Thankful for a Delightful Life of Service
As told by John Booth
IN OCTOBER 1921 the talk “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” was advertised to be delivered in our town hall at Wallkill, New York. Despite our curiosity, no one in my family attended. However, I wrote for literature mentioned on the handbill. When the booklet What Say the Scriptures About Hell? and the book The Divine Plan of the Ages, both by C. T. Russell, arrived, they were so captivating I could hardly lay them down.
Earlier that year I had graduated from high school, and I was searching for a purpose in life. Ours was a religious family that regularly attended the Dutch Reformed Church for which I served as a Sunday-school teacher. The minister wanted me to go to college and study for the ministry, but that did not appeal since it seemed to me that ministers lived a selfish life. Yet I did want to help mankind, and so I thought it would be fine to become a foreign missionary.
Learning where the Bible Students (as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called) met, the following summer found me going 15 miles (24 km) on my bicycle to attend meetings in Newburgh, New York. Then, when the minister of our church gave a sermon on “hell” that contradicted the Bible teaching that the dead are unconscious, both mother and I resigned. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) My father, while enjoying our Bible literature, continued with the church of his boyhood. On the other hand, my two brothers and three sisters, in time, also became Witnesses.
Work at Staten Island
During the summer of 1923 I accepted an invitation to assist with the construction of the Watchtower Society’s new radio station WBBR on Staten Island. Among those who came over from the headquarters in Brooklyn to help out on weekends was 18-year-old Nathan H. Knorr, who in 1942 became the third president of the Watch Tower Society. It was while working there and attending a convention in New York City that I was baptized on October 19, 1923. It was my first opportunity to symbolize my dedication to serve Jehovah God.
That winter I returned home to work on my family’s small dairy farm near Wallkill, but in the spring I was back at Staten Island to do some landscaping and road building. As my temporary work assignment there neared completion, many were making plans to attend the large Columbus, Ohio, convention in July 1924. It was my privilege to travel to it with the headquarters family on a special train. At this convention all members of congregations were organized for house-to-house preaching.
Preaching Around Wallkill
Returning from Columbus, I started witnessing around my family’s farm, in the area where Watchtower Farms are now located. First I covered the territory on bicycle, but then I purchased a Model T Ford and used it in working more distant territory. When the book Deliverance was released in 1926 I organized a Bible study in one of the homes at Scotts Corners, near Walden. Some who attended there made progress and later became Witnesses.
My family and I regularly attended meetings in Newburgh. When the midweek Prayer, Praise and Testimony meetings were eventually changed to Service Meetings, thus emphasizing our house-to-house ministry, a few did not like this. But I was pleased with the emphasis on spreading the Kingdom message in this apostolic way. (Acts 20:20) In April 1928 I began sharing in the preaching activity as a regular pioneer.
Preaching in the South
It was the custom in those years for pioneers to work territory in the north in the summer and then in the winter to go south to witness. So during the winters of 1928 to 1935 my pioneer partner Rudolph Abbuhl and I worked in the states of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Witnessing in the south in those years was a memorable experience. Often there were few paved roads, and we became experts at knowing how far we could go without getting hung up on rocks or stuck in mud. We did a lot of walking since many people lived where cars could not travel.
In rural areas the people generally were poor and without modern conveniences. In fact, in parts of Kentucky log cabins were not unusual and some spinning wheels were still used. Life had not changed much from the days of Daniel Boone, some 150 years before.
For lodging we would rent a room, usually for about $10 a month. At times, however, we stayed right in the homes of the local people, paying about a dollar a night with meals included. Often we would find a housewife who would do our washing in exchange for literature. Since people had little money, much of our literature was placed in trade for food items.
A housewife would often say, “You can have a hen if you can catch her.” We were prepared, carrying a chicken coop in the back of the car. Using a wire with a hook, we became experts at catching a chicken by the leg. Eggs were another item of exchange, but we also traded for all kinds of canned fruit. Items we did not use ourselves we would sell to buy gasoline. At one time we even had a regular route selling to restaurants the things that we had traded for literature.
Winning the trust of the people helped us to overcome opposition and difficulties. This was the situation in Cleveland, Georgia, where a lawyer, who was also a Sunday-school teacher, had us arrested on the charge of selling without a license. A number of persons came to our defense at the trial, including the man of the house where we were staying. When we were able to explain the nature of our work, the case was dismissed and apologies were extended to us.
In the hills near Ferrum, Virginia, as in some other places, the illegal production of alcohol was common. Armed men guarded the stills, and no strangers were allowed in the area. But, without our realizing it, we had won the trust of the people and a good report went ahead of us. Thus we were able to witness in the area without interference or harm. We found one woman who, as a result of hearing our radio programs, had obtained literature and was showing her appreciation by talking to others about the things she learned. She later got baptized and was a faithful Witness for many years.
When we were in Harlan county, Kentucky, it was known as bloody Harlan, and with good reason. The people had guns and used them. Once my pioneer partner Raymond Hall was shot in the shoulder by some men who apparently were just trying to scare him. At the hospital where we took him to be treated they did not even ask questions; such wounds were evidently common occurrences. After witnessing in the territory, we came to believe the report that eight deputy sheriffs and about a hundred others were killed the year we were there. However, we were delighted to find two families who responded to the truth. Later one of the sons came to Brooklyn Bethel.
Preaching in the North
During the summer months our farm near Wallkill was my home base from which I would witness in the four counties of the surrounding area. I would take supplies with me and camp out for a week, witnessing in that territory, and then return home on the weekends to attend meetings in Newburgh. In this way I could put in ten-hour days in the preaching work in distant territory. I found it rewarding to make return visits on many interested persons. It gave me great joy when a woman later came to me at a convention and said that the books I had placed with her had started her on the way to life.
The Witnesses were subject to continuous arrests in those years, especially in New Jersey. I was near this action in the summer and would answer the call when a campaign was organized to witness in a trouble spot. Sometimes we would be arrested and then let go by evening, but at other times we would be held for trial. On one occasion, while serving a ten-day sentence, we witnessed to one of the other prisoners who accepted the good news and later became a pioneer Witness.
About this time we began to use extensively in our house-to-house ministry phonograph recordings of short Bible discussions. Portable machines were also being installed on automobiles to create a sound car. I went to the Brooklyn headquarters and had one installed on my car at a cost of $175. On summer evenings I would set up at the head of a valley and the recordings could be heard for a mile or more. I traveled many thousands of miles in the following years with these large horns on the car, reaching many people with the Kingdom message.
A feature of our life during the summer was attending the large conventions. Particularly memorable was the one in 1931 at Columbus, Ohio, where we adopted the Scriptural name Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In the late fall of 1935 we returned from our pioneer assignment in the south to help with work at Brooklyn Bethel. After my working only a few days in the factory, Brother Knorr called me to the office and asked if I would go on the road as a Regional Service Director, visiting the companies (as congregations were then called). “I have never given a talk to a company and know nothing of company organization,” I said.
“Eloquent speakers are not what is needed, just someone who loves the service and will take the lead in it and will talk about service at the meetings,” Brother Knorr explained.
So for the next couple of months I received some training for my new assignment, accompanying Brother Knorr and others on weekend visits to companies. The big task was to organize the companies for the return visit and Bible study work that was then a relatively new activity. I made a visit home one weekend (my last visit for six years), disposed of unnecessary items and prepared for travel. Then, in March 1936, feeling quite inadequate for such an assignment, I started out.
On the Road
My first visit was to Easton, Pennsylvania. I would usually arrive at a place in time for field service in the morning, have a meeting with the servants of the company in the early evening and afterward another with the whole company. Usually I would spend just two days with a company and only one day with a smaller group, at times visiting six such groups a week. I was continually on the move.
During 1936 and 1937 I covered parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. The West was all new and interesting to me—the way of life, the plains, the mountains and the great distances. I visited all the companies in New Mexico in two weeks. By the summer of 1937 I was in Texas. There were no Spanish-speaking regional servants there, so I also visited the Spanish companies, speaking to them through an interpreter.
At one small English company in Texas an 18-year-old girl was acting as the company servant for the group. Her father was expected to die that day, which he did, and they requested that I stay over to conduct the funeral. We went out in field service, had our evening meeting and the next morning I conducted the funeral service. Sad as the occasion was, they were so glad I had come and delivered the talk.
After attending the Columbus, Ohio, convention in September 1937, I spent the winter visiting companies in the northern states of North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. In February 1938 I crossed the mountain range and was pleasantly surprised to find it much warmer and the lawns green along the Pacific coast. Seattle had but one meeting place then, whereas now it has 21 congregations.
In the spring of 1938 a special meeting of companies in the bay area of San Francisco was arranged and it was attended by about 600 Witnesses. It turned out to be a forerunner of the zone assembly (now called circuit assembly). The new arrangement for regular zone (circuit) overseer visits and for zone assemblies began on October 1, 1938.
As a regional servant, I had the responsibility for a zone assembly every week. These meetings for spiritual instruction also provided opportunity for those attending to share in the house-to-house preaching work and for new ones to be baptized. Prior to zone assemblies we baptized new ones at any time or place. I remember baptizing a man in the icy waters of a snow-fed mountain stream in Oregon and on another occasion immersing a man in his barnyard watering trough.
During these zone assemblies we started having information marches. We would carry signs that read on one side “Religion Is a Snare and a Racket,” and on the other, “Serve God and Christ the King.” These attracted much attention and sometimes opposition. Then, in September 1939, World War II began in Europe and opposition to our activity grew.
Mob action broke up our assemblies at Hannibal, Missouri; Columbus, Nebraska; and St. Cloud, Minnesota. At Marinette, Wisconsin, the mayor ordered us out of our assembly hall, but when the police saw we had a legal right to be there, they protected us. On the other hand, the police of Huttonsville, West Virginia, shared in the mob action against us during our assembly in Elkins, and we had them arrested and they had to pay $500 bail. The case was put off a number of times and finally dismissed, but the police there did not interfere with our work again.
I was often in court in connection with such incidents. Sometimes I acted as attorney for the defendant, and in other cases I was the defendant, such as at Quincy, Illinois, where we won the case. Hayden Covington, then the Society’s lawyer, and Fred Franz, now president of the Watch Tower Society, helped us in some cases, such as the one at London, Kentucky, which we also won.
In the court case in Indianapolis, Indiana, involving some 60 Witnesses charged with sedition, Brother Franz and I were on the witness stand during the five-day trial. Although our brothers were found guilty, they were later exonerated by a higher court. The very week of that case I was a defendant in another case in Joliet, Illinois, an attorney for a brother in yet another one in Madison, Indiana, and, in addition, had charge of a zone assembly each weekend. It would take a book to give details of those exciting times.
A real highlight was the five-day St. Louis convention in August 1941. I was called in a couple of weeks beforehand and assigned to work on the trailer camp. After cutting a farmer’s hay crop, we laid out a city for 5,000 in the hay field. But even before the convention began we had 10,000 in the camp, with many cars, trucks and campers lining up on the road to get in. Eventually we had over 15,000 in the camp, where many stayed and heard the program by wire. When the 15,000 children stood up in the main auditorium and received their free copy of the book Children, I handed out free copies of the book to the many children out at the camp.
Kingdom and Watchtower Farms
Soon after the St. Louis convention it became ever more difficult to hold our zone assemblies. So it was decided to discontinue them. I was told to report to Brooklyn Bethel. I had been back only a few days when Brother Rutherford asked me if I would serve at Kingdom Farm near Ithaca, New York. Before leaving for this new assignment I visited my home near Wallkill. Mother had died, and my brothers and sisters were all married. I then drove up to Kingdom Farm where I was assigned to the room in which I lived during the next 28 years.
After more than 13 years of full-time preaching, it was difficult to settle down to farming. But I did and enjoyed many privileges of service in connection with the activities at Kingdom Farm. At the same time, however, I continued to share regularly in the preaching activity during evenings and on the weekends. I conducted Bible studies with many persons, a number of whom came to be baptized Witnesses.
Yet my principal activity now was in connection with work assignments on the farm. I applied myself to the study of animal and plant nutrition, utilizing the nearby Cornell University and its library. Through our efforts we were able to increase farm production. In time we produced most of the food used by the growing Bethel family in Brooklyn, as well as at Kingdom Farm.
A dramatic growth in personnel occurred at the farm on February 1, 1943, when the new Gilead School began operating. Then, every six months, we had a new class of about a hundred students come in from all over the world. What a pleasure it was to become personally acquainted with the some 3,700 students of the 35 classes that received training for missionary work at the farm before Gilead School was moved down to Brooklyn in 1961! During those years we endured much opposition, one mob action and a court case, which we won. Eventually our one small group in the area grew to four congregations.
As Gilead School was concluding operations at Kingdom Farm, the new Kingdom Ministry School for overseers in the congregations was just getting started there. During the next seven years or so we had about 7,000 older men attend the month-long course, which was later reduced to two weeks in length.
In January 1963 the Society took title to property near to where I grew up, at Wallkill, New York. The property was named Watchtower Farms. Over the years the facilities have been enlarged and developed, with even printing factories being added. On January 1, 1970, my assignment was changed to this place, and so I was back in the same area where I had begun witnessing some 45 years before! A few older ones in the community remembered me.
When I arrived at Watchtower Farms, there were 55 members of the family, but now there are well over 750 serving there! Among these are three of my nephews. I also have a niece traveling with her husband in the circuit work. It brings me great joy that more than 30 members of my family are associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses. In November 1974 it was my privilege to be appointed as a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and with that appointment I moved back to the Brooklyn headquarters.
I am so glad that, upon graduation from high school, Jehovah God opened my eyes to the grand purpose in life of serving him. Pursuing that purpose for the past 60 years has truly been rewarding and satisfying. It has brought me close to our heavenly Father and permitted me to see in a very real way his protection and blessing upon his people.
[Picture on page 23]
Behind prison bars for preaching
[Pictures on page 25]
In the 1930’s I used a sound car for witnessing
[Pictures on page 26]
I spent 28 years at Kingdom Farm, the original location of Gilead School
Two of 3,700 that I have seen graduate from Gilead School
[Picture on page 27]
I also served for five years at Watchtower Farms