Peter Gregerson’s Wise and Painful Departure from the Watchtower

[Note: This article originally published in 2008 on my prior blog. Most of the information comes from an interview I conducted with Mr. Gregerson regarding his departure from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.]

Family and business man, Peter Gregerson of Gadsden, Alabama has a story to tell. It is a story of spirituality, deception, confusion, and wisdom. It is a story shared by many others who have caught a glimpse of a freeing pathway from the deceiving clutches of the Watchtower and have walked that lonely road out. It is a story that needs to be experienced by those who consider leaving the organization, those who have already exited, and those who desire to help others escape.[1]

A Faithful Witness

Peter Gregerson, born in 1928, was the oldest child of an “anointed witness.” His father, Harvey Gregerson, was one of the 144,000 of the heavenly class, according to Jehovah’s Witness theology. This was a prestigious position, and one that made young Peter all the more proud to be part of God’s exclusive organization.[2]

While living in Clinton, Iowa, as a new fifth grade student in Franklin School, Peter refused to salute the flag with the rest of his class, claiming that his only allegiance was to Jehovah. The teacher was so dismayed at such disrespect and lack of patriotism that she placed Peter in front of the class every day and attempted to force him to salute the flag, littering him with scorn. At the age of eighty, he reflects back: “That was the longest year of my life.”PeterGregerson

In his mind, this treatment was just part of being a good Witness. His father knew about this kind of treatment. He was something of a local “legend” who was regularly persecuted by drunken mobs, one of which desired to lynch him. His mother, brothers, and sisters were all faithful witnesses as well. Alienation from non-Witnesses is part of what it means to commit oneself to the Watchtower. In fact, in their minds, it is this exclusivity and imagined superiority that sets Jehovah’s Witnesses apart from others – the wicked of the world.

As Peter aged, he became more involved in the work of the religion, becoming a pioneer (or full time domestic missionary). He logged thousands of hours selling the message of the Watchtower, and was even called upon in his youth to visit various congregations and help them with diverse problems including discipline issues. He was a natural leader, extremely zealous for the faith. But his zeal led to some financial difficulties for his family. Though he was working as a janitor and had a little income, he also spent so many hours publishing the teachings of Jehovah that it became difficult to feed his family.

In a humorous personal story, he tells how he would often buy canned vegetables that were missing labels, because the price would be reduced. When the label fell off, stores would write the name of the product and the price on the outside of the can (for example: GREEN BEANS $.10). Once he bought a can that had been labeled this way and brought it home to Janet, his wife, and their two children. He was both surprised and embarrassed when he opened the can to realize it contained dog food instead of green beans! Such sacrifices are to be expected in the lives of committed believers.

Despite his early experience with poverty, Gregerson’s story is one of rags to riches. He is a clever and inventive business man who, over a period of years, saw success in the grocery industry. He moved his family to Anniston, Alabama in 1968 and soon opened his own store, Gregerson’s Warehouse Groceries, which grew into a popular local chain of stores in northern Alabama for the next thirty years; until Wal-Mart dropped the guillotine on many locally owned and operated businesses.

Throughout these years, Gregerson remained faithful to the Watchtower. He served as an Overseer of two congregations in Gadsden and as a Circuit Assembly Overseer, a position that earned him great influence over the congregations in the region. This influence was reinforced by the fact that he taught the elders school as well. He also developed many personal relationships with the central powers in Brooklyn, partly because of his great devotion to the religion, and partly because he could obtain food in large quantities for the various conventions. The Watchtower often wrote to him in great appreciation for his services and asked his advice concerning matters of the church. His family was considered a model of a family raised in “The Truth.”[3]

However, the 1970’s brought a crisis of conscience not only to Peter Gregerson, but many others caught in the web of the Watchtower organization and doctrine. For Gregerson it was a decade-long sunrise that would lead to a radical change in his life.

Crisis of Conscience

According to Watchtower teaching, frequently published in their magazines, Armageddon was to come in the fall of 1975.[4]

Gregerson openly confessed that this doctrine was highly upsetting to him, since it taught that all non-Witnesses would be killed in this cataclysmic event. As an elder in charge of teaching Watchtower doctrine at local Kingdom Hall congregations, his conscience would not allow him to convey this dooming message. He often gave excuses to various congregations, that he was not up to attending, in order to avoid teaching engagements. His dilemma: how was it that a loving God, who had come to seek and save the lost (not condemn the world), was going to destroy 99.9% of all people, just because they had not picked up a Watchtower magazine and become a Witness? [5]

One of his closest friends had set his pension up to drain over the several months leading up to “Armageddon.” Many other Jehovah’s Witnesses did the same. However, when the end did not come, a great number of people saw the fraudulent nature of the organization and left, including Gregerson’s friend. If there was a time when the entire organization might have crumbled, it was in those days just after the failed prophecy of 1975.

Since Gregerson was considered by the Watchtower as one of the “gifts in men,” he was called to Brooklyn in the fall of 1976, along with other key leaders from around the country, to meet with Milton Henschel, then Chairman of the Governing Body. [6] Because of the disaster of the unfulfilled prophecy, the leadership was open to speaking honestly and listening to suggestions for the direction of the organization (however no discussion of 1975 was allowed).

During these meetings, Peter thought deeply about some of the injustices that were occurring around the country in various Kingdom Halls. Elders were essentially treating members with great contempt and spite, rather than with love and gentleness. These stories, and the sheer number of them, broke his heart, and he began to ask the troubling question: “Why did the ‘Faithful Slave,’ under the direction of God’s Holy Spirit allow this?” [7]

His faith in the Watchtower was further shaken by his thoughts, which often kept him awake at night, that if he were pressed on the issue of blood transfusions, he could not prove that the Watchtower was the faithful slave and must be obeyed unconditionally.[8] Though he never had to face this unthinkable reality, he was often afraid of the possibility. His son David was known as a fast driver. Peter often imagined him in an auto accident in which his young son (Peter’s grandson) was injured and needing a blood transfusion, or else he would die. What would he do? What would he tell his son David to do? These nightmare scenarios made Gregerson confess, “I realized that in my fifty years I had never really done my homework.”[9]

During the late 1970’s, Gregerson’s soul was in turmoil over these doubts. His reservations were growing, but he also knew that leaving the Watchtower, after nearly fifty years of loyalty, would not be easy. His wife and her family, his children, many of the managers at his grocery stores, and most of his closest friends, were all Witnesses. And in their eyes, to leave the Watchtower is to turn one’s back on Jehovah himself, and to be essentially given a death sentence. If a person is disfellowshipped, other members are no longer allowed to speak with that “wicked” person.

During the late 1970’s Gregerson developed a relationship with reclusive Witness scholar, and member of the Governing Board since 1971, Raymond Franz, whose uncle Frederick Franz was highly influential in the development of the teachings and practices of the religion.[10] Raymond had come to a crisis in his own faith that reached an intense level in late 1979. In March 1980, he took a leave of absence from Brooklyn and lived on Gregerson’s property in Gadsden, doing yard work as a means of earning a living. Eventually, after a great deal of unfair treatment and deep injustice from the leadership in Brooklyn, Franz “resigned” his position from the Governing Body.

A year later, Peter’s conscience won the day; he decided to resign from the organization to which he had devoted his entire life. In March 1981, he wrote his letter of resignation and called Bethel headquarters to inform them of his decision. David Olsen, an overseer in the Service Department spoke with Gregerson and expressed his grief that Peter was leaving, stating, “We love you and hope you will be back soon. If you do, there will be many blessings in your future.” But Gregerson’s decision was final. This was a permanent farewell.



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Raymond Franz was also disfellowshipped after he was “caught” eating a meal with Gregerson, who was, by that time, considered by the organization to be a wicked man. As a result of his experiences, Franz authored a book documenting those difficult days; a book that opened the door of the secretive and destructive practices of the Watchtower leadership; a book that was “banned even before it was written.” [11] Many do not realize, however, that this book, aptly titled Crisis of Conscience, was written at the strong suggestions of Gregerson, who even paid Franz a weekly salary in order to enable him to write it. This book, now in its fourth edition and translated into 12 languages, has become a classic volume and has been used to shake many Jehovah’s Witnesses out of the dark stupor cast over them by the Watchtower.[12]

A High Price to Pay

The months after leaving the organization were painful for Gregerson, especially since his was a high profile exit. The February 22, 1982 edition of Time magazine ran an article written by Richard N. Ostling called “Witness Under Prosecution,” featuring Raymond Franz’s story and mentioning Gregerson. Also, Larry King, who was hosting a national radio show at the time, conversed with Gregerson on the air about his departure. In Peter’s mind this was unfortunate because the interview happened at a time when he was extremely angry at the Watchtower, and he made some regrettable comments in the heat of the moment, which his sister heard on the broadcast and later held against him. Leaving the Watchtower brings with it an extremely high price to pay in the social realm.[14]

Janet Gregerson’s mother had once conveyed that she would rather see her daughter’s family spread out across the road in a horrible automobile accident than to see them ever abandon the teachings of the Watchtower. In spite of this disappointment, Janet followed her husband out of the tight grasp of a false prophet. Relationships for the Gregerson’s, however, began snapping like twigs.

Peter’s close friend, mentioned above, who had left the Watchtower after the failed prophecy of 1975, had since returned to the organization. He did so because his son had committed suicide, and JW leadership informed him that the only way he would ever see his son again was to rejoin God’s organization. He did, but with one condition – he wanted the right to speak to his old friend Peter one last time. This happened one day when they both happened to be in the same medical office. “Peter,” he said, “I love you. Good-bye. I will never speak to you again.”

Likewise, Gregerson’s sister, the same one who had heard the King broadcast, came to Alabama attempting to persuade her brother to return to Jehovah. Peter treated her with great kindness, but maintained his stance against the Watchtower. In spite of their many years of closeness, she also vowed never to speak to him again, and in the more than twenty-five years since she made it, she has kept her vow. These types of heartbreaking moments are all too familiar for those who leave the Watchtower.

On a more positive note, Gregerson speaks about his seven children with a sparkle in his eye. All seven of them came out of the organization. This was of great importance to Peter, since he and his wife Janet would have been counted as dead to them. The fact that all seven exited was truly miraculous, because many of his children were in leadership positions in the organization and some had married other Jehovah’s Witnesses. So they were deeply entrenched in the faith. Nowadays, they gather on special occasions (especially Christmas) with all the children, and with the twenty-two grandchildren, praising God that not one of them was left within the deceptions of the Watchtower.

In spite of the painful cost of leaving, Gregerson believes that the price is worth paying. The “Faithful Servant” is a false organization that deceives in order to control millions of people. The pain of leaving is a pain that they cause. It is difficult and confusing to depart, but the end result is much better. Living under the domineering reign of a false organization is utterly devastating.

A Unique Voice

In the years since his departure, Gregerson has lent his wisdom and experience to helping others who are trapped in Watchtower mire. In his labor he speaks from a distinctive perspective. This is so, first of all, because of his long association with the organization. He was not a fly-by-night member or a short-term guest just checking things out. Rather he spent fifty years of his life as a faithful and zealous worker. In all of his years of membership and service, until his resignation, he was never disciplined for any action, but rather was appreciated and promoted.

Secondly, Gregerson brings to the table the expertise of an insider. He was not an average Kingdom Hall attendee, but rather rubbed elbows with people on the highest rungs of leadership. Besides his association with Raymond Franz, he was also close friends with the longtime editor of Awake magazine, Colin Quackenbush. Why are Gregerson’s associations with key leaders important? Because many Jehovah’s Witnesses are unaware of the inner working of their organization, but Gregerson knows it well. He has seen the deception and cover-up in a close and personal way. And because of his long and faithful love for the organization, he would have no motivation to lie about the things he saw.

Thirdly, Gregerson speaks with a unique voice because he is a careful researcher. As an elder, he was considered for years to be the teaching authority in several congregations. His departure from the Watchtower came about partially because his study of the Bible did not mesh in many places with official Jehovah’s Witness positions, especially when it came to the issue of Armageddon. After he left the organization, he was instrumental in gathering together a group of mostly former Jehovah’s Witnesses to study the Scriptures. Biblical Research and Commentary International was born from initial meetings at his lake house. This group continues to hold annual conferences and help many people out of the Watchtower.

His careful research can be seen in a speech prepared for the BRCI 2008 convention, in which he asks and answers the question, “Is the Watchtower God’s Only Organization?” This speech is not only personal, but also detailed and meticulous; showing that if the Watchtower is not the “Faithful Slave” of Matthew 24:45-47, then the entire organization falls. He explains how the Watchtower takes these three verses out of context and essentially extends ownership over all things, including people, on the basis of their belief that they are the “Faithful Slave.” He then smashes their argument by showing that the book which was supposed to have established them as the “Faithful Slave” in 1918-1919, The Finished Mystery, is nothing more than a collection of silly sayings and false prophecies. This is why Gregerson says with tongue-in-cheek, “The Watchtower doesn’t even make this remarkable book available for purchase.”[16]

Because of his careful research and analysis of the Bible and Watchtower literature, Gregerson has concluded that the organization is a false prophet. He would urge Jehovah’s Witnesses to utilize their God-given reasoning ability to see this fact. He offers this advice: “When a false prophet has been exposed and condemned by God – the Bible says, ‘Be not afraid.’”[17]

One final reason for Gregerson’s unique voice is his loving and gentle spirit. In spite of some of his more heated comments early after his departure, he is not angry with the people of the Watchtower, but still considers many of them to be dear friends. He does not convey ill feeling, but rather longs for people to be free from the noose of false religion. One of the first shadows of doubt that flooded over him concerning the truthfulness of the Watchtower came in the wake of the way members were often treated harshly by elders. Gregerson cares about people and reads in the Bible about a God who cares about people, and could not make sense of such harsh treatment. This type of gentleness and love is exactly what people need who leave and are then alienated by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Conclusion

On Sunday, July 27, on his eightieth birthday, Peter Gregerson was baptized at the First Baptist Church of Gadsden, twenty-seven years after his departure from the Watchtower. The bumpy road he has traveled, and the story he tells, is one to be deeply considered. His crisis of conscience was not unique, but his voice is. It is the voice of one who was formerly faithful to a false prophet, whose careful research (along with the grace of God) led him from the clutch of deception. May his gentle and experienced voice be used of God as a beacon of hope to any who are stuck in the swamp of Watchtower control and are looking for the way out.

Online resources for those considering following Peter Gregerson:

Witnesses for Jesus, Inc – www.4jehovah.org – This site contains many other stories of those who have left the Watchtower.

Free Minds – Watchers of the Watchtower World – www.freeminds.org – This site contains a number of articles revealing details of Watchtower deception through the years.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses Reformation Movement – www.jwreform.org – This site was constructed by current and former Witnesses who are seeking to change the structure of the organization from the inside. They believe that the Watchtower is still valid as God’s organization, even though its reputation has been shattered by the many false prophecies and scandals littering its history. Though its stance is misguided (if the organization is a false prophet then it is most certainly invalid) it is included in this list to show that concerns about the validity of the Watchtower come from both without and within the organization.

Notes

[1] A list of some helpful resources is provided above.

[2] Much of the personal information in this article was given in a personal interview with Mr. Gregerson, conducted July 25, 2008 in Birmingham, Alabama.

[3] Peter V. Gregerson, “Is the Watchtower God’s Only Organization?” This is a speech presented at the 2008 BRCI conference in which Mr. Gregerson quotes snippets from several letters written to him from the Brooklyn headquarters. One of these stated, “The society is looking for stories for publication involving brothers who successfully raised families in The Truth. You’ve successfully raised a fine family of seven children. Your wife has been an excellent example also,” 5.

[4] For example, in Awake (October 8, 1968), 14: “How can it be determined when 6,000 years of human history will end? According to reliable Bible chronology, Adam and Eve were created in 4026 B.C.E. This would leave only seven more years from the autumn of 1968 to complete 6,000 full years of human history. That seven-year period will evidently finish in the autumn of the year 1975.”

[5] John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

[6] Henschel would later be named president, a position he held from 1992-2000.

[7] Gregerson, 6.

[8] The belief that receiving a blood transfusion is the same as eating blood, and therefore a transgression of Leviticus 17:10, was introduced into Watchtower doctrine in 1945.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Frederick Franz served as president of the organization from 1977-1992, and is often considered one of its chief theologians. He was an active participant in their New World Translation first published in 1950.

[11] David Reed, “Crisis of Conscience,”http://www.freeminds.org/sales/most_burned.htm[accessed July 26, 2008].

[12] Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, (Atlanta: Commentary Press, 2002). Mr. Gregerson’s story is told briefly on pages 295-296. Plus, several letters photocopied in the appendix, 415-427, from Mr. Franz to the Watchtower authorities, discuss the eating incident with Mr. Gregerson that led to Mr. Franz being disfellowshipped. For reader’s comments, see the book’s Amazon page.

[13] Richard N. Ostling, “Witness Under Prosecution,” Time, February 22, 1982, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,922767,00.html[accessed July 31, 2008].

[14] Franz, Crisis of Conscience, 1-7

[15] Her reasoning was theological, since the Watchtower teaches that if a Witness dies before Armageddon, there is a possibility of resurrection.

[16] Gregerson, 21.

[17] Ibid., 32.