Joseph Franklin Rutherford. President, 1917-1942
Joseph Franklin Rutherford (November 8, 1869 – January 8, 1942) was raised by a farm family in Missouri. He was the second president of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the third, or the first. Depending on whom you ask. We’ll call him the second…
Rutherford began a career in law, against the wishes of his family. He served as a court stenographer, trial lawyer, and prosecutor, and was appointed a “special judge” along the way, in the 14th Judicial District of Missouri, in the late 1890’s. Hence the title “judge” is appended to his name in the history books. The meaning of the word “special” notwithstanding, this was a very ordinary title for those who did substitute fill-in work on the bench. Nevertheless, the title of “Judge” stuck throughout his career, giving the man an aura of importance.
One day, as is the case for so many of us, some “Russellites” came calling. This was 1894, and Rutherford was intrigued enough over time with these folks as to purchase the first three volumes of Russell’s 7-volume set, Studies in the Scriptures.
Rutherford was impressed by Russell’s sincerity and his sentiments towards religion, which were largely his own. He and his wife began holding Bible classes in their home. He joined the students’ group that was studying the Bible together, and was baptized, in 1906. Soon his legal talents were called upon, and he became the legal counsel for the Watch Tower Society in 1907.
The rise to power
By 1916 he had become one of the seven directors of the Watch Tower Society; when Russell died later that year, he was part of a three-man executive committee.
Russell’s death instigated some of the worst instincts of man’s lust for power. One thinks of the Popes and their claim to the throne of Rome… totally human activities having nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.
Here in this early JW history, there was much jockeying for the vacated office of the presidency. To be fair, at least one man, an aide to the executive committee, a Mr. Macmillan, said, “Rutherford did not know what was going on. He certainly didn’t do any electioneering or canvassing for votes, but I guess he was doing some worrying, knowing if he was elected he would have a big job on his hands… There is no doubt in our minds that the Lord’s will was done in this choice. It is certain that Rutherford himself had nothing to do with it.”
Give him the benefit of the doubt? Another image comes to mind of a certain Saul, of Old Testament times, shy and humble and cautious at first, then a near-monster of a man when royalty shaped him. This transformation seems to have been Rutherford’s, by accounts available to us now.
On January 6, 1917, Rutherford, aged 47, was elected President of the Watch Tower Society. No one opposed him. He was the natural, obvious, choice. At first.
But soon the honeymoon ended. Four members of the board of directors, left in place by Russell, accused him of being way too authoritative, even autocratic. They tried early on to reduce his powers. A power struggle ensued which was responsible for thousands of defections from the movement.
Rutherford’s view is that these men simply wanted the power for themselves, and tried to take over. But there were reasons they did not like the direction the “Judge” was headed.
Go directly to jail
His writing skills were immense, even more so than his predecessor. One of his first best-sellers was a book called The Finished Mystery. It contained anti-establishment sentiments that were so strong that Rutherford and those around him were accused by the U.S. government of sedition, and sent to jail!
They were “charged under the Espionage Act that came out in 1917, of attempting to cause insubordination, disloyalty, refusal of duty in the armed forces and obstructing the recruitment and enlistment service of the U.S. while it was at war, and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.”
It was not the first or last time that people of this movement would darken the doors of penal institutions. Not only for anti-government propaganda.
In the book he claimed that the world’s religions and the governments of the “beast”could not demand our loyalty. Patriotism was therefore a delusion to him. Canada banned the book altogether.
During this period, Rutherford gave a talk entitled “The World Has Ended-Millions Now Living May Never Die”. Later the “may” became “will” and the talk became a book. He was convinced that there would be coming soon a general resurrection of Old Testament saints!
Recall, these were the War years. WWI was nearing an end, and spies and traitors were certainly present. One couldn’t be too careful.
From the “Movement’s” point of view, it was a great way to become a martyr for the cause. Indeed, his power expanded at the end of the jail sentence, which turned out to be only a matter of months after all. By May, 1920, all charges were dropped.
The martyr emerges
After his release, Rutherford began in earnest to change the shape of the Movement, both in organization and in doctrine. It is this transformation of things that causes people in the movement today to deny Russell’s part in the history of their group altogether. Russell’s reputation had become a serious problem. It was clear he did not have the character that people expected of one who would speak for God. And Rutherford opposed much of what Russell had proclaimed. But not all. Many of the basics remained.
It was in May of 1919 that another major publication was announced. It would be the forerunner of the current Awake magazine, called The Golden Age.
Shortly thereafter, the “Bible Students” were told they must distribute this periodical door-to-door.
Then came the expansion of the Society’s printing facilities, and the revival of the selling of books and Bibles. Rutherford’s own publications reached a total printing of 36 million copies. He was truly prolific, even more so than Russell. He wrote twenty-one books and was credited by the Society in 1942 with the distribution of almost 400 million books and booklets.
But the noose around “God’s People” was tightening. In 1920 all preaching activity had to be reported to him. Branch offices were re-organized according to his liking.
He demanded of the huge crowds that came to his meetings, that they must take the message far and wide, that they must become publicity agents to fulfill Jesus’ commission. Door to door was to be the method.
In 1925 he actually gained full control over what doctrines would be taught in Watch Tower Society publications.
He had been trying to publish a document called “Birth of the Nation”, which marked clear divisions between Russell and himself. He was opposed. Rutherford later claimed that the devil himself had “tried to prevent the publication of that article… but failed in that effort”. In 1927, as reported above, the Watch Tower Society ceased the printing of Russell’s Studies in the Scriptures.
Next, 1924, come 15-minute radio broadcasts. On 480 stations. Eventually, NBC and BBC would ban his broadcasts due to his incessant attacks on the clergy, whom he especially hated.
1931. At a Bible Student assembly in Ohio’s capital, Rutherford proposed a new name for the organization, “Jehovah’s Witnesses”, to differentiate them from the other groups that had split off in favor of Russell’s teachings. (And hopefully to escape the label forever of “Russellite.”) For some the escape was and is very important. To this day, the modern “Witness” is not high in his regard for Russell. But many are still called “Russellite” in spite of their aversion to him. I have used the term myself on occasion. History demands that Russell’s influence was monumental.
Rutherford’s chosen name for his flock presumably comes from Isaiah 43:10, “You are My witnesses,” a passage spoken by God Himself to the people of Israel, His witnesses of His great works through the years. Israel indeed has witnessed, through Moses, the miracles of the Exodus and the trip through the wilderness. Through the other prophets, Israel is a witness of the rise of a nation in the middle of nowhere that exists to this day. Israel is witness to the coming of Messiah and the beginning of the Church.
Israel has seen it all. That’s what “witnesses” do. They see things and report what they see. How this passage could apply to a 19th-century cult which has re-written the Scriptures, and has seen nothing, is hard to say.
More and more power
Rutherford’s star continued to rise. The time came when, to oppose him, was the same as opposing God. He in fact claimed to be the mouthpiece of Jehovah, since Russell had departed.
In a few years, all the meeting-houses were re-named “Kingdom Halls”. In 1937, Rutherford demanded that those going door-to-door would do everything possible to call back at homes and start regular Bible studies there.
He, in 1938, labeled the movement a Theocracy, a form of government where God Himself – through the “Judge” of course – was in charge.
Rutherford died in 1942, leaving behind an incredibly organized and efficient organization with tens of thousands of adherents. Though there had been losses due to the doctrinal changes he instituted, more than an ample recovery made up for them.
About those changes, and conflicts with Russell.
One thing Rutherford began to do was cast as idolaters those who wanted to revere Russell’s memory. It didn’t bother him that he had himself taken the place of God in the people’s thinking. This was just a regrettable necessity.
In July 1917, Rutherford had a book called The Finished Mystery put forward as the seventh volume of the Studies in the Scriptures series. Actually the book contained teachings not held to by Russell. New dates for prophecies were included. The beginning of Christ’s reign was now 1914, not 1878, for example. The resurrection of the “sleeping saints” was to be 1918, also not 1878.
A book that Russell had completed in 1881, showed up in a revised edition. Many of his teachings had been changed.
Russell, for example, taught the cycling down of human society to the point where Armageddon would be a natural outcome. Rutherford claimed it would be totally a God thing when it happened, not brought about by man at all.
Before that 1931 change of the Society’s name, came a new emphasis on God’s Name, “Jehovah.” This was to be the primary doctrine of Christianity now, the vindication of God’s Name, not God’s grace to humanity.
Gog and Magog (Ezekiel) would somehow now be bound up with the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It would lead to God destroying at Armageddon all those who opposed them.
Russell’s emphasis on character development, that is, sanctification, was now discredited (1926).
And the strange teaching extracted from Matthew 24 that Russell was the “faithful and wise servant” Jesus was discussing, was no more to be held by true Bible Students.
In 1927, Christmas was declared to be of pagan origin, then Mother’s Day was condemned in 1931. Before this was all over, even birthday celebrations were not allowed!
Truly the changes were coming one on top of the other.
Rutherford and Israel and Adolf
Whereas Jews were blessed by Russell as having obtained God’s favor, Rutherford claimed that the Jewish business leaders of his day were “arrogant, self-important and extremely selfish.” The idea of God restoring the Jews to Palestine was discontinued.
It was during Rutherford’s tenure that the following letter, translated for our purposes, was sent to one Adolf Hitler, cozying up to the dictator for his approval, that the Witnesses of his land would escape persecution.
The Brooklyn headquarter of the Watchtower Society is pro German in an exemplary way and has been so for many years. For that reason, in 1918, the president of the Society and seven members of the board of directors were sentenced to 80 years in prison, because the president refused to use two of the magazines published in America under his direction for war propaganda against Germany. These two magazines, “The Watchtower” and “Bible Student” were the only magazines in America which refused to engage in anti-German propaganda and for that reason were prohibited and suppressed in America during the war.
In the very same manner, in course of the recent months the board of directors of our Society not only refused to engage in propaganda against Germany, but has even taken a position against it. The enclosed declaration underlines this fact and emphasizes that the people leading in such propaganda (Jewish businessmen and Catholics) also are the most rigorous persecutors of the work of our Society and its board of directors. This and other statements of the declaration are meant to repudiate the slanderous accusation, that Bible Researchers are supported by the Jews.
The conference of five thousand delegates also noted – as is expressed in the declaration – that the Bible Researchers of Germany are fighting for the very same high ethical goals and ideals which also the national government of the German Reich proclaimed respecting the relationship of humans to God, namely: honesty of the created being towards its creator.
The conference came to the conclusion that there are no contradictions when it comes to the relationship between the Bible Researchers of Germany to the national government of the German Reich. To the contrary, referring to the purely religious and unpolitical goals and efforts of the Bible Researchers, it can be said that these are in full agreement with the identical goals of the national government of the German Reich.
We are looking forward to your kind approval, which we hope to receive soon, and want to assure our highest respect to you, honorable Mr. Reichskanzler.
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society Magdeburg
Also gone in the new Rutherford regime would be the Pyramid dependency for God’s revelation. To Rutherford, the whole idea was Satanic.
In 1930 came another interpretation of the Book of Revelation in which he corrected his own former views, and rejected totally those of Russell!
And soon after, a Rutherford book condemned the women’s movements of his day as Satanic.
1935. School students are not to salute the flag. If they do, they are guilty of death! Yes, that was what he said. In 1940 alone, children in 43 states were kicked out of schools for trying to obey this mandate. The courts saw much of the Witnesses. By 1943, the findings against the students were reversed by the courts. This, after angry mob scenes stirred the public into action.
In 1938, Rutherford called a halt to singing at congregational meetings. (Oh dear!) The people were at least wise enough to put singing back into the agenda soon after he died.
In that same year, 1938, he began urging his followers to forget about getting married and having kids until after Armageddon. This whole attitude produced a bias against marriage, allowing the unmarried to take a superior attitude toward the “weak” brothers and sisters who just had to tie the knot.
Farewell to the cross and to many people
It was Rutherford also who introduced the idea of Jesus having been crucified on an upright stake, and not on a Roman “cross.” The universal symbol of Christianity thus became suspect in his growing list of evil things.
It becomes clear from this constantly growing collection of issues, why many abandoned his newly formed Bible association. Many were fiercely loyal to Russell. But Russell had laid the foundation of reason as being the most important quantity a man can have in arriving at truth. And reason is a very personal thing. My reason and your reason are different. So when a new man with a new sense of reason came along, most of the sheep followed. Some, abandoning reason evidently, split.
A religion of human origin
It is so important for us to gain from this discussion of the two different men with two different sets of beliefs, that this Witness religion did not come from Heaven, but rather from men and their constant desire to figure out the Scriptures in their own “reasonable” way.
The Watch Tower Society is a purely human organization. But it does not see itself that way, as is true of most cults and cult members until it is too late.
His Character and Personality
As you have seen, Rutherford and Russell were two different people altogether. It is said that Russell had warmth. Rutherford had a measure of that but was also very brusque and direct in his approach to people. He believed he needed this authoritarian touch, to guard what was committed to him. He could be blunt and offensive, especially as his authority grew. He had an explosive temper.
We see a little if not a lot of that King Saul syndrome I mentioned earlier. Who was it that said that power “corrupts” and absolute power “corrupts absolutely”? It was true of Judge Rutherford.
He refused to compromise the positions at which he had arrived. At least, for a time. I mean, there were changes. In fact, he quite often changed his positions on his ideas: For example at one point he said that the ransom of Jesus was for all. Then, not for all. Resurrection would happen during the 1000 years. Then it would not. Jesus would return in 1874. Then 1914.
Change, yes. But during the short or long time that he entertained a view, that view was “Bible”. Not to be messed with! He self-righteously declared that those with whom he disagreed were of the Devil. Period. When he was released from prison he claimed that all who had sent him there were in Satan’s organization. How else could a “man of God” justify being behind bars?
Dogmatic. Insensitive. Obsessed with his own importance. That’s what they said about him.
Rutherford himself said, “Jehovah never makes any mistakes. Where the student relies upon man, he is certain to be led into difficulties.” He spoke of Russell, no doubt. But he was unable to keep people from depending on his own person.
He could have learned that people are imperfect and make mistakes in their conclusions (as his former “boss” had done often, to hear Rutherford tell it). Instead, he assumed that the greater “light” that was his, was the final word. And he expected all of his followers to assume the same.
But many would not follow. And these he vilified especially, labeling them “despicable.”
Though Rutherford preached austerity to his people, it would seem he was not practicing such a life. Though austere segments of his story do emerge.
In terms of his marriage, Mary and he separated after the “Judge” became President of the Watch Tower. She remained an active “Witness” but could not live with Judge Joe.
For health reasons he was told to move to a more favorable climate, and built himself a villa in San Diego. A very expensive villa. Some would say luxurious. His life-style began to draw criticism. He spent his winters there, his summers in Europe.
Corruption sets in
After 1925, when the “princes” to whom he deeded the above villa, namely, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, did not show, he was changed. He drank to excess, and was manipulated by leaders Franz and Knorr to build a house in San Diego. The idea was to get this fallen man out of Brooklyn…
The villa, two Cadillacs, the whiskey, the brandy, and other liquors, called into question just what this man’s life was about.
The legal attorney for Mr. Rutherford and the Society resigned in 1939 over all of this regal way of living, that included, according to him, unkind treatment of the staff, discrimination, and vulgar language. It was reported by others that it was hard to get the Judge to the podium on some days due to his having over-done it with alcohol just previous to the occasion.
No respecter of persons
Rutherford died at age 72, from cancer. His burial was delayed for several months due to one other false teaching that he and Russell agreed upon. It had to do with the dangerous practice of setting dates. In this case, the date for Armageddon.
In the book referred to above, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, he actually said that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be resurrected in 1925, and would of course need a place to stay. This was to be, in his thinking, that San Diego villa (named by him, Beth Sarim, the “house of the princes”) in which he himself lived until 1942! That’s why the property was deeded to these three men.
Though it was deeded to them, he desired to be buried on that property himself. I assume the will called for it.
So, slavish to the falseness of this movement and to the man who now represented it, followers began to construct a tomb on the property after his decease. That’s when the city of San Diego stepped in. Property values in that neighborhood were going to plummet if a tomb was in the midst of it. They said no to the venture. A fight ensued.
Characteristic of Witnesses in every generation, the “persecution” card was played. But they lost the case in spite of their whimpering. Months later Rutherford was buried. Elsewhere.
Nathan Homer Knorr succeeded the Judge as president of the Watch Tower Society.
Rutherford’s life from a human perspective was a grand success. Membership in the Watch Tower multiplied by 6 in his 25-year presidency. His writings were read many times more than were Russell’s, and Russell’s were a phenomenon on their own. One hundred books and pamphlets, as of 1941, 80 languages.
But viewed from Scripture’s perspective, his life was an abysmal failure, for all the same reasons.