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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
For further reading:
Video Tour of Bethel (1990):