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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016 08:54 am

Religious freedom in Montgomery County

 In “Get right or get out” I recalled episodes from Illinois’ recent past in which fearful Illinoisans confronted the Other. I mentioned an incident in Litchfield involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. Here are the details.

After World War II, paranoid fantasies of subversion and revolution focused on new sets of exotic newcomers. Because they put loyalty to their creator above loyalty to the state, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to salute the U.S. or any flag. Not sharing such principled fervor, many an anxious patriot in the 1940s ascribed them to sinister motives. They contrived to convince themselves that members of the sect were in fact agents of the Nazi state bent on advancing in some undescribed way a planned invasion of the U.S. by Hitler’s forces.

The Witnesses traditional proselytizing forays into new communities were met by mob violence in forty-four states during 1940. One of them was Illinois. In June of that year, some one hundred Witnesses drove to Litchfield in Montgomery County from St. Louis to distribute literature house-to-house. The men were beaten in the streets while police looked on; when women also were threatened, the county sheriff, whose chivalry apparently was more generous than his commitment to civil liberties, ordered sixty-four of the one hundred Witnesses taken to the jail for protection. A large American flag had been brought to the front of the jail; some of the male prisoners were forced to salute or kiss the flag as they entered the jail, others were brought out of the jail to do so. Those who refused had their arms twisted until they were forced to their knees. Meanwhile twelve of the cars were totally wrecked. The arrival of a company of state police from Springfield prevented worse, and the Witnesses were returned to St. Louis by bus. 

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