The death of Pastor Charles Taze Russell, October 31, 1916, marked a dramatic change in the course of the Bible Student movement.
PASTOR RUSSELL’S MINISTRY
During Pastor Russell’s lifetime, he founded the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and other business entities to further the work of proclaiming “Present Truth” to the world, particularly, the Christian world.
Under his leadership, the Truth message was available to all in the United States, Europe and many other countries. In his day, he was the most prominent Christian personage in the world. His sermons were carried weekly in 2,000 of our nation’s leading newspapers. Through public meetings, the Photo Drama of Creation, books, tracts and newspaper sermons, the Truth message was held up before the people and leaders of professed Christian nations, and it attracted sincere, truth-seeking Christians. The Photo Drama slide and movie presentation was particularly successful in defending the Bible against rapidly rising skepticism fueled by the evolution theory and other modern philosophies.
His basic message was simple and powerful: First, Jesus died a Ransom for ALL, and all mankind, even unbelievers, would be brought back to life on Paradise Earth during the 1000 year reign of Christ and His bride for a period of learning, discipline, repentance, trial and judgment. Another main message was that the Lord had returned as a powerful unseen spirit being to establish his kingdom in the Earth. Bible chronology and prophecy so indicated. The signs were present: phenomenal increase in knowledge, amazing increase in travel speed and usage, universal education and enlightenment, removal of the sweat of the brow curse through highly productive modern inventions, the beginnings of Israel’s return to Palestine, and an impending “time of trouble” such as never was since there was a nation. The year 1914 was to bring a great change in Earth’s affairs, a great time of trouble leading to the full establishment of Christ’s Kingdom in the Earth. Eventually, Christ’s Kingdom would replace the kingdoms of this world. Then all mankind, Adam and all of Adam’s children, would experience the promised resurrection based upon Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. The Kingdom would grant all an opportunity to walk up the highway of holiness to life eternal. It was a wonderful, Bible-based message of hope for all.
Pastor Russell’s preaching, which exposed Christianity’s old wrongs and false teachings, drew strong opposition and persecution from established, creed-based churches. They came together to defend themselves and their creeds from truths that were apparent to most thinking Christians.
War was preparing. In 1897, Pastor Russell wrote a book first titled, “The Day of Vengeance”. In 1912 the author changed the title to, “The Battle of Armageddon.” In it he cited page after page of facts detailing how Christian nations were preparing for the Great War ahead, while others proclaimed that war was never again possible among advanced, civilized Christian peoples.
Promptly, in 1914 the predicted war broke out with a fury never before seen in the annals of warfare. Increased knowledge and liberty had spawned wealth and leisure to levels unknown in the past, allowing vast national expenditures for new death dealing weapons and huge standing armies. One man became a killing machine the equal of a hundred men in previous wars. Pastor Russell documented this in advance, giving the so-called Christian nations time to consider and avert the catastrophe.
His warning message from the Lord fell upon deaf ears. Political and religious leaders alike promoted military service. Ministers and priests assured young men that if killed they would immediately go straight to Heaven. Jesus’ teachings to love your neighbor and brother were abandoned. German Christians killed French Christians. English and American Christians hated and killed German Christians. The Christian nations and Christian churches lost all credibility to call themselves by the name of Christ, the great Prince of Peace.
During the war, many Bible Students, practicing their sincere Christian beliefs, refused to wear the uniform, carry a gun or otherwise participate in the military killing machines of Christendom. Governments and churches ridiculed, slandered and persecuted them. They were jailed, punished and some died rather than compromise their principles. The war years were difficult years for Bible Students in Europe and America.
AFTER PASTOR RUSSELL’S DEATH
When Pastor Russell died on October 31, 1916, the First World War in the history of mankind was in full progress. The war that was expected to last two or three months was now in its third year with no end in sight. The amazingly insightful predictions of Pastor Russell were painfully fulfilled in the angry, patriotic, senseless wounding and slaughter of millions of Christian youths in their prime of life. God’s vengeance was executed upon the professedly Christian nations of Europe to avenge the spilled blood of the true church down through the Gospel Age. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Rom 12:19) Their blind anger brought it upon themselves.
At first, America declared itself neutral, maintaining its long-standing policy of not engaging in European wars. But, following German submarine attacks on American ships carrying goods and arms to Germany’s enemies, on April 6, 1917 America entered the war on the side of Britain and France, despite the President’s campaign promise to keep America out of war. The first United State’s troops landed in France on June 26, 1917. Thus, unfortunately, American young men suffered the same fate as Europeans.
By 1916, the Bible Student movement had been shepherded by the wise and faithful leadership of Pastor Russell for 40 years. It had grown from few into many and its volume of publication had exploded. A mighty work was accomplished under his faithful stewardship.
With his death in October, a battle for leadership quickly followed. In Pastor Russell’s will, he carefully provided for the continued publishing of the Truth message by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. He had selected what he considered to be humble brethren of good character as corporation directors, editorial committee members and trustees of his voting stock. But his best efforts and intentions could not prevent what followed.
The spirit at headquarters was about to change completely.
A NEW LEADER WITH A DIFFERENT SPIRIT
One of the board members, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, was a lawyer who was active in politics before coming into the Truth. Before Pastor Russell’s death, the Pastor had dismissed Rutherford from Bethel and provided him funds for a new start in California. When Pastor Russell died, Rutherford was working as a floorwalker in a department store. Upon hearing of the Pastor’s death, he telegraphed Bethel and told them to hold everything until he arrived. At the time of his death, Pastor Russell was in process of making several changes in the Bethel family, and evidently had not yet updated the members of the board of directors. Since he no longer wanted Rutherford at Bethel, it is doubtful that he wanted him on the board of directors in event of his death.
Rutherford was an extremely forceful, self-seeking character. By legal tricks and maneuvers, he was able to avoid the will’s intent and directives to establish himself as President of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, contrary to the wishes of the majority of the Board of Directors. ”Judge” Joseph Franklin Rutherford usurped total control of the Society and became an absolute dictator. While in legal practice, he had once served briefly as a temporary fill-in judge and thus retained the title of “judge” by which he was often referred to. He became the Watchtower’s legal counsel in 1907; one year after he was baptized, and the same year Pastor Russell’s will was drawn up (June 29, 1907). His first contact with the Truth was in 1894.
Rutherford apparently felt that he needed something to establish his position and show leadership capabilities. He was an accomplished public speaker, a skill honed in politics, but others were also. He decided to quickly publish a new book and rush it into print without consulting or receiving approval from the editorial committee as required by Pastor Russell’s will. Two brothers, both from Scranton, Pennsylvania, had developed material for treatises on Ezekiel (George H. Fisher) and Revelation (Clayton J. Woodworth), while Brother Russell still lived. These were hastily completed and combined into one book published in the summer of 1917, the same year the United States entered the war in Europe (April 6, 1917). The Judge released the book on July 7, 1917, the same day he announced the replacement of four WTBTS directors, named by Pastor Russell in his will, with directors of his own choosing. It was falsely proclaimed to be the posthumous work of Pastor Russell. The book was titled the “Finished Mystery” and presented as Pastor Russell’s long expected “Seventh Volume.” It was laced with quotations from Pastor Russell’s writings, which supposedly supported the prophetic theories of the two authors.
One theory, held by the authors, was an expectation that the last members of the church class would die violent deaths at the hands of political and religious leaders in response to a brief but powerful Bible Student message critical of their sinful practices. Consequently, the “Finished Mystery” was written in this spirit and contained harsh condemnations of the government, the churches of America and their leaders. At the same time, Rutherford admonished all young Bible Students, subject to the draft, to oppose military service as conscientious objectors.
The government took swift action against what it considered sedition. In May 1918, federal arrest warrants were issued for Rutherford and 6 other top Society officers. In June 1918, all were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for conspiracy, and sent off to a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. This was what we might call today a country club prison. The prisoners were allowed the freedom of walking and talking together while playing tennis.
According to provisions in the WTBTS charter and Pastor Russell’s will, direction of the Society resided in its seven board members who were now in prison. Bethel workers left behind in Brooklyn without leadership pondered what to do with the now headless Society.
In August 1918, with its principal leaders in prison, the Society shut down the New York office, sold the Brooklyn Tabernacle, closed the Bethel home, and moved back to Pittsburgh.
In March 1919, after the war ended in November 1918, the imprisoned Society leaders were released from prison under $10,000 bail. To escape his prison sentence, “Judge” Rutherford had made a deal with the government. So much for dying at the hands of the government and ending the church’s earthly course in glorious martyrdom.
It was agreed that Bible Students should cut out certain offensive pages from the “Finished Mystery”, the false “Seventh Volume”, and that the Society would cease printing them. Some followed government orders and cut out pages 245 to 254 in chapter 16, titled “Ecclesiasticisms Seven Plagues”, while others ignored the government edict. This chapter applied the “seven last plagues” of the book of Revelation to Pastor Russell’s 6 Volumes of Studies in the Scriptures and Rutherford’s new “Seventh Volume”. The “Finished Mystery” was claimed to be the hail plague. Many Bible Students, fearful that all their Volumes would be confiscated, hid them in cellars and attics or buried them in the back yard. To this day, some old Volumes retain a musty smell from this treatment.
Young Bible Students were still in prison. Bible Students everywhere were suffering ignominy in the eyes of their neighbors, while Rutherford was making legal deals to escape prison time. Many Bible Students were incensed at the perfidy of the man who had wrestled control of the Society from the hands of its legally appointed administrators.
JUDGE’S ACTIONS CAUSE THOUSANDS TO DEPART
Bible Students left the Society by the thousands. It was no longer the organization they had known under Pastor Russell. They recognized the noble, holy, spirit of Christ in Pastor Russell, but the new head was an entirely different type of leader: a scheming, cunning man with a dictatorial spirit. The first book Rutherford published after Pastor Russell’s death, “The Finished Mystery”, was a very different kind of book than Pastor Russell’s “Studies in the Scriptures.” One doesn’t find the spirit of Pastor Russell in the “The Finished Mystery,” nor does one find the spirit of the “Finished Mystery” in Pastor Russell’s writings. Some perceived the difference, and some did not.
Among the dissenters who departed, the burning question became, “What do we do now”? This question has not gone away.
Bible Students expected the Gospel Age to end about 1914 and the earthly kingdom to follow swiftly. As 1914 approached, Pastor Russell saw that much was still left to be done in God’s plan before the full establishment of God’s Kingdom in Earth and God’s will be done as it is in heaven. He repeatedly warned the Brethren, but expectations were high and ears dull. 1914 came and went and the Brethren were still here. The date 1918 seemed likely, and hopes were transferred to that date. It also passed, and hopes were advanced to 1925. This date also proved to be another disappointment, as have numerous hoped for dates since then.
After Pastor Russell died, the Bible Student movement divided roughly in two in the years 1917 to 1918: half stayed with the Society, now called the “Channel”, with Rutherford at its head, while the other half, who opposed Rutherford, showed their opposition by leaving. The dissenters went several different directions as they refused to be associated with an organization dominated by a man of such questionable character as “Judge” Rutherford. By 1930-32, about 75% had left of their own accord, or had been forced out by Rutherford, who tolerated no opposition of any kind.
In 1922 in Romania, Rutherford ordered the Romanian Brethren to print only material issued from New York. In 1924, nearly 100% of the Romanian brethren left the Society after Rutherford sold the presses upon which they were printing Truth literature.
Similar actions occurred throughout the Bible Student world.
This sad picture of what happened to the Society following Pastor Russell’s death is the basis for understanding the Bible Student movement since then.
A NEW NAME FOR A NEW MOVEMENT
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and its other legal entities became the sole domain of Rutherford until his death, January 8, 1942. At a convention in Columbus, Ohio, July 24-30, 1931, Rutherford renamed the Society the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” While we may show compassion towards those deceived by him, we can no longer think of the Society after Rutherford took over, as the Society that Pastor Russell founded. Under its new autocratic head, it had become the enemy of sincere, truth seeking, thinking Bible Students, whatever other good it might have done. For Bible Students eager to witness to the Truth in our day, the stigma of the Jehovah’s Witnesses still attaches to us in the public mind and hinders every effort to represent God’s present Truth to the world.
NEW TEACHINGS FOR THE NEW MOVEMENT
While we leave a detailed history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to others, we note their numerous departures from the Truth and its spirit.
Their claim that Pastor Russell is their founder is patently false. Rutherford founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some viewed this move as a marketing stroke of genius.
Their belief that only living Jehovah’s Witnesses pass through the time of trouble into the blessings of Christ’s kingdom on Earth assigns all the rest of mankind, over 6 billion living persons, to second death with no further hope for life. How ludicrous, that one visit from a Jehovah’s Witness constitutes one’s trial for eternal life. This teaching is a denial of the ransom without directly so stating. Such a spirit is in total opposition to the spirit of God’s love, justice and merciful plan for all mankind.
Claiming to be walking in the light, book after book presented new teachings, the latest often contradicting the former. Jehovah’s Witnesses had to read the last edition of the Watchtower magazine to know what was currently accepted as truth.
Some notions were particularly revolting. Since all of mankind not converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (over 99.9 percent) was expected to die the second death in Armageddon, this would leave the earth almost void of population. Thus it was taught that the “Jonadab” class, Jehovah Witness couples, would re-populate it.
Eventually, in 1939, the Ransom was totally denied by refusing Adam a resurrection.
The Society’s departure from the Truth did not happen all at once. It was a gradual dilution and perversion of the Truth by substituting new teachings for old. After publishing the “Finished Mystery” in 1917, Rutherford published a book, apparently of his own writing, in October 1, 1921 titled, “The Harp of God.” In general, this book held quite closely to the Truth, but made the rash speculation that, “Millions Living Will Never Die.”
For a while the Judge continued to publish Pastor Russell’s “Studies in the Scriptures.” Then, in 1924, he ceased their publication. In October 1920, Rutherford re-published Pastor Russell’s “Tabernacle Shadows” along with 23 pages of his own added footnote changes to Pastor Russell’s text. These expressed his own, often contrary Tabernacle views.
In 1919, the Society published the green “Reprints” of the Watch Tower magazine, beginning with the first edition in 1879 and including issues up to 1919. In 1920, the remaining supply was sold to the Pastoral Bible Institute, and made available to the Brethren for $2.50.
A NEW FINANCIAL OPERATION
Note the sharp contrast between the Society’s financial operation under Pastor Russell and under Judge Rutherford. Under Pastor Russell’s administration, the Society received voluntary donations and used these to finance the witness work, giving away free tracts and selling books at cost or slightly above. Under Rutherford, the Society was organized as a large printing operation to cheaply print books and sell them for a handsome profit. The Society was no longer solely dependant upon contributions from supporters, as in the past. It now generated funds from a well-organized and profitable book selling operation. Labor costs were almost non-existent, since brethren volunteered their time and labor for subsistence compensation. This change funded Rutherford’s ambitious expansion plans, and freed the Society from money worries.
The dissenters, who walked out, had neither Pastor nor Society. Those who remained had no Pastor, but they had what they viewed as the “Channel”. The proposition was put forth that even though bad characters might prevail, the Society is still the “Channel”. It reminds one of Papacy’s past claims. Many have labored long and hard, enslaved to the false notion of “Channelism.”
The dissenters on the other hand were on their own, cast adrift upon a sea of uncertainty. What do we do now? The sheep were scattered without a shepherd. Yet our Good Shepherd is always there, watching over his true church even unto the end. God always provides. Hence, the Bible Students reformed and still exists today, just like the early Watchtower Bible Students, with the same doctrinal beliefs and the same love for Jehovah and each other, as well as the hope for ALL mankind for a future period of learning and trial on Paradise Earth during the 1,000 year reign of Christ and His body members.