The Courage to Put God First
THERE was a chilling sound to the ring of our telephone at three in the morning. It was a business associate of Dad’s who had just attended an American Legion meeting. He was frantic. “Wally,” he shouted at my dad, “if you don’t phone the Philadelphia Inquirer right away in time for the morning edition and say you’ll salute the flag, a mob will attack your grocery store and your family today, and I won’t be responsible for what happens!” Dad and Mom had tasted mob violence before. Wide awake now, they started to pray.
At dawn they woke up the six of us kids. Dad told my brother Bill to take the younger ones to our grandparents’ home. Then Bill and I helped with the housework and the store as usual. Dad went to the Minersville chief of police and told him of the threat. In short order a Pennsylvania State Police car drove up and parked in front of our store and stayed there all day. We went about our duties in the store and waited on customers, but our eyes were riveted on the sidewalk. Our hearts pounded whenever a group of people paused. But the mob never came. Perhaps they cooled down in the light of day—and at the sight of a police car!
We Find the Truth
But what had led up to this volatile situation? It had to do with our religion. You see, back in 1931, when I was seven years old, Grammy and Grampop came to stay with us for a while. They were Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known.
Grampop didn’t witness to Dad, but when Grammy and Grampop were out, Dad would go into their room to see what this literature of theirs was all about. He devoured it! I can still hear his jubilant voice: “Look what the Bible says!” The truth was a pure delight to him. Mom read the literature too, and by 1932 she had resigned from the Methodist Church, and we were having a home Bible study. I was just as overjoyed as they were to hear about the wonderful Paradise earth to come. I made the truth my own from the start.
Late in 1932, Mom asked if I was ready to go out in the door-to-door preaching work. In those days, young or old, we went to the doors alone. And we used a testimony card. I would simply say: “Good morning, I have an important message. Would you please read this?” At first if the householder was even slightly unreceptive, I did little more than say, “OK, good-bye,” when he finished reading.
Before long, opposition came. In the spring of 1935, we witnessed in the town of New Philadelphia. I remember standing on one doorstep and talking with a man when the police came to take me and the rest away. The householder looked aghast that they would arrest this 11-year-old girl. They took us to a two-story firehouse. Outside swarmed a howling mob about a thousand strong. Evidently the churches had let out early that Sunday to encourage everyone to participate. As we were led through the crowd, one girl punched my arm. But we got safely inside, and armed guards kept the mob from breaking down the door.
There were 44 of us packed into the firehouse, and we had to sit on the stairs. Our mood was far from grim; we were happy to meet some of the Witnesses from the Shenandoah Congregation who were helping us work the town. I met Eleanor Walaitis there, and we became fast friends. After a few hours, the police let us go.
The Flag-Salute Issue Comes to the Fore
At the momentous 1935 Washington, D.C., convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, someone asked Brother Rutherford, the Watch Tower Society’s president, about whether schoolchildren should salute the flag. He answered that it was unfaithfulness to God to ascribe salvation by saluting an earthly emblem; he said he wouldn’t do it. This impressed Bill and me. We talked about it with our parents and looked up Exodus 20:4-6, 1 John 5:21, and Matthew 22:21. Mom and Dad never pressured us or made us feel guilty. When school opened in September, we were very much aware of what we ought to do. But every time our teachers looked our way, we sheepishly raised our arms and moved our lips. One of my problems was that I was afraid that my worldly school friends would drop me if I took my stand.
But when some pioneers visited us, I told them what we were doing. I’ll never forget what one sister said: “Lillian, Jehovah hates a hypocrite.” Then, on October 6, Brother Rutherford made a coast-to-coast radio broadcast entitled “Saluting a Flag.” He explained that we respect the flag but that going through rituals before an image or emblem was actually idolatry. Our relationship with Jehovah would strictly forbid this.
On October 22, Bill, just ten years old, came home from school all smiles. “I stopped saluting the flag!” he said triumphantly. “The teacher tried to put up my arm, but I held on to my pocket.”
The next morning, heart pounding, I went to my teacher before class so that I wouldn’t weaken. “Miss Shofstal,” I stammered, “I can’t salute the flag anymore. The Bible says at Exodus chapter 20 that we can’t have any other gods before Jehovah God.” To my surprise she just hugged me and said what a dear girl I was. Well, when the flag ceremony time came, I did not join in the salute.* Soon everyone was staring at me. But I felt elated. It was Jehovah who gave me the courage not to salute!
The girls I liked were horrified. One or two approached me to ask why, and good conversations ensued. But most of the kids began to ignore me. When I got to school each morning, a few boys would shout, “Here comes Jehovah!” and shower me with pebbles. The school watched for two weeks. Then they decided to act. On November 6 the school board met with Dad and Mom and the parents of another Witness boy. The superintendent, Professor Charles Roudabush, insisted that our stand amounted to insubordination; the others on the board soon followed suit. They expelled us.
Home Schooling Begins
They let us keep our schoolbooks, so we immediately set up a home school in our attic, supervised by a young girl who helped Mom in the home. But a letter soon arrived saying that if we didn’t have a qualified teacher, we would be sent to a reform school.
Paul and Verna Jones, who had a farm 30 miles [50 km] away, called us within a few days. “We read that your children were expelled,” Paul told Dad. They had knocked out a wall between their living and dining rooms to make a schoolroom. They invited us to come. A young teacher from Allentown who was interested in the truth eagerly accepted this job, even though it meant making far less money than the public schools offered. Similar Witness schools began to spring up from coast to coast.
The Joneses had four children of their own; yet they took in at least ten others. We slept three to a bed and turned over by signal and mutual agreement! Another Witness family nearby took in nearly as many, and soon school attendance grew to over 40. There was a lot of fun and giggling, but there were chores too. We were up at 6:00 a.m. The boys helped outside, and the girls had kitchen duty. Our parents came Friday after school to take us home for the weekend. One day the Walaitis children arrived, along with my friend Eleanor.
Schooling problems kept coming up. Dear Brother Jones died, so Dad turned our pickup truck into a school bus to transport us the 30 miles [50 km] to school. Then some of us reached high school age and needed a teacher who was qualified for that age group. For every obstacle, it seemed that Jehovah provided a solution.
Going to Court
In the meantime the Society wanted to bring the abuses in connection with the flag-salute issue to the courts. The hundreds of us who had taken a stand had now become thousands. One family after another was chosen, but the state courts refused to accept their cases for trial. Our family was approached, and the Society’s lawyer and the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer filed suit in the Federal District Court in Philadelphia in May 1937. A trial date was set for February 1938.
Bill and I would have to take the stand. I can still remember the cold, clammy feeling I got over that prospect! The Society’s lawyer briefed us over and over with possible questions. At the courthouse, Bill took the stand first. They asked him why he wouldn’t salute the flag, and he replied quoting Exodus 20:4-6. Then my turn came. Same question. When I replied, “1 John 5:21,” the opposing lawyer barked: “I object!” He felt that one scripture was enough! Then Professor Roudabush took the stand, claiming that we had been indoctrinated and were spreading “disregard for . . . flag and country.” But Judge Albert Maris decided in our favor.
‘Don’t even try to come back to school!’ was the message from the school board. ‘We are going to appeal the case.’ So it was back to Philadelphia, this time to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In November 1939 the three-man court decided favorably for us. The school board was incensed. On to the U.S. Supreme Court!
The Supreme Court
We were thrilled to hear that Brother Rutherford himself would argue our case! A group of us met him at Union Station in Washington, D.C., the night before the trial. What a moment! It was April 1940 and still a little cool. The next day the courtroom was absolutely packed with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Finally it was our turn, and Brother Rutherford rose to speak. I’ll never forget how he compared us Witness children with the faithful prophet Daniel, Daniel’s three Hebrew companions, and other Bible characters. It was electrifying, and the audience listened with rapt attention.
It never really occurred to us that the court’s decision would be anything but favorable. After all, we had won the previous two cases. But on the morning of June 3, 1940, Mom and I were working in the kitchen with the radio playing in the background. Suddenly a newscast came on. The judges had decided against us—and not by a mere margin, but by 8 to 1! Mom and I just stood there, frozen in disbelief. Then we ran downstairs to tell Dad and Bill.
This decision unleashed an almost unimaginable wave of terror. Across the country, it was open season on Jehovah’s Witnesses. People thought they were doing their patriotic duty by attacking us. Within days the Kingdom Hall at Kennebunk, Maine, was torched. In Illinois a mob attacked 60 Witnesses as they were preaching, turning over their cars and destroying their literature. In the Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, area, the coal mine, the clothing factories, and the schools all held flag-salute ceremonies in quick succession. Thus, Witness children were expelled from school, and their parents lost their jobs all within one day.
Coping With Persecution
It was at this time that my family received the threat of mob violence I described at the outset. Shortly after that failed, a Minersville church announced a boycott on our store. Business fell off drastically. It was our whole livelihood, and by now there were six children in the family. Dad had to borrow money to get by. But in time the boycott waned; people started coming back. Some even sniffed that it was “a bit much” for their priest to tell them where to buy groceries. More than a few Witness families, though, lost businesses and homes during those years.
One night I was driving our family home from some Bible studies. Just after Mom and Dad hopped in, a gang of teenagers came out of hiding and surrounded the car. They started letting the air out of the tires. Suddenly I saw an opening in front of us. I stepped on the gas, and away we went! “Lillian, don’t ever do that again,” Dad counseled. “You could have hurt someone.” Still, we did get home safe and sound.
Throughout all this fanatical violence, the press was highly favorable to us. At least 171 leading newspapers condemned the 1940 flag-salute decision. Only a handful approved. In her newspaper column “My Day,” Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, pleaded our cause. Still, there seemed to be no letup in sight.
A Change at Last
By 1942, though, some of the Supreme Court justices felt that they had decided wrongly in our case. So the Society brought forward the case of Barnett, Stull, and McClure, a group of Witness children who had been expelled from school in West Virginia. The U.S. District Court of West Virginia decided unanimously in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses! Now, on appeal by the State Board of Education, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Our family was there in Washington, D.C., when the Society’s lawyer, Hayden C. Covington, argued powerfully before the Supreme Court. On Flag Day, June 14, 1943, came the decision. It was six to three in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
All over the country, things began to calm down after this. Of course, there were some diehards who still found ways to make life difficult for our younger sisters when they returned to school, but Bill and I were now well past school age. Eight years had gone by since we had taken our stand.
A Career in Serving Jehovah
But that was only the beginning of our careers in serving Jehovah. Bill became a pioneer at 16. Eleanor Walaitis (now Miller) and I became pioneer partners and served in the Bronx, New York City. After a year, I was thrilled to begin serving at Brooklyn Bethel, the Watch Tower Society’s world headquarters. There too I forged friendships that have lasted a lifetime.
In the summer of 1951, I was at the conventions in Europe when I met Erwin Klose. At a gathering in Germany, he and some other German brothers sang beautifully for our entertainment. I enthusiastically told him what a fine voice he had. He nodded kindly, and I kept talking. He didn’t understand a word I was saying! Months later I saw Erwin at Brooklyn, New York, in Bethel, as he had been enrolled in the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead to be trained for missionary work. Again I spoke to him at length, welcoming him to Brooklyn, and again he smiled kindly. He still found it a little hard to understand me! Eventually we came to understand each other, though. It was not too long before we were engaged.
I became a missionary and joined Erwin in his work in Austria. But Erwin’s health deteriorated because of the brutal treatment he had received at the hands of the Nazis for being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. While I was expelled from school, he was in prisons and concentration camps.* We returned to the United States late in 1954.
We have since had the joy of serving where the need was greater and raising two fine children in Jehovah’s ways. As our children went to school, I saw that things have not entirely changed. Judith and Stephen were both attacked for their convictions, and Erwin and I felt our hearts swell as they too showed the courage to take their stand for what is right. And I always found that by the end of the school year, their teachers realized that Witnesses are not a bunch of fanatics, and we forged very cordial relationships.
Looking back over the years, I can now certainly see that Jehovah has blessed our family. We presently total 52 family members who serve Jehovah. There are eight who have received their heavenly reward or else await the earthly resurrection, including my own dear parents, who left such a wonderful legacy of putting Jehovah first in life. In recent years we have thought much of that example. After having lived such an active and productive life, Erwin has struggled with a neuromuscular disorder that severely limits him.
Despite such trials, we look forward to the future with real joy and confidence. Never once has either of us regretted our decision to worship Jehovah God exclusively.—As told by Lillian Gobitas Klose.
In general, Jehovah’s Witnesses are willing to show respect for oaths and anthems in ways that do not indicate participation in acts of religious worship.
See Awake! of November 22, 1992, “The Nazis Couldn’t Stop Us!”
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Why Don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses Salute the Flag?
THERE is a principle of worship that Jehovah’s Witnesses emphasize more than other religious groups do: exclusivity. Jesus stated that principle at Luke 4:8: “It is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.” Witnesses thus choose to avoid directing worship to anyone or anything in the universe other than Jehovah. Participating in the flag salute of any nation is to them a worshipful act that would intrude on and violate their exclusive worship of Jehovah.
Both the Israelites and the early Christians were warned repeatedly against worshiping any man-made object. This practice was condemned as idolatry. (Exodus 20:4-6; Matthew 22:21; 1 John 5:21) Can the flag really be considered an idol? Few would seriously argue that it is a mere piece of cloth. It is widely treated as a sacred symbol, and more. Catholic historian Carlton Hayes put it this way: “Nationalism’s chief symbol of faith and central object of worship is the flag.”
This does not mean that Jehovah’s Witnesses disrespect the flag or those who salute it. Generally they will respectfully stand for such ceremonies as long as they are not required to participate. It is their belief that one shows true respect for the flag by obeying the laws of the land it represents.
Most people will agree that saluting a flag does not guarantee respect for it. That this is true was illustrated by a case in Canada. A teacher and principal ordered a little girl who salutes the flag to spit on it; she did so. They then ordered a young Witness girl in the class to do the same, but she steadfastly refused. To Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is a matter of deeply held principle to respect the flag. Their worship, however, goes to Jehovah alone.
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Erwin and Lillian in Vienna, Austria, 1954
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