Among the unforeseen ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: the disruption of unannounced home visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses. The denomination, famous for these visits—as well as for carts stocked with religious literature on busy city streets—suspended all in-person outreach on March 20, 2020.
Since then, instead of knocking on doors, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been mailing letters.
“We hope this letter finds you and your loved ones are doing okay during the Pandemic,” one such letter begins. “Because of this situation, all Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the world have indefinitely suspended any form of our public ministry out of concern for the safety of ourselves and fellow mankind including, of course, our neighbors [...] Instead we are letter writing to share what we believe is good news for mankind.”
An online search for Jehovah’s Witness letters reveals bewildered Reddit threads asking if anyone else had gotten a letter from their local Jehovah’s Witnesses (and how they’re obtaining people’s addresses), a Medium post about the lessons that marketers and content creators can take from the letters, and local news stories about residents’ reactions to them. The search also turns up letter templates for Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves—for free on Pinterest, and for sale on Amazon.
Often, the letters are accompanied by a tract titled “Will Suffering Ever End?” Like other Jehovah’s Witness tracts, it presents the problem and a potential solution in a simple, matter-of-fact way, using quotes from both the Old and New Testaments to support their view.
Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said that even before the pandemic, during door-to-door visits, ministers typically presented interested individuals with a menu of tracts to direct the conversation. He says suffering was overwhelmingly the topic that garnered the most interest.
Why is it so important for Jehovah’s Witnesses to continue their outreach even as they suspend their door-to-door evangelization?
“We are ministers,” Hendriks said. “Each of us.”
They root this belief in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, as well as the book of Acts of the Apostles, a chronicle of Christ’s followers’ exploits after his death. Jehovah’s Witnesses say they are simply following Christ’s exhortation to his disciples in the book of Matthew to “make disciples of peoples of all nations,” drawing on his command even to go to people’s homes. It’s a practice the early Christians appear to have continued after Christ’s death, as the book of Acts also describes them going house to house to evangelize.
The home visitors and people staffing the street-side carts are volunteers, and their work is perhaps best thought of as a logical extension of a denomination in which, according to Hendriks, “worship is the most important thing in our lives,” and a Jehovah’s Witness ministry—approaching others to share their faith—is itself considered a form of worship.
It’s why they attend church twice a week, with a midweek meeting that includes time devoted specifically to training on how to speak about their faith. Hendriks said these sessions typically boast 100% attendance—in fact, more than 100% since switching to virtual sessions during the pandemic, he said, attributing the surplus to the presence of visitors.
The denomination has been preaching in a structured way since around 1919, Hendriks said, an approach he described as becoming increasingly organized over the course of the 20th century, growing today to 120,000 congregations in 240 countries, with 13,000 in the United States.
“The sun doesn’t set on Jehovah’s Witness preaching,” Hendriks said. According to his description, each congregation is assigned a specific territory, responsible for reaching every soul in one or maybe two towns, or in bigger cities, a single city block.
A small group of volunteers from a Jehovah’s Witness congregation will meet in the morning, head to a given area, and fan out to begin their door-to-door ministry. “A neighbor knocking on a neighbor’s door,” Hendriks said. “It is really the best way to reach people.”
COVID-19 posed a threat that Jehovah’s Witnesses typically only face from authoritarian governments: the cessation of their public preaching ministry.
“Jesus told us to go out and preach, and now we couldn’t do it because we felt that it wasn’t in line with our message,” said Hendriks. “We tell our neighbors we love them, and we knock on their door during a pandemic? It just didn’t align.”
Members of the denomination fell back on their training, which since the 1930s has included techniques for letter-writing and phone calls. Intended to reach people who weren’t at home when Jehovah’s Witnesses came by, as an alternative to home visits during inclement weather, or for the homebound or elderly who were unable to perform public or house-to-house ministry, these previously niche and seemingly anachronistic practices within the denomination showed promise for the challenges of 2020.
This revival of phone calls and letters is complemented by virtual Bible studies and streaming of their annual observance, the denomination’s only holiday. While there are 1.3 million members of the denomination in the U.S., Hendriks said 2 million people attended the 2020 virtual annual observance.
He said this combination of old and new methods has proved “extremely successful,” precisely because it is outside the norm for most 21st-century Americans. During a disorienting, isolating, and uncertain time, he believes people have been receptive to the concept of a phone call from a neighbor with a message of comfort and a listening ear.
There’s a stark logic behind the practice.
“The gospels are very clear in how the first-century Christian congregation carried out its ministry,” Hendriks said. “There’s no mistake. It’s not ‘talk to people when you can.’ It’s ‘this is what we do.’ And so as Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is what we do.”
Lifelong Jehovah’s Witness Janice Garner would be inclined to agree.
Calling herself “basically a shy person,” she said that just as going door-to-door was something she had to become accustomed to as she grew up in the denomination, switching suddenly to calling and writing strangers was an “extremely difficult” adjustment that became easier with time.
“Even though I don’t know the person knocking on their door, either, I get to see them face to face,” she said over the phone from Harlem. So she developed a personal approach to facilitate the letter-writing process. “I started writing letters the way I like to receive letters: carefully greeting the person, introducing myself, and then saying the purpose of why I’m writing.”
One of Garner’s early letters reached a young woman named Marisol, who had been hard-hit by the pandemic on a variety of fronts. Suspicious of Jehovah’s Witnesses and mistrustful of religion in general, Garner said Marisol’s guiding principle was living “for today.” Initially thinking the pandemic and its effects would last only a few weeks, as the reality set in, Marisol found herself struggling.
According to Garner, Marisol’s initial reaction to her letter wasn’t exactly appreciative. “She was extremely annoyed,” Garner said. “She thought, ‘How dare you write me and you don’t even know me? Where did you get my information?’” (Garner said she receives the contact information from her territory from a field service overseer, and that the information is publicly listed.)
Resolved to write back that very day a letter that “would not have been nice at all,” Marisol put Garner’s letter on her nightstand before getting sidetracked, not realizing the letter had fallen behind the table.
Months later, when Marisol later told Garner she was “so blue she was black in depression,” she discovered the letter while cleaning. Rereading the letter, Marisol “said that she literally cried,” Garner said. “She said that she could read my smile, and that the scriptures that I had used were very comforting.” (Garner says she quoted James 1:13, 2 Chronicles 6:29-30, and Revelation 21:4-5)
Marisol wrote Garner back. Having sent the letter in early spring, Garner said she received a reply on Dec. 7, 2020.
A phone call followed, and today, Marisol is a Jehovah’s Witness and a home-Bible-study student through Zoom. “It’s a relationship between the two of us where I’m teaching her and she’s learning,” said Garner, “and she’s also teaching me.”
A Jehovah’s Witness baptized in 1975, Garner said that her experience with Marisol is teaching her patience: “The work we’re doing is not in vain, because we’re actually reaching people and helping them.”
If the mark of a successful enterprise is the kinds of enemies it attracts, the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world would seem to indicate that their approach is effective enough to make powerful leaders nervous. According to Hendriks, the year before the pandemic, 300,000 people around the world were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The first year of the pandemic, he said that number dipped only slightly, with 240,000 new members added. Hendriks said attendance has been up and sustained, with what he calls “new peaks” in participation in its ministry. “We have continued to grow as an organization and we have not stopped.”
He said “people are genuinely impressed” when Jehovah’s Witnesses share with them “what happens to be the most important thing in our lives.” Asserting that “many hundreds of thousands” of people are now studying the Gospels with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hendriks said that for many it is “the first time they have something in their life that is guiding them.”
Those guiding standards are simple: to love God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Hendriks said these are two universal principles, and he believes they have made Jehovah’s Witnesses’ communities better, as well as making their individual members better neighbors, family members, coworkers, and friends. “We only do this,” Hendriks said, “because we believe that reaching people and teaching them Bible standards will actually make them live their lives better.”
“I love it, I love talking to people. It’s a conversation,” Garner said about her door-to-door work as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Paradoxically, in an era defined by a lack of connection in nearly every sense of the word, what sets Jehovah’s Witnesses apart is their stubborn insistence on reaching out to their neighbors, one letter or phone call at a time.
This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.