How exactly did J.F.Rutherford wrest control for himself over the Watchtower Society?

by Terry 24 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • Terry

    How exactly did J.F.Rutherford wrest control for himself over the Watchtower Society?

    On October 31, 1916 Pastor C.T.Russell died on a train in Pampas, Texas. Shortly afterward, a direct long distance call was placed to Judge J.F. Franklin with the information: "The old man is dead."

    Pastor Russell left a Last Will and Testament. In this legal document he made specific instructions for who the Directors of the publishing corporation should be: W. E. Page, W. E. Van Amburgh, H.C. Rockwell, E. W. Brenneisen and F. H. Robinson.

    Russell's exact words: “the five whom I suggest as possibly amongst the most suitable from which to fill vacancies” as alternates.

    The will, along with a number of letters and other statements about the administration of the Watch Tower Society, was printed in the December 1, 1916 edition of The Watch Tower. Inexplicably, the 5 names of alternates turns into 6 with J.F.Rutherford included as alternates: A. E. Burgess, R. Hirsh, I. Hoskins, G. H. Fisher, J. F. Rutherford and Dr. J. Edgar.

    Page and Brenneisen declined to serve. They were replaced by Hirsh and Rutherford from the alternates list. Hirsh was the first substitute named in Russell’s will, and therefor a natural first substitution, but Rutherford was only mentioned fourth, yet took the second vacant position!

    What had Russell done about his controlling shares in the Corporation?

    Russell’s portion of the shares that gave legal control of the Watch Tower Society was distributed to five loyal female Bible Students who would be “trustees for life.”

    Alexander H. Macmillan, who served as manager of the Watch Tower administration, a de facto interim president along with P.S.L. Johnson (personal friend of Russell) had a lion's share of votes due to the purchase of those shares after incorporation. These two men pushed Rutherford over the top at the election in January of 1917.

    P.S.L. Johnson was an egotistical crackpot with wild ideas whom Russell had fondly tolerated. The board and executive committee shipped him off across the Atlantic to "encourage the Bible Students". Upon arriving, Johnson sought to take control of the Society's finances and disrupted activities there in short order by claiming the HE should be the successor of Pastor Russell!

    Russell's will made explicit that no NEW writings were to be published; only reprints of Russell's.

    When the Editorial board sought to enforce this they were opposed by Van Amburgh, Macmillan and Rutherford. Conflicts arose. Rutherford demanded P.S.L.Johnson return from London.

    In secret, Rutherford had supervised the writing of a new publication, the seventh volume of Russell’s series Studies in the Scriptures. The book, titled The Finished Mystery, was written by George H. Fisher and another Rutherford supporter, Clayton J. Woodworth, loosely based on notes and statements made by Russell. The plan was to release this as a posthumous Russell volume completing the series.

    Rutherford had no patience for opposition to his plans. He sought a legal pretext to remove everybody but Himself as Director and sole authority!

    How exactly did J.F.Rutherford wrest control for himself over the Watchtower Society?

    According to the charter of the WTS, a Pennsylvania corporation, all directors had to be reelected annually in that state.

    (This had not happened since the headquarters moved to New York). Because of this technicality, the four ....claimed Rutherford...were not legally elected.

    The removed Directors, Rutherfords opponents , objected that if the directors were not legally elected, neither was Rutherford.

    Rutherford responded that he was a legal officer! Of what? Of a subsidiary corporation, called People’s Pulpit Association, (later called The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society which Rutherford used to publish The Finished Mystery.

    This Association was legally incorporated in New York to allow the Pennsylvania corporation to operate in New York, and was wholly owned by it. This was Rutherford's finesse.

    The directors never took the case to court. Rutherford had the directors and P.S.L. Johnson physically thrown out. Rutherford actually attacked Johnson physically. For some time, the vice-president, Pierson, sided with Rutherford’s opponents, but he eventually landed on Rutherford’s side.

    Now, as sole Authority, all the Judge needed to do was find out where all of the bible student's local congregations were, obtain their addresses and gain control of them by pretending to send them a Circuit visitor to "encourage" their local work.

    Little by little the Judge changed local operations, installed his own leaders and dropped all bible reading that wasn't using his own proprietary articles and books as reference.

    The ‘ousted directors,’ Paul Johnson and their followers formed the Layman’s Home Missionary Society, and others formed a number of different Bible Student movements, some of which still exists and continues to reprint Russell’s writings with nothing new added.

    The Proclaimers book follows up demonstrating how cowardly Rutherford turned out to be

    when it came to defending his Finished Mystery publication publicly.

    “When it had been learned that the government objected to the book, Brother Rutherford had immediately sent a telegram to the printer to stop producing it, and at the same time, a representative of the Society had been dispatched to the intelligence section of the U.S. Army to find out what their objection was. When it was learned that because of the war then in progress, pages 247-53 of the book were viewed as objectionable, the Society directed that those pages be cut out of all copies of the book before they were offered to the public. And when the government notified district attorneys that further distribution would be a violation of the Espionage Act (although the government declined to express an opinion to the Society on the book in its altered form), the Society directed that all public distribution of the book be suspended.” (p. 652)

    Rutherford published statements in The Watchtower urging Bible Students to buy war bonds, participate in a day of prayer for allied victory and only stopped short of encouraging armed service. ( Jan S. Haugland Master Thesis September 26, 2000)

  • Quendi

    The 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses gives a much abridged and amended version of these events, as we all know. I remember reading its account and believing that it was an entirely true testimony of what had transpired in the months and years immediately following the death of Charles Russell. It was only upon leaving the organization that I became acquainted with some of the elements Terry has shared here. This is the first time I have read the whole story under one title. Naturally, this won’t appear in any Yearbook or the Proclaimers volume. Thanks for this information.


  • Terry

    The Society has an interesting way of "revealing" unsettling aspects of their own history.

    They chop the story up into segments and stick them--out of order--in different parts of their book (Proclaimers).

    That way they can claim to be totally honest and complete while taking away any context or narrative that communicates significance.

    Context of surrounding events is quite necessary to genuine understanding.

    I can just visualize Rutherford manhandling two people who stood in his way!

  • Band on the Run
    Band on the Run

    Sorry. I practiced corporate law and specialized in corporate law during law school. Corporate law was my main specialty. Const'l courses were an interest. This story makes no sense. Directors do not own shares. Shareholders own shares. Director may own shares. No account I have ever read here makes sense.

    What Rutherford did was wrong, legally. The present Directors had a duty to go to court and get an order requiring him to comply with the corporate bylaws. I fail to understand how Pastor Russell had the power to annoint directors in his will, besides a suggestion or advice from a former leader. Directors are appointed by coprorate by-laws, which must exist. People here have explained that Rutherford hire a lawyer to give a legal opinion (guess what? Rutherford was right) and the Directors opposing him also received formal legal letters, stating that they were correct. Rutherford hired one more legal opinion letter to bolster his claim. End of story.

    Courts exist to settle rival claims. It doesn't matter if you have every lawyer and every bishop in the world (early Englsih common law acted on the presumptin that bishops never lie. Their testimony was better than a lords, whose testimony was better than a crafts' person.....) side with you. Legal opinion letters are used to show you just did not act on impulse but considered all the consequences carefully. Sort of a safe harbor. Only court issues enforceable orders.

    No one has ever explained why the directors who had a legal duty (not only a personal one) to safeguard the corporation and its by-laws never went to court.

    Something is wrong with this scenario. I can see resignation to a de facto situation but they had duties to not resign but to fight.

  • Quendi

    Maybe the directors didn’t fight because the entire organization was in such disarray in the time following Russell’s death. I appreciate what BOTR said and believe she is absolutely right, but I also remember reading that most of the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called, were still numb from the shock of Russell’s death. Rutherford took advantage of that stasis and by force of his personality bullied the others into submission. Those who did not want to submit left and either founded their own groups or merged with others. It is said that three-quarters of all the Bible Students disassociated themselves rather than accept Rutherford’s ascendancy to the WTBTS presidency.

    Seeing that a full-blown civil war had broken out, it may have been that others thought they could do better on their own. And for a while it may have seemed that was the wiser choice. For despite the compromises Rutherford made with respect to the publication and distribution of the book The Finished Mystery, he and the other Board Directors were convicted of violating the Espionage Act and railroaded off to prison in July 1918 to serve twenty-year sentences. The Society was forced to leave Brooklyn. The preaching work came to a virtual halt, and The Watch Tower only reprinted older material that Russell had written. The organization seemed to be finished.

    But we all know what followed. Rutherford and his associates were exonerated with the overturn of their convictions and release from prison in March 1919. The Society returned to Brooklyn and in September it held the first Cedar Point, Ohio convention that saw a peak attendance of some seven thousand. Considering that there had been only about four thousand actively associating in 1918, that was a rather astounding figure. And under Rutherford’s leadership, the religion faced down its enemies and headed into World War II stronger than ever. To Rutherford’s followers, his success must have seemed divinely ordained, a belief reinforced by Rutherford saying so himself. That allowed him to consolidate his power and he remained a fixture until his death in 1942.


  • whathappened

    Someone, maybe HBO, should make a mini series out of this. It would fit right in with Game of Thrones and their other programming.

  • Band on the Run
    Band on the Run


    I think your analysis is correct. It is hard for me to figure out how small and fragile the religion was when it was so powerful in my life.

    When I am confronted with similar choices, I generally choose to move to a more productive forum for my ideas.

    It sounds as though Russell was idolized. I have no idea from his writing. Perhaps he was charismatic in person. His inheritance did not hurt, either. Without his funds, I wonder whether anyone would have noticed Bible Students.

    Too, I know the history from a JW viewpoint. I only learned a few years ago, through nonJW circumstances, that different groups persist. Someone;s abusive father was president of Dawn Bible Students. I was certain he was a JW. Everything sounded exactly like the Witnesses. His experiences may indicate that the die was cast before Rutherford. I would have bet one million dollars that his father was a high-ranking JW Bethelite.

  • Leolaia

    You can read the documents from succession crisis here:

    They describe what happened in excruciating detail (covered also in the United States vs. Rutherford et al. trial). You get both sides of the dispute as well.

  • blondie
  • Terry

    November 15, 1917 Watchtower

    The Watch Tower Society is not a religious Society for public worship, such
    as a Church, but is a business corporation, not for profit,
    and statutes requiring religious corporations of that nature
    to have three Directors in Pennsylvania do not apply.

    The statute requiring one-third of the Directors of certain companies
    to live in that State does not apply to the Society, and
    section six of the corporation law, requiring three of the
    original subscribers to live in Pennsylvania, does not require
    the Society to have three local Directors.

    Peoples Pulpit Assn. cannot transact business except through the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.

    The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society has the management, and the Peoples Pulpit Assn. does the work- absolutely.

    "'The International Bible Students -association has no legal
    status except in Great Britain; the Peoples Pulpit Assn. has
    none except in New York State.

    We keep the Watch Tower prominent on letter-heads, etc., so that the friends would not
    misunderstand us and think that the Watch Tower has gone
    out of the work.'

    The courts hold that by-laws adopted by Stockholders are
    invalid when the power is exclusively vested in the Directors,
    as is the case in the Scciety.

    When the statute permits Directors to make by-laws and does not reserve the
    right to the Shareholders also, the power resides in the Directors,
    if the Charter so provides, as in this case.


    The President and Vice President of the Peoples Pulpit
    Assn. (Bros. Rutherford and McMillan) used Proxies on
    July.27, 1917, at a meeting of the Peoples Pulpit Assn., which
    they claim was an adjourned annual meeting. Bro. Rutherford
    states in "Harvest Siftings," No. 2 (page 28, col. 1)

    Proxies given for the January meeting were still in
    force, and that the powers of the members were identical to
    what they had at the original annual meeting.

    The meeting was adjourned to July 31, 1917, because of a question that the
    length of time of notice was legally insufficient.

    Bro. Rutherford says that the Proxies voted at the meeting of July 31
    were usable, and of course carried the authority to the
    holder to vote on anything that could have come before the
    annual meeting.

    The statement is very misleading and erroneous. It is true
    that Proxies for use at ail annual meeting may be voted at
    an adjourned annual meeting, but such Proxies may be voted
    only on matters that would have come before the annual
    meeting, and not on new matter of a different nature arising
    subsequent to the regular annual meeting. Not only so, but
    the form of Proxy did not permit any such use to be made
    of it, as it was merely a Proxy for use to elect Directors..."

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