Life at Bethel, the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses

This is the second part of this series. The first part (which chronicles how I got involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid-1960s up until I arrived at Brooklyn Bethel in 1973) can be read here.

To be perfectly honest, I have many good memories of my times at Bethel in New York. Over the years, I had made a few friendships in the Witness congregations I had been involved with, but here at Bethel I suddenly had dozens of friends, many of whom were young men like me who had given up 4 years of their lives to work at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Amid these positive aspects, however, there were some events that helped shape my exit from Jehovah’s Witnesses a few years later.

An idea of what Bethel, the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses is like can be seen in this in-house video that was shown to new Bethelites. This video was done in the 8os, about 10 years after I was there:

I love history and developed a desire to understand more fully the historical development of Jehovah’s Witness’ theology and Bethel was quite the place to do so. At that time, there were two large libraries of older Watchtower magazines and books all the way back to the founding of the movement in the 1870s. I spent a lot of my spare time rummaging the shelves in what was called the Bethel Library on the 8th floor of the 124 Columbia Heights building and also would spend time in the Gilead Library in the 107 Columbia Heights building. Such may seem superfluous in this era of downloadable PDF files from the Internet, but nothing like that was available in the mid-1970s. As I combed through these libraries, I began to realize there was a lot of strange things in older Watchtower literature. (I’ll detail this as I go along, but for fuller explanations go to the hyperlinks in the text.)

Early Watchtower literature used the Great Pyramid in support of their predictions for 1914

Sometimes, conversations with other Bethelites would prompt research in the headquarter’s libraries. For example, one morning at breakfast, the elder who had oversight of the table I was assigned to referred to a tragedy where a Bethelite had been killed in a traffic accident back in the 1920s. The elder’s name was  Ciro Aulicino (he became infamous later with regards to a controversial involvement with the United Nations). I liked Ciro, enjoyed his sense of humor,  and particularly appreciated when he shared historical tidbits from Witness history. This particular day he referred to when the Watchtower leaders “dropped [belief in the supernatural nature of] the Great Pyramid.” Very few of us knew it, but the Witnesses first President, Charles Taze Russell, had seen in the Great Pyramid of Egypt, a doctrinal and chronological blueprint that supposedly reinforced Russell’s unique teachings. Russell’s successor, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, suddenly reversed the teachings on the Great Pyramid in 1928 and began teaching that the Great Pyramid had actually been inspired by the Devil. Ciro explained that this sudden doctrinal reversal had been upsetting for some of the Bethel brothers. One Bethel worker, Ciro said, walked about in a daze after hearing Rutherford denounce the Pyramid teaching and was run over and killed by a car when he unthinkingly walked in front of it on the way to work at the  Society’s factory. Later in the Bethel library, I found the older Watchtower books that had endorsed pyramidology. Russell’s first exposition of the spiritual significance of the Great Pyramid was in Volume 3 of Millennial Dawn, pp. 303-374. In it, Russell taught the Great Pyramid supported his predictions for the year 1914. A special edition of Russell’s writings on the Great Pyramid was published as The Divine Plan of the Ages and the Great Pyramid in 1913.

The Watchtower Society built a Pyramid memorial at Russell's gravesite

Later, a Bethel friend told me of how he had visited Russell’s grave site in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and showed me pictures of the giant pyramid memorial marker erected by the Watchtower Society at Russell’s grave. As I leafed through older issues of the magazine The Golden Age (now Awake!), I discovered a 1924 issue (December 31, 1924, pp. 212-222) that cited the Great Pyramid to buttress not only the 1914 chronology, but also to support  predictions they were then making for the year 1925 (the Watchtower Society no longer claims any prophetic significance for 1925). I felt this usage of the Great Pyramid by their first President was really odd. I didn’t know what else to say but that I was glad pyramidology had been abandoned by the Witnesses. Still, I was troubled by the idea that early Witness leaders had such odd beliefs.

Russell got the dates 1874, 1878 & 1914 from N.H. Barbour, editor of Herald of the Morning

One day I was rummaging through the Gilead library (at that time in the 107 Columbia Heights building) and I saw a boxed collection of magazines, entitled Herald of the Morning. These were actual issues of the magazine that Russell was involved with before he began the Watchtower magazine in 1879. I was surprised that such rare magazines would be available for general use by Bethel family members. The historical significance of the Herald of the Morning magazine was huge. In these magazines, I read what Russell had written before the Watchtower magazine began, and I could also see what had influenced him from his association with the Herald’s editor, Nelson H. Barbour. I could see from the Herald’s cover that Russell had gotten the year 1914 from Barbour as a prophetic date — along with the years 1874 and 1878. Thus began the realization for me that the Watchtower Society had a long history of failed eschatological predictions. At the time, most Witnesses had an idealized view of such Witness history. Even now, many Witnesses do not realize how their belief system with regard to the year 1914 is radically different from Russell’s day.

 

"The Calendar of Jehovah God," purified from pagan influences, published in the March 13, 1935 Golden Age

In Witness belief, the year 1935 was significant because they believe an important doctrinal truth was revealed to J.F. Rutherford in that year: that only 144,000 Christians would be with Christ in heaven and the rest of the faithful would live on a future paradise earth. (Previously, it had been held that there would be a secondary heavenly group besides the 144,000.) So, I examined the 1935 bound volumes of the Watchtower and Golden Age magazines with great interest and discovered one of the oddest series of articles ever printed in Witness history. In that year, the Watchtower Society had promoted a new calendar which they called “the Calendar of Jehovah God.” Basically, the idea was that the civil calendar was tainted by paganism and should not be used by Christians. 3 issues of the Golden Age magazine detailed this new calendar and it also was promoted in the 1935 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower magazine. A few weeks after it appeared in Golden Age the whole project was shelved. Why? Apparently, saner minds decided it would make Jehovah’s Witnesses look too strange.

The two-tiered level of salvation (the 144,000 to heaven and the rest of Jehovah’s Witnesses to everlasting life on a paradise earth) was most clearly seen at the Memorial of Christ’s Death that we celebrated annually. For outsiders, the way we celebrated this (what most other groups call Communion) seems quite strange.

I happened to be assigned to the Brooklyn Heights Congregation which included the area right around Bethel on Brooklyn Heights and the lower West side of Manhattan. Our Kingdom Hall was in the Bethel headquarters complex. Our congregation had several older Bethelites who had been affiliated with the Witnesses for 40, 50 or more years. We also had 4 members of the Governing Body (the group of men who directed the Watchtower Organization.) These old-timers were all of what we called “the anointed,” part of the elect group of 144,000 who we believed would reign with Christ in heaven.  At that time only about 8,000 Witnesses claimed to be “anointed” (the number has since raised to over 11,000.) The millions of other Witnesses do not have the hope of being with Christ in heaven but only hope to live in a paradise earth. Once a year (on Nisan 14 on the Hebrew calendar) we celebrated what we called the “Lord’s Evening Meal” or “Memorial” with unleavened bread and wine and only those 8,000 plus anointed still alive would partake of the bread and wine. (The bread and wine were considered to be only symbols of Christ’s Body and Blood.) Most congregations had no partakers and would just pass the “emblems” around and no one would partake. (For the non-member, it’s quite odd to see the bread and wine passed around with no partakers.) Once in awhile, a congregation has one or two partakers. The year I was at the Brooklyn Heights Memorial in 1974 we had 25 partakers, though over 200 of us did not partake. I was an attendant (usher) and we actually had instructions on getting refills if we ran out of wine or needed more unleavened bread. I considered it a special privilege to be a part of that congregation right at the heart of Watchtower headquarters. While at the time I accepted uncritically the Witnesses’ two-tier system of salvation, I later was confronted with Scriptures that challenged these beliefs. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Next: When Prophecy Fails — The 1975 Fiasco Viewed from Inside Bethel

For further reading:

Reading Recommendations re: Jehovah’s Witnesses

My resignation letter from Jehovah’s Witnesses (1980)

Video Tour of Bethel (1990):

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11 Responses to Life at Bethel, the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses

  1. [...] Life at Bethel, the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Jehova’s Witnesses : A spotlight on the [...]

  2. One Bethel worker, Ciro said, walked about in a daze after hearing Rutherford denounce the Pyramid teaching and was run over and killed by a car when he unthinkingly walked in front of it on the way to work at the Society’s factory.

    How, after his death, was it determined what he’d been in a daze about?

    Belief in a supernatural role for the Pyramids was quite common in Russel’s time – he’s by no means the only one to ever believe it. Even today the pyramids mystify a different subset of people, as alluded to in my return link.

    JW’s make no attempt to hide that Biblical interpretations have changed over the years. The Kingdom Proclaimers book discusses it prominently. Poring over the original sources, of course, would enable one to see more details, but the fact of change itself has always been acknowledged. ‘Increasing light,” and so forth, as illustrated by Prov 4:18.

  3. orthocath says:

    Thanks, Tom, for stopping by. I was just repeating the Bethel lore about the fellow’s death.

    As to the Pyramids and JWs. In the early 1970s there wasn’t a whole lot in print in JW sources on it. At that time, the JW history book was Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose (published in 1959) and, if memory serves, I don’t think it says anything about the Pyramidology espoused by Russell. (Nor does it say anything about Beth-Sarim.) In that respect, the Proclaimers book is defintely a better historical textbook than the Divine Purpose book, though it has its own problems.

    I didn’t say the Watchtower Society’s prior endorsement of pyramidology was hidden from JWs. But, it wasn’t something that most JWs knew about at that time (remember, no Internet or pdfs then!) Nor did most JWs realize how the Pyramid was used to support the Watchtower’s chronology for 1914 (and many other dates the Watchtower Society now rejects, like 1874, 1878, 1925, etc.), or that it was so identified with Russell that the Society chose it as the most fitting memorial to place at his gravesite. When Ciro referred to it, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of the pyramidology belief. I had heard it had been taught. For me, it was enlightening (and troubling) to read from older JW books in the Bethel library that gave more details about it and to discover the emphasis it had received in Witness publications.

  4. Lola LB says:

    Wow . . . I’ve heard all things about JWs, but I’d never heard of this pyramidology belief.

  5. John W says:

    In regards to tom sheepandgoats… I have a couple of problems. First of all, you say, “Belief in a supernatural role for the Pyramids was quite common in Russel’s time – he’s by no means the only one to ever believe it. Even today the pyramids mystify a different subset of people, as alluded to in my return link.” Well, belief in the Trinity is quite common, too. So then, going by your logic, don’t judge those who believe in such a teaching.

    Tom, you said, “JW’s make no attempt to hide that Biblical interpretations have changed over the years.”
    If you were to walk around the KH talking about these previous beliefs or asking questions about these beliefs, you would be viewed as an apostate or a trouble maker.

    Tom, you conclude, “but the fact of change itself has always been acknowledged. ‘Increasing light,” and so forth, as illustrated by Prov 4:18.” Well, I guess that means that at any given point in time, JW’s can never say they have “the Truth” because something could change 180 degrees in the next Watchtower study. The New Light doctrine is a crafty teaching to brush off the MANY mistakes and errors (and yes, prophesies) that has originated from its leaders.

    The internet is making this information available to all JW’s and any who are interested in this religion. Now, everyone can make an informed decision about this religion.

  6. Pamela says:

    How long has Ciro Aulicino been with the organization? For a guy who’s supposed to be so important, he’s awfully hard to find information on. I’ve been looking every way I can think of for a week!

  7. orthocath says:

    Seems like I remember that Ciro came to Bethel in the late 50s. I doubt you’ll find much information on any member of the Bethel family online as almost everything done at Watchtower headquarters is done in the name of an anonymous Organization. Letters from headquarters are signed “Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses” or (previously) “Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.”

  8. Susana says:

    I would like to read more of your story of your journey from JW to Orthodoxy. I am intrigued by your story. Unfortunately my outdated browser/pc/system won’t seem to let me access the outcome of your interesting journey. I live in SE WA state, in a remote area, north of Lewsiton Idaho. I am being somwhat ‘hounded’ currently by some Jehovah Witnesses. I am someone who has wanted to become Orthodox for many years, but do not live near enough to a real Orthodox Church to attend regulary,and have considered at times to move away, to be nearer a real Church. (If there were a group to travel with weekly, I would go along).My problem with the JW man (and couple really) is that he saw my icons and my crosses and even a garden statue of St Francis,and that set him off about how Jehovah HATES such items,especially the Cross, as idols…he emphasized abput Jehovah’s hatred for these. (I’d been taught in my readings and dealings with Orthodoxy (eg F. Arch.Alexander Mileant’s writings online) that such avowals of hatred for the Cross and recoiling from the Cross is ungodly and perhaps even demonic.)In any case this JW man gave me a book,which I read, and it upset me terribly and saddened me deeply.Many years ago 11 days after the birth of my first baby when I was very young and living in England,I hemorrhaged terribly and traumatically-very very severely and they gave me 70-80 fluid ounces of blood transfusion; they called it massive transfusion,and I pretty much died and they brought me back. This book the JW man gave me insists that blood transfusions are evil,demonic,etc. I will not tell this pestiferous JW man about it. It was a cataclysmic traumatic experience as it was,and it is true my mind was always more gragile and sensitive afterwards (from the hemorrhage I think, NOT the transfusion).I had one of those near death encounters ,I thought, with God. I felt God sent me back. I have struggled ever since with this. I would very much like to hear your whole story and perhaps to speak with you perhaps via telephone,please. I want so much to become Orthodox. It is 2-3 hours to the churches . We do have a student society in the next town over, started by the Univ. students who are children of a priest who is Antiochian, and a convert from Evangelicalism (he is now in Bonners Ferry Idaho); they are all very very young,and the other priest who does come from time to time, is somewhat of a travelling/itinerant priest (perhaps itinterant is not the correct word, but he is always rushing, rushing through the Liturgy and dashing out the door to leave,and himself pretty young- all these people are my children’s ages and younger. I long for a real church and parish community of all ages…or if we could travel together each week to go to the church in Post Falls Idaho,for example….I am praying for God’s help, for in the middle of all this ,now the JW’s are showing up just about every day and I feel very very upset about the blood transfusion issue and also the view of celebrating birthdays and Christ’s birth and Pascha. Please can you communicate with me. I am isolated from like-minded people. I cannot bear to hurt the JW’s feelings, but I refuse to speak of my ‘massive transfusion’in England to them,and do not wish to discuss their religion with them. Surely God had a plan for my life,perhaps still does, to have saved my life way back then,and then again later too when I almost died 17 years later from an internal hemorrhage from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy !? Surely He loves me, and has a plan ?? I so hope you will email me. I would like to read all of your story. God bless you.

  9. Micah says:

    Thank you so much for being open about your experiences.

  10. David says:

    This is fascinating and one of the best, if not the best article I
    have read on the 1975 non-event. I hope you will find time to
    write more about ypur experiences and your interpretation of current events in the WBTS.

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