[Some years back, a good friend shared this research with me and I wanted to make it available here as I thought it might be beneficial for some. – Meleti Vivlon]
Independent thinking is a term I’ve always disliked. One reason is the way it could be perceived by unbelievers, who are often leery of religious organizations because they have that brainwashing, no-thought-blind-faith reputation, embodied in phrases like “don’t question, just believe”. But even for an avid believer like myself, the warning against “independent thinking” always conjures up Orwellian concepts of enforced ignorance and mind control. In short, “independent thinking” seems an ill-chosen and dangerously ambiguous term which you may be happy to find out disappeared from the publications after the 9/15/89 Watchtower.  Good bye and good riddance, from me at least.
Interestingly, the first time “independent thinking” appears in the publications (since 1930, anyway) is in the 8/1/57 Watchtower, where it denotes the ability to think outside the box of Satan’s conformist world. Satan’s world’s thinking is, in this context, the antithesis of “independent thinking”. Exactly a year later the Watchtower would lament the Irish people’s clergy-induced inability to perform the difficult and unpopular task of “independent thinking”.
But in 1960 “independent thinking” as a positive thing fell out of favor, and the term came to mean “to think independently of God”, and to “ignore the fact of man’s dependence on God”, and was therefore to be rejected. Then, vaguely in 1964 and openly in 1966, it took on the meaning of questioning, challenging or being unable to accept “counsel and direction based on the Bible” received from the “faithful and discreet slave”. Instead of being a force that could open the eyes of unbelievers and bring satanic reasoning to its figurative knees, it became “that spirit of independence with which Satan is infecting the whole world”.
Briefly, in 1972, we read that “man was created ‘in God’s image’ (Gen. 1:27) [and] possesses a mind and a heart, not controlled automatically by instinct, but capable of independent thinking and reasoning, making plans and decisions, exercising a free will”. Alas, it was a flash-in-the-pan reconciliation. In 1979 independent thinking is once again a thing to be avoided, and in 1983 it takes on the added meaning of thinking we know better than the organization. “Such thinking is an evidence of pride”, we are told. Now we’re finally getting to the heart of the matter: pride. It really isn’t the thinking that’s so offensive, it’s the pride that leads some to decide their brilliant ideas supercede those of the organization, and that they therefore have a right to obey only those rules they personally agree with and that their self-exalting and contradictory concepts need to be spread around. Such a course is rightly reprehensible, but it’s a shame that “thinking” took the reproof on the chin. “Satanic reasoning” would have been better, or “prideful thinking” if thinking had to be mentioned at all, “intellectual hauteur” if you really wanted to get fancy. I would prefer almost anything to satanizing free thought.
One question unaddressed in 1983 is, what happens in those rare cases where individual witnesses do know better than the organization? (I’m thinking of issues like the meaning of the “generation”, the identification of the “superior authorities”, the eternal fate of the sodomites, etc.) It would be nice if the organization could swallow its pride and have a department dedicated to entertaining ideas presented by individual brothers, that could respond by telling you something more meaningful than to look up the same references that you obviously read before writing. That department could then decide if it’s a good enough idea to pass up to the big boys. One gets the impression that part of this condemnation of independent thinking is meant to discourage brothers from writing every time they think they have a point. To be fair, we really can’t judge what our own reaction might be after the ten thousandth crackpot letter pontificating on the obvious significance of Lyndon B. Johnson’s foreign policy in bible prophecy, or some other nonsense. It might take enormous self control not to condemn “independent literacy” and move the headquarters to an unknown address in Papua New Guinea.
Anyway, for the next 10 years the publications treat independent thinking as a recognized evil, no longer taking the trouble even to define it. It even appears under “Thinking” in the 30-85 index, but the articles from the fifties are not referenced (in fact, only the 1983 articles are listed). To this day, the amorphous term “independent thinking” is often evoked any time you have the audacity to wonder out loud whether our present understanding is really the correct one, or if our procedures might possibly be improved, no matter how unpretentiously you do it. That the absence of pride and arrogance renders the independence of your thinking virtually moot is a point lost on many of the most adamant opponents of independent thinking.
In 1989, in what would be its final appearance in WTBTS literature, independent thinking simply refers to rejection of divinely appointed leadership. We find a fitting epitaph in one of those famous anonymous quotes, where “one lecturer” (one suspects that it’s Bob, from the next office over) illustrates the perils of independent thinking with the following comment: “The rising education level has improved the talent pool such that followers have become so critical that they are almost impossible to lead.” From that astute observation you can hardly tell whether something good or bad is being described. Are we lamenting the improved talent pool or praising the reluctance of its members to be led? Therein lies the problem with a term like “independent thinking”. You can’t assign it a negative connotation and condemn it without sounding as ludicrously contradictory as the above quotation. Maybe that’s why someone, at or shortly after this point, decided it was time for “independent thinking” as a term in our theocratic lexicon to go the way of “rendezvous” and “bookstudy conductor”. Or maybe someone realized that the inability to think for oneself is probably far more dangerous to the organization than “independent thinking” ever was, and in trying to quash the latter there exists the very real danger of putting a damper on the former.
*** w57 8/1 p. 469 Will You Get to Live on Earth Forever? ***
Moreover, people today are developing an aversion to thinking. They fear being alone with their own thoughts. If other people are not around, they fill the void with television, movies, light reading matter, or if they go to the beach or park the portable radio goes too so they will not have to be with their own thoughts. Their thinking must be channeled for them, ready-made by propagandists. This suits Satan’s purpose. He deluges the mass mind with anything and everything but God’s truth. To keep minds from doing godly thinking Satan keeps them busy with thoughts that are either trivial or ungodly. It is tailor-made thinking, and the tailor of it is the Devil. Minds work, but in the way that a horse is led. Independent thinking is difficult, unpopular and even suspect. Thought conformity is the order of our day. To seek solitude for meditation is frowned upon as antisocial and neurotic.—Rev. 16:13, 14.
*** w58 8/1 p. 460 Dawns a New Era for the Irish ***
For centuries the clergy have dominated their lives, told them what they can read, what they should believe and do. To ask a sound religious question is a demonstration of lack of faith in God and the church, according to the clergy. As a result, the Irish people do very little independent thinking. They are victims of the clergy and fear; but freedom is in sight.
*** w60 2/15 p. 106 Safeguard Your Thinking Ability ***
5 Today the trend of this world is to seek independent thinking as the ideal goal, but even as the unrealistic thinking of a scientist who tries to ignore the law of gravity is doomed to failure, so also is the unrealistic thinking of those who try to ignore the fact of man’s dependence on God. “It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his steps.” (Jer 10:23; Prov. 16:1-3) When men try to think independently of God, they set aside the perfect standard of goodness, righteousness, virtue and faithfulness and become victims of their own selfish, sinful inclinations and degrade their own thinking ability.—Rom. 1:21-32; Eph. 4:17-19.
6 Since the purpose of preaching God’s Word is to make every thought obedient to the Christ, it follows that one should reject the goal of independent thinking. (2 Cor. 10:5)
*** w61 2/1 p. 93 Safeguard Thinking Ability for the Ministry ***
The world, in its independent thinking, ignores God and his purposes for man as though he were not the Creator. That is as unrealistic as for an aviator to ignore the law of gravity. It simply “does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.”—Jer. 10:23.
*** w61 3/1 p. 141 The Congregation’s Place in True Worship ***
Some of the Ephesians may have complained that this arrangement stifled individual and independent thinking and forced them to accept only the apostles’ ideas instead of being free and independent to develop their own philosophy on things.
*** w62 9/1 p. 524 Pursuing Peace Through Increased Knowledge ***
The student must express himself as he understands the truth. (Gal. 6:6) He cannot have independent thinking. Thoughts must be obedient to Christ. (2 Cor. 10:5)
*** w64 5/1 p. 278 Building a Firm Foundation in Christ ***
Any other course would produce independent thinking and cause division. “Now I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.” (1 Cor. 1:10) If all who are associated in the Christian organization have the mind of God and of Christ there will be unity and all will be built up in maturity of understanding.
*** w66 6/1 p. 324 Intellectual Freedom or Captivity to the Christ? ***
Today, too, there are those who, by their independent thinking, question Christ’s ability to have and use on the earth a specially appointed governing body of imperfect humans, to whom he has entrusted all the Kingdom interests or “belongings” on earth. (Matt. 24:45-47) When such independent thinkers receive counsel and direction based on the Bible, they incline to the thought, ‘This is only from fleshly men, so it is up to me to decide whether to accept it or not.’ … “Do you look at it that way?… If you do, then you are being infected by that spirit of independence with which Satan is infecting the whole world. So, to overcome this attitude, the thing to do, as the apostle Paul intimates, is to think, ‘Now, am I “bringing every thought into captivity to make it obedient to the Christ”?’”
*** w72 3/15 p. 170 The Delight of Jehovah Will Succeed ***
Rather, as the Bible says, man was created “in God’s image.” (Gen. 1:27) Man possesses a mind and a heart, not controlled automatically by instinct, but capable of independent thinking and reasoning, making plans and decisions, exercising a free will, building up strong desires and motivation. That is why you are capable of exercising the fine qualities of love and loyalty, of devotion and integrity.
*** w79 2/15 p. 20 Visits from Older Men Benefit God’s People ***
Their position must be steadfast, not shifting quickly because of independent thinking or emotional pressures. (Col. 1:23; 2:6, 7)
*** w83 1/15 p. 22 Exposing the Devil’s Subtle Designs ***
From the very outset of his rebellion Satan called into question God’s way of doing things. He promoted independent thinking. ‘You can decide for yourself what is good and bad,’ Satan told Eve. ‘
How is such independent thinking manifested? A common way is by questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization.
*** w83 1/15 p. 27 Armed for the Fight Against Wicked Spirits ***
Yet there are some who point out that the organization has had to make adjustments before, and so they argue: “This shows that we have to make up our own mind on what to believe.” This is independent thinking. Why is it so dangerous?
20 Such thinking is an evidence of pride. And the Bible says: “Pride is before a crash, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Proverbs 16:18) If we get to thinking that we know better than the organization, we should ask ourselves: “Where did we learn Bible truth in the first place?
*** g84 6/8 p. 7 Your Worst Enemy—His Rise and Fall ***
Eve, deceived into thinking she could live successfully independent of God, ate of the tree, and Adam followed suit.
*** g86 2/22 p. 8 Why Does God Allow Suffering? ***
He told her that independent thinking and acting would not lead to death, as God had stated, but asserted: “You are bound to be like God, knowing good and bad.”—Genesis 3:1-5
*** w87 2/1 p. 19 Doing Our Utmost to Declare the Good News ***
We also remember that one feature of “the wisdom from above” is being “ready to obey.” (James 3:17) These are qualities that all Christians are encouraged to put on. Due to background and upbringing, some may be more given to independent thinking and self-will than others. Perhaps this is an area where we need to discipline ourselves and ‘make our mind over’ so that we can perceive more clearly what the “will of God” is.—Romans 12:2.
*** w87 11/1 pp. 19-20 Are You Remaining Clean in Every Respect? ***
But inside they are spiritually unclean, having given in to prideful, independent thinking. They have forgotten all that they learned about Jehovah, his holy name and attributes. They no longer acknowledge that all they learned about Bible truth—the glorious hope of the Kingdom and a paradise earth and the overturning of false doctrines, such as the Trinity, the immortal human soul, eternal torment, and purgatory—yes, all of this came to them through “the faithful and discreet slave.”—Matthew 24:45-47.
*** w88 8/15 p. 30 Maintaining Our Christian Oneness ***
Where Bible principles apply, we are glad to forsake the independent thinking patterns of this world and to accept the leading of Jehovah’s spirit. Still, in carrying out our commission as preachers, there is much room for individuality and, yes, imagination. Indeed, our brothers often use great ingenuity in adapting their methods of witnessing to local circumstances.
*** w88 11/1 p. 20 When Marital Peace Is Threatened ***
That ideal marital arrangement was disrupted by independent thinking and sin.
*** g89 9/8 p. 26 Part 17: 1530 onward—Protestantism—A Reformation? ***
Is the often heard Protestant go-to-the-church-of-your-choice mentality any different from the independent thinking that led Adam and Eve into erroneous belief and subsequent trouble?
*** w89 9/15 p. 23 Be Obedient to Those Taking the Lead ***
In the world, there is a tendency to reject leadership. As one lecturer said: “The rising education level has improved the talent pool such that followers have become so critical that they are almost impossible to lead.” But a spirit of independent thinking does not prevail in God’s organization, and we have sound reasons for confidence in the men taking the lead among us. For instance, only those meeting Scriptural requirements are appointed as elders.
*** dx30-85 Thinking ***
fight against: w83 1/15 27
Satan’s use of: w83 1/15 22
*** g99 1/8 p. 11 Protecting Freedoms—How? ***
The magazine UNESCO Courier suggests that instead of fostering rejection of religious movements, “education for tolerance should aim at countering influences that lead to fear and exclusion of others, and should help young people to develop capacities for independent judgement, critical thinking and ethical reasoning.”