Ninety Years Ago I Began to ‘Remember My Grand Creator’
As told by Edwin Ridgwell
ON Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, children at my school were unexpectedly assembled to celebrate the end of the Great War, later called World War I. I was only five years old and did not fully understand the occasion. Still, I knew from what my parents had taught me about God that I did not want to be part of the ceremony. I prayed to God, but then my emotions got the better of me, and I began to cry. Yet, I did not share in the celebration. That was the beginning of my ‘remembering my Grand Creator.’—Eccl. 12:1.
Some months before this incident at school, our family had moved to live near Glasgow in Scotland. About that time, Father attended the public talk entitled “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” It changed his life. Father and Mother began studying the Bible and often talked together about God’s Kingdom and the blessings to come. I thank God that from then on my parents brought me up to love God and to put my trust in him.—Prov. 22:6.
Beginning My Full-Time Ministry
At age 15, I qualified for higher education, but I really wanted to serve as a full-time minister. Father felt that I was too young, so I worked in an office for some time. However, the desire to serve Jehovah full-time was so strong that one day I wrote a letter to J. F. Rutherford, who was overseeing the worldwide preaching work at that time. I asked him what he thought about my plans. Brother Rutherford wrote back: “If you are old enough to work, you are old enough to engage in the Lord’s service. . . . I believe the Lord will bless you if you put forth an effort to faithfully serve Him.” That letter, dated March 10, 1928, moved our family. Before long, Father, Mother, my older sister, and I were serving as full-time ministers.
In 1931 at a convention in London, Brother Rutherford called for volunteers to spread the good news in foreign lands. I volunteered, and along with Andrew Jack, I was assigned to Kaunas, then the capital of Lithuania. I was 18 years old.
Preaching the Kingdom Message Abroad
At the time, Lithuania was an impoverished agricultural society, and preaching in the rurals posed challenges. Accommodations were difficult to obtain, and some lodging places we remembered for a long time. For instance, one night Andrew and I woke up because we felt uncomfortable. After we lit the oil lamp, we saw that the bed was covered with hundreds of bedbugs. We were bitten from head to foot! Each morning for a week, I had to stand up to my neck in the cold water of a nearby river to ease the pain. Still, we were determined to carry on in the ministry. Soon thereafter, the lodging problem was solved when we met a young couple who had embraced Bible truth. They took us into their home, which was tiny but clean. We gladly slept on the floor, and what a relief it was!
Lithuania was then dominated by the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox clergy. Only the rich could afford a Bible. Our main objective was to cover as much territory as possible and to leave as much Bible literature as we could with interested ones. First, we would find accommodations in a town. Next, we cautiously covered outlying areas, and then we rapidly covered the town itself. In that way, we could usually finish our work before the local priests could stir up trouble for us.
Causing a Stir and Receiving Publicity
In 1934, Andrew was assigned to work in the branch office in Kaunas, and John Sempey became my partner. We had some memorable experiences. One day, I visited a solicitor’s office in a small town. The man became angry, pulled a pistol from a drawer, and ordered me to leave. I prayed silently and remembered the Bible counsel: “An answer, when mild, turns away rage.” (Prov. 15:1) So I said, “I came here as a friend with a message of good news, and I thank you for your restraint.” The man’s finger on the trigger of his gun relaxed, and I cautiously backed out of his office.
When I rejoined John, he told me that he too had had quite an experience. He had been taken to the police station because he was falsely accused of stealing a banknote of high value from a woman whom he had met. At the station, John was strip-searched. Of course, he did not have the banknote. Later they caught the real thief.
Both events caused quite a stir in that otherwise quiet township and resulted in extensive free publicity for our work!
A risky assignment was to take Bible literature into neighboring Latvia, where our preaching was banned. About once a month, we made trips to Latvia on a night train. At times, after dropping off literature, we traveled on to Estonia to pick up more literature, which we left in Latvia on our return trip.
On one occasion, a customs officer had been tipped off regarding our activity and demanded that we leave the train and bring the literature to his superior officer. John and I both prayed to Jehovah to help us. Surprisingly, the officer did not tell his superior what we were carrying but simply said, “These men have something to declare.” I “declared” what I described as literature that would help people in schools and colleges to understand the significance of what was happening in our very troubled world. The customs officer waved us through, and we safely made our deliveries.
As the political situation in the Baltic States deteriorated, anti-Witness sentiments grew and our preaching work was banned in Lithuania as well. Andrew and John were deported, and with World War II looming, all British subjects were advised to leave. I too left—with sadness.
Privileges and Blessings in Northern Ireland
By then my parents had moved to Northern Ireland, and in 1937, I joined them there. Our literature had also been banned in Northern Ireland because of wartime hysteria, but we continued to preach throughout the war. After World War II, our work could again be carried on without legal restraint. Harold King, an experienced pioneer who later served as a missionary in China, took the lead in sponsoring open-air public talks. “This Saturday,” he said, “I will give the first open-air talk.” He looked at me and said, “You will give the talk next Saturday.” I was shocked.
I vividly remember my first talk. Hundreds of people were present. I delivered it while standing on a box and speaking without the help of any sound equipment. At the end of the talk, a man approached me, shook my hand, and introduced himself as Bill Smith. He said that he had noticed the crowd and stopped to see what was going on. It turned out that Bill had previously been contacted by my father but had lost contact with him when Father and my stepmother moved to Dublin to pioneer there. We started a Bible study. In time, nine members of Bill’s family became servants of Jehovah.
Later I called at large villas on the outskirts of Belfast, where I met a Russian woman who had lived in Lithuania. When I showed her some literature, she pointed to one book and said: “I have that one. My uncle who is a professor at the university in Kaunas gave it to me.” She showed me the book Creation, in Polish. The margins were filled with notes. How surprised she was to learn that I was the person who had initially given the book to her uncle when I met him in Kaunas!—Eccl. 11:1.
When John Sempey heard that I was going to Northern Ireland, he asked me to call on his younger sister, Nellie, as she had shown some interest in Bible truth. My sister Connie and I conducted a Bible study with her. Nellie made rapid progress and dedicated her life to Jehovah. In time, we pursued a courtship and were married.
Nellie and I spent 56 years together in Jehovah’s service and were privileged to help more than a hundred people come to a knowledge of Bible truth. We had hoped to live on together through Armageddon into Jehovah’s new world, but the cruel enemy death snatched her in 1998. That was a devastating blow—one of the greatest trials of my life.
Return to the Baltic States
About a year after Nellie died, I received a wonderful blessing. I was invited to visit the branch office in Tallinn, Estonia. A letter from the brothers in Estonia explained: “Out of ten brothers who were assigned to the Baltic States in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, you are the only one still alive.” It further said that the branch was preparing a history of the work in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and then it asked: “Can you come?”
What a privilege to recount the experiences that my partners and I had had in those early years! In Latvia, I was able to show the brothers the original apartment that was used as a branch office and the roof-space where we hid our literature, which was never found by the police. In Lithuania, I was taken to a little town called Šiauliai, where I had pioneered. At a gathering there, a brother told me: “Many years ago my mother and I bought a house in town. We were clearing rubbish out of the attic, and I came across the books The Divine Plan of the Ages and The Harp of God. When I read them, I realized that I had found the truth. You must have been the one who left those books at that house so many years ago!”
I also attended a circuit assembly in a town where I had pioneered. I had attended an assembly there 65 years earlier. Back then, there were 35 in attendance. But what a delight it was to look out over an audience of 1,500! How Jehovah has blessed the work!
‘Jehovah Did Not Leave Me’
Recently I received a totally unexpected blessing when a lovely Christian sister named Bee agreed to be my wife. We were married in November 2006.
I can assure any young person wondering what to do with his life that there is much wisdom in heeding the inspired words: ‘Remember your Grand Creator in the days of your young manhood.’ I can now rejoice, as the Bible psalmist did: “God, you have taught me from my youth on, and until now I keep telling about your wonderful works. And even until old age and gray-headedness, O God, do not leave me, until I may tell about your arm to the generation, to all those who are to come, about your mightiness.”—Ps. 71:17, 18.
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A risky assignment was to take literature into Latvia
Gulf of Riga
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I began serving as a colporteur (pioneer) at age 15 in Scotland
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With Nellie at our wedding, 1942