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Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution Hardcover – April, 2000


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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

With a journalistic eye, Peters (student service coordinator, Sch. of Journalism and Mass Communications, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) presents the convergence of nationalistic paranoia, the distrust that erupted into violence, and palpable religious bigotry against the Jehovah's Witnesses during the 1930s and 1940s. Their desire to avoid idolatry in any form--including refusing to salute the flag or serve in the armed forces--was perceived by many as treason. During the war years of the 1940s this belief marked them as cowards at best, Nazi subversives at worst, and led to persecution. Ironically, while they fought a very public battle for their Constitutional rights, in their interior organization, theirs is one of the most theologically rigid and ideologically inflexible traditions. This legal history, in the vein of Harold Berman's Law and Revolution, tells us as much about the intricacies of jurisprudence as it does our own shameful past. This engrossing study depends primarily on firsthand testimony, ACLU documents, and legal briefs. Light on analysis but chock-full of primary resources, this is recommended reading for American and religious historians as well as for those interested in the history of persecution.
-Sandra Collins, Univ. of Pittsburgh
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

A fast-paced study of a little-known episode in American religious history. Say Jehovahs Witnesses, and most Americans will conjure up pictures of door-to-door evangelists who want to give you tracts and pamphlets. But at mid-century the sectarian group was known for something elserefusing to salute the US flag. Jehovahs Witnesses insisted they were patriotic and meant no disrespect, but they could not saluteit was a violation, they said, of Exodus 5, which instructs believers to have no other Gods before Me. In the tense and suspicious atmosphere of WWII, however, many Americans were troubled by the Witnesses refusal to salute: was this a sign of some greater disloyalty? In sleepy towns like Richwood, West Virginia, and Litchfield, Illinois, anti-Witness violence became commonplace, with Witness houses of worship being looted and graffitied and Witnesses themselves stoned like characters from the Old Testamentby 1940 there were 236 such episodes. Workplace discrimination, Peters tells us, was especially pervasive: Witnesses were often fired or forced to resign. Daniel Morgans sons, high school students in Fort Lee, New Jersey, refused to salute the flag in 1939; Morgans boss at the Motor Vehicle Department urged Morgan to pressure his sons to capitulate, and when Morgan refused, he was fired. When he applied for a job at the Bergen County Board of Freeholders, he was told that his refusal to salute the flag disqualified [him] for a civil service position, even though he was a veteran. With the aid of the ACLU, Morgan sued, and in 1944 the state supreme court ruled in his favor. The story of Morgan v. Civil Service Commission highlights another theme of the book: the Witnesses willingness to sue when their civil liberties were abridged. Peterss attempt to position this litigation as an early manifestation of the civil rights revolution is a bit strained, however. History and religion buffs will relish this tale. -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 342 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas (April 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0700610081
  • ISBN-13: 978-0700610082
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,844,038 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

An internationally-recognized expert on religious liberty issues, Shawn Peters has been featured by CNN, PBS, Court TV, Time magazine, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of four books and has twice been recognized by the American Society of Legal Writers for outstanding achievement. He currently teaches in the Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Customer Reviews

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98 of 100 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is about the legal battle Jehovah's Witnesses waged, in the 1930's and 1940's, to secure their constitutional rights to practice their beliefs in the midst of the hysteria that consumed the USA in the years leading up to and into the Second World War. The author, Shawn Francis Peters, is not one of Jehovah's Witnesses nor is he sympathetic to their beliefs. However, he does believe in their right to think, proclaim, and act in harmony with their beliefs.
If you are interested in American, legal, or religious history this book will be of interest to you. What I particularly enjoyed was the background material he gives. The Witnesses, their persecutors, the police and judges. He helps us to see what motivated each group. He takes us behind the scenes of the Supreme Court. There we see that there were not just dry legal deliberations that went on but the beliefs of the Justices caused them to become emotionally involved as well.
The book is full of many firsthand accounts. So we get a sense of what it felt like to be living during that time. We feel the anguish of the Witnesses, as they endure their trials, facing discrimination and prejudice from what may be called 'petty officials'. We see policeman, sheriff, mayor, governor, and the U.S. Justice Dept basically ignore their pleas for help against their persecutors. They finally realized that "their only recourse was the Courts".
We, also, see that there were others who could see that if the actions against Jehovah's Witnesses were allowed to stand then the rights of all minorities would be at stake.
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64 of 65 people found the following review helpful By E. Jones on April 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author is not one of Jehovah's Witnesses nor is he sympathetic toward their beliefs. (Which he makes clear in various comments throughout the book.) However, he does support their legal right to have such beliefs, to proclaim them, and to act in harmony with them.
What I liked about the book was the background the author gives to the legal cases. He doesn't just give you the legal facts but he gives you the story of the Witnesses, their persecutors, the police officers, and the judges. He tries to help you see why each group acted the way they did. He shows how the persecution affected the private lives of the Witnesses. I particularly enjoyed the behind the scenes look into the Supreme Court. What the Justices thought in private and how they wrangled with one another before making their decisions.
Mr. Peters has done a good job in bringing back to public attention a momentous period in legal history that helped to shape in a significant way the legal environment of our present time. A time in which even hated minorities can look to the courts with a certain amount of confidence that their legal right to think, proclaim, and act in harmony with their beliefs will be protected.
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49 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Philip Crawford on May 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
First, let me state I'm neither a legal scholar nor a Jehovah's Witness. I just like to read different books about different subjects. This book is a great read, very interesting background about the witnesses and the U.S. legal system.
I couldn't seem to stop reading and "had" to finish this book. Peter's style, although noticeable in the beginning, disappears after about 30 pages and the book becomes totally captivating. To me, this indicates a Very well written book.
I would easily recommend Judging Jehovah's Witnesses to friends.
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91 of 96 people found the following review helpful By R. G. May VINE VOICE on May 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have been privileged to be one of Jehovah's witnesses since the time I was a teenager. I have made it a point to read anything I could regarding the unprecedented series of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1930's and early 1940's brought about by the activities of, and opposition to, Jehovah's witnesses. This is by far the most enlightening of these works, for several reasons. First, the author has thoroughly researched this work and included a great deal of information regarding the often ignored decisions of the lower courts. In many cases the eloquence of the lower courts and their grasp of the constitutional issues involved surpassed that of the majority of the Supreme Court. Second, the role of those courageous enough to champion the witnesses' civil rights was given a prominence I have not seen in other works. The ACLU, certain liberal clergymen, and the editorials of the Christian Century were given a prominence that has been downplayed or ignored in other works. In addition, the brilliance of the witnesses' legal team, Hayden Covington in particular, in orchestrating their strategy is acknowledged. Third is the author's uncomfortableness with, and in some cases dislike of, the teachings and practices of Jehovah's witnesses. Although I found some of the comments regarding the witnesses unnecessary (weird, odd, obstreperous, etc.), it made his acknowledgement of the witnesses contributions to freedom in this country all the more meaningful. Finally, the role that this series of decisions played in shaping the Supreme Court for its role as the guardian of civil liberties in the 1950's and 60's is explained in a way that makes me swell with pride to be a part of the group that helped to guarantee the freedoms that at one time in the not too distant past were in danger of being suppressed.
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