Jehovah’s Witnesses pride themselves on having overcome all social barriers. But there is more to this claim than meets the eye. This is the story of how I discovered the subtle and little-known class distinctions among Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I was born into the so-called “Truth.” My parents were old-school missionaries in South America and Northern Africa who graduated from Gilead School in the early seventies; my father served as Presiding Overseer of our congregation for over a decade and was one of the guys calling the shots at district conventions and circuit assemblies.
My aunt and uncle have been working at the European headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany for nearly half a century; they were sent around the world by the Society to assemble printing presses. So, in a way, my family is Jehovah’s Witness royalty.
I hated it growing up. Ours was a small congregation, there weren’t that many kids, so all eyes were on my brother and I. In short, everybody expected us to do big things. What with the parents I had, the sky was literally the limit (I was quite sure from the start that I wasn’t anointed, the no-sex aspect of heaven was a deal breaker for me!).
At every convention, my brother and I were told what great parents we had and how much our spiritual brothers and sisters were looking forward to see what we would accomplish in the organization.
My brother, who is four years younger than me, never really spoke about spiritual goals. But as for me, I soon decided I wanted to go to Bethel. You see, I had virtually grown up with Bethel.
Semi-yearly visits to Selters in Hesse where Germany’s branch office is located were quite the highlight for young boys like us. We got to tour the Bethel facilities privately with my uncle who had access to all areas. I loved the printery. I have fond memories of getting a first-hand look at the production of Jehovah’s Witness literature.
For those not familiar with Germany’s branch office, it is quite a large campus facility. Different from Brooklyn Bethel and similar to Google and Apple headquarters, the German facility is located on a hill above a small town in a rural area, about 40 miles from Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital.
It is a gated community, sealed off from the environment and practically self-sustaining (I remember my uncle explaining that the branch office could survive doomsday-like conditions for a few months). Pretty much what Warwick is supposed to be. It was a very exciting place to be as a youngster.
I am not exactly sure why I wanted to join Bethel. I have given it a lot of thought and it boils down to these reasons:
• It was a very exciting place to be as a youngster
• I knew it would please my parents if I went to Bethel
• The older I got, the more the feeling grew that I would be safer spiritually in the confines of Bethel rather than among the “temptations of the world”
But first and foremost, I believed it was expected of me. I was quite vocal about disliking the preaching work, so a pioneer assignment was out of the question, which just left me with the Bethel option. My career path was laid out pretty clear: Baptism, Ministerial Servant, Elder, and then either Bethelite for life or Circuit Overseer. That was my future. I hated it.
You see, I knew all along that I wasn’t the best Jehovah’s Witness. I believed it to be the Truth, of course, and I was pretty sure it was the best way to choose. But I was scared stiff that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations, that I would fail, that I would disappoint everyone who knew me. I felt like the member of some royal family that would rather be an insignificant civilian than the valiant hero. I felt really sorry for myself.
A while back, a former Jehovah’s Witness and I talked about our youth in the organization. When I finished telling the above story, she just smiled, shook her head and said: “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” or words to that effect. And then she told me her side of the story.
She grew up the daughter of parents who were run-of-the-mill Witnesses. Her father and her mother were both members of the congregation but lived in separation and were considered “weak,” or not very strong spiritually. She, despite her best efforts, was considered bad association on account of her parents. And when she reported to the elders that she and here mother had been beaten by her father, the elders didn’t believe her. And why would they? Her family wasn’t very prominent and she was the child of “weak” Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“In contrast,” she said, turning to me, “you and your friends, all kids of elders, basically had a fool’s license. You could do whatever you wanted. If you desired a privilege in the congregation, you got one and didn’t have to prove yourself first. I was a girl so that was out of the question anyway, but my brother wasn’t even allowed to handle the roving mics when he was in his mid-twenties!”
“When I did something wrong, I got a shepherding call. When you guys got into trouble your fathers spoke to you in private or just straight out turned a blind eye. Screw the expectations you were suffering from. Being an elder’s kid is the equivalent of a diplomatic passport!”
And she was right: Being the son of an elder was a get-out-of-jail-free card for my friends and I who were all children of elders from surrounding congregations. No matter how much we partied, cursed or got drunk, so long we did it among ourselves, Elders and other Witnesses didn’t bat an eyelid.
Nobody dared to speak out against the sons of elders. And if they did, then one of the fathers would speak to us quietly, telling us to cool it down a notch, and that was it. Even that one time I got caught on a date with a worldly girl by the family of an Elder, nothing happened. His wife(!) told me to be more careful and maybe think about the course I was on and meditate on what Jehovah would think of it. She neither told my parents, nor the elders.
Another time, my friends and I (all children of elders), went to a camp site that was notorious for parties of Jehovah’s Witness kids. All of us got drunk, and made out with young sisters. Of course, word got out, and other Jehovah’s Witnesses who were there complained to the elders of our congregations. Again, one of the fathers sat down with us. This is the conversation that ensued:
Elder: “There were some complaints following your camping trip. Anything I should be aware of?”
Us: “Well, we did have a beer too many and we were a bit loud.”
Elder: “What about girls?”
One of our friends who was a ministerial servant and just happened to be the son of the elder questioning us: “The sisters slept in separate tents in a different plot.”
Elder: “Good. Be more careful next time. I was young myself once. Just take care who you party with.”
That was an elder seriously telling us to watch our association before behaving like bad association. Brilliant.
The former Jehovah’s Witness I was talking to really had a point: While I had been all whiny about my terrible lot as an elder’s son, it had actually been my protection, my Jehovah’s Witness diplomatic immunity. That was when I realized that there was class distinction among Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My father is a humble man who never cared about the position he had. He sincerely believed that the higher you get on the Watchtower ladder, the more you have to serve. When another elder schemed against him and tried to stage a coup to take over from my father, he resigned as presiding overseer for the sake of the peace of the congregation. He would have been the first to step in if he had known that his son had leveraged his position in the organization on numerous occasions. The fathers of the other kids? Not so much.
Before Jehovah’s Witnesses now pick up their torches and pitchforks, by no means am I saying that this problem is unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am actually pretty sure that it is worse in many other groups including the Catholic Church, where there is a literal hierarchy on paper.
Class distinction is only human, I guess. But Jehovah’s Witnesses like to claim that they are immune to these kinds of social problems as a group. They write: “Jehovah’s Witnesses […] recognize that social classes have no meaning in the eyes of God. Thus, they have no clergy/laity division, and they are not segregated according to skin color or wealth.” In fact, the article where those words appear is even one of the top ten search results when you google “class distinction.”
While the second part largely holds true, I have to disagree with the first proposition. In a court case, a counsel acting on behalf of the Watchtower Society and Jehovah’s Witnesses testified that they ruled from the top down, saying: “We are a hierarchical religion structured just like the Catholic Church.” (click here for more details) While there may be exceptions, my experience is living proof that there is indeed a kind of class distinction among Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Read Misha’s follow-up article on Taze.co by clicking here!
Misha is the Founding Editor of Taze.co, a website about Jehovah’s Witnesses and Cult news, lifestyle and entertainment from an ‘apostate’ perspective. He was disfellowshipped in 2003, and has authored a German-language book about his experience titled “Goodbye Jehova!“