April 22nd, 2016
Seldom does the death of one individual captivate the news so completely as when a superbly talented, musically gifted, and internationally beloved icon such as Prince loses his life. What would be a routine day of reporting of the U.S. Presidential race, international conflicts, and earthquake relief work has become a media spectacle, cornering all of the major news outlets including CNN and BBC.
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the death of Prince comes with a mixed bag of emotions due to the controversial and mysterious nature of the converted JW pop star. While many Witnesses embrace the fact that such a gifted individual would accept their fundamentalist faith, other Witnesses despise his behavior and view his entire body of work as evidence of Satan’s influence in the entertainment industry.
This polarization of attitudes towards the few Jehovah’s Witnesses who have achieved worldwide fame reveals that the Watchtower organization is not really quite sure what to make of these individuals. While Scientology openly embraces and heaps accolades on its well-known celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Jehovah’s Witnesses take a more subdued approach to fame, preferring to name-drop B-rated scientists who support creationism.
There are some exceptions to this, most notably Watchtower’s 1989 life story of Larry Graham, the
man responsible for Prince’s conversion to the JW religion. Larry Graham’s life journey in becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was featured in the February 22nd 1989 issue of the Awake! magazine, published by the Watchtower organization.
While Witness publications almost never feature persons of fame, Larry Graham was an exception to this policy, primarily due to his extraordinary devotion to the faith, and the fact that he became a full-time “pioneer” minister for Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as an elder in the congregation. As a result of his evangelical nature, coupled with his connection to many prominent musicians, he was able to get the attention of Prince Rogers Nelson, or as we know him, Prince.
By the year 2001, Prince had accepted the faith of his close friend Graham, replacing his prior beliefs which included membership in the Seventh Day Adventist church. As Graham’s spiritual protegé, he publicly cast off the celebration of birthdays, voting, and embraced Jehovah’s Witnesses’ bizarre ban on life-saving blood transfusions. He even accompanied Graham in the public ministry, knocking on doors, counting his time. But make no mistake, Prince was not about to throw away the only thing which made Prince Prince, his explosive imagination, creativity and genius musical talent which could not be contained inside the stagnant four walls of a Kingdom Hall.
His career continued, mildly subdued by the religion, but never irreversibly stifled by the rigid rules of Watchtower’s invasive Governing Body. And this was in fact the reason Prince was such a controversial figure among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just as with one-time Jehovah’s Witness Michael Jackson, the musical products of Prince divided Witnesses into two camps: one which admired his music and bragged about his affiliation with the organization, and the other which labeled him as a despicable hypocrite whose sexually permissive appearance and lyrics disgraced the holy and conservative beliefs of the JW organization.
By the time Prince had become a Witness, Michael Jackson had already left the religion, but not before being coerced into a public apology for his music video Thriller, which the Awake! magazine connected with spiritism. In the May 1984 Awake! publication, Jackson was quoted as saying:
“I would never do it again”.
While Jackson died in complete disgrace among Witnesses as a disassociated member, Prince somehow managed to avoid judicial punishment and ostracism for his questionable lifestyle, as his music, associates, and actions were the polar opposite of the ultra-conservative JW beliefs.
Prince died at a terribly young age. Speculations as to the cause of his death are spreading like gangrene, and are useless in the face of the reality that we have lost yet another entertainment genius, and we won’t get him back. The intersection of his life with that of the Jehovah’s Witness religion raises many questions which might not be answered for quite some time. Until then, we can only comment on what we know, and what Prince said.
For a brilliant and thoughtful review of the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson, please view the following video produced by Lloyd Evans, senior editor for JW Survey: