Rejoicing at the Harvest in India
As told by F. E. Skinner
TO ME it was almost beyond belief—21 conventions in ten languages, over 15,000 in attendance to learn the meaning of divine justice, and 545 baptized to symbolize their love for the great God of justice, Jehovah! For the 9,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in India, this was a highlight of 1989. But for me it was especially a cause for rejoicing. Why? Because I could hardly have imagined such grand events when I first stepped onto Indian soil in July 1926. Then there were fewer than 70 publishers of the Kingdom message in the entire country. What an assignment my partner and I received over 63 years ago!
How I Came to India
In May 1926 I attended a large convention in London, England, and right afterward I returned to my home in Sheffield. A couple of days later, after coming in from the field ministry, I found a telegram waiting. It read: “Judge Rutherford wants to see you.”
Brother Rutherford, the Watch Tower Society’s second president, had come over from New York for the recent convention, and he was still in London. The next morning on the train back to London, I was wondering, ‘What does this mean?’ At the branch office, I was taken to Brother Rutherford, and he asked me: “Do you mind what part of the world you work in?”
“No,” I replied.
“How would you like to go to India?”
“When do you want me to go?” I replied without hesitation. Thus, three weeks later, George Wright and I were on the boat headed for India. I was 31 years old, and there was no question in my mind and heart as to what I wanted to do with my life.
Deciding on a Life Course
By 1918 the first world war was over, and I had just completed four years in the British army. I was interested in photography and radio transmission, and good business opportunities were open to me. Also, I was comtemplating marriage. Yet, at the same time, I was coming to an understanding of things that was changing the entire focus of my life.
My father had accepted a set of Studies in the Scriptures, and a colporteur, as pioneers were then called, began studying the Bible with our family. The woman had been a schoolteacher. In time, a group of young men my age were going over to her house every Saturday for a cup of tea and a Bible study. She repeatedly told us to make ourselves available to Jehovah, saying: “Never refuse an assignment.” She also encouraged me to remain single.
For a time I struggled over what I would do. Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler at Matthew 19:21 helped me: “If you want to be perfect, go sell your belongings and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, and come be my follower.” I handed in my resignation to the firm I was working for, and within three months I was a colporteur. This, as well as the decision to remain single, qualified me to receive that precious assignment to India about four years later.
A Tremendous New Field
George Wright and I were assigned to oversee the Kingdom preaching not only in India but also in Burma (now Myanmar) and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Later, Persia (now Iran) and Afghanistan were added. The area of India was somewhat less than that of the United States, but the population was a number of times greater. It was a land with different foods, customs, and languages, with people of varied religious beliefs—Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists, as well as Catholics and Protestants.
The preaching work had begun in India in 1905, and it received impetus when Charles T. Russell, the Watch Tower Society’s first president, visited in 1912. Russell’s interview with A. J. Joseph, a zealous young Bible student, led to a permanent arrangement for continued preaching activity. Joseph translated Bible literature into his native Malayalam tongue and traveled and lectured extensively, particularly in southern India. Today, about half of India’s publishers live in this area where Malayalam is spoken, although only about 3 percent of India’s population lives there. This area, formerly Travancore and Cochin, became Kerala State in 1956.
George Wright and I alternated between attending to the Bombay office and going out for extended preaching tours. We fully utilized India’s railroads, horses, and bullock carts. Later we used a car. The idea then was simply to leave literature and to invite people to come to a meeting place for group study. We concentrated on English-speaking nominal Christians.
Initially, I was given the names and addresses of all the Watchtower subscribers. These were mostly railway or telegraph people. I visited every one of them to search out genuine interest. For many years I would go to the Punjab in northern India in January and tour from Lahore to Karachi. Since the masses were averse to the Bible, the villages where there were nominal Christians were few and far between.
A brother would travel with me as an interpreter, and we lived and ate with the people. The villagers lived in houses built of sun-baked mud, with roofs either thatched or timbered. They slept on charpoys, four-legged cots of wooden framework with intertwined rope. Often the farmers would sit on their charpoys with Bible in hand, smoking a water-cooled pipe with a stem two to three feet [0.5 to 1 m] long, turning from scripture to scripture as we explained God’s truths to them. Outdoor meetings proved ideal, as the greater part of the year was rainless. While most Europeans were too snobbish to attend such meetings, the Indians would gather anywhere.
We tried to publish literature in as many languages as possible. The booklet World Distress in the Kanarese language met with particular success. It moved the editor of a Kanarese religious periodical to invite us to supply articles for his paper, and for some time, we ran the Deliverance book as a serial every fortnight.
The years from 1926 to 1938 saw an immense amount of preaching by enthusiastic pioneers. We traveled thousands of miles, and great amounts of literature were distributed, but the increase was modest. By 1938 there were only 18 pioneers and 273 publishers in 24 congregations scattered throughout India.
During World War II
World War II broke out in 1939, yet we continued right on with our preaching. In fact, early in 1940 street witnessing work was introduced. Even our Indian sisters took part, which is remarkable in view of local customs. Years later a Bible student told a Witness who asked her to share in such work: “I’m an Indian woman, and I cannot be seen talking to a man on the street because I would be disgraced in the whole neighborhood. I cannot speak to a man on the street even if he is a relative.” Nevertheless, our Christian sisters in India have become zealous public ministers.
In those early years, conventions were also arranged. Mornings were devoted to field service, which consisted mostly of walking many miles telling residents and passersby about the public meetings. Over 300 attended one of these, the sessions being held under the shade of a bamboo and palm-leaf structure. But it did not do much good to specify a starting time, since few people owned a timepiece. They just came along when they felt like it, and the meetings began when a sufficient audience had assembled. Stragglers kept arriving as the meeting progressed.
The program was usually in progress until ten o’clock at night, and then many had to walk miles to get home. If it was moonlight, all the better; it was cool and enjoyable. If there was no moon, people picked up a palm branch and twisted it into a torch. When lit, the torch glowed a dull red. When additional light was wanted, the torch was swung around in the air until it burst into flames. This gave sufficient light to find the way on rough ground.
About this time a government ban was imposed on the importation of the Society’s literature into India and Ceylon. Our small printing press in Travancore was seized, and the central government issued an order forbidding the printing of our literature. Later, in 1944, one of our brothers who practiced physiotherapy was treating Sir Srivastava, a minister in the Viceroy’s Cabinet, and the subject of the ban was brought up to him.
“Well, don’t worry,” our brother was told. Sir Srivastava explained to him that Mr. Jenkins (a minister who was unfavorable toward our work) would be retiring soon and a good friend of Sir Srivastava would replace him. “Ask Mr. Skinner to come up,” Sir Srivastava encouraged, “and I will introduce him to Sir Francis Mudie,” Jenkins’ replacement. Eventually, I was called; I spoke with Mr. Mudie, and the ban was officially removed December 9, 1944.
Reasons for Rejoicing
A great cause for rejoicing came in 1947 when the first Gilead-trained missionaries arrived in India. Their arrival coincided with a crucial time in Indian history, as that very year, on August 15, independence was obtained from British rule. When the nation split into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, bloody massacres occurred. In spite of this, two Gilead graduates were sent to Pakistan, which had become an independent nation on August 14. Soon ten more missionaries were working in India itself, and many more arrived to help in the following years.
It brought further rejoicing to my heart as organizational procedures were instituted. Circuit work began in 1955 when brother Dick Cotterill, a Gilead graduate, was appointed the first circuit overseer. He served faithfully until his death in 1988. Then, in 1960, we had our first regular district overseer arrangement, which did much to help the circuits. After 1966 no more foreign missionaries were allowed into the country. But soon the special pioneer work opened up, and qualified Indian pioneers were sent to many parts of India. Today, there are about 300 in this work.
It was not until 1958 that we finally reached 1,000 Kingdom publishers. But then the pace picked up, and now we have over 9,000. Moreover, our 1989 Memorial attendance of 24,144 shows that many more interested ones are seeking help. Sri Lanka is now a separate branch. What a joy it is to see that they have increased from just two publishers in 1944 to well over 1,000 today, despite the ongoing fighting in their country.
Growth in publishers has meant growth in our branch too. After 52 years in bustling Bombay, our headquarters moved in 1978 to the nearby town of Lonavla. I never imagined that we would have sophisticated equipment such as the MEPS computers and a big two-color press to print literature in the many Indian languages. Today, we are producing The Watchtower in 9 languages and other literature in 20 different languages.
Needless to say, the days of our two-man branch are long gone. Now we have a Bethel family of over 60 members! At the age of 95, I am happy still to be in full-time service at the branch office and to serve as a member of India’s Branch Committee. And especially am I thrilled to witness the harvesting work in these last days. Truly, it is a matter for rejoicing.