Becoming Accountable: Jehovah's Witnesses and the responsibilities of evangelism

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For Jehovah’s Witnesses, evangelism is of prime importance. It forms the core of their identity and is shaped by an ethics of communication. Witness evangelism is a fundamentally pedagogical process through which one “learns the truth” by studying the Bible with a Witness. In this thesis I describe Witnesses’ evangelism in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan by exploring the way they conceptualize “preaching and teaching” as a process that “makes disciples,” from the moment of first contact with a person to their baptism. The process of making disciples and becoming a disciple is, ultimately, a process of becoming accountable to Jehovah God. I detail the responsibilities Witnesses understand themselves as having in evangelism, and the way they imagine preaching and teaching to be about getting others to take those responsibilities as well.

The arc of this thesis explores these responsibilities by: laying out how Witnesses organize their preaching according to the “local needs” of a specific place; the problematics of understanding truth in the “initial call”; the roles of “Bible literature” in cultivating “interest” in “things as they really are” through “return visits”; and, the “theopolitics” of “theocratic education” as Witnesses’ students take on preaching themselves during Bible studies. This leads a person to become accountable through dedication and baptism, which I explore as the embodiment of accountability. I conclude by examining what happens to evangelism after Armageddon and what eschatology means for Witness evangelism in the here-and-now.

To draw out how Witnesses conceptualize and methodologize the process of becoming accountable to Jehovah in the chapters of this thesis, I ethnographically disaggregate “accountability” and “responsibility” in Witness ethical life to show how they differ in their temporality, their institutionalization, and the way they relate to the human subject. This allows for an analysis that can make sense of how Witnesses’ take universal moral thinking and apply it to particular social contexts.

Robbins, Joel
religion, Christianity, evangelism, proselytism, Jehovah's Witnesses, language, ethics, morality, Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, conversion
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Cambridge International Scholarship, Cambridge Commonwealth, European, and International Trust; University Fieldwork Funding, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge; Sutasoma Trust, Royal Anthropological Institute