Jeffery M. Schwehm's Story

When I was five years old, my maternal grandmother died and about a year later my mother converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs). Eventually, my father, my father’s parents, one of my father’s sisters, and one of my grandmother’s nieces also converted. Today, I have numerous relatives who are still active JWs. So, from the time I was five years old, I was raised as a JW. I can remember placing my first magazine at the door when I was six years old.

I also gave my first talk in the Theocratic Ministry School when I was eight years old. My first memories of attending the Kingdom Hall were mostly positive. We attended the East Metairie, Louisiana (LA) congregation. I made some very good lifelong friends there. Once my father and his parents converted to the JWs, our family moved to a new area and attended the Covington, LA congregation. At the Covington, LA congregation, there was a very interesting brother by the name of Victor Blackwell. Brother Blackwell had been one of the first Gilead School instructors and was an attorney in private practice. He had also fought some of the court cases for the Society when they were fighting for the right to preach from door to door. I always loved to sit and talk to him and was impressed with his love for God and the organization. I think I probably wanted to be like him someday.

My family did not really become deeply involved with the JWs until after the 1975 furor was over. So, I was always told and believed that it was just a few individuals among the JWs that had made a big deal about 1975. However, my parents still told me about how privileged me and my siblings were because we would never have to grow up and live out our lives in this wicked system of things. In fact, once I became a teenager I was strongly discouraged from going to college and wasting time trying to find a better career in this wicked system. I can remember having long conversations with my father on this subject. He even told me one time that he was glad that I was not overly intelligent because that would just make life more frustrating for me since I would not be able to go to college and use that intelligence in this world. The anti-college sentiment was reinforced when I discovered that a friend of mine from a neighboring congregation had his privileges in the congregation taken away for attending college. My high school counselors and teachers could never understand why I would not go to college since I did so well in high school and it would not have been difficult for me to get a very good scholarship. In fact, I did very well musically and had numerous music scholarship offers that I turned down because of the intense pressure and anti-college sentiment of the JWs at that time.

One thing that I did learn during this time that did bother me somewhat occurred in my high school world history class. I enjoyed this class immensely and I enjoyed the teacher as well. In this class, I discovered that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC and not in 607 BC as the JWs are taught. I was somewhat surprised by this but I honestly thought that the JWs were right, since they had God’s spirit, and that all of the historians in the world were wrong. I never really thought about this too much but I was surprised by it.

Eventually, I was baptized at the age of 17 and I fulfilled my parents’ dream that I pioneer. My parents had pushed pioneering as a goal for me since I was 8 years old. I do not know if I really wanted to pioneer. I think my reasoning was that I would try it and see if I liked it since my parents wanted me to do it so badly. Well, I did it for almost two years and I was good at it. By the time I quit pioneering, I had 9 “Bible Studies”. In fact, many of these individuals are active JWs today and some of them are even elders now. I quit pioneering in order to go to Bethel. I was accepted into Bethel when I was 19 years old and I served there for 1 year. I served at Brooklyn from 1987 to 1988.

I had never visited Bethel before I went there to serve. I just never had enough money to go there for a visit. I thought of myself being like Abraham. Remember Abraham was told by God to leave his home and go to the land of Canaan even though he had never been there. Well, I will never forget the weeks before I left for Bethel. I had over 100 people at my going away party and quite a few people even accompanied me to the airport when I left home to go to Bethel.

While I was at Bethel, I saw many things that I did not see at the congregation. At Bethel, one works and lives with the JWs 24 hours a day. I was surprised to learn that the housekeepers at Bethel search the private belongings of the Bethel workers on a regular basis. Also, the politics at Bethel and the fighting for power at Bethel shocked me. It was not uncommon for me to see a “brother” with more power use that power against a weaker one in order to gain more power.

What also bothered me was the emphasis that Bethel put on things and the way it de-emphasized people. I will give you an example from my own personal experience. One warm autumn evening while I was walking in the Brooklyn Heights area, 5 or 6 young teenagers mugged me. They jumped me from behind and beat me up. I really do not remember the details of the event since it happened so fast. I probably owe my health to one of the Bethel doctors who heard the fighting and came out and scared the muggers away. The doctor quickly took me to the Bethel infirmary and determined that I had a mild concussion. The Bethelites working at the front desk at the Bethel home that night decided that they should call the police.

The police arrived and took a statement from me and asked me if I would be willing to look at some mug shots the next day. Since those who called the police had told me, that we were to cooperate with the police in this matter, I told them that I would be willing to look at mug shots the next day.

The next day, I spent about 6 hours at the police station. After looking at several mug shots with a vicious headache, I finally told the police that I was going home since none of the men in the mug shots looked like the muggers who attacked me. They said that I could look at another set of mug shots at another precinct if I wanted. I told them that I would think about it. When I got back to Bethel, I was told that I needed to meet immediately with one of the Building Overseers at the 360 Furman Building. At that time, a Building Overseer was the Overseer of all of the departments housed in that Building. The Overseer made it clear to me that I was not to look at any more mug shots. I think he was relieved when I told him that I had not identified any one yet. He kept telling me that he was not trying to tell me what to do, but he said that the Society was concerned that it was a gang that had attacked me and they were afraid that if the gang found out that one of the Bethelites in the area could identify them that they would target the Society’s properties in retaliation. He also said that the Society could not guarantee my safety if I were to pursue this matter. I honestly did understand their concerns, however, I discovered later that these muggers had terrorized the entire neighborhood and that so far I was the only one that had gotten a decent look at them. I always thought that in cases like this it would have been a good thing for the Society to cooperate with the police particularly if they could help rid the neighborhood of these dangerous criminals. However, the Society was just too scared. So, realizing that I would not win this political battle at Bethel, I dropped the matter with the police.

In another example of one of the things that happened at Bethel that bothered me were certain things that were said by the Governing Body members at morning worship. One day Karl Klein told a story about two JWs who had committed adultery and were disfellowshipped. Their JW marriage mates divorced them and these two JWs who were guilty of adultery together married each other and were reinstated. About a year after these two JWs were reinstated they had their first child and Brother Klein said that the child was a “Mongoloid”. He then added that the reason this child was a “Mongoloid” was because it was a punishment brought upon this family due to the adulterous sin of this child’s JW parents. The reaction of the Bethel family after this was extremely negative and Klein did apologize for his comments the next day.

These things put a human face on the organization for me. I was raised in a very sheltered environment where I was not really allowed to associate that much with people outside of the organization and my association even with people in the organization was somewhat limited. My parents and the elders in my congregation taught me that the Watchtower Society was God’s channel and that I should not question it. Since I trusted these individuals, I accepted much of what they said at face value even if what they said seemed wrong.

However, when I went to Bethel I realized that the individuals who run the Society are human and make mistakes and that, in reality, they were no better than me. This realization made me question even more some of the claims that the Society made about itself being God’s channel. I realized that God uses imperfect humans to do His will, but I started to seriously wonder if the “proof” that I had been given all of my life that the Society was God’s channel of communication might not be “proof” at all.

I eventually left Bethel to get married. I met my wife while I was at Bethel and we were married about 5 months after I left Bethel. Our first year of marriage was extremely difficult. The only job skills I really had was that I could sell. So, I got a job working with a beauty supply company. It was also during this time, that I realized that I could not make enough money to support my wife and myself and still be regular in meeting attendance. Eventually, we had serious financial problems and my wife got sick. So, we moved into my parents’ house in order to make ends meet. After my wife recovered from her illness, my wife and I decided that I should go to college. This was a couple of years before the Society lightened up on the college issue so I did receive some criticism from individuals in the congregation for attending school. However, my parents were very generous and allowed my wife and I to live with them while I attended school.

During this time period, it was becoming more and more difficult for me to remain active as a JW. You see, I was told my entire life that I would not have to worry about supporting or raising a family in this system since the end of the world was coming so soon. Therefore, my parents never really prepared me to survive in this world. I was extremely upset about this and felt like I was behind the learning curve.

In addition, I was starting to learn things about the organization that I did not know. When I left Bethel, I was of the opinion that the Society was still God’s channel but that they had been corrupted some how. I was also starting to doubt the whole 1914 chronology as well. While I was in college, I read books by Carl Olof Jonsson, Raymond Franz, and James Penton. When I first read these books, I thought that they were exaggerating the issues that they described. However, they had meticulously footnoted and documented their sources. Since, I had access to a very good Watchtower library at that time, I was able to check many of their original sources. To my surprise and amazement, I discovered that these men were not exaggerating at all and that the Society was really as bad as they had described.

While I was becoming more and more inactive, my wife was experiencing increasing pressure from my JW relatives, her JW relatives, and some in the congregation to leave me due to “spiritual endangerment”. This caused my wife to become inactive as well, however, she still believed that the Society was teaching the “truth”. This changed one day after we attended a Watchtower Study at a Circuit Assembly where the lesson taught that Jesus was the mediator only for the anointed remnant and not for the other sheep.

After about five years, I finally graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. By this time, I had become an agnostic and I wanted nothing to do with religion. Within a week after my graduation from college, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Arkansas. So, my wife and I moved from the New Orleans, LA area to Fayetteville, Arkansas.

About a year after we moved to Arkansas, I got connected to the Internet and met lots of former Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was surprised to discover that many of them had experiences similar to my own. In 1995, the Society changed the definition of the generation of 1914. This was the last straw for my wife and me.

We announced to our relatives that we no longer considered ourselves to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, we tried to make it clear to them that we still believed in the Bible as the word of God and that Jesus is our savior and mediator. The latter fell on deaf ears for the most part. My parents have greatly reduced their association with us and have told our JW friends and relatives that we are apostates. Interestingly, my wife’s parents who are still active JWs have continued to associate with us and have been more understanding and tolerant. However, our JW families do not know how active my wife and I are in helping others to leave the JWs.

I finally finished my Ph.D. in Chemistry in May of 1999 and I teach Chemistry at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. My wife and I are doing well and we often share our experiences leaving the JWs with individuals and church bodies throughout Nebraska and the USA. Our goal in doing this is to educate others on the dangers of following a religious organization that makes false claims for itself as “God’s channel” instead of following the true channel, Jesus Christ.

Jeffery M. Schwehm