I was born in the spring of 1974, right before the world was about to end. At least, that’s what The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, (the official name of the small Christian sect known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) had predicted. Based on creative interpretation of select biblical verses and some “divinely inspired” mathematical equations, the worldwide collective of Jehovah’s Witnesses was preparing for the global destruction of all human society at the hand of God, calculated to happen in 1975.
Naturally, The Witnesses believed that among the human race, they alone were going to be saved so that they could rebuild the planet into a literal paradisiac garden, thus reclaiming the original mission that God gave Adam and Eve for the earth.
Many Jehovah’s Witnesses at the time went into serious debt, quit their jobs, and cut all kinds of ties in preparation for a global Armageddon. Most of the Witnesses dedicated the bulk of their time proselytizing; going door-to-door to try to save as many people as possible from imminent destruction. It was during this frenzy of soul-saving that my mother was converted, just a few months after I was born.
The end of the world did not come in 1975. So, rather than abandoning their prophetic stance, Watchtower leadership (in the grand tradition of organized religion) simply changed their story to help it jive with the current reality. The end of the world was still coming, they said. The signs from the bible about “The End” were all present, but it was impossible to know the ‘day or the hour’ the end would come (Matthew 24:36). It could be any day. Any moment. As such, we would have to live in a state of constant vigilance, like the Israelites about to be freed from bondage; never allowing the trappings of the world to lure us away from our duty to preach the word and warn the masses of impending doom.
Amazingly, most of the Witnesses accepted this anti-climactic revelation as having been inspired by God, and went about their daily lives in anticipation that Armageddon was to occur without warning at any time. No one could rest easy. 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.
This was the overarching message that permeated my entire childhood. God had cleansed the earth once before during the great flood of Noah’s day when wickedness had filled the earth, and he was about to do it again. I was told when kindergarten started that before the year was over The End would most likely come.
As you might imagine, my childhood was marked by anxiety. Not because I thought I was going to be destroyed, per se. While there was no ‘once saved always saved’ aspect to our beliefs, we were taught that if we were doing what pleased God when the end came, we would probably be ok. But I had a vivid imagination. The promise that everything around me and all the people I knew outside of my religious community were likely to be destroyed in an epic display of God’s wrath was a daunting way to view the world during one’s formative years. Waiting expectantly for The Divine Shoe to drop and all of humanity to be thrown into chaos while God sorted through the good and the bad was the very foundation for how I came to understand the world before I even entered public school.
From my earliest years, my family attended meetings at the Kingdom Hall (the name of buildings where Jehovah’s Witnesses meet) three times a week where we engaged in “bible study.” This was not 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 (they owned a printing operation in Brooklyn and turned out millions of books, magazines and tracts each year) was discouraged.
Many of these publications contained vivid, terrifying illustrations of Armageddon. Lightening & thunder tore a blood-red sky while skyscrapers crumbled into huge cracks in the earth. People with terrified faces, mouths gaping and eyes wide were depicted screaming and falling and crying at their destruction. I was told that those were the people who deserved their destruction.
The main reason they deserved destruction was that He had revealed The Truth to humans in the Bible which Jehovah’s Witnesses had correctly interpreted, and we were His messengers — witnesses of his truth and bearers of the news that God was going remove wickedness from the earth any day now. Those who would be destroyed at Armageddon were those who had heard our warning message and rejected it. To sum up — wickedness in others was defined by rejection of our message.
As such, the primary activity and form of worship for us was proselytizing to non-believers through ongoing, systemic door-to-door ministry. We called it field service. We were convinced that we were doing the work of God, helping to determine who was receptive to God’s truth and that it was an urgent business. All other ‘worldly pursuits’ like higher education, full-time jobs, extra-curricular activities at school — these were discouraged by the formal writings of the organization and enforced by the culture.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of being taken out into the field service. We would wake up early on Saturday mornings and meet up at someone’s home to pray and prepare; and then canvass neighborhoods with our stuffed book bags and sensible walking shoes. 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, we set out weekly to knock on doors offering a 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 great, right?