If you happen to be studying the bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you would be forgiven for assuming that your opinion counts for something, that you are free to scrutinize everything you are taught, and that no questions are considered off-limits.
This was exactly what Rochelle Sevier understood to be the case when she agreed to study the bible with a Witness lady from her local congregation in Salem, Massachusetts – home of the infamous witch trials of the late 17th Century.
Rochelle wasn’t a total stranger to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Born Jewish, her mother had started studying with the Witnesses when she was only five. “My mother would take my sister and I along with her to the meetings. I even attended an International Convention as a child,” she recalls.
But Rochelle lost interest and stopped attending meetings by the time she entered her teens. She credits her mother for not forcing the religion on her when she could see it wasn’t for her. This allowed her to explore her spirituality, including her Jewish roots.
“As an adult, I begin searching for some meaning to life. I attended weekly Torah studies, along with other Jewish co-workers, taught by an Orthodox Rabbi. After several years I went to several Jewish temples to embrace my heritage. Unfortunately, I did not feel fulfilled after attending these temples.”
Rochelle’s spiritual journey brought her back to the Witnesses in 2011. By this point her father, who had previously resisted involvement with the religion, had been studying for a few years. She decided to attend her first meeting as an adult and was soon overwhelmed by the affection and interest she received.
Rochelle agreed to a bible study with the wife of the Coordinator of the body of elders. Together they studied the book What Does the Bible Really Teach?
“Due to my zeal, I was having two bible studies each week, along with attending meeting, assemblies, and conventions,” she explains. “Along the way I would meet other sisters in the congregation who would sit in on my studies. I became the ‘ideal bible student’ due to my inquisitive nature and my knowledge of the material being studied.”
Despite making progress, Rochelle’s “inquisitive nature” gradually surfaced, and she made occasional forays online to see what objective information she could find on the Witnesses.
This made her feel guilty to begin with, but she took her studies seriously and wanted to know if this was really ‘the truth’. “Every now and again I would come across a story that would make me think, particularly Barbara Anderson’s life story. I would put this information in the back of my mind.”
Questions lead to a scolding
Despite her early willingness to bury her doubts, by around the time of January 2014 Rochelle was resolved to do more digging, and go wherever the evidence took her no matter how uncomfortable.
“I came across a plethora of information that challenged the image the Watchtower was portraying. The first story I came across was how the Watchtower became an NGO member of the United Nations, the ‘wild beast’. Then I read the stories about how Watchtower was protecting pedophiles and allowing pedophiles to roam freely because of the two-witness rule.”
Disturbed by the information she was uncovering, Rochelle decided to do what any normal student of Jehovah’s Witnesses would do… she asked her teacher about it. But this didn’t turn out quite how she expected.
“My teacher would not address my questions. Her reaction was one of anger and disdain. She treated me like I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar.”
But rather than convince her she had done something wrong, her teacher’s reaction only made Rochelle more resolved to uncover the real truth. With her mentor stubbornly refusing to give her the answers she craved, she returned to the internet and continued to be appalled by what she was uncovering.
Ending the study
It was around this time that Rochelle’s father was preparing for his baptism, and she couldn’t help but share her discoveries with her parents in the hopes of averting what she now realized was a terrible decision.
“I was hoping that I could wake them up and stop my father’s baptism, especially after I learned that they changed the baptism questions. I realized my father wasn’t getting baptized in the name of Jesus, the holy spirit, and God, but in the name of an organization.”
To her dismay, the baptism went ahead anyway. Rochelle decided not to attend, but her father later told her that he had approached one of the local elders during the event about her issues, asking if he could arrange to meet with her. “The elder said he needed to speak with the other elders first and he would get back to my father. The following day he told my father he couldn’t speak to me but didn’t give a reason why.”
Amid such indifference to her genuine concerns, Rochelle terminated her bible study. She also stopped attending meetings. But it wasn’t long before her former mentor began trying to make inroads again.
“Over the course of time, my teacher would text me or send cards telling me she was thinking of me. I initially did not know if or how I should respond to her because I was angry and hurt at the way she had brushed off my questions. I finally told her how I felt, and she said she never meant to hurt me but had to protect her relationship with Jehovah, and this was the reason why she could not address my questions.”
The forbidden text message
More time passed until only recently, when Rochelle learned about Watchtower’s moves to make congregations commit to pledging a monthly donation amount. Appalled at this development, Rochelle felt compelled to send her friend a text message, which read as follows…
“First I want to say I have great love for you and the others in the congregation. I truly care about them. What I am about to say to you is out of love from my heart. I heard about the new donation arrangement that Watchtower has and think it is not right that they are now asking the flock to commit to a set monthly donation. Watchtower is no better than any other religion now. Rutherford was right when he said religion is a snare and a racket. I hope this wakes people up and they realize that they are being fleeced. Btw the elders need to stop lying to the [flock]. The donation letter was four pages long but the elders were instructed to only read the first page. I have a copy of the whole letter because an elder leaked it out.”
Rochelle could not have anticipated what would ensue from sending this message.
Days later, Rochelle’s instinct told her to phone in to her local meeting and listen to the program. Her ears pricked when it was hinted that there would be a special talk in the service meeting that the congregation had to listen to. Once this talk began, Rochelle soon realized that it was about her. She was being singled out and accused of apostasy, even though she wasn’t baptized as a Witness!
A recording of the talk is available below…
Highlights from a 21st Century ‘Salem Witch Trial’
“Some that study God’s word… have fallen prey to apostasy, so we want the congregation to be aware of that.”
The speaker’s introduction is slightly confusing, suggesting that he might be referring to several individuals rather than one.
“Some friends who are not of our sort have been contacting at times, and they contact some of the friends with information that’s negative regarding the Governing Body, even accusing the local body of elders of lying to the congregation.”
Given Rochelle’s text message only days earlier, it is by this point obvious that this talk is about her – even though the speaker curiously insists on referring to her as “some friends.”
The speaker, who happens to be the Secretary of the Salem congregation, goes on to paint Rochelle as someone who has set out to gather contact details for sinister motives.
“But sometimes some that have associated with us for a while, and we get to know them a little bit… get cellphone numbers and email addresses. Someone calls you on the phone, you have their number. You email someone ‘Oh I’ll email you this’ and bang, you have their email address. So we want you to be careful if, and that’s ‘if’, you were to be contacted with any information that’s apostate… and to avoid that.”
The speaker ignores the fact that it is perfectly normal for Witnesses to communicate with their bible students by text message.
Those guilty of “apostate thinking” are then ridiculed as subversive and questioning of “Jehovah’s channel of dispensing the truth” – prone to the evil of “debating.”
“We don’t debate the truth, certainly not with apostates!”
In making this remark (indeed, throughout his talk) the speaker forgets that Rochelle is only an unbaptized bible student and therefore incapable of meeting the definition of an “apostate.”
As this site has already discussed, “apostasy” refers to the act of leaving one’s religion, and you cannot leave a religion if you haven’t joined it in the first place. Rochelle wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. She hadn’t even started preaching yet. Her only crime was to ask the wrong questions, but the speaker apparently fails to see it quite that way.
“And, when you think about it friends, it’s a lot different from answering a question, someone who’s honest-hearted and looking for the truth, yearning for answers. That’s different. But we should never engage in conversation with someone with apostate thinking. And that’s either, y’know, in person, text messaging, emailing, any other types of sites going back and forth thinking that we have to help this individual. That’s not their design. Their goal is not to learn the truth, their goal is to subvert our faith. That’s their goal. So we don’t want to mistakenly think that we’re there to help someone. It doesn’t happen. They can’t be helped. We want to safeguard ourselves.”
The speaker thus rushes to question Rochelle’s motives. In his mind, she could not have been honest-hearted and yearning for truth. If she was asking about the UN affiliation or the two-witness rule she HAD to be focused on subverting her teacher’s faith, even though she was only going through the Bible Teach book.
“At times we may wonder ‘How can someone who’s studying the bible with us, even attending some of the meetings, how can they succumb to apostate thinking? Now, we have to remember such ones really never allowed themselves to become grounded, or as the scriptures say ‘stable in the faith’. They never really developed a relationship with Jehovah God, love for his word. Most of the time it’s very poor study habits, probably not even preparing for their studies… coming to meetings hit or miss, never getting that relationship with Jehovah God. And so what ends up happening is they open themselves up to the devil, and problems such that then begin to rise.”
The speaker’s scathing characterization of Rochelle’s study habits conflicts with her own account of being a student who studied twice weekly and regularly attended meetings, but it is all too convenient for the speaker to dismiss her so-called “apostasy” by blaming it on her being a poor student.
Of further curiosity is the speaker’s rather naive and blinkered description of the studying process itself. In his view, students simply cannot be indoctrinated and brought under undue influence through one-sided Watchtower propaganda. Rather, through information they become “grounded” and more “stable in the faith.”
The speaker also makes the common mistake among Watchtower apologists of equating Jehovah God with the Watch Tower Society, so that “Jehovah” and the “organization” are referred to interchangeably.
If Rochelle doesn’t embrace the history and policies of Watchtower, then by default she is deemed to be spurning a “relationship with Jehovah God.” If she doesn’t accept every word her mentor is teaching her without question, then she must be opening herself up to the devil.
Indeed, the speaker admits that his talk is based extensively on the notorious “Human Apostates” talk of the 2013 district convention – itself a tour de force in name-calling and ad hominem. But he gives his own twist on Watchtower’s “table of demons” rant by likening Rochelle’s antics to that of a wife on a TV crime series who poisoned several husbands by mixing anti-freeze with gatorade.
That a mature adult could stoop to such wild exaggerations can be explained only by the fact that he is both a recipient and dispenser, not of poisoned gatorade as such, but of Watchtower’s extremely potent koolaid. Reason and logic go out the window when there is an enemy or questioner of “Jehovah’s organization” to be vanquished.
An unnecessary warning
The speaker finally concludes by reading Psalm 26:4, and using this verse to remind his congregation not to associate with apostates. Rochelle, who is still not technically a Witness, is thus effectively “marked” – a lesser form of shunning used by elders whenever Witnesses show “a flagrant disregard for theocratic order though not practicing a grave sin that would result in judicial action” (according to page 124 of the elders’ 2010 “Shepherd Book” manual).
Rochelle says that, fortunately, so few know about her text message that many in the Salem congregation will be oblivious to the fact that the talk was directed at her. Her own mother refuses to accept that she was the object of the speaker’s diatribe.
If the talk was indeed a marking (or “warning”) talk, this only underlines how unnecessary and overly-reactionary it was. As the Shepherd Book itself says under the section on marking: “If the disorderly conduct is generally unknown to others and poses no threat to their spiritual well-being, usually it is best to handle things through admonition and counsel. The elders should not be hasty in giving a warning talk.”
In Rochelle’s case, no “admonition” was offered. No effort was made to help her address her questions, even after prompting from her father. The moment she showed she knew too much, her elders went straight into panic mode.
A lucky escape
To Rochelle’s credit, though shaken by this experience, when I spoke to her on the phone last night she seemed to be taking it all in her stride. Having completed a lucky escape from the grips of a high-control cult, her thoughts are now turning to her parents and her understandable concern for their predicament.
They have sadly been hoodwinked by an organization that is infatuated with itself and ruthlessly crushes any attempts at independent thinking or honest inquiry.
If you happen to be thinking about having a bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rochelle would like you to consider her story. Any organization that claims it has the one and only “truth” should welcome the closest possible scrutiny of its teachings and practices if it wishes to be taken seriously.
But in the case of Watchtower, asking the wrong questions or investigating too thoroughly can land you in hot water. You could well end up being condemned from the platform as a poisonous “apostate” before you have even joined.
An article on this story for German speakers is available on this link