He wears a crumpled tan trench coat, stretched tight against his protruding belly; his blue shirt hangs open at the top, un-tucked at the bottom. Black pants hang loose- all the way down to the ankles – where his feet seem to scream in agony. Dress shoes have been replaced with black flat-bottomed slip-on sneakers with white borders.
Pushing a shopping cart full of whiskey bottles,
He’s not homeless. He’s not hungry. He’s Tony Morris, and he’s the brash, outspoken, often controversial co-leader of the worldwide religious movement known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When Tony’s not seated at the helm of the multi-million dollar internet program “JW Broadcasting”, he’s jet-setting around the world in style, wearing pin-striped suits, gold jewelry, and silk pocket squares.
But not today.
Today Tony is just a man slipping across the border between New York and New Jersey, purchasing at least a dozen bottles of very expensive alcohol at the Ramsey Bottle King on Route 17.
“I used to just test ’em out and taste ’em” he says to another customer. “Yeah, … I’ve been to Scotland a number of times…I’m a little Scottish and Irish, so..I’m not prejudiced.” He gets a laugh from the customer.
It’s raining hard in Ramsey. Tony, wearing a black ascot cap, waddles under his own weight while pushing the bottle-laden shopping cart into the parking lot. By now, he’s discarded the ornate boxes which come with those pricey containers of scotch, and he’s managed to squeeze all that booze into the back seat of his white Cadillac. He drives off, presumably back to the multi-billion dollar corporate headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s Sunday morning. 11 AM.
It all seems so indulgent.
It’s no secret that consumption of alcohol at Jehovah’s Witness branch offices around the globe is not only a favorite
Witnesses take their cue from the Biblical passage at 1 Timothy chapter 5, verse 23, which says:
“Do not drink water any longer, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent cases of sickness”
It’s a free pass to drink, stomach ache or not.
My closest friends graduated high school back in the 1980s. One by one they applied and were accepted – not into university- but into the World Headquarters complex of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was considered the highest goal a young Witness could attain. Some of them are still there.
I grappled with pressure to apply for “Bethel” service. I was torn between the JW-endorsed meccas of Brooklyn and Wallkill and the freedom of life in the real world. One elder in my congregation, who had spent 6 years there, told me: “Bethel is no paradise, make no mistake. It’s full of politics, homosexuality, stress- and you’re not likely to get the job you want.”
The cons outweighed the pros- and I did not apply.
For years I trekked back and forth from Baltimore to spend weekends inside the Brooklyn complex, exploring the tunnels and bridges which connected the still-expanding network of real estate. It was purchased for many thousands, later sold for hundreds of millions.
I envisioned unity, kindness, friendships- a paradise amidst the unsettling and violent world around me. I loved the clean, manicured buildings – maintained in part by my friend Raymond. Ray was a gifted writer – yet found himself dangling from scaffolding each day of the week, pressure washing the filth which coated Watchtower’s wealth. He hated that job.
Raymond and my other friends quickly acquired a taste for alcohol in Brooklyn.
I had never even considered that this was a thing, but it was.
It was, for me, confirmation that Bethel was no utopia. While the female housekeepers were instructed to report any “questionable” music or reading material found inside the dorm-style rooms, bottles of whiskey and bourbon were left untouched. Alcohol was their coping mechanism.
The history of alcohol at Watchtower headquarters goes back a long way. Tales of Watchtower president Rutherford’s drinking are legendary. According to Watchtower historian Jim Penton, the Canadian Branch Overseer Walter Salter penned an open letter to Rutherford in 1937, in which he accused the president of heavy drinking and hypocrisy.
“Salter claimed that [Rutherford] had purchased ‘whiskey at $60.00 dollars a case ‘ for the Watchtower president ‘and cases of brandy and other liquors, to say nothing of untold cases of beer,’ all with the society’s money”
Penton goes on to describe Salter’s grievances regarding Rutherford, stating that “he sends us out from door to door to face the enemy while he goes from ‘drink to drink’ and tells us if we don’t, we are going to be destroyed.”
Rutherford, an attorney and fill-in judge, acquired control of the Watchtower organization following the death of Charles Russell in 1916. One year later, Congress proposed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the manufacturing and sale of intoxicating liquor. Congress ratified the Amendment in 1919.
Rutherford was furious.
The “judge” used his religious platform to attack the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) – the organization which lobbied for Prohibition. The ASL was inspired largely by evangelical Protestant groups who felt that alcohol was responsible for the decay of society.
The Watchtower President became increasingly critical of the U.S. Government, and in 1930 he gave a speech named “Prohibition, League of Nations – Born of God or the Devil, Which?” This speech was transcribed into a 66 page booklet bearing the same name as the speech.
“The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is clearly in violation of God’s expressed law, and especially so because America claims to be a Christian nation…
“I have submitted to you a number of Bible texts plainly stating that Jehovah God approves the making, possession, or use of wine. There is not one text to be found in the Bible that prohibits the making, possession, or use of wine.”
In 1933, Congress adopted the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition ended. Rutherford celebrated.
Within ten years, Rutherford was dead, and the new president of Watchtower, Nathan Knorr, expanded the Jehovah’s Witness religious empire. Knorr launched the “Gilead” missionary school while soliciting money from Jehovah’s Witness members to purchase more Brooklyn real estate- including the massive Squibb complex.
Knorr’s presidency marked a new era in the development of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For the first time,
Knorr became the business end of the JWs- and Frederick W. Franz emerged as the Religion’s oracle.
While Franz pontificated on the visions of Ezekiel and Revelation, Knorr sent missionaries into the field, launched the Theocratic Ministry School, and gobbled up more and more property in Brooklyn.
Like Rutherford, Knorr knew how to take the edge off.
In Apocalypse Delayed, third edition, author Jim Penton states:
“Since Rutherford’s death, drinking has continued to be common at Bethel and Watch Tower officials who can afford to do so will have cabinets well stocked with expensive liquors. Even the business-like no-nonsense Nathan Knorr is still renowned among Bethelites, Witness missionaries, and former personal friends for the twenty-year-old Bell’s Scotch Whiskey which he would serve to
Richard Kelly arrived in Brooklyn in 1962, full of optimism. He stepped off the train, haled a taxi, and by the afternoon he received his first assignment: smashing bottles.
According to Kelly’s 2008 autobiography Growing up in Mama’s club: A Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses:
“They sent me to work right away, breaking beer, wine, and hard liquor bottles into unrecognizable shards. This was done so that the worldly people who picked up the trash wouldn’t see how much alcohol was consumed at Bethel, which was significant.”
Kelly soon discovered that the use of alcohol went straight to the top of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. He continues:
“By mid-afternoon, with the sounds of breaking glass still reverberating in my head, I was escorted to a nearby five-story brownstone. Here my job was to clean the apartment on the second floor. About thirty minutes into my work I realized I was cleaning Hayden Covington’s Home. He was the [organization’s] attorney and a keynote speaker…But that day, in the presence of his redheaded wife and small children, Covington wore a suit that he must have slept in the night before, looked like he had been drinking, and rattled off expletives… This was my first exposure to the double standards for the [organization’s] top officials.”
Kelly’s instincts regarding Covington proved to be accurate.
Hayden C. Covington was a Texas native, born in 1911, and died November 21st, 1978. While Watchtower recounts his legal victories with great admiration, his legendary alcoholism was omitted from the pages of the organization’s literature. As was his disfellowshipping for the same vice.
Covington served as Watchtower’s chief counsel from 1939 to 1963, and was, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only non-“anointed” Governing Body member in Watchtower’s history.
There is no doubt that his alcoholism and subsequent disfellowshipping eliminated his chances of a life-history profile in the pages of the Watchtower, but his wife Dorothy Covington did receive an honorable bio in the JW.org “newsroom” when she passed away in 2015.
John Young sits quietly in his Kentucky home, waiting for his husband to come home from work. “That’s my therapy dog” he says jokingly, as he pauses for a moment, recalling events from 1989, while petting Lucy.
“I put them in a box,” says John, referring to his mental images and recollections from the year of his life spent at Watchtower’s headquarters in Brooklyn. “Most of the memories I cemented in a vault like Yucca Mountain.”
As we spoke, he opened the vault.
John was just 19 years old when he arrived in New York. He was raised by a devout Jehovah’s Witness family, and while battling his own issues with alcohol, he suddenly found himself in the one place which was not an alcohol-free zone:
“Bethel had its own alcohol-abuse program,” said John, “and I volunteered to go see one of their doctors.”
John described the assortment of in-house medical personnel at Brooklyn headquarters, a hodge-podge of physicians who worked for free, and catered to the thousands of Witness workers who swarmed Brooklyn Heights.
“Then they assigned me to Franz. I was considered one of the more spiritually-exemplary young Bethelites back in 1989, and they designated me as a babysitter for President Franz.”
By the time John had arrived in Bethel, Franz had replaced Knorr as president of the Watchtower Society, following Knorr’s death in 1978.
He describes working a full day at headquarters, then immediately running over to the Watchtower president’s residence to sit with him during the 6 PM to midnight shift. He would do it all over again the next day.
“I was just 19 at the time, and it was against the law to drink*. So it distressed me very much that the president of the organization would frequently call me over and say ‘grab me a beer from the fridge, son- and while you’re over there, grab one for yourself.'”
[* In 1985, the State of New York raised the drinking age from 19 to 21. Persons under 21 were prohibited from purchasing or possessing alcohol with the intent to consume, unless given by their parent or legal guardian.]
John described Franz’ refrigerator.
“It was a full-sized fridge- not one of those tiny ones we Bethelites had. But they brought Franz his meals, so there really wasn’t any food in the fridge. Just a few snacks. And beer. It wasn’t unusual for him to drink 4 or 5 beers.”
It seemed a foregone conclusion that everyone working at Bethel would not only handle their liquor – they would embrace it, and Watchtower’s president was no exception.
In Vino Veritas
It means, in wine there is
A few years ago, Raymond, now a Circuit Overseer, and his wife Leslie sat in my garden, adjacent to the running waterfall. We were relaxed, closing out the day with a meal grilled outside. The weather was perfect, and so was the wine.
Earlier that day, Leslie told me that a bottle of wine gifted by another friend was very nice. She lied.
She hated it. Of course, I would never have known this, had she not sipped her way into that confession.
We enjoyed a different bottle of something she really liked, so much so that her inhibitions melted quickly, and by the end of the evening, she was slurring her words, emphatically proclaiming how horrible that home-made bottle of wine was, much to our surprise. The addition of expensive Scotch and Grand Marnier surely played a role in her abrupt honesty.
Raymond was right there with her- a missionary and well-respected traveling elder – savoring the fine spirits. The same sort approved by Governing Body member Tony Morris.
On another occasion, Raymond and Leslie took me to the apartment of a Circuit Overseer in Columbia, Maryland. The lovely couple prepared a nice meal for the six of us. The moment we arrived, we were obliged to answer but one question.
“Do you drink gin and tonic?” the traveling Overseer asked.
“I’ve never had one” I replied, “But I’ll give it a try.” And so we drank. And drank. And ate. And before long, the in vino veritas principle kicked in, and I found myself listening to two Circuit Overseers debate why so many Jehovah’s Witnesses were now declaring themselves “anointed”- or heaven-bound brothers of Christ who believe they will soon be immortal. I’ll leave that story for another day.
Raymond was my best friend during my high-school years, and somewhere between his departure for Brooklyn Bethel and subsequent graduation from Gilead Missionary School, he had acquired an upscale taste in alcohol. It all seemed to correspond to his increased responsibility in the JW organization. Pioneering. Bethel. Leaving Bethel. Pioneering. Missionary School. Africa. Circuit Overseer. Stress. Medication. Alcohol.
The more he was expected to do- the more he drank. And I suppose when you examine the life of Tony Morris, it’s not much different.
Tony’s rise to the top was meteoric and unexpected. You see- he’s older than me, but oddly enough I’ve attended meetings at least three years longer than Tony. He was baptized July of 1971, just four years before Watchtower’s inferred Armageddon date of 1975.
In Morris’ own account of his life, he recalls the horrors of Vietnam, where he served as a medic:
“As I sat behind the Kingdom Hall where no one could see me, the memories of Vietnam—the smell of burned human flesh and the sight of blood and gore—began to overwhelm me. ” – Watchtower, May 2015
Tony no doubt returned from Vietnam as did so many others- with post-traumatic stress. And this often leads to alcoholism. Whether or not he suffers from this disease-, we can’t say. But one thing is certain- Morris seems transfixed by death and
In 2018, Morris described Armageddon to a crowd gathered in Trinidad and Tobago:
“So here in Trinidad…[there’s] gonna be dead people everywhere…oh yeah. It’s gonna shake you up. You’re probably gonna be down on your knees. But that’s what’s coming- it’s a reality.”
I often ponder what goes through the mind of someone who has witnessed the bloodshed in Vietnam, then projects the very same violence upon the entire world, but with God as the architect of death.
While uneducated, poverty-stricken Jehovah’s Witnesses languish in Eritrean and Russian prisons, and Witness children are urged to donate their ice cream money, Morris and his seven co-leaders sip Whiskey and enjoy the wealth of a multi-billion dollar religious organization, nestled in New York’s lush and tranquil Sterling Forest.
I see nothing wrong with sharing a drink with friends. But for what it’s worth, if the end of this world is imminent and lives are at stake, I’d think this religion’s spiritual leader might show a little more discretion, and a little less indulgence.
But I’m not Tony.
While the Alcohol culture at the Jehovah’s Witness global compounds is cause for concern, JW Survey does not endorse the opinion that all Witnesses drink or abuse alcohol.