Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Identity formation
The academic literature pertaining to Jehovah’s Witnesses is severely lacking and in most cases altogether absent. This article seeks to counter this paucity through a review of the discourse stemming from The Watchtower Society in conjunction with dialogues from four former members of the religious organization. Each respective body of information is utilized to identify what American Anthropologist Edward Hall labels ‘extension transference,’ (ET) a digression from a community being grounded in an individual’s sincere desire for spirituality and toward a rigid organizational structure. This phenomenon is identified, first, at the operational level of the organization and is identified by highlighting the Governing Body’s use of ‘ressentiment,’ what Nietzsche and Deleuze deem characteristic of a reactive force. Second, interview responses show that ‘extension transference’ is made manifest internally within the persons of the organization as well. These high levels of conformity demanded by the Governing Body also pervade the seven dimensions of sensemaking, and therefore identity.
Thirty seven members (all at least 18 years of age) of an online support forum created for ex- Jehovah’s Witnesses were e-mailed a recruitment letter introducing them to the purpose of the study as well as indicating the two requirements for participation, as stated above (see appendix A). Also included in this initial communication was that participation entailed either mailing or scanning the signed consent form in order to return it to the researcher. The first four to respond were selected and sent a consent form (see appendix B). Upon receipt of the consent form, my adapted version of Lindolf and Taylor’s (2002) sensemaking questionnaire was e-mailed to each of the subjects (see appendix C).
Society consists of organized extensions. The evolution of man can be said to take place both intrinsically within the physical body (internalization) as well as outside of it (externalization) as more innate desires become materialized and ever more systematically complex (Hall, 1976). For example, learning is a basic human desire that has become externalized via the education system. Governmental policy, such as laws prohibiting murder, theft, rape, etc., has become a physical/exterior extension of a natural-seeming internal morality. As such, it follows that religious institutions are the manifestation of a yearning for spirituality coupled with the yearning for belonging to a group.
Edward Hall makes the observation that the flexibility of extensions in their developmental stages often become rigid and opposed to much adjustment. This inflexibility can be partially accounted for by members confusing the extension with the processes or desires that have been extended (Hall, 1976). In other words, religious institutions (the externalization) become synonymous with spirituality (the original internalized process). The externally manifested symbol (signifier) is mistaken for the meaning-thing symbolized (signified) as people grant the symbol characteristics it simply may not have. Hall deems this phenomenon ‘extension transference’ (ET). From one perspective, one could say this is happening with religious institutions in general. However, the following application of ET is concerned specifically with JWs and is not intended to apply to or describe the workings of religious practices as a whole. A prime example of this occurrence within the JW organization is the Governing Body: the interpreters of scripture who claim divine inspiration and come to select what goes into every piece of literature emanating from the organization’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. This is a group that obtains its power by honing in on the spiritual instinct by “[Affirming] that God exists and [giving] the abstraction-that-is-God a concrete reality. Although many churches claim to be theocracies in the sense that they acknowledge the supremacy of God, few actually embed God into their organizational structure ‘at the apex of the pyramid” (Botting & Botting, 1984, p. xxxi).
This “concrete reality” of the “abstraction-that-is-God” is the JWs’ Governing Body. Members therefore attribute the alleged characteristics of God (omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent) to the Governing Body themselves in a process that bypasses mystification and goes straight to deification. “The Governing Body publishes spiritually encouraging literature in many languages. This spiritual food is based on God’s Word. Thus, what is taught is not from men but from Jehovah.—Isa. 54:13” (Jehovah’s Witnesses, 2010, p. 12). Members conform to the edicts of the Governing Body because they believe the group represents God’s will on Earth, and the Governing Body is the sole channel that God uses to communicate with humans (Jehovah’s Witnesses, 2010). Therefore, to question the organization is to question God; to deviate from the organization is to deviate from God; to rebel against the organization is to rebel against God. To further highlight the ‘extension transference’ (ET) that has occurred within the Jehovah’s Witness organization, consider these words from its nascence in 1884 spoken by Charles Taze Russell, the first President of The Watchtower Society: “We belong to no earthly organization; hence, if you should name the entire list of sects, we should answer, no, to each and to all” (Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1883, p. 257, italics added). Russell’s Last Will and Testament even demanded that the local members remain a separate entity from The Watchtower Society publishing corporation in Brooklyn (the labeling of “corporation” was not something Russell wanted but was forced by law) as he didn’t want them to be associated with such structure (Botting & Botting, 1984). And so, it was actually much later that this advent of ‘extension transference’ occurred, as found in the literature almost a century later (in 1983), stating in the annual Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses that “Jehovah’s earthly organization stands out as separate and distinct from all other organizations” (Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1983; italics added). This distortion of Russell’s original vision from individual internalized control to the external control of the tightly structured organizational hierarchy makes Hall’s concept of extension transference quite visible.
In my discussions with disfellowshipped JWs, one of the most prevalent points raised was this sense of loss of one’s individuality and its take-over by the larger governing structure of the organization as a whole. Indeed, Ellis Bell (all names have been changed), a woman in her mid-30s and a former Baptized Publisher, provides further evidence of the phenomenon of ET by explaining what led her to become baptized:
“I wish that I could tell you that I had a spiritual journey. What I had was browbeating, guilt trips, and a desire to be accepted. When I was twelve years old, I decided to take steps to become a baptized Jehovah’s Witness. I did not make that decision because I had a sincere love for Jehovah or because I felt compelled to dedicate my life to him. I did try to fit in, to try and make my parents happy, and to try and get the elders in the Kingdom Hall off of my back. Being a regular unbaptized publisher just was not good enough for them.”
Bell also stated “For the brief years that I consider myself to have been a true Witness, I did not allow personal interpretation of morals.” This particular individual indicates that she was involved with JWs for about 20 years. The somewhat subtle phrase “a true Witness” implies that the majority of her 20 years was not carried out because of a sincere interiorized belief-system, but because of outside pressures imposed on her by organizational leaders. It may very well be that she reached a level of personal contentedness in her spirituality, but was always pushed to do more as “being a regular unbaptized publisher just was not good enough for them.” David Agnew, a young man in his mid-30s and a former Ministerial Servant, is in agreement by stating that one of the reasons he considered leaving the religion was because of “the non-stop pressure to do more.”
Hence, ET is visible in the mechanical processes of the religion as well as internally within the interviewed members. That is, in its formal classification as a corporation and in the transformation made apparent in the comparison of the technical wording of its literature in 1884 and 1983. But, what are the elements at play that shift focus away from the individual toward an inelastic organizational structure? How is it that people are still drawn to this religion, even with the advent of ET?
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