Flying Under the Radar, Part 3

SweaterAs a preface totally unrelated to the subject of this post, I have been busy knitting (and sometime reknitting) the sweater I designed for Thor’s (belated) birthday present.  🙂  I am at the point of joining the two sleeves to the body of the cardigan and decreasing – both for the “v” of the neck and the raglan shoulders.  (It’s ultimate state:  a button-down, shawl-collared, saddle- and raglan shoulder cardigan.)

Back to bringing the JWs out from under the radar …

Since its birth in the late 1880s, the JW organization has updated (changed!) doctrines that were both originally distributed and received as straight from Jehovah. How does that work?

Organizational Structure

    • Headquartered in Brooklyn New York, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (“WBTS”) is the primary legal entity used “to direct, administer and develop doctrines for the religion.”  (Wikipedia)
    • Its ruling council is the Governing Body, which “assumes responsibility for formulating policy and doctrines, producing material for publications and conventions, and administering its worldwide branch office staff.”  (Wikipedia)
    • The members of its Governing Body are men (very much a boy’s club), who are “invited” to join by the current members of the Governing Body.  (Interestingly, besides needing to be male, there are no minimum criteria for those who are selected, outside that they are to be pious, devout, active JWs. They need have no university degrees in anything that might remotely provide sustenance to their claims (e.g., ancient languages, religious studies, philosophy, etc.).  But then again, the JWs would counter, neither did Moses or anyone who wrote anything in the Bible.)
    • JWs refer to the WBTS as, simply “the Society” and strictly adhere to its admonition.  They accord the Society the holiness and influence Catholics reserve for the Vatican:  JWs say things like “according to the Society” and “the Society tells us …”  (I remember one elder’s wife explaining to us that “if the Society tells us to plant a cabbage upside down, backwards, at midnight, and under a full moon, we do it – no questions.”  I asked what she would do if the Society told her to drink a glass of what looked like purple Kool Aid. (For those of you who do not understand the “purple Kool Aid” reference, that is what Jim Jones gave his followers, though it was laced with cyanide and 909 adherents to Jones’ People’s Temple (including 300 children) died (Wikipedia).

New Light & Admonitions from the WBTS

Despite maintaining that all JW doctrines and biblical interpretations are the “Truth” provided by Jehovah, JW doctrines and interpretations are regularly revised or updated. They call these updates “New Light” – that is, new doctrines, new interpretations and/or new understandings of biblical passages that “comes” (from Jehovah) to the Governing Body members, and is then distributed to the JW congregants. Having sat in many an audience as we received “New Light,” I have witnessed the beatific looks on adherents barely able to suppress admiring oohs and ahhs.

The topics of the New Light range and can be startling!  For example, in the late 1970s I sat through a couple of rousing but rather fuzzy lectures on how JWs (married, of course), should not have any other type of, ummm, physical engagement except that colloquially referred to as “missionary.”  An audience of either flushed or very pale JWs sat stone still while the elder used a house as an example long burned into my memory:  “It’s like a house.  You enter your house through the front door, not the widows.  That’s what the door is for.  What would people think if you kept entering through a window.”  (I remember sitting and trying desperately to keep from collapsing in peals of laughter.)  Those who couldn’t “cease and desist” from any other sorts of ummm, physical engagement were urged to seek the counsel and guidance of the congregation elders.

A doctrine that has had to be revised several times is the Society’s calculation of time remaining until Armageddon.  Earlier generations of JWs were told it would occur at WWI and, later, WWII. When I was growing up JW, we were told that Armageddon would occur before the generation that saw World War II (or maybe it was WWI) had died off.  At one point we were given a year: 1975. For obvious reasons, “new light” had to come forth as those left in those generations age. For instance, as 1975 came and went, the Society rebuked JWs for believing in an actual date, claiming that was a date grasped at by some overzealous JWs. No, it wasn’t. I remember sitting in the audience of one of the large summer JW assemblies and calculating that in 1975 I would be 18 and graduating from high school. I wondered if Armageddon would come before I graduated and, of course, knowing my high school would soon be destroyed did little for my – and my fellow JW students – commitment to academic studies!

Some New Light had and has severe impact on people’s daily lives. For instance, when I was a child, JWs who were unrepentant wrongdoers were disfellowshipped (JWs term for excommunication); no JW could have anything to do with them (except, for instance, family members in your home). By the way, the “wrongdoing” could be anything from first degree murder to smoking cigarettes. (“UnChristian-like conduct” with a member of the opposite sex was the most common culprit.). If the disfellowshipped wrongdoer later repented, s/he could not be “reinstated” until a full year had passed. (If Armageddon came during that year, the disfellowshipped person would be killed in the battle – scary thought!)  If the wrongdoing JW was repentant at the time of the “investigation” (a term I use loosely), s/he was “put on Probation” for a year (think of it as minimum sentencing). During that year, other JWs could interact with them, but the wrongdoer could have no “privileges” (e.g., participating in JW meetings, going door-to-door, etc.).  Later, “Probation” was replaced by “Public Reproof” or being “Publicly Reproved.”

When I severed my connection with the JWs a few years later, these doctrines had been revised. As I wrote a formal letter withdrawing from the JW organizational status (I said I was not a JW and refused to be counted among the “inactive”), the WBTS had established a category called “disassociation.”  (It’s really just nitpicking: I disassociated myself vs. the WBTS disfellowshipping me.  Someone who joined a branch of the military, for instance, would find him/herself “disassociated” not “disfellowshipped” – which I always assumed was to avoid legal trouble. Imagine excluding a congregant because s/he wanted to serve their country. But, you see, JWs are not part of this world.)

Disassociated folks were to be treated the same as disfellowshipped folks:  No JW could interact with or speak to a disassociated person without risk of being disfellowshipped themselves, including family members.  In fact, the congregation elder who telephoned me after receipt of my formal “withdrawal” letter warned me that my mother and sister could never speak or see me again without putting their own JW status at risk.

By the way, these events – disfellowshipping, disassociation, public reproving etc. – are announced to the entire congregation.

Next:  Part 4, Behind the doors, as it were, of JWs’ door-to-door activity.


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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11 Responses to Flying Under the Radar, Part 3

  1. yarnchick40 says:

    OK ~ I’m all caught up now. Interesting indeed. I was raised Catholic, and stopped practicing immediately upon adulthood and moving out of my parents home. You and I are very much on the same wavelength regarding organized religions and personal spirituality. Although the two religions are vastly different on the fine points, the feel for me is much the same and you have conveyed that well while describing your experiences.


  2. Thanks for reading … I am glad you find it an interesting read. My experiences raised as a JW have made me gunshy when it comes to organized religion – which is much different, of course, than one’s own spirituality. 🙂


  3. yarnchick40 says:

    I’ve jumped in late to the series, but I am headed to the other posts to get caught up. Thanks for sharing. I find organized religion interesting. I guess that’s a weird way to put it, but what you are writing is very interesting 🙂


  4. Hi Tamara! Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, the next post is all about their door-to-door activity – but, especially, behind the scenes, as it were. The last one will be on how being raised a JW affects and continues to affect those who leave “the Truth.”



  5. tgonzales says:

    Karen, I am enjoying reading about the JW origanization and I especially like it because I grew up with a neighbor lady and her family are JW’s. I always wondered what it was all about; because my Mom would have us hide whenever the neighbor lady would come to do her JW visit. I can’t wait to hear your next installment; since it will be about the visit. Thanks so much for sharing. Hugs, Tamara


  6. Is it difficult for ME to bring it out? Yes and no. I am not ashamed of anything I’ve done in this regard, but as I rarely talk about this it’s been a bit like opening a chest and dusting off memories. JWs count on, I believe, members who want to leave staying because knowing their family members won’t talk to them once they leave. And yes, there are an array of organized groups of “recovering” former JWs. The internet has made that even easier.



  7. I am so sorry to hear about the way your sister is being treated by her children, but it indeed is doctrine. I guess they figure when you live together, you’ve no choice but to communicate. The only topic of conversation definitely verboten is anything related to the JWs. For your sister to talk critically, insightfully, rationally, (etc. – you get the idea) to her children living at home, they would be listening (and perhaps partaking in) apostasy. That will get them disfellowshipped too. Re my relationships with family members: zero. I haven’t seen my mother or sister in 30 years. My sister and I communicated via fax, email and phone when my father (a non-JW long divorced from my father), was dying (that was considered “necessary” conversation with a disfellowshipped family member, thus absolving her from possible disfellowshipping), but as soon as the estate settled, no more communication. Of course their shunning of me has ripple effects: I have a daughter and two grandchildren who will never know my mother and sister. It’s sad, but that’s the price one pays for both being a JW and having the temerity to leave the JWs.


  8. Thank you for following the series! It is a little difficult to write, given my experiences, but I think others need to know what it’s like “in the Truth.” (BTW, I follow your sewing exploits – you are amazingly talented! Sharing your work with readers has encouraged me to pick up sewing again!)



  9. jenyjenny says:

    Is it difficult to bring this out? I don’t know what I would have said to the elder that said my mother and sister could no longer speak to me. Aaaargh! Are there organized groups of “recovering” former JW’s?


  10. Karen says:

    Thornberry got me onto this series about JW’s and I too am finding it fascinating reading, thanks for sharing. My sister is a disfellowshipped JW and now her eldest child has nothing to do to with her. Recently her second child said once she was not living with her she too will not speak to her. I am fascinated that they speak to you when you live together but then disown you. I’d be interested to know what your relationships with family members are like now, as I wonder what her future holds…


  11. thornberry says:

    I am finding this series absolutely fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!


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