By The Editor
Every Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses has at least two meeting days a week. The most prominent of these meetings is the Sunday (Saturday in some locations) “Public Talk.” The weekly Watchtower Study usually follows a few minutes after the Public Talk.
In the early days of the Bible Students (later “Jehovah’s Witnesses”) Sunday meetings were similar to mainstream Protestant church services. There would be prayer, singing of hymns, and then a sermon by the local elder in charge or other qualified brothers. Afterward, there would be open Bible study and reading from the Watchtower publications written by C. T. Russell or Joseph F. Rutherford.
In the late 1930s, Watchtower Society president, “Judge” Rutherford, decided to completely reorganize the leadership arrangement of the local churches. First thing was to have all appointments of elders approved by Watchtower headquarters. Then after a trip to Hawaii, Rutherford ordered that the buildings Witnesses used as churches be renamed “Kingdom Halls.” He implemented that change as another way to differentiate Jehovah’s Witnesses from all other “protestant” religious sects.
Because Rutherford had preached for many years that “Religion is a snare and a racket,” he decided that Jehovah’s Witnesses would not be referred to as a “religion,” but rather as “the Truth” or the “Organization.” Rutherford considered Kingdom Halls as local branches of the Watchtower’s publishing corporation, every Witness congregation became a “Company,” the chief elders took the titles of “Company Servants” (head elder in-charge), “Assistant Company Servant” (the second in command), and “Company Bible Study Servant.”
Joseph Rutherford was the most vocal “Company man” for the Watchtower Society, so he decided that a series of “public talks” would be scheduled and open to outsiders as another way to increase membership. The Witnesses would pass out handbills on street corners and door-to-door in residential areas. Often these Kingdom Hall public talks would be amplified recordings of Judge Rutherford’s speeches. Occasionally traveling representatives of the Watchtower would give talks in a particular area for a few weeks.
When Rutherford died in 1942, Watchtower vice-president Nathan H. Knorr took over leadership of the Society. Very much a corporate type, and not a lawyer-prophet-author like Rutherford, he reorganized the meetings, scheduling one-hour “public talks” for every Sunday along with the Watchtower Study. Local elders and other “mature” brothers would give the talks in their own Kingdom Halls, and on occasion, would travel to other nearby congregations.
Initially, public talks were prepared by the speakers themselves. Talks lasted an hour, requiring much preparation. For many of the brothers, taking a subject and then working from scratch could take hours, and often days. Taking a doctrinal subject like “Armageddon” or “The Resurrection,” and trying to create an hour-long speech, was difficult for many of the brothers who had limited understanding or research skills.
Public talks would vary wildly in quality based entirely on each speaker’s skills. There were many cases when a speaker would try to explain a doctrinal subject and then end up saying something that was directly opposite to then current Watchtower teachings. Once they were on stage and behind a microphone, some speakers would relish their “moment of fame” and embellish their talks with evangelical quirks and wild gestures. Audiences would be either be entertained or unnerved by these over-the-top performances.
On the other hand, when a truly gifted speaker gave a well-researched speech, the audience would listen intently and really get into the subject. Local brothers and sisters would have their favorite speakers, while others bored them to tears. Attendance at public talks would vary wildly (especially during summer months) based entirely on who was giving the talk that week.
Public talks lasted one hour until the early 1980s when they changed to 45 minutes. Then in 2007, the length of public talks dropped to just 30-minutes. The reduction in length seems due to the fact that several congregations share a single Kingdom Hall now. In some locations as many as three congregations hold meetings in the same building on the same day. They need to “hustle them in, and hustle them out” as quick as they can to make room for the next audience.
In most cases, only elders and some “mature” ministerial servants can give the talks – which have now been reduced to simple outlines. In past years, the speakers could choose Bible scriptures and add their own commentary to the outlines they were given. But no longer. The outlines are now followed exactly. The good news for the speakers is that talks require minimal preparation – and some outlines are often read as is – word for word. [They’re just supposed to be OUTLINES!!!]
Unfortunately, “Public Talks” do not really live up to their name. Very few, if any, strangers or neighbors will just walk in and attend a meeting. Except for a few special occasions, Jehovah’s Witnesses rarely pass out handbills for these 30-minute time wasters. Infrequently there will be a special “public talk” advertised (as happened in 2011 after the April 17th Memorial Celebration), but these “public talks” are still directed to the brothers – not to non-Witnesses. In fact, if strangers happen to walk into a Kingdom Hall just out of curiosity to sit and listen, the odds are high that the brothers will look at them suspiciously as potential “troublemakers” or “apostates.” Most assuredly, someone (probably an elder) will greet them and then stay close to them throughout the entire session – just in case…
We’ll cover this subject in more depth in future articles.
For now, enjoy the following video presentation prepared by “Brother K. Hall.” It’s been around for a short while, but has become a favorite of all who have seen it. Besides being a humorous take on the public talk meeting, it is really right on target. Anyone who’s been to these sessions will recognize the people and the situations as being very typical.
Going to the Public Talk
Editor’s Note: “Brother K. Hall” was born into the organization in Australia. Since leaving the Watchtower he’s read some heartbreaking and horrific stories from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses whose lives have been ruined. In contrast, he says his experience was spectacularly bland, one of suffocating dullness, a lot like his character “Nathan” in the video. His is the usual story: He had strict parents, went to an elderly congregation, had no friends and no social life. He was about 20-years old when he left his congregation. Although he doesn’t like to reflect on it anymore, he realizes that you can’t just ignore a huge part of your life as if it never happened. He says, “I made this video about a child going to the public talk, with the idea that it would seem incredibly stupid, and yet be very realistic. It doesn’t contain any judgements, just depictions. I would have left it at that if it wasn’t for the good reception it received. So I made more along the same theme. Hopefully I’ll have the motivation to make another soon.” We’ll present more of his videos in the future and hope that he soon adds to his body of work. His current collection is at http://www.youtube.com/user/KingdomHallOfJws.