Over Half a Century of Satisfying Service
As told by Seth Keith
FROM her perch on a chair, as she engaged in closet cleaning, Mother threw down an old magazine, wrinkled and colored with age. “There! Perhaps that will help clear up some of those Bible questions you have been asking. But don’t forget, your grandfather Killion always said the Bible would never be understood. And his opinion was always sought after.”
I was just a youngster at the time. At our home in Washington, Indiana, there were no real Bible scholars, but I was keenly interested in getting to understand the Bible. This old paper that Mother had dug out from the accumulations of the years was like a dim light that was due to grow brighter and brighter in my life. It was an early issue of Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence.
In 1911 there came to me through a man named Fred Parker a copy of the People’s Pulpit and a copy of The Bible Students Monthly, both published by the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s witnesses were then known. One told about the condition of the dead and the other intimated that the second coming of Christ Jesus was due.
When a man in our neighborhood got killed accidentally the day after he had turned down an invitation to join the Methodist Church, the preacher took it for granted that he had gone to a fiery hell, and used the funeral as an opportunity to remind everyone about how hot it was in hell. In a later discussion the assistant minister quoted from Dante’s Inferno to back up this doctrine. That disgusted me, and from then on I had no confidence in the church. At home I kept raising the question about the state of the dead, until my sister hunted out that old magazine again as well as the other Bible Student papers. Here we found advertised six volumes of Studies in the Scriptures and the Watch Tower magazine. We sent for them right away.
I was working on the farm by day and studying the Bible late into the night for some time. What a thrill it was to find that God’s purposes were beautifully in harmony with truth and justice, just as his visible creations are a source of pleasure to humble men and women! At the same time I was realizing what a blasphemy, what a dishonor to God’s name, were the ridiculous traditional teachings of superstitious religion. Of course, I kept talking about the things I was learning, and the neighbors suggested I was losing my mind. My view was that anyone who loses his own mind and gets the Lord’s mind on any subject is well ahead.
Meanwhile I met up with Fred Parker again, and with him I attended the showing of the “Photo-Drama of Creation,” an explanation of God’s purposes by means of slides and movies. Then we started putting out Bible tracts. Especially at any large gathering of people we would drop tracts in cars and horse-drawn carriages. In 1915 I attended a small convention and had the privilege of meeting and hearing Pastor Russell, the Watch Tower Society’s first president. It was truly impressive how boldly he came out with exposure of religious errors, advocating the clearing away of all the traditional rubbish from atop God’s own Book.
GETTING INTO HARNESS
The year 1916 was an eventful one for me. Early that year Pastor Russell gave a lecture in our hometown and later invited me to enter the colporteur service, the full-time service of distributing Bibles and Bible literature, later known as “pioneer service.” On June 10 of that year I symbolized my dedication to God by being baptized. I took up colporteuring with a more experienced man, first around the home county, then into the copper region of northern Michigan.
The following year my companion and I were arrested at Princeton, Indiana. Roman Catholic authorities were out to stop the distribution of the book The Finished Mystery. After five days and four nights the sheriff released us from jail, there being no evidence against us and no orders for our arrest. Then, with my companion, we had the job of distributing issue No. 3 of Kingdom News on the topic “Two Great Battles Raging,” in the Harrisburg, Illinois, area. That caused quite a commotion. In fact, we later heard that the police were waiting to seize two men at the railroad station. It so happened that we were late, and my companion told me to jump on the back of the train while he bought our tickets. So the police did not see two men together.
On one occasion we went to Evansville to hear a lecture by Hugo Riemer, one of the Society’s traveling representatives. He told us that the Society had had some 300 colporteurs, but that all but 56 of them had quit. “So keep right ahead and the Lord will give you a blessing,” he told us. And that is what we did. We traveled far and into many states, including Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Arizona and New Mexico. We even tried, unsuccessfully, to get into old Mexico.
IN THE THICK OF THE FIGHT
Few people today realize what a fight had to be put up in those days to maintain the right to preach the Bible’s message. J. F. Rutherford’s famous lecture “The World Has Ended, Millions Now Living Will Never Die,” seemed like the prelude to very exciting times, especially for colporteurs. My companion and I had the joy of being able to work right up to the end of World War I. Imagine the joy we got, too, out of the marvelous, hope-inspiring conventions at Cedar Point, Ohio, in 1919 and 1922. Never will I forget the call to advertise the Kingdom and the zeal of the assembled throng!
Many were the instrumentalities that we used to get the Kingdom preaching done. Often we would walk; we used bicycles up till about 1922, and after that we started using cars. I can recall an old house-car we used; it got its name from the fact that we had fixed the seats so we could convert them into beds. We used the phonograph to play Bible sermons to the people, and then came the transcription machine that used sixteen-inch records to be played over a sound system.
Once, when working in Harrisburg, Arkansas, as I was going down the street offering literature to the householders a man asked me if I was a Bible Student. On my affirmative reply he seemed to get quite excited, and inquired if I had the book Enemies. I told him I had one in the car, and as we walked along he burst out: “See that tall spire over there! That is the Baptist Church, and I preach there. I am an officer of the law. When I was in Louisiana, we of the American Legion destroyed the homes of forty of Jehovah’s witnesses.”
With that he took me to jail and placed me in a cell with just a piece of metal for a bunk and two blankets. I was tired out and soon was sound asleep anyway. It happened to be Christmas Eve, and along about 10 p.m. they filled up the jail with drunks. During the night I was awakened by one man screaming and crying. He was suffering from delirium tremens. To my relief, in the morning I was brought before the sheriff and released after questioning.
While serving in the hot, humid regions of Arkansas, I became ill. The doctor said I had a case of arrested tuberculosis and recommended that I move out to western Texas. There I had many exciting times, for the flag-salute issue had the people all stirred up into a kind of frenzy. At Menard, Texas, I recall that a couple of frenzied men had me jailed and sentenced to a fine of $200 and costs. It was arranged for one of my friends to go to San Angelo and obtain a bond for me. However, when he brought it back the officials said they would honor it only after my fine was paid. I told them I would stay there before I would pay an unjust fine. However, my well-meaning friend made an arrangement with them to dismiss the $200 fine if I would just pay the costs.
My health was deteriorating at this time, so friends persuaded me to go to a sanitarium for an examination. Upon examination it turned out I was too chronic a case for them. They claimed they would not take anyone over sixty years of age. When I pointed out that I was only fifty-nine it made no difference. Anyway, I decided to go and live out in the open that winter.
In the fall of 1944, the Watch Tower Society assigned me to Pecos, Texas. The local preachers did not like my preaching about God’s kingdom and stirred up the authorities. All together I must have been arrested six times in the Pecos area. They tried to get me to admit that I was selling literature. I refused, since it was a matter of accepting small contributions that in no way reflected the full value of the Bible literature we left with the people. At the second arrest one old lady, herself also a Witness, got out of a sickbed and drove thirty-seven miles to bail us out.
Throughout all of these experiences it is truly wonderful the sense of satisfaction we experienced. We knew that we were putting forth our very best endeavors to serve Jehovah God and promote study of the Bible with its message of hope. We rejoiced to be counted worthy to suffer for righteousness’ sake.—1 Pet. 2:19, 20.
High-handed officers showed their prejudice and their hatred of any who claimed their ordinary rights as citizens. When we went to preach at Tombstone, Arizona, for example, we were told that if we would just pay a $3 license fee everything would be all right. Of course, we refused, since our work was in no sense commercial. The third time we appeared before a certain judge, he told us that we were worse than any criminals and murderers. Strange language, is it not, to direct at people whose only offense was to preach the good news of God’s kingdom?
I remember in one town that they arrested me simply because I inquired for the address of a Witness living there. The marshal told me that he would arrest me every time I showed up in their town. He expected that as soon as I was released I would leave the district. But he was disappointed. He had me fined, and when I refused to pay the fine, then I was thrown into a filthy cell. A few days later the sheriff came in and said that if I would leave the county they would turn me loose. I reminded him that I had been illegally jailed and would never leave on any such conditions. He finally let me out, no strings attached.
CAUSE FOR SATISFACTION, JOY
All of those experiences were sources of deep satisfaction, yes, even joy, at the time, for were not Jesus’ followers warned that if they followed the lead of their Master they would receive the same treatment that he received? (John 17:14) And, of course, all of the bad treatment that we received was as nothing compared to the joy we had when humble people responded to the message that we brought them and showed their appreciation by extending to us ‘the cup of cold water’ spoken of by the Lord Jesus. (Matt. 10:42) And it was always thrilling to note the evidences that the enthroned King of God’s choice was already accomplishing his grand separating work, and to reflect on the fact that we were humble instruments in his hand.—Matt. 25:31-33.
It is true that age has greatly reduced my physical ability. I am now over eighty-six. And if I permit my mind to dwell on this it can be quite discouraging. But I take comfort in the knowledge that our Father in heaven knows us better than we do ourselves. He knows our infirmities, and he knows our longing to be able to serve in some small way the interests of his Kingdom; perhaps to be able to encourage someone who is physically better able to preach and teach today. And Jehovah is good to his servants. See how he has raised a multitude of Kingdom proclaimers to intensify the witness among the nations in these “last days”! How satisfying to know that we are in the days of the fulfillment of the prophecy: “The little one himself will become a thousand, and the small one a mighty nation. I myself, Jehovah, shall speed it up in its own time”!—Isa. 60:22.
(Since writing this account, Seth Keith finished his earthly course with confidence that ‘the things he did would go right with him,’ because he had the hope of sharing with Christ in the heavenly kingdom.—Rev. 14:13.)