A fastpaced study of a littleknown episode in American religious history.
Say “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and most Americans will conjure up pictures of doortodoor evangelists who want to give you tracts and pamphlets. But at midcentury the sectarian group was known for something else—refusing to salute the US flag. Jehovah’s Witnesses insisted they were patriotic and meant no disrespect, but they could not salute—it was a violation, they said, of Exodus 5, which instructs believers to have “no other Gods before Me.” In the tense and suspicious atmosphere of WWII, however, many Americans were troubled by the Witnesses’ refusal to salute: was this a sign of some greater disloyalty? In sleepy towns like Richwood, West Virginia, and Litchfield, Illinois, antiWitness violence became commonplace, with Witness houses of worship being looted and graffitied and Witnesses themselves stoned like characters from the Old Testament—by 1940 there were 236 such episodes. Workplace discrimination, Peters tells us, was especially pervasive: Witnesses were often fired or forced to resign. Daniel Morgan’s sons, high school students in Fort Lee, New Jersey, refused to salute the flag in 1939; Morgan’s boss at the Motor Vehicle Department urged Morgan to pressure his sons to capitulate, and when Morgan refused, he was fired. When he applied for a job at the Bergen County Board of Freeholders, he was told that his refusal to salute the flag “disqualified [him] for a civil service position,” even though he was a veteran. With the aid of the ACLU, Morgan sued, and in 1944 the state supreme court ruled in his favor. The story of Morgan v. Civil Service Commission highlights another theme of the book: the Witnesses’ willingness to sue when their civil liberties were abridged. Peters’s attempt to position this litigation as an early manifestation of the civil rights revolution is a bit strained, however.
History and religion buffs will relish this tale.