Life Story

My Share in the Advancement of Global Divine Education

AS TOLD BY ROBERT NISBET

King Sobhuza II of Swaziland welcomed my brother George and me to his royal residence. The year was 1936, but I still recall our conversation vividly. How I came to have this extended conversation with a king was all part of my long association with a great Bible education work. Now in the 95th year of my life, I look back with fondness on my share in that work, which took me to five different continents.

IT ALL began in 1925 when a tea salesman named Dobson began visiting our family in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was in my late teens and worked as an apprentice pharmacist. Though I was still relatively young, I was nevertheless concerned about the momentous changes that the world war of 1914-18 had brought to families and to religious life. On one of his visits, Mr. Dobson left with us the book The Divine Plan of the Ages. Its presentation of an intelligent Creator with a definite “plan” seemed so reasonable and consistent with the God I wanted to worship.

Mother and I soon began attending the meetings of the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. In September 1926 both Mother and I symbolized our dedication to Jehovah by water immersion at a convention in Glasgow. Each baptismal candidate received a full-length gown with ankle straps to be placed over our regular bathing costumes. At that time this was  considered to be suitable attire for such a serious occasion.

In those early days, our understanding of many matters needed refinement. Most, if not all, members of the congregation celebrated Christmas. Very few shared in the field ministry. Even some elders objected to Sunday literature distribution, as they felt it violated the Sabbath. Watch Tower articles in 1925, however, began giving more prominence to such scriptures as Mark 13:10: “In all the nations the good news has to be preached first.”

How would that worldwide work be accomplished? At my first humble attempt to share in house-to-house preaching, I simply told the householder that I was selling nice religious books and offered The Harp of God, a book that explained ten important teachings of the Bible, likening them to ten strings on a harp. Later, we were provided with a testimony card, which set out a brief message for the householder to read. We also used recorded four-and-a-half-minute talks that could be played on a portable phonograph. The early models of the machine were quite heavy to carry, but later models were considerably lighter, and some could even be played when placed in a vertical position.

From 1925 and into the 1930’s, we carried out our witnessing work the best way we knew how. Then in the early 1940’s, the Theocratic Ministry School was introduced to all congregations. We were taught to present the Kingdom message personally by speaking directly to householders who would listen. We also learned the importance of conducting home Bible studies with interested people. In a sense, we might say that this was the present worldwide Bible education work in its infancy.

Encouragement From Brother Rutherford

My desire to have a greater share in the education work led me to enroll in the full-time pioneer ministry in 1931. I was to start immediately following a convention in London. During one lunch break, however, Brother Joseph Rutherford, who had oversight of the work at the time, asked to speak with me. He had plans for a pioneer to go to Africa. “Would you be willing to go?” he asked. Though taken a little by surprise, I managed to say quite firmly: “Yes, I’ll go.”

In those days our main goal was to distribute as much Bible literature as possible, and that meant being constantly on the move. I was encouraged to remain unmarried, as were most of the brothers in responsible positions of oversight at that time. My territory began in Cape Town, on the southern tip of Africa, and extended along the eastern side of the continent, including the coastal islands of the Indian Ocean. The western boundary took me across the hot sands of the Kalahari Desert and up to the source of the Nile River at Lake Victoria. With a partner, I was to spend six months each year in one or more of the African countries located in this vast area.

Two Hundred Cartons of Spiritual Riches

When I arrived in Cape Town, I was shown 200 cartons of literature destined for East Africa. The literature was printed in four European and four Asian languages, but none of it was in any of the African languages. When I inquired why all this literature was there before I even arrived, I was told that this had been intended for Frank and Gray Smith, two pioneers who had recently gone to Kenya to preach. Almost as soon as they arrived in Kenya, both contracted malaria, and sadly, Frank died.

Though this news was sobering, it did not deter me. My partner, David Norman, and I left Cape Town by ship for our first assignment, some 3,000 miles [5,000 km] away in Tanzania. A travel agent in Mombasa, Kenya, looked after our store of literature and forwarded cartons  to any destination requested by us. Initially, we witnessed in the business districts​—the shops and offices—​in each town. Part of our literature supply consisted of sets of 9 books and 11 booklets, which because of their different colors came to be known as rainbow sets.

We next decided to visit the island of Zanzibar, some 20 miles [30 km] off the eastern coast. For centuries, Zanzibar was a center of slave trade but was also famous for cloves, which we could smell everywhere in the town. Finding our way around was a little daunting, for the town was laid out without any plan. Streets twisted and turned in a bewildering manner, and we found it easy to lose our sense of direction. Our hotel was comfortable enough, but it had studded doors and thick walls and looked more like a prison than a hotel. Yet, we had good results there and were happy to find that Arabs, Indians, and others willingly accepted our literature.

Trains, Boats, and Cars

Traveling in East Africa in those days was not easy. For example, on our way from Mombasa to the highlands of Kenya, our train was stopped by a locust plague. Millions of locusts covered the land and the train tracks, making them too slippery for the locomotive’s wheels to sustain traction. The only solution was to wash the tracks ahead of the train, using steaming hot water from the locomotive. In this way, slow progress was made until we eventually got clear of the swarm of locusts. And what a relief when the train began to ascend into a higher elevation and we were able to savor the cooler climate of the highlands!

While the coastal towns were readily accessible by train and boat, the rural areas could best be reached by car. I was happy when my brother George joined me, for then we were able to purchase a fairly large panel van, big enough to be outfitted with beds, a kitchen, a storage area, and mosquito-proof windows. We also had loudspeakers fitted to the roof. Thus equipped, we were able to do house-to-house witnessing during the day and invite people to our evening talks held in the market squares. A popular recording we played was entitled “Is Hell Hot?” We made one journey from South Africa to Kenya, a 2,000-mile [3,000 km] trip in our “mobile home,” and were glad by this time to have a variety of booklets in several African languages, which the local people excitedly accepted from us.

A pleasant experience for us was that on trips like this, we were able to see much African wildlife. Of course, for our safety we stayed inside the van after dark, but it was quite faith-strengthening to see such a variety of Jehovah’s animal creation in their natural state.

 Opposition Begins

While we were cautious with the wild animals, this was nothing when compared with what we needed to do in facing various government officials and some irate religious leaders who began to oppose our Kingdom-preaching work quite openly. One major problem we had to contend with was that of a fanatic who called himself Mwana Lesa, meaning “Son of God,” and his group known as Kitawala, which unfortunately means “Watchtower.” Some time before we arrived, this person had drowned numerous Africans, claiming to be baptizing them. He was eventually arrested and hanged. Later, I had the opportunity to talk with the hangman to explain that this man had had nothing to do with our Watch Tower Society.

We also had difficulties with many Europeans who, mainly for financial reasons, were not happy with our educational work. One warehouse manager complained: “If the white man is to remain in this country, the African must not discover how his cheap labor is being exploited.” For the same reason, the chief of a gold-mining company ordered me out of his office in no uncertain terms. Then he angrily escorted me all the way to the street.

No doubt largely influenced by such religious and commercial opposers, the government of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) eventually ordered us to leave the country. We appealed this decision and were successful in being allowed to stay, on condition that we did not preach to Africans. The reason given by one official was that our literature was “unsuited to the African mind.” In other countries, however, our educational work among Africans went unhindered, was even welcomed. One of these countries was Swaziland.

A Royal Welcome to Swaziland

Swaziland is a small, self-governing country of 6,704 square miles [17,364 sq km] located inside South Africa. It was here that we met the very articulate King Sobhuza II, mentioned at the outset of this account. He had a fine command of the English language, which he acquired while attending a British university. Dressed informally, he made us very welcome.

Our conversation with him centered on the earthly Paradise that God purposed for rightly disposed people. Though not greatly interested in that subject, he made it clear that a related matter was very much on his mind. The king was devoted to improving the living standards of the poor and uneducated people. He disliked the activities of many missionaries of Christendom, who appeared to be more interested in church membership than in education. The king, however, was familiar with the activity of several of our pioneers, and he commended us for our Bible education work, especially since we  were willing to do this without requiring payment or other obligations.

Bible Education Accelerates

In 1943 the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead was established for the training of missionaries. Emphasis was placed on following up all interest found rather than mainly concentrating on the placing of Bible literature. In 1950, George and I were invited to attend the 16th class of Gilead. It was here that I first met Jean Hyde, a fine Australian sister who was assigned to missionary work in Japan after we both graduated. Singleness was still very much in vogue at that time, so our friendship did not then develop any further.

After our Gilead training, George and I received a missionary assignment to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. We made friends with the people, learned their language, and conducted home Bible studies with them. Later, my younger brother William and his wife, Muriel, also graduated from Gilead. They were sent to my old preaching territory​—Kenya.

Eight years passed by quickly, and then at the international convention in New York in 1958, I met up with Jean Hyde once again. We resumed our friendship and then got engaged. My missionary assignment was changed from Mauritius to Japan, and there Jean and I were married in 1959. We then began a very happy period of missionary work in Hiroshima, where at that time there was just one small congregation. Today, there are 36 congregations in that city.

Sayonara to Japan

As the years passed, health problems for both of us began to make our missionary service increasingly difficult, and eventually it was necessary for us to leave Japan and settle in Jean’s home country, Australia. The day we left Hiroshima was a sad one. At the railway station platform, we said sayonara, or good-bye, to all our dear friends.

Now we are settled in Australia, and to the best of our limited abilities, we continue serving Jehovah with the Armidale Congregation in the state of New South Wales. What a joy it has been to share the treasure of Christian truth with so many people for almost eight decades! I have seen the marvelous growth of the Bible education program and have personally witnessed significant spiritual events. No man or group of people can claim credit for this. Truly, to borrow the psalmist’s words, “this has come to be from Jehovah himself; it is wonderful in our eyes.”​—Psalm 118:23.

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My brother George with our house car

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Me at Lake Victoria

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High school students who attended a public talk in Swaziland in 1938

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With Jean on our wedding day in 1959 and today