Findings & Footnotes August 2016

  • Even as other types of religious movements seem to attract more scholarly interest in recent years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses nevertheless continue to draw attention from researchers as a paradigmatic instance of Christian nonconformity and an enduring expression of organized millenarianism. Two new publications in recent month’s witness to this reality. Acta Comparanda (Subsidia III, €36 Europe, €46 rest of the world), a journal published by the Faculty for Comparative Study of Religions and Humanism (Wilrijk-Antwerpen, Belgium), hosted a conference this year on scholarly perspectives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—including a few scholars themselves associated with the Witnesses. The 14 articles (mostly in English) gathered in this 248-page-long issue are proceedings of that conference.

    Among the interesting and unusual topics in this volume, Miquel Àngel Plaza-Navas (University of Barcelona, Spain) offers an historical perspective on the hymnal and music practices of the Witnesses. It shows how the movement’s musical experience went through several stages (including one, from 1938 to 1944, during which singing was largely discouraged, presumably because songs did no longer represent the current beliefs of the group), reaching the current situation with the publication of Sing to Jehovah (2009), with a maximum degree of musical exclusivity—the music now being free of external influences, including resemblance with hymns of other churches. An article authored by independent researcher Donald Raymond Jacobs examines the precarious situation of unofficial Jehovah’s Witness Apologetics. In contrast with Mormons, the movement discourages members from entering into the apologetical debates on a personal basis. This debate takes place nevertheless, encouraged also by the advent of the Internet. A statement in 2007 was critical of groups of Witnesses conducting independent research or websites not run under its oversight, and consequently, discussion forums were closed, with apologetics moving to blogs. Nevertheless, Watch Tower publications utilize results of independent apologetic research from time to time, but without acknowledging it or giving legitimacy to an independent scholarly community among Witnesses.

    Some articles also deal with national situations while offering historical overviews. Thus Massimo Introvigne (CESNUR, Turin) analyzes the history and current situation of the Witnesses in Italy, where growth has been slowing in the 21st century. But the arrival of millions of immigrants to Italy is now considered as a source for new opportunities, and an impressive number for specific immigrant communities have been organized.

    While the issue of Acta Comparanda will of new congregations and groups definitely be of interest for scholars studying contemporary religious movements, a wider audience looking for a solid introduction on Jehovah’s Witnesses would be well-advised to consider Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change (Ashgate, $149) by George D. Chryssides (visiting Fellow at York St John University). Chryssides had already authored a useful Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), and the new book is likely to benefit both scholars and people with a general interest in the topic. The volume starts with a chapter on researching Witnesses, in which Chryssides provides an overview of available literature and explains how a researcher looks at such a movement.

    The book also has noteworthy chapters on the origins in Adventist networks, on Charles Taze Russell and on the Rutherford era, and on the themes of opposition, organization, the Bible, ethics and lifestyles, worship and rites of passages, and, obviously, prophecy. The concluding chapter of this 300-page-book deals with problems and prospects of the Witnesses. Initially wary of the Internet, the movement has nevertheless developed a strong online presence, with a massive amount of material now being made available, but it does not see it as a substitute for its traditional (biblical, in their view) method of evangelizing. Due to the decline of Christian influence and knowledge of Christianity in the West, Chryssides observes that there are fewer attempts to challenge mainstream Christian doctrines and more efforts to address contemporary issues. The book also examines changes in beliefs and practices over time. But it is difficult to advocate openly for reforms within the movement since policies are not being determined democratically and dissent could mean disfellowshipping. Thus it is difficult to assess how numerous so-called “liberal elders” are really since they express themselves anonymously online. The Watch Tower Society continues to hold the belief that it offers “the truth,” to base its doctrines on biblical inerrancy, and to believe that humankind lives in the last days. For more information on Acta Comparanda, visit:

  • The current issue of the Journal of Religious and Political Practice (Vol. 2, No. 2) is devoted to the relations between democracy and religion. The articles in the issue don’t so much argue for a direct relationship between religion and the transition to democracy but look at the way religion shapes the building of new institutions, the legal status of civil liberties, and patterns of political participation. Rather than focus on polarized religion and state relations or a linear process of secularization, the articles compare interactions such as cooperation, competition, and adaption as well as reversals such as de-secularization and de-democratization across various religions and countries.Noteworthy articles include an analysis by political scientist Jonathan Fox of change over time in government religion policies in 27 Western democracies, finding that those added in recent years have tended to limit religious institutions and practices of religious minorities; an examination of how Catholic political parties have declined in Latin America while religious actors have maintained their social relevance; and a comparative study looking at how religion was able to generate social trust and democratic culture in Tunisia in contrast to Egypt. For more on this issue, visit:
  • Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland (Oxford University Press, $99), by Gladys Ganiel, documents both the decline of Catholicism and the beginnings of a new pluralism in Irish religion. Ganiel surveys the religious situation in both southern and Northern Ireland using both quantitative and qualitative methods and finds less of a clash than one might expect; the priest sex abuse crisis and secularization in general is impacting both the majority Catholicism of the south and the minority church to the north, with the former losing its political and social prestige. The Protestant churches of Northern Ireland show more traction but are isolated from the growing trend of immigration and pluralism in the republic. Given what Ganiel sees as Ireland’s “mixed post-Catholic religious market,” she presents several case studies of groups and congregations that she sees as embodying “extra-institutional” religion—from a Jesuit ministry (now defunct) to the mainly young to an interracial non-denominational charismatic church to a Benedictine monastery that is seen as a refuge for many disaffected by the sex abuse crisis. The author holds up these examples as agents of ecumenism and reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants and immigrants and native born because they show greater flexibility and cater to the growing interest in individualized religion more than establishment churches. When Ganiel writes it is a mixed post-Catholic market, she means that Catholicism still shapes religious groups and responses (even those reacting against the church), though the line between institutional Catholic and extra-institutional religion can seem blurry; one chapter is devoted to a parish pastoral council (PPC), a structure in many parishes promoting renewal and greater lay involvement (including addressing the sex abuse crisis). The book acknowledges that the extra-institutional sector is still small (Ganiel doesn’t provide an estimate of such groups or adherents) and lacks network ties to other organizations that could give it more social influence. Yet because Ireland still allows a public role for religion, Ganiel concludes that the current upheaval in the religious establishment may provide an opening to these still marginal groups.TransformingPostCatholicCover