“I grew up on a farm in the country,” says Agostinho, who lives in Brazil. “We were very poor. I had to quit school in order to work and help provide for our family.” Not until he was 33 years old did Agostinho become literate. “Learning how to read and write helped me to have more dignity and gave me more self-esteem,” he says.
Agostinho is one of more than a quarter of a million people whom Jehovah’s Witnesses have taught to read and write over the past 70 years. Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses conduct such classes? How have people benefited from such education?
Illiteracy Hampers Learning
By the mid-1930’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses were carrying on their ministry in 115 lands. To reach people who spoke different languages, missionaries played recordings of translated Bible talks, and in some cases they were able to offer literature in local languages. Although many people showed great interest in the Bible, illiteracy hampered the learning of quite a number of them.
Without being able to read the Bible for themselves, people struggled to learn how to apply Bible principles. (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2, 3) They also faced challenges in fulfilling their Christian responsibilities. For example, if parents could not read, it would take greater effort for them to instruct their children. (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7) And new Witnesses who could not read would be limited in their ability to use the Bible when trying to teach others.
Launching a Literacy Campaign
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Nathan H. Knorr and Milton G. Henschel, two of those who took the lead among Jehovah’s Witnesses, traveled to various lands to help organize the preaching work. In lands where illiteracy was common, they encouraged the local branch offices to set up literacy classes in the congregations.
Branch offices sent instructions to the congregations on how to conduct the classes. In some lands, the local government had existing programs that could be used. In Brazil, for instance, the branch office received supplies and textbooks from the government and shipped them to the congregations. In other lands, the Witnesses had to develop their own literacy program.
Literacy classes were open to men and women, young and old. The objective was to teach learners to read in their mother tongue—even if this meant having several languages taught in one congregation.
A Program That Helps People
How have people benefited from this literacy program? A Witness from Mexico relates: “Now I am able to understand the Bible’s meaning, and this allows it to touch my heart. Knowing how to read has helped me to talk freely with my neighbors, and I have been able to reach more people with the Bible’s message.”
The benefits of the literacy program have gone beyond helping people to understand the Bible. Isaac from Burundi relates: “Learning how to read and write has helped me learn building skills. Construction has become my career, and I now supervise large construction projects.”
Jesusa from Peru was 49 years old when she started attending literacy classes. “As a housewife,” she says, “I need to see prices and the names of the groceries in the market. In the past, that presented a challenge. Thanks to the literacy class, I am more confident when shopping for my family.”
Over the years, officials in various countries have praised Jehovah’s Witnesses for the work they have done to advance literacy. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses still conduct literacy classes, using programs and tools that have been refined over the years. They have also designed and printed nearly 224 million brochures in 720 languages to help people to learn to read or to assist those with limited education. *