Jehovah’s Witness Iconography

Kierkegaard once observed that while we understand our lives backward, we must live them forward (see Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, vol 1, #1030). He suggested that life can therefore never be completely comprehensible, since we can never achieve that plenary moment of “perfect repose” when we gain absolute retrospective insight into the meaning of life and history. But Jehovah’s Witnesses do claim to have that privileged retrospective insight. The regular iconographic invocation of life on a paradise earth functions as a kind of visual prolepsis, when the original Edenic paradise is remembered and restored. In those scenes of life in paradise that appear regularly and prominently in Witness literature, paradise is visualized as a present reality, an apocalyptic certainty whose redemptive and transformative power is currently available to the faithful. The visual rhetoric of Witness iconography nurtures the hope of this final, totalizing millennial perspective beyond the circumscribed horizons of bodies and time.

For Witnesses the millennial return to the paradise conditions of Eden means that Jehovah will reverse the curse of Babel, replacing the divisive cacophony of fallen humanity with the pristine concordance of life and language in paradise. A fervent desire to provide this evil world with a faithful witness before its imminent destruction dominates the lives of Jehovah’s contemporary witnesses. They wish to salvage a faithful remnant out of Satan’s kingdom and fulfill their prophetic destiny to proclaim the kingdom message to the entire world before its tragic end in the great eschatological purge of Armageddon.

Witnesses believe that Jehovah is now laying the organizational infrastructure for his millennial theocracy. Within God’s visible organization, the redemptive power of the millennium is already operative, transforming the confusion of tongues, the divisive claims of nationalism and the corrosive power of racial prejudice and ethnic identity into a global organization characterized by racial and ethnic harmony, universal brotherhood and ideological univocality. Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaim that the solution to the otherwise intransigent problems of racism, nationalism and ethnic tribalism lies in unequivocal submission to Jehovah’s theocratic direction and active association with his visible organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

In God’s theocratic kingdom, those divisive particularities that have continually plagued human social existence are repudiated and dissolved. But that proleptic realization of racial and ethnic harmony among Jehovah’s Witnesses coexists with the Society’s conviction that the present world system is hopelessly corrupt, irredeemable by human means. While Society literature does occasionally acknowledge that racial prejudice is not completely eradicated from Jehovah’s contemporary organization, it insists that the harmony and unity within its righteous boundaries are unparalleled by all other religious and social institutions.

A special objective of this presentation was to explore specifically how Witnesses negotiate those complex and divisive issues of race and ethnicity. I chose to focus on the Watchtower Society’s iconography because it offers a significant yet unexplored dimension of Witness history and culture. This examination of Witness iconography provides an interesting index by which to observe the evolving international and multiethnic self-consciousness of the Watchtower Society.

Part One

The image of Jehovah’s theocratic organization as a transnational, multiethnic community is not a novel development in Witness history. The movement’s founder, Charles Taze Russell, clearly indicated his interest in spreading his message around the globe, touring not only in Britain and western Europe, but also in the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America. While early Society illustrations were clearly dominated by persons of Anglo-Caucasian appearance, Witness iconography included persons of Asian, African and even Native American dress and physical appearance as early as the Rutherford era (1917-42).

The Cosmic Drama:
Rutherford era illustration from the Enemies book.
Notice the Native American in the left front row

Lee Cooper noticed, however, that even in the late 1960s African-Americans–by then a substantial constituency within the Watchtower Society–rarely appeared in Society illustrations and photographs.[1] But that changed significantly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the Society realized that the world had become “very picture oriented,” and set about to make its publications “more visually appealing.”[2] Since that time the major iconic motifs of Society publications routinely emphasize the interracial and multiethnic composition of Jehovah’s visible organization; the Society even regionalizes its iconography to enhance its local appeal.[3]

An illustration of life in paradise from the Knowledge book.

Perhaps the most important iconic motif in Witness literature is the representation of life on paradise Earth.[4] Many of the slides in this presentation focused on that Society leitmotif and illustrated how those scenes of paradise have become increasingly interracial and ostensibly multicultural in the last few decades.

Several tensions and polarities seem particularly salient in Witness culture, especially evident in the Society iconography as well as its pedagogical practices.

Part Two

There is a significant tension in Witness discourse between the Watchtower Society representation of itself as a global culture or international organization that has transcended the divisive particularities of race, ethnicity, nationality, language, etc., and the Society’s desire to encompass and accommodate various expressions of cultural diversity and local particularities. To express this global/local, transnational/provincial tension another way: not only are Jehovah’s Witnesses historically an “American religion” in that they originated in late nineteenth-century America, but Witness leadership–especially at its geographic and ideological center–is clearly overrepresented by an Anglo-American gerontocracy with American English as its privileged language of discourse. Witness literature and iconography indicates that uniformity and univocality within the Society exists not only at the level of explicit belief and formal practice, but that this homogenizing dynamic extends even to uniformity of dress and grooming, as well as a conspicuous tendency toward lexical univocality at least among American English-speaking Witnesses.[5]

That emphasis on uniformity and univocality stands in provocative contrast with the Society’s selective celebration of cultural and ethnic diversity in, for example, its contemporary iconographic representations of life in paradise and in the routine inclusion in Society publications of photographs taken at Witness assemblies and conventions around the world. The participants’ obvious ethnic dress and phenotypical appearance apparently signify the existence of ethnic and culture diversity within Jehovah’s global theocratic organization, present and future.

Note the ethnic / racial diversity in this
scene of the “great crowd”
ascending “the mountain of Jehovah”

A point that needs more development: I might also contrast the apparent indigenization of local Kingdom Halls, i.e., the standard practice of appointing local Witnesses to positions of responsibility at the congregational level. But the organizational reality is that those leaders are always directly appointed by the Society and that individuals with minimal connection to or investment in the life and culture of their subordinates populate the intermediate and higher levels of leadership (e.g., circuit and district overseer). It does appear, however, that at least in the US ethnic/racial minorities are significantly represented in those intermediate positions of leadership and responsibility above the congregational level (e.g., in the US, African-Americans and Hispanics appear to be well-represented among the Society’s Circuit and District Overseers, as well as by the large volunteer staff at Brooklyn “Bethel”). At this time, however, the Governing Body–the highest level of (human) leadership within Jehovah’s visible organization–is still clearly dominated by white males primarily of Anglo-American descent. That fact is likely to change with the announcement of new doctrinal developments by the Society, i.e., the revision of the 1914 / “this generation” doctrine (i.e., the insistence that Armageddon must occur within a literal generation of 1914) and the doctrinal legitimation of an ancillary leadership class (the Nethinim or “given ones”) potentially eligible to serve on the Governing Body. That right was previously reserved only for the “faithful and discreet slave” or anointed class that primarily consists of individuals who were Witnesses before 1935.

Part Three

One of the most interesting contrasts in Witness culture is its apparent aniconic style, manifested in the simple, utilitarian aesthetic embodied in the architecture of Kingdom Halls and in the Witness ideal of ascetic moderation, discipline and “balance.”

Samples of Kingdom Hall architecture
from the Proclaimers book.

But that apparent austerity of Witness culture contrasts sharply with the Watchtower Society’s lavish and pervasive iconography in which Witness ideology is visually inscribed. I have frequently observed the direct appeal to the pleasures and beauty of life in paradise both in the Society’s literature and in the pedagogical and proselyting practices of local Witnesses. The Society tract Life in a Peaceful New World (1987, 1994), adorned with a beautiful illustration of life on the paradise earth, begins with the following appeal:

When you look at the scene on this tract, what feelings do you have? Does not your heart yearn for the peace, happiness, and prosperity seen there? Surely it does. . .

Compared to the ascetic culture of discipline and moderation idealized in Society literature and pedagogy, the fertility and pleasures of life in paradise–frequently symbolized by the abundance of fruit and emphasized by Witnesses’ speculation about the delectability of that millennial fruit–appears to nurture a kind of millenarian sensuality reminiscent of early Christian chiliasm.[6]

Fruit is a major visual motif in
Witness scenes of paradise.

Perhaps this contrast is not as stark or incommensurable as one might initially imagine. The apparent aniconism of local Kingdom Halls is easily exaggerated and misunderstood. Rather than reject outright the persistent human “will to image,” Witnesses have instead redefined “the rules of signification” and nurture a sectarian aesthetic that contests the dominant symbols and paganized architecture of corrupt “Christendom.” The following iconic motifs are frequently inscribed in the architecture and organization of Kingdom Halls: the Watchtower symbol–perhaps embedded in the brickwork of the building’s exterior, the map of the congregation’s territory, the local congregation’s schedule of meetings, the information board with assignments and official correspondence from the Society’s Brooklyn headquarters, and the year-text printed on a banner displayed at the front of the auditorium.[7]

Jesus on the single-beam “torture stake.”
From the Knowledge book.

The Witnesses’ sectarian aesthetic is singularly evident, for example, in the Society’s regular depiction of Jesus fastened to a single-beamed “torture stake” (the New World Translation’s translation of stauros). Witnesses regard the traditional t- shaped cross as a pagan fertility symbol and yet another example of the pervasive infiltration of paganism into corrupt “Christendom.” The removal of that defiling cross-beam visually contests the traditional iconography of fallen Christianity and additionally manifests in condensed form the Watchtower Society’s historic anti-Catholicism.

A spirit of utilitarian moderation and disciplined pragmatism pervades Witness culture and practice. Society literature acknowledges that after WWII the world became more “visually oriented” and that the Society developed its lavish iconography as another practical strategy for marketing the Witnesses’ urgent message of the imminent apocalyptic purge of Armageddon and the healing beauty and global redemption of life in the millennial paradise.[8]

Part Four

Finally, an important tension that pervades Witness discourse is the transformative and revolutionary potential of the Society’s iconoclastic millennialism, contrasted with the Society’s posture of apocalyptic ennui and social resignation that rejects any attempt to reform or redeem the present world system hopelessly dominated by satanic power. The striking irony of this contrast is seen most clearly in the Society’s advice toward those who would consider interracial marriage. The Society counseled that: “A Christian, being realistic, must face life as it is–not as he wishes it might be.”[9] An earlier column on the same issue instructed readers that:

Christians cannot change prevailing human customs, prejudices and laws but must put up with them. They should therefore take a very realistic view of matters [emphasis added] and recognize the added difficulties such a marriage will have to face.[10]

The Society concludes the issue by conceding that while such marriages are not formally wrong, they are usually unwise given the nature of popular prejudice and hence better avoided.

But surely the utopian hope that nurtures the vision of the total resolution of all evil and injustice in a millennial paradise on earth is precisely the consequence of the Witnesses’ obdurate refusal to accept “life as it is.” It is instead the hope-indeed, the passionate certainty-of eternal life in an Edenic paradise when humanity’s fallen nature will be redeemed and Jehovah will finally harmonize the divisive cacophony of human voices into the perpetual theocratic harmony and univocal same-ness of life on a paradise Earth.