A Wonderful Career
57 Years of Missionary Life
As told by Eric Cooke
IN THE pale dawn light, I leaned on the rail of the cross-channel boat and gazed at the smudge on the horizon. My brother and I had left Southampton, England, the previous evening and were heading for Saint-Malo, France. Tourists? No, we were intent on taking the message of God’s Kingdom to France. On arriving at Saint-Malo, we collected our bicycles and pedaled south.
Thus it was that my younger brother John and I set out for foreign missionary work over 57 years ago. What had led to our entering full-time service? What impelled us to leave a settled life in a comfortable English home?
What Influenced Our Life
In 1922 my mother attended the public talk “Where Are the Dead?” She was thrilled by it and soon became a dedicated servant of Jehovah. But Dad was not pleased. He was a member of the Anglican Church, and for years he took us to church on Sunday morning while Mum taught us from the Bible in the afternoon.
In 1927 John turned 14 and began to attend meetings with Mum and to share in door-to-door witnessing. But I was self-satisfied, having a good job in Barclay’s Bank. Yet, out of respect for Mum, I eventually began to study the Bible, along with the Watch Tower Society’s publications. After that, spiritual progress was rapid, and in 1930 I was baptized.
On leaving school in 1931, John began the full-time ministry as a pioneer. When he suggested that I accompany him in the pioneer work, I abandoned my banking career and joined him. Our determination was strengthened by our new name, Jehovah’s Witnesses, which we had just received. Our first assignment was the town of La Rochelle and the surrounding territory on the west coast of France.
Pioneering by Bicycle in France
As we cycled south from Saint-Malo, we enjoyed seeing the apple orchards of Normandy and sniffing the ripe odors from the cider mills. Little did we realize that the nearby Normandy beaches 13 years later, during World War II, would be ravaged by some of the bloodiest battles in history; nor did we realize that our full-time ministry would last so long. I jokingly said to John: “I think we can manage five years as pioneers. Armageddon can’t be too far away!”
After three days of cycling, we arrived at La Rochelle. Both of us had some knowledge of French, so we had no difficulty in finding a modest furnished room. On our bicycles, we covered all the villages within a radius of about 12 miles [20 km], distributing Bible literature. Then we moved on to another city and repeated the procedure. There were no other Witnesses in that part of France.
In July 1932, John, who had learned Spanish in school, was sent by the Society to serve in Spain. I continued in southern France and for two years had a series of partners from England. Because there was no other association with Witnesses, regular prayer and Bible study were vital to maintain our spiritual strength. We also returned to England once a year for annual conventions.
In 1934 we were expelled from France. The Roman Catholic Church, which then had powerful influence, was responsible. Instead of returning to England, I joined two other English pioneers, and we headed for Spain—on our bicycles as usual. One night we slept under some bushes, another on a haystack, yet another on the beach. We finally arrived in Barcelona in northeast Spain and joined John, who welcomed us.
The Challenge of Spain
There were no congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Spain at the time. After working a few months in Barcelona, we went on to Tarragona. It was there we first started using a portable phonograph and recordings of short Bible talks in Spanish. These were very effective, especially in crowded cafés and taverns.
In Lérida, to the northwest, we were joined by an isolated Witness, Salvador Sirera. Encouraged by our stay in the area, he served for a while as a pioneer. In Huesca, Nemesio Orus welcomed us enthusiastically to his little home above his watchmaker’s shop. It was with him that we conducted our first home Bible study, using one of the early booklets of the Society. We held it for a couple of hours each day, and soon he joined us as a pioneer.
In the next city we worked, Zaragoza, we had the joy of helping Antonio Gargallo and José Romanos, two youngsters in their late teens. Every evening they came to our little room for a Bible study that we conducted in the book Government. In time, both joined us in the pioneer work.
Accused of Being Fascists
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing. The Spanish Civil War was about to erupt, a conflict in which hundreds of thousands were eventually to die. In one village near Zaragoza, Antonio and I ran into difficulties. A woman who accepted our booklets mistook them for Catholic propaganda and accused us of being Fascists. We were arrested and taken to the police station. “What are you doing in this village?” demanded the sergeant. “The people here are communists and don’t like Fascist propaganda!”
After we explained our work, he was satisfied. He kindly gave us lunch and advised us to leave the village quietly during the siesta period. But when we left, a mob was waiting. They grabbed all our literature. It was an ugly situation. We were thankful, however, that the sergeant arrived and talked tactfully to the mob. He satisfied them when he offered to take us to Zaragoza to see the authorities. There he spoke in our behalf to a city official, and we were released.
In July 1936, when the civil war began, Antonio refused to fight with Franco’s forces and was executed. What a joy it will be for John and me to welcome him in the resurrection and see his gentle smile again!
Called Communists in Ireland
Shortly before the civil war broke out, John and I returned to England for our usual annual leave. The war then made it impossible to return to Spain, so we pioneered for several weeks in Kent, near our home in Broadstairs. Then came our next assignment—Ireland. The Society’s president, Joseph F. Rutherford, arranged for us to go there and distribute a special tract entitled You Have Been Warned. There were no congregations in southern Ireland, only a few isolated Witnesses.
This time, at the instigation of the Catholic clergy, we were accused of being communists—the very opposite of the charge against us in Spain! Once an infuriated gang of Catholics burst into the house where we were staying, took our cartons of literature, and burned them. We suffered a number of similar incidents before we returned to England in the summer of 1937.
World War II and On to Gilead
When World War II was declared in September 1939, John was serving in Bordeaux, France, and I was the congregation overseer in Derby, England. Some pioneers, including John, who had rejoined me, were exempted from compulsory military service, but others, like me, were refused exemption. So I was in and out of prison during the war. Endurance was needed to put up with conditions in those wartime prisons, but we knew our brothers in Europe were suffering far more.
After the war the new president of the Watch Tower Society, Nathan H. Knorr, visited England and arranged for some pioneers to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in upstate New York, for missionary training. So May 1946 found John and me crossing the Atlantic on a wartime-built Liberty ship.
The eighth class of Gilead was the first truly international one. What a heartwarming experience it was to study and associate with veteran pioneers during the five-month course! Eventually, graduation day came, and we finally learned our assignments. I was assigned to Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, and John was sent to Portugal and Spain.
Missionary Service in Africa
I landed in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 1947. Another boat brought classmates Ian Fergusson and Harry Arnott. Brother Knorr soon visited, and we attended a convention in Johannesburg. Then we proceeded north to our assignments—Ian to Nyasaland (now Malawi), Harry to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and I to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). In due time the Society established a branch, and I was appointed branch overseer. We had 117 congregations with about 3,500 publishers in the country.
Soon four new missionaries arrived. They expected their assignment to be one of mud huts, lions roaring at night, snakes under the bed, and primitive conditions. Instead, with flowering trees lining the avenues of Bulawayo, modern amenities, and people ready to listen to the Kingdom message, they called it a pioneer’s paradise.
Two Personal Adjustments
When I was baptized in 1930, there was little understanding regarding those who would have everlasting life on earth. So both John and I partook of the emblems at Memorial time, as did everyone then. Even in 1935, when the “great crowd” of Revelation chapter 7 was identified as an earthly class of “sheep,” our thinking was not altered. (Revelation 7:9; John 10:16) Then in 1952, The Watchtower on page 63 published a clarification of the distinction between the earthly hope and the heavenly hope. We came to realize that we did not have the hope of heavenly life, but that our hope was of life on a paradise earth.—Isaiah 11:6-9; Matthew 5:5; Revelation 21:3, 4.
The other adjustment? I was becoming increasingly fond of Myrtle Taylor, who had been working with us for three years. As it became clear that she felt the same about me and that we both deeply appreciated missionary service, we became engaged and were married in July 1955. Myrtle has proved to be a very supportive wife.
Ministry in South Africa
In 1959 Brother Knorr visited Southern Rhodesia, and Myrtle and I were reassigned to South Africa. Before long we began traveling in my assignment in the circuit work. Those were golden days. But I was getting older, and Myrtle’s health had caused us some anxiety. After a while we could no longer stand the pace of circuit work, so we established a missionary home in Cape Town and served there for some years. Later, we were reassigned to Durban, in Natal.
Our assignment there turned out to be Chatsworth, a large Indian community. This was a foreign assignment within a foreign assignment—a real challenge to us elderly missionaries. When we arrived in February 1978, there was a congregation of 96 Witnesses, mostly Indian. We had to study the religious thinking of the Hindu people and understand their customs. The approach used by the apostle Paul in witnessing in Athens served as a helpful example for us.—Acts 17:16-34.
Blessings of Missionary Service
Now I am 78 years old, with 57 years of missionary service behind me. How encouraging it is to see the amazing increases in the countries where I have served! France has reached 100,000 Kingdom proclaimers, Spain has over 70,000, and South Africa has increased from 15,000 when we arrived to more than 43,000.
Young folks, do your circumstances allow you to enter the full-time ministry? If so, I can assure you that it is the finest career. Not only is it a protection from the problems and temptations that beset young people today but it can mold your personality to conform to Jehovah’s righteous principles. What an advantage and a privilege it is for both young and old to serve Jehovah now!
[Picture on page 29]
A visitor comes to Myrtle Cooke’s camp kitchen