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Interview with: Herbert McKelvy
Date: August 14, 1975
Archive Number: OH 116
HM Herbert McKelvy, Interviewee
MI Male Interviewer
MI: Interview with Herbert McKelvy, August 14, 1975. Mr McKelvy, when did you first come to Houston, or are you a native Houstonian?
HM: I came in 1920. I was born in Rosenberg and reared in Wharton and came to Houston in 1920.
MI: Were there many Witnesses in Houston at that time?
HM: Very few. Probably 60.
MI: Approximately how many Witnesses are there today?
HM: Ten to twelve thousand.
MI: Has there been an active missionary effort on the part of other areas of the country to increase the number of Witnesses in Houston?
HM: Yes. At one time, the Houston congregation worked ten counties, from the coast as far as Huntsville and from east at Liberty as far as Eagle Lake. That territory was our assignment to work in as missionaries.
MI: When you came to Houston in 1920, did you have the idea in mind that you would work to increase the number of Witnesses in the area?
HM: Well, I was not actually associated in the sense that I was an active Witness at that time. I didn’t become active until 1922 and was dedicated in 1924 and was made the presiding overseer in 1928.
MI: How many Kingdom Halls are there in Houston today?
HM: About 55.
MI: And in 1920, when you first came, about how many Kingdom Halls were there?
HM: [02:05] We didn’t have any Kingdom Hall then. We met in the Odd Fellows Hall downtown over one of the store buildings.
MI: I would be curious—when was the first Kingdom Hall built in Houston?
HM: In 1941—first Kingdom Hall as such. We had a meeting place over on Harvard Street that was owned by one of the members as a store building that we used, but we built the Kingdom Hall in 1941 at 2029 Harold Street.
MI: In these 55 years, it would seem that you have achieved substantial growth.
HM: Yes, that’s true.
MI: To what do you attribute your success?
HM: Missionary efforts and Jehovah spirit.
MI: What do you mean by Jehovah spirit?
HM: Well, the spirit of brotherly love and helping one another and working together in cooperation. That has given strength to the organization and to the individuals to carry on the work.
MI: On the average, how many hours a week would a dedicated Witness spend in missionary work?
HM: Well, it would vary. We have what we designate as a full-time pioneer or missionary that is dedicated to put in 100 hours a month in the active preaching work. In addition to this, of course, he attends studies and attends meetings and carries on work of shepherding—visiting the sick and things of that kind. But the actual preaching work—as we do it from door-to-door ordinarily—would require 100 hours. Then we have others that put in less—much less. Some would average probably ten hours a month.
MI: Earlier you said that it wasn’t until 1924 that you became a dedicated Witness. Now is that a stage that everyone passes through?
HM: [04:27] Yes, that’s a stage in which baptism is performed. A person dedicates his life to Jehovah, and then he is baptized and becomes from that time onward a dedicated Witness of Jehovah.
MI: And it would be expected that after a person becomes a dedicated Witness, they would do more missionary work?
MI: Besides yourself, who are some of the men and women who have been active in bringing Houstonians into the ranks of the Witnesses—especially in the early days?
HM: We had a brother Isaac who was very active here for many years. Of course, he is dead now, and his son then succeeded him, and he was active for many years—he’s also dead. But they were a well known Houston family. The Isaac’s operated a repair—buggy repair—shop over on Washington Avenue and were very influential in the Methodist Church at one time. And when Mr Isaac become associated with the Bible students—as they were known then—he began to engage in missionary work and shortly had organized a congregation here in Houston.
MI: Would you profile for us the average—and I know there is no one average—but a typical Jehovah’s Witness in Houston? What are his concerns? What is his background? Does he often come from a minority group?
HM: Well, many of the Witnesses now who are active in the work have been second and third generation Witnesses—so to speak. Their grandparents and their parents were Witnesses before them. My grandmother became a Bible student—as they were called then—in about 1885, and my father, who followed her was an elder in the congregation from 1906 or 1907 on, and then, of course, I followed in 1924. Others, of course, have followed a similar course, but most of these people have been working people. My father was a railroad man, and I followed him as a railroad man as doing secular work and preaching, of course, on Sunday and Saturday and times of this kind but not— I was a full time minister from 1948 until 1962.
MI: Now, by elder and minister are we talking about the same thing?
HM: [07:35] No, not necessarily. An elder is one, according to the Bible, who has been set aside as a special representative of the congregation. For instance, we have a seven elders in our congregation, and they are specially appointed by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society after being recommended by the congregation as an older man or one who is advanced in the learning and teachings of the truths or tenets of the society. These elders are men that normally have a governing effect on the congregation. They will rotate from time to time. Each year, one of these elders becomes a presiding overseer or chairman of the group of elders, and as a chairman, he supervises the congregation to a certain extent. But he is not the only elder or the only supervisor. He is assisted by the other six in our congregation.
MI: As the supervisor, is he in charge of lecturing at the service or is anyone free to speak their mind?
HM: Well, only the elders and ministerial servants would speak at our congregation. If we had a call from some other congregation to give a public lecture, we would send an elder in that field—not a ministerial servant—so there is that distinction. A ministerial servant is one that many of the churches use in a lesser capacity than an elder, and we do the same thing. So the ministerial servant is a step up from the regular congregation publisher, and eventually he probably will become an elder too.
MI: Would you briefly describe what goes on at a service? Is there any set format for the service, or is it fairly loose?
HM: You mean the service in the congregation?
MI: In the hall.
HM: Yes, it is—it’s a set ritual to an extent. For instance, we would start the service with a song, and then we would have a prayer, and then a man would speak from the Bible, giving certain text with explanations as to what this particular subject that he’s discussing refers to and how it pertains to the congregation generally as a whole. For instance, if he’s talking about faith, he examines the scriptures on faith and shows what is necessary in order to demonstrate faith and how that faith is the basis of our belief in God and that this faith must be exercised in order to be kept strong, and in exercising this faith, we demonstrate by works the things that we actually believe and talk about.
MI: [11:22] Now, does this ritual vary from hall to hall?
HM: Similar in all halls.
MI: Similar in all halls. Have you noticed any differences in the behavior of Houston Witnesses and those Witnesses that live in, let’s say, rural Texas?
HM: They’re similar. All Witnesses will give you the same answer to any question you ask them. They will tell you their life pattern is very similar to those exercised by all Witnesses worldwide, and they are a body or one group gathered together as a union under Christ Jesus as their leader. And they don’t each go their separate way. They will all conform to very strict rituals.
MI: The essential belief of your religion is the eminence of Armageddon and the establishment of a new world thereafter. Do you personally believe that you will see the end in your own lifetime?
HM: Well, that would be difficult to say. I might die tonight, but logically speaking, we believe that there is a group of people on the earth today who will live to see that condition. What they are and who they are, of course, only God knows. But we can hope that we will be of that class.
MI: What form will Armageddon take?
HM: Well, it’s described in the Bible as a battle of God the Almighty that will destroy those who are fighting against Christ Jesus as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—that he will take his power—having done this in 1914—and begun to reign them. He will continue to reign until he destroys all those who are opposed to his reign over the earth.
MI: I couldn’t help but note that there had been some criticism of this believe in Armageddon—not from within the ranks of the Witnesses but from outside. And specifically in 1945 a man named Herbert Stroup wrote, “Under the compulsion of an idea of a utopian future, most Witnesses refuse to cooperate with any agency which seeks to ameliorate the yields of life.” Is that true?
HM: [14:11] Well, it’s according to what you mean by that word ameliorate—to whatever you’re speaking there. If you’re talking about a perpetuating of this system of things with its corruption and crime and death and sorrow, then we would certainly be opposed to that. In preference to that, we would look to God’s kingdom as a hope for mankind to alleviate the things that are plaguing man today. For instance, when you think that now we have enough atomic bombs stored that could destroy all life on the earth, maybe 40 times over—
MI: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)
HM: —we have pollution to the extent that we are fearful of the coming generation being able to have enough clean water and clean air to exist, we see the overpopulation of the earth causing great famine and distress among mankind, diseases of all kinds—as fast as we get one under control, another breaks out. These are things that we believe that God’s kingdom will eliminate. And of course, any person who is honest would want to see those conditions because this business have having a war every few years and killing all of our young men is not something that brings joy to people. Much suffering comes from such conditions. And we hope that under this reign of Christ Jesus, as the universal king, he will be able to eliminate wars and bring peace to the earth because he was known as the Prince of Peace.
MI: But man himself can do nothing to eliminate these evils?
HM: Man has never been able to, and there’s no reason to think that he will now.
MI: Do you find yourself in agreement with other Houston fundamentalist groups on certain doctrines—say evolution?
HM: Well, we don’t believe in evolution, and I think that’s generally true of the fundamentalists, but some try to preach evolution and creation in the sense that they say God used evolution in the creation process. We don’t believe that. We believe the Bible statement that God created man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul, and then he took a rib from the man and created the woman, and the two became the union of man and wife to formulate the basis of the human society and that their children born to them—being subject to them as a family group—was the thing that God intended for man when he created him.
MI: [17:40] There is, in Houston today something that is usually known as the charismatic movement, which is an evangelical movement, and I was wondering if any Witnesses partook of that?
HM: No, we do not.
MI: Why not?
HM: Well, I’m not familiar with it to the extent that I could explain just exactly why except it’s more or less a universal movement to try to produce something by man’s effort that will alleviate these conditions. And, of course, we don’t think that that’s possible.
MI: Of course, the movement draws its members from a broad spectrum of religions. Baptists, Catholics, even an occasional Jew—
MI: —will turn up at one of these evangelical meetings, and I was wondering why the Witnesses were an exception to that, and it’s their believe that no work in the world—so to speak—can be fruitful. Is that correct?
HM: Well, I don’t mean that there’s no work that would be fruitful for certainly we are hard workers. We are working all the time to try to bring some solution to our family problems and to our everyday problems. We continually work on that. Every Watch Tower that’s printed brings to our attention the importance of family life and dwelling together in unity and in our congregation. The recent Watch Tower shows how that love is a binding tie, and all must dwell together in unity and harmony and love. But that work is done as a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses and not in connection with anyone else because if they want to work with us, then we’re glad to have them, but we don’t form a new organization or new group in order to carry out that work, nor would with join in with a new group in order to try to assist them in that work.
MI: [20:01] What will happen to people outside of the church—that is outside of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—when the end comes, even if those people were sincere in their own religion?
HM: Well, I couldn’t answer that because Jehovah is the judge of all, and he will have to determine what he is going to do. We do know though that the Bible states that those who are opposed to God and his kingdom will be annihilated off of the earth. That means that they will be put to sleep, and they won’t be anymore.
MI: Has that doctrine made others respond angrily to your church?
HM: Well, I suppose any person who is sincere believes that their church is the true church. Otherwise, they wouldn’t belong to it. So a person who is—we use the term broadminded—recognizes differences of opinion in religions, and in order to dwell together on the earth, they have to try to be in union or in harmony with one another, and certainly we follow that course. We don’t try to go out and mob people or demonstrate against people or try to force people or anything of that kind. We are pacifists from the standpoint that we don’t advocate the overthrow of the government by force. We believe Christ Jesus is going to do that, and we wait for him to accomplish this. So we are—we act toward other religions as we would want them to act on us—believing Jesus’ words that you would love your neighbor as yourself. The only thing we would try to do differently would be to try to show them where our religion is the proper religion by giving them scriptural evidence to support our teaching.
MI: The reason I was asking about the anger of other religions directed at the Witnesses was that I know that in the past, especially during World War II, Witnesses were often the victim of persecution.
HM: Yes, I was myself.
MI: Oh, that’s—you’ve anticipated my question. I was going to ask you about the incidents in Houston.
HM: We had a number of incidents in Houston and surrounding territory. I was mobbed down in Dickinson by a group that followed the Catholic priest, for instance. And they beat me over the head, and I had to go to the hospital, and I was ostracized—more or less—by the community for a time, and this was a form of persecution that was quite violent at the time. But, of course, there was a lot of honest people, too, that took the side that Jehovah’s Witnesses were in the right in the work they were doing. In fact, Frances Biddle, who was then the Attorney General of the Unites States, went on the radio, and also Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, and pleaded with the people to calm down—that Jehovah’s Witnesses have done no wrong though the mobs have judged that they had, and that if this continued, only anarchy could result, and we didn’t want that in this country. And as a result, the people more or less subsided in this angry demonstration against the Witnesses—after a time at least. Some instances they were brought together and marched out of town in mass on a railroad track—wouldn’t even let them stop and get a drink of water.
MI: [24:11] When did this happen?
HM: This happened at Odessa in 1940.
MI: Specifically in the incident that involved you, what was the name of the priest that led the mob against you?
HM: Father Carney.
MI: Father Carney. Was he a Houston priest?
HM: No, he was a Dickinson priest.
MI: Dickinson. Was the mob more angry at your religious beliefs or more angry at your pacifism—if you can disentangle the two?
HM: Well, it was a combination of both. You couldn’t very well disentangle the two because the mob action, of course, is started by someone who is agitating for some cause, and they often use political and military points of view to aggravate that cause. But usually they would draw their members from the followers of their church—from their own group—who would be willing to follow their dictates and their advice.
MI: Which was the worst year in Houston?
HM: In 1940 and ’41.
MI: [25:35] I know that there were a long string of court cases during the war that involved the Witnesses, and I was wondering if any of those famous cases involved a plaintiff or a defendant from Houston. Did the Houston Witnesses seek redress in the courts?
HM: Well, yes, we had several cases, but they were very favorably disposed of in the local courts. We had one I remember for—we had at that time what we called parades or marches. We’d meet at one end of Main Street perhaps and carry a sign advertising the point of the talk that we were going to give at convention, and we’d march down the street with those placards and holding them up. Well, that created some animosity, and the police department arrested a number of the people, and we had a trial here in the district court, and they found that the Witnesses were not guilty of any misconduct, and therefore, they released them, and that eliminated that case. We had one case to come up from Dickinson that was tried in Galveston that went to the Texas Supreme Court. I think there it was decided in favor of the Witnesses, and it was disposed of. But I don’t recall any national or any cases before the United States Supreme Court that came up from Houston.
MI: Do you recall the names of the people involved in the two cases that you did mention?
HM: Let’s see. The one from Dickinson—no, I can’t. That person has since married, and I don’t— We had two women Witnesses in Dickinson that were arrested and brought before the court in Galveston and then went to the Texas court, and I don’t recall what their names were. That’s been 35 years ago.
MI: Do you recall the name of the Judge that presided in either of the cases?
HM: No, I can’t. This judge—this district judge—I think retired here a couple of years ago, but I just don’t recall his name either.
MI: At this time, of course, you were already a dedicated member of the church. Was the church hierarchy active in obtaining legal aid whenever there was a mob action?
HM: Yes, they were.
MI: [28:39] Did the Witnesses have a lawyer?
HM: Yes, they do.
MI: Do you recall his name?
HM: Well, we had one here in Houston. His name was Tom Williams. He was very active as an attorney for— He didn’t live in Houston at that time, but he does now. And then Hayden Covington was the attorney out of New York that represented the Witnesses on a national scale.
MI: You mentioned that you were mobbed in 1940. Is that correct?
MI: I’m curious—that was a year before the United States entered the war and Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941.
MI: Why were people so upset about the Witnesses in 1940? Why 1940?
HM: Well, it was primarily the result of a drive that was put on by the American Legion to try to eliminate Jehovah’s Witnesses really. And they had meetings to discuss the matter, and Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t salute the flag in the schools, and they’d had a reversal. They had had a bad opinion given by the court. They had to salute the flag. And all of this built up a certain fervor that caused them to feel that this was the time to eliminate Jehovah’s Witnesses.
MI: Were there any incidents in Houston involving the refusal to salute the flag—in the Houston schools—or in Dickinson?
HM: I think the closest thing we had to that was in West Columbia. We had a case there that was tried, and the children were expelled. Of course, we had other cases that I just don’t recall at the time.
MI: [30:48] You mentioned earlier some missionaries who had been very active in bringing people into the Witnesses in Houston, including a brother Isaac. Did these people suffer persecution—not only during the war years but either before or after the war years—in their missionary efforts?
HM: Well, primarily the persecution came during war years. For instance, in World War I, this brother Isaac that I was mentioned was mobbed down at Goose Creek. He and a doctor that was prominent in that area were working there, and the people formed a mob and marched them out of town—wouldn’t even let them contact their wives and get their cars. And it was only after they got out of town that the wives with the car were able to pick them up. I remember that case quite well. And then we had other cases. For instance, in Sealy we had a traveling representative that was arrested there after he had given a lecture and put in jail, and they made his bond and got him out—put up $1,000 bond—and the case never came to trial because they employed an attorney there locally, and he just called the judge and said, “Oh, that’s all over with. Dismiss the case, and we’ll let it go.” So they paid $1,000, and that was the end of the deal.
MI: Were there any instances in Texas where Witnesses were actually killed by mob action?
HM: I don’t know of one.
MI: What—in these mob actions—what was the severest form of harassment—something like tar and feathers?
HM: Yes, often that was the case—marching through the streets with jeering crowds on either side watching. And some instances there were castration, I believe, and beatings—many beatings. But generally speaking, it was harassment from verbal—of a verbal nature.
MI: At the time, were many Witnesses members of minority groups?
HM: No. No minority groups. They were just Witnesses.
HM: That’s what you mean.
MI: [33:34] The point I was getting at was that maybe there was more than one reason for some of these mob actions. In the case of a black Witness, I could easily imagine the crowd having two reasons instead of one to go after the person.
HM: There could have been cases like that, particularly over in the southeast. We didn’t have any of that problem here.
MI: Today, are there more minority members in the Jehovah’s Witnesses or is it pretty much a white religion?
HM: Oh, no. We have all types of Negroes and Mexican Americans and English. We have—we don’t have any segregation except that we do have a language segregation, and we have Spanish meetings in some instances. In fact, in our Kingdom Hall, we have two congregations that are white and Negro mixed, and then we have a Spanish-speaking congregation that meets there. So we do have that, and I think there’s six or seven Spanish congregations in Houston, but all of the white and Negroes meet together.
MI: Often historians of religion will remark that a faith actually grows stronger because of persecution—witness the Roman Christians. Do you think the Jehovah’s Witnesses became stronger as a result of their persecution during the war?
HM: No question about that. In Germany, about 3,000 of them were put in concentration camps and about 10,000 came out.
MI: Hmm. How about in this country?
HM: Well, we didn’t have concentration camps as such. We had many of our young men in prison because of their refusal to go into the army.
MI: Did that refusal to go into the army entail a refusal to fight or a just a refusal to go into the army, period?
HM: Well, they were contending for a ministerial classification—4D—and they would support their contention by their activities as a minister. And then the draft board would decide if they were ministers. Now I was given a ministerial classification, but at Dickinson, every time we would appoint a minister there, even though he was deferred because of his work activity, they would reclassify him and put him in 1A. And then when he would refuse to go into the army, they would bring him up for trial and send him to prison. So that’s the way it worked primarily.
MI: [36:45] Were there any Witnesses who recanted and went into the army anyway?
HM: Oh, I suppose there were some. In fact, I think there were some who didn’t go because of their parents perhaps or because of what they thought their friends would think of them—that were really not fully dedicated to do the work of Jehovah. I wouldn’t point my finger at anybody, but I think they would find possibly some of that type. But usually after they had saw what they had done, they were glad to not recant, but some, I think, wanted to maybe even join the army after that.
MI: How about the wars in Korea and Vietnam? I assume that the Witnesses’ belief remained the same and that they would not fight in either of those wars.
HM: That’s correct.
MI: Was there as much controversy over their refusal to fight during those war years?
HM: Well, it was not so prominent because by that time war wasn’t so popular—
HM: —and people—a lot of people didn’t think that they were doing too bad by not going, and I suppose the record of the ones who deserted is really a stain on the American record of the army. So many of them, I think—what, 10,000 was it? Something like that?
MI: I don’t know.
HM: I saw the reports just recently where they were offering amnesty, and only a few had taken that, and I think they said there were 10,000 yet that had never yet asked for amnesty. So it wasn’t so popular during that period, and it wasn’t so much controversy. The courts in most cases held the same as they had always—
MI: [38:50] Right.
HM: —except they didn’t go to the extreme. Now, for instance, in World War II, they would arrest a man and send him to prison, say, for two years, and then at the end of that time when he was released—or if he was released on parole—when that two year sentence was up, they would arrest him again and send him back for two years. Rather than send him for five years, which was the limit, on the first go around, they would send him each time and hoping that that would have a tendency to break down his morale, you see. But many of them went two and three times.
MI: Were many Witnesses active in the campaigns or the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam?
HM: No, no, no.
MI: This is because of the belief in your church not to cooperate with other worldly agencies.
HM: Well, it’s the knowledge that we have that these conditions will not improve by man-made efforts because they have failed and will continue to fail and that it will require Christ Jesus and his kingdom to bring relief to these things. And demonstrating for one cause against another cause is only a matter of dividing the people. It isn’t uniting them.
MI: Still, during World War II, the Witnesses showed their willingness to at least use human institutions when they fought their cases in the Supreme Court. How do you account for that then?
HM: Well, Paul did the same thing in the Bible account there. He appealed to Caesar and was very active in his role as a Roman citizen as far as protection of the government was concerned, and we follow the same course. We pay our taxes, and we have a right to the courts and the protection of the courts the same as we have a right to the garbage man picking up our garbage and the street man fixing the streets. It’s all a matter of following Jesus’ advice, pay back to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar but to God the things that belong to God.
MI: [41:327 I must confess that the difference in my own mind between appealing in the court so that you could get a person out of jail who had refused to serve and working for a congressman who was against the war—the difference between those two activities isn’t very clear to me. They both seem to be directed at the one end—that is not fighting in the war or ending the war.
HM: Well, in the first place it wouldn’t do any good. When the people are aroused to the point of patriotic fervor, no one is going to pay any attention to somebody that says, “Well, this is wrong,” or “We’ve got to go by the Bible principle.” I remember one judge said, “Well, we’ll turn to the Bible after we win this war, but right now we’ve got a war to fight.” So he couldn’t care less about what the Bible holds. So people generally are that way, and the congressman that might be appealing to the people to stop the war doesn’t do so until it becomes popular and he feels that it’s a matter of his own—build up his own personality and personal record so that he can be elected again. And as far as stopping the war is concerned, if another war came along, he might be just s fervent in endorsing that and trying to support it. So just because today he doesn’t go along with the war doesn’t necessarily mean that he will always hold on that score.
MI: I’d like to turn to another area now—that of foreign missions.
HM: I’m going to have to go pretty soon. I’ve got an appointment at 11 o’clock.
MI: Okay. I’ll wrap this up pretty quick. Are many Houstonians active in foreign mission work for the Witnesses?
HM: Yes, we have a number. I don’t recall just how many or just who they are, but we have had a number go from here to foreign assignment.
MI: Does the Houston area of the Witnesses have any specific foreign missions?
HM: Well, we operate strictly through the headquarters organization and all missionaries are sent out from the New York headquarters. And they go there and take a course in the school at Gilead, and they are trained for the missionary work and then set out from that source.
MI: I see. Well, let me ask you just one last question. Do you anticipate the future growth of the Witnesses in Houston.
HM: [44:29] Yes. Sure. We’ve had the greatest growth in the past two years that we’ve had at any time.
MI: Well, before I terminate the interview, are there any other things you would like to record historically—anything else you think would be valuable to set down about the Witnesses in Houston?
HM: No, I think you’ve pretty well covered it.
MI: Well, I’d like to thank you very much for your time.