When I arrived at the District Convention of Jehovah's Witnesses on the morning of Friday, May 24, a dapperly dressed man named Paul Elliott met me at the "News Services" desk and asked what I would like to see first. I chewed my tongue searching for a response. I had already seen a lot. The line of cars outside stretched from the front of the Adams Center, across the Madison Street bridge, nearly to I-90. The parking lots were full. Inside the arena, the concourses teemed with peoplemore than 5,000, I would later find out. Like Elliott, all of the men wore pressed suits, while the women donned calf-length dresses. Most of the dresses, it seemed, were floral prints. Everyone was shaking hands, touching shoulders, smiling. Gangs of children weaved through the crowds.
"I'm not sure," I replied. "What do you want to show me?"
Each summer, Jehovah's Witnesses gather in arenas and convention centers across the world for three-day symposiums on the word of God, revealed in the Bible as Jehovah. In the United States this summer, more than a million witnesses, or "publishers," will attend 238 such gatherings. The program for the Missoula convention, which was the first ever in western Montana and had the theme "God's Word is Truth!", included addresses from regional church leaders, dramatic interpretations of Bible teachings and a mass baptism in which new publishers were fully submerged in a diamond-plated tank of water.
As Elliott guided me through the crowd, he explained what it means to be Jehovah's Witness. He explained that they don't believe in blood transfusions, celebrating birthdays or an afterlife.
I confessed to him that most of what I knew about the faith I had learned when a pair of witnesses had occasionally knocked on my door, and those encounters were categorically brief. He nodded expectantly.
"A lot of people think of us as the people who go around knocking on people's doors. We're the butt of a lot of jokes, but we focus on preaching," he said, and added that he became a witness in 1974 after someone knocked on his own door. "God provides the perfect government for mankind. The door knocking is what we're all about."
In this way, he added, there are no passive observers of the faith. Every member of every congregation is expected to proselytize and to spread the teachings of Jehovah to whoever is willing to listen. Mike McCormick, a retired Missoula County employee who attends services at the Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall on Reserve Street, says that he goes door knocking three or four days a week.
"You're never retired from this work," he says.
On the second day of the convention, the main event was the baptism of new publishers. I told Elliott that I was interested in watching the ceremony. He seemed to think it was a good idea. "It might be nice to focus on the youngsters," he said.
Just before noon, 20 boys and girls, seemingly between the ages of 12 and 16, and three adults, sat before a giant stage back-dropped by Parthenon-style pillars and listened to a speaker prepare them for what was to come. The speaker, an elderly publisher from Thompson Falls, told them that though Satan's path is "broad and spacious, it is a dead-end road."
"By all means, stay on the narrow way. Rely on Him," the man said.
He then instructed the young people to answer two questions loud enough so that all 5,280 publishers in attendance could hear. (Elliott later explained that witnesses do not believe in infant baptism because answering these questions is paramount).
The first question: "On the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, have you repented of your sins and dedicated yourself to Jehovah to do his will?"
All answered in unison: "Yes."
The second question: "Do you understand that your dedication and baptism identify you as one of Jehovah's Witnesses in association with God's spirit-directed organization?"
They were then led from the floor to an elevated platform behind the stage, where students sit during University of Montana basketball games. There they stood in line and waited to take their turn being submerged in the baptism pool, as the full arena looked on.
As each new baptismal candidate stepped up to the tank, parents and loved ones shouldered their way through the crowd and documented the dunking with iPhones and digital cameras. Each candidate held their nose as two men in white shirts and black pants leaned them back into the water until they were fully submerged. All of the new, young publishers resurfaced dripping and smiling, their parents fighting back tears, clapping proudly.
In 2012, the religion's Brooklyn-based governing body, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, reported to have dunked 32,039 people into baptismal tanks across America. Elliott told me there is no typical new publisher. Some of them are young, some are adults, some are grandparents, he said. All of themincluding the 23 new publishers who emerged from the baptismal waters in the Adams Centerare expected to evangelize.
I asked Elliott if his son, who was already baptized, had ever expressed doubt about his faith. Elliott said he hadn't.
"But what if he did?" I asked.
"No matter what, family is family. That will never change," he said. "But your relationship with God always comes first."