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TowerWatch Ministries
TowerWatch Ministries
Helping Christians Reach Jehovah's Witnesses
with the Gospel of Our Savior Jesus Christ

 

 

Tom Cabeen

Tom Cabeen

Former overseer of the Watchtower printing and pressroom at Bethel Headquarters

 

MY PARENTS WERE BAPTIZED as Jehovah's Witnesses in the spring of 1954, shortly after I turned four years old. They embraced the beliefs very enthusiastically. Within two years, believing Armageddon to be imminent, they sold their new home in Phoenix, Arizona and volunteered to move "where the need is great." My father was appointed Congregation Servant (now called Presiding Overseer) of the Cottonwood, Arizona congregation. At that time, the congregation consisted only of our family of three and one very old Witness named Winifred Olney. By 1960, it had grown into a small but zealous congregation of a dozen or so families, about 50 or 60 persons, as I recall. Dad brushed up on his high school Spanish and started a small Bible study among a group of Spanish- speaking persons in the area.

In 1960, my father attended the Kingdom Ministry school, held at the Watchtower Society's Kingdom Farm in Ithaca, New York. While there, he was encouraged to "enlarge" his service. Within a year, at the Society's request, we moved to El Centro, in the agricultural Imperial Valley of southern California, where he served as Congregation Servant in a Spanish-speaking congregation. My mother and I started at that time to learn Spanish. She had much more difficulty with it than I, and does not speak it fluently to this day. A couple of years later, we were again asked to move, to a small Spanish-speaking congregation in Casa Grande, Arizona.

My parents strongly encouraged me to "vacation pioneer" during vacations throughout high school, which I did. After I graduated, in 1967, I became a "Regular Pioneer." As a result I was exempted from military service. I received the classification of 4D ("Minister of Religion") from my local draft board. At the summer 1968 District Assembly, at my parents suggestion, I applied for service at the world headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses (known to Witnesses as "Bethel") in Brooklyn, New York. I was invited to serve there as a volunteer starting November 14, 1968.

At Bethel, I worked hard at whatever work I was assigned to do. I was also very dedicated to learning as much as possible about the Watchtower teachings. I was warned to stay away from "bad associates," so I chose as my companions mature Witnesses, many of whom worked in Writing, Service and other departments where the most respected, loyal and mature Witnesses were assigned. I am outgoing and make friends easily, so I became close with many of them. My willingness to work hard and a natural aptitude for the work assigned to me resulted in my being given increasing responsibilities, generally much more than was usual for someone my age.

Shortly after my invitation to Bethel, my parents, encouraged by my example, began Pioneering. Within a couple of years, my father was invited to become a Circuit Overseer, and worked with Spanish-speaking congregations in the southwest and northeast of the United States for over ten years.

In my local congregation as well, I was given responsibility at an unusually young age. I was appointed a member of a Service Committee in my local congregation when I was 19, and subsequently as an elder in 1971, when I was 21. The following year I was appointed a "Bethel Elder." As such, I spoke as a Watchtower Society representative at Society-sponsored conventions, (I was the featured speaker at a District Assembly in Roanoke, VA, in my mid-twenties). On a few occasions, I was the featured speaker at special meetings attended by thousands, for example, in San Antonio, Texas, and Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada.

Within a year of my arrival at Bethel, I was assigned to the large printing press which produced The Watchtower magazine. About a year later, I became a foreman over several presses. When I was about 27, I was appointed overseer of the Pressroom. In the meantime, my friendships with mature, responsible members of the Bethel "family" grew and I was having many more in-depth discussions with them about the Society's teachings and the functioning of the organization. Because I have a deep voice, I was regularly invited to share in making prerecorded tapes used for the popular Biblical dramas presented each year at the Witnesses summer assemblies. This also presented many opportunities to discuss Watchtower doctrine and organizational policies. I also acted in a weekly radio show sponsored by the Watchtower Society for a few years in the mid-seventies.

Late in 1973, I became reacquainted with a lovely young woman, also a member of the headquarters staff, whom I had met shortly after she arrived at Bethel in December of 1971. We dated, fell in love, and were married on May 25, 1974. Gloria, like me, was zealous for the Watchtower Society and very dedicated to her work at Bethel. We had both decided to completely dedicate our lives full- time in the few remaining years before Armageddon working as members of the headquarters staff.

All the new entrants to Bethel were required to read through the Bible. Although I had been a Witness for nearly 10 years (I was baptized in 1959), I had never done this. Reading through the Bible thrilled me, but also raised many disturbing questions in my mind. I never stopped reading the Bible and studying it, though I naturally gave priority to the Watchtower publications. The more I read of both the Bible and the Watchtower publications, the more inconsistencies I found. I simply could not reconcile the teachings of the Bible with those of the Watchtower. At first I attributed my lack of understanding to youth and inexperience. But as time went on and I began to be more respected and trusted, I found that I could discuss my Bible questions and problems with older, well- respected members of the Headquarters staff. I was surprised to discover how many of them were struggling with the same problems as I, and how candidly they discussed them.

The introduction of many new ways to look at Watchtower teachings started with the release of "Aid to Bible Understanding" in 1971. One change resulted in the appointment of a Governing Body to oversee the work of Jehovah's Witnesses rather than the more "secular" Office of the President. The many organizational changes which followed seemed to open the door to a reexamination of other teachings. If we had been wrong about so many organizational positions we formerly thought to be solidly based on scripture, why couldn't we be wrong about doctrinal issues as well? I was not alone in asking this question. As the 1970's drew to a close, a growing number of sincere people began to read translations of the Bible other than the Watchtower-approved New World Translation, as well as commentaries, and people began to gather in informal Bible study groups, where we studied the Bible without the "aid" of Watchtower publications.

By 1979 I was convinced that there could be no reconciling then-current Watchtower teachings with the Bible. A few of my close friends in high positions in the organization expressed themselves as feeling much the same way. However, I still trusted in God's guidance of the organization, and I believed that big changes were ahead. I awaited them with eager expectation.

In the spring of 1980, I traveled to Chicago to attend a trade show for printers. Upon my return, my wife met me at the airport with terrible news. Meetings were being held with two highly-respected couples, members of the Bethel family. There were rumors that they were being charged with apostasy. When they were disfellowshipped, I was completely shocked. Within a couple of days, the news spread like wildfire through Bethel. Almost literally overnight, the atmosphere at Bethel changed. Everyone, it seemed, was polarized into two camps, those who were loyal to the Bible and those who were loyal to the organization.

By this time, my wife Gloria was having problems of her own with Bethel. Her difficulties were not primarily doctrinal, but had to do with the spirit of the place and the way people were treated. She had expressed herself to me as wanting to leave Bethel and start a family. I still believed very firmly in the correctness of the Watchtower chronology, and could not imagine why anyone would want to leave with the end so close. For me, the Watchtower chronology was correct and was absolutely essential in establishing the Watchtower Society's authority as God's "channel of communication" to mankind in the "last days" before Armageddon.

I began to make inquiries of various trusted friends in "high places" in the organization to find out what was going on. I obtained a copy of a letter that had been written to the Watchtower Society by Carl Olof Jonsson, a Witness elder from Sweden. In it he presented evidence that the Watchtower chronology was in serious error. The evidence appeared indisputable. Still, the hardest part to accept was not the error of the chronology but the corollary: If the chronology was wrong, the very important Watchtower doctrine of its appointment by Jesus as the "faithful and discreet slave" was in error. They were not what they said they were. Moreover, the leadership of the Society were misled at best, and hypocrites and false prophets at worst. I read and reread the evidence until I was convinced. I was forced to consider the possibility that the Watchtower Society was not who they said they were. When I did, many questions and doubts crystallized in my mind. Many things began to make sense. Although I had thoroughly enjoyed my service with the Watchtower organization, and loved my Witness brothers and sisters dearly, it appeared more than likely that there would be a parting of the ways. I accepted the fact that my career as a Witness was over. I simply lost my desire to continue actively supporting something I could no longer believe in.

In the midst of this tumultuous time, my parents came to Bethel from Texas to visit Gloria and me. Based on some expressions I made about the disfellowshipping of some of our close friends, they sensed that my former totally supportive attitude toward the organization was changing. (I was never very good at hiding my true feelings.) The atmosphere between us grew heavy and emotionally charged. I assured them that I would never abandon Jehovah God, Jesus Christ or the Bible, but I could not deny that I had serious questions about the organization's authority. My parents wanted reassurance that I would never leave the organization. This I could not give them, since I had seen how highly emotions were running regarding the organization, and had seen how very sincere and well-respected people had been disfellowshipped in "kangaroo court" judicial proceedings.

I thought of simply leaving the Witnesses at that point, but felt that little good would be done, besides making a sort of political statement, which didn't interest me. Besides, I thought I would be in a better position to help my parents understand my feelings if I were still associated. Things didn't work out the way I hoped. A deep rift was cut between my parents and me over this issue, which has never healed to this day. I feel a deep sense of loss as a result.

Although I felt like leaving Bethel immediately, a sense of duty made me stay until the summer. Important changes were taking place in the Pressroom, in which I was deeply involved. I wanted to see new equipment which I had recommended installed and running, and wanted to be sure that a smooth transition would take place between me and my replacement. We left Bethel on July 15, 1980. I knew I would never be back.

At this point, my life was to totally change. I had to start my life over at age 30. I had no money, for my 12 years at Bethel had been spent as an unpaid volunteer. I had job experience and technical expertise, but no college degree. I borrowed $300 from my father-in-law to move our roomful of possessions to Lancaster, PA, and we lived with Gloria's parents for 10 weeks until I could get a job and rent a small apartment.

As I was leaving the Witnesses, I began to look at the Watchtower organization as simply a collection of people holding beliefs in common and pooling resources. I could make no meaningful categorization of Witnesses as a group. Each individual seemed to react to recent developments differently and often unpredictably. It became clear to me that organizations have no unique identity, only that perceived in people's minds. Based on this realization, I began to examine the scriptures to determine whether or not God had ever used any organization as an official instrument to communicate with or direct humans. I concluded that he did not. I eventually published my research in a booklet entitled Does God Work Through an Organization?

Shortly after we arrived in Pennsylvania, I was appointed an Elder. Since I did not feel that association with an organization was in itself of any importance one way or the other, I saw no reason to withdraw from Jehovah's Witnesses, as long as my association with them did not require me to violate my conscience. However, I found that to be increasingly difficult, as the main thrust of the content of the Watchtower publications for months seemed to be warnings against and condemnation of wicked "apostates" who were such only because they disagreed with Watchtower dogma. I simply could not conscientiously teach people things I did not believe to be true, so I stepped down as an Elder.

About a year and a half later, the Elders of the Lancaster PA congregation (we were still attending meetings with some regularly) asked to speak with Gloria and me after the regular Thursday night Service Meeting. This "informal" meeting turned out to be a judicial hearing of sorts. We were not informed of the nature of this meeting in advance, nor were we charged with anything, but we were questioned for over an hour about unspecified "doubts." Although we had been fairly active with the congregation for over two and a half years, few if any, had any idea that we had doubts. However, by that weekend, many if not most in the congregation knew we were "doubters."

At a second brief meeting held a week or so later, the Elders informed us that since our doubts were "common knowledge" in the congregation, they were forced to take some action. I mentioned that no one in the congregation seemed to know anything about any doubts before the Elders' met with us (if they did, no one reported it.) So it appeared that the elders themselves must have spread the information about our doubts. One of them replied, "It's not our concern how the information got to be known. Now that it is, we must take action." We had done nothing for which we could repent, and there were no witnesses testifying against us, but since we continued to have our (still unspecified) doubts, John Gebhard, the presiding Elder, said that we left them with no choice. They withdrew for a brief private conference, returned and announced their decision to disfellowship us. It seemed pretty clear to me that the decision was made before ever they met with us, based on factors other than evidence or our testimony, so it seemed to serve no purpose to appeal the decision. Thus ended my 29-year association with Jehovah's Witnesses.

Leaving my Witness career meant starting a new one. Although I had a good technical foundation in the printing business and was experienced in supervisory and training skills, I had a lot to learn about conducting day-to-day business in a competitive atmosphere where the business had to make money based on performance rather than a steady supply of contributions from devotees who buy the publications regardless of content. Happily, my last year at Bethel had been spent reviewing the financial ramifications of upgrading old presses versus purchasing new ones. In the process I discovered I had a natural aptitude and interest in business analysis, and I learned a lot about costing and basic business principles. Some business schooling helped me fill in many of the gaps left by my Watchtower experience.

Within about a year of leaving the Watchtower Society, I was Plant Manager at a commercial printing operation near Lancaster, PA. Other jobs in the printing field followed. In 1984 I accepted a position with a marketing communications firm and began to learn the specifics of the fast-growing field of direct marketing. In 1987, I started a small print production service, which expanded within two years to be a small but successful direct marketing agency.

My experience with the Witnesses made me see clearly how easy it is to get caught up in organizational activity and lose sight of the true nature of Christianity and the richness of the Christian life and experience. I believe that the Bible tells the story of a living God who created us for a purpose. When we rebelled against Him, He sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, who willingly died as a ransom to rescue us from sin. God raised this Jesus from the dead as a guarantee that He can be trusted to do what He says he will do, no matter how long it seems to take from our perspective. Through Jesus, we can have a personal relationship with God, and all the richness of life associated therewith.

I left the Watchtower Society because I had come to the conclusion that the doctrinal framework in which I was raised was incorrect. But I had no new one with which to replace it. So I set out to examine the Scriptures and reevaluate my beliefs. I had no idea where my search would lead, but I did have a firm conviction that if I was sincere in seeking to do God's will, He would reward me and that I would not be led astray.

For the first eight years or so, Gloria and I read and studied the Bible on our own or with other former Witnesses in a small support group. As our two boys began to get older, we felt the need to seek out a Bible-believing group of Christians with whose children ours could associate. We currently fellowship with a happy, healthy independent evangelical church. We have met many fine Christian people there, and are involved in church activities. We study the Bible with two other couples nearly every week. I believe very strongly in the importance of regular Bible study, and strongly recommend it to everyone. I wish more Christians would have the confidence that God will reward their desire to know Him better through a study of the Bible.

I am so very grateful that my wife and I came out of the Watchtower Society together. We lost many close friends when we parted ways with the Watchtower Society, some of whom we had known for all our lives. But we have made many new friends, whom we love every bit as much as we loved our Witness friends, and even more so because the love of these new friends is not contingent on loyalty to an organization, but on love of God and his Word. We still feel a particular bond to our friends whom we knew as Witnesses. Some were our companions as we left one life and started another. Some are associates in Biblical Research and Commentary International, which I support because I believe that a non-doctrinal, non-judgmental helping hand is needed by many wounded souls who want to leave the Witnesses but feel alone, confused and frightened by the prospect of life "on the outside."

In addition, we have two fine sons who are a true blessing to us and to others. We attribute our success to reliance on God. True, we have worked hard, but we believe our rewards to be out of proportion with our efforts. We see God's hand in so many things in our life, and we thank him for his goodness to us. If you are a Witness thinking about leaving because of conscientious objections to doctrines or policies, be assured that you may trust your future to God. There is no guarantee in Scripture that the road will be smooth, but the peace of mind and eternal security of choosing God's way are the best. He is faithful, and He knows how to reward those who seek Him. Rely on it.

 

 

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