Search This Blog

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Joseph F. Rutherford (1869-1942)


Additional Reading:

Rutherford himself was a courageous fighter for the truth. He was born of Baptist parents in Morgan County, Missouri, on November 8, 1869. From Sister Ross, the elder natural sister of Joseph Franklin Rutherford, A. D. Schroeder learned this: “Their father was a staunch Baptist out in Missouri where the family lived. Her younger brother Joseph never could accept the Baptist ‘hellfire’ teaching. This resulted in many heated debates in the household even before they had heard of the truth. Her brother always had been one of strong convictions with a deep sense of justice. From youth he wanted to be a lawyer and a judge. Their father wanted him to stay on the farm rather than go to college to study law. Joseph had to get a friend who would loan him money, not only to hire a replacement for him on his father’s farm, but also to finance his studies in law.”

Joseph Rutherford paid his own way through school. Among other things, he became an expert at taking shorthand, a skill very useful years later in quickly recording his thoughts for Biblical articles and other material. While still in school, Joseph Rutherford became a court stenographer. This enabled him to finish paying for his course and also gave him practical experience. After completing his academy education, Rutherford spent two years under the tutelage of Judge E. L. Edwards. At twenty years of age, Joseph Rutherford became the official reporter for the courts of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit in Missouri. When twenty-two, he was admitted to the Missouri bar. His license to practice law in that state was granted on May 5, 1892, according to the records of the Cooper Circuit Court. Rutherford began practicing law at Boonville, Missouri, as a trial lawyer with the law firm of Draffen and Wright.

J. F. Rutherford later served for four years as public prosecutor in Boonville, Missouri. Still later he became a special judge in the same Fourteenth Judicial District of Missouri. In this capacity, if the regular judge was unable to hold court, Rutherford sat as a substitute judge. Court records substantiate his appointment as a special judge on more than one occasion. Hence, he came to be known as “Judge” Rutherford.

Hazelle and Helen Krull remember hearing J. F. Rutherford tell how he first became interested in the truth proclaimed by Jehovah’s servants. They tell us: “During one of Brother Rutherford’s visits he suggested a walk in the moonlight out into the countryside. As we walked, he talked, telling of his early life and how he became interested in the truth. He was brought up on a farm but he wanted to study law. His father felt the need of his help on the farm but finally consented to let him go if he paid his own way in school and also paid for a helper on the farm to take his place. During summer vacation time he sold books in order to live up to his agreement. . . . He made a promise to himself that when he became a practicing lawyer, if anyone ever came to his office selling books he would buy them. That day came [in 1894], but his law partner talked to the caller. She was a ‘colporteur’—Sister Elizabeth Hettenbaugh—and was presenting three volumes of Millennial Dawn. His partner was not interested and dismissed her [and her associate colporteur, Sister Beeler]. Brother Rutherford, emerging from his private office, having overheard something about books and remembering his resolve, called her back, took the books and placed them in his library at home and there they remained for a while. One day as he was convalescing from a sick spell he opened one of the books and started to read. That was the beginning of a lifelong interest and a never-ceasing devotion and service to his God.”

Meetings of the Bible Students were not held in the immediate vicinity of the Rutherford home. However, Clarence B. Beaty says: “From 1904 on, meetings were held in our home. Sister Rutherford and Judge Rutherford came up from Boonville, Missouri, for the Memorial [of Christ’s death]. . . . He partook of his first Memorial and gave his first pilgrim talk to the friends in our home. They had no one in the truth in Boonville except themselves.”

But how did J. F. Rutherford get started as a preacher of the good news? Well, A. H. Macmillan largely was responsible for that. Macmillan met Rutherford in 1905 at Kansas City during a trip across the United States with Brother Russell. A little later Brother Macmillan stopped to visit Judge Rutherford for a day or two. One conversation between them went like this:

“Judge, you ought to be preaching the truth here.”

“I’m not a preacher. I’m a lawyer.”

“Well, now, Judge, I’ll show you what you can do. You go and get a copy of the Holy Bible and a small group of people, and teach them about life, death and the hereafter. Show them where we got our life, why we came into the condition of death and what death means. Take the Scriptures as a witness, and then wind up by saying, ‘There I have fulfilled everything like I said,’ just as you would to the jury in a court trial, and drive it home in conclusion.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.”

What happened after that? Did Rutherford do anything about that advice? Brother Macmillan reported: “There was a colored man that worked on a little farm that was next to his city home, close to the edge of town. About fifteen or twenty colored people were there, and he went over there to give them a sermon on ‘Life, Death and the Hereafter.’ While he was talking they kept saying, ‘Praise the Lord, Judge! Where did you get all that?’ He had a great time. That was the first Bible talk he ever gave.”

Not long thereafter, in 1906, J. F. Rutherford symbolized his dedication to Jehovah God. Wrote Brother Macmillan: “I had the privilege of baptizing him at Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was one of 144 persons that I personally baptized in water that day. So when he became president of the Society, I was especially pleased.”

In 1907 Rutherford became the Watch Tower Society’s legal counselor, serving at its Pittsburgh headquarters. He was privileged to negotiate matters when the Society transferred its operations to Brooklyn, New York, in 1909. To do this, he made application and was admitted to the New York bar, becoming a recognized lawyer for that state. On May 24 of the same year, Rutherford was also admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

J. F. Rutherford frequently gave discourses as a pilgrim, a traveling representative of the Watch Tower Society. He journeyed widely as a Bible lecturer in the United States, speaking in many colleges and universities by request, and he also addressed large audiences throughout Europe. Rutherford visited Egypt and Palestine, and in 1913, accompanied by his wife, he traveled to Germany, where he addressed audiences totaling 18,000.


Jesus Christ said that all his followers were “brothers” and that ‘the one greatest among them must be their minister.’ (Matt. 23:8-12) Hence, no true Christian accords any fellow believer undue importance. Yet, the Bible reveals the traits of various servants of God. Moses, for example, was noted for meekness; James and John, the sons of Zebedee, for their fiery enthusiasm. (Num. 12:3; Mark 3:17; Luke 9:54) Since Joseph F. Rutherford was entrusted with much responsibility in God’s earthly organization, it is of some interest to note his traits and qualities.

“Rutherford had always manifested a deep Christian love for his associates,” said A. H. Macmillan, “and was very kindhearted; but he was not naturally of the same gentle, quiet-mannered disposition as Russell. He was direct and outspoken and did not hide his feelings. His bluntness, even when spoken in kindness, was sometimes misunderstood. But he had been president only a short time when it became apparent that the Lord had chosen the right man for the job.”

Further insight into Rutherford’s personality is gained from what took place in the Bible Students’ old London Tabernacle when he gave the Memorial talk there on April 18, 1924. Concerning this, Sister William P. Heath writes: “The Tabernacle was an old Episcopalian church that the Society had bought cheap, and they used it for Sunday meetings as we use a Kingdom Hall today. . . . The place for the speaker was way up at the ceiling, about twenty feet off the floor. Only his head would be visible when addressing the audience. Maybe this is why Brother Rutherford called it the ‘horse trough.’ He refused to speak from it; in fact, he shocked the brothers by coming down and standing on a level with them.”

When Brother Rutherford first assumed the presidency of the Watch Tower Society, there was a need for courage, faithfulness and determination. He manifested such qualities. For instance, Esther I. Morris recalls a talk Rutherford gave before a large audience as a pilgrim in what was then the biggest theater in Boise, Idaho. She states: “His exposé of false religion aroused the ire of several local clergymen, who tried to interrupt and challenge him, but his emphatic ‘Sit down! I demand the protection of the law!’ made him able to continue. Bible Students from adjacent towns came and we hired a hall and so had a small convention. He was most emphatic to let it be known that this message and ministry was no small thing.”

A rather touching reflection on Brother Rutherford’s nature is provided by Anna Elsdon. Recalling her youth, she writes: “We visited many times with Brother Rutherford. On one occasion several of us younger people were gathered together and Brother Rutherford came over to us. We asked many questions about school, flag-saluting, etc., and he talked to us a long time. When he was ready to say good-bye, he held the hands of all five of us in his two big hands so lovingly and he had tears in his eyes. He was so happy and touched to see us, so young and yet talking about the deep things of the truth. I’ve never forgotten it. Just as Brother Russell was loving, we also felt the love of this big Brother Rutherford.”

- 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, WTB&TS

Additional Reading:

Additional Reading:

A brief biographical sketch is in order as to the Society’s second president, Joseph Franklin Rutherford. He was born November 8, 1869, in Boonville, Missouri, of parents who were Baptists. He was 16 years old when his father consented to his attending college to study law, provided he would earn his own way, since his father was merely a farmer and could not afford to assist him. After completing his academy education, he spent two years under the tutorship of Judge E. L. Edwards and finally at the age of twenty became the official reporter for the courts of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit in Missouri. At 22 he was admitted to the bar and began to practice law at Boonville, becoming a trial lawyer for the law firm of Draffen and Wright. Later he served four years as public prosecutor for Boonville, and still later, as Special Judge in the same Fourteenth Judicial District of Missouri. For 15 years he practiced law in Missouri.

In 1894 he came in touch with Watch Tower Society representatives and twelve years later, in 1906, dedicated his life to Almighty God, thus becoming ordained for the Christian ministry. In 1907 he became the Watch Tower Society’s legal counselor at the Pittsburgh headquarters, to handle its court cases, and at the same time he was sent out to give public talks as a pilgrim representative of the Society. In 1909 he was admitted to the New York bar as a recognized lawyer for that state; in the same year (May 24, 1909) he also was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States at Washington, D.C. He traveled widely as a public Bible lecturer in the United States, speaking at many colleges and universities by special request and before packed-out public audiences in this country and throughout Europe. He also visited Egypt and Palestine. In 1913, accompanied by his wife, he visited Germany, where he spoke to audiences totaling 18,000. In 1915 he won a series of Bible debates in Los Angeles, California, against the “Rev.” J. H. Troy, a Baptist, representing the clergy of southern California. In 1916 Rutherford was chosen to deliver the funeral talk at the death of his long-time, warm friend C. T. Russell.

- March 15, 1955 Watchtower, WTB&TS