WASILLA - The world is coming to an end sooner than you might think, say local members of Jehovah's Witnesses.
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On Friday, roughly 3,000 Alaska Jehovah's Witnesses will gather at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage for three days to talk about God's plan to save faithful members from the eminent destruction and final judgment of the world.
The gathering is one of 260 conventions across the United States and Europe, which are meant to increase overall membership while inspiring loyal followers to continue spreading their message.
Jehovah's Witnesses boast a 6.6 million worldwide fellowship. In recent years, however, membership in the United States and developed European counties has remained stagnant or dwindled. The "Deliverance at Hand" conventions are meant to reverse that trend.
"This is a worldwide effort," said event coordinator Ken Lamoreaux, a Jehovah's Witnesses elder at the Eastview Anchorage Congregation. "We have a special focus this year on inviting the public."
The public is always welcome to annual conventions, but most years Jehovah's Witnesses end up comprising most of the attendees, Lamoreaux explained. This year, Alaska Jehovah's Witnesses printed 150,000 invitations for the event. Their goal was to reach every household in the major towns and cities of Alaska.
Witnesses distributed about 10,000 invitations in the Mat-Su, according to Ryan Holmes, an elder for the Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Wasilla. Holmes walked door-to-door himself, passing out many of the tracts.
There are a little more than 400 Jehovah's Witnesses in the Valley. Holmes said he wants that number to increase.
"I think the purpose is the same all over the Earth," he said, "to heighten that there is an urgency of the times."
Jehovah's Witnesses believe the world is coming to an end soon. They interpret wars, earthquakes, famines and other events as prophetic signs that Jehovah (their name for God) is about to come and save faithful Jehovah's Witnesses from a final end to a sinful world.
Jehovah's Witnesses are distinct from most mainline Protestants and Catholics in that they reject the doctrine of the Trinity and do not believe Jesus was God or equal to God. They also believe a limited number of believers will make it to heaven - only 144,000. The remaining faithful will live in a renewed Eden-like paradise on Earth, they teach.
Jehovah's Witnesses also differ from mainline Christian denominations in that they reject the classic doctrine of Hell as a place of fiery torment, and instead teach that Hell is a grave for mankind.
As an organized group, they are relatively new to the religious scene. They trace their origins back to a Bible study group in the 1870s, which was led by eventual founder Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916).
Early on, they formed a nonprofit publishing company (now known as The Watchtower), now headquartered in New York City. From there, the group publishes more than 27 million copies of "The Watchtower" magazine each month. The publication is distributed across the world as the primary means of disseminating the interpretation and application of the Bible.
A small group of men lead the worldwide fellowship. They are known as the Governing Body.
Internationally, Jehovah's Witnesses are active in most countries. In no country, however, are they a large part of the population. Countries other than the United States where membership exceeds half a million are Brazil and Mexico.
It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that permanent Jehovah's Witness churches (Kingdom Halls) were established throughout Alaska.
This summer, the group expects nearly 1.5 million people to attend the United States conventions. Other events are scheduled for Germany, Czech Republic and Poland during July and August.
The Anchorage convention runs July 14-16.