In June 1918, a small but high-profile Christian community headquartered in Brooklyn, New York City was all but destroyed when seven of its leaders, including the president, were convicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to twenty years in prison. They were known as Bible Students; since 1931, they have been called Jehovah’s Witnesses. The men were found to be subversives – in the opinion of the Court, their ‘religious propaganda’ was ‘a greater danger than a division of the German Army’ – who must be prevented from disseminating their anti-war message and obstructing America’s prosecution of the war. The trial and conviction demonstrate the imperative felt by the US government to silence those opposed to its involvement in World War I, particularly communities invoking the Bible to condemn the conflict. The Bible Students’ premillennial apocalypticism marked them apart from other Christian war resisters and they were seen as pessimistic, if not destructive. Moreover, the Bible Students were not, strictly speaking, pacifists:  they believed righteous wars were possible, namely those directed by Jehovah (and not waged by earthly governments). These unusual views were widely propagated through Bible Student literature, which the Court ruled was a potent weapon against the American war effort.

Venue

Forgan Smith
Room: 
E303