Blood on the Altar: Confessions of a Jehovah’s Witness Minister, by David A. Reed (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) 285 pp., $24.95 cloth.
Blood on the Altar focuses on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to allow blood transfusions, even in the face of death. Much of the rest of the book deals with the 117-year history of the Witnesses and their plethora of scandals, failed prophecies, and contradictory biblical interpretations.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which governs the Witnesses, loosely interprets an ancient Hebrew dietary restriction as God’s injunction against blood transfusions. Genesis 9:4 says, “But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Oddly enough, during the 1930s and 40s the Witnesses also interpreted this passage as a biblical ban on vaccinations.)
Although the Society releases no official mortality data, Reed calculates that between 5,000 and 12,000 Witnesses die every year from refusing transfusions. But since they die quietly, one by one, they don’t make sensational headlines like the multiple deaths at Waco and Jonestown. The book is peppered with news clippings about Witnesses who died by refusing blood. For example, there’s the case of Bill Korinek, injured in a car crash.
Although growing weaker from loss of blood, Korinek steadfastly refused to accept a transfusion… The Mormon doctor pleaded with the young man’s mother to authorize the treatment, but she replied, “I would rather seen my boy dead and in the grave, than see him violate Jehovah God’s commandment against blood!” Korinek died shortly afterward.
Sadder yet are the accounts of babies and children who died because their parents felt they were doing Jehovah’s will. In several cases, doctors were able to get a court order to force a transfusion, but by then it was too late. Sometimes, medical assistance was physically prevented by large groups of Witnesses guarding the patient. (This is a recent tactic of the Witnesses, to send a “Hospital Liaison Committee” to watch over a dying member.) A Witness who is married to a nonbeliever may secretly sign over power-of-attorney to a church elder, who can then legally order blood withheld over the objections of the patient’s family.
The Witnesses carry their ban on blood to absurd extremes. As a Witness, you cannot even accept your own blood if it has been removed from your circulation. If your cat needed a blood transfusion and you allowed it, you would be sinning. You also could not use leeches for medical purposes, since you would be feeding them your blood. (Witnesses must panic at the sight of a mosquito!)
In 1967, the Society also interpreted Genesis 9:4 as prohibiting organ transplants. It decried transplants as “a shortcut to cannibalistically chewing and eating human flesh.” Then in 1980, the Watchtower stated, “There is no biblical command pointedly forbidding the taking in of other human tissue.” Reed comments,
What of those who went blind refus-ing a cornea transplants during the thirteen-year ban? What of those who died refusing a kidney or other vital organ? No apologies were given to the suffering individuals still alive, nor to the JW families who lost loved ones. The prohibition on such medical procedures was qui-etly dropped and then no longer mentioned, as if it had never been.
Since the Watchtower Society has reversed itself on transplants and vaccinations, why not drop the ban on blood? Reed speculates that it “may be a case of holding a tiger by the tail: how can they let go after so many have died?”
As a former Witness myself, I found Reed’s account fascinating. He quotes from Society literature dating back to 1877, exposing teachings that even modern-day followers would find absurd. For example, it was asserted for decades that the measurements of the Great Pyramid of Giza represented a chronology predicting Christ’s return (a theory probably stolen from the Mormons). They also claimed to know God’s address: the star Alcyone in the Pleiades cluster.
Reed also details his own conversion and the subtle yet powerful mind-control that the Society exerts. He describes his fall from grace over “an inch of hair” and his wife’s wearing of pantsuits. (The Society maintains a strictly 1950s conservative dress code.) There is a fascinating mind-control story about his encounter with a Witness canvassing at his front door shortly after he left the cult. She talked about Revelation and the “great crowd” of Witnesses who would live forever on Earth instead of heaven. He asked her to read from Revelation 19:1.
She read, “After these things I heard what was a loud voice of a great crowd in heaven….” Then I asked her where the verse located the great crowd. “On earth,” she replied. So I had her read it again, this time interrupting her after she read the words, “great crowd in heaven.” Again I asked her where the verse located the great crowd. And again she answered, “On earth.” So I pointed to the verse in her Bible and asked her, “But what is that word there—the last word you read?” “It says `heaven,”‘ she finally acknowledged, immediately adding, “but the great crowd is on earth.” Then she explained, “You don’t understand. We have men at our [Watchtower Society] headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, who explain the Bible to us.”
Is it any wonder that people who are so tightly controlled by the Watch-tower Society would gladly allow themselves to die over the Society’s interpretation of some ancient Kosher dietary law?