My Generation—Unique and Highly Privileged!
As told by Melvin Sargent
MANY young people today have been born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But in 1896 this was a rare privilege indeed. From infancy, I was taught by Mother to fear Jehovah properly and to appreciate the ransom sacrifice made by his Son. So I belong to a unique and highly privileged generation—old enough to have seen the beginning of the sign of Christ’s presence in 1914 and yet possibly still young enough to live to see its completion at Armageddon.—Matthew 24:3, 33, 34.
Off to a Fine Start With TLC
As a child, I was given what is called the TLC treatment, Tender Loving Care. Yet at times that care could be displayed in ways some today might consider severe. I remember that once Mother overheard me playing with an older boy who suddenly began using words quite new to me. “Those are bad words that you must never use,” she told me, impressing it upon me with more than just words! But I realized that her discipline was an expression of tender loving care, and I remember wondering why Jimmie’s mother had not disciplined him. Did she not really love him enough?
We were the only Witness family in Jewell County, Kansas. Father was not a dedicated servant of Jehovah, but he obligingly conducted a Bible study with us children. My sister Eva was the oldest, and Walter was 16 months older than I. Every evening we were expected to share in washing the dishes. But Walter often found excuses and begged off. Eva and I, however, used this chore as a daily opportunity to talk about Bible truths, so it was a blessing in disguise. Later I came to appreciate that people who shirk responsibilities in life miss out on many blessings. This happened to Walter, who later turned away from the truth.
Our TLC treatment led to fine results on August 4, 1912. Eva and I got up before dawn and traveled ten miles (16 km) by horse and buggy to catch the early train to Jamestown, Kansas. A pilgrim, the designation of traveling Bible Students, was visiting there, and this was to be our first meeting with Bible Students outside our own home. It was also the day of our baptism.
Although only 16, I asked the pilgrim brother if I could take up the full-time ministry, then called colporteur work. He encouraged me to write the Watch Tower Society. Since I was still needed at home, however, this had to be delayed. Meanwhile, I used my spare time regularly helping the Jamestown Bible Students distribute tracts throughout some 75 surrounding cities and towns.
I also witnessed at other times. Once when our landlady came to town on business and stayed with us a few days, I gave her a tract. This must have impressed her. But after she returned home to Iowa, it was 30 years before I saw her again. She had become an Adventist and was not interested in ‘my religion.’ She had an estate that needed to be cared for, however, and knowing of no “truly Christian man” in her religion in whom she had confidence, she turned to me. The fee she paid me helped keep me in the full-time ministry for several years. What a confirmation of Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Send out your bread upon the surface of the waters, for in the course of many days you will find it again.” Or of what Jesus once said: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”—Matthew 6:33.
I attended my first convention in 1913. I was impressed to see 41 new ones baptized, and I was also encouraged to think that with my head start (I had been baptized for ten months), I might have some hope of being able to develop a “Christlike character” by 1914, in order to make my ‘calling and election’ sure. I was also impressed at seeing so many red and yellow ribbons. Colporteurs who were looking for partners wore red ones, and anyone wanting to team up with them wore a yellow one.
For me, a highlight of the 1914 convention was seeing the Photo-Drama of Creation and getting a closer look at Brother Russell. He had a warm way about him and showed a real desire to impart encouraging information to his listeners. He was sympathetic and willing to listen to those who came to him with problems. But he was not too big for an occasional teenager’s horseplay. One evening as I was handing out scenarios of the Photo-Drama program, he hurried past. I offered him a copy, pretending not to recognize him. At first he went by, but then he turned and with a laugh thanked me, letting me know he had caught the joke.
Finally in 1917, at 21, I was able to take up the colporteur work. World War I had already been in progress nearly three years. With a suitcase in hand, lots of books, and $30.00 in my pocket, I headed for Nebraska with my partner, Ernest Leuba, an older experienced colporteur. We had both positive and negative experiences. I remember, for example, when we once decided to use a hurry-up method of placing books. We had cards printed that offered people a free two-day examination of the book The Finished Mystery, with the privilege of obtaining it for 60 cents upon our return. One morning we each loaned out ten books in this fashion. Two days later, I was able to place seven of mine, whereas Brother Leuba, who had worked in an overwhelmingly Catholic neighborhood, placed only one. In order to retrieve one of the books he had loaned out, he had to go to the local Catholic priest to whom it had been passed. So we soon decided that our hurry-up method was really not as good as spending more time talking to the people.
Of course, we had very little money, which meant that we at times were quite ingenious in thinking up ways to be economical. So when we later moved to a new assignment in Boulder, Colorado, we bought a ticket to the nearest station beyond the state line. Then we got off the train and bought another ticket for the rest of the trip on the next train. Why? Because fares within a state were two cents a mile, but interstate rates were higher. Besides saving money, we were able to spend our time during the stopover doing informal witnessing.
Wartime Problems and a New Beginning
By now it was 1918, and the United States was well embroiled in the war. A storm of opposition openly began against the Bible Students, identifying those who were fearful and those who were not. Some brothers of draft age, although conscientious objectors, agreed to perform noncombatant military service.
When I registered, I claimed exemption as a minister. My arguments, I thought, were well based, and my induction was delayed while my case was sent to the appeal board. They thought otherwise and rejected my claim. This delay, however, helped keep me out of prison because by now it was harvesttime, and I was deferred until this essential work on my parents’ farm could be finished. Finally my induction was set for November 15. The war ended November 11. I had missed prison by only four days.
Others who fearlessly came out in support of Christian neutrality did not fare as well. At a convention in Denver, I met one of them. Explaining why he was bald, the brother told of being tied to a tree by a fanatical mob that had poured hot tar over him. “The women in the group,” he said, “were the worst.” He had shaved his hair off to get rid of the tar. Then he broke into a broad smile and said of his experience: “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
Because of their uncompromising stand, some of the officials of the Watch Tower Society were wrongly imprisoned. But in 1919, while still in prison, they were reelected to their positions in the Society, despite an attempt by apostates to replace them. The faithful brothers accepted this as an indication of Jehovah’s approval. Full of joy, encouraged by a fresh flow of holy spirit, they were now more determined than ever before to take up the Kingdom-preaching work anew and to expose the clergy for their hypocritical failure to support God’s Kingdom. A complete break with Babylon had begun.
On February 24, 1918, in Los Angeles, California, after the United States got involved in World War I on April 6, 1917, Brother Rutherford delivered for the first time the thrilling talk “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.”
Important Changes Over the Years
For seven years Lydia Tannahill and I had maintained a friendship mainly by correspondence. After prayerful consideration, we decided in 1921 it would be best for us to take advantage of Paul’s concession when advising singleness, namely, that he who “gives his virginity in marriage does well.” (1 Corinthians 7:38) Our marriage was a gift from Jehovah and caused our hearts to rejoice. Before long, however, we were faced with a crisis. Travel had caused an old back injury of Lydia’s to become acute, and my heart, though loyal and loving, was slow, “a tired heart” the doctors called it. This gave way to anemia. Both of us were running out of strength. We were advised to change climate and to limit our daily travels. Our mobile home was ideal for helping us follow this counsel, and so we spent September 1923 on the road to California.
Belonging to the highly privileged generation that I do, I have been allowed to see how Jehovah’s visible organization has developed over the years. I was there when Los Angeles was first laid out in individual preaching territories, when Sunday witnessing began, and when we received our new name, Jehovah’s Witnesses, in 1931. What a thrill to see adjustments made in 1932 and 1938 that ensured the theocratic, rather than the democratic, appointment of elders. And it has been a joy to see unclear issues and questions, like those of neutrality and the sanctity of blood, clarified.
Although I had dropped out of the colporteur work in 1923, I had always maintained a pioneer spirit. So in 1943 I was able to rejoin the fast-growing ranks of pioneers. In 1945 I was even privileged to become a special pioneer, serving nine years in that capacity until my “tired heart” once again caught up with me. Since 1954 I have served as a regular pioneer.
My marriage to Lydia lasted 48 years until in 1969 she moved on to a new assignment, an inheritance for her “reserved in the heavens,” an assignment I, too, hope to receive in due time. (1 Peter 1:4) Although we were never blessed with children, we were blessed with what many considered to be an ideal marriage. Though my loss was great, keeping busy with theocratic interests helped me overcome it. Later I married an experienced pioneer I had known for many years, Evamae Bell. We enjoyed 13 years of companionship until she, too, passed away.
My Generation—Unique in a Special Way
I have sometimes been asked: “What has been your greatest experience in the truth?” Without hesitation I answer: “Seeing fulfilled within my generation the Bible prophecies set down by inspired and dedicated men centuries ago.”
Members of my generation outside the theocratic organization, of course, have turned out to be exactly the way the Photo-Drama of Creation of 1914 said they would be: money-mad, pleasure-mad, and glory-mad. Those of us inside the Lord’s organization have tried, in every way possible, to turn their attention to the message of life. We have used slogans, full-page advertisements, radio, sound cars, portable phonographs, gigantic conventions, parades of information-walkers carrying signs, and a growing army of house-to-house ministers. This activity has served to divide people—those in favor of God’s established Kingdom on the one side, those against it on the other. This was the work foretold by Jesus for my generation!—Matthew 25:31-46.
Until this “tired heart” of mine beats its last, it will continue to beat in appreciation for the privilege I have enjoyed of belonging to a unique generation. It will continue to beat in excitement over the privilege I now have of seeing millions of smiling faces that are destined to keep on smiling forever.
[Picture on page 23]
Melvin and Lydia Sargent, colporteurs, 1921
[Picture on page 24]
Melvin and Evamae Sargent, 1976