Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t “go to church;” they attend meetings at a “Kingdom Hall.” Unlike most traditional churches, Kingdom Halls do not have altars or Christian crosses (even though the JWs are “Christian”). You won’t find religious icons, paintings, or statues of Jesus, Mary, or any saints. Nor will you won’t find an orchestra pit or an area for a choir to sit. In fact, most Kingdom Halls won’t have an organ or even a piano.
Kingdom Halls are never named or memorialized after anyone – even if someone donated the land and building.
My very first visit to a Kingdom Hall was in the fall of 1951. My family lived in West Los Angeles in a small rented home on South Bundy Drive. We’d only been studying for about a month when my mother and I went to our first meeting at the Venice Kingdom Hall. At that time it was located in a rented store front just a couple of miles west of our home.
We’d only been there a couple of times before we had to transfer to the “Mar Vista Congregation,” also in a small rented store just a few miles south of our home. Even though the Venice Kingdom Hall was closer to our home, this change was forced upon us because we were told that we “lived on the wrong side of the street that was the dividing line.”
In early 1953, just before we left to go to the International Convention in New York City, we moved back to our family home in Riverside, California. Because we lived near downtown in the “University District,” we were assigned to the Riverside Central Kingdom Hall, then at the corner of 5th and Park Ave. It had been a Pentecostal church at one time and the local congregation purchased it from the owners with a loan from one of the wealthier brothers. They maintained the hall and made payments to the brother by using local donations from the members.
Once a month, near the end of the Thursday night Service Meeting, the Congregation Servant would read the Kingdom Hall’s Financial Report. (This was typical for all congregations during that era.) The report would account for all money taken in for literature, from the donation boxes, from private contributions, and from interest earned on bank accounts. We then heard a complete listing of all expenses: utilities, cleaning supplies, fire insurance, literature purchased from the Watchtower Society, reimbursed expenses, and money set aside for reserves. One of the items reported was the payment on the remaining Note on the Kingdom Hall.
I remember the night that we heard that we’d paid off the mortgage note! Everyone in the Hall stood up, clapped, and hugged each other. I remember that the Congregation Servant, Brother Ted Rogers, gave us all a big smile and then choked up before giving the last prayer for that evening. “Jehovah — thank you for blessing this congregation and for giving us the ability to pay off the mortgage on this, Your Kingdom Hall. Now, thanks to your blessings upon us, we will have more funds to upgrade and improve this Hall to further glorify your name!”
And that’s exactly what the congregation did! The building got a new roof, new exterior doors, and new paint inside and out. We got a fancy new podium and microphone system. We returned the borrowed upright piano we’d used and replaced it with a nice “baby grand” that fit perfectly in a space up near the stage. The front concrete steps were recast and fitted with curved metal handrails. The parking lot was resurfaced with a couple of loads of new pea gravel.
We paid for this using our own donations, even though we never passed a plate, no one was ever coerced or solicited, and we borrowed nothing. We still had money left over to support our Circuit and District Servants — and for circuit assembly funds. At the end of each year, the members of the Kingdom Hall voted on a motion to send some of our reserves to the Society’s Bethel Headquarters for use in the “worldwide preaching work.”
As far as we knew then, we (the local Jehovah’s Witnesses) owned the Kingdom Hall and had full responsibility for it. We were OK with that. It just seemed right. When it was necessary to build a new Hall in the city due to overcrowding, several Kingdom Halls in the area gave from their reserves for the down payment. A small loan was arranged to complete the transaction; these loans were typically arranged, funded, or guaranteed by one of the wealthier local brothers.
In 1958, during the huge International Convention in New York, the Society introduced the concept of “moving to where the need was greater.” Hundreds of Jehovah’s Witness families and individuals quit their jobs and sold their homes, taking those major steps in obedience to the direction given them by the Watchtower Society. They would relocate to less populated areas in the United States and Canada to set up congregations and new Kingdom Halls.
In some areas there were no Jehovah’s Witnesses at all. In others, maybe only a few widely scattered families. If there were no baptized brothers to take the lead, mature sisters had to conduct Watchtower and book studies for those who were there — supervised by Congregation Servants in larger nearby cities.
The goal was to establish recognizable Kingdom Halls within a relatively short driving distance from any town in North America. My parents and siblings went first to central Nebraska, and then later to a remote area of Arkansas to help in this work.
In almost every case, setting up a Kingdom Hall was the responsibility of the local Witnesses. Initially, “Kingdom Halls” could be someone’s dining room, a basement, or a garage. But the Society discouraged the use of private homes if empty stores in downtown areas could be rented cheaply, using folding chairs and a makeshift podium set up to create a meeting hall. As was often the case, only a small printed sign in a window with the words “Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses” would mark the place as being a “church.”
There was no Internet in those days, and few Kingdom Halls could afford a telephone, so finding a local Hall to attend a meeting by looking in a phone book was often impossible. In the southern United States during the 1950s, 60s, and even into the 70s, local “Jim Crow” laws would not allow blacks and whites to meet together — requiring two or more smaller halls — rather than one serving all the brothers.
Excepting rented buildings and store fronts, prior to 1980 almost all Kingdom Halls were financed, maintained, and owned by the membership and managed by the local Congregation Servant or a committee of elders.
That’s who owned Kingdom Halls before major changes were decreed by the Organization in the 1970s and 80s. But that arrangement changed during the early 1980s – creating both opportunity and trouble for local congregations.
A well presented video documentary of Kingdom Hall construction in the past . . .
This is typical of how Kingdom Halls are being built now . . .