How the Jehovah’s Witnesses Acquired Some of Brooklyn’s Most Insanely Valuable Properties by
Suzanne Spellen 1/26/16
The Jehovah’s Witnesses — aka the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society — first came to Brooklyn in 1908, in hopes of having their sermons syndicated in newspapers alongside the writings of the borough’s most famous pastors. It was under the Watchtower’s autocratic second leader, Joseph F. Rutherford, that the religious group truly began practicing the art of Brooklyn real estate.
This is the 100-year story of how the Jehovah’s Witnesses grew to be a global phenomenon and came to own some of Brooklyn’s most valuable properties.
Joseph Rutherford. Photo via Wikipedia
Joseph Rutherford, the Uncompromising Leader and Brilliant Propagandist
Joseph Rutherford was voted into office by the governing body of the Society, but he was dictatorial and autocratic — not the leader the Watchtower directors had imagined.
He angered many with his beliefs that faith should come before patriotism — a big no-no for the time, as World War I was raging halfway around the world. In May of 1918, the U.S. Attorney General called his writings and lectures “one of the most dangerous examples of propaganda” ever written, and his works were banned in Canada.
Rutherford claimed that 1918 was the year God was coming to claim his kingdom, and that the governments of the world and their “unrighteous” religions would come to an end.
Rutherford’s 1918 prison mug shots. Photo via eBay
A Little Legal Trouble for the Witnesses
Rutherford and seven other Watchtower executives were arrested and charged under the 1917 Espionage Act for insubordination, disloyalty, refusal of duty in the armed services, and obstructing recruitment and enlistment. Seven men — including Rutherford — were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Society sold the Brooklyn Tabernacle building on Hicks Street, as well as the office furniture out of their main headquarters — Bethel — on Columbia Heights. The Society still owned the building, they told the press, but were likely to sell it “any day.”
The Brooklyn Eagle rejoiced, and a Watchtower member was quoted as saying, “I blame the Eagle for all of our troubles. It first attacked us years ago and never has ceased.”
But the Eagle crowed too soon.
In March of 1919, the Watchtower men were all released on bail, and the charges were dropped a year later. Rutherford had been re-elected as the head of the Society, and they were not going anywhere.
Postcard of Bethel at 124 Columbia Heights. Photo via eBay
The Worldwide Growth of the Jehovah’s Witnesses
Between 1920 and Rutherford’s death in 1942, the organization grew to include millions of followers worldwide. This success and the Witnesses’ emphasis on studying printed materials — in 100 languages — meant that they needed to expand their Brooklyn operations dramatically.
Even in the very beginning, the Society relied on volunteers to operate the presses and staff shipping rooms. These volunteers dedicated years to their work and were paid only pennies, while living in dormitories and group housing. The Eagle saw this as a sure sign of cult behavior even in 1910.
1955 Watchtower publication. Photo via eBay
Although the Watchtower Society looked like the organization Charles Russell began, the Rutherford years changed almost everything they believed in. He changed their name to Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931 to differentiate them from the remaining Russellites — although the legal name remains the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
He was also responsible for the group’s practices that are frequently compared to cult behavior, including the shunning of holidays and birthdays, the banning of singing at services, and the requirement and sacred duty of door-to-door visits.
And the group continued to grow.
Squibb Building. Photo via Brooklyn Public Library
In 1927, the Watchtower had just finished a new printing plant at 117 Adams Street, the Eagle noted. The Society was tearing down the old Beecher house at 124 Columbia Heights, as well as the surrounding buildings and was building a new nine-story dormitory and headquarters on the large site. This would be the new Bethel world headquarters.