In April 1974, a final-year university student nearly made a decision that would have changed the course of history for dozens of people. While studying at the University of Ghana on an American-sponsored OAU scholarship, 23 year-old David had joined an interesting new Christian group called Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since he joined the group, he had stopped smoking and the feeling of accomplishment had convinced him that he was in the right place, despite his fiercely Anglican and Traditionalist upbringing.
Party like it’s 1974
The Jehovah’s Witnesses believed that the end of the world – Armageddon as they termed it – was going to happen sometime in 1975. As he attended their meetings three times every week, the message was hammered in with increasing urgency, with articles in their literature and messages from the American HQ explicitly urging members to stop their regular pursuits and prepare for the end of the world. David decided to drop out of university and spend the rest of 1974 serving as a Jehovah Witness missionary, preaching the word about the impending end of the world.
At the time, David was using part of his generous scholarship grant to fund nursing school programs for two of his sisters back home in Lagos, Nigeria, and dropping out would have meant sacrificing their education. But none of that mattered, after all who needs nurses in paradise? Armageddon was coming in 1975!
By luck or providence, he happened to mention his plan to quit school to an American Jehovah Witness missionary, who unknown to him had started having doubts about the “1975 doctrine” and the JW faith as a whole. This missionary told him, “David, the Bible does not say that students will not be saved. The Bible also says that you should finish what you start.”
These words from the mouth of a stranger from Ohio were what stopped my father, David Fakunle Hundeyin from dropping out of university in 1974. Without them, I probably would not be here, and the lives of my cousins – among them doctors, pilots, engineers and management professionals – would probably be very different today.
Gaslighting, Obfuscation and Diversion: The JW Masterclass
Of course, 1975 came and went. We had the coup that removed Yakubu Gowon; we had the end of the Vietnam War; but there was no Armageddon. My dad finished his program with First Class Honours and came back to Nigeria, which was then going through an oil boom. Within a decade he got the wife, the kids, the cars, the house and all that good stuff that was never supposed to happen in our pre-Armageddon world, but through all of this, he never stopped associating with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He got off very lightly with his own 1975 saga. In Nigeria and around the world, thousands of JW adherents sold their property, quit their jobs, left school and even took out massive loans before December 31, 1975. When the promised end of the world did not come, you might imagine that the group would have faced an internal crisis. That did not happen. A few people left, but most JWs like my dad remained, and simply moved on from the event. “God’s True Religion” could never be wrong after all, so it was only a test of their faith.
Within a few years, the JW organisation itself began to edit its official history of what happened. By the time I was born in 1990, the story was that its 1975 prediction – which it repeatedly printed in its literature and disseminated through public lectures – was not in fact its official position, but was merely a rumour carried by some members. The organisation even began using the story as a cautionary tale, portraying itself as the victim of excited predictors, as against the sole instigator that it blatantly was.
Those who left were “apostates,” and anyone within the group who liked to ask questions was very quickly identified and shut down. One of the most defining memories of my childhood was sitting in a JW Thursday night “Service Meeting,” pretending not to be thoroughly disgusted with the ongoing question-and-answer segment on an article titled “Beware of the trap of independent thinking.”
The reason I chose this story to lead this article is that before talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is extremely important to understand the underlying psyche of the group. There is a surfeit of starched shirts, bright smiles and social graces whenever Jehovah’s Witnesses are in the conversation, so to the uninitiated, this must mean that they are just another harmless, quirky, pseudo-Christian group in a society that is already punch-drunk on religion.
That would be a deadly mistake.
These guys are really bad news.
You don’t have to take it from me, despite my roughly 20 years of experience of life as a member of this group. You can look at the story of 22 year-old Tega Esabunor and draw your own conclusions.
“Thank Jehovah you’re alive. Now let’s sue the doctor for saving your life”
Tega was born to Jehovah Witness parents on April 19, 1997. According to court records, within a month of his birth, he fell severely ill and his mother Rita Esabunor rushed him to the Chevron Clinic where the doctor diagnosed him with anemia. To save his life, he needed a blood transfusion, but his parents insisted that this was a no-no. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not permitted to accept blood transfusions on the pain of being disfellowshipped, which is apparently based on a Bible scripture where Moses orders the Israelites never to eat blood.
Putting aside the cockamamie doctrinal position for a moment, this meant that under JW policy, it would be preferable for Tega to die an avoidable death than to receive a blood transfusion. Choosing to respect his Hippocratic oath over a crackpot religious belief, Dr. Tunde Faweya obtained an ex-parte order permitting him to administer life-saving blood transfusion on Tega. The one month-old baby lived, and his parents took him home. Now the story enters Jehovah Witness levels of unbelievable.
A few days later on May 15, 1997, Tega’s parents sued Dr. Faweya and Chevron Clinic at the High Court for giving their son a blood transfusion that saved his life. They lost the case. Then took it to the Appeal Court, Lagos Division. This dragged on for years, and then they lost that too. So they took the case to the Supreme Court. Through all of this, Tega was growing up from a child into a teenager, then a young adult. His version of normal was to spend his entire life as the subject of a legal battle between parents insisting that he should have died, and a bunch of strangers replying, “Are you people mad?”
Finally a few days ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Dr. Faweya and Chevron Clinic, finally drawing a line under a 22-year legal saga. Growing up as the child of a prominent JW, I often heard about this case, though I never met Tega in person unfortunately. I clearly remember the feeling of shock and dread when I realised that Tega’s parents were not crazy outliers, but were just normal Jehovah’s Witnesses. In other words, given the right circumstances, my parents would do the exact same thing to me.
How to build a fireproof religious cult: The JW Example
When I was 11 years old in JSS 1, my parents gave me a card-sized legal document to keep in my wallet, stating that in the event that I suffered any injury or sickness that required a blood transfusion, under no circumstances was the hospital permitted to administer one. Even at that age, I clearly understood how incredibly insane it was to make a preteen carry his own death warrant around in his pocket at school. I kept it in my wallet, but I refused to sign it, which was my own little rebellion against what I could clearly see was a David Koresh-type cult hiding behind well-ironed shirts and feigned politeness.
My siblings however, ranged from merely mildly rebellious to fully signed up JW Kool Aid-drinkers, so it was unsafe to share my full-scale rebellion anywhere but in school. School became my refuge, and books became my mental fortress where “Jehovah” and the “Organisation” could not get to me. I had to develop the capacity to live an epic double life so as to survive and retain my individuality. I mention this because it is unhelpful to think of JWs as merely a religious group. Think of them more as an immersive, full-body experience that seeks to completely uproot and replace all types of intellectual curiosity, creativity and normal human relationships.
What makes the JW cult such a tightly-knit one is it successfully insinuates itself into all aspects of a member’s life. Members are constantly told that they are a special, ‘chosen’ people. They are repeatedly encouraged to reduce communication and contact with people who are non-JWs, which helps with the organisation’s internal “cross-pollination.” For this reason, dad spent most of his life isolating himself from his family, and it wasn’t until his death that I found out that I have literally hundreds of cousins, nephews, aunts and uncles.
Competitive activities like sports are highly frowned upon, and anything at all that can take a member’s attention away from the cult – including work, hobbies and family – is portrayed as a ‘lesser god’ fighting with Jehovah for attention. Needless to say, higher education is especially frowned upon. The aim is for members to be just educated enough to be literate evangelists, but not enough to start asking questions and looking at things the organisation considers “dangerous.” Things like the fact that the JWs once subscribed to a theory of white racial superiority, as evidenced by this quote from their own publication in 1929.
Question: Is there anything in the Bible that reveals the origin of the Negro?
Answer: It is generally believed that the curse which Noah pronounced upon Canaan was the origin of the Black race. Certain it is that when Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren,” he pictured the future of the Colored race. They have been and are a race of servants. There is no servant in the world as good as a good Colored servant, and the joy that he gets from rendering faithful service is one of the purest joys there is in the world.Golden Age (now Awake!)1929 Jul 24 p.702
Clearly, either “Jehovah” was a racist in 1929, or their cult has always been and still is complete horse manure. Only someone with a certain level of education and intellectual curiosity however, can achieve this level of inquiry, which is why “independent thinking” is frowned on so aggressively.
At school, JW children are not permitted to sing the national anthem, recite the pledge, partake in birthday celebrations or be involved in anything related to Christmas and Easter. This kill-joy aspect of cult creation is essential because it creates a traumatic experience. Being the kid who is constantly left out and not part of the group is a highly painful experience for a child, and this permits the organisation to further embed itself in the kid’s life through “trauma bonding.” So a JW child gravitates toward other JW kids because of a shared ongoing experience. All of this is by design.
Needless to say, dating or marrying outside of the JW cult is expressly forbidden and is grounds for serious disciplinary action. Both of my parents were conspicuously absent at 3 of their 5 children’s weddings for this exact reason. This brings us to the most potent and dangerous aspect of the JW cult system: – its ability to transcend natural relationships.
The ultimate cult triumph: Breaking the family unit apart
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I grew up in a materially prosperous family of seven. This family has now completely disintegrated, spread across different continents and living separate lives that do not intersect. The victory of JW fanaticism over familial ties is more evident in my family than even the Esabunor family. The insane child abuse that came with it is a story for another day.
I have all sorts of pleasant childhood memories of my four siblings, Rhoda, Jonathan, Blessing and Victoria. I remember throwing a tantrum and hitting my head on a table, raising an egg-sized lump because Rhoda once wanted me to leave her room – such was my fondness for my oldest sibling.
I remember Jonathan as a medical student in Ghana being my hero when I was an awkward, self-aware teenager. He was my plug for new clothes and music CDs, and he would lecture me for hours about the wonders of life outside Ogudu GRA, and why I needed to do well in school. I remember Blessing using a blackboard to teach me how to read and write in the open penthouse overlooking the valley, a full year before I entered school at 5.
I remember Victoria being my partner in mischief and my very first disciple as we navigated the strange world of living under repression amidst privilege. I remember dad being a smart, kind, funny man who always had the solution to any of my problems before I even asked. These are all distant memories now. The JW cult stole our innocence and turned us on each other. Our parents were happy to use their financial ability to reward any of us who would snitch on others for not being JW, or not being JW enough. Overtime, we have lost all trust and connection with each other, and we are all strangers now.
Dad died in 2017, during a period when we were not on speaking terms because he made our relationship contingent on returning to the JW fold, which I declined. I have not seen Jonathan in person since January 2008. Rhoda is somewhere in the UK, and I have not seen her since 2011. Neither of them bothered to show up for dad’s funeral. Mom and Blessing are complete strangers to me now, despite living in the family house less than 20 minutes from where I live. Victoria is somewhere outside Nigeria and she replied, “Who is this please?” when I texted her to say happy birthday earlier in the year.
The ultimate triumph of religious cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they replace normal human morality and societal behaviours with artificial rules of their own. The use of aggressive shunning is a cruelly effective tactic for keeping members in line because they know that if they leave, they lose everything -friends, family, colleagues, everything. JWs are not supposed to even say a greeting to people who are being shunned, even if they live in the same house. When called up on this cruel practise, they simply lie, obfuscate and derail the conversation which is a standard cult tactic.
From a Nigerian point of view, what everyone should be worried about is not just that Jehovah’s Witnesses command such a large following here – at least 200,000 people according to them. It is the fact that a new generation of pentecostal and charismatic cults are springing up, borrowing aspects of their ideology and rituals from Jehovah’s Witnesses and similar cult groups like the Mormon Church.
Religion is such an existential problem for Nigeria already, that the very last thing anyone should want is a society of Rita Esabunors, and unfortunately, it is already happening.
Just look around you.