R&B pioneer Prince, 57, was found dead in his Paisley Park home Thursday. The singer achieved massive commercial and critical success in the 1980s with a string of successful albums, including 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign o’ the Times. In 2001, Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness, a small subset of the Christian faith with unique beliefs about Christian doctrine and secular life.
Prince was deeply religious even before his 2001 conversion. He believed that angelic visitation had previously helped him cope with childhood epilepsy, and one of his first Top 10 hits was the religiously inspired “I Would Die 4 U,” from his smash hit album and film Purple Rain. He began studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2000 on the encouragement of his friend and fellow musician Larry Graham. Prince described his transformation as more of a “realization” than a conversion, and compared it to Neo’s path in the Matrix movies.
Jehovah’s Witness beliefs about medicine particularly informed Prince’s career. In 2009, years of high-heeled dancing had left Prince in need of double hip replacement surgery, but refused because Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in blood transfusions. JW.org says the following about blood transfusions:
This is a religious issue rather than a medical one. Both the Old and New Testaments clearly command us to abstain from blood. (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:10; Deuteronomy 12:23; Acts 15:28, 29) Also, God views blood as representing life. (Leviticus 17:14) So we avoid taking blood not only in obedience to God but also out of respect for him as the Giver of life.
While Witnesses have drawn criticism for refusing life-saving surgeries, efforts to accommodate them have led to major breakthroughs in bloodless surgery. Prince, for his part, denied any need for surgery, and a reporter who visited him at Paisley Park described his “agility” and called rumors of his need for surgery “unfounded.”
Prince’s religion and his views on medical treatment are leaving lingering questions about his death. Prince was recently hospitalized for the flu, needing an emergency landing while traveling in mid-April, While Jehovah’s Witnesses have no standing official strictures on vaccines, some early Witness leaders condemned vaccination in a non-official capacity. It’s unknown what Prince believed about vaccines or even if the flu was his official cause of death, and Prince had recently disavowed rumors of ill health, telling a crowd to “wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”
At one point, Prince enlisted Clerks director Kevin Smith’s help filming a documentary on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Smith discussed their work on the documentary, which was never released, at a Q&A with fans:
Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously characterized a leader’s opinion as Jehovah’s Witness policy. A clarification has been added, and we thank readers who called it to our attention.