Since early in its history, the religious movement known as Jehovah’s Witnesses (or the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society) has been represented in Arkansas. As of 2009, Arkansas has 110 English-speaking and 24 Spanish-speaking congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with a total membership estimated at 10,000 adherents. Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to be noted especially for their outreach through door-to-door visits (featuring distribution of their literature, Watchtower magazine) and through their occasional conflicts with society related to questions of patriotism, health, and religious observances.
The origin of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is closely tied to the work of Charles Taze Russell, who was strongly influenced by the Adventist movement in the United States in the nineteenth century. He concluded that most Christian churches were in a state of apostasy, rejecting the teachings of Jesus and the Bible and replacing them with invented doctrines. Russell predicted that a dramatic end to history was coming in the year 1914; when World War I began in Europe that year, Russell believed that the period of history that he called the Gentile Times had come to an end.
After Russell’s death in 1916, Joseph Franklin Rutherford was selected to lead the group. On July 26, 1931, Rutherford announced that the group was to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses anticipated the end of history in 1925 and 1975. History did not end, but the group continued to grow and flourish. As of 2008, they claim a world membership of 6,741,999 in 99,770 congregations, including 1,035,802 in 12,261 congregations in the United States.
Russell traveled around the country making speeches, and his followers distributed the Watchtower magazine throughout the country. While their first efforts in Arkansas are not well documented, Arkansans were receiving and responding to their publications at least as early as 1887. Because of their strong interest in preparing for the coming end times, the followers of Russell (not identified as Jehovah’s Witnesses until 1931) did not preserve historical records of their work. They also were more noted for their efforts in sharing their teachings than for social ministries such as schools or hospitals.
During World War I, followers of Russell refused to serve in the U.S. armed forces even when they were drafted. On April 29, 1918, five followers of Russell were jailed in Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County) because of their resistance to the war effort. Identified as W. B. Duncan, Edward French, Charles Franke, Mr. Griffen, and Mrs. D. Van Hoesen, these five were assaulted in jail by an angry mob and were whipped, tarred and feathered, and driven from town.
In July of the same year, eight followers of Russell were the subjects of an intense manhunt known as the Cleburne County Draft War. This incident began on July 6, when Sheriff Jasper Duke and four other men attempted to serve a warrant on Bliss Adkisson for his failure to report when drafted for military service. Gunshots were exchanged at the Adkisson farm—reports are inconsistent about who fired the first shot—fatally wounding Porter Hazelwood, one of the men who had accompanied the sheriff. Bliss, along with his father Tom and his brother Hardy, fled and hid in the woods. The following day, July 7, Duke returned with twenty-five men, and more gunfire was exchanged. Up to 200 government officials and volunteers—including thirty members of the Fourth Arkansas Infantry National Guard—searched the area for these men and for others reputed to be hiding with them and planning an armed assault on the community. Two machine guns were brought up from Little Rock (Pulaski County) in anticipation of the fight. Houston Osbourne, the “Russellite preacher,” was jailed along with his family on suspicion of encouraging and assisting in the revolt. Eventually, the Adkissons and others with them turned themselves in to the authorities without further bloodshed.
World War II led to further conflict between Jehovah’s Witnesses and their neighbors. Because of their refusal to salute the flag or to serve in the armed forces, Jehovah’s Witnesses were beaten, jailed, or both. W. M. Manning was arrested in Texarkana (Miller County) and convicted on charges of desecrating the flag and distributing un-American literature. He received the maximum sentence of thirty days in jail and a $100 fine, in spite of a letter from J. Edgar Hoover (director of the FBI) saying that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had no connection with the Nazis or any other un-American group. In June 1941, Joe Johnson was convicted of showing public contempt for the flag in Marshall (Searcy County) because he had refused to pledge allegiance to the flag as a condition of receiving his monthly welfare allowance. A year later, the Arkansas State Supreme Court sustained his sentence.
Violence was reported against Jehovah’s Witnesses in many Arkansas communities, including Harrison (Boone County), El Dorado (Union County), and Huntsville (Madison County). The most violent attack against a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses happened on September 19, 1942. After being refused permission to gather at Traveler Field in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) for a local convention, the Jehovah’s Witnesses met at a service station on Asher Avenue in Little Rock. Recognized by area workers, they were attacked and severely beaten; some were also shot. Police arriving to break up the disturbance arrested only the Jehovah’s Witnesses, allowing their attackers to remain free.
In spite of persistent and sometimes violent opposition, the Jehovah’s Witnesses persisted in their beliefs and actions. Some of them served as conscientious objectors (COs), while others were imprisoned because they were not granted CO status and refused to join the military. Communities attempted to prevent Jehovah’s Witnesses from distributing literature through various local ordinances, but, in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Albert Krantz v. City of Fort Smith) that the Fort Smith (Sebastian County) ordinance requiring fees and licenses for distributing religious literature was unconstitutional. Similar ordinances in Monette (Craighead County) and Pocahontas (Randolph County) also were eventually overturned.
These court victories, along with a general change of attitude toward religious minorities, meant that Jehovah’s Witnesses became generally more accepted in society in contemporary times. A continuing source of dispute concerns blood transfusions, which Jehovah’s Witnesses reject on account of biblical commands not to consume blood. In 2001, a child born prematurely to a Jehovah’s Witness at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) hospital in Little Rock was given a blood transfusion—against the mother’s wishes—through a court order.
In 2003, Jehovah’s Witnesses received favorable press from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the construction of the new Kingdom Hall in Little Rock as well as for a regional convention held in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) in 2007. There, they met in three sessions on different weekends for Bible studies, and they also distributed literature in Pine Bluff. This increased tolerance for religious diversity in Arkansas is in part a result of changing times, and in part a result of the First Amendment interpretations that resulted from challenges by Jehovah’s Witnesses and others outside the mainstream religious society of Arkansas to the status quo.
For additional information:
Fox, Rebecca Huss. “Johnson v. State: God, Country, and Joe Johnson.” In First Amendment Studies in Arkansas: The Richard S. Arnold Prize Essays, edited by Stephen A. Smith. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2016.
Hilliard, Hilary. “Jehovah’s Witnesses Build Hall in 4 Days.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. November 23, 2003, p. 1B.
Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom. New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1993.
Jones, Francisca. “Witnesses Now Evangelizing Remotely.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 26, 2021, pp. 1B, 5B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/jun/26/witnesses-now-evangelizing-remotely/ (accessed September 13, 2022).
Linn, Mike. “Jehovah’s Witnesses Will Converge on PB for Regional Conclaves.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 2, 2007, pp. 1B, 10B.
Morris, Cynthia Hastas. “Arkansas’s Reaction to the Men Who said ‘No’ to World War II.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 43 (Summer 1984): 153–177.
Peters, Shawn Francis. Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.
Shurley, Traci. “Despite Mother’s Wishes, Judge Orders Transfusions for Ailing Premature Boy.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. March 16, 2001, pp. 1B, 4B.
Smith, C. Calvin. War and Wartime Changes: The Transformation of Arkansas 1940–1945. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.
Smith, Stephen A. “Patriotism, Pledging Allegiance, and Public Schools: Lessons from Washington County in the 1940s.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 64 (Spring 2005): 49–69.
Storm, Christie. “Kingdom Work.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. December 26, 2009, pp. 4B, 5B.
Watchtower: Official Website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. http://www.jw.org (accessed September 13, 2022).
Willis, James F. “The Cleburne County Draft War.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 25 (Spring 1967): 24–39.
North Little Rock, Arkansas
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