“Presiding Overseer” was my official title when I pastored a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brockton, Massachusetts. My wife Penni had been raised in the sect and remained a zealous member even after her studies in psychology and sociology earned her a degree from the University of Western Michigan. I majored in mathematics at Harvard on a National Merit Scholarship. I mention those academic achievements, not to brag, but rather to disprove the common assumption that only stupid, uneducated people fall victim to religious cults.
I was on the Dean’s List (honor roll) at Harvard, but during a leave of absence I was working for a while at a very boring job, with a Jehovah’s Witness as my co-worker. As a long-time atheist, I had no interest in his religion. But, when he drove me crazy talking incessantly about his girlfriend, I found the only way to change the subject was to ask him about his beliefs. And I found him very convincing—not because his arguments had any validity, but simply because I was totally ignorant of the Bible.
When he showed me in his Bible that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God, but rather the first angel God created, I wasn’t aware that the New World Translation his sect published had been altered in hundreds of verses to remove references to the deity of Christ. Never mind that valid translations say at John 1:1 that “the Word was God”; my co-worker’s Bible said, “the Word was a god,” and I had no idea that it was full of scripture twisted to fit Watchtower doctrine.
One Jehovah’s Witness publication titled “Enjoy Life on Earth Forever!” displays an artist’s illustration of Jesus as a winged angel, along with this caption: “The first spirit person God made was like a firstborn son to him.” Witnesses will often become evasive when challenged on their organization’s teaching that Jesus is just the first angel God created, but that is, in fact, their mistaken belief.
Before long I was studying with my co-worker and attending meetings at his Kingdom Hall. Those meetings, even the ones on Sunday mornings, were not worship services, but rather indoctrination sessions. Small portions of scripture were read out of context, sandwiched between explanations from publications of the group’s organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
I was a good student, gave the ‘right’ answers, and soon began to move up the ranks in the local Kingdom Hall. Over the years, I progressed from ordinary ‘publisher,’ to ‘pioneer,’ to ‘ministerial servant,’ to ‘elder’ and finally ‘presiding overseer’—their equivalent of the pastor of a church. All that time, my wife and I were zealously going door to door, recruiting others to join the sect.
What put a stop to all this? Well, our journey to freedom in Christ took around three years. But it all began with a picket sign we saw someone carrying outside the Providence Civic Center when that venue was used to host a large Watchtower convention. Half a dozen Christians stood on the sidewalk protesting the gathering and reaching out to those in attendance. One of them held a sign that said, “READ THE BIBLE, NOT THE WATCHTOWER.”
Penni turned to me and said, “You know, David, we really should be reading the Bible.” There was nothing subversive about that, from a JW point of view. We were officially encouraged to read the Bible, but from a practical standpoint, the organization made that almost impossible to do.
They flooded us with a steady stream of Watchtower and Awake! magazines and new books faster than most members could keep up with them. We were expected to read and study those publications, so that we could answer from the paragraphs during our meetings.
Penni and I calculated that the official study program called for reading more than two thousand pages of their publications annually, compared with fewer than two hundred pages of the Bible. Most members—even the elders—fell behind and never got to read the Bible.
With the aim of becoming better Jehovah’s Witnesses, Penni and I decided to begin reading the Bible itself. And, to help us understand it better, we purchased a copy of The Living Bible, because we had heard our District Overseer quote from it. In the course of reading the Gospels outside of the Watchtower context, we fell in love with Jesus. And we eventually began to realize that following Jesus would put us into conflict with the organization.
I began to see that, in my role as an elder and a presiding overseer, I was acting like the Pharisees who Christ condemned when he said they were, “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9) Our conflict with the organization went on for three years, as we began speaking up to say what we found in the Bible, only to be rejected by our friends.
It reached a climax when I told the Kingdom Hall audience from the pulpit that they should read the Bible rather than The Watchtower if they didn’t have time to read both. I was never allowed in the pulpit again, and the elders soon began taking actions to silence Penni and me, and to prevent others from talking with us.
We soon made contact with real Christians, were baptized, and joined a Baptist church.
All of that took place thirty-seven years ago. After leaving the sect, I assembled the biblical research I had done in the quest for truth, and offered it to the Christian publisher Baker Book House. They published my first book under the title Jehovah’s Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse. It sold more than a quarter million copies and was translated into several languages.
I soon found myself serving as a contributing editor of Dr. Walter Martin’s Christian Research Journal and working full time in counter-cult ministry.
When one of my subsequent books was released in a Japanese edition, that publisher brought me there to speak to church groups in Tokyo, Osaka and Atami. I’ve also taught in 1997 and again in 2015 at Spurgeon’s annual School of Theology at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.
I’ve authored more than twenty books over the years—mostly on the cults, but some also on other aspects of our Christian walk. To make these materials more freely available, I’ve converted many of them to digital form, where they can be read or downloaded free of charge at my websites AnswerJW.com and BibleNook.com.
My greatest joy has been to hear people I have ministered to tell how they escaped cultic bondage to receive the free gift of salvation in Christ.
Most recently, I was called in 2017 to begin pastoring Immanuel Baptist Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Commencing January 5th, 2020, the church will offer a series of special evening programs the first Sunday of each month, examining cults and world religions.
We’ll look at Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Age, Mormons, Islam, Hinduism, Yoga, Buddhism, etc., and ask: What does the Bible say about them? What does their own history say about them? What can YOU say to those caught up in them, to lead them to Christ?
There will also be time for those in attendance to get their questions answered. More information can be found on the church website at ImmanuelBaptistNB.org, by emailing ImmanuelBaptist@usa.com, or by phoning the church at 508-999-6802.
David A. Reed is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, 195 Whitman Street, New Bedford, MA. Learn more at ImmanuelBaptistNB.org