Ethnicity Online

Cultural Awareness in Healthcare

Jehovah's Witnesses

This section on Jehovah's Witnesses is subdivided into:

introduction to jehovah's witnesses

In 1869, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Charles Taze Russell began a Bible study that led to the movement that later (in 1931) became known as the Jehovah's Witnesses. He was brought up as a Presbyterian, but joined a Congregational Church at the age of fifteen. By seventeen, he had become a skeptic who was very unhappy about the interpretations of the Bible that he had encountered. However, he joined a Second Adventist Bible study, which helped to re-establish his faith and led to him starting up his own group and eventually publishing his own influential periodical, 'Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence' (from 1897). 'The Watch Tower' has become the most widely distributed religious magazine in the world.

Jehovah's Witnesses consider their religion to be a restoration of original first-century Christianity. They accept both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as inspired by God. They do not, however, use the symbol of the cross because they believe it to be of pagan origin.

Jehovah's Witnesses meet up to five times a week in their local Kingdom Hall (i.e. large meeting place of Jehovah's Witnesses; also known as Assembly Hall in some countries) or in private homes. Jehovah's Witnesses claim to have over 6 million active members worldwide, and that over 15 million people attend their meetings. There are thought to be ~150,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the UK and Ireland.

beliefs and practices

Jehovah's Witnesses believe in one god (known as Jehovah), a spiritual being with a non-human body who created and controls everything. They believe that Jehovah created Christ, his human son, to redeem mankind from sin and death, and resurrected him to be our lord and saviour, but not an equal to God. They do not believe in the Trinity.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that man is born with sin because of the disobedience Adam and Eve showed towards God. They believe that Satan, an enemy of God who afflicts pain and sorrow, is an active force, and responsible for the world's many problems. Witnesses do not get involved in politics, take part in military activities or salute a nation's flag because they believe that nationalism is a temptation set by Satan to lead people astray. Satan's temptations can be resisted by learning about God. Salvation can be achieved only by fulfilling all of God's requirements.

The commands of God in the Bible are very important and Jehovah's Witnesses try to live their lives by them, exhibiting a high degree of commitment to their religion. Jehovah's Witnesses are well known for sharing their faith with others: 'witnessing' is a fundamental part of their lives.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe in Armageddon, the holy war between Christ and his forces and Satan and his forces in which the world will be destroyed. They believe it to be imminent and have so far predicted its start on five different dates, all of which have passed without event. They admitted the error of these prophecies, but such failure has not escaped the attention of the world, and Jehovah's Witnesses are one of the most criticised religious groups in today's society.

The family is extremely important to Witnesses, and the father is seen as the head of the family. Men also lead the congregation, but the importance of the role of women is recognised. Witnesses tend not to socialise with outsiders, but when this does occur, for example at work or school, they may exploit the opportunity to carry out informal 'witnessing', starting conversations about their beliefs.

Witnesses are generally law-abiding, providing that the law does not clash with their beliefs.


Jehovah's Witnesses worship in Kingdom Halls as many as five times a week, and at very large gatherings three times a year in Assembly Halls or other large venues. Because all Jehovah's Witnesses are committed to spreading the faith, there are no appointed clergy; instead, Elders or Overseers lead the congregation voluntarily. There is no church organisation as such.

In hospital, Jehovah's Witnesses are likely to prefer to pray in private with the curtains drawn around their bed. They may also wish to listen to taped recordings of congregational prayer meetings.

healthcare-related issues

This subsection contains an alphabetic listing of specific healthcare-related information and advice for Jehovah's Witnesses.


Jehovah's Witnesses are baptised by complete immersion in water. This does not usually take place before the age of twelve because it is necessary for a child to understand fully the implications and responsibilities that baptism carries before being committed to it.

blood transfusions and other blood-related issues

Jehovah's Witnesses are totally opposed to taking blood or blood products into the body because the Bible refers to blood as 'the soul of the flesh' and forbids the consumption of it. This has often led to Jehovah's Witnesses being seen in a very unsympathetic light, particularly when they withhold consent for life-saving operations on their children.

They will usually co-operate with healthcare staff to find alternative treatments. In fact, they are very proactive and have formed an international network of Hospital Liaison Committees to encourage the consideration of what alternatives are available and the enlistment of medical staff who are willing to perform 'bloodless surgery', etc. Bloodless surgery does not involve the use of blood or blood products.

In the case of some modern treatments, biblical guidance leaves room for interpretation, and individual Witnesses are left to make their own choices. Bone marrow transplants may be acceptable to some individuals, as may be albumin, immune globulin or clotting factors.

Because blood represents life to Jehovah's Witnesses, it must be handled with respect and not stored or reused. This is most important when their blood is taken for testing. Dialysis may be acceptable to some individuals providing that they are confident that only their own blood is involved and that the extra-corporeal circulation is continuous within the body circulation.

A group of Witnesses, the Associated Jehovah's Witnesses for Reform on Blood, is attempting to clarify and reform the religion's position on blood and blood products.


Preventative contraception is acceptable to Jehovah's Witnesses, but not the 'morning-after pill' or any method that effectively terminates a pregnancy.

death and dying

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that, in the years since 1914 when Christ returned invisibly to the earth, some faithful Christians have ascended to heaven to be with Christ and help him to rule over the earth. They believe the number of places available in heaven is restricted to 144,000. Apart from these chosen few, sometimes referred to as the 'little flock' or 'great crowd', people and their souls cease to exist after death.

Although no particular rites and rituals are associated with death and dying, a dying Witness patient may appreciate a visit from one of the Elders of their faith. They may be distressed or disappointed at the prospect of dying before Armageddon.

Individual Witnesses can choose to be buried or cremated.

diet, drugs and alcohol

The issue of blood is also relevant when it comes to diet: anything that contains blood or blood products is unacceptable, as is meat from an animal that has been strangled, or shot and not bled properly. In fact, some Jehovah's Witnesses do not eat meat at all.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that tobacco and other recreational drugs are incompatible with Christian principles. They are allowed to drink alcohol but do not condone drunkenness.


Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays and holidays, with the exception of the anniversary of the death of Christ, the date of which varies from one year to the next. They believe that holidays originate from false religions and that God strongly disapproves of them. Although wishing a Witness 'Happy Birthday' or 'Merry Christmas' is likely to cause offence, they do respect the right of others to celebrate holidays.


Homosexual activities are seen as a serious violation of the teachings of the Bible, and any Witness found to be involved in them would be 'disfellowshipped' (i.e. expelled from the church) unless they could show that they had ceased such activities and repented. However, Witnesses do acknowledge that some people are prone to homosexuality and try not to show hatred towards them.

hospital liaison committees

The governing body of Jehovah's Witnesses has formed an international network of Hospital Liaison Committees in an effort to clarify their specific medical requirements and to enrol surgical and medical staff who are willing to carry out 'bloodless' procedures. About 40 such committees exist in major cities throughout Great Britain and Ireland, and membership includes specially trained Elders who can provide doctors with information on bloodless alternatives to specific procedures.

Staff should note that members of Jehovah's Witness Hospital Liaison Committees should not be given any information about individual patients without their approval.

Jehovah's Witness identification cards

Most Witnesses carry a special card that identifies them as such, and directs medical staff to avoid using blood or blood products in their treatment. The card also releases the hospital from responsibility regarding the consequences of such limited treatment.

organ donation and transplantation

Jehovah's Witnesses may not wish to donate their organs because someone else's blood would then flow through them. In the case of organs that do not involve blood flow, for example corneas, there would be no religious grounds on which to object to donation.

Jehovah's Witnesses currently believe in organ transplantation, although any surgery would have to be performed on a bloodless basis.

patient confidentiality

A Jehovah's Witness patient must be asked in private what information may be passed on to their family or other visitors. If another Witness found out that they had chosen to accept a forbidden blood product, for example, it would be their religious duty to report it back to the organisation as part of the effort to keep the religion 'clean'. This could have grave social implications for the patient, who may find themself 'disfellowshipped' upon their return home. In the event that such information is mistakenly divulged to another Jehovah's Witness, the patient might benefit from counselling before leaving hospital.


Jehovah's Witnesses are unlikely to object to a post-mortem being carried out because of their belief that the soul ceases to exist after death.

religious observance

On the anniversary of the death of Christ, or the Memorial as it is known, specially chosen Jehovah's Witnesses will take bread and wine, which represent Christ's body and blood. These Witnesses have been selected to join Christ in heaven. It is very unlikely that this ritual will be required to take place in hospital.

seeking medical help

Jehovah's Witnesses believe in modern medicine with the exception of the use of blood and its products, and are happy to seek medical treatment.


Some Jehovah's Witnesses may view ill health as self-inflicted, or even caused by Satan and his demons, who are allowed by God to exist to demonstrate the superiority of his rule over independent humans.

termination of pregnancy

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that human life begins at conception and do not therefore approve of termination. If the termination of a pregnancy is the only means of saving a mother's life, the choice is up to each individual. Witnesses are strictly politically neutral and do not get involved in any debates or demonstrations on this issue.


Vaccination is currently accepted by Jehovah's Witnesses, whose views on this issue have changed since World War II.

further information

  • 'Code of Practice for the Surgical Management of Jehovah's Witnesses'
    (downloadable PDF published by The Royal College of Surgeons of England)

  • 'Management of Anaesthesia for Jehovah's Witnesses (1999)'
    (downloadable PDF published by The Association of Anaesthetists; these guidelines include information on clinical management, beliefs and legal implications and also a list of Hospital Liaison Committees)

See also:


The official website of Jehovah's Witnesses includes information on their beliefs, teachings and activities, in 252 languages. It also provides a wide range of articles on health, medicine and blood.

The Ridgeway, London, NW7 1RN

jehovah's witnesses

The Jehovah's Witnesses believe the teachings of the Bible, using their own translation. Jehovah's Witnesses actively share with others information about God, whose name is Jehovah, and about his Son, Jesus Christ. However, their beliefs differ from mainstream Christian religions in several areas.

Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in the Holy Trinity, but do believe in Satan. They believe Jesus Christ was crucified on a stake not on a cross; the cross is not a significant symbol for this reason and also because symbols are not used by Witnesses during worship. Although they remember Christ's death, they do not celebrate Christmas or Easter. The imminent end of the world has always been a crucial part of the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses, who believe they will survive Armageddon, and go on to live on a paradise on earth.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe taking blood into the body through the mouth or veins violates God's law. This controversial policy extends to disallowing blood transfusions, even those involving a person's own blood, has sometimes brought the Jehovah's Witnesses into conflict with medical and legal authorities.