Pursuing My Purpose in Life
As told by George R. Phillips
I WAS born in Glasgow, Scotland. My parents were good Presbyterians, my father serving as a Sunday-school teacher for some years. In 1902, when I was four, my father came to a knowledge of the truth. The seed fell on good ground and he quickly became an active and zealous publisher. All his relatives, friends, business associates and everyone with whom he came in contact were informed about The Divine Plan of the Ages and the wonderful millennium soon to be ushered in. He became an appointed servant in the Glasgow congregation, but his earthly ministry ended in the fall of 1904.
During the years my father enjoyed and served the truth he did his best to train his children according to God’s Word. Young as I was at the time I can still recall the early-morning instruction from the Scriptures. Late in 1902, or early in 1903, I had my first experience of field service. My father used to take me with him on Sunday mornings to hand out Old Theology Quarterly, the tracts used in those days. I used to wonder why it was necessary to go out when the snow was on the ground, or when it was raining, but was assured that the tracts would bring joy and comfort to those in the right heart condition.
My mother continued the training work that my father had begun. We were taken with her to the meetings, and brothers who visited the home were always ready to give us a drilling on our knowledge of the fundamental doctrines. How pleased I was when I could give correct answers about the fall, the ransom, the resurrection and other Bible truths. Then, too, there was the great day when I was first able to repeat the names of all the books of the Bible in their correct order without looking at the index. Looking back now I am indeed grateful for that training as a child, for it played a big part in helping me make decisions in harmony with God’s Word later in life.
The high lights in those days were the visits to Glasgow of the Society’s first president, Pastor C. T. Russell. Always the city’s biggest hall was engaged and the entire city of nearly one million population was notified of the meeting. By far the greater proportion of the people in Glasgow live in tenement buildings (apartments, three or four stories high, without elevators). I spent many evenings and weekends climbing up and down those stairs. I certainly had all the exercise required to keep me fit. And what a thrill it was to see the hall crowded to the door, with people being turned away, to hear the vast audience join together in “All hail,” and, above all, to listen to the clear and logical presentation of the Bible message from Jehovah’s servant on the platform. What a marvelous favor, I thought, to have a knowledge of the truth, and to have a little share in making it known to others!
SERVICE DURING THE YOUTHFUL YEARS
In July, 1912, at the age of fourteen, I symbolized my dedication by water immersion. Neither my mother nor anyone else tried to force me to take that step, nor did they try to discourage me or counsel me to wait till I was older. I was glad of that. My mind was fully made up. I understood clearly that it was the privilege of the creature to serve the Creator and Life-giver; that it was the very least one could do to show gratitude for all of life’s blessings and the wonderful hope of life eternal set forth in the Scriptures. And what a privilege it was to know and understand these things while I was yet young and thus be able to pursue my purpose in life, to remember and to serve the Creator in the days of my youth with the best of my health and energies, rather than to wait until I had only the fag end of my life to offer.
I was still at school then, and had many opportunities of telling my schoolmates about the “end of the world in 1914” and the new rule that would begin when the “Gentile Times” ended. At the same time, acting in harmony with the counsel in the Society’s literature, the friendships I formed were all within the organization. Invitations to spend weekends or go on holidays with schoolmates were always politely declined. I found true happiness in association with other young people of like mind, whether engaged in field service, at the meetings or when we took recreation together. How grateful I am today for that good counsel and that I acted in harmony with it! How many children of parents in the truth have drifted right into the world as a result of taking an opposite course!
Came the fall of 1913. One more year to go and then the church would finish its course and be taken to heaven! But there seemed to be so much still to be done. Surely it would be a good thing, I reasoned, to spend at least one year in the pioneer work, spreading the message of the Kingdom before the end of the Gentile Times and Armageddon. So early in January, 1914, just after I had turned sixteen, I left school and entered the pioneer work. My teachers thought I had taken leave of my senses when I told them what I was going to do, but nothing they could say made me alter my decision. How Jehovah blessed that decision!
A.D. 1914! What a year it was for me! After serving just a few months as a regular pioneer and having a share in the “All of Scotland Class (Congregation) Extension Campaign,” which had as its objective giving the witness in all parts of Scotland and establishing new congregations following a series of public meetings, I was invited by the British branch office to engage in follow-up work after a series of public lectures delivered throughout the British Isles that summer by Brother Rutherford. Up to that time I had never placed more than one bound book at a time in a placement. This invitation involved offering the entire set of six volumes of Studies in the Scriptures plus a year’s subscription for The Watchtower. What was the London office thinking about? How could I, a boy of sixteen, with only a few months’ experience in the pioneer work, ever hope to do such a work? But after a little reflection I realized the invitation had come from the Lord through his organization. “Here am I; send me,” was the answer. My pioneer partner, about one and a half years older than myself, and I had appointments in England, Scotland and Wales and we had a wonderful time. The sets went out and the “subs” came in! Brother Rutherford was in his prime and his public talks were so well delivered that on many occasions when we called on the people and made the offer for $2.50 they would exclaim: “Why, the talk itself was worth that!” The rest was easy. Did I have any regrets that I had taken up pioneer work instead of going to a university or entering secular employment? Whatever the Lord had in store for us in heaven must be mighty good if the joy was going to surpass that which we were even then experiencing in His service!
In August, 1914, we were doing this follow-up work at Barrow-in-Furness in northwest England when the news came that war (World War I) had broken out. That news made my spine tingle. This surely was the beginning of the great time of trouble a confirmation of what we had been preaching for years. I thought of my schoolmates and how some of them had snickered when I had spoken to them about the trouble that would break out in the fall of 1914. What would they be thinking now?
TRIALS OF THE WAR YEARS
War or no war my partner and I kept on with our pioneering and had assignments in Scotland and Ireland, operating in connection with the showing of the Photo-Drama of Creation—advertising the motion picture, helping to put it over and then following up the interest. At the conclusion of each exhibition of the Drama two public talks were given: “Pastor Russell’s Teachings Examined” and “Christ’s Second Coming.” Names were handed in and we followed through with the sets of Studies in the Scriptures. The Photo-Drama drew full houses wherever it was shown and we had many really joyful experiences. It was easy to make friends with the people. Seldom, if ever, was there an adverse criticism of the Drama and many in those days came into the organization after seeing it.
Toward the end of 1916 the “pastoral work” was introduced—the loaning of The Divine Plan of the Ages without contribution, for a period of two weeks to those willing to read it, particularly in the poorer districts. Then return calls were made with a view to effecting placements and increasing interest. This was really the beginning of what we know today as the back-call work. I had a share in this work too and enjoyed the taste of systematically feeding the truth-hungry, many of whom were really appreciative of our efforts to help them.
In the summer of 1916 Britain passed its military conscription act. A good deal of discussion went on in the Glasgow congregation as to what was the correct Scriptural course to take. Some thought there was nothing wrong in joining a noncombatant unit; others thought it would be O.K. to go into a munition factory and make shells and so escape military service. They argued that God’s judgments were now being expressed against the nations and that if one prayed to God to direct the shells to accomplish his will such a one would be co-operating with the Almighty and so could have a clear conscience. This course had the added attraction to young men of making “big money.” A third group firmly believed that the Scriptures permitted no compromise on this issue. I was in this last group. All in groups one and two left the organization within the next few years.
A year later, having meantime become of “military age,” I was appearing before local and appeal tribunals, giving a ‘reason for the hope within me.’ But although I had been reared in the truth and my convictions, rooted in the Scriptures, had already been held for years before the outbreak of war, I was informed by the appeal tribunal that I was not old enough to have mature opinions about anything. In other words, I was old enough to fight but not old enough to know whether it was right or wrong to fight.
The law of God and the law of man were in conflict. Whom should I obey? Should I continue pursuing my purpose in life? I followed the apostles’ example as set forth at Acts 5:29. Soon I was arrested and sentenced by military court-martial to undergo imprisonment for one year with hard labor. While awaiting trial I had many opportunities to witness to boys who were about to leave for the front-line trenches in France. Almost without exception they expressed the hope that what I had told them was true, and then they would encourage me to “stick it.” The first fourteen days of my sentence were spent in solitary confinement. A copy of the prison Bible was the only literature permitted. Had I taken the correct course of action? As I read through the Scriptures I had no doubt in my mind. Furthermore, many passages with which I had previously been familiar took on a fuller and deeper significance. Now I could really understand and appreciate and enter more fully into the experiences of Jehovah’s servants in former times, many of whom were thrown in prison for their faith in and adherence to God’s Word.
Toward the end of 1917, while I was serving my sentence, there was a food shortage in the country, owing to the German submarine campaign then in full swing. Prison rations were very meager. I felt the pangs of hunger. At night I could hear some of the other prisoners beating their cell doors with their bare fists as they lost their reason. Germany’s Zeppelins came over London frequently and dropped their bombs. There was the continual barking of antiaircraft guns while the raid was in progress. Although these frequent air raids brought death and destruction, yet at the same time they gave me my only opportunities of telling my fellow prisoners about the Kingdom. On these occasions three or four prisoners were always bundled into the same cell on the ground floor and, while the raid lasted, good use was made of the time to tell them of the good things contained in God’s Word.
In September or October, 1917, news was brought into prison by a new arrival that The Finished Mystery had come out and the church would be taken away in the spring of 1918. Would I be counted worthy? the folks back home in Glasgow? the brothers everywhere? And just how would I be taken away?
Before I completed my sentence I was released and sent by the authorities to a work camp, a chemical manure factory, where I had to work ten hours a day with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow. Every weekend I cycled seventy miles, in all kinds of weather, to attend meetings and have association with the brothers. I worked in that camp for a year. At 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, I was still at this factory and, as I helped with the aid of a shovel to empty a freight car of coal, the sirens announced the end of World War I. What now? I hadn’t gone to heaven in April. Was there more work to be done on earth?
RELEASE, THEN SERVICE IN GLASGOW
The end of the war did not bring immediate release from governmental restrictions. For the next year I was obliged to work in a shipbuilding yard turning out concrete ships, thirty miles from Glasgow. Here, with overtime, it was an eighty-hour week. But each Sunday found me in Glasgow sharing in activities of the congregation there. In September 1919 I was finally released.
For the next four and a half years I had many privileges of service with the Glasgow congregation. The service work, as we know it today, got under way. Glasgow was divided into four districts. It was my privilege to have supervision of one of these districts and to help the congregation publishers in that area to get down to regular and systematic field service. We had some wonderful times handling such instruments as The Finished Mystery, Golden Age No. 27 and later the booklet Millions Now Living Will Never Die! and The Harp of God. It was certainly grand to have a small part too in caring for such duties as literature servant, accounts servant and to serve on the congregation committee.
The Glasgow congregation grew until there were upward of 1,200, with some fifty scheduled meetings each week. Also, there were weekend opportunities to serve smaller congregations in other parts of Scotland. For those who responded to the clarion call to “Advertise the King and the Kingdom” these were busy days, happy days.
The high lights in these years were the visits of the Society’s second president, and we always received a great stimulus from the conventions held on those occasions. But these were years of testing too, and Glasgow was no exception to the general rule. There were those who served the Lord and those who served him not, and others who wanted things done in their own way. And so when the great shaking came (it hit Glasgow in 1922) many went out from us because they were not of us. Those who remained were strengthened by these experiences and became more firmly knit together for the work still to be done.
In May, 1924, during one of Brother Rutherford’s visits to Glasgow, he announced at the assembly then in progress that he was sending a brother from the British branch office to South Africa to serve as branch servant. The following morning, as we sat in an anteroom waiting to go onto the platform, Brother Rutherford said to me: “You heard me make that announcement last night about sending a brother to South Africa. Would you like to go with him?” “Here am I; send me,” was the response. “Think it over carefully and let me know in the afternoon,” was his reply. When I confirmed my decision that afternoon, among other things he said: “George, it may be for a year, or it may be for a little longer.” He had still great faith that the princes would be back the following year, and that big changes would quickly take place.
There was no Gilead in those days and we did not have the advantage of the wonderful training that missionaries now receive before going to a foreign assignment. True, we had our “school of the prophets” in Glasgow, where we got some training in public speaking, but we had none of the wonderful courses such as are now given at Gilead. I was given two weeks to “pack my bag” and contemplate seriously for the first time how Abraham must have felt when he left his own land to go to a land he knew not of.
AT THE SOUTH AFRICAN BRANCH
A few weeks later I was in South Africa. What a change from Scotland and earlier assignments in the British Isles! Conditions were altogether different and everything connected with the work was so much smaller. At that time there were only six in the full-time service and not more than about forty doing a little service work. Our territory embraced everything from the Cape to Kenya. How was it going to be covered and an effective witness given in one year? Why worry about that? The thing to do was to get going, use the instruments at hand, and leave the results to Jehovah.
One of these instruments was a small hand-fed platen printing press, which came to hand from the Brooklyn office a few weeks after our arrival. Fortunately there was a brother in Cape Town at that time who was a printer. Under his guidance we served a five years’ apprenticeship in about five months’ working, after our normal day’s work was over, for three hours nearly every evening in the week and on Saturday afternoons. We discovered what it means to “watch your p’s and q’s” and just how unappetizing a “printer’s pie” can be. Soon the little platen was turning out thousands of handbills for the public meetings, tracts, stationery and service forms.
South Africa is a complex country with many different races and languages. It was a real joy getting to know these different peoples, their manner of life, customs, etc., and then to make the necessary arrangements for literature in their respective languages. The literature has been translated and printed in South Africa in fifteen different languages for use in this part of the field. Getting the work organized in such a vast field and laying the necessary foundations on which to build were no easy tasks, especially with so few in the full-time service. The very smallness of things was a test and proved too much for my colaborer, who left his assignment toward the end of 1927, after being in the country three and a half years. I battled on, pursuing my purpose in life, feeling sure that if I stuck to the job Jehovah’s blessing would be with us and that he would give the increase in due course.
And so during the years of the great depression we carried on with our public meeting campaigns and made good use of the “Rainbow Series” (the “jr volumes”). The portable transcription machines (we had some good laughs over the “portable” nature of these as two brothers would stagger up the steps of a platform nearly collapsing under the weight of one) and their long-playing records did a work, and we had some really big days. I can recollect putting over an hour speech, such as “Government and Peace,” eight times in one day in different parts of Cape Town. Pioneers in sound cars traveled the country and Judge Rutherford’s name became as well known as the prime minister’s. Many listened with appreciation, but, on the whole, the majority of people told us they didn’t like “canned” speeches and would prefer to listen to a speaker whom they could see.
The phonographs with the short introductory sermons enabled us to get into many homes and paved the way for placements and back-calls. I certainly had many interesting experiences in that feature of the work and really enjoyed it. Eventually the phonograph became so well known that when we went to the doors it was not required that we announce who we were.
The Kingdom booklet campaign is one that remains ever green in my mind, when, for the first time in many cases, we sought interviews with the rulers and other prominent people to place the message of the Kingdom in their hands and announce to all and sundry our new name “Jehovah’s witnesses.” In the early thirties we were able to fix up several contracts with the African Broadcasting Corporation, and the putting over of recorded talks each month from their stations at Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban gave a wide witness to the truth. These talks were remembered for years afterward by many who heard them.
COURT BATTLES AND WORLD WAR
Meanwhile the work was steadily growing and the Africans, as well as the Europeans, were taking a hold on the message. This was not to the liking of some. An effort was made in the Rhodesias to put a spoke in our wheel by having our literature declared seditious. Court battles followed in the Rhodesias and in the Union, with victory for the Society the courts putting on record that our literature is not seditious. It surely was a privilege to help attorneys and advocates prepare for these cases and, in court itself, to find the relevant scriptures for them to read when presenting our defense.
The year 1938 was a memorable one, for in that year the organization became fully theocratic and the instructions we received then and applied accelerated increase in a most remarkable way. Even with the advent of World War II, and the restrictions that followed, the work went ahead with leaps and bounds.
During World War II there were more court battles and again there was the privilege of defending Kingdom interests and the fight to keep the door open. The struggle lasted for the greater part of the war but more than a year before the war ended we had the satisfaction of seeing the lifting of the ban that had been imposed on the importation of our literature. In the years 1941 to 1944, while the ban was on, we had many exciting experiences and the most marvelous evidences of Jehovah’s loving care for and protection over his people. We never missed a single issue of ‘food convenient’—the Watchtower magazine. Many a time only one copy of an issue would get through. Sometimes it was a subscriber in one of the Rhodesias or in Portuguese East Africa or on a lonely farm in South Africa or a visitor from a boat touching at Cape Town that would supply what was needed, and we would all enjoy our food at the proper time.
The provisions enjoyed at the assemblies in the United States of America in those years also found their way to us and gave us strength and courage to keep right on with the work. The efforts of our brothers at Brooklyn to keep us supplied meant much to us in those days and were greatly appreciated.
TO AMERICA AND GILEAD AND BACK
Came the end of World War II and an invitation to attend the assembly at Cleveland in 1946. Ever since I was a boy at school and first read “Convention Reports” I had entertained the hope that one day I might have the privilege of attending one of the big conventions in America. Gilead had been operating for three years. I was now over the normal age limit and yet how I longed to have the training there! If only I could have had it twenty-five years earlier! The eighth or first international class was to begin following the assembly and to my great joy Brother Knorr gave his consent for me to attend. The five and a half months at Gilead will always remain in my memory as one of the most blessed and joyful experiences in my life. Brother Knorr told me before going there: “You will get training and experience there that you could get in no other way.” I found that to be true, and I am indeed grateful to Jehovah for that wonderful provision He has made for full-time ministers in these last days of the old system of things, so that the testimony concerning his name and kingdom may be given more effectively.
What would my assignment be? Those of us in the eighth class were given three choices. My first choice was South Africa; so was my second, and my third! Yes, I had learned to love the assignment given me by the Lord’s organization in 1924, which was to be “for a year or a little longer.” It turned out to be for “a little longer,” but after nearly twenty-three years on the job I was not only willing but very desirous of going back for just as much longer as Jehovah willed.
On my return from Gilead I was better equipped to care for my former assignment as branch servant of the South African branch. Working two months at the Society’s headquarters at Brooklyn and then going to Gilead gave me a keener appreciation and better feel of the organization than I had ever enjoyed before. In the nine years that have followed I have had many opportunities of using the information and applying the counsel and training that I received in that wonderful school of highest learning. We have had two visits from Brothers Knorr and Henschel. These were memorable and joyous occasions. The work in this part of the earth, as elsewhere, benefited much by the arrangements made by them for expansion. The general tempo of the work has increased. What a contrast in the streamlined condition of the organization today as compared with what it was fifty years ago! How much more can be done in a shorter period of time and so much more effectively! Now, with the training program in full swing and “The New World Society in Action” film giving all who see it a greater appreciation of the theocratic organization at work, many are being helped to add their praise to the Creator’s name. What joy it brings to be living at this time and to see the great crowd streaming into the New World society. What a privilege to be able to give one’s whole time and energies to magnifying Jehovah’s name. One glorious experience follows another. It is grand to have plenty to do and always a little waiting for tomorrow. From the handful interested in the Kingdom message in this part of Africa in 1924 the work has grown until today there are now, in the original assignment, four branches and upward of 63,000 publishers. Jehovah has certainly given the increase.
Could I turn the clock back forty-two years and find myself at school again, would I still make the pioneer work my choice? Surely there is far, far stronger reason to say “yes” today. Do you know of anyone who has made a profession or a trade one’s career whose life has been even one half as interesting as mine or that of any other member of the New World society who gets into the full-time service on leaving school, puts his back into the pioneer work, qualifies for Gilead, accepts his missionary assignment wherever it may be and then, pursuing his purpose in life, sticks to his assignment? Be honest with yourself when you answer. Down through the years Jehovah’s loving provision for all my needs, his protection, guidance and blessing have ever been abundantly manifest. I have learned that “godliness with contentment is great gain” and that if one would remain in “the secret place of the Most High” one must stick close to his organization and work hard at doing his work in his way. The service of the truth has kept me young in heart and mind, and today, past fifty-eight, through Jehovah’s undeserved kindness, I can still put in a good day’s work and keep up with those less than half my age.
This very brief account of my fifty-four years in Jehovah’s active service would not be complete without reference to my dear wife, Stella. For twenty-six years, since 1930, she has been a true helpmeet, loyally co-operating in all the experiences we have shared together. She too profited much by her Gilead training. Our one desire now is to continue right on in full-time service and to bless Jehovah’s name forever and ever.