In October of 1935, Lynn, Mass., schools expelled eight-year-old Carleton Nicholls for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. That set off nearly a decade of strife between Jehovah’s Witnesses and patriotic civic groups.
Two events led to the controversy. In 1935, the Massachusetts legislature, at the urging of fraternal organizations, passed a law requiring “each teacher shall cause the pupils under his charge to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.”
With the Great Depression continuing to make life miserable for many Americans, communism gained appeal. Traditionalists sought ways to make sure teachers didn’t influence schoolchildren to question capitalism in schools. Even though the most schools featured the pledge, the Legislature wanted all schools to recite it. James Michael Curley, then governor, gladly signed the proposal into law.
Meanwhile in Germany, Hitler persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses with increasing intensity for refusing to swear allegiance to the Nazi Party. Eventually the Third Reich would imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses in concentration camps, killing thousands of them.
In June of 1935, J.F. Rutherford, a leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was asked if the refusal to swear allegiance was limited to Germany. He declared that he believed saluting any earthly emblem was unfaithful to God, and he would not do it. Some in the church took this to mean the saluting the flag opposed church teaching.
So, while in 1934 Jehovah’s Witnesses such as Carleton Nicholls had willingly saluted the flag, everything changed in 1935.
The controversy soon spread. In Saugus, Mass., Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to say the pledge. Elsewhere around the country similar protests began to take place.
The town of Belchertown, Mass., escalated the issue further. It expelled three children from the Opielowski family for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance – Anna, 10; Sophie, 12 and Dominic, 13. Then a judge sentenced them to be locked up in reform school. He also fined their father, Ignace.
The Opielowski case became a sensation in newspapers across the country. The Daughters of the American Revolution called for the family to be deported. Some editorial writers accused the family of disloyalty. Others ridiculed the Massachusetts law as an infringement of liberty. Still others tried to hand a black eye to the Catholic Church, since Curley was Catholic and the church supported the Pledge of Allegiance laws.
The progressive media, meanwhile, snickered. While universities and colleges were yielding their principles and complying with requirements for loyalty oaths for faculty and administrators, children were willing to stand fast and go to jail for their beliefs.
Nationally, the hysteria over the Pledge of Allegiance reached a new level in 1940. The Supreme Court ruled in a Pennsylvania case that requiring students to recite the Pledge did not infringe on their liberty. Only New Hampshire’s Harlan Fiske Stone opposed the decision. He argued that forcing citizens to express beliefs that they did not hold violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
Regardless, the high court set the law, and it unleashed a wave of clashes across the country between angry citizen mobs and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They already were unpopular for their stand on the pledge and for opposing war. Two such clashes occurred in Maine.
In Kennebunk, local residents harassed a Jehovah’s Witness church and pelted it with rocks. On June 9, a group had congregated in the hall when a car stopped out front. The two men in the car would later say they stopped only to change drivers.
Inside the church, the congregants said the men threw rocks at the building. One of the Jehovah’s Witnesses inside fired a shotgun that hit the two men, slightly injuring one and more seriously injuring the other. The second man had his leg amputated.. Later that night, a crowd reportedly more than 2,000 strong torched the church.
The shooter would be convicted of assault with intent to kill. Arson charges against two men would be dropped for lack of evidence.
In August, the violence worsened in the town of North Windham, Maine. Arthur Cox, a Jehovah’s Witness from Philadelphia, was in town proselytizing. In addition to handing out the church’s trademark newsletter, The Watchtower, Cox also had a portable phonograph that he used to play a message from J.F. Rutherford.
Cox and another man visited the garage of deputy sheriff Dean Pray to play the phonograph. The offer infuriated Pray who demanded Cox leave. The deputy chased the two men into the street where Cox fired three shots from a revolver, killing Fray.
Cox was already on bail from a previous arrest for his part in a fight that broke out in Portland when someone tried to destroy church literature that Cox distributed.
Protesters converged on the Portland courthouse, tightly guarded for Cox’s trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.
In 1943, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of reversing itself, holding that the Pledge of Allegiance can’t be mandated.
This story updated in 2022.