Charles Taze Russell’s Modern Day Bible Students: A History of The Watchtower From the Perspective of A Former Bible Student

Part 2

The Dark Years

Of course the most significant event in Watchtower history is the premature death of its founder at 64 years of age in October 1916.  Bible Students were shocked when their beloved Pastor had been “taken home” by God before his time.  There is much information on the internet and in published books about the events that transpired immediately following Russell’s death in October 1916.  One could write volumes on the events that took place over the control of the Watchtower following Russell’s death.  It seems that some of Russell’s closest associates at that time, for example Paul S.L. Johnson, Russell’s Secretary, appeared to have had ambitions to step into Russell’s shoes.  According to MacMillian, Rutherford, who did end up succeeding Russell, did not really want to become the President at that time but felt a responsibility to do so. Bible Students on the other hand see Rutherford as a conspirator who usurped Russell and hijacked the Society with its evil goals.  MacMillan was a close friend of Russell’s and even claims to have been offered the position of President by Russell just weeks before his death.

Rutherford appears as a difficult man with poor social skills who bullied people to get his way.  On the other hand, MacMillan suggested that Rutherford did not act out according to his own personal ambitions but did what he thought was best for the Society once he assume control over the Watchtower.  The fact that Bible Students were completely devoted to Russell’s memory presented a barrier to Rutherford’s belief that it was the Watchtower’s role to provide a Witness to the World.  Rutherford may have been sincere but he was ruthless against those who would not support him exactly the way he wanted.  Rutherford had a black and white world view, was a nasty bully, and a deluded eccentric.  However, his lack of likeability and positive character qualities do not mean that he was insincere.  He had a sense of righteous indignation, and for those who opposed what he believed to be Jehovah’s intent, he would treat with no mercy.  During the 1920s the very movement that had been associated with and supported Watchtower for over forty years became Rutherford’s main obstacle.  So with a surgeon’s skill, he removed what he viewed as the necrotic flesh of the Society using the scalpel of doctrine change to excise the opposing mindset.    
In January 1917, less than three months after Russell’s death, a special convention was convened in which Joseph Rutherford was unanimously elected President.  Bible Students today claim a conspiracy on the part of Rutherford, Macmillan and VanAmburgh that placed Rutherford in the Presidency.  Bible Students complain that nominations were closed by Macmillan, who was chair of the business meeting to elect Watchtower officers.  MacMillan discusses this period in his book and indicates that no impropriety was committed.   Whether or not Bible Student assertions are true, one must remember that despite any improprieties committed by MacMillan or Rutherford, the movement did not object to the proceedings and voted Rutherford in with a unanimous show of support.  No member was forced to raise their hand, yet it was a unanimous vote.  In this sense Bible Students only have themselves to blame over Rutherford’s ascension to the movement’s most powerful position. 

Rutherford’s early presidency was rocky. There was no way Rutherford could ever replace Russell in the hearts of the majority of Bible Students.  A few months into his presidency, Rutherford faced a coup.  Four Directors influenced by PSL Johnson, former secretary to Russell, planned to change the bylaws to curtail the powers of the Society’s office of President.  This coup was sloppily planned and word leaked out to Rutherford.  Rutherford got a legal reading of the Society’s bylaws and found a technicality he used to oust the four dissenting Directors.  Rutherford then replaced these four with MacMillan, Van Amburgh and two other supporters.

A bitter feud broke out within the movement with the ousted Directors and Rutherford publishing arguments and accusations against one another, in an attempt to win over the movement.  At the end of this controversy, a schism resulted in the formation of three independent Bible Student groups: 1) Layman’s Home Missionary under PSL Johnson; 2) Pastoral Bible Institute (PBI) formed by R.E. Streeter; 3) and the Pacific Northwest Movement called Standfasters.  While many hundreds of Bible Students left Watchtower to join these new organizations, others like my maternal great-grandparents had become so disenchanted with the leadership of the movement they dropped out altogether.  These events occurred early on between 1917 and 1919.  

Probably the most significant event was the fallout from the publishing of the 7th Volume, a treatise on Revelation and Ezekiel, claimed to be the posthumous work of CT Russell.  The publication of this volume alone caused much controversy.  Many Bible Students, like my paternal grandfather, never accepted this last volume as a true work of Russell.  Many Bible Students, however, did accept it.  Having read parts of this volume, I recognized many things that I was taught growing up.  Regardless of the fact that while Bible Students eventually rejected this book, many of the things taught in it made their way into Bible Student thinking.  Most significant about the publication of the 7th Volume was that its publication ultimately led to the jailing of Watchtower’s entire Board of Directors.  

This last Volume of the Studies in the Scriptures series made strong denunciations against the Great War that was raging in Europe at the time of the book’s publication.  United States Government officials based charges of treason by using the strong anti-government statements made within the pages of the 7th Volume.  The Society’s Board was convicted to serve some 20 years each in Federal Prison.  This experience had a profound effect on Rutherford, both in his health (he lost the use of a lung) and in his outlook on the “world.”  For the rest of Rutherford’s life, he used the Watchtower as a weapon to rail against government and the nominal church system. The movement stalled during the time Watchtower’s Directors were jailed.  In early 1919, the US government overturned their decision of treason and released the Directors from Atlanta Federal Prison where they had been held for nine months.

Rutherford realized that he needed to reinvigorate the movement.  Watchtower initiated a number of key conventions in the early years to motivate and re-task the movement.  The Cedar Point Ohio Conventions of 1920 and especially 1922 were cited in several early Yearbooks as turning points for the Bible Students.  Throughout this time Rutherford had designs to enlarge the scope of Watchtower efforts.  While Russell had reached millions with his syndicated sermons published in (as some claim) some 4000 newspapers across the United States and overseas, Rutherford believed that a greater effort had to be made to witness the Kingdom to the world in general.  This ambition would require growing the Watchtower membership.  In 1922 Rutherford began the “Advertise the King and his Kingdom” campaign.   

Rutherford also realized that many Bible Students did not support his goals.   These were becoming increasingly discontent with the direction Rutherford was taking the Watchtower.  Rutherford knew that he could never achieve his goals without the full support of the movement.  He needed tighter control.  Watchtower representatives began to be assigned to each ecclesia to track the Witness effort.  This was one of the first steps made by Watchtower to gain control over Bible Student classes.  

The Channel

Many Bible Students were wary about Rutherford’s intentions.  My grandfather talked about his own personal mistrust in Rutherford during this time.  I well remember my grandfather very passionately recounting the concept of the Channel.  Rutherford knew that he could never gain the hearts and loyalty of the Bible Students like Russell had, so he directed as much attention to the organization as being God’s one true organization through the channel concept.  In this view, Watchtower was Jehovah God’s single instrument in bringing the truth to the human race.  By focusing the devotion of the movement to God’s channel of truth, Rutherford could institute changes in doctrine design to sift out those whose minds and loyalty couldn’t be directed to the channel model. 

One critical doctrinal change came around 1923 when Rutherford published an article in Watchtower stating that Adam and Eve would not receive a resurrection.  This one doctrinal change shook many Bible Students.  This was a profound change to what most Bible Students considered to be the foundation doctrine of the truth.   My grandfather was an elder in the Roseburg Oregon Bible Students at the time.  He would recount that he had given a number of talks contending this Watchtower doctrinal change.  This matter split the Roseburg class into two opposing ecclesias, one supporting Watchtower and the other retaining the original belief as taught by Russell.  The two classes never met together again from thereon after.

As early as 1923 Bible Student defectors lamented the direction taken by the Society.  W.M. Wisdom wrote The Laodicea Messenger, a bizarre yet strangely familiar biography of and tribute to CT Russell. The forward of this very strange book provides a glimpse of what many Bible Students were feeling at that time.  Embittered by the hijacking of what had once been “their” Society, they lamented the changes that were taking place and yearned for the days of their beloved Pastor.

“WHEN the news was flashed over the wire soon after Oct. 31st, 1916, “Pastor Russell is Dead,” the Truth Friends all over the world received the shock of their lives. Never did more unwelcome news reach loyal, loving Brethren; never, apparently, were there more heartaches; never more sorrow; never did more hot tears of grief flow from human eyes than when this sad news was received. The writer believes that this grief was genuine, sincere, that the sorrow was from the heart. The Funeral Services in the New York Temple, the gloominess of the Bethel Home, left their impress upon his heart and brain. Time can never efface that memory; the lesson learned has been enduring: “It is the Lord; let Him do what seemeth Him good.” Since that date a cycle of seven years has been almost completed. With what sadness we note the change which a few short years have wrought in the attitude of so many of the dear Friends everywhere. The first glow of love is cooling to an alarming degree; devotion to the principals underlying the Divine Law are being ignored to a great extent, while a wave of unrighteousness is rapidly sweeping over the Church, threatening to drive the Bark of Faith on the Rock of Disaster.”

During the 1920s and 1930s, it seemed one by one Rutherford would denounce or change something in the original Bible Student canon.  Rutherford denounced the Pyramid, which Russell claimed to be the “Bible in Stone,” as having been a deception from the devil.  Rutherford condemned the teaching that the nation of Israel would play a role in God’s Kingdom.  Rutherford began censuring celebrations such as Christmas proclaiming them as having pagan, hence Satanic, origins.  Each of these alterations in Bible Student beliefs had its effect of causing disillusionment and there was a steady decline in the membership.  Despite the seeming endless stream of doctrinal changes, many Bible Students remained loyal to the organization hoping that God would intervene to change the direction and restore the truth to the Watchtower.

By 1928 most Bible Students had either left Watchtower or had been disfellowshipped.  Rutherford identified these as being the “evil servant” who opposed the “good and faithful servant.”  In the 1920s there was no activism as exists today.  Bible Students did not campaign to expose Watchtower wrongdoings or to reform Watchtower practices.  Much of what Watchtower did to those who left the organization was not even necessarily seen as being immoral as they would today (such as the practice of shunning former members).  Many individuals believe that Watchtower’s shunning practice dates to the early 1950s citing a 1947 Awake Magazine article where Watchtower condemns the practice of excommunication as morally wrong.  Contrary to what many believe, shunning was practiced by Watchtower as far back as the 1920s and early 1930s.

My grandfather told stories of his experience of having been shunned by those in the Roseburg Oregon Class who remained loyal to Watchtower.  On occasion he encountered old friends on the street or in a store and they acted as if he didn’t exist.  Other Bible Students I knew well told similar tales of being shunned.  Norman Woodworth, founder of the Dawn Bible Students Association, described a chance encounter with former old colleagues and friends from his days at Bethel.  Dawn Bible Students at its founding was located in Brooklyn on Fulton Street not far from Bethel.  One day walking through Brooklyn, Woodworth could see old close friends of his coming up the sidewalk in his direction.  Two of the individuals were W.M Van Amburgh and A.H. MacMillan.  As he approached and then passed by them they did not acknowledge his presence.  Disheartened that they would not stop and say just a quick hello, he turned around and noticed MacMillan who was holding his hands behind his back, was waving discreetly back at Woodworth!  Some Bible Students had learned that Rutherford had given Jehovah’s Witnesses strict orders not to interact or acknowledge former Bible Student friends and associates.

Expelled and Disenfranchised Bible Students

By the 1930s the majority of the original Bible Students were no longer associated with Watchtower.  The figures most often referred to are those presented by William Schnell in his book Thirty Years a Watchtower Slave. These numbers indicate that in the early to mid-1920s memorial attendance had been upwards around 90,000 individuals worldwide.  By 1927 this figure shrank to around 17,000.  This drop evidences a general Exodus from the Society.  Many Bible Students were disillusioned and many of these were completely disenfranchised and had nowhere to meet once they left the Society.  There were some independent Bible Student groups forming during the 1920s, but by far and large most individuals found themselves on their own.

In the 1932 Watchtower Yearbook Rutherford wrote to explain the rationale for the name of the Society’s movement.  In this Yearbook he acknowledged the existence of other groups who identified themselves as Bible Students.  He gives this fact as one of the reasons why he chose the movement’s new name, “Jehovah’s Witnesses”.  Rutherford explained that other Russellite groups such as Millennial Dawnists, PBI, or Standfasters identified themselves as Bible Students and he didn’t want the public to confuse those associated with Watchtower with these other groups.  By 1931, Watchtower membership was just beginning to rebound from a low point in numbers.  By the late 1920s more individuals had been disfellowshipped or disassociated from Watchtower than remained as suggested by Schnell’s numbers.  In composite there were more independent individuals who identified as Bible Students outside of the Society than those who remained and this could certainly cause confusion among people in the “world” who could not differentiate between these various groups. 

For many disenfranchised Bible Students after they left Watchtower, there was no place for them to meet until Bible Students such as Norman Woodworth and Russell Pollack had joined the ranks of Watchtower dissenters.  Within a few years of Woodworth’s leaving the Society he formed the Dawn Bible Students Association.  Dawn’s main mission for twenty years after it formed was to seek out alienated Bible Students, organize them into functioning ecclesias modeled after the congregations of Russell’s time, and to organize conventions.  

It appears that the Dawn through the 1930s and 1940s was fairly successful in its work.  Of the estimated 73,000 Bible Students expelled from Watchtower as suggested by Schnell, some 56,000, or some 75% of the Bible Students who left Watchtower were re-gathered and organized by the Dawn. The estimate of 56,000 has come from an unexpected and reliable source.  In 1947, the Dawn Bible Students Association was called into Superior Court over a law suit disputing a tax exemption claimed by the Dawn.  Woodworth represented the Dawn in this legal dispute as did my grandfather and grandmother, who both testified in the trial.  Asked by the Superior Court Judge about the nature of the organization, Woodworth exclaimed that the movement supporting the work of the Dawn numbered over 56,000 people worldwide. Thus Schnell’s numbers hold together, and are consistent with Woodworth’s estimate.  Because of circumstances in which the figure 56,000 was given, i.e. Superior Court testimony, It is unlikely Woodworth would have risked perjuring himself over such a trivial matter.

The Jonadab Class (aka Other Sheep)

By the early 1930s Rutherford’s plans to grow the Watchtower were pretty well set.  There was one last doctrinal obstacle to overcome before Watchtower was unencumbered from unlimited growth potential.  As mentioned previously, Bible Students into the early 1930s believed that God was only calling people out from the world for the High Calling, i.e. to be a part of the 144,000.  It would be difficult to grow an organization that could accommodate no more people than that relatively restricted number.  In the early 1930s Rutherford overcame that barrier with the teaching of the Jonadab class.   According to Rutherford this class would constitute, Revelation the 7th Chapter’s Great Company (aka Great Crowd class, or Other Sheep) as an Earthly group as opposed to a heavenly body as taught by Russell.  With this single stroke, the door was opened for organizational growth without any potential limit.  Jonadabs, as explained by 1930s Watchtower, would be those drawn to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses with the hope of inheriting the perfect Earth.  All the remainder of mankind who do not respond to the message put forth by Jehovah’s Witnesses were judged by Jehovah and doomed to die in Armageddon.  Only the Jonadab class would be saved.

This message and the emphasis on members to go out into the door to door ministry reached a good deal of people.  By 1942 when Joseph Rutherford died there were close to 100,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Watchtower continued to experience exponential growth through the 1940s and 50s so that by around 1960, less than twenty years after the Jonadabs were conceived, there were roughly one million Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Rutherford had finished his job of reshaping the Society to accomplish what he had envisioned for the Society in the years just following Russell’s death.  In addition, Rutherford had also succeeded in establishing the Society’s autocratic hierarchal (he called it theocratic) control over all body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and positioned the organization for expansion into a global Society.