The Premise – Fact or Myth?

This is the first in a series of five articles I have prepared that relate to the No Blood doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Let me first say that I have been an active Jehovah’s Witness my entire life. For the majority of my years, I was a passionate card-carrying supporter of the No Blood doctrine, ready to refuse a potentially life-saving intervention to remain in lockstep solidarity with fellow believers.  My belief in the doctrine relied upon the premise that an intravenous infusion of blood represents a form of nutrition (nourishment or food) for the body. Belief that this premise is fact is essential if such texts as Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:10-11 and Acts 15:29 (which all relate to eating animal blood) are to be considered as relevant.

May I first emphasize that I am not an advocate for blood transfusions. Studies have proven that a blood transfusion can result in complications both during and after surgery, at times with fatal outcomes. For certain, avoiding transfusion reduces the risk of complications. There are, however, circumstances (e.g. hemorrhagic shock from massive blood loss) where transfusion intervention may be the only therapy for preserving life. A growing number of Witnesses are beginning to understand this risk, but the vast majority do not.

In my experience, Jehovah’s Witnesses and their position on the blood doctrine can be separated into three groups:

  1. Those who hold the premise (blood is nourishment) is fact. These are often older ones who refuse even minor blood fractions.
  2. Those who doubt the premise is fact. They have not yet come to realize that the premise (blood is nourishment) is the critical link for the doctrine to be scripturally based. These may have no issue accepting blood derivatives. While they continue to support the doctrine publicly, they privately struggle with what they would do if they (or their loved one) faced an emergency. Some in this group do not maintain updated medical information.
  3. Those who have done extensive research and are convinced the premise is a myth. These no longer carry their No Blood cards. They are informed on medical procedures and advances. If they remain in active association in congregations, they must remain silent regarding their position. These do have a strategy in place in the event of a life-threatening emergency.

For the Witness, it boils down to one simple question: Do I believe the premise is fact or myth?

I invite you to consider the premise again. Understand that the doctrine is scriptural only if the premise that blood transfusions amount to nourishment is fact. If it is a myth, then every day millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses are placing their lives at risk adhering to an organizational teaching, not a Biblical one. It is vital that all Jehovah’s Witnesses research this for themselves. The purpose of this and subsequent articles is to share the results of my personal research. If this information could accelerate the learning process for even one person currently uninformed before they or their loved one has to face a life-threatening situation, my prayer is answered. The Governing Body does encourage outside research in this area. An essential element to research is learning the early history of the No Blood doctrine.

The Architects of the No Blood Doctrine

The chief architect of the No Blood doctrine was Clayton J. Woodworth, one of the seven Bible Students who were imprisoned in 1918.  He was an editor and textbook writer before becoming a member of the Brooklyn Bethel family in 1912.  He became editor of The Golden Age magazine at its inception in 1919, and remained such for 27 years (including the years of Consolation).  In 1946 he was relieved of his duties due to advancing age.  That year the magazine’s name was changed to Awake!.  He passed away in 1951, at the ripe old age of 81.

Though having no formal education in medicine, it appears that Woodworth fancied himself as an authority on health care. The Bible Students (later called Jehovah’s Witnesses) enjoyed a steady stream of rather peculiar health care advice from him. The following are but a few examples:

“Disease is Wrong Vibration. From what has thus far been said, it will be apparent to all that any disease is simply an ‘out of tune’ condition of some part of the organism. In other words, the affected part of the body ‘vibrates’ higher or lower than normal…I have named this new discovery…the Electronic Radio Biola,….The Biola automatically diagnoses and treats diseases by the use of electronic vibrations. The diagnosis is 100 percent correct, rendering better service in this respect than the most experienced diagnostician, and without any attending cost.” (The Golden Age, April 22, 1925, pp. 453-454).

“Thinking people would rather have smallpox than vaccination, because the latter sows the seed of syphilis, cancers, eczema, erysipelas, scrofula, consumption, even leprosy and many other loathsome afflictions.  Hence the practice of vaccination is a crime, an outrage and a delusion.” (The Golden Age, 1929, p. 502)

“We do well to bear in mind that among the drugs, serums, vaccines, surgical operations, etc., of the medical profession, there is nothing of value save an occasional surgical procedure. Their so-called “science” grew out of Egyptian black magic and has not lost its demonological character…we shall be in a sad plight when we place the welfare of the race in their hands…Readers of The Golden Age know the unpleasant truth about the clergy; they should also know the truth about the medical profession, which sprang from the same demon worshipping shamans (doctor priests) as did the ‘doctors of divinity.’” (The Golden Age, Aug. 5, 1931 pp. 727-728)

“There is no food that is right food for the morning meal. At breakfast is no time to break a fast. Keep up the daily fast until the noon hour… Drink plenty of water two hours after each meal; drink none just before eating; and a small quantity if any at meal time. Good buttermilk is a health drink at meal times and in between. Do not take a bath until two hours after eating a meal, nor closer than one hour before eating. Drink a full glass of water both before and after the bath.” (The Golden Age, Sept. 9, 1925, pp. 784-785) “The earlier in the forenoon you take the sun bath, the greater will be the beneficial effect, because you get more of the ultra-violet rays, which are healing” (The Golden Age, Sept. 13, 1933, p. 777)

In her book Flesh and Blood: Organ Transplantation and Blood Transfusion In Twentieth-Century America (2008 pp. 187-188) Dr. Susan E. Lederer (Associate Professor of the History of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine) had this to say about Clayton J. Woodworth (Boldface added ):

“After Russell’s death in 1916, the editor of the second major Witness publication, The Golden Age, embarked on a campaign against orthodox medicine.  Clayton J. Woodworth blasted the American medical profession as an ‘institution founded on ignorance, error, and superstition.’ As an editor, he sought to persuade his fellow Witnesses about the shortcomings of modern medicine, including the evils of aspirin, the chlorination of water, the germ theory of disease, aluminum cooking pots and pans, and vaccination,’ Woodworth wrote, ‘because the latter sows the seed of syphilis, cancer, eczema, erysipelas, scrofula, consumption, even leprosy, and many other loathsome afflictions.’  This hostility toward regular medical practice was one element of the Witness response to blood transfusion.”

So we see that Woodworth manifested a hostility toward regular medical practice. Are we the least bit surprised that he objected to blood transfusions?  Sadly, his personal view did not remain private. It was embraced by the then principals of the Society, President Nathan Knorr and Vice-President Fredrerick Franz.[i] Subscribers of The Watchtower were first introduced to the No Blood doctrine in the July 1, 1945 issue. This article included numerous pages dealing with the biblical command to not eat blood. The scriptural reasoning was sound, but applicable only if the premise was fact, namely; that a transfusion was equivalent to eating blood. Contemporary medical thinking had (by 1945) advanced far beyond such an antiquated notion. Woodworth chose to ignore the science of his day and instead initiated a doctrine that relied upon the antiquated medical practice of centuries past.

Note how Professor Lederer continues:

“The Witness interpretation of the Biblical application to transfusion relied on an older understanding of the role of blood in the body, namely that blood transfusion represented a form of nutrition for the body.  The Watchtower article [July 1, 1945] cited an entry from the 1929 Encyclopedia, in which blood was described as the principal medium by which the body is nourished.  But this thinking did not represent contemporary medical thinking.  In fact, the description of blood as nourishment or food was the view of seventeenth-century physicians. That this represented centuries-old, rather than current, medical thinking on transfusion did not appear to trouble the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”  [Boldface added]

So these three men (C. Woodworth, N. Knorr, F. Franz) decided to create a doctrine based upon the thinking of seventeenth-century physicians. Given that the lives of hundreds of thousands of subscribers to The Watchtower were involved, should we not view such a decision as reckless and irresponsible? Rank-and-file members believed that these men were guided by God’s holy spirit. Few, if any, had sufficient knowledge to challenge the arguments and references they presented. A policy that could (and often did) involve a life-or-death decision for thousands depended upon the merits of an archaic notion.  This stance had the unintended (or not) consequence of keeping Jehovah’s Witnesses in the limelight and perpetuated the impression that JWs were the only true Christians; the only ones who would put their lives on the line in defense of true Christianity.

Remaining Separate from the World

Professor Lederer shares some interesting context surrounding the Witnesses at the time.

“During World War II, as the American National Red Cross mobilized efforts to collect massive amounts of blood for the Allies, Red Cross officials, public relations people, and politicians construed blood donation on the home front as the patriotic duty of all healthy Americans. For this reason alone, blood donation may have aroused the suspicion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In both World War I and World War II, the hostility of Witnesses to secular government created tensions with the American government.  The refusal to support the war effort by serving in the armed forces led to the imprisonment of the sect’s conscientious objectors.”  [Boldface added]

By 1945 the fervor of patriotism was running high. Leadership had earlier decided that for a young man to perform civilian service when drafted would be a compromise of neutrality (a position finally reversed with “new light” in 1996). Many young brothers were imprisoned for refusing to perform civilian service. Here, we had a country that viewed donating blood as the patriotic thing to do, while in contrast, young Witness men would not even perform civilian service in lieu of serving in the military.

How could Jehovah’s Witnesses donate blood that might save a soldier’s life?  Would it not be viewed as supporting the war effort?

Instead of reversing the policy and allowing young Witness men to accept civilian service, leadership dug their heels in and enacted the No Blood policy. It mattered not that the policy relied upon an abandoned, centuries-old premise, widely acknowledged as unscientific. During the war, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the target of much ridicule and harsh persecution. When the war was over and the fervor of patriotism subsided, might not leadership have viewed the No Blood doctrine as a means to maintain JWs in the spotlight, knowing that this position would inevitably lead to cases in the Supreme Court? Instead of fighting for the right to refuse to salute the flag and for the right to go from door to door, the fight was now for the freedom to choose to end your life or the life of your child. If the agenda of leadership was to keep Witnesses separate from the world, it worked. Jehovah’s Witnesses were in the spotlight again, fighting case after case for more than a decade. Some cases involved newborns and even the unborn.

A Doctrine Forever Etched in Stone

In summary, it is this writer’s opinion that the No Blood doctrine was born in response to paranoia surrounding wartime patriotism and the American Red Cross blood drive. We can now understand how such a travesty was put in motion. In fairness to the men responsible, they were expecting Armageddon to arrive at any moment. This surely influenced their shortsightedness. But then, who do we hold responsible for the speculation that Armageddon was so near? The organization became victims of their own speculation. They likely felt that since Armageddon was so near, few would be affected by this doctrine, and, hey, there’s always the resurrection, right?

When the first member of the Organization refused blood and died due to hemorrhagic shock (presumably soon after the 7/1/45 Watchtower was published), the doctrine was forever etched in stone. It could never ever be rescinded.  The Society’s leadership had hung an enormous millstone round the neck of the Organization; one that threatened its credibility and its assets. One that could be removed only in the event of one of the following:

  • Armageddon
  • A viable blood substitute
  • Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Obviously, none have happened to date. With the passing of each decade, the millstone has grown exponentially larger, as hundreds of thousands have placed their lives at risk in compliance with the doctrine. We can only guess at how many have experienced an untimely death as a result of adhering to a command of men. (There is a silver lining for the medical profession discussed in Part 3). Generations of Organization leadership have inherited this nightmare of a millstone. To their dismay, these guardians of doctrine have been forced into a position that requires they defend the indefensible. In an effort to sustain their credibility and protect Organization assets, they have had to sacrifice their integrity, not to mention the greater sacrifice in human suffering and loss of life.

The clever misapplication of Proverbs 4:18 effectively backfired, as it provided the architects of the No Blood doctrine with rope sufficient to hang the organization. Being convinced of their own speculation regarding the imminence of Armageddon, they became oblivious to the long range ramifications of the action. The No Blood doctrine remains unique in comparison to all other doctrinal teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Any other teaching can be rescinded or abandoned using the “new light” trump card that leadership invented for themselves. (Proverbs 4:18). However, that trump card can’t be played to rescind the No Blood doctrine. A reversal would be an admission by leadership that the doctrine was never biblical. It would open the flood gates and could lead to financial ruin.

The claim must be that our No Blood doctrine is biblical for the belief to be protected under the Constitution (First Amendment – Free exercise of religion). Yet for us to make the claim the belief is biblical, the premise must be true. If a transfusion is not eating blood, would not John 15:13 clearly allow for donating one’s blood to help his neighbor remain living:

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Donating blood does not require one to lay down his life. In fact, donating blood brings no harm to the donor whatsoever. It can mean life to the one receiving the donor’s blood or derivatives (fractions) produced from donor blood.

In Part 2 we continue with the history from 1945 to the present. We will note the subterfuge employed by the Society Leadership to attempt to defend the indefensible. We also address the premise, proving it unmistakably to be a myth.

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[i] For most of the 20th century, Witnesses referred to the organization and its leadership as “the Society”, based on a shortening of the legal name, Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society.