‘Seek First the Kingdom’—Our Family Goal
By Stan and Jim Woodburn
“THIS message has robbed me of a whole family!” Looking back on close to 50 years now, it is not difficult to understand the chagrin of our church minister. All seven of us Woodburns, brothers and sisters, in quick succession became Jehovah’s Witnesses in Whitehaven, England.
It started when John Woodburn, my eldest brother, purchased two books, one of them The Harp of God, from Ida Eccles, a full-time minister (pioneer) who is still faithfully preaching in Blackpool. John immediately started to attend the Witnesses’ meetings, and in 1936 three of us brothers, John, Tom, and myself, Stan, motored to Glasgow, Scotland, to hear the then president of the Watch Tower Society, J. F. Rutherford, speak on the subject of Armageddon. Although this was our first assembly, we joined the 70 volunteers called for to serve as ushers at Brother Rutherford’s public talk.
Into Full-Time Service—And the War!
In 1937 a zealous 26-year-old brother arrived from Brooklyn headquarters to take over supervision of the London branch office. He was Brother A. D. Schroeder, now a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What a great encouragement he was to us younger ones who wanted to be full-time preachers! Early in 1939 three of us brothers, unattached and free of family responsibilities, accepted the call to pioneer.
The world scene was changing rapidly, and on September 3, 1939, came Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. Pressure was on to stem the preaching work, and soon afterward we had to face the issue of Christian neutrality.
When I was called to face the tribunal as a conscientious objector, the jury of seven upheld my objection, and I was permitted to continue my ministry, much to the outspoken annoyance of the presiding judge. Tom also was exempted from military service. However, John, Jim, and Martin, another of my brothers, were not so fortunate. They all received prison terms.
We all had many thrilling experiences during those war years, and they were not without their amusing side. On one occasion a policeman put his head through the sound-car window to tell me that the villagers had reported that I was broadcasting and receiving messages from the Nazi enemy! But he soon saw for himself that the vehicle contained only a phonograph with amplification equipment, not even a radio receiver!
Jim, meanwhile, had moved south to Birmingham, in the industrial Midlands, where he received good training as a pioneer, visiting business houses while working alongside veteran preacher Albert Lloyd. The city suffered from the constant air raids, and the fine central Kingdom Hall was bombed. But the Kingdom preaching increased, and many congregations were formed in outlying districts.
Time after time, the brothers had good reason to be thankful for protection as they went about the territory giving spiritual comfort to the people. And what a need there was! I can still vividly recall the very morning that war was declared. I was in a small Welsh village at the time, publicly playing the phonograph record “World’s End.” Groups of people quickly gathered and asked me for literature. In no time I had distributed 38 books! Little wonder that from 1939 to 1945 the number of Witnesses in the British Isles almost doubled, to reach a peak of 13,150 by the end of the war.
Parting of the Ways
Shortly after the war ended, I left England to attend the eighth class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in New York, in the United States. Jim and Martin, now appointed as circuit overseers, continued their privileges in the British field. At my graduation in 1947, I was assigned to the British Isles as a district overseer, and for five years I travelled throughout the country, overseeing circuit assemblies almost every weekend. Between us, Jim, Martin, and I covered the whole country during those years.
But there was a parting of the ways for us in 1950 when Jim was called to the 15th class of Gilead. He graduated at the international Theocracy’s Increase Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses on July 30, 1950, with an assignment to serve in Ecuador, South America. He will now tell his part of the story.
Ecuador and the Missionary Field
Missionary life in Ecuador was a challenge. In spite of the difficult climate and different customs, we saw the influx of many new brothers and sisters. But it was not easy. For example, we had no funds to organize the first circuit assembly in Guayaquil. So we missionaries went out in the preaching work and pooled all the contributions we received for the literature placed. That gave us sufficient funds to cover the expenses for that assembly.
In 1959 I had a very happy change of assignment to La Libertad, where another missionary, Frances Kerr, already lived. She had picked up the pioneer spirit from her mother, who had pioneered from the year 1919. Frances and I had known each other for a while, and in 1959 we got married.
There were no Witnesses in La Libertad when the first missionaries arrived there, but in that section there are now three thriving congregations. Things moved quickly, and we had many different assignments, such as in Quito, Ambato, and Manta. During that period, we had the privilege of helping 147 new ones to serve Jehovah, and we were instrumental in strengthening many more.
Sickness and Back to England
After our 20 years of service there, Ecuador had truly become our home, but in 1971 we sadly returned to England since Frances needed specialized medical treatment. Nevertheless, I was determined to carry on in the full-time service and not to go back into secular work. Happily for us, there were many Spanish-speaking people in the Paddington area of London, and eventually we were able to form the first Spanish-speaking congregation in England.
London is always a challenge for Witnesses who desire to preach in the stores, offices, and hotels, where people of all nationalities are met. This was our assignment for six years. We covered a vast area of London, taking in Camden, Chelsea, Kensington, Mill Hill, Paddington, and Stepney. During that period we placed over 7,000 Bibles and Bible study aids. In one hotel the chef assembled the whole kitchen staff in the main dining room, and we were able to give a 15-minute talk. They were Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, and many had never seen a Bible. The response was truly wonderful.
One day, while visiting offices in London’s business centre, I came to a well-known bank and, looking inside, I saw a tall man, well groomed and imposing in appearance. Negatively, I thought he would turn the message down; but I said a short prayer and approached him. Without a word, he walked over to his desk, pulled out a green Bible and a Watchtower and said, “I also am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” It was a lesson for me to remember—do not prejudge people.
Witnessing at Schools
We always had the desire to return to Ecuador, and when Frances was fully restored in health, we were able to do so in 1977. What a joy that was for us! Our first assignment was Santo Domingo de Los Colorados. While there, we started to explore another avenue of activity. One morning while preaching from house to house, we found that most people were not at home. But there were three schools in the territory where there was plenty of activity—why not visit them? We prayed about the matter and then went to the teachers with the two publications Your Youth—Getting the Best out of It and Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? The results were marvellous!
We found that teachers and students alike were very keen to study these two books. One schoolmaster, a Catholic priest, asked for a hundred copies of each to make sure that every student of three classes had a personal copy. In another high school, the director had studied both books and was anxious that the students also should read them. There were over 3,000 students, so we had to go three times to reach all of them in their classrooms. We left over a thousand books there!
At another Catholic school, the principal, a priest from Spain, had read the Evolution book with appreciation, so he gave us permission to visit each classroom and give a brief talk. We placed every publication we had with the students, and we had to return. Then we learned that they had been asked to do research in the Youth book on the chapter dealing with drugs. Apparently drugs were a growing problem in that school. We placed over 400 books on that occasion.
Our next assignment was the city of Ambato, surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Here again, with good results we were able to visit a Catholic training college, as well as several more schools in the district. In one, we visited every classroom and left 438 Youth books. Some of the teachers were so enthusiastic about the book that they did most of the talking for us and read out all the chapter themes to the students. They told the students that they should really get a copy, instead of buying worthless books.
On looking back, we have had the joy of talking to thousands of students and hundreds of teachers, leaving with them over 11,000 Bible study aids. Some of these people lived way back in inaccessible jungle areas where no car can reach. Yes, there is still a great work to be done in Ecuador.
Time has flashed by, and now, following a bout of ill health, we are back in London. For more than four decades Jehovah has backed us up with his holy spirit. What an expression of his undeserved kindness that we have been able to use our lives in his service, from our youth on! (Ecclesiastes 12:1) But now, let Stan tell you the rest of the story.
Preaching in Ireland
In 1949 there was much opposition to the witness work in Ireland, which was then under the care of the Watch Tower Society’s London office. As a result of our open-air Bible talks, the presiding minister of the Northern Ireland Baptist Church challenged Jehovah’s Witnesses to a debate on “The Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Society asked me as district overseer to take on this assignment. It was to be held in Portadown, where a small congregation was active.
The night of the debate saw the Town Hall packed to the doors. It appeared that the Baptists had hired it some hours previously for a prayer meeting. With a thousand people present from all over the area and some 70 clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses were outnumbered. The Baptist pastor only engaged in sentimental religious emotion, trying to whip the crowd into opposition. After two hours of debate, he refused to explain 1 Peter 3:18 and other texts that prove that Jesus was raised a spirit.
Finally, when I reminded them of Gamaliel’s advice at Acts 5:34-39, that they might be fighting against God, the pastor lost his temper and cried out, “Shut your doors on them! It’s not wrong to shut your doors on the Devil!” However, several in the audience could see who had the truth. Some of his flock resigned, and that weekend the small Portadown Congregation went out to the people and placed more literature than in all the previous six months! Now there is a large congregation there with a fine Kingdom Hall and many congregations in other nearby towns.
Maintaining the Pioneer Spirit
In 1952 I married Joyce Cattell, a member of the London Bethel family, and in 1957 we had the joyful surprise of a daughter, Jane. This event brought a change in our pattern of life. Reluctantly, I went out to find secular work. But in spite of this we still kept the Kingdom first in our lives and experienced the proof of David’s expression in a favourite psalm: “I have placed Jehovah in front of me constantly. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be made to totter.”—Psalm 16:8.
During the ensuing years, we moved to several areas, serving where the need was greater and sharing in auxiliary pioneer service from time to time. Brothers kindly helped with jobs, but I resisted the temptation to make the pursuit of material riches my principal goal in life. Necessary work for providing needed accommodations was available as I searched for them. I am so happy that I retained this pioneer spirit.
To South Africa, Ireland, and Back to Britain
Having served in many locations throughout the British Isles, including the remote Outer Hebrides, we moved to South Africa in the late ‘60’s. There we worked among the coloured population and were happy to share in the increase of a small group of 5 Witnesses, which grew to 61. (1 Corinthians 3:6-9) For health reasons we returned to Northern Ireland in 1974, where we served along the border area amid terrorist activity.
During a trip over the border in 1975 while delivering some goods in my part-time work, I was stopped on the road by three hooded terrorists who ordered me to get out of my car. Questioned as to who I was and what I was doing, I quickly stated, “I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” After making certain that I was not a spy for the English cause, they released me, and I went on my way, grateful for Jehovah’s protection.—Proverbs 18:10.
In 1977 we returned to England. Then, what a joyous privilege we received. At the age of 62 I was invited back into circuit work! By this time our 20-year-old daughter, Jane, was a regular pioneer and well able to look after herself. So we sold the few possessions we had, and after two years in the circuit ministry, I again had the responsibility of serving in the district work, overseeing the assemblies at the Manchester Assembly Hall in the north of England. Truly, Psalm 16 was again being experienced, as Ps 16 verse 6 so beautifully reads: “The measuring lines themselves have fallen for me in pleasant places. Really, my own possession has proved agreeable to me.”
Now we are happily serving in circuit work in areas I served years ago. But, oh, the difference! Yes, we meet the faithful older brothers we knew then, but expansion of the Kingdom work has brought hundreds more along and many more congregations.
Although three of the original seven of the Woodburn family have now died, the rest of us—Beth, 80 years old, and Tom, now 78, along with Jim and me—continue to serve Jehovah. My brother Martin finished his course faithfully in 1973 after 34 years preaching full time, and Marie, his widow, is still active in Glasgow, Scotland.
What a privileged family we have been! Counting all the children and grandchildren, 35 of us dedicated our lives to Jehovah. The love and kindness of many dear brothers, along with the protective love and blessings of Jehovah himself, have proved to all of us that “seeking first the kingdom” is the truly safe and wise course for our day.—Matthew 6:33.
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Stan, Jim, and Martin Woodburn all in full-time service in 1950
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Jim and Frances Woodburn served as missionaries in Ecuador
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Stan Woodburn serves in full-time circuit work in England, accompanied by his wife, Joyce