Jehovah’s Witnesses’ find new interest through online innovations

While the Jehovah’s Witnesses have not assigned a unique prophetic significance to the coronavirus outbreak, the pandemic has confirmed their end-times beliefs, created new interest in the religion’s teachings, and strengthened its online presence and innovations, writes George D. Chryssides on the blog CennSam (April 30, 2020) of the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. The Witnesses have long taught that such signs as “pestilences,” along with war, famine, and earthquakes are indications that Armageddon is near, and thus the pandemic naturally fits into their end-times scenario. Chryssides, a long-time JW specialist, adds that “Because Jehovah’s Witnesses expect massive disruptions of these kinds, they are well prepared,” stockpiling food, medical supplies, and even face masks. The Witnesses’ weekly Bible study and Kingdom Hall meetings can and have been easily adapted to cyberspace. But their annual Memorial meeting presents more challenges, as it is the main communal and evangelistic gathering of the faith, and the “emblems” of bread and wine are required to be present and passed around the huge assembly. The banning of large gatherings might be thought to compel Jehovah’s Witnesses to protest such government restrictions, something they have faced in the past. But realizing that such measures are temporary and that they could do more harm by potentially spreading the virus through holding mass gatherings, the Witnesses have complied with such rules and have instead innovated alternatives, Chryssides writes.

Yet celebrating the Memorial online was no simple task: existing in 240 countries, online material was made available online in over 500 languages, with members and friends encouraged to meet in groups in cyberspace. The bread and wine emblems, which are intended for the 144,000 “anointed ones” mentioned in the Book of Revelation, are not often partaken of by members and are usually passed from one member of the congregation to the next, unconsumed. Online 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. Cryssides adds that 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…Visits to the JW 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. Particular interest has been shown in articles relating to the last days, particularly one about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse…”