It was November 1965 when, while still in my early twenties, I walked out of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a disfellowshipped person.
Because I had come to disagree – quite strongly, in fact – with many of the teachings of the Watch Tower Society, I was summoned before a judicial committee to give an explanation for myself. They probed and questioned, and questioned me again. Surely this was all just to cover up some other wrong-doing, some immorality? No, it was not. It was simply what I said it was – my disagreement with Watch Tower teaching.
The Judicial Committee had to do something, but they were reluctant to disfellowship anyone for “not believing.” They did, however, have two other killer questions for me. Would I agree never to speak of these things with anyone else? And would I agree to break off all contact with a friend who had been disfellowshipped by another congregation?
I could not in good conscience agree to either of their demands.
So that was it. The matter was clear. They had to protect the congregation and keep it clean. So I was “disfellowshipped.”
That was well over forty years ago. So why am I still writing about it? Why do I still occasionally visit ex-JW forums? Since those early years I have been interested in various aspects of religious belief and I have family who are still JWs whom I have never written off completely. I retain the hope that one day it may be possible to rebuild some family bonds.
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I was brought up in the JWs, my parents having become involved in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I was baptized at the age of eleven and in due course became deeply involved myself. When I was just seventeen, I was appointed Book Study Conductor and became a regular pioneer. Before I turned twenty, I was elevated to the elite rank of “Special Pioneer.” I was assigned to a congregation just outside Glasgow, Scotland where I served as Theocratic Ministry School Servant, leading the weekly meeting which focussed upon training in public speaking.
I was a bit of a contradiction as a Special Pioneer. On the one hand, I was keen to put in impressively more hours than the quota. On the other hand, I was seduced by Clydebank Public Library. What a wonderful place! I began to read avidly, particularly from their fine collection of books on Psychology. I also dipped into Philosophy and Logic.
After little more than a year, I left my assignment and returned home. I said it was only a “short break for health reasons,” but I knew deep down that my pioneering days were over.
I did not expect at that stage that I would ever leave the Witnesses. I was still a believer. But I was still reading – and reading – and reading – and thinking for myself. And then – very suddenly – it all fell apart.
It happened at a Bible reading segment during the Ministry School. The study was from Genesis 30:25-43 – the story about Jacob’s miraculous sheep-breeding con trick. “I can’t believe this,” I thought, “I don’t believe any of it.”
When I left the Kingdom Hall that evening I was on my way to freedom.
My first move was to contact an old friend who had recently been disfellowshipped. I couldn’t go along entirely with what he was saying because it seemed to me that he was developing some quite outlandish ideas. And yet, for the first few months on the outside, that friendship was immensely helpful.
Some time long before all this happened, I was given a complete set of Russell’s Studies in the Scriptures and lots of Rutherford’s books. I hadn’t read any of them – hadn’t even dipped into them. But when I began reading them the whole Watch Tower system of belief started to fall apart.
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After an initial “proud-to-be-a-rebel” feeling of elation on leaving the Witnesses, I slipped into a very lonely existence. I still had a somewhat grudging welcome at home; I’d go for the sake of my father and grandmother who were not Witnesses.
I explored various churches that ranged from the fundamentalist end of the spectrum of belief to the liberal end. I didn’t feel at home in any of them and couldn’t make friends.
Then I gave up altogether on Christianity. None of it made any sense and I wanted to be free of it. I enrolled in extra-mural classes at Manchester University and embarked upon a part-time degree course with the newly established Open University. Then, in a moment of personal insight, I realized that I should study full-time, leading to three wonderful years studying Philosophy at Lancaster University.
I still wasn’t completely free. That troublesome religious impulse kept nagging at me. I delved into eastern religions and meditation systems, but none were for me. Their stories were not my stories – their culture was not my culture. And besides, I couldn’t be open about any of this if I still wanted to be able to visit home. I was beginning to feel a bit wretched again because, even though living alone, I was letting Watch Tower bigotry restrict my life choices. That would have to stop – no matter what the consequences might be.
Then another moment of insight led me to a further big step. Suddenly, out of the blue, the thought came to me that I should enter the ministry. “Hey! That’s crazy,” I thought, “I’m not even a Christian.” But that thought stayed with me. I started attending a Methodist Church and immediately felt completely at home there. After a few weeks, I spoke with the minister about this crazy notion that I should enter the ministry. He was very helpful and encouraging, leading me in due course to the long process of application.
Somehow I had to tell my family what I was planning to do. Mother, to put it mildly, would not be pleased. But what about my father? He was happy for me and then told me something which I had never known before:
His father had greatly displeased his parents because, against their wishes, he had refused to enter the Methodist ministry. How ironic! Really!
It would be a long time before I would know whether I was to be accepted for training. I would have to appear before committees at all levels of the church from local to national. Before I completed that process, my father died. I was pleased that I had been able to tell him of my intentions and to know I had his support. But I also knew that it would mark the end of any relationship I could have with the rest of the family. With my father gone, I knew there was no longer any reason for them to let me visit home.
In late spring of 1984, I was accepted for ministerial training and would attend college in Cambridge. As part of my studies there, I would read for a degree in Biblical Studies in the University.
I phoned home and arranged to visit on Saturday. Before Saturday came, however, my mother phoned to say she had other things to do and would have to put me off. So I wrote and told her my news. Every single member of my family wrote back to break all ties with me. That was to be expected, of course, after I made it easy for them to cut me off by “embarking upon such wickedness.”
Cambridge was wonderful and I loved every minute spent there. I very much appreciated the rigorous academic approach to Biblical Studies and my only regret was that those three years could not be prolonged indefinitely. I was ordained in 1987 and began my time as a minister in the north-east of England.
I could not leave my studies behind. Indeed, as a newly ordained minister I was obliged to engage in some form of further study. I was accepted to do part-time research for an MLitt degree in the University of Durham. My research topic? The origins and development of the Watch Tower doctrine of the Millennium. My thesis was subsequently published by James Clarke & Co as Counting the Days to Armageddon.
When I was doing my research the Internet was still in the future. Ex-JWs tended to be isolated with no easy way of contacting others. The publications needed for the sort of research I did were difficult to obtain. I was very fortunate to have been given all those old books. I also knew an elderly retired minister who was a compulsive collector of second-hand books. He would scour the book sales up and down the country and come home with van-loads of books to sort through. He turned up some amazing finds that greatly helped my work.
Now the Internet has made research so much easier – and far more difficult for the Watch Tower Society to hide its past.
I have now retired from ministry. When I began I was very much at the liberal end of the spectrum and during the years since then I have progressed even further in that direction. Many conservative believers would not recognize me as any sort of Christian, but I remain a Methodist minister. I no longer preach, but I am always willing, though never asked, to lead study sessions and seminars. I am always available to talk about my experience of being a Jehovah’s Witness and how I left that oppressive movement.
Since retiring I have devoted my time to writing – and returned to my early interests. My newest novel, Leaving Gilead, tells the story of two young women trying to break free and rebuild their lives after being brought up in a religious movement very similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You see, I just can’t leave it alone!