6,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses meet in the Magic City
Sunday, July 02, 2006
News staff writer
Nancy Greenlaw, 71, sits in a wheelchair with a lace scarf wrapped around her shoulders and a black leather Bible held tightly against her chest.
She looks out over the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena, where more than 6,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses from Alabama and Mississippi are gathered listening to a talk on how the elderly were treated in the Bible. She frequently opens her Bible and thumbs through it.
Greenlaw, of Columbus, Miss., said she became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1973, when evangelists knocked on her door and talked to her about the Bible.
“I recognized it was the truth,” she said. “Everything they taught was coming straight from the Bible.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, best known for knocking on doors and offering religious tracts, hold a regional convention at the BJCC every Fourth of July weekend, with Bible study sessions and a mass baptism. They will wrap up their annual weekend convention today by 5 p.m.
A major emphasis for Jehovah’s Witnesses at their conventions remains the need to convert unbelievers quickly, before the end of the world.
“Just look at the theme, `Deliverance at Hand,'” said Elder David Kilbourne of Tuscaloosa. “We’re being taught to live like the world could end tomorrow. We want to have a good relationship with God when the end comes.”
Diverse and growing
Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the fastest-growing and most racially diverse U.S. denominations, with more than a million members nationwide and 6.6 million worldwide.
No figures are available for how many Jehovah’s Witnesses live in Alabama, although the number is likely between 15,000 and 20,000.
Beginning with their name, the Jehovah’s Witnesses distance themselves in doctrine from mainline Christian denominations. “We try not to utilize tradition; we just look at the Bible and follow what it says,” said Elder John Hudson, convention overseer and member of a congregation in Birmingham’s West End.
They reject belief in Trinitarian doctrine – the idea that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all aspects of the one true God. Witnesses emphasize using the name Jehovah to give glory to God the Creator. They believe Jesus was the son of God, but not God himself.
“We believe that they are all separate,” Hudson said. “Jehovah God created Jesus, his only begotten son, second to him, not equal to him; and the Holy Spirit is the active force of Jehovah God. They are not the same. The Bible does not even use the term trinity.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses have no paid clergy; when members are baptized, they are considered ordained, Hudson said. “The ordination comes at baptism,” he said.
They have a committee that builds worship centers called Kingdom Halls throughout the Birmingham District, which covers North Alabama between Gadsden and Montgomery. The fast-paced construction reflects the doctrine and style of the Jehovah’s Witnesses: the end of the world is near, so build fast, keep it modest and keep growing.
“We call it a quick-build; it takes about three days,” Hudson said. “We keep them basic.”
Paradise on Earth
Jehovah’s Witnesses say 144,000 people, including the Apostles, will rule with Christ in heaven. Witness doctrine teaches that an unlimited number of others will be saved to live on Earth, which will become a paradise.
They don’t believe in hell as a place of everlasting fire and punishment, saying the dead are unconscious and awaiting resurrection. The dead do not suffer while they wait and those who do not return simply exist no longer, according to Witness doctrine.
Based on their interpretation of the Bible, Witnesses strongly oppose premarital sex, alcohol and drug abuse, homosexuality and abortion, though they are not politically active in pursuing their moral beliefs. They refuse to enter military service, salute the flag or accept blood transfusions. Witnesses say they promote paying their taxes and obeying laws as long as they don’t conflict with God’s law.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have no sabbath or special Sunday services.
“We have five meetings a week,” Hudson said. “There is no standard meeting time. We consider all those meetings very important.”