Spreading the word: Jehovah's Witnesses
There are many people who are only familiar with Jehovah's Witnesses through their evangelical efforts, the door-to-door visits offering information and pamphlets about their religion. But while Martha's Vineyard's close-knit Jehovah's Witness community is relatively compact - close to 95 congregants - they have kept a record of their 70-year long and interesting history on Martha's Vineyard.
It was Eugene Gale from Edgartown, who in 1939 spread the word to his brother, Leon, and sister-in-law, Elva, who in turn introduced the Jehovah's Witness religion to Wampanoag Chief Harrison Vanderhoop of Gay Head. In those years, it was no small matter to travel the distance from Aquinnah to Tisbury, where the meetings were held. In the early 1940s, a couple, the Skwarlos, were assigned to Martha's Vineyard as Special Pioneers to advance the door-to-door ministry. According to the written history, "For an entire year Brother Skwarlo gave the public talk on Sunday to his wife only, until one day they heard footsteps on the stairs and in came the old retired Indian chief."
Photos by Susan Safford
Bob Eldredge, one of nine elders of the Martha's Vineyard community of Jehovah's Witnesses, says he and his wife, Georgette, became involved with the Jehovah's Witnesses in the 1970s. "We liked the way that everything was laid out in accordance with the Bible," he says. "We saw why others would want to share their knowledge. Love for God and our neighbors motivates us to talk to others," he adds, explaining that especially in times of uncertainty, many find solace in the teaching of the Witnesses and in the biblical prophecies they share.
Through the 1950s and 60s, as numbers increased, meetings were held first in member's homes, and then in small rented spaces at various locations around Vineyard Haven. Membership reached about 120 in the 80s in response to the increasing Brazilian population. For the last decade, the church has offered most of the weekly meetings in English and Portuguese.
The first Kingdom Hall was built in 1974 across from the cemetery in Vineyard Haven. Eventually a bigger space and more parking became necessary, and the original building was sold to the Brazilian Growing Church (A Igreja que Cresce). Volunteers constructed the new hall on State Road in West Tisbury, completed in 2003.
Mr. Eldredge notes that most outsiders are surprised when first visiting the Kingdom Hall because it appears more like a lecture hall than a place of worship. "There are no icons or images," he explains.
The unadorned main hall, which accommodates about 200 people, is appropriate for teaching, the basis of the Witnesses' practice, rather than preaching.
The final Sunday meeting is a question-and-answer discussion. Says Mr. Eldredge, "The whole congregation participates in that, even little kids and infants. There's no Sunday School."
Jehovah's Witnesses do not observe traditional religious holidays, since they are not sanctioned in the Bible and have what could be considered pagan origins. Nor do they recognize national holidays, as they don't take part in politics. Birthdays are not celebrated because, "Honoring oneself is something that is forbidden in the scriptures," explains Mr. Eldredge.
The one holiday they do observe is the Memorial of Christ's Death, in which the Last Supper is honored with the passing of bread and wine. The date is arrived at by the Jewish calendar and falls in the spring. "We are the only Christian religion that celebrates only one holiday," Mr. Eldredge points out.
The name, Jehovah's Witnesses, derives from the name given to God in the Hebrew scriptures. Witnessing, an important aspect of the religion, is the bringing of the message to those outside the faith. Jehovah's Witnesses take this direction from passages in the Bible where Jesus instructs his disciples to go to people's homes to spread the word.
The Bible, the inspired word of God, is the final authority. Witnesses believe in the prophecies, including an eventual Armageddon.
According to Mr. Eldredge, "The Armageddon is not the end of the earth. It will make way for better things here on earth. It's going to be a much-needed cleansing."
The idea of a Holy Trinity is rejected in favor of the belief that there is only one God, and that Jesus is the son of God, not an incarnation.
"While we respect and follow the laws of our nation, we do not get involved in government [Witnesses do not vote] because it is often in conflict with our beliefs," says Mr. Eldredge. "We are completely neutral. We give our allegiance to God's government."
Traditions started by man regarding worship are not followed; they do not participate in rituals or observe a weekly service or mass. They hold two meetings a week that include bible studies, instruction in home studies, and discussion groups. There are no clergymen. The elders of each group, which are not limited in number, lead the weekly meetings. Christenings do not take place during infancy. An individual must make the decision to commit to the faith on his or her own.
All members are required to conduct house visits and home bible studies. Both Mr. Eldredge and his wife, along with five other Islanders, are Pioneers, devoting a minimum of 70 hours a month to outreach work.
Gwyn McAllister, a resident of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.