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.