How is Life Inside
By M. James Penton
Watch Tower publishing houses or ‘factories’ in Brooklyn Heights are an impressive sight from across the East River in Manhattan. In fact, they are so noticeable that for years Manhattanites, working in New York’s financial community, would even use changing slogans flashed on the main factory’s neon sign as business omens. But when one visits the grand complex of buildings which serve as world headquarters for Jehovah’s Witnesses, he is generally even more impressed. Besides two huge factory buildings, the complex includes several residence buildings for the many hundreds of workers who produce literature for Witnesses throughout of the world and, additionally, for the administrative, clerical, and support staffs which are necessary for the governance of a highly centralized religious movement.
If the factory buildings and the residences — collectively called Bethel — are impressive, they are also austere. The factories, huge printeries, could be nothing more than giant, secular plants. Yet when one visits Watch Tower headquarters, he will be encouraged to ‘tour the [main] factory’ to see the huge presses pouring out ‘spiritual food’ for millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses and prospective converts. Curiously, however, unless he is invited to stay at Bethel as a guest of a member of the ‘family’ he will find access to the Bethel and Gilead libraries, two very fine collections, restricted. As far as the residence buildings themselves are concerned, they bear that mark of American puritanical pragmatism which is so characteristic of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There is nothing particularly attractive about any of them, and they also seem in a way to indicate that to Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders a thing of beauty is more a snare and a delusion than a joy forever.
The rooms which serve as home for the officials and workers at Bethel are quite adequate but plain, although members of the governing body and older and more senior workers do have more attractive accommodations. It should be stated that no one lives in anything like sumptuous luxury, however, although both Rutherford and Knorr were criticized both covertly and overtly for providing attractive, comfortable apartments for themselves while ordinary Bethel and Kingdom Farm workers were sometimes forced to live in rooms which were unbearably hot or improperly heated.
Life at Bethel is highly regulated. A worker awakes at 6:30 am to the sound of bells, and from then on until the supper hour his working schedule will be determined by bells. He is summoned to meals by bells and, after prayer, characteristically begins to eat with gusto. When an outsider watches the Bethel family ‘dine,’ he may have the feeling that he is observing an old-fashioned American farm crew devouring their food to get beck to harvesting rather than a community of Christian workers at the ‘House of God.’ For the time alloted to meals is very short by most standards, and if one does not eat his food quickly he will be interrupted by a prayer which formally concludes every breakfast, lunch, and supper. But then, Witness Bethel workers are not expected to waste time, even over the nutritious but rather plain food produced on Watch Tower farms and prepared in Bethel kitchens.
Meals serve another purpose. They are only times during the day when the Bethel family gathers together in communal dinning halls. It is at mealtimes that a daily Scripture is read from the Yearbook, comments can be made, messages can be relayed to the family, and rare ‘trimmings’ or tongue lashings can be given to those who have committed some infraction or have fallen out of favour with members of the governing body. However, meals are seldom used today as occasions for giving ‘trimmings’ in the way they were under Rutherford and Knorr.
Outward regimentation so evident from bell-ringing
and at mealtimes only represents a small part of the control that is maintained
over Bethel workers. As described by many who have lived and worked there, the
headquarters staff is a highly disciplined community. Bethelites are assigned
to local congregations in the New York City area to give them spiritual support.
They must, therefore, spend much time traveling to and from meetings, are encouraged
to engage in proselytizing activities in the evenings and on weekends with their
congregations, and are asked to prepare themselves to participate in or conduct
various congregational meetings. On Monday evenings, they are requested to attend
a Bethel ‘family study.’ Thus, if they fulfill these obligations, they have
little time for anything but ‘service to Jehovah and his organization.’ It is
true, though, that few can or do live up to this ideal schedule, even if they
When young Witness men come to Bethel as volunteer workers, they are instructed in the particularly strict set of rules regarding personal conduct. This is done in a series of eight lectures which in the past were popularly called ‘new boy talks.’ Therein they are told to keep their hair cut short and look properly groomed. For years only blacks and Hispanic Americans were allowed to wear mustaches, and while this is no longer the case, even today no one is permitted to wear a beard. Dress codes are strict as well. Although Bethelites often do very dirty work, they must not appear too casually dressed outside the factory buildings. In the past, even while going to and from the recreation area, they were strictly instructed not to wear bluejeans or tennis shoes. Significantly too, particularly when Nathan Knorr was alive, ‘new boys' were warned against the evils of fornication and, above all, masturbation. Although few Witness leaders have as much concern over the matter as did Knorr, the sinfulness of masturbation still remains a subject which is brought to the attention of incoming Bethelites.
Women Bethel workers receive very similar discipline. As Barbara Grizzuti Harrison shows in her autobiographical account of life at Watch Tower headquarters, Visions of Glory, this has been the case for many years. In the main, though, they probably chafe under it less than do the men. Generally, they are employed in housekeeping and clerical work and accept their roles with equanimity. Unlike Maria Russell, they have no illusions; they know full well that they will never be given any positions of administrative authority and do not believe that they should be.
In the past, single women workers were in some demand as prospective marriage mates. During Rutherford years marriage was discouraged at Bethel as it was everywhere else among Jehovah’s Witnesses. After Knorr was married, he evidently felt it reasonable to allow other Bethel workers the freedom to marry also. Still, until 1976, a Bethelite could not wed anyone except another Bethelite and, then, only if both had spent a good many years at the Brooklyn headquarters. Hence single women usually had their pick of husbands from within a rather large male community and were treated with respect. In spite of that, many preferred to remain single.
Since 1976, things have changed rather dramatically. In that year Bethel workers who had been in residence for a year or more were allowed to marry within the larger Witness community and bring their mates to Bethel to live and work. So today a very large proportion of women at Watch Tower headquarters is married.
Although most of the work done by women at Bethel
tends to be rather humdrum, in some ways men have more difficulty. Under both
Rutherford and Knorr the practice was developed and institutionalized that new
workers could initially be placed in occupations for which they had no training
and often no aptitude. Men with few mechanical skills would sometimes be assigned
to learn highly technical jobs in printing while others with good educations
and writing ability might very well be given the task of mopping floors and
cleaning toilets. This was done to teach humility and make them realize that
whatever they accomplished was done with the ‘help of Jehovah’ rather than on
the basis of their own talents. Whether the society’s leaders knew they were
emulating the Jesuits with this practice is difficult to say; probably they
The turnover of Bethel workers is great. Up until the mid-1970s, when men and women entered Bethel they agreed to stay for at least four years. If they left earlier, except for health or serious family reasons, they were treated as spiritual failures and temporarily denied any privileges in the congregations with which they later associated. In spite of this, many found institutional life at Brooklyn very difficult. According to public statements made by senior Watch Tower officials, the average staying time was less than two years per worker, not counting the fairly large, permanent core staff. Because this resulted in many leaving with a spirit of bitterness, and often because morale was bad among those who stayed to complete their stint of service, the society decided to change the system.
Since 1976 workers coming to Bethel have had to agree to stay for only one year which is, essentialy, probationary. Thereafter, if they maintain a good record, they may stay or go as they please. From various reports, few remain much longer than they did in the past,37 but their leaving probably occurs with less resentment than it formerly did. Nevertheless, it is still evident that few can tolerate the highly regimented lifestyle for long. So, after a year or two at the society’s headquarters, they generally leave to marry, settle down, and become integrated into the larger Witness community.
In spite of everything, Bethel workers undoubtedly
accept the regimen of life at Brooklyn with less strain than the average non-Witness
would. Many are the children of deeply devout families or are zealous converts.
Also, many were pioneers before coming to headquarters. They are both ideologically
commited and highly disciplined individuals who have been taught to accept authority,
usually without question. But there is another equally important reason why
the great majority conform to what their overseers demand. Jerry Bergman states
quite correctly, at least for a large proportion of the Witness community: ‘To
Jehovah’s Witnesses today the word Bethel means the headquarters of the organization
— the place where their governing body is located and from which they believe
God is directing them. Bethel is felt to be a holy place which imparts holiness
both to its current and former residents. Even if a Witness swept Bethel’s floors
ten years ago, he is still a Bethelite and is seen as somehow more righteous,
holy and knowledgeable of God’s laws [than another Witness], no matter how many years of experience a non-Bethelite
may have had as a Jehovah’s Witness.’38 So having successfully
served a term at Bethel gives one a great deal of prestige with Witness friends,
families, and most importantly, with the society and circuit overseers.
Sex and Alcohol
This does not mean that there are no serious problems brought about by the severity of lifestyle; there are. Although outright sexual promiscuity has not been common, it certainly is far from unknown. Prior to 1976, there were few cases of fornication or adultery, but since that date, with more women at Bethel, both have occurred more frequently. Heterosexual offences have never been the serious problem that homosexual ones have been, though. Over the years there have been a number of notorious cases of homosexuality caused, probably, by the society’s long-standing near prohibition of the marriage of Bethelites and, also paradoxically, by the fact that Watch Tower officials, particularly Nathan Knorr, often preached about the evils of ‘men lying with men.’ In fact, Knorr, who seems to have had a fixation on sexual sins, kept the matters of homosexuality and masturbation so constantly before workers at the Watch Tower headquarters that one is forced to wonder if he did not have homosexual tendencies himself. On one occasion in the 1970s, when a male worker was disfellowshipped and expelled from Bethel for pederasty, the society’s third president described his ‘seductions’ in such graphic terms at the Bethel meal table that many present were revolted.39
More serious is the constant use of alcohol. Pastor Russell, a man with few appetites, was both a vegetarian and a teetottaler. Judge Rutherford was neither and, as shown earlier, liked to drink. He regarded prohibition in the United States as a plot of both the Devil and the clergy and condemned it publicly.40 Hence, after 1929, when he branded civil governments as having no authority from God, high Watch Tower officials at Brooklyn would often have officials at the society’s Canadian branch headquarters at Toronto smuggle liquor across the border to them.41 Drinking, then, almost became part of a cult of machismo into which new workers were usually quickly inducted. Old Bible Students such as Clayton Woodworth 42 and Olin Moyle 43 objected, and Nathan Knorr refused to go along with rum-running from Canada.44 But the judge was not to be crossed in this matter any more than in any other.
Since Rutherford’s death, drinking has continued to be common at Bethel and Watch Tower officials who can afford to do so will have cabinets well stocked with expensive liquors. Even the business-like, no-nonsense Nathan Knorr is still renowned among Bethelites, Watch Tower missionaries, and former personal friends for the twenty-year-old Bell Scotch whiskey which he would serve to favoured guests. The use of alcohol therefore holds great social value at Bethel and many workers, including high Watch Tower officials, drink regularly on a social basis. Also, it is well known that several prominent Bethelites, including the wife of a member of the governing body and the wife of a senior member of the society’s Service Committee, have had problems with alcoholism.
Interestingly, The Watchtower has recently admitted the problem that many Jehovah’s Witnesses have with the over-use of alcohol. It is threatened serious action against elders who drink more than ‘a glass or two of wine’ at a time. But, curiously, it still takes a less severe approach towards the excessive drinking of alcohol than to the use of tobacco;45 and in its expressed concerns about drunkenness, never once does it admit that many Jehovah’s Witnesses at the ‘House of God’ at Brooklyn appear to drink about as much if not more than other North American Witnesses.
Institutional strictness and poverty cause stress
in other ways as well. Sometimes workers become disgruntled over the rules by
which they must live and the lack of emotional warmth among members of the Bethel
family. Those who speak out or show their feelings are frequently called ‘Bas,’
or workers with bad attitudes. Such ones must be careful in expressing themselves,
however, lest they be reported to their superiors by extreme Watch Tower loyalists.
These latter have been dubbed ‘Bethel jacks’ — a term like the sobriquet ‘Jack
Mormons,’ carries an implicit note of contempt towards them. But whether regarded
negatively or not, they serve a very important function in keeping malcontents
or possible malcontents in line.
Rivalry and Lack of Money
Certain workers are very short of money since they are paid only a pittance by the society.46 However, some of their fellows state openly that they regularly receive a good deal of support from their families. As is well known, members of the governing body and other high officials are so often given sizeable gifts when they travel and speak to the larger Witness community. Thus, there are significant income differences at Bethel. The rooms of poorer workers are often spartan in their furnishings with no air-conditioning units. Their more affluent brethren live in greater luxury and almost always have the air-conditioning, so important in hot New York summers.
Differences in accomodations cause some resentment. But more important is the fact that poorer workers have little money to spend on themselves or on any form of recreation. Thus a few have taken up what is called ‘G-jobbing,’ that is, working at some job outside Bethel in the evenings or at nights to make a few dollars for themselves. The society is not pleased with G-jobbers, though; in the past they were reprimanded seriously if discovered, and in late years the practice has been held to be ground for dismissal from Bethel. Nevertheless, Bethelites report that some of it still persists.
None of the factors just described are the most
stressful aspect of life at Bethel; institutional politics is. The climate of
opinion described so vividly by William Schnell as a ‘spy system’ 47
is, according to Randall Watters,48 very much alive
today. As Raymond Franz and a great many others have discovered, anything perceived
as dissent or disloyalty can bring the most severe repercussions. Equally significantly,
there is a good deal of petty politics and personal rivalry among high Watch
Tower officials and their wives. Sometimes jealousies and rivalries over small
things such as who gets what room or apartment. In fact, there is much of the
unhealthy personal rivalry at Watch Tower headquarters, and with it the animosity,
that one might expect in any such authoritarian, quasi-monastic, bureaucratic
atmosphere. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the governing body of Jehovah’s
Witnesses, Bethel serves its purpose and does so well. It produces literature
and aids the governing body in accomplishing its goals. Members of the governing
body no doubt regard the strictness, strains, and politics discussed above as
incidental to their major work of preaching the good news of Christ’s kingdom.
In spite of everything, most Bethelites no doubt agree.
37 According to one internal reckoning, in the service year from 1 September 1977 through 31 August 1978 some 500 out of 1,800 workers left the Brooklyn Bethel. This rate is probably quite typical of the year-to-year turnover. [click the "back" button in your Internet Explorer to return to the main text]
39 It is because of the customs of trimming and publicly announcing the sins of those expelled from Bethel that these cases are so well known. The case in question has been reported to me by many Bethelites and ex-Bethelites.
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