Memoirs Of An Ex-Jehovah's Witness
"I bet that Jehovah's Witnesses know a lot of good 'knock-knock' jokes"
Many people over the years have asked me whether I truly was one of Jehovah's Witnesses, and some have even asked that I write about my adventures. First of all, yes, it is true. I was once a member of Jehovah's Witnesses. I was "in the Truth" for about ten years. There's a long story behind my joining, some of which I wrote about in Drop Kick Me Jesus, Through The Goalposts Of Life. If you want just the adventures, the fun stuff, skip to the Anecdotes section. But first, the background.
I'd begun reading the Bible at the age of about ten, and the more I read (and re-read), the more disappointed I became in the state of mainstream Christian churches. So, having strayed from the Anglican Church and spent some time skirting around Christianity, I decided to look at some of the "primitive Christian" groups. I admit that I'd shied away from JWs - Dad was very opposed to them, and after a while I dug down and got his reasons. Turns out that after his father died, a cousin of his (who was a Witness) expressed her view that he wasn't going to Heaven after all (only 144,000 were destined for that reward). She was blackballed by the family, and for many years, Dad would not even mention her name.
A Precis (or TL;DR)
A Knock At The Door
I'm taken with the Witnesses, ask a lot of questions and have a Bible study. After wrestling with some hard questions and situations, I settle as a baptised member, and despite some very strange moral regulations, stick it out. I describe the meetings and the investment of time in study, as well as something of the door-to-door work. There comes a time when I begin to rebel against doctrine and dogma, and leave. Then come the tales of fun and woe. Go and read the Anecdotes now, if you like.
"Set your mind on God's Kingdom and his justice before anything else, and all the rest will be added to you as well"
- Matthew 6:33
It was inevitable that sooner or later they would come to my house. Enter two well-scrubbed young men, earnest and neat, wielding briefcases. Several hours of Bible-based discussion later I was curious enough to invite them back. They came, armed with several books and the inevitable Watchtower and Awake! magazines, and the offer of a "Bible study". I pointed out that I had already been studying the Bible for at least ten years and needed no book other then the Good One. They concurred, and after several weeks of this, I was filled with answers and needed to reflect, so I sent 'em packing.
It turned out that they did a good job of answering my questions, and that they met many of the criteria I had set for a religious life at that time. Followers of the Bible, separated from the world and with a close-knit community, I decided that it would be worthwhile to join up.
The rules for becoming a Witness are both few and many. In simple terms, one has to demonstrate allegiance with, and obedience to, the WatchTower Bible and Tract Society ("The Society"). More specifically, one is obliged to be catechised after a fashion. There is a grilling, or rather a series of them. The elders quiz the prospect about issues of both knowledge and understanding, after which one is permitted and encouraged to start in the door-to-door ministry, under the tutelage of more experienced "publishers". This is just the first stage, however. There were yet more hurdles, more requirements; they led me in as easy as a lamb to the slaughter.
Bearded in my Den
The requirements, it turned out, were many and various. Firstly, I had to show that my life was "in harmony with Jehovah God's requirements". This included being free from drugs and immorality and other sundry deviant practices. I was expected to participate in the "field ministry" - the door-to-door work for which Jevohah's Witnesses are renowned the world over. I duly began my apprenticeship, and quickly learned that many of those tutoring me were not very bright, and lacked a really good foundation of Total Bible Knowledge. I persevered, and began to become quite adept in my doorstep presentation and discussion style. But not all was well.
I was also expected to meet the exacting standards of dress and grooming laid down by the Society. This led to the first crossing of swords. As a bearded man, being told that I must shave to maintain the image of an organisation was frankly absurd. I asked for, and was granted, an Audience with the congregation elders.
It did not go well. For one thing, the elders were unable to provide satisfactory scriptural evidence of the need for beardlessness; instead, they pointed to the Watchtower articles on the topic, and after some discussion, I decided to trust the process and shave. After all, as they said, it was just a beard. It was only much later that I recognised something very important; that Watchtower illustrations only ever showed non-Witnesses with beards, and they seemed to be associated with the more rebellious slices of society. This was about ensuring my compliance with The Rules, with their idea of the "new personality". In short, I was being subtly brainwashed.
In any case, freshly-shaven and suitably attired, I learned to plod the streets, attend meetings and contribute more and more. In time, I was baptised (July 1982, if my memory serves me well) and began to rather enjoy my life.
Life in the Kingdom Hall
Life as a JW is more than just knocking on doors, it's about attending meetings. There are five of them weekly (
or were, maybe things have changed in the past twenty years There are now two meetings a week¹). Firstly, there are two back-to-back meetings, usually on a Sunday. One is a public talk, given by an appointed and approved member of the congregation (although visiting elders often give this talk). The talk must be based on an approved outline, and audience members are encouraged to look up any Bible references. This is followed by the study of an article in a Watchtower magazine. Someone is appointed to read each paragraph, and an elder asks questions printed as footnotes. Audience members then answer the question. rinse repeat. Again, subtle brainwashing - over time, verbalising the approved answers has each individual "make the Truth their own".
On a side note, as if this were not enough, family heads (read "men") are encouraged to sit and study the articles beforehand with their families, even assigning answers for each family member. Junior members are not excluded, even the wee ones are involved in this process.
There are two other big congregation meetings, both connected with the "field ministry", the Theocratic Ministry School and the Service Meeting. The School is (or used to be) a series of lessons taken from a Watchtower Society book (available online here) - any approved member can be enrolled in the school, and there are assignments designed to help people become better teachers. Each week there are assigned Bible readings and associated topics, and a five-minute presentation is expected from each student. The Service Meeting is an elder-led series of announcements and demonstrations, again related to door-to-door work.
Anyone wishing to make serious progress is expected to "reach out" by active participation - one cannot become a ministerial servant or elder without being active in these programs. Women are "not permitted to teach" (a prohibition taken from 1 Timothy 2:12) but can give demonstrations between one another - they teach one another, but do not address the audience.
Finally, there is the Congregation Book Study, which carries out a Watchtower-study style of "discussion" using material published by the Watchtower Society; this takes place in smaller, home-based groups of between ten and twenty souls.
Add up the time of the meetings (five hours) and the time needed to prepare (usually another five at least, if one is doing it right), and that's quite a sizable chunk of time, a big investment for anyone. The idea is to get the Society's ideas deeply inculcated into newcomers, such that the teachings take, at least on an intellectual level. Call it brainwashing if you will, but it's pretty effective, especially given the demographics of the members.
A Personal View
I joined in 1982, following the breakup of my first marriage. I mentioned earlier that I began going door-to-door, "witnessing", and I admit that after the first few nerve-wracking experiences, I began to quite enjoy it. Dress was required to be conservative. Suit jacket and tie for the men, modest clothing for the women, waterproof hat and coat in all seasons (this was the English Midlands!) and a hardy briefcase for all the stuff one needed. I grew accustomed to having a decent kit with me - Bible, naturally, Watchtower and Awake! magazines, tracts to leave with those who were out, booklets for those who could not afford bound books. We were expected to buy books and magazines, and recoup the money by selling them (no personal profit here, though I did know of a few who tried). Given the nature of the work, one was often left with a surplus, especially of the magazines, which came out every fortnight.
I recall the end of my first month of ministry activity - one of the elders took me on one side and presented me with a slip of paper. Apparently I had to report my activity; hours and publications placed had to be logged, as well as return visits to anyone interested enough, and any home Bible studies. These numbers were collated with everyone else's and reported to the London office; they in turn reported to Head Office in Brooklyn. The Society, it turns out, was most interested in statistics, and they were often trotted out in the local Service Meetings.
It's also worth noting that there were targets set. Every member of the congregation has the responsibility to do the public ministry work, no exceptions. If you are too old and frail to go out, one needs to be creative. In my first congregation, there was an expectation of eight hours a month, and a certain number of magazines.
That recording and reporting was not all - the local Service Committee in each congregation was also charged with maintaining records of behaviour. Break the rules, and they would ask to meet up for a little chat, and depending on the outcome (which had to do with repentance) they would impose a variety of disciplinary measures. The harshest of these was disfellowshipping, expulsion from the congregation and subsequent shunning by all the membership. One could also be suspended or removed from any position of privilege.
"Privileges" were mostly sought by men (bear in mind that women are subservient in the congregation). These little perqs included passing microphones at meetings, assisting with internal distribution of literature, cueing up the soundtrack for the "Kingdom Songs", reading Watchtower passages aloud and so on. It's odd, looking back, that there was a certain thrill in having these jobs,no matter how menial. It was an outward display of one's reaching out.
I never made the dizzying heights of Ministerial Servant or Elder - I was frankly too rebellious, did not quite ever fit the mould. I took exception to too many things - the necessity of "remaining apart from the world" was clearly not as important to me as being alive and enjoying myself. Going to the pub was frowned upon. Having an interest in politics, likewise - we were all supposed to accept the world as it was, and await the full blessings that would come when God's Kingdom returned to earth after the removal of the wicked at the Great Tribulation. Then there was television, films and the like. In the congregations, there was never a blacklist of banned films, but snide remarks were made public during meetings about certain music or media. Too hard for me.
I recall the release of Monty Python's Life of Brian. There was uproar that anyone could make such a film, spoofing the life of Christ. It was proof, were it needed, that Satan was the true Ruler of the World, and clearly his influence was showing. Needless to say,I went to see it. I laughed uproariously,partly at the film, and partly at the absurdity of the elders' revulsion. My belief at the time was that the film supported the Society's view that all (other) religions were schisms based on taking minor details and forming sects. The scene in which one fellow is urging people "Follow the gourd!" and another is going on about Brian's sandal, is just what JWs were saying about the origin of religion. In my view, they should have made it compulsory viewing, but that's just me.
There were other rules that I chafed under - notably those about association. Jehovah's Witnesses are required to maintain relationships according to some pretty hard-and-fast rules. Alcohol was not unacceptable in moderation, tobacco and any drug were not. Blood transfusions were (and are) a different matter, everyone seems to have a view on that issue.
Social mixing with worldlings was out. Spending time alone with a member of the opposite sex was out (excepting family, of course). The overt reason for this last one was pretty clear - being alone with someone could lead to holding hands, kissing and dancing. The more subtle reasoning was frankly absurd. "How does it look to outsiders", the Society would ask, "if they see a single man in the company of a woman, even spending time alone in a house?". Clearly, the thinking of people who were not JWs (and hence deviant thinkers), was that they were always thinking about S-E-X.
I have always believed that my conscience was the better guide, and that I gave credit to people to make appropriate judgments about what my behaviour meant. After all, I argued, under their rules, I could (and did!) spend a great deal of time alone in the company of other young men (I was in my late 20s, and had taken a young male friend under my wing). So he would come to my house and we'd have long conversations about stuff, including "spiritual matters" and entertain ourselves for hours. Occasionally, other young people would join us - we always had a great time, and there was nothing untoward happening. Tea and soft drinks were the only things served, and there was no sex ever. This formed the basis of my absurdem argument. If I was not supposed to spend time alone with young women because of what others might think, was it not equally bad to do so with a man nearly ten years my junior? According to Society reasoning, could not The World be viewing him as my catamite? And would that not be an even worse stumbling block? But no, there was no changing their thinking. So it was, that I could not have a healthy friendship with a young woman, without Breaking The Rules. Did this stop me? Did it heck as like.
Kicking Against The Goads (Acts 26:14)
Slowly but surely I began to realise some of the errors in Watchtower doctrine. I recognised that my freedom to be myself, my very personality were being stripped away. According to the Society, and their interpretation of Ephesians 4:23-24, I needed to "strip away the old personality...and put on the new...". Somehow, I felt that compliance with a "Watchtower clone" was removing my freedoms. After all, we were living in a changing age, and a different culture from that which prevailed when the Society was forming. Why did I have to have my hair cut just so and not have the freedom to wear a beard without it having an impact on my congregation life? Oh, they told me that I still had the freedom to wear a beard; there was nothing written that said beards were fundamentally wrong, but they were disapproved of.
I started to rekindle some of the relationships I'd left behind in my initial blind Witness zeal; saw that these people were,of course just ordinary folk, and so what if they occasionally cussed? I was tiring of the nature of congregation members, who I too often saw as blinkered, spiritless drones.
Putting this into perspective, I should tell you about "Pioneering". One of the privileges that any baptised JW could reach out for was an expanded ministry. There were two ways to do this - one was referred to as the "full-time ministry", and involved spending (as I recall) ninety hours a month in the public ministry, every month. One signed up with an open-ended contract, and it was expected that young folk would carry out this calling for many years. The part-time pioneers signed up on a month-by-month basis, and needed to do sixty hours (though this has, I believe, been reduced recently).
I signed up as a regular pioneer. After all, I enjoyed the door-to-door work for many reasons. Firstly, there was an intellectual challenge - my guess is that many of you have had the JWs at the door and come up with all sorts of objections; my task was to overcome those objections, and that bit was fun. The second piece of it was in training my companions, many of whom were not very well educated, not well-read and often had diminished social skills. The third part, well let's just say I have tales to tell. More on those later.
Slowly, however, I began to notice that I did not fit in with the Watchtower norm - I was not, and never would be, a clone. I enjoyed a pint out with friends, I enjoyed the cinema, I spent time with people outside "The Truth", I associated with women unchaperoned, I had what the elders would have considered risky friendships with married women in the congregation.
After a year of this, I moved from the congregation in Basford, Nottingham to Hucknall, a small market town about five miles away. I was the only regular pioneer there, and my task was to make more. This was a slightly more relaxed congregation, and I had a ball whilst there. Finally I moved back to Nottingham, married a local Witness woman and was there for my final years before I quit.
The new congregation, Nottingham Central, was my greatest challenge to date. The congregation was better educated, but was snootier than Basford or Hucknall had been. It was clear by now that I was never going to be appointed to any position of responsibility, and I admit that I started to push the envelope of acceptable behaviour. When the elders came to lecture us (before our marriage) on appropriate sexual behaviour, I asked them to leave. I wore more exciting ties, more colourful shirts. I began avoiding reference to Watchtower quotations, instead relying wholly on scripture. I read, and quoted from, translations other than the Society-published New World Translation. I was also questioning some points of doctrine, and most especially, the commonly-held Society view of the interpretation of prophecy. The final straw was when we began to study of the Book of Revelation in the Congregation Book Study. I found that I wanted to walk out, began publicly (but subtly) to question the rightness of the word as dictated.
Finally, in about 1991, I began attending fewer and fewer meetings. By the time my ten-year anniversary rolled round, I was gone. Back to the world of reality, and no more bloody Watchtower-approved neckties.
Some Anecdotes, As Promised
"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun
You find the fun, and Snap!, the job's a game"
- Mary Poppins
Knock-knock jokes aside, I had some odd, scary and funny moments. The first I can recall was after a few months of my baptism, working in the area of Noel Street, in Hyson Green. At the time, this was a down-at-heel neighbourhood, notorious for its high crime rate, cheap accommodation and prostitution.
There were about a dozen of us who had been assigned to work the area, and we tended to stay close together, and as always, we worked in pairs. The houses were Victorian town houses, three-story brick buildings which were easily converted into flats or house-shares for students. My female partner and I had been working for a little while with some success (which in Witness terms means not being turfed off the doorstep), and with a few good conversations under our belt, were ready for anything. We took turns to open the conversation, and this one particular house was my turn.
I rang the doorbell. After a while, the letterbox opened and we heard a voice asking who was at the door. "My name is Kevin", I replied. The door opened a crack, and part of a man's face appeared. After establishing that I was not the Kevin he was expecting, but rather another Bible-basher, there was a mighty roar, of sufficient power to knock down the very walls of Jericho. The door was flung open to reveal a very angry man wearing nothing but socks and a furious expression. After a short but very clear hail of invective, telling us both exactly where we could stuff our Bibles, he proceeded to come out and shake his fist at us. We, of course, retreated; the Holy Spirit may be powerful, we reasoned, but why tempt fate? We descended the steps to street level, assuming that he would withdraw inside. Wrong. Willy waggling as he pursued us, he made it about twenty feet before he realised that he was, like Adam, naked. Well, mostly naked - the bits that mattered were on display for all to see. Finally cupping his groin for modesty's sake, he fled back to his house...to find the door locked.
As I recall, my companion took the whole thing in her stride. For myself, I sympathised with the poor bloke, who was vainly trying to get the attention of his housemates. I returned to offer him my raincoat. He declined. It was only after we were out of sight of the house that we began to laugh. He was still there when we finished, over half an hour later.
The second tale is set close by, in the now-demolished Hyson Green flat complex, a place as grey and unwelcoming as a WWII bomb shelter, and only slightly more dangerous. This was one evening, and I was working with one of the elders, a quiet and very unworldy fellow a few years older than I. The flats' front doors led out onto a tiny concrete lobby, cold, impersonal but private. One of us knocked on the door. One of the worst things about the job was judging how loud the first knock should be, when the second knock should come. Too soon, and you'd antagonise the householder, too late and you'd waste time. Some would knock so gingerly that it made me doubt their passion, others would hammer on the door like a 3am police raid. This was a good knock, as it brought someone to the door in a few seconds.
I forget all the details, with one exception. She was wearing a bath towel. It covered exactly what it had to and no more. It showed most of her boobs above the nipple, and her legs up to...well let's just say it was fractionally below c-level. Now, I'd seen many a real, live woman in various states of undress, but I very much doubted that my companion had, his having lived a sheltered life. One glance told me he was stuck, and would not be participating any too soon: frankly, he looked like a classic cartoon character,all he needed to complete the picture was "telescope eyes".
I looked this young woman right in the eye (as a gentleman should), thanked her for coming to the door and told her who we were and why we were there. I asked that, if she were interested in religious discussion, we'd be happy to call again when it was more convenient. She apologised as she had not long stepped out of the shower, and agreed that yes, we should call again. We left, and as I was making a note of the return visit arrangement, my companion turned to me and said the only words I recall, "I think it would be better that you come back with an older sister". I spent the rest of the evening avoiding his gaze, as it would only have made me laugh. But I forgive him for that, she was a fine-looking woman. The return visit? Very productive.
The third tale has no nudity, but plenty of excitement nonetheless. It takes place in the same area as Towel Woman. Often a knock at the door from two briefcase-wielding people prompts a loud whisper of "Jehovahs" and a scurry to hide behind the couch. This particular knock resulted in thirty seconds of frantic activity, including several windows being thrown open, and a toilet flushing. Shortly after that, the door opened a crack to reveal an eye, which asked "Yes".
Following my usual introduction, the door began to open, revealing several people with folded arms and grim faces. Just to clarify, they were of that grimness that tells of extreme anger and violence.
"You're not the Police?"
"No, like I said, we're..."
"We just flushed a lot of stuff, you know that?"
"I do now."
"And just what are you going to do about it?"
Good point. What were we going to do? There were several people inside, all slowly coming to the door as the news spread, possibly eight or ten. I admit that I wanted to laugh, as I looked myself and my companion up and down.
"Do we look that much like the Police?"
"I am sorry that you mistook us for someone else. But as there's nothing we can do about that, let me leave you with a couple of our magazines, free."
"And perhaps I'll call again in a week or so. You do live here?"
"Okay, see you soon...?" I asked with a quizzical look.
"John, see you in a week."
And that was that. We withdrew, shaking a little, and praying thankfully. Only when sitting in a cafe with a cup of tea did we allow ourselves the luxury of laughter. One of the members of the "household" subsequently got baptised.
There are many other tales, some humorous, some not. The time when my bag was shredded by a dog, the time we had to hurdle a gate to escape a raving householder, the fellow who followed us back to the car, threatening violence and the young woman who would insist on folding her undies in front of us prior to her home Bible study. There was the chap I visited every week for Bible study, who dealt in illegal guns. The older dear who would show me her photo album every week. Yes, there were many times over a cuppa that good times were had, whether the tea was in fine bone china or jam jars. And somehow, I miss it all.
Q: Do all those "How to get rid of Jehovah's Witnesses" things work?
A: No, not really, We have a good laugh at them, mostly.
Feel free to ask more questions.
¹ Update: I've since discovered that the number of meetings has been reduced to two each week. The Watchtower study and public talk are still on a Sunday, the other three meetings are concatenated into one two-hour meeting during the week.