Why is it that some former “Jehovah’s Witnesses” appear to suffer serious psychological ill-effects—almost seem mentally-battered—in the wake of having left the Watchtower Society?
While the writer is not a mental-health professional, certain distinct possibilities suggest themselves from what he does know about particular Society teachings and how they are exercised upon the daily lives of its adherents. The reader is asked to keep in mind that any deleterious effects on the mental or emotional well-being of former “J.W.”s herein referred to or described are based in general observations: each personal story is unique; therefore the attendant explanations may not fully apply to every instance; nevertheless, for most, leaving the Watchtower is at least intensely painful. Added to that is a potent combination of fear and internal conflict, usually accompanied by protracted grief.
Massive and effective recruiting add multiple thousands to the ranks of “Jehovah’s Witnesses” in any recorded year. Growth of the religion is gradual, however, because there is a significant exodus-rate. This writer once sat in a Kingdom Hall when the visiting Circuit Overseer asked for a show of raised hands for how many would have been attending a “Jehovah’s Witnesses” meeting ten years before: about 1/3 of the congregation raised their hands. Twenty years prior?—one hand was raised. This was used to illustrate that there was phenomenal growth in the Society, purported to be an evidence of Jehovah’s blessing upon the work of “His Visible Earthly Theocratic Organisation”. However, what the speaker failed to mention was, the size of the membership of the Watchtower as reported in their own annual figures twenty years prior was over ½ of what it was at the time he was talking. Also, twenty years before, there had been a thriving congregation of “Jehovah’s Witnesses” in that very locality. Inadvertently he had demonstrated that few who join the Society manage to remain in it for twenty years.
Some who leave are justifiably disfellowshipped for persistent immoral conduct; yet others are expelled for less defendable reasons, such as various sorts of perceived insubordination to the appointed elders of a congregation, or pointed questioning of the Society on one ground or another, or “apostasy”—any doctrinal difference with what is currently preached in Society publications. But many come to leave voluntarily—why?—and why the severe anguish most of these display?
Such enquiry is a natural one for Bible Students, because we recognise in the Watchtower the remainder of much of the basic Truth in which we also rejoice; still, Bible Students do not experience the types of stress and mental-torment we have sadly seen in some “Jehovah’s Witnesses”. In order to appreciate why the “J.W”s often develop an unhealthy relationship with their religion, it is instructive to examine the peculiar elements in the process by which they are converted to it. We Bible Students are accustomed to the wonderful unfolding of the beauty of the Truth through a sober study of the Bible guided by “The Divine Plan of the Ages”, a programme which has been in-place and has worked well since 1886. That Christian Classic engenders faith in God, and in the Bible as His revelation to man; thereafter, in laying before the reader/student an overview of the plan of salvation, it leads to a deep and abiding love for, and relationship with, our Heavenly Father through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and a great and enduring love for the Truth and those related to us in the faith—our brethren in the Lord.
But the basic instruction given to fledgling “Kingdom Publishers” [the Society’s term for students who haven’t yet qualified to be baptised as “Jehovah’s Witnesses”] is markedly different. Although initial basic study-books change every several years, the elements within each are primarily the same. The new proselyte is given simplified lessons on a grammar-school level which are designed to quickly re-orient his thinking on the trinity, the soul, “hell”, etc.—to disabuse him of both the creedal errors of Christendom and ritual practices of Roman Catholicism and other religions. As his eyes are opened for the first time to the gross errors of various sects and denominations, he is also taught that the Truths he is learning in their places are unique to the Watchtower, and mark it as the “one true religion” approved by God. Even though these very Truths are by no means exclusive to the Society, most “Jehovah’s Witnesses” are systematically kept unaware of that fact. This opens the door to a subtle form of low-level brain-washing which equates Truth and salvation with loyalty to the Watchtower Society. Indeed, indoctrination on those lines never abates: virtually every Watchtower weekly study-article is interlarded with references to loyal dependence upon their designated “Faithful and Discreet Slave” class [Matthew 24. 45-47, N.W.]—the Governing Body responsible for the doctrinal content of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society publications.
Most of the time complete surrender to the Watchtower as the sole means of salvation is merely strongly implied; but sometimes it is more explicitly stated. This next is a direct quote of paragraph 14 from the concluding chapter, What You Must Do to Live Forever, found in the final page [page 255] of their study-book, YOU CAN LIVE FOREVER IN PARADISE ON EARTH:
‘Do not conclude that there are different roads, or ways, that you can follow to gain life in God’s new system. There is only one. There was just the one ark that survived the Flood, not a number of boats. And there will be only one organization—God’s visible organization—that will survive the fast-approaching “great tribulation.” It is simply not true that all religions lead to the same goal. (Matthew 7:21-23, 24:21) You must be part of Jehovah’s organization, doing God’s will, in order to receive his blessing of everlasting life.—Psalm 133:1-3’
And just in case the dictum is not completely esteemed, the study-question pertaining to that paragraph reads, “What must you be a part of in order to survive into God’s new system?” The “new system” or the “new system of things” is Watchtower jargon for the coming earthly Kingdom-paradise. Therefore, here, as a final idea at the end of one of their basic study-books, is implanted the imperative of being a part of the Watchtower Society and work as the only means of salvation. Before proceeding, please notice that no mention is made here of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; even though the Bible directly tells us that Jesus Christ—not a religion or “visible organisation”—is the way to the Father and to Truth and Life, and that it is through Him alone that we are saved—cf. Acts 4.12; John 14.6; Acts 16.31; I Timothy 2.5; John 11.25, 26; John 6.44-51; John 10.9; II John 9; I John 2.23.
It is the opinion of this writer that salvation in a religion is in effect a denial of the ransom-merit in the death and shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ; and that such constitutes the most serious breach of the Truth promulgated by the Watchtower Society. He has asked, time and again, for the scriptural proof (I Thessalonians 5.21) and justification for the thought that salvation necessitates “identifying the right religion”, then joining it. He has yet to receive a coherent answer from any “Jehovah’s Witness”; instead comes an elabourate scheme of supposed reasoning that Jehovah God has always worked through an earthly “theocratic organisation”—ancient Israel before they nationally rejected Christ—the Apostles in the first century of the church—and especially since 1918, the Watchtower Society. Shall we ask them, then, in whom was this “organisation” entrusted between the time that the apostles fell asleep in death and that of the modern work of the Watchtower? The following record is anecdotal; however, it vividly illustrates the problem hindering the “Jehovah’s Witnesses”. At least four Society-loyalists with whom this writer at various times was calmly reasoning from the Scriptures on these matters evidently lost their tempers to frustration when asked, where was their faith and trust directly in Jehovah God by way of the Lord Jesus Christ?—Psalm 118.6,8,9; Psalm 27.1; Hebrews 13.5b-6; Proverbs 3.5,6; Psalm 121.5-8; Isaiah 26.3,4; Isaiah 12.2. The response was to angrily declare, “My faith and trust are in the Watchtower!”—tragically, your reporter could not have stated their plight more eloquently.
And no wonder!—for absolute reliance upon the Watchtower leadership is reiterated at every turn! The Watchtower of October 1, 1967, page 590 states: ‘Jehovah poured out his spirit upon them and assigned them the responsibility of serving as his sole visible channel, through whom alone spiritual instruction was to come. Those who recognize Jehovah’s visible theocratic organization, therefore, must recognize and accept this appointment of the “faithful and discreet slave” and be submissive to it.’
“And be submissive to it”—in other words, their religion claims to speak for God, and submitting to it is characterised as submitting to Jehovah God Himself. It is worth noting in this connexion that a frequent and dire warning given in the Watchtower is to “Beware the voice of strangers”—John 10.5,8,10—reject without listening any who would attempt in whatever way to call “Jehovah’s Visible Earthly Theocratic Organisation” into question—II John 10. (See Proverbs 18.13)
Specific Scriptures come into especial play as the Society works to gain control of each aspect of everyday life. “Do not be misled. Bad associations spoil useful habits.”—the New World Translation rendering of I Corinthians 15.33 is so oft-repeated as to become emblazoned upon the mind of every “Jehovah’s Witness”. Through continual and various applications, it is used to discourage the young from getting involved with worldly youth and worldly activities: adults are similarly charged to cleave to fellow “Jehovah’s Witnesses”, and to cease friendships with people outside of the “J.W.” religion. To be fair, Christians are scripturally instructed not to join or love the world or the things of the world. However, the Watchtower religion tends to be both legalistic and absolutist; therefore, in their hands, “keeping separate from the world” soon develops into circumstances in which all—or very nearly all—meaningful relationships with other people are with fellow “’Witnesses”. The association is intensive and pervasive, and there becomes—in the guise of maintaining congregational discipline [i.e. “keeping the congregation clean”]—an implicit encouragement to “whisper” any hints of alleged wrongful conduct or perceived disloyalty to the “organisation” into the ears of the congregation elders at the first opportunity.
In a situation such as that, human feelings of underlying favouritism can come into play, and quite often injustice is the result: selected ones guilty of wrong-doing are given a “pass”, whilst innocent ones can find themselves blocked from offering a proper defence and summarily disfellowshipped undeservedly. Disfellowshipments are excessively harsh: members may not even speak to nor acknowledge the disfellowshipped party. This is deeply traumatic for all concerned, because they have been taught to believe that the elders render Jehovah’s will for the local congregation, and that, to be outside of the Society will mean that one will perish eternally in the Second Death.
It is inevitable that the one disfellowshipped has been deeply loved and warmly appreciated by others still in good-standing who dearly miss the expelled one. Nevertheless, they durst not attempt to contact nor succour the removed one, lest they themselves become disfellowshipped for so doing. Meanwhile, the separated one has just lost virtually all friends and associates—and possibly eternal life itself, it is perceived—and must face such dire straits bereft of human or spiritual comfort.
Given the severity of the punishment, why would any opt to leave [as we stated at the outset that many do]? In order to understand the dynamics at work, it is once again necessary to re-visit the subject of initial indoctrination, and on-going conditioning. Since, as we have seen, the Watchtower purports to speak for Jehovah and to have exclusive access to the mind of God and the Truth, some thus attracted are drawn into deeper and deeper study; they are not content with the simple books and the somewhat repetitive Watchtower study-articles which are kept basic for accessibility to neophytes. These students often invest deep study and long hours, and they become thoroughly committed to every jot and tittle which the Society teaches. They can engage nearly anyone in Bible-discussions and not be confounded—they can give a thorough witness at the door and answer all objections without notes, and from the householder’s own Bible—they are confident and they are convinced…then along comes a seismic alteration in Watchtower thinking on a point of doctrine or practice…and work as they might, they can-not see it the new way. Discussions with the elders, instead of reaching reason, find robotic adherence to the Society “party-line”; thereby they come to realise that, in Watchtower thinking, blindly following the Society carries a higher premium than adherence to the Truth. At this point every repressed doubt over the years re-surfaces, and a crisis-of-conscience occurs. They must either tow the line in silent disagreement, or else sever their ties and leave. The Society elders will remind them of John 6.68, as if the Watchtower had the words of eternal life, and they had no place else to go. But by this time the heady “organisation-minded” indoctrination is no longer binding them, and most such will eventually make the wrenching decision that they must leave.
Others, less shaken by doctrinal or policy-shifts, are instead brought to crisis by a clear case of rank injustice, such as a family-member being unfairly disfellowshipped when innocent of an accusation, or someone who clearly practises serious wrong failing to be disciplined owing to blatant favouritism. Discontent and a justified sense of indignation set-in, and the process working toward exit begins.
In still other cases, the flaw is in the simplified and limited scope of Watchtower Bible-instruction: one suddenly finds himself answered in mildness by a believer of some other doctrinal persuasion who knows the Bible far better than he does. The Watchtower Society presentation at the door assumes Biblical illiteracy on the part of the prospect-householder—and most people indeed know little-to-nothing about the Bible. But “most people” does not translate to all people…and, sooner or later, someone at the door will be more well-prepared, Biblically, than the “J.W.” knocking at the door. Worse for the “Jehovah’s Witness”, he usually is quite unaware of just how limited his command of the Scriptures is—and he will confidently talk his way deeper and deeper into trouble. In his mounting confusion, he will likely forget the “escape-clause” use the Society makes of Matthew 10.14! He will reason that, in any such discussion, Truth should naturally prevail—and eventually his better-prepared prospect will sow many seeds of doubt.
There are countless occurrences and situations which precipitate an exit from the Watchtower Society; but however it comes about, being torn from such a binding system leaves terrible scars. Reactions vary. Some become deeply angry, and they lash-back in opposition to the Watchtower Society. Some, still entrapped in the idea that their very salvation depends upon loyalty to the Society, despair that they are hopelessly consigned to the Second Death. Some eschew religion altogether and no longer resist the debauchery of the world. Some desperately search from one religion to the next, seeking after one that will prove true; and some become unstable, going off into more and more arcane speculations and conspiracy-theories. Some gratefully come into the Truth, yet even they often remain unsure and fearful of “trusting again”. Their abject vulnerability can be likened to that of a nation suddenly released from the long-term hard and ruthless rule of a cruel dictator—or experienced by the wronged partner in an unhappy divorce following a long marriage.
Those of us blessed in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free have a difficult time imagining such fearful bondage! It is the hope of this writer that all who are thus blessed will, as the Lord provides occasion, reach-out especially to welcome our EX-Society friends who are hurting, and who so need the Truth! The writer speaks as one who’s “been there—done that”: he was once a Watchtower Society “slave”. [please read Numbers 6.24-26; Hebrews 13.20-21]
 ‘Now some may ask, Should we accept as from the Lord and true the food provided through the discreet slave, or should we withhold acceptance until we have proved it for ourselves? If we have gained our present understanding of the Bible by feeding at the table set by the slave, if we have been thereby freed from false doctrines and built up in the clean and undefiled worship of God and given a new world hope, we should have some confidence in the slave’s provisions. After being nourished to our present spiritual strength and maturity, do we suddenly become smarter than our former provider and forsake the enlightening guidance of the organization that mothered us? “Forsake not the law of thy mother.” (Prov. 6:20-23) And if the heavenly Father would not give a stone or serpent or scorpion to a child who asked for bread or fish or an egg from him, are we to take the spiritual food he provides through the slave into our hands as if we were going to be bruised by a stone or bitten by a serpent or stung by a scorpion? (Matt. 7:7-11; Luke 11:9-13, NW) Are we to be doubtful and suspicious about each new provision? “He who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven by the wind and blown about. In fact, let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from Jehovah.” (Jas. 1:6,7 NW) Even the Beroeans first received Paul’s preaching “with the greatest readiness of mind”, and then went to “carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so”. (Acts 17:11, NW) This was the first real contact the Beroeans had with Paul’s preaching, yet they received it readily and then studied the Scriptural support for themselves. How much more readily we can receive the slave’s provisions with confidence, since, unlike the Beroeans, we have much past experience with the precious provisions from the slave.’—the Watchtower, February 1, 1952, “Jehovah’s Theocratic Organization Today”
 ‘As the judgment period that ended with the Flood brought a permanent end to those people, so will the ending of the present judgment period permanently terminate the conscious existence of those who are judged adversely. This is, therefore, a very serious time…
‘This time of judgment is a very serious time for people in all walks of life. The course of action each person takes with regard to Jehovah God’s kingdom and purposes can mean either eternal death or preservation into a righteous new world.
‘During the more than forty years since 1918, when divine judgment began with those who professed to be God’s house, a great crowd of people have responded to the preaching of the good news of God’s kingdom. They form a New World society that has beaten “swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears.” (Isa. 2:1-4) They enjoy peace while living in a war-torn world. Like the six persons who were preserved through the flood with Noah and his wife, they will be preserved through the coming battle of Armageddon when God’s heavenly forces will bring this judgment period to a cataclysmic end.—2 Thess. 1:6-9; Zeph. 3:18.’—the Watchtower, January 15, 1960, “This Is a Time of Judgment”