Jehovah’s Witnesses’ determination not to make war was never so severely tested as during World War II, when the whole world came down with war fever.
Their determination, of course, stems from the Bible's directive to learn war no more. These words adorn the U.N. building in New York:
And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore. Isa 2:4
For the U.N. it makes a catchy and inspirational slogan. For Jehovah’s Witnesses it makes a way of life. If you’re not going to apply those words in time of war, just when do you apply them?
Yet, the course is much easier said than done. In nations under Nazi rule, following the course landed you in concentration camps. Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first inmates there, preceding the far-more-numerous Jews. They were the only group who could “write their ticket” out by renouncing their faith and pledging Nazi support. Only a handful took advantage of the offer.
In the United States, Jehovah’s Witnesses took the same stand amidst much opposition. Where applicable…that is, where persons had ministerial duties in the congregation or occupied themselves full time in outside ministry…. some would request the 4D “ministerial” exemption their local draft board. “Church” ministers never had the slightest difficulty obtaining such exemptions. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were invariably denied. Draft boards recognized not the scriptural or even legal definition of “minister,“ they only knew the popular definition of a minister: one who “had a church“ and “got paid.”
Paul the apostle would not have fared well under this definition. He was not paid for his ministry. He worked to support himself. He ministered mostly to those on the outside, not inside a "church." (the word rendered "church" in the NT always refers to a group of people, never a building. Accordingly, the New World Translation renders the word "congregation.") For example:
….on account of being of the same trade he [Paul] stayed at their home, and they worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. However, he would give a talk in the synagogue every Sabbath and would persuade Jews and Greeks. Acts 18:3,4
Certainly you bear in mind, brothers, our labor and toil. It was with working night and day, so as not to put an expensive burden upon any one of you, that we preached the good news of God to you. 1 Cor 2:9
For that matter, Jesus wouldn’t have fared well. Everyone knows he worked as a carpenter. And sending his followers out to preach, he told them “you received free, give free.” Matt 10:8
Both Paul and Jesus would have been denied 4D ministerial exemption. Would they have gone to war?
Neither did Jehovah’s Witnesses fare well. Though their ministry might plainly be the most important thing in their lives, and the time spent thereof exceed time spent in any secular work, draft boards would generally only recognize the “mercenary ministers,“ those who did it for pay.
Occasionally a judge or two would rule our way. Attorney Victor Blackwell tells of a young Witness he represented who, per the Biblical and legal definition, plainly was a minister. Before he could complete his argument, the District Court judge took up his case, saying:
"If I remember my Bible, our Lord was a carpenter, Peter and John were fishermen, and Paul a tent-maker. They were ministers. Young man, I commend you for working at an honest occupation to support yourself and your ministry. I wish my preacher would go to work."
Mr. Blackwell represented hundreds of our people during the hot years of WWII and immediately afterwards. He recorded his experiences in his 1976 book Oer the Ramparts They Watched. (Carlton Press, NY)
Far more typical was another experience he relates:** After giving light sentences, each one suspended in favor of probation, to a dozen or so who had confessed to various crimes against society, some quite serious, the judge turned his attention to our brother:
“Your whole life record is spotless. You were a model young man in high school, no smoking, no drinking, no fighting, no running around. One of the finest pre-sentence reports I have ever read.
Do you have any words to say before I sentence you?”
The youth replied he did not.
“Do you, Mr. Blackwell, wish to say anything in behalf of your client?”
“Considering that fine report Your Honor has just read, and the leniency shown toward the others who just appeared before you, it would be unthinkable that you would send this youth to prison.”
The sentence: “I cannot tolerate that someone like this will defy the law. I sentence you to serve two years in some institution to be designated by the Attorney General.”
Often our youths were sentenced with considerable emotion, which runs high in wartime. Like this one:
“I sentence you to five years in a federal prison to be approved by the Attorney General. My only regret, you yellow coward, is that I cannot give you twenty five years.”
Better than a German concentration camp, to be sure. Nonetheless, there was price to pay for all who would actually apply the words of Isaiah 2:4 and refuse to “learn war.”
It was only after the war, after hundreds of youths had been sent off to prison, that some judicial high courts began to see matters differently. From the opinion of Wiggins v U.S. for instance:
….Ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are not paid a salary, furnished a parsonage, or even given funds for necessary expenses to carry on their ministerial work. As pointed out, they have no choice except to engage in secular pursuits in order to obtain funds to make the ministry their vocation. The Act (Selective Training and Service Act, 1940) does not define a minister in terms of one who is paid for ministerial work, has a diploma or license, preached and teaches primarily in a church. The test under the Act is not whether a minister is paid for his ministry but whether, as a vocation, regularly, not occasionally, he teaches and preaches the principles of his religion.
This favorable [to us] decision was of the Fifth Federal Circuit Court and thus was not binding everywhere, but nonetheless stood as a template. When the government appealed the case to the Supreme Court, that Court declined to review it, letting the case stand.
** Unlike the preceding and succeeding cases, this youth was a “rank and file” Witness and thus made no claim for ministerial exemption. He was assigned 1-O status (conscientious objector) status and assigned to “civilian work of national importance.” Finding this work squarely in support of the war effort, his conscience would not permit him to comply, and for this he was prosecuted.
Nearly two centuries prior to this, General George Washington had written descendents of William Penn [Quakers]:
Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the person and consciences of men from oppression it certainly is the duty of rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but according to their station to prevent it in others.
I assure you explicitly, that in my opinion the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire that laws may always be as extensively accommodated to them, as a due regard to the protection and essential interests of the nation many justify and permit.
But in wartime, emotions run very hot.
The foregoing all happened in the United States. Each nation has its own story, and some continue right up to the present. The country most behind the curve today appears to be South Korea. Awake! Magazine (December 2008) interviews Chong-Il Park, who was the first of a long line of Korean Witnesses to be sent to prison for refusing military service.
“Coward! You are afraid of dying at the front lines. You are trying to evade military service of the pretence of your religious conscience.” With those words, he was beaten and subsequently sentenced to three years imprisonment. That was in 1953, when there were less than 100 JWs in the entire country and their beliefs, let alone those of neutrality, were little understood.
Today there are 94,000 Witnesses in South Korea. “Many who were imprisoned as conscientious objectors when they were young men have seen their sons, and even their grandsons, go to prisons for the same reason,” relates Mr. Park. Specifically, the numbers are 13,000 over the years, and 600 at present. Park expresses hope the situation may change. “One lawyer who had prosecuted a Witness conscientious objector even wrote an open letter of apology for what he had done, and it was published in a well-known magazine,” says he.
Another exchange from Mr. Blackwell’s book:
Judge: "This whole matter troubles me. What, with Jehovah’s Witnesses increasing and spreading out all over the earth, if everybody got to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, where would we be…."
Blackwell: "Your honor, if everybody on earth became Jehovah’s Witnesses, there would be no war, and no need for armed forces of any kind, in any nation. Would the Court object to that state of affairs?"
Proceed with the case, the judge said.