During pandemic, Utah Jehovah’s Witnesses adapt to first virtual convention and backyard baptisms

A young woman is pictured after her baptism as a Jehovah’s Witness in Arizona this summer with a sign showing the faith’s 2020 theme, “Always Rejoice,” in the background.
Jehovah’s Witnesses

SALT LAKE CITY — For the 25 years that Dustin Wilson and his family have lived in Utah, the annual Jehovah’s Witnesses regional convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden each summer has been a much-anticipated event.

Not only is the large gathering a chance to associate with many friends in the faith, but it’s an opportunity to study the Bible, learn from skilled teachers, witness multiple baptisms and have an overall spiritual experience.

“It’s a big deal for me,” said Wilson, an elder/minister who functions as a shepherd in his West Jordan “Central City” congregation. “It’s pretty faith-strengthening, for sure.”

Unfortunately, the denomination’s 6,000 conventions worldwide and nearly 700 in the United States — years in the making — were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. All conventions in stadiums, arenas and conference halls were canceled in April.

In Utah, more than 9,000 were expected to attend conventions at the Dee Events Center on June 26-28 in Spanish and July 3-5 in English, marking the event’s 40th year in Ogden. Five other conventions had been scheduled for St. George’s Dixie Convention Center.

Attendees listen to a speaker at the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, July 6, 2019.Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Hakeem Lubanga, of South Salt Lake, listens to a speaker during the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, July 6, 2019.Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Corey Van Buren, left, and Jesse Taylor, right, assist Boyd Braithwaite during his baptism at the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, July 6, 2019. Braithwaite, of Myton, turned 81 the day before.Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
A young man is baptized at the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, July 6, 2019.Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Attendees take notes at the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, July 6, 2019.Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Jesse Taylor, left, and Corey Van Buren, right, assist Sobe Barber, 11, of Rock Springs, Wyo., during her baptism at the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, July 6, 2019.Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Family members and others crowd around to watch a boy get baptized at the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, July 6, 2019.Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

One weekend in July 2019, about 4,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses gathered in Ogden for the faith’s global convention.

In place of the conventions, organizers adapted to create the faith’s first virtual global convention, streaming presentations and making other content available on weekends from July 11 to Aug. 30 on its website, JW.org.

The theme of “Always Rejoice,” taken from Philippians 4:4, was chosen five years ago but now seems appropriate, given the challenges of 2020, said Bryce Hemmelgarn, a national spokesman for the faith who lives in New York.

“The theme has proven to be very timely,” Hemmelgarn said. “Our message today are the reasons we have for being joyful despite the pandemic. Coupled with that is the outreach of Jehovah’s Witnesses to get this into the homes of as many people as possible.”

The Wilson family has joined millions worldwide in streaming from their West Jordan home, along with 5,000 Utah Witnesses in 63 congregations across the state.

“We’ve missed a lot of association and what we were getting before, but the upside is we can have safety, not endanger others, and we’re getting the same amount of spiritual strength, maybe even more,” said Atticus Wilson, Dustin’s 14-year-old son.

Along with a new digital platform for religious instruction, the Jehovah’s Witnesses discontinued for the time being its large public baptisms, a highlight of each regional convention. Last year 300,000 joined the faith worldwide during regional conventions and other smaller conventions, said Jamie Dunjey, a regional media spokesman.

This year the denomination is allowing the use of backyard pools, lakes and other appropriate locations with small gatherings. During the first weekend of August, 46 new Witnesses were baptized in Utah, including Atticus Wilson, said Michael Overholt, a Salt Lake City media host.

Dustin Wilson, right, and his son Atticus Wilson enter a backyard pool for the young man’s baptism as Jehovah’s Witness on Aug. 2, 2020. Frankie Wellmen, left, a member of the Wilson’s congregation, is also in the pool.
Michael Overholt

“It was definitely special,” the young man said of his backyard service.

Having his father perform the rite made the experience more meaningful. That would not have happened at a regional convention.

“I don’t know what strings I would have had to pull to be the guy in the pool with him at the Dee Events Center, so it was really a privilege that I never expected to have,” Dustin Wilson said. “For our family to be there, along with the other Witnesses from our congregation watching on Zoom ... it was an amazing privilege.”

Dustin Wilson said the backyard baptismal service came at a pivotal time for his family. Along with navigating the pandemic, there was a death in the family. The service, along with the online spiritual instruction, has made a difference for the Wilson family.

“It was a huge boost to us,” he said. “The tears just flow because it’s a huge pressure release to be able to be getting all that good spiritual information, and the baptism was amazing. I think we’re still flying high from it.”

A young man in Arizona prepares for his baptism as a Jehovah’s Witness earlier this summer.Jehovah’s Witnesses
A young man in Arizona enters the water for his baptism as a Jehovah’s Witness earlier this summer.Jehovah’s Witnesses
A young man in Arizona emerges from the water during his baptism as a Jehovah’s Witness earlier this summer.Jehovah’s Witnesses
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