Jehovah's Witnesses in news again at their North Side birthplace

Written by Peter Smith on .



It's been a long time since Jehovah's Witnesses made big news from the North Side of the Allegheny River, but there it is.

Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Jason Worilds is retiring, walking away from potentially millions as a free agent in the prime of his career. Steeler sources tell my colleague Ed Bouchette that Worilds plans to do spiritual work on behalf of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

We haven't heard from Worilds directly on the motivation for retiring, but there's a little bit of deja vu here. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses got their start on the North Side, not far from present-day Heinz Field — led by another young man who walked away from a prosperous career (a chain of family-owned stores) to pursue ministry work.

A historical marker in Allegheny Center recounts how Charles Taze Russell -- a native of what was then Allegheny City (now the North Side of Pittsburgh) -- started a Bible study and a publishing enterprise that evolved into the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. The church still does business under that name even though it relocated its headquarters from Pittsburgh to New York a century ago.

Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged out of 19th century evangelical movements that expected the imminent return of Jesus, and they have had to work their way through great disappointments at times such as 1914, when their end-times scenarios didn't turn out as expected.

They operate very separately from other churches -- so much so that despite their Protestant roots, sociologists often treat them as a category unto themselves -- and have many distinct doctrines and practices that have them and other Christians doubting each others' bonafides. They believe in Jesus as Savior but not the the Trinity. They have refused blood transfusions and reject formal religious titles, considering all members ministers while operating under a hierarchy that includes strict discipline of members.

They have won U.S. Supreme Court cases protecting their rights to conduct door-to-door evangelism and not to salute the flag; but in some other countries they have faced severe persecution, including Nazi Germany.

Like other religious groups, particularly those with hierarchical governments, Jehovah's Witnesses have faced lawsuits over sexual abuse of children and have been found liable in some cases, with damages in the millions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are best-known for persistent door-to-door evangelism and distributing literature such as The Watchtower magazine, which originated in Pittsburgh under Russell. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses list 1.2 million members in the United States, with about 8 million worldwide, according to its 2015 yearbook. The yearbook does not give state or local statistics, but its directory lists dozens of kingdom halls, or church buildings, in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not rule out athletics per se, citing Bible verses that encourage bodily fitness and health. But it would be hard to square a professional football career with their beliefs, based on readily available online publications.

These writings caution particularly against violent and physically risky sports, saying the Bible mandates safe, healthy conduct. The publications also warn that too much participation in competitive sports takes time away from spiritual activities and exposes one to the influence of unbelieving teammates.

Most apropos to Worilds, the writings give several examples of athletes who gave up competitive sports for spiritual priorities. 

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Traditional religions, unaffiliated predominate in Pittsburgh

Written by Peter Smith on .

I find three major takeaways from a new grassroots survey on religion in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

The first is that, for all the colorful diversity of Pittsburgh's religious scene, the traditional faith groups still have the big numbers. The second is that there's a big showing for those with no religious affiliation. The third is that, on political issues that take on a strong religious cast, Yinzers are, no surprise, maroon.


  • Protestant: about 40 percent (a breakdown follows below).
  • Catholics: 36 percent.
  • Unaffiliated: 18 percent.
  • Jewish: 2 percent.
  • Hindu: 1 percent.
  • Orthodox Christian: 1 percent.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses: 1 percent.
  • Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists: Fractions of a percent each.
  • Other: 1 percent.

These numbers come from an extensive survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute as part of the American Values Atlas. It's an in-depth nationwide survey of people for their religious affiliations and views on various issues colored by religious belief or disbelief. For local purposes, the area surveyed was the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area, also used for U.S. Census purposes.

PRRI surveyed 482 people in and around Pittsburgh for a margin of error of 5.1 percentage points; it surveyed more statewide and even more nationwide. 

If there's a drawback, it's that nothing like this survey -- the kind where pollsters call people up individually -- seems to have been done before on a metro level, so there's nothing to compare it with. But studies of religious membership statistics have shown declines in many of the largest area groups, such as Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians. 

Pittsburgh is a famously Catholic, and particularly famous for the diverse European immigrant groups that gave Catholic parishes rich ethnic identities. Unfortunately, this survey barely touched that aspect. It found less than half of a percent each of Catholics who were Hispanic -- far, far less than in many regions -- or not white. The survey didn't do any breakdown along European ethnicities. It didn't show levels of those in Eastern Catholic rites, such as Ukrainians (something we're more interested in here than in much of the country.)

As for Protestants, the bigger denominational (or not) groups include:

  • Methodists: 8 percent.
  • Presbyterians: 8 percent.
  • Non-denominational: 7 percent.
  • Baptist: 5 percent.
  • Lutheran: 4 percent.
  • Pentecostal: 3 percent.

Even those labels are general, because there are various stripes of each of those groups, divided along theological and racial lines. 

Another way that the survey slices it is:

  • White mainline Protestant: 18 percent
  • White evangelical Protestant: 16 percent.
  • Black Protestant: 3 percent.
  • Other non-white Protestant: 2 percent.

Just three years ago, it was big news that people who did not identify with religion had grown to nearly 20 percent of the American population, according to the Pew Research Center. The least religious regions have been identified as New England and the Northwest. But three years later, even the relatively religious southwestern Pennsylvania is approaching that level -- 18 percent. Nationally, it's now 22 percent, according to PRRI. Unfortunately, the 2012 Pew study didn't break the numbers down at the metropolitan level.

One manifestation of this locally may be Sunday Assembly, a godless congregation that meets for fellowship but not faith. But the "Nones" are a diverse lot. Some are staunch atheists or agnostics. Others are spiritual-but-not religious people, many of whom believe in God but who don't join a congregation and mix and match their doctrines and practices (everything from Christ to crystals). 

Among the smaller groups, the 2 percent in the Jewish population is actually more than an adjusted study of synagogue membership counts, perhaps due to people who identify culturally but not religiously as Jewish.

The 1 percent of Hindus is in keeping with Pittsburgh's unusually high proportion of South Asian immigrants compared with other nationalities -- as are the lower percentages of Muslims and Buddhists. Also, there is a small percentage of Hispanic Catholics or Protestants compared with much of the country.

On other issues, Yinzers are more Democratic but no more liberal than the national population. They mirror the national support for legal abortion and same-sex marriage (figuring in margins of error) but are less likely to see immigrants as a national strength rather than burden.

Overall, the Pittsburgh region looks a lot like Pennsylvania politically. But Yinzers are more Catholic and less Protestant than Keystoners overall.


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Pope Francis' popularity near JP2 levels

Written by Peter Smith on .

papal audience 4-30-14


With his approaching two-year anniversary in office on March 13, Pope Francis has seen his popularity actually grow, at least in the United States.

That would bode well for his upcoming trip to Philadelphia and other American cities.

Ninety percent of U.S. Catholics and 70 percent of Americans overall view the pope positively, according to the Pew Research Center. That 90 percent is higher than the mid-80s, where Francis has polled at previous points in office.

And that figure approaches, but doesn't quite touch, Pope John Paul II's popularity here in his first two decades in office -- when his papacy was largely defined by his jet-setting charisma among youth and others, his successful defiance of the Soviet-led communism and his heroic recovery from a would-be assassin's bullet. By his death in 2005, John Paul's popularity among U.S. Catholics was down to 67 percent, as much of the narrative of his later years was overtaken by his increasing infirmities, the global crisis of sexual abuse in the church and controversies over his conservative doctrinal stances.

Francis has demonstrated his own charisma in his foreign trips and made headlines for his simple living, his advocacy for the poor and his pullback from culture-war disputes on sexuality, signalling a change in tone even if not in doctrine.


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Lincoln's journey to the Second Inaugural

Written by Peter Smith on .

Abraham Lincoln giving his second Inaugural Address 4 March 1865

One-hundred fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address -- or was it sermon? It was an intricate piece of theological parsing of the Civil War with its incredible carnage.

I wrote about the speech and its religious significance here.

As the experts have said, this was not merely a political speech with a God-bless-America tacked on at the end. It's woven through with speculation about God's providence -- the guidance of history by a personal and righteous deity, not impersonal forces. And it wasn't new.

In a note to himself in 1862, as the war was going badly and bloodily, he wrote:

"The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."

 And in 1864, he wrote the following to Kentucky leaders, trying to explain to his native state why he evolved from viewing the Civil War is strictly about preserving the Union into one about abolishing slavery, which had remained legal in the Bluegrass State. 

"I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. [He then goes on to give several examples of when he refused to free slaves early in the war.] 

"In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God."



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