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Jehovah’s Witnesses

The religious movement eventually known as Jehovah’s Witnesses originated in the late 1870s in Pittsburgh, and soon spread to West Virginia. Between 1882 and 1884, this group, then called Bible Students, mailed more than a million copies of the booklet Food for the Thinking Christian (1881). One of these reached James McClung, postmaster, justice of the peace, and pastor of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Mt. Lookout, Nicholas County. McClung accepted the booklet’s teachings and announced to his church that he understood the Bible in a ‘‘new light.’’ Eight families accepted this new teaching. Contention arose over who would use the church building, McClung’s followers or those preferring the traditional teachings of the congregation. For a period of time the first group to reach the Mt. Pleasant building had its use, but in 1890 the Bible Students built the New Light Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses recognize Mt. Lookout as the first place their movement owned a building.

In the late 1920s, Jehovah’s Witnesses from Mt. Lookout established congregations throughout central West Virginia. Congregations were founded in the northern part of the state by Witnesses from Pittsburgh. By the 2000s, there were more than 90 Jehovah’s Witness congregations throughout West Virginia.

In the mid-1930s, Jehovah’s Witnesses became the object of persecution across the United States, initially for their zeal in proselytizing and later for their refusal to salute the flag and what was seen as unpatriotic behavior as World War II approached. In the 1940s, they were violently attacked, often with the complicity of government officials, in Bluefield, Clarksburg, Follansbee, Huttonsville, Keyser, Martinsburg, Morgantown, New Martinsville, Philippi, Richwood, St. Marys, Wellsburg, and Williamson. Throughout the state Jehovah’s Witnesses’ children were expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag. In response the Witnesses established several ‘‘Kingdom Schools’’ around the state, the first in September 1941, in Clarksburg. Three Kanawha County families filed court challenges to the expulsions and won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).

Written by Chuck Smith