75% of the Original Bible Students left the Watchtower by 1931

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
1928  17,380
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.

82 comments to 75% of the Original Bible Students left the Watchtower by 1931

  • Peter K. (admin)

    If it bothers your conscience to remember Jesus’ birth on December 25 or any other day of the year, then you should not violate your conscience.

    However, Do you really believe that when the brethren at Bethel remembered Jesus’ birth that they were engaging in pagan worship?

    Colossians 2:16 ASV
    “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a sabbath day:”

  • Peter K. (admin)

    Cheis – Johnson and the Bible Students are two different groups.

  • Stanley L.

    It is easy to see where the 75% figure really comes from.

    Take the 17,380 memorial attendance from 1928 and subtract the peak figure of 90,434 from the 1925 memorial and we end up with a net loss of about 73,054, or roughly 75-80% of the peak attendance. Since they still went by the name Bible Students in those days one could say, technically speaking, that 75% of them did leave the Watchtower as it was cranking up its control over the congregations.

    Sadly, that is a misleading figure as it doesn’t accurately inform us of just how many who were faithful to the Pastor’s legacy left. At least I know what the informational basis for the figure often used is now. Given the number of ecclesias there are of Bible Students and that many of them do trace their origin either directly to the Pastor’s day or to those who separated themselves from the ones who followed Rutherford and founded their own, I imagine the number who separated themselves during that decade were probably quite large.

    Thank you for posting the data.

  • Chris

    Keep in mind I have the exact reprints. 1890 Volume 11 No 2. Bottom paragraph in the left 3 lines up from the bottom. Let me know if this helps.

  • Chris

    Organization is important. Israel was organized. Even CT Russell saw that the Watchtower was Gods channel of communication of his word in the last day. Don’t believe me. Here’s the quote.

    Zion’s Watch Tower Herald of Christ’s Presence 1890 pg 1171
    “We are most firmly convinced that the TOWER is and has been a chosen vessel in the Lord’s hands for dispensing “meat in due season'”

    Seems like those who’ve left are missing out

    • Peter K. (admin)

      Chris – I cannot find this statenent in the Watchtower you referenced. You said “in Zion’s Watchtower 1890 page 1171 bottom left paragraph it says “The Tower has been chosen as the Lords vessel for dispensing meat in due season.” ”

      • Peter K. (admin)

        Chris – Thanks. You are misapplied the quote. It starts out “We are firmly convinced…” Brother Russell was stating his opinion. However, the only thing enforced was Christian liberty.

    • Anonymous

      VEry correct Chris.Pastor Russell supported the idea of organized ecclesias even though not as much as Kingdom Halls are organized now. He did the beginning and J.Rutherford just continued that even more.
      WE surely know that the leaders of the Pastoral Bible Institute (ex directors of the Watchtower) wrote a WHOLE article about “Organization being essential”in their Herald magazine and Paul Johnson accused them also for “rutherfordism” (Read the Epiphany Volume “Gershonism”)
      I think it was a smart strategy by then, if I can call it like that, so as to take advantage of the fact that the faithful brethren were in prison and take over the leadership of the Watchtower Society while there was no central leadership
      If someone reads what Johnson says about the matter ,you can easily understand why such persons were dismissed from the Society.

  • Anonymous

    Max is right, i had the same thought as i looked at the records

  • max

    Hi Ken;

    The point was, 40,000 plus were in the ministry, the Memorial attence was partial. In essence it was down 50,000 which is not 75 percent. Gave the lit amount to show 463 to 453 per minister showing the 40,000 was there the whole year. And if you see how fast they came in you have to realize many of those new ones hardly new anything about the bible. But when you walk up to someone with a tract and its says Gods name come and be one of the chosen ones, its easy to do. But as the preaching work was being stressed more and more they fell away. Note there was no big increase to the Dawn and other ecll. Hope this helps you.

    • Ken

      Max, I think I understand now….the Jw’s,during Rutherford’s presidency,increased quite a bit because of the preaching activity but at the same time, the Bible students left the Org. and when they became independent(Dawn etc.),they didn’t increase by much. Do you think this is due to less zeal in the preaching work or what?

      • Peter K. (admin)

        Ken – Here are my thoughts. The Bible Student Movement has always been very active in witness and from the efforts of the Frank and Earnest Radio program, regular door to door tracting parties, fair booth witnesses, newspaper advertising, public Talks, Multi-media “For This Cause” in Auditoriums across the country, Website outreach, etc. Thousands of new brethren were added to the Bible Student movement over the decades, but many more have died out. Bible Students are actually growing in India, Africa and other third world countries. However, if we believe that there are only 144,000 in the Bride of Christ and that this number is nearly complete, then shouldn’t our expectation be that the High Calling is winding down, that the numbers would decrease and that the present increase in knowledge and technology is in preparation for the earthly Kingdom?

  • max

    Hi Ken;

    1928 Total Ministers reporting=44,080 Memorial attendence reported 17,380 In 1918 there was no reports given. 1917 partial report of 21,274 keep in mind the first record of partakers at Memorial was on April 17, 1935.And in 1828 with 44,080 ministers reporting they placed 20,412,192 pieces of literature, for a average of 463 a person. 1938 59,047 reported ministers, placed 26,772,882 average of 453 a person for the year. Why in 1915 there was 15,430 at the Memorial which is a partial number.How dis C.T.Russell only get that many in 40 years, but Rutherford got it up to 90,000 in abouy 11 years? Were people being invited to the Memorial, yet when they came they were not baptized yet or didn’t even preach yet? And consider that in 1924 there was an average of 1,064 Witnesses doing weekly preaching with books and bookets from house to house in the U.S. But there were 65,105 persons world-wide who had embraced the truth, and, no doubt, most of these performed tract and handbill distribution. The house to house work was in its early part and it appears some took their faith elsewhere but 40,000 + were ministering and maybe did or maybe didn’t make the Memorial that year, Record keeping was not consistent back then. One last thought, I believe Rutherford died in 1942 when the Memorial count was 140,450. Yet the past couple of years it has been about 18,000,000, thats right without Rutherford. Just like the early congregations they kept growing till the apostles were out of the way, then the apostacy came which was foretold. For any to say they defeated Jehovah God, you will have to get that number way,way, down.

  • Ken

    Jacqueline thanks! Very informative…..boy that “painted in photo” looked weird!

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