Every once in awhile, I get the question: “How did you find your way to Orthodoxy from Jehovah’s Witnesses?” I always have to answer that it was not me finding my way to the Church. That puts the wrong emphasis on the journey. The journey begins and ends with God. So, I usually answer that question with a one word answer: “God.” He does the leading. Sometimes, like St. Paul, we “kick against the goads” and our journey may have a detour or two (Acts 26:14). In the final analysis, however, God gets all the credit for the journey.
So, I begin this story (which will probably take a few installments) only to share a bit of my spiritual journey. There’s nothing special in my story. But, if some of my experiences might be of some help to others in their journey, then it will be worth the telling.
I was just a few days shy of my eleventh birthday when Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door in Garden Grove, California in late Spring, 1965. As the oldest hearing child of deaf parents I interpreted into sign language what the visiting woman wanted to tell my Mom and Dad. Our family was nominally Protestant but we were not churchgoers. My Dad gave the Witness lady 50 cents for the book Let God Be True. A couple weeks later she returned. This time she had the magazines Watchtower and Awake! We started taking the magazines regularly from this woman. My Mom and Dad had no real interest in them, but I found Awake! (the JW news magazine) interesting reading. The Watchtower (the JW doctrinal journal) was more difficult and less interesting reading for me. We bought other JW books as this lady continued to visit us.
However, the visits from this Witness lady stirred some spiritual interest in me. I had a reverence for God and the Bible but no religious education. I started reading the King James Bible we had in the house and got several chapters into it. Soon after the chapters on Noah and the Flood I bogged down. I asked my folks to take me to church. My Mother’s family had belonged to the Presbyterian Church so I started attending Sunday School there. However, there didn’t seem to be much substance to what I was learning. In contrast, the Witness who came to our home seemed to have answers to everything and didn’t mind all my questions. Now I started actually reading articles in the Watchtower and the doctrinal books. I was invited to a public lecture at the local Kingdom Hall (the JW meeting place) and my parents took me there. It was quite a contrast from the Presbyterian Church. They sang a song or two but the meeting was focused on learning. Witness meetings are primarily lectures and studies on their doctrinal beliefs. Everyone was very friendly and I obtained more Witness literature.
I should mention here, that during this spiritual arousal which had been prompted by the visits of the Witnesses, an important event occurred. I knew my knowledge and understanding of God was inadequate, but I firmly believed God had sent his Son, Jesus, to be my Savior. So, independently of my contacts with the Witnesses, in earnest prayer I placed myself in God’s care. It was a small step at the time, but an important one. I believe that my spiritual life and journey as a follower of Jesus began at that time.
As the Witnesses continued to visit me, they showed me some verses in the King James Bible to prove to me that God’s name is Jehovah. God had a name? Why didn’t any other religious group use God’s name? They reasoned with me that Jesus could not be God since the Bible clearly showed that Jesus and the Father were distinct. Who was Jesus praying to if he was God? The Witnesses cited the wars, earthquakes, and famines since 1914 onwards as proof we were living in the “last days” as a fulfillment of Jesus’ words at Matthew chapter 24 about the “sign” of his return. The Witnesses explained to me that the hope of heaven was only for 144,000 people and that unnumbered millions would be rewarded with everlasting life on a paradise earth. I obtained a copy of the JW Bible translation–the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT) and started using it in my studies. The Witness explanations made sense to me. Of course, I had very little religious training and nothing to counter their explanations. At that time, there really wasn’t much in the way of quality refutations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Later I learned the significance of why the name Jehovah does not appear in the New Testament and some of the problems with the Witnesses’ teachings regarding 1914 and problems with their teaching about the 144,000, but I’ll explain that more fully in later installments.
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, their religion is “the truth.” For example, someone who has been a member for 5 years would say: “I’ve been in the truth for 5 years.” That implies, of course, that other religions were false. Other religions are considered part of “false religion,” which they identify with “Babylon the Great” from the book of Revelation. The Witnesses claim their religion is the same faith as the early Christian Church. All other Christian Churches are referred to as “Christendom” and regarded as apostate. The Witnesses who were studying with me referred me to the book The Two Babylons (written by a Protestant minister), which supposedly proved the Babylonish origins of “apostate Christendom.” I borrowed the book from my Witness friends and noticed it was primarily written to “expose” Catholic beliefs and practices. I thought that was okay. After all, I thought the Catholic Church was the most apostate church of all. I had no real knowledge of the Orthodox Church, but from I heard from my JW friends, it was probably just as bad. (I learned later how the methodology of looking for Babylonish origins was flawed.) Since I now believed that all other religions were false, I adopted the belief of my Witness friends that God was using the Watchtower Society as His exclusive agency to give spiritual food to His people. By now I had completely stopped attending any services at the Presbyterian Church and considered anything connected to traditional Christianity as apostate and spiritually unclean.
My parents started to get concerned about my growing interest in the Witnesses and they discouraged me from reading so much of their books and magazines. Even though I was only 12, my spiritual appetite could not be quenched. I decided to read the Witness literature on the sly. I kept Witness publications in my locker at school and would read them there. When I was at home alone, I’d pull out JW literature from a secret stash I had and read it. Occasionally, I’d visit my grandmother in another city and I’d walk over to the Kingdom Hall for part of the Sunday meeting. Back at home, I’d go out riding on my bicycle and end up at the local Kingdom Hall for the meeting or at a Witness home. The Witness lady started having a “Bible Study” with me in her home once a week. We read and discussed the book “Things in Which It is Impossible for God to Lie”, and would look up the cited Bible verses. I did not tell my parents what I was doing and since I was a kid who never got into trouble they didn’t quiz me about what I was doing. A few months later, my teen-age “rebellion” escalated. I would sneak out of the house to go door to door preaching with the JWs on Saturday morning or sometimes would go with friends to do so after school. Witness parents in the congregation would use me as an example for their kids. “See what David has to go through to go to meetings and field service!” Fortunately, the Witness kids did not hold that against me and I started making friendships among the other kids in the congregation.
About this time (1966) the Watchtower Society published the book Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God. At the end of the first chapter, the book developed a chronological table from the creation of Adam and Eve stating that 6,000 years of mankind’s existence would end in the year 1975. For Witnesses, this was significant as it meant according to their understanding of biblical eschatology that Christ’s Millennial Reign could begin then. (Witnesses believe that the Millennium mentioned in the book of Revelation is a future event.) It also meant that Revelation’s “battle of Armageddon” (understood to be the destruction of all who reject the message preached by the Witnesses) could be over by then and the earth would start being returned to a paradise like the Garden of Eden. I still remember attending the local Congregation Book Study (at that time held at a neighbor’s home) as we read pages 26-30 of Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God and its explanation of the significance of the 6,000 year chronology:
“In this twentieth century an independent study has been carried on that does not blindly follow some traditional chronological calculations of Christendom, and the published timetable resulting from this independent study gives the date of man’s creation as 4026 B.C.E. So six thousand years of man’s existence on earth will soon be up, yes, within this generation….According to this trustworthy Bible chronology six thousand years from man’s creation will end in 1975, and the seventh period of a thousand years of human history will begin in the fall of 1975 C.E. So six thousand years of man’s existence on earth will soon be up, yes, within this generation….So from the standpoint of Jehovah God these passing six thousand years of man’s existence are but as six days of twenty-four hours,….So in not many years within our own generation we are reaching what Jehovah God could view as the seventh day of man’s existence. How appropriate it would be for Jehovah God to make of this coming seventh period of a thousand years a sabbath period of rest and release, a great Jubilee sabbath for the proclaiming of liberty throughout the earth to all its inhabitants! This would be most timely for mankind. It would also be most fitting on God’s part, for, remember, mankind has yet ahead of it what the last book of the Holy Bible speaks of as the reign of Jesus Christ over earth for a thousand years, the millennial reign of Christ. Prophetically Jesus Christ, when on earth nineteen centuries ago, said concerning himself: “For Lord of the sabbath is what the Son of man is.” (Matthew 12: 8). It would not be by mere chance or accident but would be according to the loving purpose of Jehovah God for the reign of Jesus Christ, the ‘Lord of the Sabbath,’ to run parallel with the seventh millennium of man’s existence.”
Even though it was cautiously worded, this “new light” (new doctrinal emphasis by Watchtower leaders) about 1975 greatly excited the Witnesses I knew. I remember attending a “Service Meeting” at the Kingdom Hall where we were instructed to highlight the chronological chart (that showed the 1975 date) as proof that “this present system of things [world] does not have many years left” as we offered the “Live Forever” book from door to door. We were told “not make any predictions about Armageddon coming in a certain year” but to “let them [the people who would buy the book] read the chapter and see what the evidence indicates” so that they’d discover the 1975 date on their own as they read the book. (See scan of October 1966 Kingdom Ministry.)
The emphasis on 1975 was repeated in other JW publications as well. I remember distributing issues of Awake! magazine that emphasized the year 1975 and we’d hear Circuit Overseers (traveling representatives of the Watchtower Society) refer to the year 1975 in their lectures (such as this example from 1967). In 1970, the title of the main lecture at circuit assemblies was even entitled “Who Will Conquer the World in the 1970s?” There was genuine excitement generated by this sort of emphasis made.
Occasionally, we’d hear a few statements by some leaders that seemed to put some cold water on our excitement about the 1975 chronology. In the main, however, almost all the JWs I knew felt that the chronology for 1975 was reliable and we felt that the world couldn’t last much longer past 1975 anyway.
So, if Armageddon was coming soon, the question I faced was: would I be among those God would preserve alive? Being faithful to God meant some specific things: Besides living a moral life (which included some distinctive Witness interpretations), it was necessary to become actively involved with attendance at meetings at the Kingdom Hall (2 hours on Sundays, 2 hours on Thursday or Friday night, and one hour at a smaller group meeting at someone’s home). It was also necessary to go from door to door discussing the Bible and distributing Witness literature. Ten hours a month door to door was suggested as a minimum. Many put in 75 to 100 hours a month in the JW evangelization work. These were referred to as “pioneers.” If I was “unfaithful” by not doing these things, I could end up being destroyed at Armageddon.
I had always been a bright student with good grades but now my energies focused on these religious pursuits. Instead of planning to go to college after high school graduation I decided I wanted to work at the Watchtower headquarters in New York as a “Bethelite.” After all, there was not much time left before the End. I was going to graduate from high school in 1972. I concluded it would most likely be a waste of time for me to go to college as Armageddon would most likely come before I could graduate from college. In addition, Witness youth were discouraged from going to college or a university as that was considered spiritually dangerous. Instead, we were encouraged to become full time door to door evangelists. I still remember the shock my high school counselor had when I told her I didn’t plan on going to college. She told me, “You owe it to God and the Church to go to college.” I shared that at one of the Witness meetings and the audience roared.
I had, of course, completely accepted the counsel from the Watchtower Society in the May 22, 1969 Awake!:
“If you are a young person, you also need to face the fact that you will never grow old in this present system of things. Why not? Because all the evidence in fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicates that this corrupt system is due to end in a few years. Of the generation that observed the beginning of the ‘last days’ in 1914, Jesus foretold: ‘This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.’ Therefore, as a young person, you will never fulfill any career that this system offers. If you are in high school and thinking about a college education, it means at least four, perhaps even six or eight more years to graduate into a specialized career. But where will this system of things be by that time? It will be well on the way towards its finish, if not actually gone! This is why parents who base their lives on God’s prophetic Word find it much more practical to direct their young ones into trades that do not require such long periods of additional schooling… True, those who do not understand where we are in the stream of time from God’s viewpoint will call this impractical. But which is really practical: preparing yourself for a position in this world that soon will pass away? or working toward surviving this system’s end and enjoying eternal life in God’s righteous new order?” (page 15)
However, there were moments of doubt. As an avid reader, I visited bookstores and came across the books Apostles of Denial by Edmund Gruss (a professor at a Baptist college) , The Inside Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses by William C. Stevenson and Anthony Hoekema’s study on Jehovah’s Witnesses. (These were among the better anti-JW materials I came across.) I didn’t buy the books, but read much of them from the bookshelves in the store. My Seventh-day Adventist neighbors gave me the book God’s Channel of Truth — Is it the Watchtower?, which also challenged me about Watchtower history, especially with the documentation it gave about Beth Sarim, the house built by the Watchtower Society in San Diego, California to house Old Testament prophets (a belief the JWs had dropped in the 1940s). While not persuaded to become either a Baptist or Seventh-day Adventist, these books planted even more doubts in my mind, but I submerged them. The doubts never completely left me and would surface periodically the next fifteen years.
By the time I was 15, my parents gave up their opposition to my involvement with the Witnesses. Even though they still disagreed with JW beliefs, they were impressed with my teenage Witness friends and felt they were a beneficial influence for me. I was baptized at a large Witness convention at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 1969. The baptism itself had very little ritualism about it. After a lecture, we baptismal candidates were asked two questions about our faith and our dedication to God. We were told we should get baptized without delay. In assembly line fashion over 2,000 were baptized by immersion that day in a public swimming pool. I changed into swimming trunks and followed the line to a man who dunked me in the water. He uttered no words. He said no prayer. All he did was dunk us in the water. I was excited, though, to finally be baptized!
Ironically, the very day I was baptized, the July 18, 1969 issue of Time magazine reported on our series of conventions worldwide. Towards the end of the article it referred to our predictions about 1975 (which were referenced in the special public talk at the conventions):
The Witnesses have what they believe is Scriptural proof that the end is coming. For one thing, their interpretation of Biblical chronology reveals that Adam and Eve were created in the autumn of 4026 B.C., or 5,994 years ago. Linking 6,000 years to the six days of God’s creation, they believe it fitting that there be a sabbath-like rest thereafter, beginning in 1975—though Witnesses cautiously avoid a flat prediction linked to that year. (Scan of original article)
We were all following the encouragement we received from the Watchtower Society to devote more time in the door to door work, especially in view of the times. With Armageddon so near, the lives of our neighbors were at stake. The internal monthly pamphlet Kingdom Ministry encouraged “pioneering” (spending 100 hours a month in the preaching work). The March 1968 Kingdom Ministry referred to the “ninety months left” before the Fall of 1975:
“In view of the short period of time left, we want to do this as often as circumstances permit. Just think, brothers, there are only about ninety months left before 6,000 years of man’s existence on earth is completed. Do you remember what we learned at the assemblies last summer? The majority of people living today will probably be alive when Armageddon breaks out, and there are no resurrection hopes for those who are destroyed then. So, now more than ever, it is vital not to ignore that spirit of wanting to do more.”
A few years later, the May 1974 Kingdom Ministry commended those who sold homes and property which would allow them funds to “pioneer” in the short time left before “this old system” (this wicked world) ends:
“Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly, this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.–1 John 2:17.” (Scan of article)
In September 1973, my application to work at the JW headquarters in New York (“Bethel”) was accepted. My parents were extremely unhappy. Even though they were disappointed I had not pursued college, now they saw that I was giving up everything to live and work for room and board at the Watchtower’s factories where their books and magazines are produced. It was hard to disappoint them but I felt I was doing what God wanted me to do. I considered my parents’ opposition a test of my faith and I would not allow them to keep me from serving Jehovah. The local JW congregation raised the money I needed to fly to New York. I left small-town Idaho and moved to Brooklyn, New York. Talk about culture shock!
The years before 1975 were exciting times at Bethel. The factory was working night and day to keep up with the orders for JW books. I became a lead person in the book sewing department on the night shift. There were about 2,000 Bethel workers in the factories and residences on Brooklyn Heights just across from lower Manhattan. I made many new friends with young men from all over the country who also had given up everything to work at Watchtower headquarters. We had a four year commitment but many of us wanted to stay even longer. Many of the group of guys who came in with me did not expect to finish our 4 year commitment before Armageddon would strike. I vividly remember when one day a small group of us “newboys” from the bindery were invited up to the room of our floor overseer, John Adams, before lunch. He had a commanding view from his room overlooking Wall Street and the Twin Towers across the East River. We complimented him on his view and he replied, “How many of you think that by the time your 4 years are up, this will still be here?” To be honest, I had some doubts that Armageddon would wipe out Manhattan by then, but I didn’t voice it on that occasion. Nor did anyone else. (Note: recent news reports indicate that the headquarters in Brooklyn will be relocated upstate.)
For further reading: