Thursday, July 7, 2016

Prince, fame, and religious controversy


It’s been a couple weeks since we learned the tragic news of the death of a truly great performer, a pioneer in bringing soul and R&B music to mainstream. I read several news articles about his death, but I could find no mention of his religion. I’m speaking, of course, of the singer who had a #1 hit with “Me and Mrs. Jones”, Billy Paul.

I’m sure no one appreciates my being facetious about the news of anyone’s death, but seriously… Why has nearly every news story about the untimely death of music icon Prince breathlessly pointed out that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Why should it matter to anyone what religion he was?
David Bowie, in an interview years ago described himself as “not quite an atheist.” After he was diagnosed with cancer last year he began ‘searching for God,’ in his words, but few of the news articles about his recent death mentioned his religion, if he had one. The obituary of Glenn Frey, who also passed away recently, talked a lot about money and drugs but said nothing about his religious affiliation.
Perhaps Prince’s religion is newsworthy because of its relative rarity. According to Pew surveys, Jehovah’s Witnesses make up roughly 1 percent of the U.S. population. Similarly, the religion of John Travolta and Tom Cruise would probably never be mentioned if they were Presbyterians or Methodists. But Scientology isn’t just rare, it’s also controversial. It was that same “oddball” quotient that made it a headline when George Harrison switched from Catholic to Hare Krishna.
A celebrity being a Mormon is apparently newsworthy as well. When Mitt Romney was running for president his Mormonism was a frequent talking point – people wondered whether his religious beliefs would color his political decisions. When Donny Osmond was an 18-year-old superstar making megabucks (10% of which went to the Mormon church, of course) his church’s doctrine stated very clearly: “The General Authorities expect all able young men to serve missions…” However, in Donny’s case, he says,
Hmmm. More $omething…
For being a minority, Jehovah’s Witnesses have had their share of celebrities before Prince. One of the earliest was Theresa Graves. Starting as a bikini-clad go-go dancer on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, she went on to become the first black female lead in a TV drama, Get Christie Love, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. While it started as a ratings smash, it was cancelled after one year because Graves had begun studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and developed conscientious objections to acting in scenes that depicted drug use, immorality, and excessive violence – the three mainstays of police dramas. Graves never looked back; she abandoned show business and spent the rest of her life focused on her ministry.
The list of celebrity Witnesses also includes musicians Larry Graham and George Benson, model Coco Rocha, and several professional athletes.
What many news stories of this type get wrong is including names of individuals who are no longer Jehovah’s Witnesses. Earlier I mentioned George Harrison’s conversion from Catholic to Krishna but in fact, I don’t know that he ever left the Catholic Church – they wouldn’t have cancelled his membership just because of his joining a mystical eastern religion. (Wouldn’t it be hypocritical, anyway, considering that many of their customs, such as the rosary, originate with mystical eastern religions?) According to the Church, in fact, a person never leaves; even if they write a letter asking to be removed from Church rolls.
But with Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s a different story. Their name is a verb. No one is born into the religion. A person who qualifies to be baptized into that faith is expected to witness; that is, by their words and actions, to advance the message about the coming of God’s kingdom. Someone who stops witnessing may for a time still be considered a Witness though inactive; but a person who chooses a life course out of harmony with those Bible teachings that he agreed to when he got baptized is considered by other Witnesses to have stopped being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. 
So lists of “Famous Jehovah’s Witnesses” that include celebrities who were perhaps only raised by Witness parents – Like President Eisenhower or rapper Ja Rule – are inaccurate. Likewise those lists should not include people who used to be Jehovah’s Witnesses but no longer are – a concept Catholics, among others, struggle with. (I had a Catholic tell me once, with a straight face, that a person could no more stop being Catholic than he could stop being Italian…)
Another reason Prince’s religion is mentioned in all those news stories is the dichotomy between the Witnesses strict moral standards and the aggressively sexual lyrics of songs he wrote before joining the Witnesses. 
But one huge message in the Bible is that people can change, and apparently Prince did so. He stopped performing his former raunchy material. He preached from door-to-door and qualified to identify himself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses when he did so.
The Prince news stories have also been filled with a lot of incorrect information about the Jehovah’s Witness faith:
  • Prince couldn’t have an operation he needed because of his faith. False. Jehovah’s Witnesses take the Bible’s proscription of blood seriously but in doing so, have actually pushed doctors to come up with better medicine, including bloodless hip replacement surgery. (See my earlier series called Advances in Blood Medicine)
  • Prince believed he could heal himself by prayer rather than medicine. False, see above. There are religions that claim to practice “faith-healing” but Jehovah’s Witnesses do not. Jesus clearly said that sick people, “need a doctor.” (Matthew 9:12)
  • Prince had to be cremated within 5 days because of his faith. False. There is no such teaching in the Bible, nor is it part of the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The only teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding funerals is that they should avoid spiritism, such as customs arising from the (false) belief that the dead are still conscious somewhere and need to be appeased. “The living know that they will die, but the dead don't know anything.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
  • Prince was “prohibited by the church” from talking about his charitable contributions. False. The Bible says: "When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do…” (Matthew 6:2) Prince apparently followed that advice, not because his church said so, but because the Bible says so. And it’s just common sense.
  • Did Prince leave millions to his church? Who knows? So far, no will has been found. Since tithing is not a Christian requirement, he didn’t owe them anything. Unlike the pastor who is suing a lottery winner in his flock who failed to share, Jehovah’s Witnesses will not be involved in any legal shenanigans to try to take any of Prince’s money.
  • Prince’s religion didn’t allow him to eat meat. Wrong. That’s Seventh Day Adventists. In Genesis 9:3 God tells Noah, after the flood, “Every living and moving thing will be food for you; I give them all to you as before I gave you all green things.” If Prince was vegetarian, it was a personal decision, not a religious belief.
(For a full discussion of what Jehovah's Witnesses believe and don't believe, go to
As long as Prince stays in the news, his religion will as well, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing. One Facebook commenter this week perhaps explained it best: “For any who may have concluded that only the ignorant and naive would be a JW and go ‘preaching’: I dare anyone to call Prince ignorant and naive.” I have to agree.

Please feel free to leave a comment.

Bill K. Underwood is a columnist and author of several books. You can support this website by purchasing one of his books at

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