From a sociological perspective, blood is a powerful symbol of allegiance for the Witnesses simply because it is unimportant to other faith communities.
It may seem paradoxical, given the advances in medical science, that those who hold allegedly rational religious beliefs would choose to die rather than accept medical treatment. This is, however, a decision often taken by the Jehovah’s Witnesses – a puritanical religious group founded by a Pittsburgh draper, Charles Taze Russell, in the late nineteenth century. Although the Witnesses eschew mysticism (their beliefs are based on an ‘intellectual’, empirical interpretation of the Bible) and accept most forms of medical intervention, they remain steadfast in their refusal of blood. It is this more than any other doctrine for which the Witnesses are renowned.
Two weeks ago, the national press reported the death of 22 year old Emma Gough – a young Jehovah’s Witness who refused a blood transfusion during childbirth. The story has provoked widespread discussion not only about the effects of biblical literalism on young devotees, but on the wider issues of religious freedom and the rule of law. While one school of thought advocates state intervention in a case such as this (a view held by conservative Christians whose ultimate concern is for the unborn child), the more liberal democratic argument defends the right of the pregnant mother to follow her religious conscience. The fact that Mrs Gough had already given birth to twins at the time of her death makes this a less contentious ethical and legal matter than might otherwise have been the case. Be this as it may, it is important to understand why the Witnesses believe what they do and to offer some analysis of their heterodox religious code.
The Witnesses’ rRefusal of blood transfusions has undoubtedly earned the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (the official name of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation) a fair amount of criticism from the outside world; yet surprisingly, the issue is seldom discussed at the Witnesses’ weekly meetings. Nor is it selected by Witness proselytisers as a topic for their doorstep sermons. The Witnesses believe that blood transfusions are strictly forbidden since blood is a life source sacred to Jehovah. The Society’s publications also warn against the risks of bacterial infection, transfusion reactions and Rhesus sensitisation.
Although Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17:11-12 are commonly used to support the prohibition, it is Acts 15:28-29 that is most frequently quoted in Watch Tower literature: For it has seemed “Good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.”
– Four Dangers of the Jehovah’s Witness Organization
Blood transfusions are thus regarded by the Society as physically and morally unclean. This belief demonstrates the strict purity code that characterises many Watch Tower teachings. The emergence of AIDS during the 1980s provided the Witnesses with a secular if macabre confirmation of the doctrine’s virtue as well as a powerful justification to abstain from blood on health grounds. It is also worth noting that prior to the blood transfusion taboo in 1945, the Society objected to vaccinations and inoculations, although this never became an official Watch Tower edict.
The patriotic period of the Second World War (ideologically anathematised by the society which regards itself as pacifist) provided fertile soil for the blood prohibition. The American population was regularly incited to donate blood for its injured soldiers; hence, blood transfusions became part of nationalistic manifestation along with armies, national anthems and flags. It could be argued, therefore, that the Witnesses’ condemnation of blood transfusions constitutes a rule of pollution and purity that is instrumental in creating structural boundaries. In a period marked by state opposition to their doctrines between the 1930s and the 1950s (particularly in Europe and North America), the Witnesses needed to maintain their exclusivity in order to re-establish their universal collective identity and to detach themselves from orthodox Christianity. The blood prohibition enabled them to do just this. The Witnesses’ refusal of blood is analogous with Jewish dietary laws – it affirms the view that sacrifice is part of the price of membership, thus strengthening the Society’s internal cohesion. From a sociological perspective, blood is a powerful symbol of allegiance for the Witnesses simply because it is unimportant to other faith communities.
For the religious sceptic, the greatest difficulty lies in understanding how groups with such arbitrary beliefs continue to flourish in a so-called (post)modern age. The answer, it seems, is that they are able to offer certainty to those who are overawed by epistemological relativism, individual freedom and semiotic pastiche. While the evolution of capitalism and modern medical science has no doubt caused tension between faith and reason, it has not, if Mrs Gough’s death means anything, destroyed our belief in an omnipotent creator.
Dr Andrew Holden is a research associate at Lancaster University and one of Britain’s foremost experts on Jehovah’s Witnesses and is the author of the acclaimed book: Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement
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