The Rise and Fall of a Jehovah’s Witness—Part 1


I WAS BORN TO PARENTS WHO WERE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES. They had themselves been raised by Witness parents, so I’m colloquially known as a “third-generation born-in”. So my family goes way back in Jehovah’s Witnesses. My grandfather on my father’s side identified as one of the “anointed” with a heavenly hope. My dad, born in 1938, didn’t, but his claim to fame was that he got sent to prison in 1956 for refusing national conscription. My mum and dad married in 1958 and moved to a little town in the UK called Spalding in the county of Lincolnshire where they served as “pioneers”, full-time evangelisers preaching from door-to-door, as I did later. I was born in 1969, and my sister joined me two-and-a-half years later. 

From infancy, I was taught that Jehovah’s Witnesses were “the truth” and groomed by my parents to become a Witness. There was never any doubt that I would grow up to become a fully-fledged Jehovah’s Witness. From as early as I can remember, I was told my life depended on strict, unquestioning obedience to Jehovah God’s laws as interpreted by the “Society”, a reference to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society which was responsible for providing publications such as The Watchtower magazine to Jehovah’s Witnesses. God’s war of Armageddon was “just around the corner”. Soon, very soon, Jesus was going to kill everyone who wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness—men, women, and children. This was indelibly imprinted on me by my parents, by speakers at Kingdom Hall meetings I attended three times a week, and in the Society’s publications that I read as a child.

My survival was conditional not only on believing what I was being taught but on going from door to door and warning complete strangers of their impending doom if they too didn’t join Jehovah’s Witnesses. I became an “unbaptised publisher”, selling The Watchtower and Awake! magazines from door to door, when I was just four years old. I also joined the Theocratic Ministry School and gave Bible readings from the platform at my local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

As a young child, I took “the truth” very seriously and developed an extremely sensitive conscience due to the many dos and don’ts contained in the Watch Tower publications and expounded from the platform at the Kingdom Hall. Watch Tower publications such as Listening to the Great Teacher (1971) and From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained (1958) taught me to think in absolutes. Jehovah or Satan. Good or evil. Life or death. Graphic artwork showed “worldly” people screaming in terror as the ground opened up and swallowed them at Armageddon. But nothing could compare to the fear of studying the chapter about masturbation in the 1976 book Your Youth — Getting the Best Out of It. God’s favour and everlasting life were presented as dependent on avoiding this terrible “sin” of masturbation which was described as “unclean”, “self-abuse”, and a practice that could lead to homosexuality and, of course, death at Armageddon. I was six years old when I first read about those things and it scared me senseless.

Thereafter, anytime I didn’t quite meet up to “Jehovah’s standards”, whether that be a lie, a “naughty” word, or masturbation as I entered puberty, I experienced severe pangs of guilt and deep feelings of unworthiness, thinking that I would be buried under a pile of rubble at Armageddon. On the other hand, whenever I did the “right” thing according to Jehovah’s Witnesses I couldn’t help but feel judgmental of those around me who were “sinning”, both inside and outside of the organisation. So a feeling of “us and them” was instilled in me from a very young age.

Understandably, at school, I was somewhat of a loner. I became known as “Jovo!” and was constantly bullied for not partaking in religious assemblies or celebrating Christmas or birthdays. My sensitive nature and my desire to be a “good boy” also attracted the attention of an unscrupulous teacher who sexually abused me when I was just 11 years old. This resulted in me having a full-on mental breakdown, and my parents taking me out of school for three years to recuperate.

As I entered my teen years and returned to school, I inevitably discovered what masturbation actually was. This resulted in what I can only say was the most indescribable feelings of guilt due to the Youth book’s portrayal of it as “self-abuse”. Due to having been sexually abused earlier in life, I found it terribly difficult to talk to my parents about anything sexual, although I did once “confess” to my father that I’d “played with myself”—that’s how he referred to it—and even another congregation elder on one occasion. In both instances, I was reminded that masturbation was an “unclean habit”. I was told “try not to do it again”, and advised to pray to God when I felt tempted. Needless to say, that didn’t work. Prayer after the fact helped to absolve my troubled pubescent conscience, but only until the next time I “sinned” against the Sovereign of the Universe.

I think to console me, and maybe to help me not feel too guilty, my dad showed me a Watchtower article that discussed how even elders in the congregation might have—and I quote—“a temporary bout with [masturbation].” However, all it did was create a feeling of dissonance. The article was laden with guilt-inducing terminology. It described masturbation as a “secret sin”, “unclean”, “self-defilement”, “self-abuse”, “contrary to nature”, and a “hurtful desire.” It also noted that “abnormal, mentally deranged people are notorious masturbators” as are “many mentally disturbed priests and nuns”. However, It went on to state: “… if he [the elder ] fights it and gains the victory, he need not feel disqualified” as an elder. — The Watchtower, September 15, 1973, p. 569

To a 13-year-old kid, this was heavy stuff, and full of mixed signals. The article did nothing to define how long a “temporary bout” was, or what constituted “habitual masturbation”. Was it once a month? Once a week? Every day? It didn’t say. So, I concluded that if a congregation elder, supposedly appointed by the holy spirit, could masturbate—once, twice, however many times— and still remain “qualified” to serve as an example of faith to the congregation, then an unbaptised adolescent could definitely be forgiven for succumbing to his appetites on occasion, especially if he was trying to “fight it” and “gain the victory” as the Watchtower said. Nevertheless, I continued to feel crushed with guilt whenever I yielded to my “hurtful desires” and I spent my teenage years praying to Jehovah to “help me be good”.

As I reached sixteen, I began to feel the pressure to make a personal stand for “the truth” and get baptised. My sister who was more than two years younger than me was due to get baptised at the next large assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to be honest, I felt left out. My mum then had a chat with me and explained things in the simplest, most black-and-white terms that I could either serve Jehovah and live or be a part of Satan’s world and die. I had to choose.

So, In 1986, despite still occasionally dabbling in my “secret sin”, from time to time, I was baptised by full immersion in water and, as was expected of young ones leaving school, I went straight into regular pioneering six months later which involved devoting 90 hours each month to the door to door preaching work, while supporting myself with a crap part-time job. I was a delivery boy, delivering beds and mattresses for a business owned by a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They paid me £30 a week. The rest of the time I trudged around the territory trying to palm off copies of The Watchtower and Awake! in the hope I might sell a full year’s “subscription” to the magazines. As a pioneer back then, if you sold a subscription you got to keep half the money. I think it was only £5 but it was something!

As a pioneer spending most of my time in the evangelising work, I quickly gained a reputation among Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “spiritual young man”, even though I would say at this time my relationship was more with the Watch Tower Society than with God. The accolade of course made me feel accepted, and special, but inside I didn’t really feel very “spiritual”. Serving Jehovah felt very mechanical and formalistic. I vividly remember the day I asked an elder “Why is this the truth?” Looking back now, I can see that I was starting to have doubts about being a Jehovah’s Witness even then, at 18 years old, but those doubts were quickly buried after attending the 1988 Pioneer Service School.

This 2-week training programme for pioneers was intensive—8 hours a day for 2 weeks studying how the organisation worked, how to be effective at converting people on the doors, and how to study properly to get the most out of the Watchtower publications. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was basically a crash course in how to be a good Jehovah’s Witness, not so much how to have a relationship with God or Jesus, although they did touch on some of that. But overall it was teaching you how to conform to the organisation, and how to be a JW poster boy or girl. What it did do, which kind of backfired in later years, was teach me how to question scriptural things.

At 23 years old I was appointed as a ministerial servant, which is a helper to the congregation elders. I did various jobs like looking after the preaching territory assignments caring for the PA equipment at the Kingdom Hall, and as a natural teacher and speaker, I was given quite a lot of platform assignments, Public talks and so forth.

Over the next few years, I married, had children, and honed my skills as a spiritual teacher so that when I was 30 years old I was asked to serve as an elder. The elders in my congregation didn’t really like me because I tended to challenge their authority quite a bit, Basically, most of them were incompetent old duffers. Sorry, but they were. And I would point this out to them, which they didn’t take kindly to. Fortunately, we had a circuit overseer who also thought they were incompetent old duffers, and he forced my appointment as an elder through. I think he was hoping I would be able to shake things up a bit and get things done in a more organised manner. Anyway, I went on to have many “privileges in Jehovah’s service” over the next few years—assembly and convention speaking parts, talks at the elder’s schools and pioneer schools. I also served on several judicial committees, disciplinary trials designed to either “reprove” (rehabilitate) or “disfellowship” (expel) wrongdoers in the congregation.

As a pioneer elder, I was then asked by the circuit overseer to move to a congregation where there was a greater need. In 2000 I moved into a congregation that was experiencing problems with their body of elders. Of the eight men serving, four felt the others were not following the Society’s directions and so in protest, they had resigned their appointments and were now demanding the deletion of the remaining four elders. This resulted in a massive schism where half of the congregation defended the serving elders and the other half supported the ones who had resigned. Tensions were running high between the two sides, and in the end, the Society had to get involved. After a discussion with the circuit overseer, myself, and another elder from somewhere else, moved into the congregation tasked with restoring some sense of peace and unity. I was assigned to conduct the Theocratic Ministry School, the teaching school which helped JWs learn how to preach from door to door and on the platform, and my fellow troubleshooter was appointed as the presiding overseer, which back then was kind of the guy in charge. 

The edict from the circuit overseer was that I should remain neutral and not side with either of the warring factions, but that I should support the new presiding overseer who was not only very experienced but, supposedly, also very neutral. However, over the course of three years, I discovered that he was not at all impartial, but had been in collusion with the elders who had resigned all along. Within a year of moving into the congregation, he had convinced the circuit overseer to delete all four of the remaining elders, and as a young elder with instructions to support him, I went along with the decision, thinking I was following “theocratic direction”. Next, another three impartial elders were sent to assist us, but in a very short period of time, the presiding overseer had ingratiated himself to them and had them eating out the palm of his hand. So, it wasn’t long before his mates, the four elders who had originally resigned were reappointed. The only person on the body of elders who raised any objections to them serving again was me which didn’t make me very likeable.

As a new elder, I prided myself on knowing and enforcing, the Society’s rules having practically memorised the elder’s secret handbook Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock, and I set a very high standard, both for myself and for my fellow elders. Frankly, I didn’t think any of them qualified. They were all very fleshly men, not at all spiritual in any sense of the word. And most of them were rubbish at teaching from the platform. Also, as time went on, I began to see how much control some of these elders, especially the presiding overseer, had over people’s lives and relationships, and it didn’t sit right with me. 

By now, the presiding overseer had seized complete control. He had such a powerful personality that it was difficult to say “no” to him. Whatever he decided should happen in the congregation generally took place. He made a particular habit of blocking the appointments of anyone who could pose a threat to his authority. I watched him acquire more and more power and began to feel increasingly uncomfortable about supporting him. He was, in every way, a bully and a narcissist, with an extremely judgemental personality. I actually even wondered if he was a psychopath. He certainly seemed to fit the pattern. He had this superficial charm and a grandiose sense of self-worth, but he could also flip on a dime and be cold, callous and calculating when it came to getting his own way.  I, by this time, wanted nothing to do with his plans for world domination.

Determined not to be like him, I began to concentrate more on “shepherding the flock of God” than enforcing Watch Tower rules, preferring to use the Bible as my guide rather than the Pay Attention book and the seemingly never-ending number of policy letters we were receiving from the Society. As I did so, I became, I think, more spiritual in my outlook and, dare I say, more Christlike. Sadly, what I viewed as being “reasonable” and “merciful” like Jesus was seen by the presiding overseer, to be “watering down God’s laws”.  For him, it was all about laws. By that, I mean the Society’s policies and procedures as laid out in great detail in the elder’s book, not so much what the Bible said.

It was clear that my softer approach was appreciated by the members of the congregation and I became the “go-to” elder for those with problems. I was especially popular with the younger ones who found me approachable and someone they could confess their sins to, usually misdemeanours of a sexual kind such as masturbation. This resulted in jealousy on the part of the other elders who felt sidelined, especially the presiding overseer who seemed to think I was upstaging him. I anticipated that it was only a matter of time before I would draw his criticism and my qualifications as an appointed man would be brought into question.

So that’s how I went from a 4-year-old publisher to a 30-something-year-old elder in a congregation ruled by a psychopath! In part two of my story, I will tell you about my JW marriage and how I nearly left the organisation in 2004.