Jehovah”s Witnesses – a religion or a cultural organization?

From 1943 until 1989, the Watchtower Society (La Torre del Vigia) presented itself in Mexico as cultural rather than a religious organization. Why?

In the 1/1/90 WT, they state the following: “A highlight of 1989 was a change in the status of Jehovah”s Witnesses in Mexico. As a result, the Bible could be used in the house-to-house preaching work for the first time, and meetings could be opened with prayer.” What they don”t state is the reason that the house-to-house preaching could not be done or that the meetings could not be opened with prayer. It was, not because the it prohibited by the government, but because the WTS prevented its own people from doing these things.

The reason for all this goes back to 1917 when the new constitution of  Mexico nationalized all church property.  Most religious organizations in Mexico learned to live with this. The government held title to the building and the religious organizations continued to use them for religious purposes. But the Watchtower Society evidently didn”t like that arrangement, so they reinvented themselves. Starting in 1943, the Watchtower (called ”La Torre del Vigia” in Mexico) no longer presented itself as a religious organization, but a cultural organization.

According the the 1995 Yearbook of Jehovah”s Witnesses, the following changes were made:

  1. No audible prayers at meetings
  2. No singing at meetings
  3. Door-to-door work continued, but without direct use of the Bible
  4. Kingdom Halls were renamed “Halls for Cultural Studies”
  5. Bible studies were renamed “Cultural Studies

So basically, the WTS compromised on a number of things so they could continue to hold title to property.

Can you imagine the apostles in the 1st century refraining from singing or praying aloud at their meetings in order to hold title to property? I cannot. This is compromise of the rankest kind.

BTW during the time the WTS was passing itself off as a cultural organization in Mexico, it was arguing in US courts that it was a ”solely religious” organization in order to take advantage of tax advantages of being a religious organization.

WT References:

*** w90 1/1 7 “Aglow With the Spirit” in Mexico ***
A highlight of 1989 was a change in the status of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mexico. As a result, the Bible could be used in the house-to-house preaching work for the first time, and meetings could be opened with prayer. This had an immediate effect. In two months, the number of publishers jumped by over 17,000.

The joy of the brothers at this development is seen in their comments. One wrote: “When the letter was read in the congregation, it was interrupted twice by spontaneous applause. It was thrilling!” Another said: “We could not hold back the tears of joy. The results have been manifest in better punctuality. Everyone wants to be present for the opening prayer.”

*** yb95 211-3 Mexico ***

La Torre del Vigía de México—A Cultural Society

You will recall that back in 1932 La Torre del Vigía de México had been authorized by the government. However, there were obstacles because of the restrictions that the law imposed on all religions. Objections were raised to the house-to-house activity of the Witnesses, since the law stipulated that ‘every religious act of public worship must be held inside the temples.’ For the same reason, objections were raised to our conventions in public places. This was a problem, because these conventions were constantly getting larger. Owning property also presented problems, because the law required that every building used for religious purposes had to become federal property.

For these and other reasons, the Society decided that it would be wise to reorganize, with a view to giving greater emphasis to the educational nature of our work. Therefore, on June 10, 1943, application was made to the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs to register La Torre del Vigía as a civil society, and this was approved on June 15, 1943.

With this rearrangement, singing at our meetings was discontinued, and the meeting places became known as Halls for Cultural Studies. No audible prayers were said at meetings, though nothing could prevent a person from saying an earnest prayer silently in his heart. Every appearance of a religious service was avoided, and truly our meetings are designed for education. When Witnesses in other lands began to call their local groups “congregations,” the Witnesses in Mexico kept on using the term “companies.” House-to-house visits by the Witnesses continued, and with even more zeal; but direct use of the Bible at doors was avoided. Instead, publishers learned the texts by heart so that they could quote them. They also made good use of the book “Make Sure of All Things,” which is a compilation of Scripture quotations on many subjects. Only on return visits and on studies (which were termed “cultural” instead of “Bible”) was the Bible itself used.
The principal work of Jehovah’s Witnesses remained the same, namely, preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom.

*** yb95 236-7 Mexico ***
How has our holding of conventions and assemblies been affected by the fact that our organization is now recognized not merely as a cultural society but as the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses? In 1988 when this situation was first presented to the authorities, they simply directed us to the law that makes no provision for religions to have public meetings outside their normal meeting places. At that time they suggested that, instead of using public places, we have our own large facilities for conventions and assemblies. We persisted and asked if we could obtain special permission to hold our large gatherings in public places. They said that we could turn in our applications, and these would be considered. They did not prohibit our having large meetings, because we have always had them and other religions have also carried out public religious functions. One of the Society’s responsible brothers remembers how that meeting concluded: “When we took our leave, I said, ‘Well, then, it is understood that we are going to continue as we have been doing until there is some other arrangement.’ They agreed, and we exchanged our good-byes in a cordial atmosphere.”