Preaching Door to Door

It was early in 1952 and I was only eight years old when I first experienced going out in the door-to-door service. Not yet baptized, I had to go with an adult the first few times, but I found the opportunity to go “door knocking” an exciting and fun experience.

This was shortly after my family found “the Truth.” My mother and father were not yet baptized and were still having home “Bible studies” with Brother and Sister “K,” their Jehovah’s Witness mentors. My father (raised a Southern Baptist) wasn’t convinced that he wanted to become a “Jehovah,” but my mother was fully committed even at this early stage. In fact, within just a few months Mom and I had taken the next step and were regularly attending Sunday evening public talks and Watchtower studies.

We’d only attended a few meetings before Sister “K” suggested that Mom and I join her and some other Witnesses in “the door-to-door preaching work.” Sister “K” had a son my age who was already going door-to-door, so she suggested that we could all go together in the magazine work one Saturday morning. Sister “K” would work with Mom and I would go with one of the older brothers at the Kingdom Hall. Sister “K” mentioned that after I became more accustomed to the door-to-door ministry, I could go with her son “Dickie,” who was my age, or one of the other young JW boys from the Kingdom Hall.

I was enthusiastic about going out in field service. Even though I was only eight, I didn’t fear strangers or what other people might think about Jehovah’s Witnesses. By the age of nine, I was not only drinking Kool-Aid for my lunch at home, I was also swallowing the Watchtower’s version at the Kingdom Hall. At ten I was a totally committed and active “publisher.”

Dickie and I would often stand outside our Kingdom Hall before meetings and pass out handbills to passersby. Whenever there was an assembly at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field or “special meeting” at the Shrine Auditorium, we’d often wear sandwich boards and stand on nearby sidewalks preaching the “Good News of the Kingdom” by passing out handbills, booklets, and Watchtower magazines between sessions.

We were just kids and we’d occasionally get into some mischief or run into some minor trouble with an angry private citizen. Even so, I found field service fun and enjoyed getting together with the other JW kids to go out and “place literature.” We really thought of ourselves as “publishers” in the literal sense. After all, in those days congregation were “companies,” and the main elders had titles like “Company Servant,” “Assistant Company Servant,” “Company Literature Servant,” etc.

By early 1953, my father had finally overcome his bad habit of smoking cigarettes and completed his conversion. He decided to join Mom and me in regular meeting attendance and on a few rare occasions field service. Dickie and I had become good friends; my mom and dad had become nearly constant companions to his parents. It was not long before everything both families did soon became centered around going to meetings and out in field service.

Our Family Commitment

In spite of my youth, other adults thought me quite “mature for my age.” My parents allowed (and even encouraged) me to be baptized at the age of ten. I was very disappointed that the Holy Spirit did not make itself manifest to me during my baptism, but even at ten I still understood the commitment that I had made to Jehovah. I wanted to fulfill that responsibility to the best of my ability. I also expected to be a good student in school and the best little JW kid that anyone had ever known. My goal was not only to make my parents proud, but also to have my name written in capital letters in Jehovah’s “Book of Life.”

One night, during a family meeting, my father outlined what our family’s schedule would be:

  1. We’d attend all meetings and assemblies
  2. We’d spend two hours in field service every Saturday and Sunday morning
  3. He and I would join the Theocratic Ministry School

My dad made it clear that the only excuse for not actually fulfilling our commitments would be a serious accident or illness that required medication (something more than aspirin and Vick’s VapoRub). Being sick meant being confined to our beds or under a doctor’s care.

Field Service: 1952-1961

Dad’s personal goals became our own. Every Saturday and Sunday morning at 8:30 or 9:00 AM we’d go as a family to either the Kingdom Hall or a local meeting spot for field service. At the pre-service get-together we’d read the daily text from the Year Book, say a group prayer, and then get our street assignments from the territory cards we’d been given. Each of us would be given about a dozen magazines, some handbills for the next public talk, and a few booklets. On Sundays we’d be given a couple of copies of the current study books to use for literature placements.

After the service get together, we’d drive directly to the territory. Dad would check his watch and then announce that we could begin counting our time. We’d work both sides of the street together as a group, hitting every house as we progressed down the block. If one group finished their side of the street first, they’d cross over and work back to meet the others. Then we’d all go to the next street and repeat the process. We would do this throughout the morning until we completed the territory we’d been given or spent at least two hours in service.

At the end of the morning, we’d report our literature placements to the “car captain.” He’d then tell us that we could report “two hours” or “two hours and fifteen minutes” toward our personal monthly service reports. He’d also collect our slips that showed “not at homes,” literature placements, and potential “go-backs” for that territory.

I can’t speak for every other group of Jehovah’s Witnesses that went out in field service, but I know that any car group that either my mother or father “captained” went exactly by the rules. There was no fudging of hours, no leaving of magazines on doorsteps or in laundromats. Occasionally we’d stop by Foster’s Freeze or A&W Root Beer to get a cold drink (summertime temperatures could go well over 100F in my town), but we did not take breaks and hang out in coffee or donut shops for extended periods of time. If the weather became too uncomfortable or someone in the car group became ill, we’d simply stop for the day and go home. Whenever that happened we stopped counting our time. Travel time to and from our assigned area was never counted.

I truly believe that all of us were afraid to skip houses or turn in hours we did not actually spend in service. We all understood that the Holy Spirit was guiding us and that Jesus and Jehovah were watching everything we did -keeping tabs on what hours we actually reported later at the Kingdom Hall.

Our congregation grew to well over one hundred regular members, resulting in territories being covered completely every three to four months. Yes, we all dreaded facing the same people again that had turned us away just weeks before, but dutifully bit our lips and knocked on every door. We did not identify addresses to avoid. We decided that one way or the other we’d get those people to listen to us or “face persecution” for trying to witness to them.

In my teens I “vacation pioneered” during my summer break from school. I’d ride my bicycle all over town carrying my “clam shell” book bag on its luggage carrier. I’d try to get my one hundred hours in each month before I’d take a break for a few days. Some weeks the weather was just so hot (often up to 110F) that I could not force myself to go out – so I’d try to catch up during the last few days of each month. For me the thought of cheating on hours never crossed my mind – simply because I knew that Jehovah would know that I lied and I’d end up a “crispy critter” at Armageddon. “Cheating” just wasn’t worth it.

Getting a Job

My father made it clear that I would not get a weekly allowance from him. If I wanted spending money I’d have to get a job. At the age of fourteen I got a bicycle route delivering the local newspaper each weekday afternoon and Saturday and Sunday mornings. Most days I’d fold the newspapers into tidy squares or use a “triplet” fold with a rubber band so that I could throw them from my bicycle. In just a few short weeks I could hit most porches from twenty yards away as I rode by each subscriber’s house.

Occasionally the papers would be late, delayed getting to the dispatch garage due to a last-minute breaking story or bad weather. On Sundays the papers could be so big that I had to make two extra trips to the dispatch garage to reload; my bike simply could not carry that many big papers. Sunday’s papers were too big and heavy to throw, so I’d have to ride over to the neighborhood, get off my bike, throw the canvas bag full of papers over my shoulders, and then walk door-to-door along the route. Whenever it rained, I’d have to spend more time putting each newspaper inside a wax bag to keep it dry.

Weekend paper routes started at 5:30 AM and finished up around 8:30 AM. By the time I got home, I’d be wet, cold, and exhausted – but Dad wouldn’t give me a waiver on going out in field service. The winter was the worst; cold, wet mornings left me exhausted by the time I got home. After just a year of this schedule, I came to hate both my paper route and the door-to-door preaching work. I found myself damned either way: I would be in serious trouble with my dad if I quit my paper route – and even worse if I missed going in service.

Book Study Nights

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the Watchtower Society began promoting field service for forty-five minutes before Tuesday night book study meetings. Of course my dad added that to the family’s list of theocratic requirements, although he did give me a bit of a waiver for those Tuesdays when I could not finish my paper route in time. If I missed the ride when my family left for service before the book study, I’d still have to show up for the study itself. This meant that I’d often have to ride my bike there and back. On rare occasions, Dad would put my bicycle in the trunk of his car – but only if he had string to tie the lid down.

Pre-book study service was fun during the summer, but very unpleasant during the winter when the neighborhoods were dark. There weren’t a lot of street lights in our part of town, a mixed race area that had a somewhat higher crime rate than the rest of the city. We’d avoid evening field service during the darkest winter months, but that was the only allowance we ever made for any field service schedule.

In those days being “active publishers” meant getting at least ten hours a month in real door-to-door canvassing. It meant honestly placing magazines for five cents each and books for fifty cents each – not just giving them away or leaving them on doorsteps. We promoted magazine subscriptions for $1.00 per year per magazine, and even helped the householders fill in the blanks. “Pioneering” meant spending 100 hours a month in actual field service – and that included “vacation pioneering.” (The Society has dropped the hours for pioneers several times since the 1960s.)

Field Service: 2011

There have been many discussions about the quality of current field service efforts by all levels of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Governing Body on down. The surprising trend among these discussions is the overall lack of enthusiasm for the style of witnessing that we engaged in 40-50 years ago. I’ve received several emails and online contacts about this subject in recent months. I’ve tried to choose one that most clearly points out the issues involved and how concerned some JWs are about their field service obligations.

Below are some slightly edited excerpts from an email I recently received from a reader of Inside the Watchtower. I’ve confirmed that this person is an active Jehovah’s Witness living in one of the western United States:

“I am having problems with my personal conscience and trying to make sense of what is right and wrong. What I see happening around me at the Kingdom Hall and especially among the elders just seems to be dishonest and unchristian. Let me give you some examples:

“In our Kingdom Hall very few members of the congregation actually go door-to-door. Often, when there is a field service meeting at the Kingdom Hall the elders will send everyone out to go door-to-door, but then stay behind to have a ‘private elders meeting.’ This seems to happen every time. Everyone knows what they really do. They maybe meet for an hour, have some coffee and donuts, and then go home and watch football on TV. These brothers are probably counting their time in their meetings toward their service hours.

“Our area has a mix of middle-class tract neighborhoods and a fair number of rural homes. The first thing the ‘car captain’ asks is if anyone has a ‘go-back’ or some ‘not at homes’ that need to be revisited. It seems that our first call is always located several miles away from our assigned territory and everyone in the car just goes along for the ride. As we drive up to a house we can see that no one is home or that the house is vacant. But one or two of the brothers will get out and go up and knock and wait, and wait, and wait, and then knock again. We all know that no one is there. We all know what is really going on and that it’s all just part of the game we play.

“Then on the way back to the territory, someone will suggest stopping and getting a cup of coffee. The car captain says that he doesn’t want anything spilled in his car, so let’s all get out and go inside to have coffee. It’s a good way to kill off another half-hour or more.

“It’s no secret that even when we get to the neighborhood we all have our little tricks to waste time and yet have literature placements to count. A pair will go to a door and get no answer. They’ll stay and ring the bell two or three times and kill off four or five minutes knowing that no one is home. Then one of them will pull out a pair of magazines or invitations and lay them on the door mat or curled next to the door handle. They may skip a couple of houses for no particular reason and avoid talking to anyone who is obviously home like someone working in their garage or out in their yard. Some will avoid houses by saying, ‘I’m pretty sure that an apostate lives there.’ None of us will ever go to a suspected apostate’s house.

“We’ve been told that if someone wants to talk to us and ask us questions about what we believe, we should arrange for a return visit. Talking to them on the steps or in their house for any length of time will just make the other JWs in the group have to wait in the car. I’ve always wondered why that is a bad thing to do – after all those other brothers and sisters will still count the time. Isn’t our goal to actually talk to people? One elder told me that he was suspicious of anyone who wants to talk or discuss our beliefs at the door. ‘Most likely they are an apostate or have read apostate literature and just want to trap you.’ How are we to know? Should we judge people like that before we even talk to them for a while?

“Every time I go in field service it is the same routine, so I’ve limited myself to just one morning a month. I usually count two hours a month, enough to keep the elders off my case. In fact, most of the other Witnesses I know rarely turn in more than five hours. My guess is that several of the elders don’t do much door-to-door field service except for when the CO comes to visit.

“I don’t know about other Kingdom Halls, but at mine the idea of door-to-door field service has become laughable. Everyone I know tries to find any way they can to count hours without actually knocking on doors. One older sister (but not elderly or disabled) does all her field service hours by making cold calls to random names in the local white pages. I’ve been told that if anyone answers, she hangs up. If she gets voicemail or an answering machine, then she will read a prepared script and read a scripture from the NWT. Then she will give the address of the Kingdom Hall and mention the time for the public talk. I guess this is as good as any other way to preach the good news of the Kingdom, but I still feel it is not quite right that she won’t talk to those who actually answer the phone.

“Of course there are those in our congregation that leave older magazines at laundromats, on restaurant tables, and in bus stations. This isn’t as common as it used to be because our Kingdom Hall isn’t ordering as many magazines as we used to. And with just one public Watchtower and one Awake! magazine each month, there aren’t as many issues being printed anymore.

“I don’t want to judge the other Witnesses at my Kingdom Hall, but I know that everyone is fudging the truth. Some simply don’t care and probably just lie about their hours – and I don’t think the elders really care as long as hours are being reported. It’s all just a game to them and most JWs that I know.

“For some, however, I’ve known that all of this is just another form of cheating, lying, and failure to live up to our baptism commitment. I’m sure this is one reason so many are suffering from depression and mental distress. They know they are living a lie and it bothers their conscience. I don’t know how long I will be able to continue to live like this. All I know is that if I am counseled to increase my reported hours – I will – just to keep the elders off of my case. I know a couple of brothers who recently became MS who probably haven’t done an honest hour of preaching in months, but they still turned in enough hours to be considered for promotion. I simply could not do that and won’t.

“While I am ashamed of what my Kingdom Hall is doing in regards to the preaching work and reporting hours, I know for a fact that it is typical and not an exception to the rule. I’ve spoken to many brothers from other congregations who tell me that the same things go on where they live. In fact, at a recent District Assembly I sat next to a group of JW brothers in a restaurant who were actually sharing ideas on how to creatively report time. I heard one who told the others, ‘I checked with one of the elders and he told me that he was OK with this idea and that he might use it himself. Believe it or not, it involved using emails…’

“If Jehovah is really watching what is going on in Kingdom Halls everywhere, a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t make it through Armageddon just because of their cheating on field service. I guess that for some the Hell today that they would get from the elders is scarier than the Hell they might get from Jehovah at Armageddon.”

[Reprinted with permission: © 2011; original title: “Field Service: Then and Now”]


Preaching Door to Door — 1 Comment

  1. “Our congregation grew to well over one hundred regular members, resulting in territories being covered completely every three to four months. Yes, we all dreaded facing the same people again that had turned us away just weeks before, but dutifully bit our lips and knocked on every door. ”

    John, I remember a time in the Kingdom Hall I happened to go to in the seventies where we calling on the same houses every three weeks or so because the territory was quite small and there were over 150 publishers attending. In fact, during one Circuit Overseer’s visit the territory was completely covered in one morning, so what we did was go back to the same houses in the afternoon and ask if there was anyone at home we hadn’t spoken to earlier that day. It was quite embarrassing!

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