern. It begins with a song, invariably one that refers to the event, followed by extempore prayer by one of the elders, and then the Bible talk, which is based on an outline provided by the Society, and has a fixed four-fold pattern. The speaker reminds the congregation of how Jesus’ death paves the way for men and women to gain everlasting life: Jesus is the “ransom sacrifice” – the key doctrine of the Watch Tower Society – who pays the price for Adam’s sin. Second, he explains who benefits from Jesus’ loving sacrifice. Third, the audience is reminded of who should partake of the emblems: it is the 144,000 “anointed ones”, mentioned in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 7:4), and who can expect to rule with Christ in heaven. The rest belong to the “great crowd”, who are those who have accepted “the truth”, and can expect to experience the everlasting paradise on earth, which will be brought about after Armageddon. Since very few of this anointed class remain on earth, in most congregations it is normal for no one to partake, but for the bread and the wine successively to be passed from one member of the congregation to the next, unconsumed. The speaker pauses twice in the middle of the talk, while two other elders offer extempore prayers, each followed by the distribution of one of the emblems. The fourth and final part of the talk reminds the congregation of what they ought to do by way of gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice: attend meetings, and witness to others. There is then another song, after which the meeting ends.
The only interactive part of a Memorial celebration is the singing and the congregational response of “Amen” at the end of prayers. Because of problems of timing and acoustic feedback, microphones were muted for singing. However, the distribution of the emblems presents more by way of difficulty. Attendees were encouraged, but not obliged, to have a glass of wine and a plate containing unleavened bread beside them and, unless they were alone, to pass it to those at the same screen. The wine should be red and unfortified, and the bread should be prepared in accordance with a simple recipe, instructions for which are given on a JW.org video, and which involves mixing flour and water into a dough and heating it in an oven for around ten minutes. Jewish kosher matzahs might be acceptable if they do not have added ingredients such as eggs or salt. Unlike major denominations who perceive theological difficulties in celebrating sacraments online, Jehovah’s Witnesses have no problems with the idea. The emblems are blessed, not consecrated, hence there are no questions about whether consecration can be carried out at a distance; and, since they do not believe that any miracle takes place during the Memorial, such as transubstantiation, there are no problems about disposing of the emblems afterwards: one can drink the leftover wine socially, although unleavened bread is not particularly palatable.
Despite the obvious drawbacks of the Covid-19 pandemic, these Jehovah’s Witnesses’ online innovations have been good for publicity. In various parts of Africa, they were able to persuade national media to broadcast the Memorial on television and radio stations, and The New York Times published a substantial article on the event. Visits to the JW.org website have increased substantially: the Society reported a 40% increase in visitors in March, and in the 48 hours surrounding the Memorial there were approximately 1000 online Bible study requests, compared with the more usual 250 a day. At the time of writing, the home page of JW.org provides advice for those who are experiencing isolation through their governments’ lockdown, recommending maintaining good physical and mental health, as well as the pursuit of spiritual growth. Particular interest has been shown in articles relating to the last days, particularly one about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, which originally appeared in The Watchtower in 2017, and is linked to the home page. The article explains that the first rider, on a white horse, is Jesus Christ, while the second and third (red and black) horsemen represent war and famine respectively. The last, pale horse is death which comes through plague, and the author itemises several such plagues including the 1918 Spanish flu, AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. While Covid-19 is a source of concern, and from which we need protection, ultimately it should not be feared, since it provides Jehovah’s Witnesses with confirmation that Armageddon is near. Armageddon will be a spiritual battle between Christ and Satan, and those who are in the truth will not be harmed by it. On the contrary, after the battle, victims of Covid-19 will be completely cured, as will all who are suffering from illness or disability. If they have died from the epidemic, or any other cause, they will be resurrected. The end of the battle will signal the beginning of Christ’s thousand-year rule, heralding the everlasting paradise which his followers can expect.
George D. Chryssides is an Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University. He is currently president of the International Society for the Study of New Religions, and a Governor of Inform (Information Network on Religious Movements).