My Dramatic Break from Jehovah’s Witnesses
by James Penton
As a fourth generation Jehovah’s Witness, I had always felt free to differ with the Watchtower Society when it’s teachings were not in harmony with the Bible or common sense. My paternal grandfather, George Penton, was a medical doctor who was greatly irritated by the Golden Age’s attacks on vaccination, while my paternal grandmother, Margaret Penton, refused to break association with many who left the Witnesses during the 1920s and ’30s. Before she died in 1964, she quietly told my wife that she did not believe that the resurrection of the sleeping members of Christ’s bride had occurred in 1918. So there was always a “free-thinking” attitude in the Penton family which J. F. Rutherford and the Watchtower leadership since his day would have held to be apostasy if we had spoken openly about it. No doubt that was why I felt free to attend the University of Arizona in the early 1950s and the University of Iowa in the latter part of the same decade. I ultimately earned a Ph.D.
Why then did I remain a Witness until 1980? I think that it was that I had experienced the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada as a boy during the Second World War and had watched their struggle for freedom to preach openly in Quebec after the war. I have always been a civil libertarian, and I greatly admired Witness lawyers such as Hayden Covington and Glen How for their successes before the Supreme Courts of the United States and Canada in broadening the rights of freedom of speech and the press. For that reason I published my first book which was titled Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada: Champions of Freedom of Speech and Worship which dealt almost entirely with the persecution of the Bible Student-Witnesses from the First World War through to the early 1970s and their achievements in gaining greater freedoms for themselves and all Canadians.
Yet I was somewhat unhappy with Witness teachings as early as the 1960s. I was disgusted with Fred Franz’s assertion that 1975 probably would mark the end of the present world and the beginning of the millennium. After all, I was aware of the Watch Tower Society’s failed prophecies with respect to 1914 and 1925. But I said little about the matter and remained a Witness. With the creation of the Governing Body in 1971, the renewal of the elders system, and a greater emphasis on the shepherding work in 1972, I felt that the Witness community might evolve into something less authoritarian and more positive. Yet in a few years I was disabused of that naive hope. After the publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada, a number of individuals began to contact me regarding the ruthlessness being practiced by the society against anyone who spoke up about abuses in the organization. Most outstanding among those persons were Richard Rawe and Jerry Bergman. Then I received a type-script copy of Carl Olof Jonsson’s The Gentile Times Reconsidered, read it and quickly became convinced that the society’s 1914 doctrine was a sham.
While this was taking place, the society’s 1975 quasi-prophecy failed, many thousands abandoned Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in desperation the Governing Body turned the clock back. More powers were given to circuit and district overseers, and greater emphasis was again placed on the preaching work; the number of publishers just had to be increased to replace those who had left. I remember vividly how, as an elder in Lethbridge, Alberta, I had to travel a hundred miles with fellow elders on a cold winter day to hear a representative from the society’s Canadian branch tell us that we must preach even if we did not have love. And when I remonstrated with him on the basis of 1 Corinthians 13, some of my fellow elders looked askance at me. It was evident they believed that what the society asserted was more true than what the Bible taught. A few days later I was visited by several of those elders who demanded to know if I felt that the society was the Lord’s organization and not to be questioned. I answered that I felt it was so long as it was in harmony with the Scriptures.
As that was happening my older son David was being bedeviled by the circuit overseer. Although he had been a pioneer in Quebec, ran the electrical system for circuit conventions, had to work at night to provide for his family, his “sin” was that he was attending university. So the circuit overseer made an issue of his supposed lack of time in preaching even though he had reported more time in the door-to-door work than several elders. As a result he and his wife eventually resigned from the organization. As this was happening, I began to feel the circuit overseer’s animosity. On a couple of occasions I had stated openly that more people became Witnesses through incidental witnessing than through the door-to-door work, something that infuriated a number of local pioneers who lobbied the circuit overseer to muzzle me.
But what finally caused an all-out attack on me took place after I visited Brooklyn in the summer of 1979. I was shocked at the senile nature of some of the Governing Body, met some of the workers who were thoroughly disgusted with the behavior of that council, and was shocked by the July 15 Watchtower of that year. For in one of the study articles–evidently written by Governing Body member Lloyd Barry–was a statement on Acts 20:20 which misinterpreted a quotation found in the society’s 1971 organizational manual by bobbing off a portion of it that showed that the expression “from house to house” would better have been translated as “in the various houses.” In other words, the society had recognized that the Apostle Paul did not go knocking on doors to bring in new converts, he taught in the various houses of those who were believers or prospective believers. This upset me so much that when I returned home, I wrote a long letter to the Governing Body criticizing its members over having stress 1975 and for what dishonesty promoting the preaching work. My letter was later published in James Beverley’s book Crisis of Allegiance which gives a detailed account of my and many other Lethbridge Witnesses’ ultimate break with the Witnesses.
The result of this letter was that upon finding out about it, some of my fellow elders, acting apparently under instructions from the circuit and district overseer and perhaps even from Brooklyn itself, decided to have me removed as an elder. They did this by soliciting letters from members of several congregations criticizing me on a number of things but principally on being against the preaching work. What was particularly nasty about this was that several of my “loving fellow elders” waited to do this behind my back in December 1979 just before I was preparing to leave for Toronto on a study leave from the University of Lethbridge.
At first I resigned as an elder, but when a sister revealed to me how my letter had been leaked, I determined to take a stand. So I withdrew my resignation and met with the full body of elders. When a vote was taken the circuit overseer and four elders voted to have me removed, but three others would not go along and resigned in protest. Very quickly the three congregations in Lethbridge became split and with nearly half of the members of my home congregation refusing to comment at meetings. Naturally, I left on study leave sick at heart.
In the early spring I returned from Toronto to Lethbridge to face a specially appointed Watchtower committee to settle matters there. Eventually, that committee decided that I was not guilty of any heresy. But it did nothing to censer the circuit overseer who had proclaimed in a meeting that there was an apostate movement locally and later admitted that he was thinking of me and the three elders who had supported me. But what was more outlandish was that the committee left him and the local elders to determine whether I should or should not remain as an elder. So when I again learned that I was to be removed from that position for no good reason, my last bit of faith in the Watchtower hierarchy died. Of course I am sure I would have left the movement very shortly anyway because I had come to feel it was teaching false doctrine despite my and others’ complaints.
Shortly therafter I and a few others began to meet for study and prayer in my home, and within a short time some eighty-three persons, including a small number of children, left the kingdom hall and joined together in fellowship with us. Extremely bitter over what had happened, I decided to take court action but dropped it when I realized how expensive it was and how hard it was becoming on both me and my wife.
Naturally, the Watchtower branch in Toronto was taken aback and eventually decided to disfellowship me “for starting a sect.” But in doing so, it was embarrassed from one end of Canada to the other. I did not attend the so-called judicial hearing, but many of my supporters did. However, after my son David delivered a letter from me stating that I had no intention of appearing before a “judicial committee,” my supporters left. In the mean time, acting on a tip from Richard Rawe, a photographer from the Alberta Report magazine showed up outside the kingdom hall where the judicial committee and many loyal Witnesses were meeting. Although some of the Witnesses tried to force him to leave from in front of the kingdom hall, he waited on the public sidewalk outside it. After several hours, David and several others returned to see if the judicial committee meeting was over. At that point, the Witnesses came pouring out of the kingdom hall, and the city overseer began chasing the photographer while yelling at him at top voice. Thereupon, David called out that the Witnesses should leave the photographer alone because he was within his legal rights. At that point, an older man punched David, and he replied with a jab to that man’s face. The man was taken to hospital with a broken cheek bone, and the Witnesses tried to press charges against David. But the police would have nothing to do with the matter since David’s assailant admitted that he had struck first.
What followed was that articles appeared throughout Canada in major newspapers, the Alberta Report, and Maclean’s Magazine as stories about my disfellowshipment were repeated on radio and television. To the Witnesses I became Canada’s number one apostate, but from a publicity standpoint the Watchtower Society and local Alberta Witnesses suffered a big black eye for their heresy hunt.
Jim Penton has written several books on Jehovah’s Witnesses, religion, and religious persecution. We have heard that he is working on publishing a new book on religious persecution to be published soon. Also watch for updated editions and newly avaialable translations of his current works.
(The following were copied from Amazon.com)