COLUMN: Believe it or not, Christians once persecuted for their beliefs

Sarnia is filled with churches, mosques and temples, and religious freedom is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But for one group of Christians, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society – otherwise known as Jehovah’s Witnesses – their history in Sarnia has been a difficult one.

The Witnesses have as a core belief a commitment to political neutrality, which has posed a challenge to some, especially as Sarnians honour Canadian feats of arms during the First World War, which ended 100 years ago on Nov. 11th.

The Witnesses wouldn’t fight, or stand for the national anthem – and for that reason, they were persecuted.

Banned as an “illegal organization” during the Great War, they were targeted again during the Second World War. Under the War Measures Act, which came in effect on July 4, 1940, the Witnesses were banned from distributing their Watchtower magazines and other material similarly branded as “seditious.”

The very same day the order-in-council banning their religious activities was tabled in the House of Commons, Sarnia Police took two young women off the street and brought them to police headquarters for questioning.

In 1940, the police station was located in the basement of City Hall, then located on the southeast corner of Christina and Lochiel streets.

Officers also confiscated a quantity of literature the women were carrying, as well as phonograph records and two portable record players.

The culprits, according to the Sarnia Canadian Observer, were a “blonde girl of 17 and a brunette of 23” who had arrived from Toronto.

Sarnia Police Chief W. J. Lannin personally inspected the confiscated material. Much of it defended Joseph Franklin (Judge) Rutherford, the second president of the Society, who had been jailed in the U.S. for sedition.

The two young women were given a warning and set free, but the literature and other material were not returned. Police revealed the pair had arrived in the city three days earlier from Chatham. They had also been distributing the material in that city, primarily at night, when they thought they’d attract less attention.

Chief Lannin told reporters provincial police were monitoring the group’s activities in Lambton County. He also mentioned the congregation was especially strong in Port Huron.

Despite the Witnesses’ opposition to military service, one member did gain military distinction. Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during the Second World War.

Today, Canada is home to about 115,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including a large Kingdom Hall on Murphy Road.

Got an interesting tale? Contact Phil Egan at philegan@cogeco.ca