I’m writing about this topic with great trepidation because there are friends and family of mine who are still Jehovah’s Witnesses and my intention is not to hurt them or to cause damage to their community. But my spiritual and religious foundation was very much formed during my youth as a Jehovah’s Witness, and it would be impossible to tell my story without starting here. My experience is my own, and for those who are able to live within the doctrine of this faith community and thrive, I mean no disrespect. - ADQ
I was born in the mid-1970′s, right about the time the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society had predicted end of the world to occur. Based on creative interpretation of select biblical verses and some ‘divinely inspired’ mathematical equations, the worldwide collective of Jehovah’s Witnesses were once again preparing for the destruction of The World at the hand of God. The Witnesses believed (and to my knowledge, still do) that all bad, disobedient humans who refused to heed The Message of the Bible would be killed by God to ‘cleanse the earth of wickedness’, and that the obedient and faithful Witnesses would be saved so that they could rebuild the planet into a paradisiac garden, thus reclaiming the original mission that God gave Adam and Eve for the earth.
Many Jehovah’s Witnesses at that time quit their jobs and cut all kinds of ties in preparation for a global Armageddon. Most of them spent all of their time proselytizing, going door-to-door to try to save as many people as possible from immanent destruction. It was during this frenzy of soul-saving (and shortly after I was born) that my mother was converted.
Alas. The end of the world did not come as predicted in 1975. But the Watchtower leadership didn’t abandon their prophetic stance (especially since it had been proven so effective as a recruiting tool). So the story changed. The end of the world was still coming, they said, but it was impossible to know the ‘day or the hour when The Master would return’. It could be any day. Any moment. Any second.
Amazingly, most of the Witnesses accepted this abrupt change in doctrine as having been inspired by God and continued to live their daily lives in anticipation that Armageddon was to occur without warning at any time. We knew we were living in the End Times. None of us could rest easy, and constant vigilance was necessary to avoid the impending, grisly destruction at the hand of a biblical God who had once more grown sick and tired of mankind’s bullshit (e.g., The Flood, redux). This was the overarching message that permeated my entire childhood. I was told before kindergarten even started that before the year was over The End would most likely come. Same thing when I was a senior in high school.
From the time I was born we attended meetings at the Kingdom Hall three times a week where we engaged in bible “study.” We also attended regular mega-meetings called conventions that took place in stadiums and convention centers. Hours of sitting and listening to bible lectures for 3-4 days at a time. Kids and parents and grandparents all sat together, there were no separate services or games or anything for kids. In some ways I find that respectable. No need to dumb stuff down just for kids. I understood a lot at a very early age and read proficiently before Kindergarten because of this.
The bible study we did was not actually study in the academic sense as much as it was reading and regurgitating content from WTBS publications that were based on cherry-picked scriptures. In fact, studying out of any materials that were not part of the WBTS’s own extensive library was highly discouraged.
Many of these publications, I distinctly remember, contained vivid, disturbing illustrations. Among the most disturbing of these were the actual depictions of Armageddon. Lightening & thunder, buildings crumbling, and large cracks in the earth opening up while people with terrified faces fell into them were standard fare for me as a child of five or six.
Those were the people who were being mercilessly destroyed were the ones who didn’t believe, I was told. They were given the opportunity to know Jehovah God, and rejected Him and His Word. They deserved to die.
Some of my earliest memories are of being taken out into the field service. That is, we went out door-to-door to ‘teach’ people about the Bible. Armed with our literature and a special bible that was translated to make the most of the cross-referenced verses on which the tracts and pamphlets were based, I set out weekly with friends and family to knock on doors and offer our message that was simultaneously threatening and hopeful. You’re going to die soon if you don’t listen to us, but if you do listen to us, you get to hang out with us for all eternity in Paradise. Sounds pretty great, right?
This door-to-door ministry was extremely intimidating for me as a child, and I remember many times being afraid of the indignant, even outright hostile people who would answer the door. It never occurred to me that what we were doing was rude, or that we may have been interrupting something important that the householder was engaged in. Clearly there was nothing more urgent than our message of salvation, and each time we were rejected, we walked away with the knowledge that we had helped Jesus separate the ‘sheep from the goats’. Their rejection of us was a rejection of Jehovah God and His Word. Case closed. (Years later, hung over and bleary-eyed I was awakened one Saturday morning by a couple bright-eyed Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door. The moment was not lost on me.)
At school I had a unique set of challenges that made my early childhood education especially uncomfortable. I went to public schools and this meant I was charged with rejecting the evils of pagan holidays, patriotism, fornication, and evolution. Throughout my childhood I spent all classroom holiday and birthday parties in the school library, keeping myself separate from The World. I stood silent during the Pledge of Allegiance to demonstrate that the only authority I recognized as sovereign was the theocracy of God. When I was older I refused nominations for student council, shunned dances, and declined the opportunity to participate in school athletics. These extracurricular activities were considered unworthy of my time, which was best spent going door-to-door anyway.
Looking back on all of this I now realize how bizarre it was. My entire worldview including the purpose of religious community, my understanding of what God is, and the way I related to other human beings outside my church was quite literally sociopathic. As I was indoctrinated this way from birth, however, it all seemed perfectly normal and ok.
I think it’s also worth reiterating that the alternative to this horrible destructive future was life in a beautiful paradise with my faithful friends and family. The rhetoric of Armageddon was not hateful and angry, but simply matter-of-fact. Much more emphasis was put on our reward–and the destruction of the majority of humankind was just something we’d have to avoid and live through to get to the ‘promised land’.
But for someone like me, who has an innate humanitarian streak, it was hard to resolve and justify the kind of wanton destruction of people that my religion predicted–even if I was told that they did deserve it. Later in life, when I rejected these teachings I felt a huge weight lifted off me emotionally and psychologically. Rather than the whole world being full of bad people and a handful of faithful ones worthy of saving, I realized that the majority of people in the world are good folks trying their best and working with limitations–and a handful of baddies are fucking things up for the rest of us on a regular basis. That made so much more sense.