One of the smallest faiths in the U.S., known for its conservative values and talking about the end of days, could gain a massive fortune after the death of one of its most prominent members.
Prince, the gender-bending singer famous for his sensual music and theatrics, was a devout member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While it is unclear whether he arranged a will, Prince has few living family members, leaving many to speculate that he may have left some of his estate to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The singer was worth at least $300 million, according to the online site Celebrity Net Worth, and his estate will continue getting money from royalties after his death.
There are only about 8.2 million active Jehovah’s Witnesses, in a little more than 118,000 congregations around the world, and the church spent $236 million in 2015, according to the 2016 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which annually chronicles the organization’s activities. The church has no paid clergy, and its website promotes a modest lifestyle — most of the money was spent on caring for leaders, missionaries and traveling overseers around the world.
No matter what happens with Prince’s estate, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are poised to acquire a significant fortune sooner rather than later. The church plans to sell its property in the Brooklyn borough of New York for as much as $1 billion as part of its plan to move its world headquarters to Warwick, New York, the New York Times reported this year. Church representatives declined to be interviewed for this article, but if the group were to become a beneficiary of Prince’s estate, the money would be added to the amount to be gained through the property sale and potentially change the organization’s annual budget in a drastic way.
Prince joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2001. After he died last week, many fans flagged the apparent contradiction between his deeply held religious views and his frequently sexual music. On the one hand, he was the man behind songs such as “Darling Nikki” and “Sexy MF” that were overtly seductive; on the other hand, he reportedly had few known sexual encounters in the years after he became a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The music icon gave up drugs, became a vegan and famously told the New Yorker that God was against gay marriage. “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’ ” he said. Prince later claimed those words were taken out of context, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not approve of same-sex marriage and also hold other conservative social beliefs.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses were founded as the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society by Charles Taze Russell in the 1870s. Over time, Joseph Franklin Rutherford led the group to distinguish itself from other organizations, and its members renamed themselves the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. They believe secular society has been corrupted by Satan and that the end of the world is imminent. While they worship Jesus as their savior and the son of God, they do not believe in tenets such as the trinity held by adherents of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian religions. They also do not celebrate birthdays, Christmas or Easter.
Jehovah’s Witnesses practice their religion in a fairly simple manner. The organization holds its services, called meetings, twice each week at local Kingdom Halls, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses website. These meetings are free, open to the public and function more like Bible study sessions than traditional Christian services.
“Like any organization, they have a leadership and a bureaucracy. They put out a magazine every month and an annual report,” said Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The lack of clergy allows the Jehovah’s Witnesses to avoid “professional issues” such as clerical salaries and congregation assignments with which many religions have to deal, Stark said.
Stark studied Jehovah’s Witnesses for years and said the members he met were very open to sharing information about their religious activities and practices. Many who are unfamiliar with Jehovah’s Witnesses have misconceptions about the religion, Stark said. Some have even called it a cult, and its members have often faced persecution in other countries.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably best known for the religious missionaries who go door-to-door or stand in transit hubs distributing literature about the Bible.
“I suppose the most unusual thing is that members are expected to put in a certain number of hours going around and knocking on doors,” Stark said. “You’re asked to do more than just go to church. ... But I don’t suppose there’s any more pressure to leave your money to the church than any other church.”
Prince not only attended regular meetings at the Kingdom Hall of the St. Louis Park Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses near his home in Minnesota but also was known to put in his hours knocking on doors. A Jewish couple in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, once said he showed up at their door in 2003 wanting to talk about his religion.
“My first thought is, ‘Cool, cool, cool. He wants to use my house as a set. I’m glad! Demolish the whole thing! Start over!’ ” a woman who said her name was Rochelle told the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. But then Prince began talking about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When Prince was at meetings, the Los Angeles Times reported that other Jehovah’s Witnesses treated him like any other member, not a celebrity. After his death last week, fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses remembered him as “Brother Nelson,” a “mild spirit” who participated in their meetings but never drew the spotlight to himself.
In keeping with their modest lifestyles, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not pay dues or tithes, although there are boxes in Kingdom Halls where people can make voluntary contributions. “Any donations that are forwarded to the branch offices of Jehovah’s Witnesses are used to relieve victims of natural disasters, to support our missionaries and traveling ministers, to help construct our houses of worship in developing countries, and to print and ship Bibles and other Christian publications,” the Jehovah’s Witnesses website says.
Some Jehovah’s Witnesses travel to foreign countries to spread the word about their religion, in addition to knocking on doors or soliciting in public places closer to home. But Stark said the number of these traveling ministers has likely gone down in recent years as the faith has taken root in countries around the world. Once Jehovah’s Witnesses are established in a location, they rely on locals to spread the religion, cutting the cost the central organization needs to bear in supporting people sent there.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also keep costs down by using simple houses of worship. Their Kingdom Halls are typically small buildings without much decoration, unlike Catholic cathedrals or Mormon tabernacles. While planning to sell its Brooklyn headquarters, the organization is also in the process of building its new world headquarters in upstate New York.
Other expenses are related to the regional and national conventions the Jehovah’s Witnesses hold each year, and their expansion of Jehovah’s Witnesses Broadcasting, a streaming and video on demand service that provides family-friendly programs, including music, dramatic productions and Bible readings. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses were to get a piece of Prince’s estate, the money would help the church with these expenses.
Despite some of the contrasting elements in Prince’s music and his religion, other values appear to have been an obvious match. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses list “unity” as one of their main beliefs.
“We are globally united in our beliefs. We also work hard to have no social, ethnic, racial or class divisions,” the religion’s website says, which seems to serve as a fitting description for somebody like Prince whose music was so widely appreciated around the world.