My Lifelong Hope—Never to Die
AS TOLD BY HECTOR R. PRIEST
“The cancer is incurable,” the doctor said. “There is nothing more we can do for you.” That diagnosis was made over ten years ago. Yet I still entertain the Bible-based hope of living forever on earth without ever dying.—John 11:26.
MY PARENTS were sincere Methodists who regularly attended church in a small country town, not far from our family farm. I was born in the lovely farming valley of the Wairarapa, about 80 miles [130 km] northeast of Wellington, New Zealand. There we enjoyed a view of snowcapped mountains, clear mountain rivers, rolling hills, and fertile plains.
In the Methodist Church, we were taught that all good people go to heaven but that the bad go to hell, a place of fiery torment. I could not understand why if God had wanted humans to live in heaven, he did not put them there to begin with. I had always feared death and often wondered why we have to die. In 1927, when I was 16 years old, our family suffered a tragedy. That is what led me on a quest for answers to my questions.
Why Did Reg Die?
When my brother Reg was 11 years old, he became seriously ill. The doctor could not determine what was wrong and was unable to help him. Mother called the Methodist minister. He prayed over Reg, but this failed to comfort Mother. In fact, she told the minister that his prayers were ineffectual.
When Reg died, Mother would talk to anyone and everyone to try to satisfy her thirst for truthful answers regarding why her young son had to die. While talking to a businessman in town, she asked if he knew anything about the condition of the dead. He had no idea, but he said: “Someone left a book here that you are welcome to have.”
Mother took the book home and began to read it. She could not put it down. Gradually her whole disposition changed. She told the family, “This is it; this is the truth.” The book was The Divine Plan of the Ages, the first volume of Studies in the Scriptures. I was skeptical at first and tried to argue against the book’s presentation of the Creator’s purpose. Eventually my arguments dried up.
Embracing Bible Truth
I thought, ‘Imagine living forever, never having to die!’ Such a hope is what one would expect of a loving God. A paradise earth! Yes, this was for me.
After learning these wonderful truths, Mother and three Christian sisters from Wellington—Sisters Thompson, Barton, and Jones—would be away for days at a time, spreading Kingdom seed far and wide in country places. Although Father did not have Mother’s missionary spirit, he supported her in her activity.
I was convinced of the truth, but for a time I did little about my beliefs. In 1935, I married Rowena Corlett, and in time we were blessed with a daughter, Enid, and a son, Barry. I worked as a stock buyer, purchasing thousands of head of livestock from surrounding farmers. When these farmers would discuss politics, I would feel good when I told them: “None of these efforts of men will succeed. God’s Kingdom is the only government that will work.”
Sadly, I became addicted to tobacco; I constantly had a cigar in my mouth. In time my health deteriorated, and I was hospitalized with painful stomach problems. I was told that I had acute gastroenteritis, caused by my smoking. Although I quit the habit, it was not uncommon for me to dream that I was smoking an everlasting cigar or cigarette. What a terrible addiction tobacco can be!
After quitting tobacco, I made other important adjustments. In 1939, when I was 28, I was baptized in the Mangatai River near our home in the country. Robert Lazenby, who later had oversight of the preaching work in New Zealand, traveled all the way from Wellington to give the talk in our home and baptize me. From that time on, I became a bold Witness of Jehovah.
Organizing the Preaching Work
Following my baptism I was appointed overseer of the Eketahuna Congregation. My wife, Rowena, had not yet embraced Bible truth. However, I let her know that I was going to invite Alf Bryant to come down from Pahiatua to show me how to witness properly from house to house. I wanted to organize the preaching work and cover our territory systematically.
Rowena said: “Hector, if you go witnessing from house to house, I will not be here when you get back. I’m leaving you. Your responsibility is here—at home with your family.”
I did not know what to do. Hesitantly, I got dressed. ‘I’ve got to do it,’ I kept thinking to myself. ‘My life depends on it, and so do the lives of my family.’ So I assured Rowena that I did not want to hurt her in any way. I told her I loved her dearly, but because Jehovah’s name and sovereignty, as well as our own lives, were involved, I just had to preach in this way.
Alf and I went to the first door, and he took the lead in speaking. But then I found myself taking over the conversation, telling the householder that what happened in Noah’s day is a parallel of what is happening in our day and that we have to do something about making sure of our salvation. (Matthew 24:37-39) I left some booklets there.
Upon our leaving, Alf said: “Where did you get all that knowledge? You do not need me. You go on your own, and we will cover twice the territory.” So that’s what we did.
As we made our way home, I did not know what would await us. To my surprise and joy, Rowena had a cup of tea ready for us. A fortnight later my wife joined me in the public ministry and became a fine example of Christian zeal.
Among the first ones to become Jehovah’s Witnesses in our farming valley were Maud Manser, her son William, and her daughter Ruby. Maud’s husband was an abrasive man with a rough exterior. One day Rowena and I arrived at their farm to take Maud out in the ministry. Young William had arranged for us to use his car, but his father had other ideas.
The situation was tense. I asked Rowena to hold our baby daughter, Enid. I climbed into William’s car and roared out of the garage while Mr. Manser hurried to try to shut the garage door before we could get out. But he failed. After going up the drive a way, we stopped, and I got out of the car to meet an infuriated Mr. Manser. I told him: “We are going into the field ministry, and Mrs. Manser is coming with us.” I appealed to him, and his anger subsided somewhat. Looking back, I probably should have handled it differently, but later he became more favorable toward Jehovah’s Witnesses, although he never became a Witness.
There were only a few of Jehovah’s people in those years, and we truly enjoyed and benefited from the visits of full-time ministers who stayed with us on our farm. These visitors included Adrian Thompson and his sister Molly, both of whom attended early classes of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead for missionaries and served in foreign assignments in Japan and Pakistan.
In September 1939, World War II began, and in October 1940, the New Zealand government banned the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many of our Christian brothers were haled before the courts of the land. Some were put into work camps and isolated from their wives and children. As the war raged on, even though we had a dairy farm, I wondered if I would be called up for military service. Then the announcement was made that no more farmers would be taken off the land for military service.
Rowena and I continued on in our Christian ministry, each of us devoting over 60 hours a month to the preaching work. During this time, I had the privilege of helping young Witnesses who were maintaining their Christian neutrality. I appeared on their behalf before the courts of Wellington, Palmerston North, Pahiatua, and Masterton. Usually there was a member of the clergy on the draft board, and it was a delight to expose their unchristian support of the war effort.—1 John 3:10-12.
One night while Rowena and I were studying The Watchtower, we were raided by detectives. A search turned up Bible literature in our home. “You can go to jail for this,” we were informed. When the detectives got into their car to leave, they discovered that the brakes had locked and the car would not move. William Manser helped fix the car, and we never heard from the men again.
During the ban, we would hide Bible literature in a building on a remote part of our farm. In the middle of the night, I would visit the New Zealand branch office and load up my car with the literature. Then I would bring it home and store it in our isolated place. One night as I arrived at the branch to pick up a secret shipment, the whole place suddenly lit up! The police yelled: “We caught you!” Surprisingly, though, they let me go without too much fuss.
In 1949, Rowena and I sold the farm and decided to pioneer until our money ran out. We moved to a house in Masterton and pioneered with the Masterton Congregation. Within two years the Featherston Congregation was established with 24 active publishers, and I served as the presiding overseer. Then, in 1953, I enjoyed the privilege of traveling to the United States to attend the eight-day international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Rowena was unable to accompany me because she needed to care for our daughter, Enid, who suffered from cerebral palsy.
After I returned to New Zealand, I had to take up secular work. We moved back to the Masterton Congregation, where I was appointed presiding overseer. About this time William Manser purchased the Little Theater in Masterton, and this became the first Kingdom Hall in the Wairarapa. During the 1950’s, our congregation enjoyed fine spiritual and numerical growth. Therefore, when the circuit overseer visited, he would often encourage mature ones to move to other parts of the country to help out with the preaching work there, and a number did so.
Our family remained in Masterton, and during the following decades, I not only had many privileges in the congregation but enjoyed assignments at both national and international conventions. Rowena zealously shared in the field service, constantly assisting others to do the same.
Enduring Tests of Faith
As noted at the outset, in 1985, I was diagnosed as having incurable cancer. How much my faithful wife, Rowena, and I, together with our children, wanted to be among the millions now living who will never die! But the doctors sent me home to die. First, though, they asked me how I viewed the diagnosis.
“I am going to keep a calm heart and be optimistic,” I replied. Indeed, the Bible proverb became my stabilizer: “A calm heart is the life of the fleshly organism.”—Proverbs 14:30.
The cancer specialists praised that Bible advice. “That mental outlook is 90 percent of the cure in cancer patients,” they said. They also recommended seven weeks of radiation treatment. Happily, I was eventually successful in combating the cancer.
During this very difficult time, I was struck a terrible blow. My beautiful, loyal wife suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. I found comfort in the examples of faithful ones recorded in the Scriptures and in how Jehovah worked things out for them as they maintained their integrity. Thus, my hope in the new world remained bright.—Romans 15:4.
Nevertheless, I became depressed and wanted to stop serving as an elder. The local brothers encouraged me until I again had the power to carry on. As a result, I have been able to serve continuously as a Christian elder and overseer for the past 57 years.
Facing the Future With Confidence
Serving Jehovah all these years has been an inestimable privilege. How many blessings I have had! It does not seem long ago that, as a 16-year-old, I heard my mother exclaim: “This is it; this is the truth!” My mother remained a faithful, zealous Witness right up to the time of her death in 1979, when she was over 100 years of age. Her daughter and six sons also became loyal Witnesses.
My burning desire is to live to see Jehovah’s name cleared of all reproach. Will I realize my lifelong hope of never dying? That, of course, remains to be seen. However, I am confident that many, yes, millions will eventually experience that blessing. So as long as I continue to live, I will treasure the prospect of being counted among those who will never die.—John 11:26.
[Picture on page 28]
[Picture on page 28]
With my wife and children