For more than a decade, Prince spent many Sunday mornings inside a simple Jehovah’s Witnesses hall in a Minneapolis suburb, listening to Bible readings, sharing his insights in group discussions, and singing such hymns as “God’s Promise of Paradise” and “Be Forgiving.”
“His beliefs were very, very strong,” said Larry Graham, a close friend who introduced Prince to the faith.
While the superstar was comfortable door-knocking in Minnesota to spread the Bible’s message — a requirement for all Witnesses — he also tried to spread Jehovah’s teachings to musicians and others in his circle, Graham said. “It’s a side of him most people don’t know,” he said.
As Prince fans across the globe await an explanation of his unexpected death on April 21, worshipers at this St. Louis Park church remember a modest guy who would slip into the fellowship hall on Sundays with zero fanfare.
Ironically, in death, he has put an unprecedented spotlight on his church.
“We’re seeing a tremendous surge in interest,” said Jim Lundstrom, a church elder in St. Louis Park. “I’ve gotten calls from Paris, London, Africa … and all points in between. Now our name is coming to the fore.”
Like the others in this church, Prince didn’t fear death, because he believed in a future earthly paradise. But, Graham said, the superstar was not planning to make his worldly exit yet. Graham said he knew nothing of opioid painkillers, now the focus of Prince’s death investigation.
Graham also denied claims that Prince couldn’t have hip surgery because his faith prohibited blood transfusions.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t get blood transfusions, medical technology offers alternatives, Graham said.
In fact, Lundstrom belongs to a national network of hospital liaisons who help church members at the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and elsewhere receive optimal care without transfusions.
“We recognize that life is a gift from God,” said Graham, a bass player for the 1960s funk band Sly and the Family Stone. “Any medical treatment that will make us well again, we seek that.”
Prince’s Sunday home
About 70 people sat with Bible study pamphlets on their laps at Prince’s Jehovah’s Witnesses hall last Sunday. It’s a simple room, with no crucifixes or religious symbols — just comfortable chairs and plenty of Bibles and Watchtower publications available at the door.
“He’d usually sit over there,” said one member, gesturing to the rows center and back.
The nearly two-hour service opened with a hymn, and then a guest speaker preached about the Bible being an “owner’s manual for our lives.” That was followed by an hourlong, engaging discussion about loyalty to God, during which worshipers answered questions such as: “How can you be loyal to both Jehovah and your friend or relative?”
The service ended with a simple prayer and a song, and folks meandered out the door.
Prince’s path to this church began at an after-concert party in Nashville about 20 years ago, Graham said. Prince and Graham, both performing in town that night, found themselves talking about life’s big questions.
Prince later asked Graham, a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1975, if he would consider moving to Minneapolis to continue teaching him the Bible. Graham, at the time living in Montego Bay, Jamaica, said yes. He has been Prince’s spiritual mentor and close friend ever since.
“We started studying the Bible on a regular basis,” recalled Graham. “And the more he learned, the more questions he had, like: ‘Why are we here? Where is everything heading? What’s the future for mankind, for the Earth?’ ”
Prince also learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas and Easter, for example, because those holidays have roots in pagan traditions. They do not serve in the military. They view Jesus as the son of God, but not God, and they don’t believe in a trinity. They pray to God, called Jehovah, who will return to rule a paradise on Earth.
Prince, known as “Brother Nelson,” joined Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2003.
The church was a beneficiary of Prince’s philanthropy, but it’s difficult to say how much he gave. Collection plates are not passed. Giving is done privately, often in cash and often at a church table with two slots marked “Local Congregation Expenses” and “Worldwide Work.”
No will for Prince has surfaced, and Graham said he was unaware if Jehovah’s Witnesses would benefit from a $100-million-plus estate now being claimed by Prince’s family members.
Near the giving table is a large map of St. Louis Park, with every street on a grid that is used for door-to-door ministry.
“We have the whole world [mapped],” said George Cook, a church elder eyeing the map. “We’re very organized.”
There are about 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, he said, and about 15,000 are Minnesotans.
Ministry, Prince style
It wasn’t uncommon for Prince and Graham — or Prince and other church members — to grab their Bibles and head out to neighborhoods. Sometimes people recognized their famous visitor, sometimes not. He enjoyed it, Graham said. And having a celebrity like Prince as a visible supporter made others more interested in checking out the religion, he said.
But Prince’s ministry extended beyond the city map.
“If there was some visitor at Paisley Park, they could sit down and have a conversation,” said Graham. “It could be after a show. Or you could just be out and about, and run into people, and just start talking about the Bible. Many, many kinds of settings.
“He would never try to force his beliefs on anyone. But he was always willing to share the things he learned in the Bible.”
One thing Prince learned was to be “a positive person,” Graham said. He ate and drank in moderation. He stopped cursing. And he stopped writing the raunchy lyrics that characterized some of his early work.
Prince also was at Graham’s side at various Jehovah’s Witnesses conferences, digging deeper into an unusual faith he credited with turning his life around.
“[The Bible] helps you with every aspect of your life,” Prince said in a 2004 interview. “Once you can clean out the cobwebs, so to speak, you can see everything more clearly.”
A type of protection
When asked why a free-spirited musician would choose a structured faith, Graham said that’s not how he — or Prince — saw it.
“It’s not really restrictive. It’s more like a protection from things that could possibly harm us,” Graham said. “So it’s a positive thing … and making you a better person.”
Prince was particularly drawn to biblical messages of a hopeful future, he said. One of his favorite passages was Revelations 21:3-4, which states that God ultimately will dwell with his people and that “death will be no more.”
“The resurrection and the hope for the future — and many more [passages] — we discussed many weeks and many months and years,” Graham said.
“A lot of people will remember Prince for his music,” he added. “But he’d also want people to know what he learned from the Bible. We lost a really good friend and a spiritual brother.”
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511