Some of you may have learned, from previous posts, that I was raised as a member of the sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses. While they are mainly known for their door-to-door proselytizing and their refusal of blood transfusions, there is obviously much more involved in being a J.W. than that. Witnesses live strictly by a literal (fundamentalist) interpretation of the Bible. This results in them being mainly moral, honest citizens, but does make for a lot of other archaic rules by which they guide all their behaviours.
It has been over thirty years since I made my exit from their ranks, so while I want to talk about some of the things I was required to believe and do as a child, teenager, and young adult, remember that I do not know if the same requirements are still in effect. I have a lovely family of J.W.'s that live across the way from me, and seeing them go about their activities, I would guess that they live their lives pretty much as I was required to, back in the mid 50's, 60's and early 70's.
I was a reluctant witness at a very young age - and in my last years in their midst, a quietly hostile one. Once I had my first child and knew I would be required to raise her in the same way that I had found so oppressive, I got out. (Not easy, and many repercussions, but I did it.) Fortunately, my husband followed me out, and we are still happily together and happily FREE!
Here is a list off the top of my head of things we wereNOT allowed to do if we wanted to continue as a Jehovah's Witness in 'good standing'. We could not:
* celebrate our own or anyone else's birthday (a 'pagan' festivity) * celebrate Christmas or New Year's Day (really celebrations of the winter solstice and as such 'pagan') * celebrate Easter, Valentine's Day, Halloween, etc. etc.
* make mother's day cards (or father's day), or participate in valentine card exchanges at school, or Christmas gift exchanges, or even draw things having to do with religious holidays in art class, or sing Xmas carols in music class, etc. etc.
* stand in class when the national anthem was played (we are for God's kingdom, not worldly, secular ones)
* participate when 'opposers of the true God, Jehovah' recited The Lord's Prayer (the Bible says not to participate in worship with unbelievers)
* have close associations or friends who were not Witnesses ('bad associations spoil good habits')
* participate in school dances, school clubs, sports teams or extracurricular activities
* read other religious literature * read books or go to movies that glorified sex or violence.
* tell off colour jokes, swear or curse.
* wear mini-skirts when they were the rage
* eat meat products that contained blood or take vaccinations that might contain blood * pursue a higher education, as Bible study and the door-to-door activities should take precedence
Most of the things we were NOT allowed to do served the purpose of keeping us isolated - away from anyone who could question our beliefs or show us a better way. Isolation is a basic ploy of cults. They also tried to keep us from reading any material that would portray the religion in a poor light.Of course, they found Bible texts that seemed to back up their dictates, but the primary purpose was to keep us apart without too much influence from the outside world.
We were expected to:
* prepare for, attend and participate at 5 meetings each week at the Kingdom Hall * study their publications and be prepared to answer questions about what we read at their meetings
* speak to people at their doors from a young age, trying to 'interest them in the good news of God's kingdom' (sell the Watchtower and Awake magazines) * go from door-to-door on Christmas Day and New Year's morning - because we should never pass up an opportunity to spread the good news of God's soon-to-arrive kingdom * go door-to-door as much as I could during summer vacations from school * prepare our little speeches for the door-to-door ministry, with Bible texts to back up our assertions * agree, support all the doctrines and never ask questions * believe that if we did all they told us we would be rewarded by surviving the always imminent Battle of Armageddon (where God would destroy all the wicked non-believers), and living forever on a paradise earth. (Only a few selected ones would receive a heavenly reward - the rest of us would live forever here on earth.)
There was so much more demanded and disallowed, but the above abbreviated lists give you a sense of the life I led as a child and teenager, as did anyone raised as a Jehovah's Witness. My mother was a friendly, extrovert who loved going door-to-door and engaging people in discussions about religion and the Bible. I was a rather introverted child for whom the same 'witnessing' activities were torture. I did not want to disappoint my mother, however, and realizing I had no choice but to tag along, I soon learned how to be a good little actress and play the role of dutiful devotee. At that age, if my mother was happy, I was happy. There is a price to pay for being untrue to oneself. But I did not know this at the time.
The Witness leaders would have their followers advertise their big summer conventions by walking up and down streets handing out invitations to their discourses. Way back when, they had you wear placards (like big Bristol board signs) that were attached by string and hung over your shoulders covering your front and your back. They displayed the title of the discourse, the time and announced it was free. They were, of course, designed for adults to wear. But my mother wanting to impress 'the elders' and do something different, had me, as a little tyke, wear these big placards. I'm sure she must have adjusted the placards for my size, but the Bristol board pushed my chin up and by the time our walking and handing out invitations was through, my chin would be bleeding from paper cuts. I wonder if there was blood dripping down the placard, right over the announcement of God's soon-to-arrive kingdom?
This picture of an old car (1949?) has what looks like the kind of 'placard' I describe above, stuck on the back of the car. Years after this picture was taken, I would have one similar hanging down my front, and one hanging down my back - doing free advertising for their public discourses trying to lure people away from their religions to the 'the one and only truth'.
Witnesses used to stand at busy street corners to hand out their tracts, magazines, etc. I remember the cloth bags we had, to hold our supply of tracts, that you see in the picture here. My mother took me along when I was just a toddler. She had me all dressed up in a pretty dress and my curly blonde locks attracted attention and smiles (probably smiles of pity). My mother was proud of me and tried to get me to hand out invitations to the Witness discourses to people walking by. After doing this for a while one day, she bought me a pack of grape gum to keep me quiet while she finished handing out her quota of literature. People kept looking and smiling and my mother says she was just so proud of her dutiful, little daughter that was drawing all this good attention to our God Jehovah by her good conduct! Finally she took a look down to discover I had put the entire package of grape gum in my mouth and purple saliva was drooling down my chin, onto my dress, leaving a disgusting stain. She quickly packed up her bag and took us home. Not the kind of advertisement she wanted for Jehovah's kingdom message!
So that is a peek into the life I led as a child. I was never physically mistreated in any way, but I now know I paid a heavy price for my involvement with this sect. It was a kind of forced psychological and spiritual captivity and my mind/body/spirit balked at it from a very young age. I could not let anyone know this, however. All my friends and relatives were Jehovah's Witnesses. Jehovah's Witnesses banish and shun anyone who defects. I admired and loved all my family and friends, though I secretly did not espouse all their beliefs. There was no where to go. Besides, I attended their huge assemblies such as the one at Yankee Stadium in New York City, and as I looked out at the thousands and thousands of devoted followers of Jehovah, I could only think there was something wrong with or bad about me because I did not want to be there. How could I turn against God, family, and the powerful persuasion of all these enthusiastic, adult believers?
(This is a photo of a convention held in 1953 at Yankee Stadium in New York City)
C.S. Lewis said: "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims
may be the most oppressive.
It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies...
those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end
for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
Witnesses become moral and religious 'busybodies' not only with the approval of their own conscience as C.S. Lewis states above, but also feeling they do it at God's behest and with God's approval. And so my young life was governed by a sincere, passionate woman who really believed she was doing God's revealed will, and doing the best possible thing any parent could for their children, by raising them as Jehovah's Witnesses.