Are Jehovah's Witnesses a Cult?

It’s Not Always Undue Influence

Spend any time in anti-cult activism, and you’re sure to eventually hear the phrase “undue influence.” This is actually a legal term that means, according to this site:

“A judicially created defense to transactions that have been imposed upon weak and vulnerable persons that allows the transactions to be set aside.” 

In plainer English, you can claim “undue influence” if a person is vulnerable and was convinced to do something not in their best interest. It’s often used in the framework of estate planning, where perhaps grandma was convinced to leave more of her estate to a certain child who coerced or threatened her. Being old and frail and not in the best heath, grandma simply goes along, but another child claims she was under “undue influence” in order to contest her will.

The phrase “undue influence” is also used when talking about cults and abusive, high-control religions. Weak-minded persons are convinced to do things that are not in their best interest for the sake of the religion, and this is a common sign of a cult versus a healthy organization.

Seeing Undue Influence Firsthand 

My mother is certainly an example of undue influence; she was abused as a child, a mother as a teenager, and barely able to support herself as an adult. When the Witnesses knocked on her door in the early 1970s, she was very susceptible to their message that god was going to step in and fix everything for her, and very, very soon! (See this website for the predictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding the year 1975.) The concept of this “quick fix,” or of god taking care of things so she didn’t have to, was very appealing to my mother. She didn’t need to go through the hard work of healing mentally and emotionally from her horrific childhood, or of being a responsible adult. Instead, she only needed to “march in place,” which was a phrase she has often used to describe her life, and wait for the JW “new system” to come along and take everything away from her.

In the process, my mother was unduly influenced, or pressured by those in the religion, to stay with my abusive stepfather, to give money to the religion, to advance the religion by proselytizing versus working to make herself feel fulfilled, and by avoiding doctors and counselors who tried to help her by pointing out this undue influence. She was constantly told that her reward for doing this was right around the corner, that this was what god wanted of her, and that to suffer for the sake of the religion was something good and to be desired.


Who is controlling the puppeteer?

This influence came mostly from the elders in the religion but also from the literature produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses that encourage women to stay in such situations (see this post). My mother was a perfect patsy for such teachings, an emotionally weak individual who wasn’t able to think for herself and who was easily manipulated, controlled, and abused.

So, then, who is abusing the abusers?

It’s Not Always Undue Influence

My mother was convinced to do things that were not in her best interests, that’s obvious. However, what about those who were coercing her to do these things? How were they acting against their “best interests”?

It’s generally thought that undue influence occurs against those who are weak-minded or “susceptible to overreaching.” Undue influence is related to the concepts of dominance, duress, and high pressure methods. If this is true for those being influenced, how can it be true for those doing the influencing? If undue influence means exercising power over others, how can the concept be applied to those who are actually exercising the power themselves? Who is abusing them?

It’s easy to say that elders and other leaders in a religion are being unduly influenced by religious literature, but what about those writing the literature? Remember, too, that literature consists of words on a piece of paper. I’ve read the bible, the Koran, the Torah, and a host of other “holy” books and they don’t influence me one bit. They’re all just words, no more significant than a Harry Potter novel. There are also literally billions of people on the planet who read the same “holy” books and don’t abide by them, so it’s not like their supposed influence is automatic; this literature may influence the decisions of those who read and believe it, but something in their personalities must agree with that information, or they would be like the rest of us and just shrug it off.

inquiryYou might also argue that elders are not free from undue influence themselves, as they are told by their religion’s leaders to give up many aspects of their own life, including their free time and money. Okay, but consider what they get in return, including immediate power and control over others. Undue influence means a “grossly unfair transaction,” so how are elders or religious leaders the ones being treated unfairly in this “transaction” or relationship with the congregants? If you’re comparing the situation of cults to those of an elderly person who is coerced to change their will, of course grandma is the victim, but would you say the child who did the coercing was also under undue influence, or a victim? Would it not be more accurate, then, to refer to elders and others as a partner in the crime, an accomplice, the mafia guy out actually breaking the knees at the behest of the mafia boss?

An elder, a religious leader, a husband in an unfair relationship or downright abusive marriage isn’t acting against their best interests; they actually have their interests fulfilled in that arrangement. He or she has their needs met, whether it’s needs in a marriage or financial support by congregants or just the need for authority itself. Perhaps they do give up some free time and money, but is this simply a price they’re willing to pay for how those interests of theirs are fulfilled? What are they really giving up, what is being taken away from them in this arrangement so that you can argue that they, too, are being coerced, are acting under duress, are being dominated, are being treated unfairly, are being abused, or are being unduly influenced?

What’s Your Point?

My point is this; when anti-cult activists and others say that we need to educate people about the concept of undue influence in order to wake them up to the damage that is being done to them, I would agree, but only to a certain extent. People like my mother should understand how Jehovah’s Witnesses are just using her to forward their own interests. Counselors, doctors, therapists and others need to understand how victims of these religions and other such arrangements are coerced to stay, and that they’re often not dealing with emotionally strong people to begin with.

However, to say that undue influence is some sort of blanket explanation of cults and controlling, abusive religions is very shortsighted, in my opinion. Perhaps many in that religion are not necessarily suffering as helpless victims but are glad to have their positions, and are glad to have an outlet for their incessant need for power, for  anger, for self-expression, to feel superior to others, and to have their own selfishness fulfilled.


The man who did this was being unduly influenced by the religion? How, exactly?

It’s vital to understand this because approaching these religions as if everyone inside is a victim is going to be futile. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I never met an elder, overseer, or anyone in such a position of authority who was bewildered and delicate, to be pitied and handled with kid gloves. On the other hand, stories abound of elders who have outright said that it was “their congregation” they were managing, and who have no issue with bellowing orders, demanding obedience, and even being downright abusive to congregants. The man who molested my friend Bo Juel was one such elder; in his book, “The Least of God’s Priorities,” Bo tells of how the man would interrupt a meeting to demand parents remove a child from the auditorium. This was the same elder who was habitually raping and molesting little children in that congregation, and who got away with it repeatedly. How, indeed, was this monster a poor pitiful victim of undue influence by the religion?

If those in power, those who are wielding this undue influence, are not victims themselves, why treat them as such? Not recognizing their true nature may be one reason why the Watchtower still stands.

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5 replies »

  1. This made me think a lot, Alexandra and, although I’d always considered myself as being strong minded, and someone who could tell when something wasn’t right, I realised that I, too, was emotionally vulnerable when the JW’s started visiting me, and they used that vulnerability to persuade me that joining them would be in my best interest, and would help me out of my situation in the end (I had just been diagnosed with an incurable illness).
    My hubby (who never did join), tells me that I became a totally different woman after I was baptised – one he didn’t recognise, and one he wouldn’t have married had we met then.
    I’m just so glad that I woke up and left this cult – and the instant shunning of both myself, and my hubby, shows me it truly was the right thing to do 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing this perspective Alexandra. For the reasons you outlined, I have not seen myself as a victim. I enjoyed the popularity and prestige that went along with responsibility in the congregation. I craved attention for various reasons that I understand today, and I received plenty of it when I was a Witness.

  3. My husband becoming an elder is why we left the organization. It made him sick. He liked giving talks, but when he saw the judicial process from that side of the table, he couldn’t handle it. He went into a deep depression. Quitting the organization was the only thing that made it better. Before we quit he contacted an elder friend that told him the he also had been depressed and even contemplated suicide because of the stress and doubts. His friend is still in the organization. Elders suffer, too. That’s all I’m saying. It may not be undue influence, but it’s evil.

  4. Alexandra, I am sorry to hear about your childhood story and Bo Juel’s. I have never heard of the charge of “undue influence”
    but after reading what it is, I think that might be what happened to me. I definitely was vulnerable. I don’t have much as far as money, etc. My spouse died 20 years ago. I have no friends, but yet they were able to befriend me. I think the reason I studied for over 3 years is because I was hesitant to go any farther than studying. I can’t tell you how many times they invited me to meetings, but I didn’t want to go. I told them I was a recluse thinking they would stop asking. But the one sister who was teaching me insisted on giving me a tour of the brand new KH about a mile from my house in the middle of the week one afternoon when no one would be there. They explained how a meeting was conducted and the answering of questions and how they would put on presentations. Well, I told them I couldn’t do those things as I was timid in large groups. Even after I was baptized, they teased me about how they finally got me to go to a meeting, kicking and screaming! (of course, I wasn’t really kicking and screaming). The strange part was after I went to meetings a couple of times, I enjoyed them. I never did do any presentations but every once in awhile I would answer a question. People were so nice to me and I learned so much about the Bible, which is something I always wanted to do but didn’t want to join a church. I told my teachers straight out that I didn’t have money and that was one of the reasons I didn’t want to join a church. They said Oh that’s alright, no collection plate is ever passed. Well, some of the elders, one in particular, for whatever reason did not like me. I never was told why. Not unless they were watching me pass the money boxes without putting anything in. I do not have a business which I noticed a lot of people did. So I had nothing to offer there. After a while, I noticed if I asked for a book ( for example the daily text book) they didn’t have it. The one elder started to make an example out of me in front of everyone. One morning I went in to go out on service and the “rude elder” was the elder who was taking us out. I was there for maybe 5 minutes and I started to cry silently, ran out of there saying I didn’t feel good because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t control my tears. Right from the start I was very honest with them so they had no reason to invite me if they really didn’t think I was JW material. I didn’t want to join in the first place. One more thing I want to mention is the “rude elder” was not there at the beginning. He came months later. Thanks for listening Alexandra

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