The world is shocked by the sudden death of Prince at the young age of 57. As we come to terms with his passing we also face a new realization: that the artist responsible for some of the most powerfully seductive songs of the 20th century died a deeply religious man. One of his generation’s greatest artists—the man responsible for songs like “Sexy MF” and “Jack U Off”—died a fervent member of a marginalized and often derided sect.
In some ways Prince was always religious. He was raised a Seventh-day Adventist and frequently attended an African-American congregation in Glendale City. He claimed as a child, and maintained until his death, that an angel had cured him of epilepsy. It was only in 2001, though, that he became a Jehovah’s Witness.
His conversion was inspired by a two-year conversation with songwriter-bassist Larry Graham (of Sly and the Family Stone fame). Prince described it more as an awakening than a conversion, likening his experience to that of Neo in The Matrix. But Prince surely behaved like a convert: his religion permeated every aspect of his life. He not only attended meetings at a local Kingdom Hall, he occasionally knocked on doors proselytizing to others. A Jewish couple in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, once reported that they found Prince on their doorstep clutching a Bible.
It was a moment that revolutionized his worldview. He gave up drugs and became vegan. Even his notorious sexuality appeared to have been subtly augmented by his conversion. He was a famous ladies’ man with a penchant for beautiful women but since separating from his wife Manuela Testolini in 2006 he was—in keeping with the beliefs of his church—a bachelor. If he engaged in the sexual conquests typical of people in his professional position, he no longer flaunted.
In what may come as a surprise to some, his music has remained devotedly sensual. But Christians are capable of writing and singing about sex. Christian artists like Britney Spears (early Britney Spears) and Jessica Simpson sang provocative lyrics even as they publicly touted the merits of sexual abstinence. And rapper Kanye West has spouted lyrics recommending threesomes over marriage to Prince William even as “Jesus Walks” is an explicit attempt to atone for his sins. Nor is Prince the only famous Jehovah’s Witness in the entertainment industry. Selena and Michael Jackson were also practitioners before their untimely deaths.
His opinions on sexuality, however, seemed to become more conservative. When asked about his perspective on social issues like gay marriage and abortion he told The New Yorker “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was ‘Enough.’” It was a quote that would come to haunt him. He repeatedly claimed that his words were taken out of context, protesting to the Los Angeles Times that he attended Bible Study with gay people. The New Yorker has stood by its comments.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged in the late 1870s out of the Bible Student movement. They were founded by Charles Taze Russell as the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society and grew to maturity under the guidance of Joseph Franklin Rutherford. In order to distinguish themselves from groups (including Russell’s original teachings) they renamed themselves the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. An apocalyptic group that believes Satan has corrupted the world and the end of the world is imminent, they reject a number of mainstream Christian beliefs like the Trinity as well as the idea that the soul is immortal. They also eschew secular practices like celebrating birthdays, Christmas, Easter, military service, and saluting national flags. All of these positions they ground in their particular reading of scripture. The name Jehovah was selected because of their (mis)translation of the Hebrew name for God.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are best known as door-to-door religious salespeople who frequent NYC subways distributing Watchtower pamphlets about the meaning of the Bible. In popular culture they are notorious for their opposition to the use of blood transfusions and blood products. They argue, based on the Hebrew Bible, that a person’s “spirit” or “life” is in their blood and that to mix one’s blood with that of another is tantamount to mixing one’s spirit with someone else’s.
It is a stance that is rarely met with sympathy. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for their failure to give blood transfusions to their children and have lost lawsuits when doctors have given them blood transfusions against their express written wishes. On this subject they rarely enjoy freedom of religious expression or the benefit of the doubt.
In the late 2000s rumors circulated that Prince’s faith was preventing him from having a much-needed hip replacement surgery. It is only a matter of time before Internet speculators connect Prince’s death with Watchtower beliefs about healthcare.
Perhaps less well known is the Jehovah’s Witness opposition to oath taking (they do not take the pledge of allegiance) and political engagement. This is something Prince took seriously. He told the Los Angeles Times that he didn’t vote for Proposition 8 (the referendum that attempted to outlaw same sex marriage) and he didn’t vote in presidential elections, either. Whatever one thinks about his position on various social issues, there’s no doubting that he was sincere.
According to Watchtower doctrine, the hope for the dead lies in the resurrection. Most people will never be resurrected, only a small subset—144,000—will be resurrected as spirit creatures who reign in the kingdom. (Others can hope that they will enjoy a later, decidedly lesser, resurrection on earth in the future). Until then they live on only in the memory of God. These are bad odds for even the most devoted member. In the case of Prince, though, at least one thing is different: he lives on in the memories of everyone.