One morning, in the late 1970s, two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on Rick Pain’s door in suburban Sydney. Outwardly, Pain, who was in his mid-twenties at the time, didn’t seem particularly receptive to the Witnesses’ message of evangelical awakening: he’d been a heroin addict for a number of years, his wife was also an addict, and over the years he’d sought comfort and higher meaning in tarot cards, LSD, New Age philosophy, Buddhist meditation and a heavy marijuana habit. But he also believed there was truth in the Bible – ‘undeniable fact’ that had stayed with him since he’d first read Scripture, during a stint at a Christian high school.
After a brief conversation, Pain told the two doorknocking women he wasn’t interested. Undaunted, they returned that afternoon, and then again the next day. The third time they knocked, Pain relented and invited them inside. They seemed nice, he thought, and their talk of a strictly Bible-based faith intrigued him. He made some tea, and began peppering them with questions: What, he asked, did the Bible say about drugs? About prophecy and fulfilment? And what, exactly, was a Jehovah?
“Every question,” Pain tells me after a meeting one evening, “they answered from the Bible.” Impressed, he started meeting with the Witnesses regularly. He signed up for a Bible study, the first step towards becoming a baptised Witness. For fifteen years, through a traumatic marriage breakdown and ongoing personal strife, Pain continued to study the Witnesses’ teaching, “determined,” he says, “to prove them wrong.” Witnesses live in strict adherence to their reading of Biblical principles, and Pain knew from the outset joining the church would mean completely changing his life. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t find fault with the Witnesses’ prophecies, nor their interpretation of the Bible. There was no bright light, no great moment of conversion. There was just the sense that he had found truth, and in 1993, on a stage in front of thousands of Witnesses at a stadium in Perth, Rick Pain became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“If you want to follow God, any other religion is easier than Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Pain says. “You don’t just say, ‘Ok, Hallelujah, I’ve been born again.’ You’ve got to prove by your behaviour that something has changed, because this is God’s organisation.”
Among the foundation beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who currently number around seven and half million active members worldwide, is that God, whom they call Jehovah, personally directs their church. Witnesses believe that The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, as their organisation is officially known, represents the only true religion, and that all other faiths, including other Christian churches, are not only false but ultimately doomed, as is anyone else who fails to convert. “Only Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the Society’s main publication, the Watchtower, declared in 1989, “…have any Scriptural hope of surviving the impending end of this doomed system dominated by Satan the Devil.”
“Very soon,” a 2006 Watchtower cautioned, “…God will bring this vicious, cruel system of things to an end.”
Witnesses consider Jehovah the only true authority on earth, and are forbidden from voting, joining the military, or saluting any flag – stances which set them apart from other evangelical churches, and have seen church members persecuted all over the world. Also forbidden are most forms of sexual activity, along with martial arts, yoga, swearing, Christmas, birthdays and most other holidays. Based on their reading of Leviticus, Witnesses controversially refuse blood transfusions, and are discouraged from pursuing higher education and close relationships outside the church. By all these means, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they are living Biblical truth, which will ensure their everlasting life in earthly paradise once the present world, or “system”, comes to an end at Armageddon. After numerous failed prophecies the Society no longer makes specific predictions about when Armageddon will arrive, but their many publications leave little doubt as to its imminence. “Very soon,” a 2006 Watchtower cautioned, “…God will bring this vicious, cruel system of things to an end.”
But it’s what Witnesses do that make them familiar to most of us. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are tireless proselytisers, active, by their own account, in 239 lands, spreading the word door to door and in the street, at tourist attractions and prisons and rehabilitation facilities and shopping centre parking lots. According to last year’s Yearbook, the church’s exhaustive report of their global activities, in 2012 Jehovah’s Witnesses spent almost two billion hours “witnessing”, as they call it. Regular Witnesses, known as publishers, are expected to preach around ten hours a month; more active preachers, called pioneers, can spend up to 130 hours a month spreading the word. “You’re told in the Bible to put the preaching work first, and God will take care of the rest,” Pain says. “That’s the theory. We put it into practice, and it works.” Witnesses believe that preaching is not only a Biblical command but also, invoking Mark 13:10, a work that “must be done ‘first’, before the end comes” – one of the signs, along with an increase in war, famine, pestilence, earthquakes and lawlessness, that we are in the last days.
“We have enough Witnesses in Australia to cover absolutely everything,” Peter Linke, a longtime church elder from the Narre Warren congregation, in Melbourne’s southeast, tells me. We are at his Kingdom Hall, a large, bland, sparely furnished brick building that, like the other Kingdom Halls I visit, has the blank, rented ambience of a conference centre or funeral home. Linke shows me into one of the two grey-carpeted halls. The stage is empty and unadorned, save for a small lectern and a quote, from the Gospel of John, on a glass sign: “Your word is truth.” On the back wall is a map stuck to a noticeboard. The map shows Linke’s congregation’s assigned area, perhaps a few square kilometres of nearby suburb, which is divided into smaller, numbered sections. Great care, Linke says, is taken to ensure that “every street is allocated to somebody.” Each congregation works systematically through every home in their area, a process that takes Linke’s congregation of 108 people around five months. “Once we finish,” he says, “we start again.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, Linke later explains, have a unique advantage when it comes to spreading the word: every baptised Witness is a minister. Congregations, which are limited to around 100 members, are “cared for” by elders, like Linke, and overseen by higher ups, called overseers, leading back to the Society’s Brooklyn, NYC headquarters, but, unlike more traditional churches, Witnesses expect all active members to spread the word as ministers of the church. (While there are no limitations on women preaching, women are not eligible for leadership positions within the church.) Age is no barrier: as soon as a young Witness is baptised, which typically happens from the mid-teens, they’re expected to begin preaching. Younger Witnesses, too, frequently accompany their parents on their rounds, where they can start even sooner if the elders consider them ready. A fifteen-year-old baptised Witness, Linke tells me, is expected to be “totally fluent’ with their Bible, able to “explain their beliefs coherently and answer pretty much whatever question you might ask.”
Preaching is a cornerstone of the Witnesses’ belief and practice, but it also keeps the church alive. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum, the Jehovah’s Witnesses has the highest turnover rate of any religion, and since the mid-1990s the church’s annual growth has fallen from an enviable 5% to around 2%. Finding new converts seems to be getting harder. The church’s annual figures of new baptisms include children born into the church, which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly how many converts are brought in from the church’s ministry each year. Assuming, however, that around a third of new baptisms in 2012 were children of Witnesses—a conservative estimate—for every new convert, Witnesses are now spending almost 10,000 hours “in the field” – a fivefold increase from the late 1960s.
Each congregation works systematically through every home in their area … “Once we finish,” he says, “we start again.”
“There’s definitely an erosion of spirituality,” Mike Swan, an elder and pioneer in Pain’s Melbourne congregation, says when I ask him about the church’s slowing growth. Swan believes that this erosion of faith is limited to the West, where people have become dismissive not just of the Biblical message he preaches, but religion in general. “They’re not even prepared to engage in a dialogue.” He notes that in regions like Africa and Latin America, the church’s growth is still “phenomenal”. Swan tells me about several months he recently spent in Botswana, where he found people were much more receptive to the Society’s message. There, he says, people “love God, they love the Bible, and they’ve got no concept of evolution or atheism – it’s the furthest thing from their mind.” He recalls telling one man there that, back home, “many people no longer believe in God, or they’re really unsure that such an individual exists. And the guy turned to me and said, ‘What? Are they stupid?’”
For Rick Pain, there were a few sure signs that the Witnesses were God’s organisation. Like most other millenarian Christian groups, the Witnesses are avid prophesiers. They believe, for instance, that the end times began in 1914, exactly 2520 years after they say Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, and that since they began Jesus has ruled the earth invisibly, as heavenly king. Before he met with Witnesses, Pain had long been fascinated by prophecy, and around that time he’d been reading a lot of Nostradamus and Carlos Castaneda. He told the two Witnesses who visited him about his interest. “They said, “Oh, the Bible’s full of prophecy and fulfilment,” and showed Pain what they meant. That first day, they spent three hours talking. Pain was fascinated, but remained suspicious. “I was doggedly determined not to get hoodwinked into a scam,” he says. “I’d been scammed enough.” The more he studied, though, the more it seemed clear to him that the Bible was indeed God’s book, a divinely authored account of past, present and future, and, more importantly, that the Witnesses alone knew how to interpret its messages.
Another sign was the church’s relationship to money. After a sour experience as a Catholic altar boy, and having tired of the spiritual supermarket of the ’70s, Pain had become deeply suspicious of religions that actively sought money from their followers, or preached doctrines of financial prosperity. The Watch Tower Society is mostly run by unpaid volunteers, and, though funded by voluntary donations, doesn’t ask its members to tithe, or place a strong emphasis on donations. In Pain’s eyes, this made the Witnesses “totally unique”. The fact that the organisation was still able to print and distribute such vast amounts of literature—by their own count, the church has printed more than 20 billion copies of its publications in the last decade, in over 500 languages—was proof to him not only of the organisation’s credibility, but also of Jehovah’s guiding hand. “It’s like nothing else in the whole world.”
Becoming a Witness is a lengthy process. To be considered ready for baptism, converts must study the church’s teaching thoroughly under the guidance of other Witnesses, often for more than a year, while demonstrating that they’ve conformed their lives to the church’s strict moral code. “I didn’t have that sort of revelation of ‘Oh, God is real and loves me, and I’m alright,’” Pain says of his road to baptism. Like Pain, Witness converts don’t tend to report the intensely emotional conversion experiences often associated with evangelical Christianity. They also don’t believe that, by starting out on the path to righteousness, they’ve been saved: survival of Armageddon and eternal life in paradise are promised only to those who make it to baptism, and through the many challenges that lie beyond. “Jehovah has standards,” Pain says, “and you make a choice whether you’re going to align yourself with those standards or not.”
For years Pain lived in between worlds, believing the Witnesses were the one true religion, but not yet able to straighten his life out enough to be baptised into the church. He would get stoned with his friends, rhapsodising about how the Witnesses had discovered the “true reality of man”; how he would be one of them, if only he had the willpower. One day, at his house, a Witness who’d been studying with him expressed his frustration that the study didn’t seem to be progressing. He asked Pain what the problem was. “I leant round the corner and pulled a [marijuana] plant that I had hanging up on the door, about a metre and a half long, upside down, hanging drying,” Pain recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘This has probably got something to do with it!’ He just threw his stuff down and said, ‘This is a hopeless waste of time.’” Looking back, Pain agrees. “You can’t eat at the table of Jehovah and the table of demons, you know? Just doesn’t work.”
He had a glorious mane of red hair, which he willingly cut off after his Bible study group suggested that such hair “dishonours a man”.
Some changes Pain had to make were easy: he had a glorious mane of red hair, which he willingly cut off after his Bible study group suggested that such hair “dishonours a man”. Quitting drugs proved much more of a challenge. Pain’s early life had been marked by abuse and neglect, and since his teens he’d relied on drugs, mostly heroin and marijuana, to cope with the trauma he’d suffered. Soon after Pain was born, his brother, who was severely autistic, died at home in his father’s arms. Pain says his parents never really recovered. After that his father was rarely home, and his mother’s mental condition deteriorated to the point where she was eventually institutionalised. There was no money, he says, and no supervision. He and his siblings played on the streets at all hours. At six, Pain remembers spending evenings alone at the nearby waterfront, fishing by himself. Around that time he says he suffered repeated sexual abuse, first on the streets and later, at the hands of older boys, at a police-run camp for wayward kids. At seven, he tried to commit to suicide.
Pain is a wiry man of sixty, his face framed by deep lines. He has a warm, avuncular manner, and speaks about the horrors of his early life without bitterness. “When drugs came along,” he tells me one morning, speaking about his first experience with marijuana in his mid-teens, “it was the first time I’d felt happy and relaxed in my whole life.” After his father kicked him out when he was sixteen, he wound up a young apprentice in a rooming house in Sydney’s red-light district, King’s Cross, at the height of the psychedelic era, sharing accommodations with drug dealers and prostitutes and trying most of the substances on offer. In the midst of all this wildness, Pain insists that he himself was never particularly wild. “I was the oldest virgin in the Cross,” he says. “I took lots of drugs, but other than that I was very straight.”
In Pain’s early twenties, after the difficult breakup of his first serious relationship, his brother gave him some pure heroin for his birthday. His first hit left him unconscious, but subsequent hits he enjoyed very much. “It’s like being wrapped in mother’s comforting arms,” he says. His brother lived with two girls who were trafficking it directly from South East Asia, which meant an unlimited, free supply. For years he says he was able to manage a full time job, a marriage, and eventually fatherhood, with what he calls a “heavy” habit. “I was an upmarket heroin addict, I suppose.”
The heroin was the first to go once he met the Witnesses, followed by cigarettes and then marijuana, which Pain says he sometimes fell back into using when things got tough. Many of his old friends didn’t react well to his new lifestyle. “As soon as they heard that I was studying they either bagged it very loudly or begged me not to do it or didn’t want to know me,” he says. “It was such a dramatic response from people, like nothing else that I’d ever seen.” After initially supporting him, Pain says his wife “freaked out” when he went one day with another Witness to talk to a prospective convert, who was also struggling with drug abuse. Soon after, she began cheating on him, he says, and took to pelting visiting Witnesses with full cans of beans. She was a good shot. “One of the guys actually said to me, ‘Mate, to progress in this you’re going to have to leave your wife, and I never say that to anyone.’” After more trials, and an eventual breakdown, Pain finally did leave his wife, but by then he was smoking pot again, and was no longer actively studying with the Witnesses.
One night in 1991, Pain switched on the TV and saw pictures of oil wells on fire in Kuwait… “I thought, well, this could be Armageddon.”
One night in 1991, Pain switched on the TV and saw pictures of oil wells on fire in Kuwait, lit by Iraqi forces retreating during the Gulf War. “I thought, well, this could be Armageddon,” he recalls now. “This could be the end of the whole thing.” He immediately rang the local Witnesses and asked to rejoin a Bible study.
There was one final hurdle. After moving to Western Australia, Pain and his new partner, Vicki, who he’d introduced to the church, moved in together. The church didn’t approve. While Pain struggled to finalise a divorce with his first wife, the new couple tried to compromise: they moved into a caravan, with Pain in the annex and Vicki in the van. But the local congregation wouldn’t have it. “It was an honest situation,” Pain explains. “We weren’t sleeping together. But they said, ‘Who’s going to believe that?’” (The Witnesses are particularly strict on this point: if an engaged couple buys a house in anticipation of their marriage, another Witness needs to accompany them when they visit it.) Eventually, Vicki moved in with a Witness family, and with great relief, Pain was finally able to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Pain says there are many like him who’ve come to the church after experiencing great difficulty in their lives. “Everybody believes in God at war in a foxhole with someone shooting at them. It’s trauma in life that makes us reach out to something outside ourselves.”
The life of a Jehovah’s Witness is a full one. In addition to witnessing at least a few hours a week, there are two weekly meetings, both of which require significant preparation and study, and families are expected to hold another, private evening of family study. (It’s been estimated that Witnesses are expected to read over 3,000 pages of Society literature each year.) There are also regular larger gatherings of congregations. “We’ve all got incredibly busy lives,” Pain says, when I ask him whether he finds the lifestyle demanding. Sometimes, he admits, he finds it difficult making it to the meetings, “but…when I leave an hour or two later, I’ll feel better than when I got there. So I know I’m doing something good for myself.”
In order to satisfy these demands on their time, many Witnesses work part-time, often for themselves or in community-run businesses. (Window washing was a particularly common occupation among Witnesses I spoke to, and apparently among Witnesses generally.) “You’re not supposed to get a higher education, so that immediately limits your job opportunities,” Paul Grundy, a former Witness of more than thirty years and now a prominent critic of the church, says. Grundy ignored his elders’ advice to go straight into missionary work after high school, and instead completed a degree in accounting, a decision he says got him into “a lot of trouble.” Other Witnesses, he says, found his decision “offensive” and reported him to the church leadership, who told him that being an accountant was a pointless job, as in the new system there wouldn’t be any money. Why, Grundy says he was asked, wouldn’t he become a builder, so in the new system he could help rebuild the earth?
After he finished university, Grundy went to live and work at Bethel, the headquarters of the Australian Jehovah’s Witnesses, in western Sydney (all Witness headquarters, including the world headquarters in Brooklyn, are known as Bethel). There, he says, he was immediately assigned to cleaning duties, and, later, spent some time working as a waiter. (Bethels are, primarily, enormous printeries; all Bethel employees live on site, working mostly in the printery or in the service of those who do.) In the three and a half years he spent at Bethel, Grundy says the Bethel elders “never ever used me in any capacity that had anything to do with my degree,” a punishment he believes was the direct result of his choosing to go university. In the US, among the major religions, Witnesses have the lowest rates of participation in higher education (less than a third of their members, and only half the rate of Mormons), as well as the lowest rate of people with a family income over $100,000 per year. “Young Christians are encouraged to pursue spiritual goals,” a 2011 Watchtower article counselled, “getting only as much education as is required to meet their basic needs while focusing on preparing themselves to serve Jehovah ‘with their whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.’”
The Branch Organization Manual … contains over a thousand regulations and policies on everything from filing and wall washing at church headquarters to how wives of church leaders should travel with their husbands.
To stay in the church’s good graces, Witnesses are required to follow a Byzantine set of rules, some of them explicit, some of them not. “If you know a little bit about Jehovah’s personality, you don’t need a whole lot of dos and don’ts,” Noel Simons, a longtime Witness from Pain’s congregation, explains to me after a meeting one afternoon. Noel says that some things, like the kind of movies he watched, were a matter of personal discretion. Many others are not. The Branch Organization Manual, a rulebook used by Witness leaders to guide and govern the church, contains over a thousand regulations and policies on everything from filing and wall washing at church headquarters to how wives of church leaders should travel with their husbands. The church’s rules against sexuality, meanwhile, are also clearly defined: masturbation, which the Society teaches can lead to homosexuality, is forbidden, as are oral and anal sex, even among married couples. (Masturbation, a 1973 Watchtower advised, “is one form of leaving ‘the natural use of the female’ for ‘one contrary to nature.’’’)
Still other rules are implied. Church members in many congregations, for instance, are discouraged from growing beards, though there’s no formal doctrine about it. (Church publications do, however, provide a detailed history of the beard, as well as advice on shaving. Indeed, the Society’s vast array of booklets and magazines offer information on a huge variety of subjects and themes; taken together, they form a kind of mini-encyclopaedia of a world the Society believes is both dangerous and in terminal decline. ‘Protect Yourself From Crime’, the lead story from a recent issue of general interest magazine Awake!, for instance, doesn’t cover a particular form of crime, but, rather, most major kinds: sexual assault, cyber crime, robbery, identity theft. The article, after covering things like Deuteronomy’s advice on rape (“Scream”), finishes with a section entitled ‘Soon, An End to Crime’, in which readers are promised that, thanks to Jehovah’s coming intervention, crime will soon be a thing of the past.)
As Grundy discovered, the Society keeps close tabs on their members. At the end of each month, every Witness must fill out a form showing the hours they’ve spent witnessing and in Bible study groups. If a church member fails to submit their form just once, they’re considered ‘irregular’, and an elder will usually try to talk to them; if they don’t complete a form for six months, they become ‘inactive’ and are no longer officially counted as part of the church. Witnesses at every level of authority are directly overseen by those above them, and the rank and file are encouraged to report any inappropriate behaviour they see in others to their elders – even if this risks breaking the law.
Moira, an ex-Witness who spent over thirty years in the church, says that church members watch each other closely, and feel compelled to report others’ indiscretions because they believe “God knows” about it already. “If I don’t,” she says she remembers thinking, “then I’m guilty.” Witnesses found to have violated the Society’s rules can be ‘disfellowshipped’ and cut off from the church, via a controversial practice known as ‘shunning’ that makes offenders persona non-grata to other Witnesses. (Those who leave voluntarily face the same fate.) “Purity is a very important concept to the Witnesses,” Andrew Holden, a sociologist from the UK’s Blackburn University who wrote a book-length study on the Witnesses, says. Shunning, Holden explains, keeps “the organisation pure. It’s based on this idea that you’re not really doing them any favours” – by letting you into God’s organisation, “they’re kind of doing you one.”
Church members are not allowed to question the Society, or its highest authority, the self-elected Governing Body, for fear of being disfellowshipped. “We feel that our Governing Body is doing a pretty good job,” the elder Peter Linke says. “We don’t feel any compulsion to try and tell them what to do.” According to the church’s own statistics, the Society disfellowships around 60,000 Witnesses each year, for transgressions including smoking, adultery, “loose conduct’ and “failure to abstain from blood”. Roughly a third of disfellowshipped members are eventually reinstated. “No one gets disfellowshipped,” Rick Pain says. “You disfellowship yourself. If you decide you don’t want to play in that club by those rules any more, it’s your decision.” Disfellowshipped members can still attend meetings, in the hope of being reinstated, but they have to sit at the back of the hall, and no one in the congregation is allowed to speak to them. The implications of disfellowshipping for Witnesses are grave: not only are members cut off from the community, they are also, as a Watchtower once warned, cast “out of God’s household.” “The objective of it is to make the person realise there’s a loss for leaving,” Pain says.
From the outside, the lifestyle of a Jehovah’s Witness can seem a particularly austere one. But, as studies of the Witnesses and other similar ‘high-control’ religious groups have shown, such strictness also brings with it certain rewards. Making the barriers to membership steep strengthens religious communities by “screening out free-riders”, limiting congregations to the committed. Such groups are attractive to members for a number of reasons. For one, they can mobilise a lot of energy quickly – to, say, build a new Kingdom Hall, as Witness congregations often do themselves, or help repair a member’s house if a storm destroys it. They also offer people a reliable, orderly and close-knit community, the likes of which can be hard to find elsewhere. Going to church is a more fulfilling experience for a worshiper if the hall is full of familiar faces, everyone has done the study and is joining in the songs and prayers, and people are expressing positive feelings about being there. If it were easy for nominal or uncommitted members to hang around the congregations, the theory goes, the average level of commitment would fall, and with it, the rewards the committed could expect. For churches like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, leaving the back door open, as it were, is just as important as opening the front gates.
If I’m in hospital I’ll probably have thirty people come and visit, and twenty people take my wife out to dinner,” Mike Swan says, when I ask him what he most enjoys about life in the church. “Just to be around people who I can trust with my life, and I know they’ve got my back.” For Rick Pain, too, the support offered by the Witness community is key to its appeal. “It’s probably the best AA club in the world,” he says, “because all your mates are here, and you can ring them up at one in the morning every night for a week if you’re having trouble staying away from drinking and they’ll talk to you. And they’ll support you. No one thinks they’re holier than anyone else.”
Swan says his greatest joy, “the real thrill”, is in seeing the Bible change people’s lives. “There’s a real sense of contentment, even though we live in a world where the news daily reminds us of the fragility of life, the sadness many people are experiencing, to know that this is temporary. That we’re clearly moving towards a resolution.”
Jehovah will triumph, but it won’t be pretty.
The resolution that Witnesses eagerly await is central to the church’s message. A complicated series of events, it promises believers a utopian new world – and the destruction of everyone else. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that after 1914, when Christ began to rule invisibly from heaven, Satan was cast down to earth, where he began to control the world. Soon, the Society promises, Christ will take the fight directly to Satan, signalling the beginning of Armageddon, a battle between good and evil that will see the destruction of much of the earth, including all unbelievers. Jehovah will triumph, but it won’t be pretty. When the carnage is over, the 1953 Society book ‘New Heavens and a New Earth’ explains, Witnesses will “look upon the carcasses of those whom Jehovah has slain, unburied,” the bodies becoming “the food of worms that will not die or cease from swarming over the odious carcasses until they have eaten the bones clean…” At the end of Armageddon, with Satan contained, Witnesses believe the earth will enter a 1000-year reign of Christ (a period also anticipated by Mormons, Adventists and other so-called millenarian faiths, though they differ on the details).
Assisting Christ in His heavenly reign, the Society teaches, will be exactly 144,000 ‘spirit anointed’ Christians. The 144,000 is made up of true believers chosen since Pentecost, in 33 CE, starting with the apostles and other first-century Christians, and containing at least some of the more than 12,000 modern day Witnesses who believe themselves anointed. (All members of the Governing Body claim to be part of the 144,000.) Spirit anointment, Mike Swan says, “is a choice made by God rather than the individual,” though it’s individual Witnesses who put themselves forward, by accepting the ‘emblems’ of bread and wine at the church’s annual Memorial of Christ’s Death.
According to Swan, not all of the people who claim anointment have been chosen. Some, he says, have suffered “emotional traumas”, and “convince themselves” that they’re destined for heaven. Occasionally, though, he sees a genuine claim. He tells me about a long-time Witness he knows who, quite late in life, noticed a “considerable difference” in himself, and began to feel as if God was talking directly to him through the scriptures. After spending a few years “challenging” his understanding, and conferring with other Witnesses, the man accepted that he was one of the anointed. “It’s a very personal experience, and it has to be,” Swan says. He compares the attempts of people who aren’t anointed trying to understand the experience of those who are to a man trying to understand what it’s like to be a woman. “I could talk to a million women,” he says. “I could write a book. Am I going to feel the same way? No.”
By any measure, the 144,000 must be getting close to capacity. In 1935, with over 52,000 current Witnesses claiming to be anointed, the Society announced that the 144,000 was “sealed”. But in later years, with new members still coming forward claiming to be chosen, the church changed its position, saying that a small number of spots were still available, vacated by anointed Witnesses who had abandoned their faith. According to Paul Grundy, the church’s maths on the 144,000 “doesn’t actually add up.” He points out that, using the Society’s own writings on the subject, a conservative estimate would have around 65,000 first-century Christians already in; add to that the 52,000 aspirants from 1935 and the current 12,000, and that leaves barely a tenth of the quota open to believers from most of Christian history. “We believe that the number of the 144,000 is virtually complete,” Peter Linke says, adding “that the vast majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses alive now will in fact live here on earth.”
Whomever makes it into the 144,000 will, Witnesses believe, help oversee a radical transformation of the earth. Paradise will be restored; death, disease, hatred, racism, violence and oppression will be no more. The Society’s vivid illustrations of this new world, featured prominently in the booklets they offer the public, promise eternal freedom from the fears and sufferings of mortal life: the old and the infirm restored to their younger, healthier selves; the blind and the sick healed; children playing alongside tigers, as if they were household pets.
“That would be an unbelievable thing, wouldn’t it, to have generations of your family all living in paradise, without sickness or death?”
The Witnesses are also promised a great resurrection. In the Society’s eschatology, Christ’s reign acts as a millennium-long judgement day, during which all but the most sinful of the dead will be brought back to life to live under the tutelage of the earthly Witnesses, where they’ll have the chance to join the church and live forever. (This, as some critics of the church have pointed out, presents something of a logistical issue: The Population Reference Bureau estimates that around 108 billion humans have lived on earth, the vast majority of whom were born after the Witnesses believe man was created, 6000 years ago. Should even three quarters of these dead be restored to life, the earth would be around ten times more populous than it is now.) “That would be an unbelievable thing, wouldn’t it, to have generations of your family all living in paradise, without sickness or death?” Rick Pain says. “In this world, it’s a fairy tale.”
Once the 1000 years is up, Satan will return a final time to tempt believers before being finally destroyed, along with all those he’s managed to mislead. After that, Christ will hand control of the earth back to Jehovah, and the planet will be the Witnesses’ forever. ”As a Witness, you feel very special,” Paul Grundy says, “because only as a Witness can you be part of this amazing time and survive Armageddon.”
According to historian and former Witness James Penton, “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 modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged out of the Bible Student movement, founded in the 1870s by Pennsylvanian draper Charles Taze Russell. In 1876, based on both his reading of the Bible and the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Russell predicted that Christ had returned, invisibly, two years before, and that 1914 would see the end of the world and the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth. (Reportedly, when the First World War broke out that year, Bible Students celebrated, seeing it as a sign that the prophecy was being fulfilled.) Russell was a shrewd businessman, and something of an eccentric. In 1912, he was alleged to have defrauded a number of farmers by selling them so-called ‘Miracle Wheat’ at inflated prices; despite not knowing Greek, Latin or Hebrew, he proclaimed himself to be an expert scripture scholar, even testifying to this, once, under oath in an Ontario court. (Modern academic theologians don’t regard him as such.)
Russell’s teachings were controversial and sometimes strange. He denied both the existence of hell and the immortality of the soul, and taught that the wicked would be annihilated. When he died, he believed that he would be spirited to the Pleiades constellation, which he taught was the abode of God. Russell published voluminously, and under his leadership the Bible Student movement expanded throughout the US and Canada and into Europe and Australia. After Russell died suddenly on his way home from a preaching trip in 1916 (his final words, it’s said, were “wrap me in a Roman toga”), control of the Watchtower Society was assumed by a lawyer named Joseph Rutherford, who promptly predicted that Christendom would be destroyed the following year. Undaunted by the prophecy’s failure, in 1918 Rutherford predicted that 1925 would see the end of Christianity, along with the resurrection of the dead on earth, the arrival of the prophets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the return of earth to paradise. Rutherford, who had a flair for the dramatic, and called himself ‘Judge’, though there is some doubt he ever held an official appointment in that capacity, started giving public talks around this time promising, famously, that “millions now living will never die”. The faithful, he said, would live to see the end of the current system, and then they would live in paradise for eternity.
At one point Rutherford had church members carry portable phonographs door to door, playing records of him speaking.
Rutherford’s date-based prophecies and new ways of preaching—at one point he had church members carry portable phonographs door to door, playing records of him speaking—saw recruitment boom. Between 1922 and 1925, attendance at the church’s yearly memorial tripled, reaching over 90,000. When the prophecies failed, however, boom quickly turned to bust, with disappointed members leaving in droves. Three years after the failed 1925 prediction, attendance at the church’s memorial had dropped to just over 17,000, and by 1935, attendance still hadn’t recovered to 1925 levels. In the wake of the failed predictions, the Society tended to lay the blame at the feet of the rank-and-file, who, they said, were guilty of taking their messages too literally. “Some anticipated that the work would end in 1925, but the Lord did not state so,” a 1926 Watchtower explained. “The difficulty was that the friends inflated their imaginations beyond reason.”
After Rutherford’s death, in 1942, the church, now known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stopped making official, date-based predictions about the end, preferring to use the words “soon’ or “imminent’. That was until the late ’60s, when church publications began obliquely suggesting that there were signs pointing to a new date: the autumn of 1975. In October 1968, Awake! declared, “Only a few years, at most, remain before the corrupt system of things dominating the earth is destroyed by God.” Young people, another edition cautioned, needed “to face the fact that you will never grow old in this present system of things.” With the Society’s strong encouragement, many church members sold their homes and became pioneers. Couples postponed having children, so as to be “less encumbered to carry out the instructions of Jesus Christ’ in what little time was left. David Reed, a British ex-Witness, wrote that he put off dental work he needed, “figuring it would be better to devote my time and funds to spiritual things, since the end was so near and my body would be restored to perfection shortly after 1975.” When the autumn of 1975 arrived, many Witnesses camped out in remote areas, waiting for the end. The end didn’t come, though, and again many disenchanted believers left the religion. “I know some of that generation, and they were very dogmatic,” Mike Swan says, when I ask him about 1975. “But you see the problem that they had was that the scriptures didn’t give them the basis to be dogmatic. What they’d done was that they ran ahead of the scripture.”
For Paul Grundy, whose parents converted in 1971 when he was two, growing up under the spectre of the end of the world made for an unusual childhood. Even when 1975 came and went, he believed that he wouldn’t finish school, and that he would never grow old. He and his family, he was certain, would live forever in a world made perfect by Jehovah. In primary school, he prayed that the end would come before he had to go to high school; later, as a teenager, he wrote that he used to sunbake with his cousins “smeared in Johnson’s Baby Oil, laughing that we didn’t have to worry about skin cancer; we would never get that old.”
Ex-Witness Moira and her husband John, who met in the church in the 1980s and were both active members until a few years ago, recall a similar urgency in the church at the time. John says that, though there was no longer a specific date, they were continually told that the end was just “around the corner”, and were expected to plan their lives accordingly. Following advice from the Society and church leaders, he says, he and Moira decided not to go to university or have children. “We’ve been married fifteen years,” John says. “We could have had a fourteen-year-old kid.”
“Only God will decide when Armageddon happens,” Rick Pain says. “And maybe he’ll change his mind. He changes his mind about things – it’s scripturally documented, in the Bible, time and time again. His heart’s been softened about certain things and he’s staved off certain events and not wiped out people. So it’ll come at exactly at the right time, the Bible says.”
On the northwest fringe of Melbourne, a few paddocks beyond the reach of the new estate sprawl, sits the Melbourne Assembly Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a vast red-brick building that plays host each year to large gatherings of Witness congregations, called Special Assembly Days. Like the weekly meetings, the day-long assemblies are more or less identical all over the world – the same theme, the same program, the same talks and Watchtower study, all of it put together by the church’s headquarters in Brooklyn. One wet winter’s morning, I join over a thousand Witnesses at the Hall to consider the theme ‘Safeguard Your Conscience’, via a full day of talks and baptisms and worship.
Speakers, I notice later, are also mounted in the toilets.
The hall is cavernous, furnished and painted in beige and mauve and dark aqua tones, and by 9:40am, the official beginning of the assembly, it’s mostly full. The audience is impressively diverse and, to a person, scrupulously well presented – the men (and most of the boys), their hair uniformly short and neat, in suits and ties, the women in dresses or skirts and blouses. First up on the program is ‘Music’, and as loud, rousing orchestral strains issue from speakers in the ceiling (speakers, I notice later, are also mounted in the toilets), I find myself looking at my own clothes, checking my hair.
Like most of the entries in the Witness Songbook, the opening hymn, No. 71, ‘God’s Gift of the Holy Spirit’, might best be described as dour (other numbers include ‘Worship Jehovah During Youth’, ‘We Need Self-Control’, ‘We Must Be Taught’, ‘Loyally Submitting to Theocratic Order’, ‘Enduring to the End’, ‘From House to House’, ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize’ and ‘Forward, You Witnesses!’), and the assembled form a flat but determined chorus, heads bowed over their Songbooks. (Rick Pain says that, after twenty years in the church, he’s still getting used to the singing.)
“Have you ever travelled to an area where you’ve never been before?’ the first speaker, a youngish Witness from an inner-city congregation, begins. “Well if so, you’ll know that travelling to that area without any aid or any direction leaves you with a pretty high chance of getting lost.” Just as a GPS might help us find our way, he goes on, so does the Bible help us navigate successfully in life, in the midst of all those things that would make us lose our way – like, for example, entertainment.
“How would you rate much of the world’s entertainment?’ he asks. “Would you put it in the category of being clean, by Jehovah’s eyes, or being defiled, in Jehovah’s eyes? Clearly it would be defiled.” Witnesses, he says, must constantly work to safeguard their consciences from all those things in the world “that might do us harm.”
“Satan wants to tamper with our conscience. He wants us to violate it, so that it becomes faulty, and so that it’s no longer an accurate guide.”
After a couple of hours, the talks start to feel more than a little similar. Each opens with a metaphor (working the muscles = training your conscience; an engine light coming on in the desert = a warning from God), then takes in several Bible passages and their practical application in Witnesses’ lives, before finishing with a review, where the message of the talk is repeated in the plainest possible terms. Often, these sound like warnings. “And remember,” the opening speaker says, wrapping up his review, “as long as a baptised Christian maintains a good conscience by conforming to Jehovah’s standards, he remains in a saved condition, with the prospect of eternal life.”
Unlike the meetings, where roving Witnesses with microphones allow congregants to respond to questions, at the Assembly there’s no audience interaction, and almost no jokes. (The biggest laugh of the day, and one of the only spontaneous outbreaks of genuine mirth, comes when a young speaker mispronounces Ecclesiastes as “Ecclesians”. The speaker himself looks genuinely mortified.) The tone is sober and didactic, less religious revival than regional business seminar. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a group that faces as much rejection as the Witnesses, the speakers return again and again to themes of endurance and fortitude, persisting in the face of persecution and pain and doubt.
“For many of us, maybe we’ve been preaching for ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, sixty years,” says Michael Harvey, a circuit overseer, in his talk, ‘Clean From the Blood Of All Men – How So?’ “Don’t tire out in giving… Don’t decide in your territory, ‘Look, there’s nobody here, this territory’s a waste of time. I don’t know why we turn up.’ No, let Jehovah God decide when the preaching word has been accomplished.”
Harvey acknowledges that many Witnesses are “scared” and “nervous” every time they go out preaching.
Harvey acknowledges that many Witnesses are “scared” and “nervous” every time they go out preaching, something both current and former church members admit to me. “I mean, there are a few who just love it to death, but that’s not the majority, is it?” Harvey says. “We’re working hard to go out there.” The key to succeeding in the preaching work, he continues, is to prepare thoroughly, and to take opportunities where you find them. As he’s talking, a young woman and a middle-aged man step forward at stage right. What we’re about to see, Harvey says, is a re-enactment—“not a demonstration’—of how one Witness, Sister Kylie, was able to seize just such an opportunity with her boss.
Kylie’s boss, we learn, is trying to raise money for ex-military personnel by setting up a charity shop. He asks Kylie if she’d be interested in donating some clothes to the cause.
“Well that’s really lovely that you’re trying to do that, it’s really good to be involved with charity work,” Kylie says. “Have I told you about the volunteer work that I’m involved with?”
“No, you haven’t, Kylie.”
On her laptop, Kylie shows her boss a page on the official Jehovah’s Witness website that details volunteer work the organisation has done.
“Well that’s really fantastic. I didn’t know you were involved in that.”
Kylie smiles. “I think there is another work that you know that I’m involved with.” This work often happens on a Saturday morning, she says, and makes a door knocking motion with her hand.
“Yeah, I definitely know about that one,” the boss says, nodding. “It wakes me up all the time. And you keep doing the same kind of territory all the time. We’re always getting knocked on.”
“We’re very thorough,” says Kylie, not missing a beat. The work is about showing people how the Bible can help them in practical ways, she explains, and offering hope from a higher source in times of difficulty.
“That’s impressive, Kylie. Very good.”
Sensing an opening, Kylie explains that March will be a busy time for her: she’s volunteering thirty hours of her time to “that work”.
“Well, thirty hours,” the boss says. He ponders something for a second. “Look, can you put me down for a couple of hours? Because I’ve got Bible questions, and you can talk about this to me and that might help you out, will it?”
“More than you realise,” Kylie says knowingly, and the crowd laughs.
“Well you know what happened in March,” Harvey says. “All the computers crashed,” so Kylie’s boss and “another female boss came in and said, ‘Look, we can’t do any work, so we’re here for our Bible discussion’ and she had a great opportunity to preach.”
If the Jehovah’s Witnesses are struggling to find new converts, it’s certainly not for lack of preparation. The organisation offers ongoing—and compulsory—tuition to all active Witnesses on how best to sell the message, schooling its charges with a no-nonsense practicality that typifies the church’s operations. At Witness meetings and gatherings, church members of all ages are expected to practice public speaking in front of the congregation, and to role play common situations they face: overcoming common “conversation stoppers” (“We are already Christians here”, “Why do you people call so often?”, “I’m a Muslim”), or turning potentially awkward conversations with non-believers (“Why can’t you donate to help to ex-soldiers?”) into opportunities to preach the good news. Benefit From Theocratic Ministry Education, the church’s handbook on successful preaching, offers thorough counsel on everything from voice modulation (“the spice in a talk”) and enthusiasm (“You must sound convinced, not dogmatic”) to how to dress and wear one’s hair (“our appearance should not reflect love of the world and its ways”).
Shortly before lunch, it’s time for the baptisms. Today there are three candidates, who are all seated in the front row. After a long speech about baptism, the speaker asks the candidates to stand for “the exciting bit”. He asks them two questions: Have they repented of their sins and dedicated themselves to Jehovah? And do they understand that their baptism identifies them “as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in association with God’s spirit-directed organisation?” Though it’s difficult to hear from where I’m sitting, all three appear to respond in the affirmative, and that, it appears, is that: they are now, the speaker says, “qualified for baptism as ordained ministers of Jehovah God.” There’s a short prayer, and then the candidates walk out of the hall, to polite applause.
After a hymn, families pull out lunches they’ve brought, and a convivial hum spreads over the room. It’s only after I notice a man disappear into a cavity in the stage that I realise something apart from lunch is going on. I make my way to the front to take a closer look. The man, who is dressed in a white t-shirt, has pulled a section of carpet away on the stage, revealing a large pit, and inside it, a long metal tub. Stairs and a hose are brought over, and the man in the pit starts filling the tub with water. Eventually, the new Witnesses emerge from the back of the stage, dressed as they might for an afternoon down at the local pool. One by one, they step down into the pit and into the tub, where the man in the white t-shirt dunks them for a few seconds. They take a few deep breaths and clamber out, while, at the side of the stage, a group of twenty or so Witnesses clamour excitedly behind a rope and snap pictures of them. Oddly, in the main hall, the baptisms don’t really seem to register: as all this is going on, most people continue talking and eating with their friends; a few at the front look up from their sandwiches and clap distractedly.
I find Cleve Carvalho, a fourth-generation Jamaican Witness who had appeared, more than a little serendipitously, at my door several weeks earlier, not knowing I was writing about the Witnesses. Cleve, who is fifty-six but looks ten years younger, is camp and boyish and charming, and travels widely in the service of the church. I ask him how, growing up, he knew he wanted to become a Witness. “We had to make that decision when we were old enough to decide,” he says. “When we were ready. I was sixteen.” Cleve says his father left when he was young, and he was brought up by his grandmother. One day, when he was around eleven, he went out by himself into the woods to talk to God. “You have to be that father for me,” he recalls saying to Jehovah. “I felt a sense of calm, as if he really heard me. Ever since then I’ve had a real bond and closeness with Jehovah. I had that moment where I knew something was missing.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ story is littered with tales of persecution, both real and imagined.
Cleve says he’s never had any real doubts about the church, but that he was tested when he was young. He used to envy the other kids who had more freedom than he did, who were able to keep playing on Sundays when he had to go to long meetings. “It was a bit torturous at that point, because we thought it was more fun to be out there playing,” he says. “But growing up, you get to appreciate that a lot of the kids who are having fun all the time, they end up resenting the total freedom that they had.” Some of these kids in his village, he says, fell pregnant young or got into drugs; others “got diseases” or “became vagrants”.
“Then they envied us because we had boundaries; we had certain principles that we lived by.”
As I’m talking to Cleve, a number of Witnesses approach me to tell their stories. There’s Peter, an intense man in his forties, who tells me that he lived “a colourful life” before coming “into the truth”, as he and many other Witnesses call it, ten years ago. Peter says his Greek Orthodox family were fiercely opposed to his becoming a Witness, particularly his mother, whom he describes as a “nutcase”.
“It’s a miracle that I’m in the truth,” he says.
While we’re talking, an older woman comes by, looking for someone. Peter asks how she’s been. “Yeah, I’ve been alright,” the woman says flatly.
“You’re here,” Peter says. “That’s the main thing.”
I meet Clare, a bright, bubbly young woman, who has just finished training at the church’s missionary school. She tells me about her father, who is “very against” the church. When she told her father she planned to get baptised as a Witness, Clare says he threw her out of home “a lot’, and “burned everything.”
“And then she became a circuit overseer’s wife,” Cleve says admiringly. “Unbelievable. Awesome.”
Clare laughs. “It’s like a Cinderella story, without the shoes!”
Clare says her younger brother, who’s nineteen, has just been baptised, and recently broke the news to their father. That day, she says her brother happened to be wearing a Darth Vader t-shirt, which read, “Your powers are weak, old man.”
“So I thought, very good subliminal messaging,” she says, laughing.
If modern-day Witnesses are keenly aware of the trials they face, they’re not alone. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ story is littered with tales of persecution, both real and imagined. During World War I, with the Bible Students aggressively promoting draft evasion in their publications, Joseph Rutherford and seven of his aides were arrested, tried and sentenced to twenty years in US jail. The charges were overturned within a year, and the freed Rutherford became something of a martyr for the movement, and persecution a mark of honour for its students. “Persecution, I think, validates the Witnesses’ belief system,” Andrew Holden says. The Bible promises that “Christ’s true followers” will be “objects of hatred”, and the Society teaches that any persecution its followers face is just this prophecy coming to fruition. “If something’s worth suffering for,” Holden says of the Witness mindset, “it’s worth having.”
After World War I, the movement’s relentless preaching and often virulent anti-military and anti-government rhetoric, along with its steadfast refusal to salute flags of any kind, continued to bring followers trouble all over the world. The Nazis sent thousands of Witnesses to concentration camps for their refusal to salute the flag, and executed others for pacifism. In Australia, during the Second World War, the Menzies Government briefly banned the Witnesses for, among other things, “attempting to destroy national morale and the war effort”, giving them the dubious honour of being the only Christian sect banned in the country in the twentieth century. In those days, the church’s rhetoric was extreme: Australian publications referred to Britain and America as “beastly governments” and “Satan’s organisation”; Christianity was sometimes dubbed “the great Whore”.
“In many parts of the world they have been assaulted, mobbed, beaten, tarred and feathered, castrated, raped, and murdered,” James Penton wrote.
The church seems to make enemies easily. Even in neutral Sweden during World War II, male Witnesses were repeatedly sentenced to jail time for refusing national service, and then re-drafted and re-sentenced once they were released. The practice continued right up until 1964, when the government declared Witnesses “unfit” for national service, using the same rules applied to alcoholics. In France, the government fought for many years to prevent the Society from printing their publications in colour. Often, when governments have turned on the Witnesses, communities have, too. “In many parts of the world they have been assaulted, mobbed, beaten, tarred and feathered, castrated, raped, and murdered,” James Penton wrote. “Few long-time Witnesses of Jehovah have escaped threats to their persons with clubs, knives, guns, or fists; and many have had boiling water, offal, or stones thrown at them.”
The Witnesses have long been known for fighting back through the courts, and though some have criticised the Society for so readily using the tools of a system it denounces, their battles have frequently been successful. In the US, where they’ve fought scores of cases in the Supreme Court, the Witnesses have been credited with helping to strengthen legal protections around free speech, sedition, draft law, and the rights of religions to practice their beliefs, leading the late US Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone to praise their work in helping to solve “the legal problems of civil liberties.”
“Going to the door with a Bible in your hand is like painting a target on your back and running up and down a rifle range,” Rick Pain says. “It’s asking for it.” People seem to feel that it’s okay to be unpleasant to Witnesses, he says. “The reality is when you’re going knocking on doors, the only thing that validates people being rude to someone at the door is if they’re a Jehovah’s Witness. Then they can tell you to F off, and who’s going to argue with them? Who’s going to say they haven’t got the right? But you go to the door with anything else, selling vacuum cleaners or insurance, it’s not nearly as offensive as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
A year after leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moira and her husband John decided to have a birthday party. John was turning forty, and the celebration would be his first since he was ten. John and his wife kept the occasion simple, just the two of them. Moira bought a cake, and in the evening they dimmed the lights and lit the candles. Sitting in the living room of their Melbourne home, they waited for some feeling to come over them, some reigniting of the joys of blurry birthdays experienced long ago, but nothing came. “It was like something you just made up,” John says.
Shortly after John’s tenth birthday, his father began meeting with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. John’s mother had died four years before, and John now believes that his father was attracted to the Witnesses because they offered him the possibility of being with her again, in the new world. Once his father converted, John remembers the family’s life changing abruptly, and for good. Suddenly there were three meetings a week to get dressed up for, and door-to-door preaching every weekend. They began to see a lot less of certain relatives, and there were no more birthday parties, no celebrations, really, of any kind. “At first it was weird,” John recalls. “I remember thinking: What the heck are we doing? And then, before you know it, it was habit. It was normal.”
I met John through a forum popular with former church members, and like most of the ex-Witnesses I corresponded with there, John is now zealously critical of the church. He speaks of his years in the Society with a mild disbelief, as if he almost doesn’t recognise the Witness version of himself. Still, both he and Moira say that, since leaving, other than a month-long horror movie binge John says he went on, they’ve felt no great desire to try out the things that were forbidden to them for so long. They still don’t swear or smoke or really drink, though they say they no longer think badly of those who do. They vote now, but mainly because they have to, and have little interest in celebrating Christmas or anything else they weren’t able to before. “Life’s no different,” Moira says. “We’re just free.”
John and Moira’s doubts began when a relative of John’s, an elder in the church, confided in them that not everything in the church was as it seemed. In 2001, the Guardian revealed that the Society, unbeknownst to the church rank and file, had been an associate NGO of the United Nations for over a decade, despite outwardly denouncing the UN over the years as the “scarlet-colored wild beast” prophesied in Revelation. Eight years later, John’s relative, who was having doubts himself, told John about the link. “Straight away,” John says, “I thought, he’s an apostate,” the Society’s term for someone who speaks out against their doctrine. “I shouldn’t listen to this. The wall goes up.” But his relative persisted. Eventually, John went online, wanting to disprove the claim. But after seeing the evidence for himself on the UN website one day, he and Moira quickly came around. “Once I saw that, I didn’t believe anything the Watchtower Society said anymore.” A week or so later, John says, it suddenly hit them: they didn’t want to be Jehovah’s Witnesses anymore. John now calls this day his “awakening day”, and celebrates it every year. “We went to one meeting after that, and we both go, ‘What the hell are we doing? And we never went back.’”
To avoid being shunned by their families, John and Moira didn’t tell the elders of their change of heart. “You don’t tell anyone in the church what you’re thinking,” John says, of a method of strategic retreat known, in ex-Witness parlance, as ‘fading’. “You don’t say anything. You just disappear.” Fading is usually done slowly, so as not to arouse suspicion from church elders, but John and Moira were impatient. “I just couldn’t be bothered going to another meeting,” John says, “knowing it was rubbish.” A month after their final meeting, an elder John says they’d never had much to do with slipped a note under their door, telling them he missed them. A little while later there was a call from the same elder, asking if he’d done anything to offend them. “We kind of ducked and weaved their questions,” Moira says. Finally, the presiding overseer, the highest ranking elder at their congregation, called and asked them straight: Did they still see themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses? If they told him the truth, John says, they would have been disfellowshipped soon after. “We told him we still believed. It was just that we just didn’t feel like going.”
“From that day onward, I looked at everyone, not just Witnesses, as brothers and sisters – not religiously, but as fellow humans.”
“I know it sounds religious, but it was like being born again,” John says of their decision to leave. “From that day onward, I looked at everyone, not just Witnesses, as brothers and sisters – not religiously, but as fellow humans. It was the weirdest feeling. Because before that it was us versus them. We were completely separated. And now it’s like, oh my goodness, we’re all the same.” There were other changes he noticed. John says he’d suffered from depression since his mother died, and all through his years in the church. After making the break, he says, “it just left me.”
The transition wasn’t without its challenges. “Life was planned for you as a Jehovah’s Witness,” Moira says. “So coming away from that you felt alone, as if you were drifting along the ocean with no direction. Life now was a mystery.” John describes suddenly feeling that he no longer knew “the answers to everything”. Gradually, he started studying subjects he’d previously relied on Society publications to understand, like evolution, and sharing what he learned with Moira. For a year after he left, evolution continued to trouble him. “Evolution was the hardest thing to come to terms with,” he says. “Everything else was pretty quick.”
Leaving the church meant leaving behind their friends, who stopped talking to the couple once it became clear they weren’t coming back. “We had no-one,” John says. Being in the Witness community, he says, “it’s almost like having guaranteed friends. We’d go overseas and we’d make new friends instantly – we’d just walk into a Kingdom Hall.”
“And the people are great,” Moira says. “They seem genuine – certain people. You just feel comfortable, like you belong to something.”
“They instantly accept you,” John says. “You could be the scum of the earth, but they have no idea.”
I ask how they are finding it, meeting new people. “We’re still struggling with that,” Moira says.
“I mean, how do you find new friends?” John says. “You don’t just walk up to a stranger and say, ‘Let’s hang out.’”
“We’re happy with just being with ourselves,” Moira says. “Still, it would be nice to have a few more friends.”
For some Witnesses who leave the church, the transition is much harder. A 2010 study showed that people who leave high-control religions like the Witnesses tend to report poorer health than those who remain, and Dr. Marlene Winell, an American educator and writer who specialises in treating people leaving such groups, has noted that Witnesses, perhaps because of the heavy focus placed on Armageddon, are particularly prone to phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder after making the break. In the year after he left the church, Paul Grundy says he suffered from severe depression and post-traumatic stress. “As a Witness, I was convinced, and my family’s still convinced, that if you’re not a Witness, you can never find a true friend,” he says. “Only Witnesses have true friends.” In those first twelve months, he says he felt like there was “no point to being alive anymore”, and struggled to function, eventually losing his job. “Suddenly you don’t have any friends left, and you can’t talk to anyone in your family,” he says. “Until you build up a social circle, it’s still pretty lonely and depressing.”
Both Grundy and John tell me that, after being out of the church a while, they came to believe that they’d had doubts all along. “Defectors will very often tell you that they were in the organisation and they doubted for years,” Andrew Holden says. People tend to keep these thoughts suppressed, he says, out of fear of losing the community. “The power of belonging is often far more powerful than the beliefs themselves.” Grundy remembers praying as a teenager for more faith and wisdom from God, and wondering if Jehovah really answered their prayers. “People would pray to have a safe trip to the meeting and then die in a car accident,” he says. His serious doubts began in 1994, when he was living at Bethel. There, he says, he saw men becoming elders despite not living by the church’s rules. Deep down, he’d begun to feel that the church wasn’t really God’s organisation – but that maybe it was still “the closest thing to the truth.” And if he left, he wondered, where else would he go?
Grundy… found that the Society had altered or reversed its position on many of its teachings over the years.
Finally, in 2004, Grundy, who says he was “unusually interested” in doctrine, started to look deeper into the Society’s teaching and history. He found that the Society had altered or reversed its position on many of its teachings over the years, including blood transfusions (which were allowed until 1945), vaccinations, organ transplants, sexual practices, the worship of Jesus, and the arrival of Armageddon. There were other, more bizarre discoveries. In 1904, a Watchtower had claimed there was evidence that, with God’s help, black people could become white; in 1930, Society magazine Golden Age suggested women could turn into men in the new system.
To former Witnesses like Grundy and John, the church’s malleable doctrine is sure-fire proof that the organisation is not divinely directed. But to those within the faith, the shifts signal just the opposite. “The Bible says the truth will get brighter and brighter as the end draws near,” Rick Pain says. The church, he says, “used to have Christmas, they used to allow smoking… all sorts of things that a further study of scripture has brought to light that it wasn’t clear and accurate knowledge of the truth. So they’ve changed. Those refinements are available to all those other religions, but they don’t make them.”
“As the wind gives you direction, you need to make adjustments,” Mike Swan says. “Fundamental truths don’t change, but you might move here, you might move there, and that’s what I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
For some Witnesses who decide to leave, doctrine isn’t the major issue: they just want to live a more regular life. A study of young ‘born-in’ Tasmanian Witnesses who left the church found that their main reason for leaving wasn’t that they rejected God, or the Society’s teachings. They wanted more freedom. “Growing up, you want to experiment,” one respondent, ‘Penny’, said. “To have crazy-fun, care-free fun, dangerous fun.” The young ex-Witnesses still believed much of what they’d been taught, especially when it came to morality, and the conflict between the life they were living and the life they’d left proved hard to reconcile. Another respondent, ‘Jim’, was particularly troubled by the 9/11 attacks, which he took to be a sign that Armageddon was close at hand. Jim didn’t want to rejoin the church, but feared what would become of him if he didn’t. “I want to be able to do what I want to do and still get there,” he said, “[to] this paradise, this better place.” (Of the seven ex-Witnesses involved in the study, two returned to the church.)
“You can leave the truth, you can leave the organisation, but you can never leave it behind,” Rick Pain says. “It hasn’t been easy for someone to get baptised. So to stop that’s going against all sorts of firmly ingrained things that have been part of your life for a long time.”
John credits websites like the ex-Witness forums and the two sites Grundy maintains with helping him to look at things differently, and, ultimately, with helping him change the way he thinks about the world. “The internet is the death of religion, I believe,” he tells me one afternoon. Moira smiles when he says this. “Well this one, anyway,” she says. Dr Winell, who runs a counselling service for people who have left high-control religions, has said she’s noticed a dramatic increase in recent years in the number of people from high-control churches researching their organisations online and then deciding to leave them.
The internet is certainly making the Witnesses’ issues more public. In recent years, the church has faced a number of high-profile child abuse cases, in which some of the church’s more controversial policies, such as the ‘two witness rule’—in the absence of a confession, two material witnesses need to verify an incident of abuse for it to be accepted by church leaders—have been widely criticised, and church leaders have been accused in numerous countries of not reporting incidents of abuse to the authorities. Paul Grundy, who believes that the internet has a lot to do with the church’s slowing growth, says he’s noticed that, for Witnesses doubting their faith, asking questions about the Society can often be the beginning of a much bigger process. “Once a person starts, they can just as quickly learn about the issues with other religions, and then with the Bible, and finally become aware of unanswered questions about God as well.”
For John, his issue with his former church is finally one of transparency. “If the Witnesses knock on your door and they tell you everything, that’s fine… Go ahead and join. But they don’t.”
In 2001, both recovering from battles with cancer, Rick and Vicki Pain moved to country Tasmania. They bought a plot in the bush, a few minutes walk from the beach, and there, in a house they built, drinking rainwater and growing their own food, they found what they thought was the ideal place to convalesce. Rick’s three daughters moved down to Tasmania to be closer to him, and both Rick and Vicki found themselves “perfect” jobs. “The prospects for a good life were enormous,” Pain says. In their idyll, after some trying years, “we thought…we’ve got every reason to just take it easy on ourselves.”
But something was troubling them. The rural community around them was small, 2,500 people who Pain says had “had their door knocked every week for twenty years.” The Society was encouraging all Witnesses to give as much time as they could to the preaching work, but there were more than enough Witnesses in the area to cover the territory. Rick says he and Vicki were “really not used”, and began to worry that they “could fall asleep spiritually.” Vicki is a sign language interpreter, and, in 2012, word reached the couple that there was a need for an interpreter at a Kingdom Hall in Melbourne. They didn’t hesitate: after twelve years in Tasmania, Rick and Vicki up and quit their jobs, sold their house and most of the things they owned, and moved to a one-bedroom flat in Melbourne. They are now both pioneers, preaching between fifty and seventy hours a month. “Our priority is the ministry,” Pain says.
“If I left the truth tomorrow, I’d be back on drugs by the end of the week,” he says. “No doubt in the world.”
I ask Rick one day if becoming a Witness had helped him feel God more strongly. “To be honest, no,” he says. “That’s something that comes, for me, in time.” His difficult early life, he says, made it “hard for him to trust people”. Pain credits the church with keeping him on the straight and narrow, pointing out that his three brothers, who are now in their seventies, are all still using drugs. “If I left the truth tomorrow, I’d be back on drugs by the end of the week,” he says. “No doubt in the world.” There have been times, he says, “where all I’ve had to hang onto was Jehovah. In hindsight I can see that there was an intervention in my life that can’t be explained in any other way.”
‘I’ve seen miraculous events in my life,” he goes on. “Extraordinary things that can only be explained by the fact that there is something else going on.”
He pauses for a second, trying to find the right words.
“I’m just human and every now and then I wake up and think, Am I kidding myself? Is this real? What’s this whole JW thing? …But if I stop being a JW, what am I going to be? I’ll have much more time off. I’ll go back to work and work full time and make a packet of money and watch the world go down the gurgler, like it is.”
Pete Nicholson is a Melbourne writer. You can read more of his writing at peteanicholson.com.
Note: some names have been changed to protect identities.