A Hundred Years Old and Going Strong
AS TOLD BY RALPH MITCHELL
My father, a man of medium height, was a Methodist preacher. He was moved from church to church every two or three years through a succession of mostly small towns, including Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.A., where I was born in February 1895. So I grew up quite familiar with Christendom.
I REMEMBER being led as a young boy to the “mourners’ bench” at revival meetings to be filled with the holy spirit—to “get religion,” as they called it. I was told to confess my sins, keep the Ten Commandments, and be good. Thus I would go to heaven when I died. ‘Well,’ I said to myself, ‘I guess I’ll be going to hell because I can’t be good enough for heaven.’ I thought that only adults—especially preachers—were living up to Bible standards.
But even before my teens, I began to detect hypocrisy in religion. For example, my father would sacrifice the material needs of his family just to provide the bishop’s fund with a large amount of money at the general conference. He hoped that this would get him an appointment to a larger church. I remember one local preacher who was also a cotton farmer. He was eager to get a prominent position, so he sold a hundred bales of cotton and went to the conference with a pocketful of money. When it seemed that they had got all the money they could out of the audience—made up mostly of preachers—this cotton-farmer preacher jumped up and shouted: “Is this all you are giving your bishop? Every preacher that comes up with five dollars, I will cover it with ten dollars!” Over a thousand dollars was collected, and the bishop appointed this man to be presiding elder over my father. I could not believe that such an appointment came from God. From then on I was skeptical about anything having to do with religion.
I was drafted when the United States became embroiled in the first world war. I well remember hearing the army chaplains preach to us soldiers about loyally fighting for our country, and this only heightened my distaste for religion. My goals were to survive, finish my education, and then get married. Religion had no place in my plans for the future.
A Change of Attitude
In 1922, I fell in love with a young woman named Louise. As it turned out, she was a devout Catholic, and when we decided to get married, she wanted a Catholic wedding. Well, I didn’t want a religious ceremony of any kind, so she agreed that we would get married at a municipal building in New York City.
At first we had no religious conflicts. I simply made it clear to her that I had no confidence in religion and that we would get along fine as long as there was no mention of it. Then, between the years 1924 and 1937, children came along—one after another, until we had five boys and five girls! Louise wanted our children to attend Catholic school. I didn’t want them to have any type of religious training, so we argued about that.
Early in 1939 something happened that would change my outlook on religion altogether. Henry Webber and Harry Piatt, two of Jehovah’s Witnesses, came to my house in Roselle, New Jersey. It quickly became apparent that they wanted to talk about the one subject I had no interest in discussing—religion. My faith was still soured by the fact that the chaplains in the army said, ‘Fight for your country,’ while the religionists back home said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ What hypocrisy! I thought I would set these two Witnesses straight. “Let me tell you something,” I said to them. “If your religion is true, then all the others are false. And even if just one of the others is true, then all the rest, including yours, are false. There can be only one true religion.” Much to my surprise, they agreed with me!
Next, they asked me to get my Bible and to open it to 1 Corinthians 1:10. There I read: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (King James Version) I was intrigued by this scripture. At the same time, I was afraid that these two men were trying to involve me in some type of cult. Yet I had learned something—that there should be no divisions among Christians. I had many other questions on my mind. For example, What happens to the soul at death? How I would love to discuss that question with them! But, I thought, that would create too much religious controversy in the home.
Then one of the two men said: “We would like to come back and talk with you again next week.” I tried to dismiss them tactfully, but my wife spoke up. “Ralph,” she said, “they want to know when they can come back.” This surprised me, since she was an ardent Catholic! Still, I thought, ‘Maybe we can find some points of agreement on the subject of religion after all.’ So I agreed to have Henry Webber and Harry Piatt call back the next Friday.
Thus it was that I began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not too long after this, I was invited to attend a convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I vividly recall Joseph F. Rutherford’s talk “Government and Peace,” given on June 25, 1939. I was one of the 18,000 persons present. Actually, 75,000 heard the lecture, when you include those who were tied in by an international hookup using radio-phone lines.
Things did not go smoothly though. Followers of Catholic priest Charles Coughlin had threatened to break up the assembly, and sure enough, about halfway through Brother Rutherford’s lecture, hundreds of angry people began booing and shouting slogans such as, “Heil Hitler!” and “Viva Franco!” There was so much commotion that the riot could be heard over the phone lines! It took about 15 minutes for the ushers to quell the mob. All the while, Brother Rutherford, undaunted, kept speaking as the repeated applause from the audience gave him support.
Now I was really curious. Why would a Catholic priest instigate so much hatred against Jehovah’s Witnesses? I figured that there must be something to what Rutherford was preaching—something that the clergy did not want people like me to hear. So I continued studying the Bible and making progress. Finally, in October of 1939, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah by means of water baptism. Some of my children were baptized the following year, and my wife, Louise, was baptized in 1941.
Facing Up to Trials
Soon after I accepted the truth, my mother passed away, and I had to return to North Carolina for her funeral. I felt that I could not in good conscience attend the services that would be conducted inside the Methodist church. Hence I phoned my father before making the trip and asked him to keep the coffin at the funeral home. He agreed, but when I got there, they were on their way to the church, where they thought that I would surely join them.
Well, I did not, and this caused quite a stir in my family. Though my sister Edna and I had always been close, after Mom’s funeral she would not talk to me. I wrote letters, but she did not answer them. Each summer when Edna came to New York to attend teachers’ courses at City College, I tried to see her. But she would turn me away, saying that she was busy. Eventually I gave up, since it seemed that I was only plaguing her. Many years would pass before I heard from her again.
Because of their refusal to salute the flag, six of my children were expelled from school in 1941, as were many other children in the United States and Canada. In order to meet the legal educational requirement, the Witnesses arranged schools of their own called Kingdom Schools. A former hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey, was the location of the school that my children attended. A Kingdom Hall was on the first floor, along with the school classroom, a kitchen, and a dining area. The girls’ sleeping quarters were on the second floor, and the boys’ bedrooms were on the third floor. It was a fine school. Most of the children who boarded there went home only on the weekends. Those who lived farther away went home every other weekend.
From my early years in the truth, I had a burning desire to become a pioneer, as full-time evangelizers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. At the 1941 convention in St. Louis, Missouri, a brother on the program told how he could pioneer while raising 12 children. I thought, ‘If he can pioneer with 12, I can pioneer with 10.’ However, my circumstances did not allow me to begin pioneering until 19 years later. Finally, on October 1, 1960, I was able to begin serving Jehovah as a regular pioneer.
A Surprise Visit
In 1975, I received a phone call from my sister Edna. I was now 80 years old, and I had not seen her nor heard her voice for some 20 years. She was calling from the airport, and she asked me to come and pick up her and her husband. It was good to see Edna again, but the biggest surprise was yet to come. On the way home, her husband said, “You have a convert.” I didn’t know what he meant. When we arrived at the house, once more he said, “You have a convert here.” My wife understood right away. Turning to my sister, she asked, “Edna, are you a Witness?” “I surely am,” Edna replied.
How did Edna come to accept the truth? Well, in 1972, in an effort to mend our estranged relationship, I had sent her a gift subscription to The Watchtower. About a year later, Edna became ill and was confined to her home. The magazines were still on her desk in their wrappers. Out of curiosity Edna opened one and began reading. Upon completing the magazine, she thought to herself, ‘This is the truth!’ By the time Jehovah’s Witnesses called at her home, she had read through the whole stack of Watchtower magazines. She accepted a Bible study, and in due course she became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Coping With Loss
My wife, Louise, eventually contracted diabetes, and her condition worsened until she passed away in 1979, at the age of 82. When Louise died, a part of me died as well. My whole world stopped. I did not know what to do. I had no plans for the future, and I desperately needed encouragement. A traveling overseer, Richard Smith, encouraged me to continue my course of pioneering. I found that my greatest comfort came from comforting others who had lost loved ones in death.
The Watch Tower Society was organizing a tour of Israel in 1979, so I signed up. This trip was a great stimulus to me, and when I got back home, I went right back to work in the pioneer service. Each year since then, I have made it my business to help out in unassigned or infrequently worked territory in another part of the country. Despite my advanced age, I am still able to make myself available for this privilege.
I estimate that over the years, I have had the joy of helping some 50 persons on the road to life. Most of my children are in the truth. Two of my daughters serve as regular pioneers. Another daughter, Louise Blanton, serves at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, George, and one of my sons has served as an elder for many years.
Of course, due to imperfection inherited from our first human parents, all of us are subject to sickness and death. (Romans 5:12) Certainly my life has not been free from aches and pains. I am presently suffering from arthritis in my left leg. At times it gives me a lot of discomfort, but it has not stopped me from getting around. And I pray that it will not. I want to keep going. My greatest desire is to continue in the pioneer service right down to the end, doing all I can to make known Jehovah’s name and purposes.
[Picture on page 23]
With my daughter Rita