Leah Weinryb Grohsgal
Princeton University Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
The generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library made possible my visit to the Mudd Manuscript Library and the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in 2009. I came to Princeton to examine the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union and a little-understood religious group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to expand civil liberties in America. I discovered that Jehovah’s Witnesses and the foremost civil liberties organization in the country collaborated in defending and defining religious liberty in the 1930s and 1940s. As most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own records from this period have been destroyed, the Princeton University Libraries’ preservation of these materials, and the generous research support of the Friends of the Library, were extremely valuable to my project.
My project argues that Jehovah’s Witnesses were responsible for expanding the twentieth century reach of First Amendment rights. While their contribution to civil liberties has largely been forgotten, in the 1930s and 1940s, Jehovah’s Witnesses asserted that the right to religious liberty must be broadly defined. Although unpopular, the group eventually won dozens of cases in the Supreme Court, expanding the definition of religious liberty for all groups. While scholars have described the expansion of civil liberties in secular terms, the legal transformation owed much to this religious group, working in concert with other civil liberties organizations. My dissertation aims to reintegrate religious liberty into the story of twentieth century civil liberties. By examining the converging strategies of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the ACLU, and other groups, I demonstrate that religious liberty, far from being an afterthought, was integral to this twentieth-century transformation of civil rights.
In order to understand the activism and strategic litigation utilized by Jehovah’s Witnesses and the ACLU, I examined the extensive records of the American Civil Liberties Union housed at the Mudd Manuscript Library. The correspondence contained in this collection made clear that the ACLU and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal department collaborated extensively during the 1930s and 1940s. Additionally, these materials, combined with the minutes of the New York (national) branch of the ACLU, helped to clarify the issues of civil and religious liberty being contested during these years.
In addition, I was able to look at several other collections relating to civil liberties legal activism, materials which enhanced the evidence I found in the central ACLU collections. The papers of Roger Nash Baldwin (many of which are housed separately from the main ACLU archive) and the extensive records of Peggy Lamson’s interviews with Baldwin in later years were particularly illuminating. I also found much interesting correspondence in the papers of Arthur Garfield Hays, which helped to elucidate the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Supreme Court strategy. Finally, the personal writings of these founding members of the ACLU lent clarity to my arguments regarding the priorities and strategies of the organization during its formative years.
Finally, in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, I examined the papers of Olin R. Moyle, the first head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal department. Moyle worked with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ president to initiate and implement the group’s legal strategy in the 1930s. By 1939, Moyle had participated in hundreds of cases at the state and appellate levels; he had also argued two cases for the group before the United States Supreme Court. The papers held in the Olin R. Moyle collection at Princeton provided tremendous detail about Moyle’s part in this legal strategy.
The collections held by the Princeton University Libraries enabled me to explore the connections between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the ACLU, and the part each group played in the development of organized litigation strategies to protect religious and civil liberties. The materials I examined at the Princeton Libraries represent a large portion of the archival evidence for my argument. Using the records of the ACLU and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was able better to understand the strategies and the successes of these groups in expanding civil liberties in twentieth century America. I wish to thank the Friends of the Princeton University Library for their generous support. I also wish to thank Daniel Linke, Christine Lutz, AnnaLee Pauls, and the staffs of the Mudd Library and Firestone special collections for their excellent help in navigating these collections.