I grew up in the Netherlands, the youngest of four children. My father was Dutch, but my mother was English, and she started to study the Bible in English with the Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was still a baby. She was a stay-at-home mum and glad she had the chance to speak English with the Witnesses, as her Dutch was still a bit shaky. She was a religious woman, believing in God, Jesus and the Bible as a Holy Book and was, for the most part, interested in someone helping her to teach her children the stories and the principles of the Bible.
Initially my father joined her, but stopped after a short while: it was not his “cup of tea”, so to speak. After years of studying only the JW interpretations of the Bible, my mother was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. Every Wednesday afternoon, we children studied the teachings with another woman from the congregation, who firmly believed that Armageddon would start in 1975: her bags were already packed.
She was always ready to flee from the house as soon as the wrath of God began, signaling the end of the “old system,” with only God’s chosen people surviving. This feeling of urgency and dread was always present and deeply rooted in me as a child. From the time I was six until I was twelve, I went to her house and studied the same book over and over again: “Van het Verloren naar het Herwonnen Paradijs” or “From Paradise Lost to Paradise Found.”
My parents were divorced when I was twelve, and later my father remarried a couple of times. My mother never remarried. Both my sisters and I would become baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all three of us would eventually marry Jehovah’s Witnesses. My brother, however, chose to go his own way while he was still in his teens. For a few years he lived with our father.
When I was baptized at the tender age of fifteen, totally convinced I had found the Truth, and totally devoted to preach as much as I could. I even chose to do cleaning work in the early hours (from 6-8 in the morning), which gave me more time to preach the “good news” from door-to-door. I “pioneered”, as Jehovah’s Witnesses call it, first as a temporary Pioneer, preaching 75 hours a month and later as a regular pioneer, committed to preaching at least 90 hours a month, and all outside school and work hours. In the congregation in which I grew up, a few young members set the example for other young members to pioneer, and it was firmly discouraged to receive any form of higher education or take a full-time job.
At the age of twenty, my husband and I were married and we made sure we were “on the same page”. Although he was an A-student, he had left high school when he was fifteen to pioneer, and a few years later, he became a Special Pioneer, preaching at least 140 hours a month. He made this decision in 1974, just one year before the expected date of God’s Judgment Day, as believed by Witnesses at the time. He was sincerely devoted to preach, warn, and save non-believers from God’s wrath. According to the group’s teachings, higher education would influence us into believing “worldly” ideas and philosophies, planting Satan’s thoughts in our heads and hearts and distract us from the “Truth”. And what is the use of higher education in the eyes of someone who believes Armageddon is about to happen?
Our leaders also discouraged full-time work; they created the fear that it would make us selfish or materialistic. The only career that could be really worthwhile was the “spiritual” career the JW organization offered. Our real job was preaching, studying the bible, praying, cleaning and preparing the Kingdom Hall for the next meeting. Both my husband and I learned to speak Turkish, so we could preach to Turkish immigrants in their own language. In return for our sacrifice, we were promised the benefits of spiritual growth, God’s approval, the approval of the leaders (seen as parents to be obeyed) and the approval of our fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses in “good standing”, and the future promise of everlasting life in an earthly paradise. But we always had this nagging uncertainty. Did I work hard enough? Am I worthy enough?
But, with the constant confirmation from all the people I loved and interacted with, it was a no-brainer to me, at that time. One big, intoxicating, magical bubble in which I felt safe, chosen, happy: praising God, loving my neighbor and believing I would be saved from evil and an eternal death. Paradise on earth was the ultimate goal. And being kept safe during God’s Judgment Day, Armageddon. I treasured the conviction that I would be safe during the “Great Tribulation”, and step right into that picture of a peaceful, safe place where we would live happily for all eternity. Really thinking about what would happen to the non-believers was impossible for me; as soon as I did, I retreated into the comforting thought I could leave all my concerns in the hands of God. A magical bubble indeed.
Our whole lifestyle, social network and personal goals were built around the JW organization. After ten years of marriage, we longed to become parents. Starting a family was the best decision we ever made! Within three years, both of our children were born. We wanted to give them the best we could. By teaching them what we had been taught as the “Truth”, we thought we could keep them as safe as possible from harm.
But, while our children were growing up, more and more unanswered questions piled up. Children have the ability to ask the kind of questions grown-ups have forgotten to ask: Such as “Will all people who are not like us, die in Armageddon? Why? Only because they don’t know Jehovah God and the Truth? I don’t understand why, Mama, what did they do wrong?” It confused me, and I struggled to answer these and so many more questions.
While I was preaching from door-to-door, I asked others to do research and check out their own background and religion. Shouldn’t I do the same? If it were really the truth, it would not harm me to examine it thoroughly. It would only strengthen my faith, wouldn’t it?
I began to ask my own questions. What if one of my children was in need of a blood transfusion? What would be expected of me, according to the JW rules? Also, what do I really believe to be true? I needed to get to the bottom of it and find a clear answer, one that would feel right from every angle. Otherwise I would not be able to act in a life-threatening situation. I had to be ready for such a moment.
Another issue I had was the Watchtower Society’s interpretation of the biblical Romans 13:1, which was often used by Witnesses to demonstrate that our obedience and submission to “worldly” governments can only be relative, because obedience to the laws of Jehovah God is far more important than obedience to the laws of men (“Let every person be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God.”).
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus has been King in Heaven since the First World War, and His followers should only obey Him as their King. The Watchtower Society’s Governing Body claim to be God’s mouthpiece, appointed by Him to act as His earthly representatives and to share “spiritual food” with His followers: Obeying Christ the King is the same as obeying the Governing Body. Their message is that we should obey worldly governments only in a relative sense, but obey God above all, through Christ (but really through the leadership of the organization), without question. I asked myself: “Does this mean that obeying the Governing Body is equal to obeying God? And what differentiates them from all the others who claim to be God’s representatives on earth?” I had to get to the bottom of this: I could not allow my children to grow up with these ideas if I did not understand them myself.
Having said this, I started to wonder why this verse was never applied to the Governing Body of the organization themselves. It seemed paradoxical to me that they demanded complete unquestioning obedience and submission to their “new light”-insights, interpretations and judgments, claiming God was only on their side, and yet at the same time would judge others for doing exactly the same. The insights and interpretations of other religions were dismissed as lies and deceit, or even Satanic schemes, but talking about others who made the same claims, or really listening to other ideas clearly scared Jehovah’s Witnesses. It scared me at that time, too! Why? I was curious about my own fears, feelings of guilt and of extreme obligation. Why was I feeling so afraid if it was the “Truth”? I felt my fears were contradictory to what I felt on a deeper level. I owed it to myself and to my children to be absolutely sure of what we were doing. I had to find answers to these questions!
By now I was in my early forties, and all sorts of unanswered questions and intuitions demanded my attention. I had the feeling that there was something terribly wrong, but what could it be? Although the thought scared the hell out of me, I could not shush it into silence anymore, even if it would be impossibly hard for me to deal with. There was a constant feeling of dread hovering over me. I was used to blaming myself for every negative feeling, so I immediately questioned myself: was it just me? Shouldn’t I just admit to myself I was one of those anxious people with weak nerves, or that I had some kind of psychological disorder? On the other hand, what if it wasn’t just me? Then I had the obligation to figure it out.
Once I got to that point, I felt overwhelmed by a deep fear. As soon as I allowed myself to feel my suppressed fears completely without walking away from them, I got confused, because I’d always been told that fear is the enemy of truth and love. What was I doing?
Then I told myself: “Stop right now! Stop for a minute and think: If I would not be afraid, what then?” After “parking” my fear for a moment, I was able to think about the conclusions I had to draw, although they were hard to deal with. Not willing to get distracted by my own fears anymore, I decided then and there to do something about it and start to take care of myself. It would be enough if my courage was just a tiny bit stronger than my fears. Then I could keep myself going. I kept telling myself: There is nothing wrong with wanting to find answers. I have the right to know what is going on and I have to take responsibility for myself. And if I feel I can’t do it, I’ll have to learn how. No more excuses.
In the second part of my tale, I will tell you how I came to understand what was really going on behind the scenes. And how I started to overcome a lifetime of being unduly influenced and live my own life.
What do you think about this article? Do you have a story about undue influence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!