Programmed to Preach
How I finally managed to extricate myself from the Jehovah’s Witnesses
Nobody could have told me the effect that becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses would have on my life. I spent thirteen years lost in a fog-brained cloudiness, during which I alienated my family, scrapped my career and strained my marriage.
As a Witness, I was expected to turn up for the meetings that were prescribed for us and seen as essential for our spiritual welfare. How many meetings? One on Tuesday night, two on Thursday night and two on Sunday.
Feel like giving up all that time to a religion? It’s not over yet. If you do decide to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses you will also be expected to go from door to door with the Bible message.
How many hours? As many as possible. They grudgingly accept an average of ten hours a month. Some Witnesses spend ninety hours a month preaching. They call it pioneering.
With time taken for pre-ministry scriptures and travelling to the assigned territory, that’s four or five hours a day.
You will constantly be nagged to become a pioneer.
Then, of course, there is all the time you are expected to devote to studying. This amounts to one or two hours for the Watchtower, an hour for the book study, another couple of hours for the Thursday night meeting and your daily personal Bible reading, as well as any other research you might undertake.
I did this every week.
What happens to your family life?
Your time with them is cut dramatically. You mentally distance yourself from them because you believe ‘The Truth’ and they don’t. You may even give up your job in favour of a part-time one, so you can spend more time preaching. Many Witnesses do not work at all.
What if you are a young person, with hopes of going to university? Forget it. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in further education unless it is used to promote God’s purpose. Careers are seen as worldly and according to the Witnesses, this world is coming to an end.
One young man I know, believing Armageddon was imminent, abandoned his place at university in his third year, just before his finals, to become a Witness. That was about thirty years ago. He’s now working in a shop — and the Witnesses are still telling him the end is nigh.
During the meetings we were taught how to approach people on the door-to-door ministry with friendly and thought-provoking questions such as: Have you ever wondered what happens when we die? What is the purpose of life? Why do bad things happen to good people? Such questions are the starting point for a conversation that will ultimately be turned towards the Bible.
On the face of it, the Witnesses seem harmless enough, going round in twos from door to door almost apologetically searching for a listening ear. Most people have enough sense to turn them away.
If you listen, out of politeness maybe, those two pleasant-looking Witnesses will record your name and address after the conversation has ended. And they’ll be back — you can bet on it — week after week, until you agree to a Bible study. This involves an in-depth study of one of the Watchtower Society books designed for this purpose.
The study involves frequent references to the Bible, in particular to the Witnesses own version of it which they claim is the most accurate translation available. Whether that’s true is difficult to determine, unless you can read Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; not something that the average householder is willing to undertake.
On the second study, probably no later than that, they will warn you that Satan is out to prevent you studying and that you will receive opposition from friends and members of your family. This is an excellent psychological technique meant to put doubt in your mind. If your friend or a family member now tries to warn you not to get involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you will immediately think: Aha, just as they warned. Satan is trying to stop me from learning about Jehovah.
From that point on, it will be very difficult to extricate yourself. Week after week the Witnesses will return. They will thoroughly cover the material in the study book, until you know several well-worn scriptures by heart. They will then persuade you to start coming to the meetings.
Using a combination of constant repetition of key scriptures and their application to various topics such as the future of mankind, Bible prophecy, or views on morality, a picture of Witness dogma is built up. At the same time, the student is encouraged to attend the meetings as soon as possible.
It can take months or even years, but they will persist and eventually, your resistance can be worn down until you become so receptive to the ideas you are being fed that you cease to have your own opinions on them any more. In fact, you’re discouraged from having them.
And that’s when you get baptised.
This is the biggest event of a Witness’ life. Baptisms usually take place at one of the twice-yearly conventions where large crowds of the faithful congregate, usually in hired football stadiums, in order to hear three or four days of lecturing on much the same lines as the usual weekly-meeting material.
Everyone is so conditioned to accept this that they will assert confidently and firmly that the conventions are thoroughly enjoyable, even though it’s plain to see that the long days take their toll and people are visibly harassed caring for young children or alternatively, trying to stay awake.
The baptism involves full immersion and is meant to be symbolic. The Witnesses insist that only those with full understanding of the seriousness of baptism are allowed to undertake it and they oppose infant baptism for that reason. Yet every year, children of nine or ten, sometimes younger, are baptised and commended for it.
A convention is vigorously promoted for months beforehand in order to encourage everyone to attend. One of the carrots dangled is the promise of a new publication. These are nearly always released at the annual assemblies.
Books, brochures, tracts, tapes, videos and CDs are brought out with relentless zeal. They cover any topic from family life to the influence of Satan and are lavishly illustrated to encourage those with fewer literary inclinations. There is little new to say, however, and the publications released usually consist of tarted-up versions of older ones.
That’s basically what it’s all about; repetition. The ideas are drilled into your head. All very well if they’re harmless and indeed, most of them are. But some are definitely not. If you have been through this unceasing indoctrination for years and suddenly begin to suspect that there’s something badly wrong, it can come as a dreadful shock.
An Awful Realisation
For me, it was like waking up from a long dream. I had been aware for years that the behaviour of the faithful was not as pure as it ought to be.
The elders would explain this by saying that Satan sometimes gets into the congregation. They assured those of us who worried about it that God would act in his own time and clear out the evildoers. There were often disfellowshipping announcements, which means that someone had been discovered with someone else’s wife and we were no longer to talk to either of them.
This idea of disfellowshipping was rigidly adhered to in some instances but not in others. It many cases, it depended on whether or not your face fitted — or if you were related to an elder. Some of the congregation got away with (almost) murder.
Questions would pop up in my mind but I was so well trained that I dismissed them as inspired by Satan to cause me to doubt The Truth (which is the way the Witnesses refer to their system of beliefs).
In order to counteract doubts, we were encouraged to study, study, study. Plenty of material was provided for this self-indoctrination. An example is the Watchtower study which takes place every Sunday.
The governing body consisted of a few highly-trained, fervent octogenarians who apparently never tired of writing these articles for us. We had to pre-study the material by reading it, underlining answers to the questions posed at the bottom of the page, looking up the scriptures cited and coming up with our own comments.
At the meeting, a brother (only males are allowed to take the lead) was assigned to conduct the Watchtower study by asking the questions and choosing people from the audience to answer. After each paragraph we were asked to give our own comments and microphones were passed round so that everyone could hear.
But the observations came straight from the paragraphs. If you gave your own opinion, it was only to embellish or illustrate the point being made by the Society and had to be in line with certified dogma. We were so childishly earnest that we confirmed every teaching, day by day, week by week, year by year.
How did I arrive at this advanced state of programming? Twenty-six years after I left, I’m still asking myself that question.
The main thrust of the Society’s arguments rested on the Bible as their ultimate authority. Because of this apparently indisputable endorsement with regular quotations and references peppering every publication, I was convinced that this was the only organisation that really kept in line with the Scriptures.
If it wasn’t so sad, my naiveté would be laughable. The teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses had altered dramatically in some instances over the years, yet they still felt they could back everything up with Scripture.
The final change came like a slap in the face. In all the years of being in The Truth, we were told time and time again that we were living in the ‘Time of the End.’ Soon, God was going to put an end to this wicked system of things.
The publications constantly pointed to the year 1914 as the pivotal year that marked the final generation of human-directed society. This was a definite date backed up by a mathematical calculation based on scriptures in the books of Daniel, Revelation and Ezekiel and 1914 was referred to as the ‘End of the Gentile Times.’ According to those calculations, time was fast running out. In Jesus’ words, ‘This generation will not pass away until all these things occur.’
We were living in a state of constant anticipation. The Society told us that the people of the 1914 generation had to be able to understand what was happening so they needed to be around ten years old in that year. By 1995, that put them into their nineties. Reasonably, this generation could hardly hang on much longer. But as time passed and nothing happened, it was suggested that perhaps those who were born in 1914 could be included in that definition.
The Society leaders were clearly getting worried. How would they keep the faithful hanging on?
The answer came in an inspired piece of ‘reasoning’ slipped into one of the Watchtower magazines. In this clever article, it was explained that, yes, 1914 was still the End of the Gentile Times.
However, a generation could not be tied to a particular year. Instead, we had to look for the behaviour that characterised the ‘Time of the End,’ where men would be ‘lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…’ (2 Timothy 3:1–5).
Jesus also spoke about ‘nation rising against nation,’ food shortages and earthquakes. Sadly, these events and attitudes have occurred throughout history.
That article gave us a ‘new understanding’ of the End of the Gentile Times. It had such colossal implications that I read and studied it not just once, but three times. I looked up all the Scriptures and scribbled notes all over the pages trying to make myself accept that this was indeed the new and correct interpretation.
In fact, it was a way of stalling for time and I was unprepared to admit that yet.
What really astonished me however, was the way that nearly everyone I spoke to accepted this alteration. One or two said: ‘Doesn’t it mean the end of the system could come at any time, even fifty or a hundred years from now?’
Yes it did. And most people simply swallowed it. Some questioned it superficially, then shrugged their shoulders and carried on.
Later, I discovered that quite a few ideas had been changed in the course of Witness history. Apparently, back in 1914, some of the brothers dressed themselves in white robes and went to an elevated place awaiting their transferral to heaven.
This, of course, did not happen. So they had another look at the Bible and found that they had a great preaching work to do first.
A couple of decades after that, a talk confidently called ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die,’ was given to great crowds of believers. But as more decades passed and the faithful continued to die off, another year suggested for the end of the system was 1975.
This year was chosen as it would mark the end of the six thousandth year since the creation of Adam. (It was later vehemently denied by the officialdom of the Society but the ordinary rank and file recall it.) People were advised not to have children so near the time of the end. They were also encouraged to remain unmarried if possible, in order to more easily fulfil the ministry work.
More Doctrinal Changes
There are many ideas that the average person would question. The refusal to take blood, even in the face of death, is one that comes immediately to mind. (Incidentally, this too has recently changed and Witnesses are now allowed a ‘personal choice’ in this matter.)
Other less sensational teachings can cause almost as much distress — for example, a Witness is only allowed to marry another Witness. This severely limits their choice, especially as dating is condemned except with a view to marriage.
Witness children are only supposed to play with other Witness children, which sets them apart at school and has long-reaching effects into their social lives. A virtue is made out of this separation ethic and only those who belong to the way of the Truth are seen as suitable companions.
In reality, their youths are no better than those who are not Witnesses. Those who do stick to this rigid morality are often inhibited, solemn and pompous, while those who rebel tend to go haywire.
The Society prides itself on sticking rigidly to the Bible but then comes up
with its own ideas that have no basis in the Scriptures. One of these is so-called pioneering. This is a misnomer, since to pioneer means to charge forth into new territory, trailblazing one’s way forward. To pioneer in Society-Speak means to devote a certain number of hours in the door to door preaching work. This can be sixty, ninety or over a hundred hours a month, depending on how dedicated you are.
At one time, whether or not to pioneer straight after leaving school was left to individual choice and ostensibly, it still is. If a person wanted to pursue further education, that was up to them, but it had to be with the aim in mind of obtaining a decent job so that one could work fewer hours and therefore devote one’s time to the ministry.
A few articles to this effect were published for us to study but they presumably did not have the effect the Society wanted. They later went on to all but condemn further education as dangerous to one’s spiritual health. You could still go to university if you wanted to but you were risking your spiritual well-being and it was frowned upon.
Breaking free from all this indoctrination was an alarming process. It took a long time to dispel the notion that Satan was laughing up his sleeve at the doubts he was putting in my mind.
A thorough study of the Bible itself — without the slants given to it by the Society — helped me to put it into perspective. The scriptures portray a bloodthirsty, ill-tempered Deity, a talking ass, a man with prodigious strength until he allows his hair to be cut off, giants, polygamy, sanctioned massacres and strange visions of many-headed beasts and fiery chariots.
Too much like mythology to be comfortable.
Normality Feels Good
Occasionally, I still revel in the heady notion that I can think, do or say what I like. I still have principles, many of which I had before I learned about Jehovah’s Witnesses but others I have had to formulate myself, using my own reasoning.
Believing I was doing the right thing, I had distanced myself from my family, refusing to attend birthdays, christenings, Christmas get-togethers or any other so-called pagan celebration.
It feels good to be normal again, to be a part of society and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. My son had his very first birthday party at fourteen years of age. Our first Christmas for thirteen years was marked by two Christmas trees and so many brightly wrapped gifts that we lost count. My son and daughter, although teenagers at the time, nevertheless demanded a stocking each.
We have missed so much. That time can never be retrieved. Many of the cults and sects that exist are clearly harmful; others are bizarre or an excuse for deviant sexual behaviour. Some are superficially harmless and appear to promote exemplary behaviour and faith in God and the Bible. But my experience has left me spiritually impaired.
I’ve seen so much hypocrisy among a supposedly godly group of people, that I have severe doubts about religious beliefs of any kind.
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