Spread of Kingdom Truth in Guyana
GUYANA is located on the north coast of South America, nestled between Suriname on the east, Venezuela on the west and Brazil on the south. Until it became an independent nation in 1966, Guyana was known as British Guiana. The country is nearly the size of the state of Idaho in the United States, although its population of 800,000 is considerably smaller.
East Indians make up a little more than half the total population. Their ancestors were brought from India to work on plantations. Another 40 percent or so of the population are blacks whose ancestors were brought from Africa as slaves. The rest of the people are descendants of the Indians who lived here when European explorers arrived in the 1500’s, along with a sprinkling of Chinese, Portuguese and people of other nationalities. English is the official language, but most of the people also speak a local language.
Kingdom Truth Reaches Guyana
Back around the turn of the century, Kingdom truth reached a logging camp at Orealla on the Courantyne River. There a Peter Johassen came into possession of a copy of The Watchtower and shared its contents with a Mr. Elgin, who wrote to Brooklyn, New York, for more Bible literature. Although Elgin did not hold fast to the Kingdom truths he had learned, he interested others in them in the town of New Amsterdam. The small group established there is now a thriving congregation of about 110 publishers, and other congregations in nearby towns have grown out of this original group.
Meanwhile, in the capital city of Georgetown, Edward Phillips obtained Bible literature and gathered relatives and friends at his home for regular Bible discussions. In 1908 he wrote the Watch Tower Society and requested that a representative of the organization be sent to visit the country. Four years later E. J. Coward arrived and delivered talks to hundreds of persons at the Town Halls in Georgetown and New Amsterdam. Soon others began to join the small groups of Bible Students.
In time, the home where the group met for Bible study in Georgetown was no longer large enough. So a room at Sommerset House was rented, and it served as the congregation’s meeting place for 45 years, from 1913 until 1958. In 1914, the year World War I began, a branch office of the Watch Tower Society was established. It was housed in the home of Brother Phillips.
When the nations became locked in world war, British Guiana was gripped by war hysteria since it was then part of the British Empire. The clergy urged that prayers be said for the British and their allies. By 1917 Brother Coward had returned to the country, and in a letter to the press he reviewed the world situation in the light of Bible prophecy. At the Town Hall in Georgetown, he also made a forceful presentation entitled “Battering Down the Walls of Babylon.”
The clergy were so incensed that they prevailed upon the authorities to have Brother Coward expelled and to have a number of our publications banned, a ban that lasted until 1922. He was well respected and, as he departed, many lined the wharf shouting: “He was the only man preaching the truth.” Stevedores threatened to strike in protest, but the Bible Students (now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) advised them not to.
In the years following the first world war, the spread of Kingdom truth was further hindered by the influence of P. S. L. Johnson, a former member of the Brooklyn headquarters staff who had apostatized from the truth. He visited British Guiana a number of times. For a while the Bible Students in the country were split into three parts, one loyal to the organization, an opposition group and a third group not knowing what to do. However, Jehovah’s blessing was only upon the loyal group and it eventually prospered.
Among those who remained firm in loyally spreading Kingdom truth is Felix Powlett, now 90 years of age. He was baptized in 1916 and still serves as an elder with the Newtown-Kitty Congregation in Georgetown. There is also Malcolm Hall, now 92, who was baptized in 1915. He has served as a pioneer minister for the past 31 years on Leguan Island on the Essequibo River.
World War II and Postwar Activity
The second world war also had an effect upon the spread of Kingdom truth. In 1941, when 52 Kingdom proclaimers were active, The Watchtower and Consolation (now called Awake!) were banned. In 1944 that ban was extended to include all literature published by the Watch Tower Society. Yet, despite the opposition, the Kingdom preaching continued.
Early in 1946, less than a year after the end of the war, a petition campaign was launched during which 31,370 signatures were obtained protesting the government’s action against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then, in April, the Watch Tower Society’s president N. H. Knorr visited British Guiana and met with the Colonial secretary to seek relief from the ban. Finally, on June 12, 1946, the ban was lifted.
During the following ten weeks the 70 Kingdom publishers in the country showed their joy by distributing 11,798 books and booklets that had been banned for two years. They spent a total of 20,547 hours in distributing the Kingdom truths this literature contained. When street witnessing work was begun here for the first time in August 1946, magazines were placed almost as quickly as local newspapers were sold. And in 1946 Gilead missionary William Tracy arrived to help in the preaching work.
Reaching Outlying Areas
Georgetown and New Amsterdam cover only 2,299 acres (930 ha)—less than four square miles. Yet they have 27 percent of Guyana’s population. Even in the early years the publishers sought to reach outlying areas with the Kingdom message. When Brother W. Tracy arrived, there were only three congregations in the country. He notes: “I scouted out the land, making a number of trips up and down the coast and up the rivers to contact isolated interested persons and to find new interest. I traveled by the coastal train, buses, bicycle, large riverboats, small boats and even canoes.”
Another Gilead missionary, John Ponting, who became branch servant in 1950, tells about working territory along the banks of Guyana’s many rivers. “We would take the regular transport ships. When villagers along the way paddled out in their canoes to exchange mail with this traveling post office, we requested from them a lift and went ashore, trusting that someone would provide us food and lodging. We would witness in the village, and then at night a place to sleep was always provided. The next day someone would paddle us down the river and we would spread the Kingdom message in the next village. Visiting a lumber mill one afternoon, the manager stopped work and assembled the men for a 15-minute talk, and all took literature.”
By 1951 there was an average of 279 each month spreading Kingdom truth, four times as many as just five years before! In more recent years the brothers have used their own boats, Kingdom Proclaimer I and Kingdom Proclaimer II, to reach settlements along the rivers and canals. There are dangers in connection with this work, as Frederick McAlman, a native Witness who graduated from Gilead in 1970, relates:
“On my way home from witnessing on the Pomeroon River one Saturday afternoon, a large cargo boat cruising at full speed collided with me. The captain and crew were not paying attention because of a rum-drinking spree. I was knocked out of Kingdom Proclaimer I into the river under the boat. I went down, fighting for dear life in the darkness, continually bouncing my head on the bottom of the boat just a few inches from the powerful propeller. A young man on the boat, seeing my plight, plunged into the river and rescued me. For several weeks I was in constant pain due to injuries, but I was grateful to be alive!”
That experience, however, did not deter Brother McAlman. He explains: “I was determined to keep on because of the interest in the Bible shown by persons along the river. Seven miles [11 km] from Charity at Sirika is a Congregation Book Study group and they depend on me.”
Overcoming Various Obstacles
When Gilead graduate Joy Strom came in 1959, the number of Kingdom publishers in British Guiana had increased to 603. She continues to spread the good news in her assignment despite being in bed, a victim of multiple sclerosis. Her Bible students come to her home for instruction. Last year Joy devoted 365 hours to the ministry and conducted a monthly average of three Bible studies. She explains happily: “I was able to attend the ‘Kingdom Truth’ District Convention. Lying in a van parked in front of the platform I could see the dramas, hear the talks and speak to the brothers who came to see me.”
A common obstacle in Guyana is that many couples are not legally married, and so when they learn Kingdom truths they need to make adjustments in their lives to conform to Bible standards. This was the situation with Gordon Chase. Back in 1971 he ordered “Make Sure of All Things; Hold Fast to What Is Fine.” Instead of mailing it, James Thompson, who worked at the branch, delivered it personally. Thompson made several calls trying, unsuccessfully, to get a study going. Eventually contact was lost.
Yet the Bible knowledge had an effect. Gordon had the union with his companion legalized, and he stopped eating black pudding, a local delicacy made from blood. Years later, in 1979, he accepted an invitation to a Bible talk where the speaker was James Thompson. “I hid in the back seat of the hall,” Gordon relates. “I didn’t want him to see me, but he did. After the meeting he came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘When are you ready to start your Bible study?’ (as though he was sure I was going to start.) So I said: ‘Saturday.’ The following Saturday he came, and my wife joined us in the study.”
Gordon started in the field ministry in August 1979, was baptized along with his wife that November, began auxiliary pioneering the following June, and in September 1982 started regular pioneering. It is a pleasure to see so many now demonstrating this type of response to Kingdom truth.
Although the Kingdom work began at the turn of the century, no congregation had its own Kingdom Hall until 1958. In 1969 a second one was added, and for the last 13 years there has been, on the average, one new Kingdom Hall erected each year. And others are in the process of being built.
Future prospects for expansion are bright. This past March saw 3,874 persons in attendance at the Memorial celebration. Last year 2,505 attended the “Kingdom Truth” District Convention. And there were 1,235 persons at a recent circuit assembly, although only 709 publishers are in the circuit. Some congregations report almost double the number of their publishers attending Sunday meetings. A good many youths have their sights on the pioneer service.
The Kingdom truth that first found its way to a logging camp has spread to 34 locations in Guyana. The 29 congregations and 6 isolated groups are divided into 2 circuits. And about 140 of the more than 1,100 publishers who share in the preaching activity each month do so as pioneers. There are still obstacles to the spread of Kingdom truth in this land, but with Jehovah’s continued blessing we look forward to a period of unparalleled expansion in the future.
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[Picture on page 25]
Fred Phillips (son of Edward Phillips), Nathan Knorr and William Tracy in 1946