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Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Change in Administration

In his will Brother Russell outlined an arrangement for an Editorial Committee of five to determine the contents of The Watch Tower. In addition, the board of directors of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society made arrangements for an Executive Committee of three—A. I. Ritchie, W. E. Van Amburgh, and J. F. Rutherford—to have general supervision of all the work of the Society, subject to the control of the board of directors. Who, though, would become the new president? That decision would be made at the next annual meeting of the Society, about two months later, on January 6, 1917.

At first, the Executive Committee did its best to hold things together, encouraging the Bible Students to keep active and not lose courage. The Watch Tower continued to be published, containing articles that Russell had written before his death. But as the annual meeting approached, tension began to mount. Some were even doing a little electioneering to get a man of their choice selected to be president. Others, on account of their deep respect for Brother Russell, seemed more concerned with trying to copy his qualities and develop a sort of cult around him. Most of the Bible Students, however, were primarily interested in getting on with the work into which Russell had poured himself.

Additional Reading:

As the time for the election approached, the question remained, Who would succeed Russell as president? The Watch Tower of January 15, 1917, reported the outcome of the annual meeting, explaining: “Brother Pierson, with very appropriate remarks and expressions of appreciation and love for Brother Russell, stated that he had received word as proxy-holder from friends all over the land to the effect that he cast their votes for Brother J. F. Rutherford for President, and he further stated that he was in full sympathy with this.” After Rutherford’s name was placed in nomination and seconded, there were no further nominations, so “the Secretary cast the ballot as directed, and Brother Rutherford was declared the unanimous choice of the Convention as President.”

With the election decided, how was the new president received? The Watch Tower mentioned above reported: “The friends everywhere had prayed earnestly for the Lord’s guidance and direction in the matter of the election; and when it was concluded, everyone was content and happy, believing that the Lord had directed their deliberations and answered their prayers. Perfect harmony prevailed amongst all present.”

That “perfect harmony,” however, did not last very long. The new president was warmly received by many but not by all.

The New President Moves Ahead

Brother Rutherford was inclined, not to change the direction of the organization, but to continue in the forward-moving pattern established by Russell. Traveling representatives of the Society (known as pilgrims) were increased from 69 to 93. Distribution of the Society’s free tracts was accelerated on occasional Sundays in front of the churches and regularly in the house-to-house ministry.

The “pastoral work,” which had been started prior to Russell’s death, was now stepped up. This was a follow-up work, similar to the return-visit activity now carried on by Jehovah’s Witnesses. To further revitalize the preaching work, the Society’s new president expanded the colporteur work. Colporteurs (forerunners of today’s pioneers) were increased from 372 to 461.

“The year 1917 opened with rather a discouraging outlook,” stated The Watch Tower of December 15, 1917. Yes, following the death of C. T. Russell, there were some misgivings, some doubts, and some fears. Yet, the year-end report was encouraging; field activity had increased. Clearly, the work was moving ahead. Had the Bible Students passed another test—the death of C. T. Russell—successfully?

Efforts to Gain Control

Additional Reading:

Not everyone was supportive of the new president. C. T. Russell and J. F. Rutherford were very different men. They had different personalities and came from different backgrounds. These differences were hard for some to accept. In their minds, no one could ‘fill Brother Russell’s shoes.’

A few, especially at headquarters, actually resented Brother Rutherford. The fact that the work was moving ahead and that he was making every effort to follow the arrangements that had been put in place by Russell did not seem to impress them. Opposition soon mounted. Four members of the board of directors of the Society went so far as to endeavor to wrest administrative control from Rutherford’s hands. The situation came to a head in the summer of 1917, with the release of The Finished Mystery, the seventh volume of Studies in the Scriptures.

Additional Reading:

Brother Russell had been unable to produce this volume during his lifetime, though he had hoped to do so. Following his death, the Executive Committee of the Society arranged for two associates, Clayton J. Woodworth and George H. Fisher, to prepare this book, which was a commentary on Revelation, The Song of Solomon, and Ezekiel. In part, it was based on what Russell had written about these Bible books, and other comments and explanations were added. The completed manuscript was approved for publication by officers of the Society and was released to the Bethel family at the dining table on Tuesday, July 17, 1917. On that same occasion, a startling announcement was made—the four opposing directors had been removed, and Brother Rutherford had appointed four others to fill the vacancies. What was the reaction?

It was as if a bombshell had exploded! The four ousted directors seized upon the occasion and stirred up a five-hour controversy before the Bethel family over the administration of the Society’s affairs. A number of the Bethel family sympathized with the opposers. The opposition continued for several weeks, with the disturbers threatening to “overthrow the existing tyranny,” as they put it. But Brother Rutherford had a sound basis for the action he had taken. How so?

It turned out that although the four opposing directors had been appointed by Brother Russell, these appointments had never been confirmed by vote of the corporation members at the annual meeting of the Society. Therefore, the four of them were not legal members of the board of directors at all! Rutherford had been aware of this but had not mentioned it at first. Why not? He had wanted to avoid giving the impression that he was going against Brother Russell’s wishes. However, when it became evident that they would not discontinue their opposition, Rutherford acted within his authority and responsibility as president to replace them with four others whose appointments were to be confirmed at the next annual meeting, to be held in January 1918.

On August 8, the disgruntled ex-directors and their supporters left the Bethel family; they had been asked to leave because of the disturbance they had been creating. They soon began spreading their opposition by an extensive speaking and letter-writing campaign throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. As a result, after the summer of 1917, a number of congregations of Bible Students were split into two groups—those loyal to the Society and those who were easy prey to the smooth talk of the opposers.

But might the ousted directors, in an effort to gain control of the organization, try to influence those attending the annual meeting? Anticipating such a reaction, Rutherford felt it advisable to take a survey of all the congregations. The results? According to the report published in The Watch Tower of December 15, 1917, those voting indicated their overwhelming support of J. F. Rutherford and the directors cooperating with him! This was confirmed at the annual meeting. The opposers’ efforts to gain control had failed!

What became of those opposers and their supporters? After the January 1918 annual meeting, the opposing ones splintered off, even choosing to celebrate the Memorial, on March 26, 1918, on their own. Any unity they enjoyed was short-lived, and before long they broke up into various sects. In most cases their numbers dwindled and their activity diminished or ceased entirely.

Clearly, following Brother Russell’s death, the Bible Students faced a real test of loyalty. As Tarissa P. Gott, who was baptized in 1915, put it: “Many of those who had seemed so strong, so devoted to the Lord, began to turn away. . . . All of this just did not seem right, yet it was happening and it upset us. But I said to myself: ‘Was not this organization the one that Jehovah used to free us from the bonds of false religion? Have we not tasted of his goodness? If we were to leave now, where would we go? Would we not wind up following some man?’ We could not see why we should go with the apostates, so we stayed.”—John 6:66-69; Heb. 6:4-6.

Additional Reading:

Some who withdrew from the organization later repented and associated with the Bible Students in worship once again. By far the majority, like Sister Gott, continued to cooperate with the Watch Tower Society and Brother Rutherford. The love and unity that bound them together had been built up through years of association together at meetings and conventions. They would allow nothing to break up that bond of union.—Col. 3:14.

By 1918 the Bible Students had survived testing from within. What, though, if opposition arose from those on the outside?

Objects of Attack

Through the close of 1917 and into 1918, the Bible Students energetically distributed the new book, The Finished Mystery. By the end of 1917, the printers were busy on the 850,000 edition. The Watch Tower of December 15, 1917, reported: “The sale of the Seventh Volume is unparallelled by the sale of any other book known, in the same length of time, excepting the Bible.”

But not everyone was thrilled with the success of The Finished Mystery. The book contained some references to the clergy of Christendom that were very cutting. This so angered the clergy that they urged the government to suppress the publications of the Bible Students. As a result of this clergy-inspired opposition, early in 1918, The Finished Mystery was banned in Canada. Opposition soon mounted against the Bible Students in the United States.

To expose this clergy-inspired pressure, on March 15, 1918, the Watch Tower Society released the tract Kingdom News No. 1. Its message? The six-column-wide headline read: “Religious Intolerance—Pastor Russell’s Followers Persecuted Because They Tell the People the Truth.” Below the heading “Treatment of Bible Students Smacks of the ‘Dark Ages’” were set forth the facts of the persecution and the ban that had begun in Canada. The instigators? The tract pulled no punches in pointing to the clergy, who were described as “a bigoted class of men who have systematically endeavored to prevent the people from understanding the Bible and to throttle all Bible teaching unless it comes through them.” What a hard-hitting message!

How did the clergy respond to such an exposé? They had already stirred up trouble against the Watch Tower Society. But now they got vicious! In the spring of 1918, a wave of violent persecution was launched against the Bible Students in both North America and Europe. The clergy-inspired opposition came to a head on May 7, 1918, when U.S. federal warrants were issued for the arrest of J. F. Rutherford and several of his close associates. By mid-1918, Rutherford and seven associates found themselves in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.

But with Judge Rutherford and his associates in prison, what happened to the operation of headquarters?

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Back in Brooklyn an Executive Committee was appointed to take charge of the work. A chief concern of the brothers appointed was to keep The Watch Tower in circulation. The Bible Students everywhere certainly needed all the spiritual encouragement that could be given them. In fact, during this entire “testing season,” not one issue of The Watch Tower failed to appear in print!

What was the spirit at headquarters? Thomas (Bud) Sullivan, who later served as a member of the Governing Body, recalled: “It was my privilege to visit Brooklyn Bethel in the late summer of 1918 during the brothers’ incarceration. The brothers in charge of the work at Bethel were in no wise fearful or downhearted. In fact, the reverse was true. They were optimistic and confident that Jehovah would give his people the victory ultimately. I was privileged to be at the breakfast table on Monday morning when the brothers sent out on weekend appointments gave their reports. A fine picture of the situation was obtained. In every case the brothers were confident, waiting for Jehovah to direct their activities further.”

Many problems, however, were encountered. World War I was still raging. There were shortages of paper supplies and coal, which were vitally needed for the work at headquarters. With patriotism at fever pitch, there was considerable animosity against the Society; the Bible Students were viewed as traitors. Under these extreme circumstances, it appeared impossible to continue operations at Brooklyn. So, the Executive Committee, after consulting with other brothers, sold the Brooklyn Tabernacle and closed the Bethel Home. On August 26, 1918, the operations were transferred back to Pittsburgh to an office building at Federal and Reliance streets.

Nevertheless, a good spirit prevailed. Martha Meredith recalled: “We in Pittsburgh got together and decided we were going to keep ‘the home fires burning’ until the brethren got out of prison. At that time the Brooklyn office was moved to Pittsburgh, so the brethren got busy writing articles for The Watch Tower and had it printed. When The Watch Towers were ready to be sent out, we sisters wrapped them and sent them out to the people.”

The Bible Students had faced some severe trials since the Gentile Times had ended in the fall of 1914. Could they continue to survive? Did they really have ‘the love of God in their hearts’ or not? Would they firmly hold on to “the Lord and His Truth,” as Russell had cautioned, or would they let go?

- Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, Published by the WTB&TS