A regular highlight for Jehovah’s Witnesses is the release of the Yearbook, which chronicles the accomplishments of the organization over the past service year and beyond.
The 2014 Yearbook has now been released, and I have had some time to skim through its contents. There are the usual heartwarming stories where faith triumphs over adversity. There are also experiences that clearly demonstrate to those with an objective mind that the entrenched problems with the organization lie not far beneath the surface.
This article will attempt to present an honest review of the 2014 Yearbook. It will not take Watchtower’s rose-tinted sugar-coated approach, but will rather look at the stories behind the stories, and what impact the Governing Body is having on people’s lives.
The elephant in the room
It should go without saying that reaching the year 2014 is an unexpected, unwelcome and frankly embarrassing achievement from Watchtower’s perspective. We were simply not supposed to be at this point in human history without planet earth looking radically different, with arrangements of fruit gracing every table and a panda for every child.
Why? Because of what happened in 1914, of course.
Contrary to Watchtower’s sanitized version of its own history, 1914 was expected to signal, not the beginning of the last days, but the climactic end of them. As shown in the quote below from a Studies In The Scriptures volume, Russell believed Christ’s kingdom rule had begun in 1878, and that 1914 would mark the end of the “battle of the great day of God Almighty.”
Fast forward 100 years since 1914, and we have had only more failed promises spewing forth from the pages of the Watchtower and its affiliated publications.
Russell’s successor Rutherford believed that 1925 would see the resurrection of the “ancient worthies” and the establishment of kingdom rule on the earth. So bold was he regarding this prediction that he then claimed that “millions now living will never die.” Suffice to say, virtually all the millions then living are now very much dead.
1975 was later touted as the date of Armageddon, with the late Fred Franz pointing to that year as marking six thousand years of human history. The year came and went with Witnesses selling homes and businesses in readiness for the great day of God’s wrath. Watchtower issued only a half-hearted apology years later, essentially blaming Witnesses for being so trusting. (w80 3/15 p.17 par.5,6)
And from my own childhood recollections I refuse to forget that the generation cognizant of the events of 1914 was not supposed to die off before Armageddon struck. So recent is this latter teaching that it still graces page 200 of the Reasoning Book, which in turn is still carried in the bags of Witnesses all over the world as they engage in their preaching work.
And so, as 2014 rolls around, there is every reason for Watchtower to humbly acknowledge a century of false predictions and resolve to be less forthright when making future prophetic estimations. Instead we get the following gleeful introduction to the Yearbook on page 2…
“About one hundred years ago, Jehovah installed Jesus as King in the invisible heavens. Since then, God’s servants have zealously made known the blessings that Christ’s Kingdom will bring. Imagine! Under the loving rulership of Jesus, the earth will become a paradise, filled with people who truly love one another. There will be no crime, no fighting, no sickness, no suffering, and no death.
Soon, those blessings will become a reality. God’s Kingdom is real, and it will come and fulfill all that Jehovah has purposed. Pray for the Kingdom to come, tell others about it, and treasure the hope of all that it will do for you.”
And so no lessons are learned, and no humble remorse is shown. We are simply required to “imagine” – suspend disbelief in the blind hope that Watchtower had it right all along despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
As was said before, during and after 1914, Armageddon continues to be “soon,” imminent, just around the corner. There seems to be no end to the number of times Watchtower’s boy can cry “wolf!”
The Yearbook concludes on pages 170-175 under the rather unimaginative heading “One Hundred Years Ago 1914” with a look back on events in the years leading up to and immediately following 1914.
The reader is reminded how much has changed since then, both within Watchtower and in the world in general. Nowhere is it mentioned honestly what the full expectations of Russell and his followers were for 1914, nor is it explained why a “short period of time” lasting a century is required by Christ before he can take action following his enthronement. (Rev. 12:12)
Instead, the reader is impressed with the need for loyalty. A countdown card circa 1914 is produced bearing the large inscription “be thou faithful unto death.” The message is clear – “Don’t think about whether we could be wrong, just be faithful until you die!”
Letter from the “fellow domestics”
In an obvious reference to the 2012 “new light” regarding the faithful slave, the Governing Body begins their traditional letter on pages 4 to 7 by addressing their readers as “Dear Fellow Domestics.”
Watchtower seems to believe that drilling home this idea that “we are ALL domestics” (to quote David Splane at the 2012 Annual Meeting) will lead Witnesses to the conclusion that the Governing Body are modest men who consider themselves on the same level as the ordinary rank and file. As nice as this idea sounds, it blatantly does not reflect reality. For evidence you need look no further than this very Yearbook.
The Governing Body’s letter best showcases the group’s growing propensity for narcissism. A photograph shows a weekly meeting in New York about to convene, with David Splane in the foreground entering a conference room where fellow members on swivel chairs desperately try to look as though they don’t know they are in a photo shoot.
A quick glance at the letter itself shows the Governing Body wasting no time in reminding Witnesses of their miraculous provision of the revised New World Translation at the 2013 Annual Meeting (or, as they put it, “the finest translation of the Bible available to mankind”).
With this and other apparently bounteous provisions extended (among which is even counted the opportunity for auxiliary pioneers to attend the full pioneer meeting during Circuit Overseer visits), 8 million Witnesses are given yet more reasons to give thanks to their dear faithful slave.
The Governing Body’s hogging of the limelight is perhaps best reflected in a quick comparison between the number of times Jesus is mentioned in the entire Yearbook compared to the Governing Body and its members, past and present. As you will see, though Jesus finds himself mentioned 21 times (including in the phrase “the Memorial of Christ’s death”), his “Slave” including its current and former incumbents receive no less than 36 mentions, as follows…
- Jesus / Christ – 21 times
- “Governing Body” – 15 times
- Anthony Morris / Brother Morris – 6 times
- Milton Henschel / Brother Henschel – 5 times
- Guy Pierce / Brother Pierce – 3 times
- Stephen Lett / Brother Lett – 2 times
- David Splane / Brother Splane – 2 times
- Mark Sanderson / Brother Sanderson – 2 times
- Lloyd Barry – once
If this doesn’t send a clear message as to who’s really in charge of “the earthly part of God’s organization,” I don’t know what does.
Still no mention of profits?
Pages 8 to 13 deal with Watchtower’s selling of its Brooklyn properties and building of a new headquarters at Warwick, upstate New York. As has been repeatedly mentioned on this website, the whole endeavor is essentially a billion-dollar property flip.
Though exact figures are hard to come by, it is easy to calculate that Watchtower has pocketed over a billion dollars from the sale of its Brooklyn portfolio. The sale of the six-building factory complex mentioned on page ten of the Yearbook made Watchtower $375 million alone. In contrast, it has been revealed that total construction costs for Warwick, which is being built mostly with volunteer labor, are estimated at a mere $11.5 million.
And yet for all this blatant profiteering, with some construction volunteers even sacrificing their employment to help build the new headquarters, what you will not find in this Yearbook is any transparency regarding the amounts of money changing hands. Why? You can guess this for yourself, but I would submit that Watchtower is covering up its enormous profits simply because it doesn’t want to discourage people from sending in their donations, which it desperately needs.
Sparlock DVD continues to wreak havoc
In May 2012 the world caught its first glimpse of the “Become Jehovah’s Friend” DVD, in which a young Witness boy named Caleb is coerced by his unhinged mother into throwing his plastic toy wizard into the garbage. Why? Because it made Jehovah sad.
Though it is a vile and blatant attempt at child indoctrination, this DVD has had its positives. As reported on this website, the film has immunized a whole YouTube generation against Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing just how cultlike they are. One Mormon has even been helped to awaken from his indoctrination by seeing how mind control is employed to such great effect by Watchtower through the story of Sparlock and Caleb.
Even so, I still can’t help but wish this dreadful film had never been released. To see why, you need only look at pages 20 to 22 of the new Yearbook under the sinister heading “Animated Videos Touch Righteous Hearts.”
Pictures are shown of children in Vietnam and Croatia laughing and singing along to the film, blissfully unaware that their brains are in the process of being rewired. A series of experiences are related to show how children are responding to the DVD. Unquestionably the most chilling of these is left for the end of the article (pages 21 and 22)…
“In Ecuador two non-Witness Quichua-speaking boys, eight-year-old Isaac and his ﬁve-year-old brother, Saul, used to save their daily snack money to buy toy guns, swords, and action figures. One day their mother asked them to tidy up their room and to put all their toys in a cardboard box under the bed. Later, the boys were given the new Become Jehovah’s Friend DVD as a gift, and they watched it together. A week later, while the mother was cleaning the house, she found that the cardboard box under the bed was empty except for a toy car. She asked the boys, ‘Where are the toys?’ They answered, ‘Jehovah doesn’t like those toys, so we threw them in the garbage.’ Now when other neighborhood children play with toys that promote violence, Isaac tells them: ‘Don’t play with that. Jehovah doesn’t like it!'”
I can’t decide what about this experience is more disturbing. Is it the fact that the film is apparently even indoctrinating non-Witnesses? Is it that these two boys in Ecuador ended up wasting their pocket-money on toys Watchtower made them throw away?
Or is it more likely the fact that sword and action figures have now been added to Watchtower’s seemingly endless list of things that make Jehovah sad, with the fate of a shriveled Adam and Eve looming over any child who dares to focus his or her imagination on a harmless object?
An incomplete legal report
I was intrigued to stumble on a section spanning pages 27 to 35 entitled “Legal Report.” Could this perhaps contain some reference to the recent glut of child abuse lawsuits, including the Candace Conti verdict that Watchtower is now appealing? Would at least one or two of Irwin Zalkin’s reported 11 child molestation lawsuits against Watchtower receive some acknowledgment?
As you might expect, the report contains nothing of the sort. Instead, all nine pages are devoted to Watchtower’s legal victories in the area of freedom of worship and conscientious objection.
It is a bitter irony that this organization applauds itself for securing its own religious liberties whilst cruelly snatching the same from those who dare to question its practices through the threat of shunning.
Dedications versus downsizing
Yearbooks traditionally report on new branch dedications and this year is no exception, as you will find on pages 39 to 43. South Korea, Liberia, Georgia, Myanmar and Moldova all received newly built or renovated branch facilities, so Governing Body members Lett, Morris, Pierce and Splane were dispatched to bring some celebrity to the proceedings.
But again, we see only one side of the coin, giving us the impression that Watchtower is enjoying relentless international growth. No attempt is made to chronicle or explain the number of branches closed in the same year as part of Watchtower’s ongoing downsizing (or “consolidation”) initiative. It is noteworthy that branch levels continue to plummet from their 2009 peak of 118 to just 91 as of last year.
My eyebrow was raised by an experience recounted on pages 63 and 64, in which an Armenian mother and daughter stood for two hours in bad weather in an effort to meet some Witnesses. Their reason? They had heard “defamatory propaganda” against the Witnesses on TV programs and posters, and couldn’t fathom how any of it could be true.
A close relative of theirs had encountered Witnesses incarcerated as conscientious objectors during his stay in prison. As a result of their influence he had come out a changed man. “My uncle is such a wonderful person. So why are there so many bad things being said about Jehovah’s Witnesses?” exclaimed the daughter, Yeva.
Well, Yeva, though I don’t know what they’ve been saying over there in Armenia (because Watchtower doesn’t tell us), I can tell you that bad things are rightly said about Jehovah’s Witnesses in most other countries because their leaders, the Watch Tower Society, have an atrocious track record of mishandling child abuse, dissuading young people from attending college, making it almost impossible for beaten wives to leave their husbands, allowing people to die by refusing medical treatment involving blood, and coercing families to shun loved ones who decide to leave.
Meanwhile, Watchtower claims that so-called apostates, those who dare to speak out against the organization, are “mentally diseased” liars, the composite “man of lawlessness,” who speak “gangrenous” words and eat at the table of demons and seek to draw off followers after themselves.
And this is not considered “defamatory propaganda?”
Working for the police is NOT okay
I had to gasp in wonder while reading an experience between pages 65 and 67 in which a young Nepalese man with half the name of a Flintstone’s character is brought into the Witness fold.
Bam had been a policeman when he first met the Witnesses, but during the course of studying with them he felt pangs of conscience regarding his profession. It seems being a policeman and arresting bad guys also features on the long list of things that make Jehovah sad.
Bam first asked his superiors for a desk job in the hopes of calming his troubled mind, and they readily agreed. This allowed Bam to hang up his gun and handcuffs and avoid losing sleep as to whether he might end up hurting any criminals. But after attending a District Convention, Bam decided that even this wasn’t going quite far enough to satisfy his new religion.
Bam ended up leaving the police force altogether and becoming a rickshaw driver to the initial (and understandable) consternation of his wife.
Eventually his wife also became a Witness and saw the error of her ways in wanting Bam to remain as a policeman. After all, apart from the money, she had been overly concerned about her “social standing” as the wife of a Nepalese police officer.
And so the whole family became Witnesses and all lived happily ever after, especially after Bam did the math and discovered he was earning more as a rickshaw driver than he was previously as a policeman.
It remains to be seen whether Bam feels the same way about that desk job once he has aged a bit more and his knees have started to buckle.
And the moral of the story is: Jehovah’s Witnesses can benefit from the work of law enforcement – they just can’t become police officers themselves.
Self-sacrifice, or self-endangerment?
A number of stories in the 2014 Yearbook, like the one above, seem to center on individuals making unreasonable and sometimes absurd or even dangerous sacrifices to demonstrate or affirm their loyalty to Watchtower.
Here are just a few examples…
- Man sells his bike for building project (p.37) Malachi is an elder living in Burundi who decided to sell his bicycle, his main source of livelihood, to free him to take time off work to assist with a kingdom hall build. After giving most of the proceeds from the sale of his bike to his wife to care for his family, he put the rest of the money in the contribution box (as though his volunteer labor wasn’t quite enough). This apparent recklessness was later rewarded when Malachi found employment in construction based on the experience he gained on the building project, and he has even since been able to afford a new bike. Even so, it doesn’t sit well with me for Watchtower to be recommending this kind of gung-ho “endanger your family’s long-term welfare for us, and it will all pan out eventually” approach – especially in poor countries where work can be scarce.
- Seventy-year-old woman walks in bad weather to attend a meeting (pp.48-49) – apparently walking for two hours in the pouring rain is what you should do if you’re a seventy-year-old Witness woman anxious to attend your meeting and there is no bus.
- Witness youth incites bullying by preaching at school (p.58) This experience struck a chord with me as someone who was frequently bullied as a child on the grounds of his religion. A young boy in Guyana finds himself sitting in the head teacher’s office with a split lip after being punched in the face by another boy who didn’t like being preached to. Obviously in no way do I condone bullying or violence of any sort, but surely anyone who has been through school can understand that there are things you can do to make life easier for yourself, and make yourself less of a target for mindless thugs. Gleefully telling your classmates about their impending destruction at Armageddon is not such a strategy. And yet, Watchtower is happy for countless young ones to expose themselves to the physical and emotional harm caused by bullying so long as their objectives are furthered.
- Disabled woman auxiliary pioneers every month for two years (p.67) Do you happen to be a very ill person with a bad leg caused by paralysis as a child? Do you get easily exhausted and suffer frequent falls? If so, you should definitely spend 50 hours per month preaching as an auxiliary pioneer. What’s that? You also experience panic attacks, difficulty breathing, pain caused by tension and anxiety, and side-effects from all the medication you are taking? In that case, I would prescribe auxiliary pioneering every month for at least two years, maybe more.
- Polio victim serves as a regular pioneer (p.128-129) Again we have a very ill woman, this time a victim of polio crippled from the waist down who suffers from “chronic pain,” being held aloft by Watchtower as proof that there really are NO excuses for not pioneering (unless, of course, you are a Governing Body member). If you are using the fact that you are wheelchair-bound to escape doing your 70 hours of preaching every month, could it be that you just aren’t trying hard enough? Have you thought of enlisting the help of other brothers and sisters to get you from one door to the next, and round all your route calls? Don’t forget that your fellow Witnesses can be called upon in this way at any time, unless of course it is with the aim of attending an international convention as a delegate – in which case, please stay at home and don’t bother anyone!
If I sound flippant or overly sarcastic, please excuse me. It’s just that, having read this Yearbook, I am enraged and astounded at the manner in which the Governing Body seems only too willing to send people into the trenches on their behalf from the comfort of their swivel chairs despite all manner of adversities.
This indifference is best summed up on page 165 where we find Kevin Washington, a Gilead missionary in Sierra Leone, quoted as saying: “Many publishers regularly preach and care for congregation responsibilities in the face of problems that might prompt us to stay home and be cranky.”
By stereotyping as “cranky” those who live according to their limitations rather than throwing themselves on Watchtower’s altar, Kevin tells us everything we need to know about what it means to be a Witness, and how those who refuse to endanger their health to help promote the Governing Body are to be viewed.
Why no more debates?
William “Bible” Brown, a fearless missionary of Watchtower folklore, is frequently mentioned in this Yearbook. When reading some of his story, I am left admiring his tenacity and enthusiasm for his work, if not his misplaced religious convictions. Page 91 provides a perfect example of how the present Governing Body could well learn from his example…
“Rising to the clergy’s defense, a church youth group, dubbed the Gladiators, announced a series of public meetings to put down ‘Russellism,’ as they had styled the Kingdom message. In response, Brother Brown publicly challenged them to a series of debates. The Gladiators refused to accept Brother Brown’s challenge and rebuked the newspaper editor who printed it.”
One is reminded of the debates Charles Russell reportedly engaged in against church leaders of his day – undoubtedly the inspiration behind Brown’s public challenge of the “Gladiators.”
One is also left wondering why the present Governing Body is so fearful of exposing their own opinions to the cauldron of public debate. What precisely has changed since the days of Russell and Brown that makes the idea of speaking in debates so questionable? In refusing to respond to their opponents in this way, the Governing Body comes off looking less like Brown, and more like the Gladiators.
“The friend dropped dead!”
A strange experience is related on page 99. A man tries to dissuade a would-be Witness named Zachaeus from forsaking his local church in favor of a five-mile walk down a steep mountain to the nearest kingdom hall.
The man apparently says to Zachaeus, his friend, “Old man, if you continue to walk those five miles up and down this mountain to go to the hall of those people, you will be dead within a year.”
The man then apparently watches Zachaeus “walk up and down the mountain twice a week for five years.” Then, according to the Yearbook account, “the friend dropped dead!” Zachaeus, on the other hand, was said to be still feeling fit twenty-five years later.
Are we supposed to feel happy that a man’s friend died inexplicably? Was this story inserted as some sort of joke at the expense of non-Witnesses? I will leave it for you to decide.
“Jehovah had clearly protected and blessed it”
In dealing extensively with stories from Sierra Leone, the 2014 Yearbook commendably mentions the military unrest that ravaged that country for many years, including the personal stories of bravery on the part of Witnesses enduring brutal and seemingly endless rebel fighting.
In 1997 the fighting grew so fierce that a group of Watchtower missionaries had to be evacuated by helicopter from Freetown by the U.S. Marines as part of what they were later told was the largest civilian evacuation conducted by the U.S. Navy since the Vietnam War.
The following year the Sierra Leone Bethel itself was ransacked by rebel forces. It was only after the forces of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) had assumed control of Freetown that normality was restored with the missionaries returning. But even then, the violence wasn’t over.
In January 1999, rebel forces launched “Operation No Living Thing” – a campaign of carnage and terror in which 6,000 civilians were massacred, with arms and limbs hacked off randomly. Witnesses were not immune from the violence, with one brother killed (according to the Yearbook) and another bludgeoned in the head with an axe. Only with the intervention of a British expeditionary force in August of that year could peace be restored and the Witnesses allowed to continue their activities undisturbed.
You would think there would be some acknowledgment of the debt of gratitude owed by Jehovah’s Witnesses to government forces (including the armies of “Anglo-America” no less) in rescuing missionaries, purging Sierra Leone of bloodthirsty thugs, and restoring law and order. Instead, this is what we find on page 145…
“How had Jehovah’s organization fared? Jehovah had clearly protected and blessed it. During the conflict, about 700 people were baptized. Hundreds of Witnesses had fled the war zone, yet the number of publishers in Sierra Leone increased by 50 percent.”
It should come as no surprise that emotionally frightened and vulnerable people in a war-ravaged country would throw themselves into the arms of a religion offering an “imminent” transition to worldwide peace and security. It is equally to be expected that Watchtower should give no credit to the protection of the governmental instruments that brought an end to the savagery, thus allowing their religion to flourish. Instead, Watchtower claims it was Jehovah who had “clearly” both blessed and protected the organization.
“Prodigals” welcomed back?
Anyone who has been following my personal story will know that I recently had cause to relate the account of the prodigal son to some elders. During my judicial committee I reminded my accusers that Watchtower’s practice of shunning is unscriptural, because nowhere does the Bible say that family members should shun eachother on religious grounds.
Rather, the prodigal son parable offers an example of a son returning to his father for no other reason than because he had run out of food and money. And while his son was still some way off, even before repentance or lack thereof had been established, the father ran out to him and embraced him.
In sharp contrast, Witness parents are urged to spurn the love of their delinquent teenagers, considering them to be no better than Nadab and Abihu (the errant priests consumed by fire from the heavens). (w11 7/15 p.31)
So you can imagine how intrigued I was to see the prodigal son parable referred to on page 157, as follows…
“In recent times, a growing number of ‘lost sheep’ have been found. These are persons who had drifted away or had been removed from the congregation. Many such prodigals have turned around and made their way back to the truth. Jehovah’s people have welcomed them with open arms.—Luke 15:11-24.”
The above words, which describe individuals in Sierra Leone and Guinea returning to the Witnesses in recent years, hijack the parable of the prodigal son and completely reinvent it.
The prodigal son in Christ’s parable was never disfellowshipped, or even admonished by his religious leaders. There was no acceptance on his part of what was or wasn’t “the truth.” As I mentioned, the son simply returned home and was embraced by his father before repentance was even confirmed.
Rather than applying the prodigal son parable to the family as Jesus intended it, Watchtower seems intent on applying it to the entire organization – the “spiritual mother.” In so doing, it willfully overlooks the fact that the father was ready to show love to his son regardless of his judicial standing.
Though I am now agnostic, I find it sad and disturbing that one of the most beautiful and laudable teachings of Jesus could be so distorted and misappropriated by Watchtower, seemingly without Witnesses noticing.
Wondrous expansion now taking place?
With all the fuss being made about the recently revamped JW.org site on pages 14 to 17 of the Yearbook, you would expect to be blown away by a resulting influx of Witnesses when you finally reach the worldwide report. Instead, we find only a modest improvement in the growth rate, from 1.9% in 2012 to 2.1% in 2013.
Bear in mind that global population growth is estimated at 1.14% annually. Jehovah’s Witnesses can therefore expect to grow by roughly 100,000 publishers per year simply by breeding and dying at the same rate as everyone else. It’s therefore not much to write home about if the organization has beaten global population growth by just one percentage, especially when you consider the recent added impetus of JW.org and the urban preaching effort using push carts.
And the bad news for Watchtower is that, when you look at the growth rate trend over the past ten years, there are few reasons for optimism. Only twice, in 2007 and 2009, has the growth rate nudged over the 3% mark – a far cry from the 7.1% increase recorded in 1984.
The increasing futility of the preaching work is perhaps best illustrated by the growing ratio of hours to baptisms. The following graph shows that the number of hours required per baptism has steadily increased over the past ten years, from 4,886 in 2004 to 6,639 in 2013 (the equivalent of just over nine months).
All this means that it is unquestionably getting harder for Witnesses to get tangible results in the preaching work beyond placing literature. This can be due in no small measure to the abundance of objective information about Watchtower now available online. For all Governing Body’s spin, self-publicity and navel-gazing, there is simply no escaping Watchtower’s chequered history and present scandals.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”