Judging Jehovah's Witnesses

Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution

Shawn Francis Peters

Scribes Book Award

While millions of Americans were defending liberty against the Nazis, liberty was under vicious attack at home. One of the worst outbreaks of religious persecution in U.S. history occurred during World War II when Jehovah's Witnesses were intimidated, beaten, and even imprisoned for refusing to salute the flag or serve in the armed forces.

“Peters successfully uses the Witnesses’ simple but eloquent voices to tell a remarkable story that lays bare the extremes of cowardice and courage so often found in nations engrossed by war.”

American Historical Review

“The stories of persecution are horrendous, and Peters tells them with sympathy and remarkable attention to detail and context.”

—Journal of American History
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Determined to claim their First Amendment rights, Jehovah's Witnesses waged a tenacious legal campaign that led to twenty-three Supreme Court rulings between 1938 and 1946. Now Shawn Peters has written the first complete account of the personalities, events, and institutions behind those cases, showing that they were more than vindication for unpopular beliefs-they were also a turning point in the nation's constitutional commitment to individual rights.

Peters begins with the story of William Gobitas, a Jehovah's Witness whose children refused to salute the flag at school. He follows this famous case to the Supreme Court, where he captures the intellectual sparring between Justices Frankfurter and Stone over individual liberties; then he describes the aftermath of the Court's ruling against Gobitas, when angry mobs savagely assaulted Jehovah's Witnesses in hundreds of communities across America.

Judging Jehovah's Witnesses tells how persecution—much of it directed by members of patriotic organizations like the American Legion—touched the lives of Witnesses of all ages; why the Justice Department and state officials ignored the Witnesses' pleas for relief; and how the ACLU and liberal clergymen finally stepped forward to help them. Drawing on interviews with Witnesses and extensive research in ACLU archives, he examines the strategies that beleaguered Witnesses used to combat discrimination and goes beyond the familiar Supreme Court rulings by analyzing more obscure lower court decisions as well.

By vigorously pursuing their cause, the Witnesses helped to inaugurate an era in which individual and minority rights emerged as matters of concern for the Supreme Court and foreshadowed events in the civil rights movement. Like the classics Gideon's Trumpet and Simple Justice, Judging Jehovah's Witnesses vividly narrates a moving human drama while reminding us of the true meaning of our Constitution and the rights it protects.

About the Author

Shawn Francis Peters has taught writing and rhetoric at the universities of New Hampshire and Iowa and is currently with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.