We’re proud to publish Pete Nicholson’s deep investigative essay on Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘In the Belly of Jehovah’, in The Lifted Brow #22. This companion piece — based on Pete’s notes from his interviews with Witnesses, attendances at meetings, and background research — gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives of devout Witnesses, as well as those who have lost their faith. Some names have been changed to protect identities.
“What Does the Bible Really Teach?” is one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ key publications, a small book they hand out as a primer on their beliefs and what they believe is the true meaning of the Bible. Immediately following the front matter are several pages of colourful illustrations, which show the sick being healed; the old restored to their younger, healthier selves; and children being resurrected into the arms of their ecstatic parents. Like most Witness publications, “What Does the Bible Really Teach?” depicts paradise as a garishly colourful place of gardens and verdant fields, full of smiling, racially diverse people. In other publications, paradise is shown to be a place where children play with animals we might ordinarily want at a safe distance from our children––tigers, lions, bears, elephants, even koalas.
A 2008 edition of Watchtower, the Witnesses’ primary publication, stated that soon Jehovah “will come to destroy his enemies ‘at an hour that [we] do not think likely.’”
“Each member has a personal responsibility to spread the good news and to monitor their performance by recording the total number of monthly hours allocated to the ministry, the specific amount of literature left with the householder, the number of return visits made to a prospective convert’s home and the number of home Bible studies conducted,” the British sociologist Andrew Holden writes. “These details are submitted on a monthly basis to the congregational secretary.”
“…[F]or a religious group, as with any organisation, commitment is energy,” the religious scholars Stark and Iannaccone observe. “Conventional cost-benefit analysis alone suffices to explain the continued attraction of strict religions. …[A]s each member pays the costs of membership, each gains from higher levels of production of collective goods…. Obviously, there are limits to how much tension or strictness is beneficial. One easily notices groups too strict to expect growth. Strictness must be sufficient to exclude potential free-riders and doubters, but it must also be sufficiently low so as not to drive away everyone except a few misfits and fanatics.”
In 1969 there was one baptism in the church for every 1,983 hours of preaching.
A 1975 survey of Witness converts found that every respondent had had a conventional Christian upbringing, and “most lacked enduring ties with social groups outside the family and workplace.” Andrew Holden, who wrote a book-length study on the church, told me that Witness converts “are mainly rational people with a highly romantic imagination.”
Charles Taze Russell was the founder of the Bible Students, from which the Jehovah’s Witnesses later emerged. The combination of Russell’s:
- hardline and controversial Biblical teachings, which were based on his steadfast conviction about his own Biblical scholarship credentials, which modern scholars dispute
- beliefs, such as that the pyramids were key to correct Biblical prophecy, and that he would be spirited to a particular constellation when he died
- personal proclivities (a 1956 New Yorker piece on the Witnesses noted that it was claimed he had once said to a female employee at his house, “I am like a jellyfish; I float around here and there. I touch this one and that one and if she responds I take her to me, and if not I float on to others”, though this quote has been disputed)
- last words (“Wrap me in a Roman toga”), and
- supposedly fraudulent business practices, such as selling farmers so-called “miracle wheat” at inflated prices
paint a picture of an eccentric character.
“Russell wrote specific instructions for selling his literature and employed virtually every device of modern advertising to disseminate his biblical message,” Andrew Holden writes.
The Witnesses’ own figures show membership growth peaked at around 7% in the mid-80s, before steadily declining to its current rate of around 2%.
A number of former Witnesses I spoke to said they were taken witnessing with their parents from very young ages, and were made to make presentations while still very young, even before they were baptised (baptisms usually happen around fifteen). Almost all expressed that Witnessing was something they disliked doing, with one exception: the ex-Witness Paul Grundy told me he works in sales and was a natural at it, and actually quite enjoyed himself.
Holden observes that the Witnesses have a deeply rational approach to inducting converts, regulating their worship and spreading their doctrines, a resolutely business-like approach “that has enabled the Witnesses to recruit and expand in the way they have throughout this century.”
Many Witnesses, and especially those involved in more intensive preaching work, choose to work only part time, to allow more time for preaching. One elder I met runs his own window cleaning business, which he works at part time so he can devote his time to witnessing. Andrew Holden told me that window cleaning is an ideal job for Witnesses in many ways. “Window cleaning is a big one, because it gives them autonomy, it gives them freedom, they can be relatively socially isolated in a job like that, have control over their work, not be around large numbers of secular critics or sceptics. All they have to do is knock on someone’s door and collect their window money, so they can kind of isolate themselves.”
Each year, Witnesses from several congregations, which form a “circuit”, gather for one-day and two-day assemblies. Several circuits meet once a year for a three-day “district convention”, and several districts gather every few years for a four-day “international convention”. The Witnesses I spoke to seemed very proud of their large gatherings; a number told me how amazing it was when they gathered in large numbers. The latest Victorian district convention was held at the 15,000-capacity Rod Laver Arena.
The convention I attended featured interviews and an acted scene in which Witnesses showed how to turn potentially awkward confrontations with non-believers into opportunities to preach. In the acted scene, a female employee named Kylie is asked by her boss to participate in an op shop the boss is setting up to raise funds for soldiers. She can’t have anything to do with the military, but nimbly turns the situation to her advantage, telling her boss about the charity work she and the church do. The boss is intrigued: he has questions about the bible, he says, which Kylie promises to answer for him. Later on, all the office’s computers crash, and Kylie is able to deliver on her promise.
In the afternoon program, a teenage girl talks about how she was able to explain to her friend why she couldn’t attend the friend’s birthday.
‘So how did you handle, then,’ the speaker asks, ‘giving him the real reason about why you don’t you go to birthday parties?’
‘Well I just WOLed it, so,’ the girl says casually.
‘You WOLed it,’ the speaker says, surprised. ‘What do you mean about that –– you WOLed it?’
‘Watchtower Online Library: I just WOLed it, on my phone.’
The crowd laughs.
‘So you got your mobile,’ the speaker says, ‘and you went to Watchtower Online Library, you did a search on birthdays, saw the material, reviewed the material, and then copied and pasted?’
‘Copied and pasted what I needed,’ the girl continues, ‘and sent it away in a text message.’
‘And he got the real reason.’
‘He got a full understanding.’
The July 2013 issue of Awake!, the Society’s general interest magazine, contains the articles “Was it Designed? The Resilient Brain of the Arctic Ground Squirrel’, “A Visit to Azerbaijan” and “How to Deal With Tantrums’.
“First and foremost we must report the virtual absence of anything which closely resembles the phenomenon of religious conversion as it is customarily understood,” J.A. Beckford wrote in his 1975 sociological study of the Witnesses. “Jehovah’s Witness converts certainly experience no sudden conviction that they have miraculously received God’s grace nor that they attained an immediate assurance of salvation. In fact, very few Witnesses can isolate a particular moment in time as a decisive turning point in their religious or spiritual development: certainly none could remember having an overwhelming religious experience.”
Both weekly meetings Witnesses are expected to attend feature around an hour of Watchtower study, where congregants answer review questions about the week’s study in front of the congregation. Many congregants, I noticed, underline their materials in obvious ways, a practice encouraged by the Society and which former Witnesses told me is a way church members show others they’ve completed the study.
Most of the highlighting I saw at the meetings I attended was so zealous as to seem only useful for the purposes of display. At one meeting, I noticed the elder assigned to sit with me had underlined all the key words and phrases in a particularly grisly section in Jeremiah; the underlined words, taken together, made for some comically macabre reading: ‘sword…famine…pestilence…mothers…’ it read. ‘Boiled and ate…own children…warned…saved…slowly seared…’
During one meeting, a congregant talked about how, because of their beliefs and way of life, Witnesses are effectively living in a state of constant persecution (he used the term “witness protection program”). Other congregants nodded knowingly when he said this.
All the current Witnesses I spoke to talked of the uniformity of the church’s teaching, presentation and congregations as a source of pride––that they could walk into a Kingdom Hall anywhere in the world and know that the people there would be believing and practicing and studying exactly the same things as they were.
“While some contact with worldly people is unavoidable––at work, at school, and otherwise––we must be vigilant so as to keep from being sucked back into the death-dealing atmosphere of this world. … Let the world go along in its way, reaping its bad fruitage in the form of broken homes, illegitimate births, sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS, and countless other emotional and physical woes.” Watchtower, 1987.
Paul Grundy lived at the Australian Witness head office, known as Bethel, for three and a half years. He said that Bethel is structured around its on-site printery, with those who don’t work in the printery itself mostly employed in the service of those who do––cooking food, cleaning rooms. There might be only 20 people in the printery, he said, but there’s an infrastructure of a couple of hundred people to look after them. “It’s incredibly inefficient,” he said. He added that it would be much cheaper to pay a professional print company to do it, and fund it by donations, but there’s a cachet associated with the whole enterprise: “it’s a privilege to serve at Bethel in the house of God.” It doesn’t matter that they’re inefficient; “the point is that they’re special and they’re doing things God’s way.”
I visited three Kingdoms Halls in all, in Narre Warren, Brunswick and Strathmore, and all had the same purposefully neutral, blank look; all were a bit faded, with a uniform palette of mocha and pastel tones, as if they’d all been built in the same few months in the late 80s. Having grown up a Catholic, whose places of worship tend to be full of intense imagery and iconography, the Kingdom Halls’ lack of decoration felt strange to me, at first, especially in light of the gaudy illustrations used in their publications, which I’d imagine would make some pretty arresting murals. There’s absolutely nothing to distract you in a Kingdom Hall, which I’m guessing is the point.
Publicly raising doubts about the Governing Body’s interpretation of the Bible, one ex-Witness told me, is “probably the worst thing you could possibly imagine, in that group…It would be easier for someone who committed murder to come back into the church than for someone who publicly raised doubts.”
Particularly strict religions, Stark and Iannaccone write, naturally rid themselves of dissident elements. “Keep in mind that strictness will also result in a high average level of the perceived legitimacy of leaders by causing those members who are most inclined to question authority to withdraw. In this way a relatively high rate of defection can be good for a group!”
One Witness, Noel Simons, told me the story of a church member who he’d known for “the best part of thirty years”, a man with whom he’d “done all sorts of things together on a social level.” This man’s wife died a while back, and then his daughter was in a serious car accident and lost her leg. He lost his way, Noel said, and was disfellowshipped. During this time no one in the congregation was able to talk to him.
After attending meetings for over a year, the man was reinstated. Noel told me he was able to pat him on the back and welcome him back to the fold. Cutting the man off “socially” and “spiritually”, Noel said, while letting him attend meetings, showed what made disfellowshipping effective: allowing people to see what they were missing, which would motivate them to take the necessary steps to come back. Anyone who didn’t know the man was disfellowshipped at the meetings, Noel said, would be “brought up to speed.”
Another Witness sitting with us, Rick Pain, said, “In my case, I said ‘G’day’ to him and he said, ‘Look, you’re not allowed to speak to me, I’m disfellowshipped.’”
“So they respect that themselves,” Noel said.
“When man’s law conflicts with God’s law, the decision as to what we will do is not difficult. Like the apostles in the first century, we obey God as ruler rather than men.” Watchtower, 2008.
“The Witnesses’ door-to-door activities and staunch refusal to salute any nation’s flag or serve in its military have been a constant source of conflict and persecution,” Stark & Iannaccone write.
“It is not in harmony with the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 or Isaiah 2:4 for a Christian to learn karate, judo, or other martial arts. A brother would be disqualified as an elder, a ministerial servant, or a pioneer if he took up the study of such martial arts and practiced them.” Watchtower, 1981.
A 1983 Watchtower warned that yoga “could cause unexpected problems”; it was at root “not merely a form of exercise” but a Hindu religious practice. It also warned that yoga-style meditation, in emptying the mind, could make people’s minds the “prey” of demons.
“…by means of his Kingdom, God will soon establish a human society where righteousness will dwell. (2 Peter 3:13) At that time prejudice will be conquered forever.” Awake! 2004.
“No major Christian sectarian movement has been so insistent on prophesying the end of the present world in such definite ways or on such specific dates as have Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the historian and former JW James Penton wrote.
The Witnesses predicted that the end of the world would come a number of times during the 20th century, including 1914, 1918, 1925 and 1975.
“So convinced were devotees that 1975 would mark the end of the world,” Holden writes, “that in that year many of them abandoned their houses and pitched tents in remote areas in eager anticipation of the opening of the heavens!’
“Yes, since the summer of 1973 there have been new peaks in pioneers every month,” a 1974 Kingdom Ministry reported. “…Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.”
“I was born in 1969 and during my life as a Witness was led to believe that I would never die,” the ex-Witness Paul Grundy writes on his website. “The generation teaching proved that I was unlikely to ever leave school and it was impossible that I would grow old. During primary school I prayed that the end would be fulfilled so that I would not have to go to high school. Later, in my teens, I would sunbake with my cousins smeared in Johnson’s Baby Oil, laughing that we didn’t have to worry about skin cancer; we would never get that old.”
In a paper on former Witnesses, counsellor and ex-Mormon Tanya Willson writes: “Because of the doctrine of Armageddon occurring soon, many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses will have phobia or PTSD-like symptoms, including nightmares or anxiety attacks, even though they do not intellectually believe in this doctrine anymore, because many were often taught as children to fear Armageddon.”
The Witnesses’ eschatology, in its elaboration, is unique among Millenarian churches. Mormons, for example, believe God will return to earth in the vicinity of Independence, Missouri to begin a 1,000 year reign.
“Following the establishment of God’s Kingdom in the year 1914, war broke out in heaven,” a 2004 Watchtower explained. “Satan and his demon angels were defeated and cast down to the vicinity of the earth. Enraged, Satan has intensified his campaign of global deception.”
“…there really are invisible ‘world rulers,’” a 2011 Watchtower read, “demon princes who share control of the world under the authority of their chief, Satan the Devil.”
The church is particularly strict when it comes to sexuality. “Engaged couples who buy houses in preparation for marriage,” Andrew Holden writes, “must make every effort to ensure that, should they need to carry out repairs or do some decorating, a third party such as a friend or relative is always present.”
“Helpful in this regard, then,” a 1970 Watchtower cautioned, “is appreciating the fact that autoeroticism or masturbation is no mere innocent pastime but rather a practice that can lead to homosexual acts.”
Oral and anal sex among married couples were disfellowshipping offences in 1976:
“Unnatural practices in connection with sex in marriage, such as oral and anal copulation, have caused some of God’s people to become impure in his eyes. But The Watchtower kept above this morass of filth by alerting married couples to God’s thinking on the matter.” Watchtower, 1976.
By 1978, this position had changed:
“… in view of the absence of clear Scriptural instruction, these are matters for which the married couple themselves must bear the responsibility before God and that these marital intimacies do not come within the province of the congregational elders to attempt to control nor to take disfellowshipping action…” Watchtower, 1978.
In the new world, a 2000 Watchtower promised, “‘God will wipe out every tear from their eyes.’ That cannot refer to normal tears that wash our sensitive eyes, nor can it refer to tears of joy. No, the tears that God will wipe out are tears caused by suffering, grief, disappointment, hurt, and agony. How can we be sure? Well, this remarkable promise of God links wiping out tears with ‘death, mourning, outcry, and pain being no more.’—John 11:35.
Does this not prove that cancer, strokes, heart attacks, and even death will have been eliminated? Who of us has not lost a loved one to some disease, accident, or disaster? God here promises that death will be no more, which suggests that the children who might be born then will not have to face the prospect of growing up and then getting old—ending in death. This prophecy also means no more Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, fibroid tumors, glaucoma, or even cataracts—so common in old age.
You would no doubt agree that mourning and outcry would decrease with the removal of death, old age, and disease. Yet, what about grinding poverty, child abuse, and oppressive discrimination based on background or skin color? Were such things—common today—to continue, we would not be rid of mourning and outcry. Thus, life under ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ will not be marred by these present causes of sorrow. What a change!” Watchtower, 2000.
The Society counselled against vaccinations from 1921 to 1952. “Avoid serum inoculations and vaccinations as they pollute the blood stream with their filthy pus.” Golden Age, 1929.
In 1952, the Society advised, via the Watchtower, that it had changed its position: “The matter of vaccination is one for the individual that has to face it to decide for himself… And our Society cannot afford to be drawn into the affair legally or take the responsibility for the way the case turns out.” Watchtower, 1952.
In 1961, the Society appeared to take no position on organ transplants, telling followers that it was “something that each individual must decide for himself.” Watchtower, 1961.
But in 1967 they changed their position:
“Sustaining one’s life by means of the body or part of the body of another human … would be cannibalism, a practice abhorrent to all civilized people…” Watchtower, 1967.
“The time is coming when all the earth will be a physical paradise—a gardenlike place free of pollution and a fitting home for faithful mankind.” Watchtower, 2001.
“But if we were to draw away from Jehovah’s organization, there would be no place else to go for salvation and true joy.” Watchtower, 1993.
Pete Nicholson is a Melbourne writer.