WAS THE ATLANTA KILLER INFLUENCED BY WATCHTOWER TEACHINGS?
Updated August 9, 1999
Mark Barton, the man who killed nine individuals on July 29, 1999, including
his wife and children, and is suspected in the death of his ex-wife and
former mother-in-law in 1993, gave indications in a note revealed on July
30th that he was influenced by the teachings of the Watchtower
Bible and Tract Society, also known as the Jehovah's Witnesses.
INDICATIONS OF WATCHTOWER INFLUENCE
Barton's note, available online at http://dailynews.yahoo.com/headlines/ap/ap_us/story.html?s=v/ap/19990730/us/office_shooting_notes_1.html,
makes several statements that strongly indicate the influence of the Watchtower
Society on his religious beliefs.
First, Barton stated that he has "come to hate this life and this system
of things."1 The term "system of things" is
regularly used by Jehovah's Witnesses to refer to the all civilizations
after the Great Flood of Genesis 7-8, particularly modern civilizations.2
The Society claims that "this wicked system of things" is characterized
by "an unrighteous way of life.one characterized by sin and rebellion against
God and his will."3
The possibility that Barton held such a nihilistic view of modern American
society is indicated in such statements as, "I have come to have no hope.
I killed the children to exchange them for five minutes of pain for a lifetime
of pain. I forced myself to do it to keep them from suffering so much later."4
Barton apparently believed that he was sparing them from both a repetition
of the abuse he suffered as a child,5 and from
the abuse levied by a godless culture.
Second, Barton states that he knows "that Jehovah will take care of
[his family] in the next life," and "If Jehovah is willing, I would like
to see all of them in the resurrection."6 Barton
is clearly referring to the Watchtower belief that Jehovah's Witnesses
will be resurrected to live forever in a paradise on Earth.7
These statements make it clear that Mark Barton's religious beliefs
were influenced by the Watchtower Society. More significant, however, is
the claim of Leigh Ann Barton's father that a reason for the Bartons' marital
problems was Mark Barton's insistence that Leigh Ann become a Jehovah's
Witness.8 Acquaintances agree that Mark Barton
had become interested in the Watchtower Society; one claims that Barton
allegedly decided to leave the Baptist church at which he occasionally
taught Sunday School.9
WAS BARTON CLOSE TO BECOMING A BAPTIZED JEHOVAH'S
Despite Barton's involvement with the Watchtower Society, the evidence
currently indicates that Barton was not close to becoming a baptized Jehovah's
Witness at the time of the murders.
First, Barton's sister-in-law and another relative allegedly stated
on CNN TalkBack, in answer to a question regarding whether his references
to Jehovah means that he was a Jehovah's Witness, "That's the first we've
heard of any of this."10 The relatives also
stated that Barton enjoyed family gatherings for Christmas and Thanksgiving;11
Jehovah's Witnesses observe the Society's explicit prohibitions against
celebrating these holidays.12
Second, as indicated by the response of his relatives, Barton's personal
life gave no indication of membership in the Watchtower Society. While
neighbor Christine Jonson knew nothing about Barton's religious affiliation,
she stated that Mark Barton was a Scoutmaster for his son's Boy Scout troop,
and Leigh Ann was a volunteer with their daughter's Brownie troop.13
Mark Barton even took his son, Matthew, to a Boy Scout meeting (with Mark
in full Scoutleader regalia) on the evening of the murders.14
Again, a Jehovah's Witness would observe the Society's prohibition against
participating in such civic groups.15
An online moderated message board for Jehovah's Witnesses <http://discussion.witnesses.net>
has provided two interesting, although currently unsubstantiated, theories
that emphasize Barton's distance from the beliefs and actions of the Society.
The first theory revolves around a posting of Barton's note by a Witness
named Leo. Leo claims to have copied the note from CNN Interactive,16
but with a significant difference: Leo's posting spells God's name "Jehova"
(Leo highlights the spelling), not "Jehovah" as it is spelled on CNN's
site (and all other news sites featuring the note).17
Some of the Jehovah's Witnesses who post to the board are thus theorizing
that, because Barton allegedly could not spell God's name, he could not
have been a Jehovah's Witness; one poster even proposes a Rastafarian influence.18
A more significant, although unsubstantiated theory, is that Barton
was a disfellowshipped Jehovah's Witness. A poster using the pseudonym
"Smiley" claims that, according to a Presiding Overseer (the head of a
congregation) in Atlanta, Barton was "probably" disfellowshipped for adultery,
and then "has progressively gotten crazier and crazier as time has gone
on."19 This accusation, if true, explains
how Barton could believe some aspects of Watchtower doctrine without being
an active Jehovah's Witness. Readers should nonetheless remember that this
theory, while plausible, has no corroborating evidence at this time.
IS THE WATCHTOWER SOCIETY TO BLAME FOR BARTON'S VIOLENCE?
The Watchtower Society explicitly advocates nonviolence.20
Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to serve in the military, or in jobs in which
they would be required to use violence.21
The Watchtower Society even disfellowships Witnesses who participate in
the sport of boxing.22 It would thus be inaccurate
to ascribe Barton's acts of violence to Watchtower teachings.
Instead of placing the blame on the Watchtower Society, it is clear
that this tragedy was a result of Barton's inability to emotionally handle
setbacks in his personal life. According to news reports, some witnesses
claim that he mentioned being upset about losses incurred through his participation
in day trading on the stock market.23 Barton
was also allegedly going through a difficult divorce24
(for which one of the alleged causes was his aforementioned pressure on
Leigh Ann to become a Jehovah's Witness). Barton indicated in his note
that marital problems were an impetus for his actions: "I killed Leigh
Ann because she was one of the main reasons for my demise."25
There are many problems with Watchtower doctrine and practice; Watchman
Fellowship regularly publishes articles examining
these issues. Some of the practices, such as refusing blood transfusions,
are even potentially deadly for Jehovah's Witnesses. Nonetheless, even
though Mark Barton was loosely associated with the Jehovah's Witnesses,
Christians should not blame the Watchtower Society for the terrible tragedy
1 "Text of Atlanta Gunman's Notes," Yahoo! News,
July 30 (1999) [Online]. URL http://dailynews.yahoo.com/headlines/ap/ap_us/story.html?s=v/ap/19990730/us/office_shooting_notes_1.html.
2 "Systems of Things," Insight on the Scriptures,
volume 2 (Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1988), pp.
3 Ibid., p. 1056.
4 "Text of Atlanta Gunman's Notes," [Online].
5 Barton stated, "The fears of the father are transferred
to the son. It was from my father to me and from me to my son." See "Text
of Atlanta Gunman's Notes," [Online].
7 See "Resurrection," Reasoning from the Scriptures
(Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1985), pp. 336-37.
8 Gregory Beals, Daniel Pedersen, et al, "'It's a Bad
Trading Day.'," Newsweek, August 9 (1999), p. 28.
9 Amy Goldstein, Sue Anne Pressley and Hanna Rosin,
"Killer Wrote of Fear, Hopelessness," Washington Post, July 31 (1999),
p. A01 [Online]. URL http://search.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPlate/1999-07/31/061l-073199-idx.html.
10 Quoted in Mark Gonzales, posting on alt.religion.jehovahs-witn
newsgroup, July 30 (1999), 16:49:33.
12 See School and Jehovah's Witnesses (Brooklyn,
NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1983), pp. 17-19, 21.
13 Laura Parker, Gary Fields, and Scott Bowles, "Average
Neighbor Lived with a Dark Past," USA Today, July 30 (1999) [Online].
14 Beals, et al.
15 See "Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All
the Flock" (Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1991),
16 [Online]. URL http://www.cnn.com/US/9907/30/shooting.letters.02/.
17 Leo, Atlanta Massacre [Online]. URL http://discussion.witnesses.net/Forum34/HTML/000601.html.
It should be noted that Leo claims in a later post that CNN changed the
spelling to the correct form after previously publishing the incorrect
form, insinuating that the correction may have been an attempt to discredit
the Watchtower Society.
18 Shelby, Atlanta Massacre (Mark Barton) [Online].
19 "Smiley," Atlanta Massacre (Mark Barton)
20 See "'The Word of God is Alive and Exerts Power',"
The Watchtower, April 1 (1990), p. 20.
21 See "Neutrality," Reasoning from the Scriptures,
22 "Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the
Flock", p. 92.
23 "Average Neighbor Lived with a Dark Past," [Online].
24 "Georgia Killer's Notes Show a Troubled Man," CNN
Interactive, July 30 (1999) [Online]. URL http://cnn.com/US/9907/30/atlanta.shooting.06/.
25 "Text of Atlanta Gunman's Notes," [Online].