During the struggle between Judge Rutherford and the Bible Students, William Schnell was in the upper echelon of the Watch Tower and made very insightful observations. At the time he finally wrote his book, THIRTY YEARS A WATCHTOWER SLAVE, he was neither a Jehovah’s Witness nor a Bible Student.
Schnell noted that further doctrinal changes and aggressive promotions by Judge Rutherford resulted in a large increase in new members faithful to Judge Rutherford. But this generated opposition from Pastor Russell’s Bible Students who still remained in the Watch Tower endeavoring to reverse Judge Rutherford’s revisionism of doctrine and practice. Judge Rutherford’s reaction is described by Schnell as follows: (ii)
“Between 1925 and 1931 Rutherford embarked on a campaign to purge Russell’s followers. By 1931 over three-fourths of those formerly associated with the Bible Student movement in Pastor Russell’s day remained faithful to his teachings by completely separating from Rutherford.”
Regarding those who left, Schnell remarked, “That is precisely what the new Watch Tower Society wanted and what they had hoped to accomplish.” (iii) Speaking of the new converts Schnell said: (iv) These, of course, were in the majority after the bloodletting of three-fourths of the Bible Students had been so adroitly accomplished.
Memorial attendance figures give interesting insight as to how Watchtower membership changed in the early years.
The following numbers are from the book “Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose” printed by the Society in 1959 which has several scattered references to Memorial attendance records during the 1920s. The numbers given are as follows:
1917 – 21,274
1918 – no reports gathered
1919 – 17,961
1920 – no reports gathered
1921 – no reports gathered
1922 – 32,661
1923 – 42,000
1924 – 62,696
1925 – 90,434
1926 – 89,278
1927 to 1934 – reports gathered but never printed
1935 – 27,006
Alan Rogerson quotes from “Jehovah” (1934), p. 277, “Of the great multitude that left the world to follow Jesus Christ only a few are now in God’s organization.” That seems to go a long way towards confirming Memorial attendance figures like about 90,434 in 1925 vs. a bit over 19,000 in 1928.
If you take the 1917 attendance of 21,274 and subtract it from the peak attendance in 1925 which was 90,434 you get almost 76.5% drop. But it must be remembered when looking at those numbers that the “Millions” campaign was responsible for gathering many newly interested ones. The “Millions” campaign (Millions Now Living Will Never Die) started in 1918 and declared that the church would be complete by 1921 and the Kingdom established in 1925. When the year came and went without anything of significance taking place scores left but many of them were new converts. Those who were faithful to the Russell’s teachings were leaving as early as 1917 and the numbers continued to dwindle through the end of the 1920s, a gradual but steady decline in the original membership.
Even more telling is the following quote taken from Judge Rutherford himself in the November 15th, 1930 Watch Tower: “The total number of those who have withdrawn from the Society and now oppose its work is comparatively large, when such are taken altogether. These are now divided into many companies, all claiming to be followers of Christ and claiming to be God’s little flock, while at the same time they speak evil things concerning those who are faithfully endeavoring to serve God. They denounce the Society and its work.”
So he clearly recognized that when you compare the number of those who stayed with the Society with the number of those who left they were the ones representing the larger number. These would have included the Layman’s, the Dawn, the PBI and various other little groups (which is why he said “when such are taken altogether”).
Other researchers have tried to produce accurate statistics and their work generally confirms that it was approximately three-quarters of the original membership in the Pastor’s day that had left the Watch Tower Society by 1931.
Not only did approximately 75% of the original Bible Students from Brother Russell’s day leave the Watchtower by 1931, but a large number of new converts from the failed “Millions” campaign had left by 1928. After this, J. F. Rutherford changed the name of His group to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to distinguish it from the various Bible Student groups formed. With new marketing and organizational strategies, the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization grew dramatically in the multimillion member organization of today.
Rutherford stated that those who had left the Society were in number larger than those who stayed.
“During the past fifty years God has been causing his light to shine with increasing power upon his Word. He has not given his people new truths, but illuminated the truths already given. During that short period of time many have separated themselves from all organized systems of religion and have tried to walk in the way that Jesus and the apostles walked. For a time they made progress; and then many became tired and weary in well doing or thought more highly of themselves than they should think or became lawless, while others became offended. These turned away, so that today the larger percent of those who withdrew from so-called organized Christianity have turned aside and again gone back into the world.” — The Watchtower December 1, 1927 pg 355 col 1 par 4
“Those who tremble at God’s Word are the ones who are diligent to keep and obey his commandments. They have no fight, to be sure, with the opposers, and mention is here made of it, not for the purpose of controversy, but that God’s people may be encouraged in seeing the fulfilment of prophecy, as it is manifested by the will of God they shall be encouraged. When it is clearly seen that the opposition to God’s work was long ago foretold by his prophet, and that the prophecy is now being fulfilled, such is a great encouragement to the faithful and is an evidence that the Lord is dealing with them and that they are in his favor. It is therefore clear that it is the will of God that attention of the faithful shall be called to these things at this time. The total number of those who have withdrawn from the Society and now oppose its work is comparatively large, when such are taken all together. These are now divided into many companies, all claiming to be followers of Christ and claiming to be God’s little flock, while at the same time they speak evil things concerning those who are faithful endeavoring to serve God.” — The Watchtower November 15, 1930 pg 342 col 1 pars 1-2
Most JWs are unaware that the reason Rutherford proposed the name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was to draw a clear line of distinction from those who had left the Society and those who remained. It is usually thought that it was strictly due to “new light”, but the resolution adopted at that Columbus Ohio convention in 1931 centers around the need for a new name due to the divisions. If you need the text of the resolution and the accompanying article let me know and it will be forwarded to you. Around this time period of 1930-32 Rutherford repeatedly made attacks upon those who had withdrawn from the Society, all printed in the Watchtower, and in The Golden Age rather harsh and sarcastic replies were given to papers written by the early Dawn brethren.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been told for decades that the difficulties and schisms experienced in the period around 1918 were part of the fulfillment of prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. The doctrine is that the Lord came to his temple in 1918 and made a judgment as to who were actually his people. Jesus saw that the Watchtower Society was doing his work and thus they were accepted, but all others rejected – not merely Christendom, but also those who opposed the work of the Society. The sign that others were rejected were that they were unorganized, had no interest in preaching the gospel message, and were not exhibiting the spirit of the Lord. But in reality there were two other groups of Bible Students who were active in preaching work, trying to remain faithful to what they understood to be truth, and were astonished by the many strange new ideas that were being promulgated at the time. The Society’s three official accounts of their history put the primary blame of trouble upon Br. P.S.L. Johnson but what they have not revealed is that there was, essentially, a competition between the three groups (Watchtower; PBI and Johnson). Articles in the Watchtower would be responded to by Johnson and the PBI, and articles written by Johnson were often rebutted without any acknowledgment being given that Rutherford was actually responding to him. This three-way debate continued for nearly 20 years, with the greatest activity in the 1920s. One of the most common practices that all three groups were guilty of is excessive type-making. The gradual changes being printed in the Watchtower were frequently being tied to Bible prophecy, but so were the views by Johnson and the PBI. Bottom line: while the Society makes it appear as though they were the only ones engaged in activity, others were just as active if not more so.