Growing up as an active Jehovah’s Witness in the 1950s and 1960s wasn’t easy – and at times it was downright embarrassing. I just wanted to be a normal kid, doing what most little boys did back in the “Eisenhower Era” of the Fabulous Fifties. Unfortunately, the reality of being a member of a JW family also meant that I led a life that was quite different from most kids my age. I’m not sure how I did it, but somehow I managed to get through my teens without too much trauma, but for me it was still very hard dealing with bullies (and even teachers) who looked at me as being some kind of a freak.
Besides school, every single week, sick or well, I spent three nights in meetings at the Kingdom Hall. I also spent two hours every Saturday and Sunday morning in the door-to-door field service “placing” Watchtower and Awake! magazines, books and pamphlets, and even King James Bibles. One or two evenings a week during the spring and summer – and at Christmas time – I’d stand on street corners or in front of department stores passing out handbills and preaching to passersby. I spent most of my summer vacations “vacation pioneering” and traveling long distances by car to District and International Jehovah’s Witness conventions (I attended both 1953 and 1958 International Conventions in New York City).
I was expected to earn my own money, so for over three years I had a daily afternoon and Sunday morning newspaper route. Oh yes – like most kids from that era, I also mowed lawns. But working did not relieve me of my responsibility to attend meetings or go out in field service. If I was late getting home and missed going to a meeting because the newspapers were late getting to their drop-off point – I could expect to be punished by my father later that evening. I often faced “no-win” situations because of my parents’ insistence that I could never miss a meeting at the Kingdom Hall unless I was running a fever.
As I look back, I think that the reason my family was not totally dysfunctional was due to the fact that my father loved sports – ALL sports. He insisted that my brother and I would try to be athletes – at least to the levels of our abilities – so we could experience for ourselves the only joy he had as a young man. Our lives consisted of equal measures of religion, school, and sports.
My father was raised in a poor and troubled family. He was shy with girls and not a good student, so the highlight of his childhood was sports. He considered himself very fortunate to have been able to play well in both high school varsity football and baseball. He graduated in 1934 right in the midst of the Great Depression. Even if you factored out the effects of the Depression, Dad’s childhood was still troubled. Not only was he forced to work hard to help support his parents, my father also had to deal with an alcoholic father and an uncaring mother. He spent most of his summers trying to find work, while watching his family’s farm fail due to the seasonal droughts. Great windstorms turned the once fertile soil of their west Oklahoma farm into choking dust.
Dad grew up as a Southern Baptist, but he wasn’t religious. Yes, he believed in God, Jesus, America, and all that – but more than anything else he loved sports. Even though our family converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1951 and faithfully lived that lifestyle, Dad absolutely refused to give into the Watchtower’s restrictive attitude toward competitive sports. Even while he was a servant (now “elder”) at our local Kingdom Hall, he still encouraged me and my brother to sign up for Little League baseball and other school sports. He’d join us when we played touch football with some of the neighborhood kids, and was always challenging my younger brother to play him in competitive tennis matches. There were concrete tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and a track located just across the street from our house, so we had plenty of opportunity to play. And we did play – almost every day – and Dad loved to play with us whenever he was home.
My young life wasn’t easy, but compared to my parents’ childhoods, I guess I lived in a “paradise.” After a bout with the “Hong Kong” flu in 1956, I developed calcified tendonitis in both knees, so I limited my sports to mostly playing catch and hitting fly balls to my brother.
Even after I grew to be an adult, I’d still “do catch” with my father whenever we’d get together – even when he was well into his fifties. Often the first thing he’d ask me when I’d visit his home in Nebraska would be, “Well, did you bring some gloves and a ball?” I’d kid him about being “too old to still play baseball” and get him all heated up. Then I’d follow up with, “I was talking about me, Dad. Not you!” Then we’d go out into the middle of the street and start tossing the ball back and forth while carrying on a conversation that was long overdue.
Thanks to Dad’s encouragement and coaching, my brother eventually went on to compete in college gymnastics and tennis.
Looking back, our family was definitely the exception to the Jehovah’s Witness rule. That “rule,” as former Bethelite Richard E. Kelly described in his published memoir, Growing Up in Mama’s Club, was more in line with his parents’ negative attitudes about competitive sports. (I knew Dick Kelly, and his parents, when he was in school.) Dick was a natural athlete and would likely have excelled as a high school and college competitor in several sports. But unlike my father, his parents looked at sports as being “sinful, non-productive, and a waste of time,” – time they felt Dick could spend in door-to-door magazine sales as a member of the Watchtower’s religion.
I tend to look back at my Jehovah’s Witness childhood as basically happy – if not entirely a normal one. My parents believed in corporal punishment (you know, “don’t spare the rod and spoil the child” rule), so my brother and I were subjected to frequent spankings (and occasionally being whipped with Dad’s leather belt) for even minor infractions, many that wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow today. Dad felt that he’d gotten worse from his father, so he thought he was actually going easy on us. By today’s standards we were “physically abused” because of those beatings – but times were very different fifty years ago. I’ve forgiven, but never forgotten, the pain and shame he inflicted on us whenever he felt we were “being naughty.”
In spite of his spankings, I never doubted for a minute that my father loved me. Unfortunately, my own parenting skills were very similar to those of my father when my three little girls were growing up. In part, due to our religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses, we thought that God not only supported frequent corporal punishment, but encouraged it. I look back now and shudder when I remember my early blunders as a father.
While American and European societies moved away from spanking and physical abuse of unruly children in the 1970s, Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to promote and encourage their abusive ideas of “tough love.” I clearly remember my little brother taking many a trip down the aisle to the Kingdom Hall bathroom (or outside to the parking lot) for a spanking. Even in this day and age where spanking your child can get you arrested in some jurisdictions, there are still locations in many Kingdom Halls that have been set aside as “spanking rooms.”
I’m sure there are many youthful JWs who still occasionally hear the words that produced fear and dread in my young heart so many years ago:
“Wait till you get home after the Watchtower study. I’ll deal with you then!”
The Editor (John Hoyle) was an active Jehovah’s Witness for over fifteen years, leaving in his mid-20s. He still has a few JW relatives who he rarely sees except when one of them dies. He lives in Oregon with his beautiful wife and a loving little Maltese, edits Ex-JW.com, and is webmaster for several other JW related sites.