‘Preaching in Favourable Season and in Troublesome Season’
As told by Harold E. Gill
THE Australian outback beckoned me when I was a lad of 19. The first world war had left England economically depressed. Millions, including me, could find no work. One morning my father showed me a newspaper notice of a government plan to help youths emigrate to Queensland, Australia. So 25 of us sailed from London in 1922.
My first job was in a vineyard. But after a few months I moved to a large property that was being cleared to grow wheat. There I learned many things: how to milk cows, to use an axe and a crosscut saw, to tell time by the sun to within ten minutes, to kill a poisonous snake safely, to plow with a team of horses, to build fences, to make a tree fall where you want it, and to do many other jobs that are part of life in outback Australia.
There I experienced a plague of grasshoppers too. They were so dense that truck drivers had to fix chains to the wheels to get up the hills. Another time there were thousands of mice doing enormous damage in the barn. Yet a week later they moved on just as suddenly as they came. And I lived through the heartrending horror of a drought, with sheep—thousands of them—lying dead everywhere.
In 1927 I leased virgin land near Gympie, southern Queensland, cleared it, and planted bananas. My neighbours, Tom and Alec Dobson, were Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were called in those days. One day I mentioned that I was going to Brisbane, the state capital, for a short visit. They invited me to call on their parents. That I did, spending the whole day discussing the Bible with their father. What struck me was the simplicity of the Bible’s great recurring theme—the Kingdom of God. I also liked the name “International Bible Students.” It painted a picture of an international family, all students of the Bible, all worshipping God harmoniously. When I returned to the bananas, I had with me J. F. Rutherford’s book Creation. Upon reading it, I at last found answers to many of my questions and therefore sent for more literature.
The more I read, the more I wanted to tell others about the Kingdom. As secretary of the social and cricket clubs for the area, I had many friends and felt sure that they, too, would be enthusiastic about the truths I was learning. So I bought an old motorbike to get around. To my great surprise, however, I found that what was thrilling to me left them cold. They thought I was crazy. I suppose I was a bit too insistent, but I was just so full of what I was learning!
It was obvious that I needed training and instruction from the Bible Students. So I sold the banana plantation and joined a congregation in Brisbane. Six months later, on April 2, 1928, I was baptized. Then I took another farming job. But as the months rolled by I became increasingly restless. The outback life I had so much enjoyed no longer satisfied me. A desire to spend my time and energy in another kind of harvest was growing strongly within me. The apostle Paul’s counsel to Timothy impressed me: “Preach the word, be at it urgently in favorable season, in troublesome season . . . Do the work of an evangelizer.”—2 Timothy 4:2, 5.
Keen to get going, I wrote to the Watch Tower Society in Sydney requesting appointment to the spiritual harvest as a full-time minister, a pioneer. They accepted my application and in 1929 assigned me to Toowoomba, southern Queensland.
Preaching in the Outback
A few months later, I received a letter from the Society telling me of a motorized caravan (van) for sale and suggesting that if I bought it, George Schuett could join me. And that is what happened. George was in his 60’s and had been a lifelong student of the Bible. I was still in my 20’s and very inexperienced. His help, counsel, and Bible knowledge were of inestimable value to me, though I am sure I sorely tried his patience many times.
Our territory was 100,000 square miles (260,000 sq km) of far western Queensland. We covered it three times. The towns were small and far apart. Even sheep and cattle stations (ranches) were 60 to 70 miles (95 to 115 km) from one another. These isolated people eagerly took the sets of ten hardbound books that we offered for a contribution of only 10 shillings (about $2, U.S.). As they were most hospitable, we were never without a meal and a bunk for the night.
In the outback, roads were just tracks. All year round we carried wheel chains to cope with mud, wire netting for sand, and a winch to haul us out of trouble. On one occasion a flood marooned us for a week. Food and water ran very low, but we survived. Another time we were driving along a rough bush track in the vicinity of a bushfire. Suddenly we realized that the wind had changed and the fire was veering toward us. The track was so narrow we could not turn. All we could do was offer a prayer and step on the gas. We escaped by a whisker. I still shudder when I think of how close we came to disaster.
At the Australian Headquarters
In 1931 Alex MacGillivray, the branch overseer, invited me to join the Bethel family in Sydney. I was delighted, though a bit overawed. At that time the Society’s Australian branch office was responsible for the preaching of the good news in China, most lands of the Far East, and the isles of the South Pacific—a region spreading over a quarter of the globe. Brother J. F. Rutherford, then the Society’s president, was eager that those areas be penetrated by the “good news.” (Matthew 24:14) Brother Mac, as we all called the branch overseer, was equally keen about this. When I entered Bethel, I never dreamed that I would soon be going to some of those very places myself.
Missionary work always involves putting up with hardships. But in those pre-World War II days there was no Gilead School for training missionaries, and there were no missionary homes. Communications were slow, emphasizing the isolation. Nor was there any financial support other than the meagre contributions for literature, which, through the generosity of the brothers, the Society provided at well below cost. Those who responded to the call for evangelizers had to be trailblazers, pioneers in the fullest sense. The work meant going, usually in pairs, to the teeming cities of the East or the isolated islands of the Pacific, there to plant seeds of Bible truth in virgin soil. We had to cope with totally different beliefs, languages, and ways of life, and this called for complete trust in and loyalty to Jehovah.
To New Zealand
My first overseas assignment was to New Zealand in 1932. I was to pay particular attention to the organizing of the preaching work, especially the pioneer service. So, in addition to visiting congregations, I worked in the field with the pioneers. Some of them had formed travelling groups, equipped with camping gear and vehicles, including the trusty old bike. I served for some time with such a group in the South Island.
On one occasion we hired the Civic Theatre in Christchurch to present a recorded lecture by Brother Rutherford. A young man, Jim Tait, came and manifested keen interest. I met him again the following evening and was so impressed with his enthusiasm that I suggested he consider joining us in the pioneer group. How premature such an invitation would be today, for he had not yet been baptized! But home he went, packed his few things on his bike, took leave of his parents, and joined our happy band. To this day he remains a stalwart Witness. Those were ‘favourable seasons’ indeed.
The Far East
In 1936 I returned to Australia to be briefed for a trip to Batavia (now Djakarta) and Singapore. I was to recommend which city was more suitable for an office to provide closer contact with our missionaries in the Far East. I chose Singapore as a better hub and stayed there to run the office and preach in the city. Jehovah blessed the work, and within 18 months the Singapore congregation was established.
Later the Society’s 52-foot (16-m) ketch Lightbearer was based in Singapore. Its crew of ministers visited and preached in many ports of what are now Indonesia and Malaysia. One of my jobs was to keep them supplied with literature. I recall that in 1936 alone, they distributed 10,500 publications in ten languages.
Islands of the Pacific
In July 1937 I was recalled to Sydney and sent to Fiji. Since our literature was banned there, we concentrated on preaching by sound car, using a Fijian translation of Brother Rutherford’s lectures made by Ted Heatley, a part Fijian. He accompanied me in order to do the talking over the loudspeaker. We went to every village on Viti Levu (Big Fiji), the main island, and were well received. Additionally, we helped to strengthen the small group in Suva and to expand the house-to-house preaching work.
In 1938 Brother Rutherford visited Australia and New Zealand on a tremendous wave of publicity. Although much of it was hostile, it served only to arouse curiosity. I went to New Zealand to arrange his visit there. As I drove him to the Auckland Town Hall for the meeting, I drew his attention to a newspaper placard bearing a distortion of the title of a lecture he had given years earlier. The placard read, “Millions now living would rather die than listen to Judge Rutherford.” He laughed heartily. It was all good publicity. The Town Hall was packed out.
Back to Fiji
One day in 1940 I was working in the Sydney office when Brother Mac asked me, “Is your passport all right?” I told him it was. “There is a boat sailing for Fiji in three days. I want you to go there and challenge the government in the courts over the banning of our literature.” At that, I packed a carton of the offending literature and returned to Fiji. The recommended solicitor was fearful, so I dropped him and found another not quite so afraid. He said he would prepare the case but would not present it in court. As a result, I found myself conducting the case with the Attorney General as my opponent. As it turned out, we lost on a timing technicality due to the dithering of the first solicitor.
After that setback, I requested an appointment with the Governor, Sir Harry Charles Luke, which he granted. Present with the Governor were the Chief of Police and another official. I entreated Jehovah to be with me. In presenting our case, I provided evidence showing that the Roman Catholic Church was chiefly responsible for the ban. At the end of the discussion, the Governor came over to me, handed back the banned books I had produced in evidence, and quietly said: “You know, Mr. Gill, I am not quite so ignorant of the machinations of the Roman Catholic hierarchy as you think I am. My advice to you is to carry on your evangelical work.” I thanked him and went off to cable Sydney for a shipment of literature.
Next I was sent to American Samoa. During my three months there, I stayed with High Chief Taliu Taffa, chief government interpreter and a highly respected man. His niece, a Witness in Fiji, had sent word ahead. So his smiling face greeted me as the boat docked. Throughout my stay, he was most hospitable. Of course, his household lived on the native diet, mostly raw fish and yams. The Samoans thrived on it, but after a while it became too much for me. I broke out in a rash of boils and became ravenous for European food, but I just did not have the money to buy any. Well, by then I was used to surviving ‘troublesome seasons.’
My task in American Samoa was to distribute 3,500 copies of the newly translated booklet Where Are the Dead? On arrival, I paid a courtesy call on the Governor to acquaint him with the booklet and to give him a copy. He thought there was already enough religious representation on the island—the navy’s padre, the London Missionary Society, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Roman Catholics. However, he suggested that I present a booklet to each of them and have them advise the Attorney General whether they thought it suitable for distribution. The padre was sarcastic but not hostile. The Adventists cared not what I did as long as I took none of their flock. The Missionary Society parson was affable once we got onto common ground—the papacy. I never did get to see the Catholic priest because a curious thing happened.
I had given a copy of the booklet to the Samoan policeman who had escorted me to the Governor. When I saw the policeman a few days later, I asked if he enjoyed it. He said: “My boss [the Attorney General] said to me, ‘You go see your priest and ask him if this good book.’ I get under tree and read book. I say, ‘This very good book, but if I show priest, he say, “No good book.”’ I say to my boss, ‘Boss, my priest say, “Very good book.”’”
Later, while I was witnessing along the harbour front, the Attorney General came over and invited me to his office. There I outlined the booklet’s message as he looked through it. Then he picked up the phone and ordered its release. The season had become very ‘favourable’ indeed! I bought a bike and set about distributing the booklets. In three months I had distributed all but one carton of 350 booklets.
These remaining booklets I took to Western Samoa, a few hours away by boat. Word must have gone ahead though, for on my arrival a policeman told me that I was not allowed ashore. I produced my passport and read to him the rather glorious preamble that requests all concerned to allow His Britannic Majesty’s subject “to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him every assistance and protection.” That gained me an interview with the Governor, who allowed me to stay until the next boat sailed in five days. I hired a bike and toured the island, leaving the booklets far and wide.
Then it was back to American Samoa. The war was raging in the Pacific, with patriotic feelings running high. Since the authorities could not understand our strictly neutral stand, they banned us in many places. (John 15:19) However, they politely asked me to leave Samoa, and I returned to Australia.
Back to New Zealand
By that time a “troublesome season” had come the way of my brothers in New Zealand. That was my next assignment. But in October 1940, not long after I arrived, our work was banned there too. Many letters and telegrams to the government brought no response. Included was this telegram that we sent to the Attorney General: “DOES YOUR GOVERNMENT DENY US THE RIGHT AS CHRISTIANS TO ASSEMBLE AND WORSHIP GOD WITH SONG, PRAYER, SCRIPTURE STUDY? PLEASE ANSWER YES OR NO.”
The following day the Prime Minister’s secretary phoned to offer us an interview, which Brother Robert Lazenby and I accepted. With the Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, were the Attorney General and a high police official. They were pleasant and courteous but gave us the impression that their hands were tied. However, on May 8, 1941, the government amended the ban so as to permit our meetings, although we had been holding them all along in small groups in private homes. We could also preach unhindered as long as we did not distribute our literature. Later, in March 1945, while the war in the Pacific was still hot, the ban was completely withdrawn.
Return to England
I returned to Sydney in 1941. By that time we were banned in Australia too. After some discussion, Brother Mac agreed that I should go to London to see if anything could be done there about the bans. I sailed on October 2, 1941. But due to the hazards of war, I did not reach Liverpool until December 22, nearly three months later.
In London I tried to get an interview with Lord Alexander, first Lord of the Admiralty and a friend of my father. But in the heat of war that was not possible. In fact, London viewed our problems as the sole business of the governments concerned.
After a trip to the Society’s headquarters in New York, I returned to England and obtained passage for Australia. My baggage was searched and sealed in London and I went to the ship. Brothers with whom I stayed gave me a few presents for the journey, which I put in my overnight bag. When I was going aboard, a customs officer asked, “Why are these not sealed?” My simple explanation did not satisfy them; so they arrested me, stripped me, and, though they found nothing incriminating, charged me with attempt to evade inspection. I spent a month in Walton prison. To this day I am quite sure I was framed to prevent my return to Australia.
After that it was impossible to get passage. So I settled in England. First I enjoyed a fruitful ministry in Alfreton, Derbyshire. Later I visited congregations as a circuit overseer. Then I went to Malta to serve where the need was very great. Now I am back in Sheffield, the city I left as a lad 62 years ago. It is my privilege to serve as secretary of the Ecclesall Congregation, one of 15 in the city. And during these later years, I have enjoyed the fine support of my wife, Joan, one of a family with whom I studied 35 years ago.
I can now look back over a half century of service as an evangelizer, both ‘in favourable season and in troublesome season.’ How I have prized the twin qualities of trust and loyalty! Yes, trust in Jehovah, whatever the circumstances. Trust that he and his vast army of angels are with us. Never do we stand alone.
And remain loyal. Maintain loyalty not only to Jehovah and Jesus Christ but also to God’s earthly organization that nurtures and cherishes us. To be sure, our loyalty does get put to the test through adjustments within the organization, through trouble brought upon us, or through that which comes from our own foolishness. But the precious qualities of loyalty and trust will see us through—through ‘favourable season and troublesome season’ too.
[Picture on page 26]
Pioneering the outback, Queensland, Australia
[Picture on page 28]
With crew of Lightbearer—Singapore
[Picture on page 29]
My Samoan host, High Chief Taliu Taffa