On Jehovah’s Witnesses (As Told by an Ex-Jehovah’s Witness)
By Eric McMullan
“Eric McMullan is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Seems like a pretty straight-forward sentence, right? Though I wasn’t in attendance that night, I am sure that is the exact statement that was read to my friends on a Thursday evening in November of 2008. Those nine words, though, are far from simple. They are a death sentence of sorts. Everyone in that auditorium knew immediately what those words meant: Eric has been cast off, expelled, excommunicated, disfellowshipped. I was dead.
This was a far cry from the five-year-old boy who stood, curious, hanging on his mom, wondering who the two ladies at the front door were. Even then, as a kid, I thought it was a little strange for ladies with dresses and book bags to be at our front door. But mom seemed interested, even excited! These ladies, Kate and DeeDee had good news, mom said. The answers that her and my stepdad had been looking for had literally just walked up to the front door. It could be nothing if not divine direction, right?
I could never have known then, at five years old, what those two ladies showing up at our door would mean for the next quarter century of my life. Soon, my mom was having regular “Bible Studies,” as the Witnesses still call them, out of a book called, “You Can Live Forever in a Paradise Earth.” That sounded like a great promise to my little brain. Death is scary! Mom says we can live forever!
It wouldn’t be long before we were going three times a week to the local Kingdom Hall for Meetings. I was hooked! This new place had really nice people, all sorts of wonderful promises, and lots of new friends to play with. But, our “play” would be a little different than what I was used to. My brand-new He-Man play set (that even then likely cost $50) would have to be thrown away. “But why, mommy? I just got it!” Mom explained that He-Man is full of spiritism, and our God, Jehovah, doesn’t like that. You don’t want to displease Jehovah, do you? After all, he’s giving you all of these wonderful promises. “Well, of course’,” I thought. I don’t want to make Jehovah mad! I was glad to see my favorite toy go in the garbage.
And so, with that aim of not displeasing my newfound God, I joyfully waved goodbye to the things that kids do. There would be no more toy guns since Jehovah hates violence (funny, given the Old Testament). Birthdays were out, since only two were recorded in the Bible, and they were both in honor of bad people who killed God’s servants. Christmas? Gone—it’s a pagan holiday in honor a pagan sun god. Easter? Nope—pagan fertility celebration. How about Fourth of July? What could possibly be pagan about the Fourth of July? Nationalism. Yes, Jehovah’s Witnesses are supposed to be strictly neutral politically. No voting, no holding of public office, and you had better not enjoy the fireworks or you’re siding with your country over God.
I wouldn’t think twice of all the other things that really set us apart as strange, even cultish. We were allowed to associate only with other Witnesses. After all, according to 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad associations spoil useful habits,” or some such nonsense. After all, how could we presumptuously qualify someone as a “bad associate” for no other reason than not being exactly like us? For me, there would be no chance to hang out with normal kids my own age. School sports were out. Too much time away from spiritual matters, and besides, more bad association. School dances? No way. Worldly and inappropriate behavior. Necessary interaction with classmates, co-workers or non-believing family members was accepted, but we were not to develop friendships with “worldly” people. We were also forced to keep our distance from our non-Witness family.
In second and third grades, I got it in my head that I really wanted to be sure that people knew I was one of Jehovah’s servants. I proudly wore a suit and tie to school and carried my little book bag stuffed neatly with Watchtower and Awake! magazines so that I could tell my friends and teachers the same wonderful news I had been given. My teacher was outwardly gracious, though I can only imagine what she was thinking. My classmates weren’t so kind. I remember crying, thinking I had let Jehovah down, when my classmates tore up one of my Watchtowers. I was comforted, though, in the thought that Jehovah would make things right, even if it meant destroying these obstinate, disrespectful non-believers at Armageddon.
For the remainder of my time in school, my behavior would be a bit more restrained. I would sheepishly make some justification why I couldn’t accept a classmate’s invitation to a party. I would try to think of excuses to tell the various coaches when they would say, “Hey Eric, you should come out” for this sport or that sport. I would mumble something to my teachers when they would ask what universities I had applied to. Secondary education is discouraged, or at least limited, by the Witnesses. Our “career” was already set. We were to spend as full a share as possible in the preaching and teaching of the good news that Christ set forth. You didn’t need to be an engineer or lawyer to do that—a window washer, bricklayer or janitor could do it just as well. After all, Christ called men who were “unlettered and ordinary” (Acts 4:13) to be his disciples in the first century; why should we be any different?
Once out of school, I would quickly marry, as so many Witnesses do. Marriage is limited to other Witnesses. My goals remained the same, do whatever basic work I could to support myself while I gave my all to “The Truth,” as they like to call their faith. When I was twenty-three, I became a “Pioneer Minister,” meaning that I committed myself to spend at least seventy hours a month in the ministry that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so known for. A year later, I was appointed as a Ministerial Servant. “Servants” are the assistants to the Congregation Elders. I would liken their role to that of a Deacon.
From the age of seven, I was enrolled in the Theocratic Ministry School, a public speaking course that the organization conducts weekly. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a skilled orator. I would routinely be given 15 to 25-minute speaking assignments at congregation meetings. I was often the go-to speaker to fill in last minute if someone wasn’t able to deliver their assignment. Before too long, I was delivering “Public Talks,” the equivalent of Sunday Sermons. At the height of my role as a Servant, I was giving a Public Talk monthly, whether at my home congregation, or neighboring Kingdom Halls.
At that time, the Talks were 45 minutes in length (they are now 30 minutes), and each week would be a different theme. In order to ensure a uniform message, the “Governing Body” would provide the speaker with a one-page outline from which to develop his material. Straying from the outline was highly frowned upon and could result in the speaker not being called upon any longer. Some of the outlines I remember having were “Human Rule Weighed in the Balance,” “How to Conquer Evil with Good” and other bible-themed talks.
My life as a JW (pronounced Jay-dub) was pretty “normal” by the standards of other believers. At the time, there were five meetings a week, conducted at three different times. On Tuesdays we had the “Book Study” for one hour. This meeting was a question-and-answer discussion of a Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (JW’s) publication, along with the Bible. As a ministerial servant, I was used to fill in as the conductor when the Elder could not be present. Though it was a question and answer, the audience would essentially just regurgitate the material that was printed in the publication.
On Thursdays, two meetings were held. First was the Theocratic Ministry School, which I mentioned earlier, followed by the Service Meeting. The School involved both training courses and student deliveries on a variety of topics, with the focus to make everyone a more capable minister and public speaker. Of course, as with other misogynistic religions, women were not allowed to teach, so they simply learned to conduct better bible studies. The Service Meeting had three parts. First were the announcements, when congregation matters were discussed, or the all-important disfellowshippings were announced. After the announcements were two parts covering how to be more effective in the door-to-door ministry. We were taught how to overcome people’s objections, and to hopefully be persuasive enough to start a Bible Study with them, just and DeeDee and Kate had done with my mother.
Sundays were a two-hour meeting that began with the Public Talk and concluded with the Watchtower Study, a question-and-answer consideration of the magazine of the same name that the JW’s are known for. Like the School and Service Meeting, Sundays were opened and closed with song and prayer. As you might expect, JW’s have their own brand of hymns so as to separate themselves from Christendom as a whole.
Their hymns aren’t the only thing that makes them different from mainstream Christianity. They are not trinitarian; they believe Christ is the son of God, and his vassal king, but not equal to God, Jehovah. They don’t believe in the personage of the holy spirit, but rather that it is God’s active force. They believe in the literal truth of the Bible, including the creation account in Genesis. So, evolution is out. Witnesses don’t accept life-saving blood transfusions because of an archaic prohibition in the book of Leviticus from eating blood. Acts 15:29 similarly commands Christians to “abstain” from blood. For this reason, thousands of Witnesses have refused life-saving medical treatment and gone to an early death. Those individuals felt that doing so, giving up this life, was actually preserving their relationship with their heavenly father, Jehovah, and thereby ensuring everlasting life.
The door-to-door ministry is probably the most recognizable part of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. We’ve all seen the cartoons and jokes and spots in sitcoms when two Witnesses show up at your door with a Watchtower in hand. Members are encouraged (a euphemism for forced) to spend time in the ministry each month, preferably at least ten hours or more. The whole purpose to even being a Witness is to go in the ministry. We were taught that the public ministry is what sets us apart from the “False Religions” that surrounded us. We were trained for it, equipped for it … we had to do it. It isn’t natural for anyone. It’s not easy. You are mocked, spit on, laughed at, have dogs called to attack you, even have guns pulled on you, as I did twice. But you are convinced that you have to do it; the message is just that important.
JW’s are also known for their teaching that only 144,000 individuals will actually go to heaven with Christ. This stems from two visions in the book of Revelation in chapters 7 and 14. The remaining faithful members of the religion are promised eternal life in paradise on earth, as the book my mom received at the door had promised. To hear the organization tell it, the number of these “anointed” 144,000 dates back to the Last Supper (which they call the Lord’s Evening Meal). There are still, allegedly, some thousands still here on earth. The number changes, and has actually gone up in recent years, which is counterintuitive since the number should only go down as “anointed” ones pass away. Currently, the number is just shy of 12,000.
The Governing Body is made up of such anointed ones, and is the “earthly” leadership of the religion. The number is not set, and I believe is currently at seven, though I have been away from the organization for some time and it may be different. The Governing Body acts with complete authority and autonomy. They claim to be “spirit directed” by God through Christ in their efforts to direct all aspects of the organization. Despite this “spirit,” former Governing Body member Ray Franz wrote in his book Crisis of Conscience about frequent divisions and disputes among the body. Rules that would affect millions of Witnesses’ everyday lives were passed by slight majorities and with seeming disregard for the immense hardships they would pose to all members of the faith.
The organization has a world headquarters (they call Bethel) and other branch offices in many countries. For decades, the world headquarters was in Brooklyn, New York. Thousands of volunteers, called Bethelites, put their lives on hold, move into JW-supplied housing, and work for free, mainly producing the endless amount of JW literature that is pushed on people at their doorsteps. In the rank of JW’s, being a Bethelite made someone special or elite. After all, you really loved Jehovah when you were a Bethelite.
There is rank within the congregation, as well. Elders, usually numbering between two or three up to a dozen or more, rule with authority. The only check to their power is the biannual visit from a “Circuit Overseer.” Elders and their wives often, though not always, act with an air of superiority. Ministerial Servants are next, probably equal to the Pioneers, those who spend large amounts of time in the ministry. Cliques invariably form, though they are officially discouraged from the platform (pulpit).
For my entire life, this type of structure and organization wasn’t at all unusual. It was all I knew, my whole world. Like most Witnesses, I never questioned what I was taught; I never wavered in what was expected from me. When the elders said, “Spend more time in the ministry,” I did. When I was encouraged to Pioneer, I did. When large amounts of work, like maintaining the congregation accounts and remodeling nearby Kingdom Halls was dumped on me, I smiled and considered it a privilege. After all, I did it for Jehovah and his glory, right? He promised me that this wicked world was soon to end at Armageddon, to be replaced by His paradise earth. I lived every day with a sense of urgency, knowing this promise was imminent.
When I was 27 years old, I lost my only sibling, Jill, to natural causes. Her death was sudden and unexpected. Her son, Tyler, was left without his birth parents, as his father had died two years earlier, also due to natural causes. Jill’s death shook me to my core. I couldn’t believe that this could happen. I had faith in the teaching of the resurrection, but why this, why Jill? Why would Jehovah allow this? Was it to test me? After all, he promised me at 1 Corinthians 10:13 that I would not be tested beyond what I can bear. I honestly didn’t know.
I spoke at Jill’s funeral. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and the words I thought would bring me comfort just rang hollow. I begged God in prayer to comfort me, to hold me as he promised he would, to support me. I had devoted my life to his service. I gave up a university education, a career, a life, for him. I needed him. For a year, I prayed for comfort. Nothing.
I started to doubt … I wondered if it was me. Was I not worthy of his comfort? I hung my head and stumbled through my spiritual routine. My attendance at meetings decreased. I all but stopped my ministry. The elders, the men supposed to comfort me and support me, found time only for the occasional guilt trip. And then it happened–for the first time in my entire life, I started to think. As in actually think for myself! It was remarkable and gut-wrenching all at the same time. Everything I had held on to, everything that I knew to be true, it started to decay.
As it crumbled, so did I. I found myself on a destructive course that ended my marriage and left me depressed and angry. This brings us full circle, to where we started. Those words, “Eric McMullan is no longer...” The week before the announcement, I met with three elders, friends I had known for decades, in a “Judicial Committee.” They had deemed me an “unrepentant wrongdoer.” I had to be expelled from the congregation. The sanctity of the congregation had to be maintained.
The wheels had fallen off; everything was gone. My belief structure was gone. Friends I would have died for now refused to make eye contact with me or speak to me. Anything I had ever known that had given me comfort or security was ripped from under me. The depression that ensued was almost crippling. I was angry, bitter. Shocking thoughts were going through my head, thoughts of lashing out or hurting myself. It was at that point, I knew I couldn’t live that way. I found a qualified psychotherapist and sought help.
For anyone reading this that has been down a similar path, regardless of the religion, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to seek help. It can be a support group of other former members. It can be a therapist. Something! You cannot lose your entire life and be shunned completely and find emotional, psychological, even spiritual health on your own.
Time passed, therapy and introspection continued. The hole left in my psyche was healing, evolving. I found a new me, one that wasn’t counterfeit or put on for the benefit of others. That’s not to say that there aren’t still setbacks at times. When I see an old friend around town, and they shun me, there’s still a part of me that hurts. I don’t know if that ever goes away. But I move on. I move forward. I fill the void with new things, with new people, with new love. My beautiful baby girl, Mazie, was born on July 5, 2011. She is the greatest part of me. She is how I will live on. As far as it depends upon me, she will never know the pain of being a part of a cult. Along with my fiancé, I strive every day to create a home for Mazie and her two brothers where they are free to explore new ideas, to think freely.
Over time, and with lots of reading, I finally found beliefs and morals that I’m comfortable with. Like so many others before me, I’m happy to call myself a humanist. I finally know that my accountability isn’t to some god that can never be satisfied, but to myself, my family, my friends and my community. I don’t have the foggiest idea what happens to me when I die. None. But I do know that I get this life, right here, right now. I am going to make the best of it. Does it suck that I gave up over a quarter century to an oppressive, totalitarian cult? Sure. But at least I got out. At least I’m free of contrived notions of sin and atonement and other beliefs that only burden us. I’m free to support ideas and concepts that I agree with, not things I’m told to do by some religion. I can grow, I can learn, I can be … human.
Eric McMullan is a former Jehovah's Witness who spent roughly a quarter century in the religion. He currently lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, and enjoys raising his family without the influence of religion.