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Religion: Witness Under Prosecution

6 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

A secretive and apocalyptic sect shuns a former leader

For 40 years Raymond Franz devoted his whole being to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religion responded by raising him to the very top, as a member of its worldwide Governing Body. But it was a difficult period for the leadership. In 1975 the sect faced a debacle: the present world did not vanish as Witness publications had all but guaranteed. In a faith in which doubt is not tolerated, questions inevitably arose in the minds of some believers. Gradually Franz began to question other teachings, and now, in a downfall as dramatic as an excommunication within the College of Cardinals, he has been ostracized, or as the Witnesses say, “disfellowshipped.” The result is that the former leader is being shunned by almost everyone he has ever worked with, cut off from all relatives except his wife, and denied any hope of eternal life.

Officials of the Watch Tower Society, as the religious organization of 2,257,000 followers is formally known, refused all comment on the unprecedented case. But Franz, 59, reluctantly agreed to break his silence and explain to TIME the accusations against him. In doing so, he provides a rare glimpse inside the secretive headquarters of the tightly organized faith.

Franz is a third-generation Witness. His uncle, Frederick W. Franz, 88, has been the religion’s top ideologue for decades and, since 1977, its head. Raymond Franz began full-time work for the sect as soon as he finished high school. He suffered penury during 20 years as a missionary in the Caribbean, became a trusted writer of official publications, and joined the 17-member Governing Body in 1971.

Known to outsiders for their persistent door-to-door proselytizing, Jehovah’s Witnesses exist within what Franz calls a “hermetically sealed” community; every doctrinal blip or scintilla of sin is closely monitored. Nowhere is this more true than at Bethel, the sect’s Brooklyn headquarters. By Franz’s account, reading or studying of the Bible is considered “evil” unless conducted in authorized discussions following Watch Tower doctrinal guides, lest staffers veer into error.

Because of his own work as an author of an official volume about the Bible and a growing feeling that Watch Tower discipline was too harsh, Franz privately concluded that the religion emphasized human organization rather than biblical teachings. Says he: “While producing people who were outwardly moral, they subverted the essential qualities of humility, compassion and mercy.”

Franz never hinted at his uncertainties as he delivered speeches in 50 nations through the 1970s. But to ease his internal strain, he took a leave of absence from his Bethel duties early in 1980. Meanwhile, the Governing Body had begun a secret investigation of heresy rumors, and it used star-chamber tactics. Initially there were no direct confrontations. Instead, staff members were allegedly threatened with disfellowshipping to get their testimony about doctrinal discussions with others. On May 21, Franz was summoned to Brooklyn for a fateful grilling by his Governing Body colleagues. Did he doubt that Jehovah had only one chosen organization? Did he question the official End-times chronology? Franz sought to avoid confrontation but could “only bend so far.” It was not enough. Opponents were unable to get a two-thirds majority for his disfellowshipping on the spot, but he was forced to resign from Bethel. In all, about a dozen officials were purged, almost certainly the worst doctrinal crisis Watch Tower headquarters has ever faced.

But the pursuit of Franz was not over. As a refugee from Bethel and his life’s work, he found himself with few marketable skills, a $10,000 settlement from headquarters and $600 in personal savings. He turned to an old friend in the faith, Peter Gregerson of Gadsden, Ala., who runs a regional supermarket chain. Gregerson loaned Franz and his wife a house trailer to live in and gave him work as a handyman. By 1981 Gregerson too had begun to question Watch Tower dogma and resigned from the faith.

Six months later, the official Watchtower newspaper announced that the policy of shunning disfellowshipped Witnesses included shunning those like Gregerson who were “disassociated.” Not long afterward, Franz was seen in a restaurant eating a meal with his benefactor Gregerson. That single sighting provided the technical infraction for which Franz was finally disfellowshipped by the Gadsden leaders two months ago. “By one stroke they eliminated all my years of service,” says Franz. “I frankly do not believe there is another organization more insistent on 100% conformity.”

From the leaders’ viewpoint, however, it was obviously imperative to strike at Franz and the others. The dissenters’ Luther-like emphasis upon “Scripture alone” rather than official interpretation was only one threat to the foundations of the religion. Many other central Watch Tower doctrines were also at stake.

For one, Witnesses believe that only 144,000 of the faithful (a number taken from Revelation 14: 1-3) will be “born again” and go to heaven. The faith’s rulers, among whom Raymond Franz was once numbered, come from this elite. The “other sheep” who are loyal to the Watch Tower are promised an earthly paradise. Jehovah will shortly annihilate the rest of the human race. The dissenters reject this class system. They contend that the figure of 144,000 is symbolic and that all believers since Christ’s day will go to heaven.

The Witnesses also teach that the Second Coming occurred secretly in 1914, a date reached by complex historical and biblical rationales; the end of the world system must occur during the present generation (an interpretation of Luke 21: 32: “This generation will not pass away till all has taken place”). The dissidents have come to believe that Christ’s kingdom and the “last days” were inaugurated at about A.D. 33, and that Christ’s Second Coming is a future event.

The dissenters, in other words, have moved toward conventional Christianity, except for continuing to reject Christ’s divinity. For his part, Franz has not become a bitter Watch Tower antagonist. “There is no life outside the organization” is all he will say about the pain of his shunning. But other ex-Witnesses have launched a barrage of protests, publications and lawsuits. These dissidents contend that roughly 1 million people have left the Watch Tower ranks over the past decade. The Witnesses report that they are still growing, thanks to nonstop recruiting. Still, that success may not go on for long. They have necessarily backed off the 1975 date, but the End must occur during the lifetime of people who still remember the earthly events of 1914. With the rapidly thinning ranks of such oldsters, the Witnesses confront an increasingly troublesome, self-imposed and absolute deadline. —By Richard N. Ostling. Reported by Anne Constable/Atlanta

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