BY 1919 the Great War (later known as World War I), which dragged on for over four years, had ended. Late in the preceding year, the nations stopped fighting, and on January 18, 1919, the Paris Peace Conference began. One of the achievements of that conference was the Treaty of Versailles, which brought a formal end to the Allies’ war with Germany. It was signed on June 28, 1919.
The treaty also established a new organization called the League of Nations. Its aim was “to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security.” Many of Christendom’s religions supported the League. The Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America hailed it as “the political expression of the Kingdom of God on earth.” This council endorsed the League by sending delegates to the Paris Peace Conference. One of those delegates stated that the conference “ushered in a new era in the history of the world.”
A new era was beginning, but it would not be ushered in by the men involved in that peace conference. In 1919 a new era in the preaching work began when Jehovah energized his people to preach as never before. But first, the Bible Students needed a dramatic change in their situation.
A DIFFICULT DECISION
The annual election of directors of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was scheduled for Saturday, January 4, 1919. At the time, Joseph F. Rutherford, who was taking the lead among Jehovah’s people, had been unjustly imprisoned in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., along with seven others. The question was, Should the imprisoned brothers who were officers be reelected? Or should they be replaced?
In his prison cell, Brother Rutherford worried about the future of the organization. He knew that some brothers felt that it would be best to elect someone else to be president. Acknowledging this, he had written a letter to those assembled, recommending Evander J. Coward for president. Rutherford described Coward as “calm,” “discreet,” and “consecrated to the Lord.” However, many brothers favored a different solution, that of postponing the election for six months. The legal team who had defended the imprisoned brothers agreed. Emotions ran high as the discussion progressed.
Then something happened that Richard H. Barber later described as ‘pouring oil on the troubled waters.’ One of the brothers in attendance spoke up and said: “I am not a lawyer, but when it comes to the legality of the situation, I know something about the law of the loyal. Loyalty is what God demands. I cannot imagine any greater confidence we could manifest than to have an election and reelect Brother Rutherford as president.”—Ps. 18:25.
Fellow prisoner A. H. Macmillan later recalled that the next day Brother Rutherford knocked on his cell wall and said, “Poke your hand out.” Brother Rutherford then handed him a telegram. Macmillan saw the terse message and knew immediately what it meant. The message read: “RUTHERFORD WISE VAN BARBER ANDERSON BULLY AND SPILL DIRECTOR FIRST THREE OFFICERS LOVE TO ALL.” This meant that all the directors had been reelected and that Joseph Rutherford and William Van Amburgh had been retained as officers. Thus, Brother Rutherford would continue as president.
While the eight brothers were imprisoned, faithful Bible Students circulated a petition calling for their release. These brave brothers and sisters gathered more than 700,000 signatures. On Wednesday, March 26, 1919, before the petition was submitted, Brother Rutherford and the other responsible brothers were released.
In a speech to those who welcomed him home, Brother Rutherford said: “I am convinced that this experience we have all gone through is merely to prepare us for more strenuous times. . . . Your fight has not been to get your brethren out of prison. That was merely a side issue. . . . The fight you have been making has been for the purpose of witnessing for the Truth, and those who have done it have received a wonderful blessing.”
The circumstances surrounding the trial of our brothers may give indication of Jehovah’s direction. On May 14, 1919, the appeals court ruled: “The defendants in this case did not have the . . . impartial trial to which they were entitled, and for that reason the judgment is reversed.” The brothers had been convicted of serious crimes, and these judgments would have remained on their records if they had only been pardoned or if their sentences had merely been commuted. No further charges were laid. As a result, Judge Rutherford retained his legal qualifications to defend Jehovah’s people before the Supreme Court of the United States, something he did many times after his release.
DETERMINED TO PREACH
“We were not going to sit around idle and twiddle our thumbs waiting for the Lord to take us to heaven,” recalled Brother Macmillan. “We realized we would have to do something to determine what the Lord’s will really was.”
But the brothers at headquarters could not just resume the work that they had been doing for years. Why not? Because during their imprisonment, all the printing plates that were used to print literature had been destroyed. This was discouraging, and some brothers wondered if the preaching work was finished.
Was anyone still interested in the Kingdom message preached by the Bible Students? To answer that question, Brother Rutherford decided to give a lecture. The public would be invited. “If nobody came to that meeting,” Brother Macmillan said, “we were done.”
So it was that on Sunday, May 4, 1919, in spite of a serious illness, Brother Rutherford delivered the lecture “The Hope for Distressed Humanity” in Los Angeles, California. About 3,500 attended the lecture, and hundreds were turned away. The next day, another 1,500 attended. The brothers had their answer—people were interested!
What the brothers did next set the course for the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses down to this day.
POISED FOR FUTURE GROWTH
The Watch Tower of August 1, 1919, announced that in early September, a general convention would be held at Cedar Point, Ohio. “Everyone just felt they had to get there,” recalled Clarence B. Beaty, a young Bible Student from Missouri. More than 6,000 brothers and sisters attended that gathering, far more than were anticipated. Adding to the excitement of the occasion, more than 200 got baptized in nearby Lake Erie.
On September 5, 1919, the fifth day of the convention, in his “Address to Co-laborers,” Brother Rutherford announced the publication of a new magazine, entitled The Golden Age. * It would “carry the current news of importance, giving a Scriptural explanation as to why these great events [were] transpiring.”
All the Bible Students were encouraged to preach boldly with this new publication. A letter outlining how the work was to be organized stated: “Let each consecrated [baptized] one remember that it is a great privilege to serve, and grasp the opportunity now and have a part in giving this great witness to the world.” The response was tremendous! By December, zealous Kingdom publishers had obtained more than 50,000 subscriptions to the new magazine.
By the end of 1919, Jehovah’s people were reorganized and energized. Additionally, several important prophecies involving the last days had been fulfilled. The testing and refinement of God’s people, foretold at Malachi 3:1-4, was complete. Jehovah’s people had been released from their symbolic captivity to “Babylon the Great,” and Jesus had appointed “the faithful and discreet slave.” * (Rev. 18:2, 4; Matt. 24:45) Now the Bible Students were ready for the work that Jehovah had in store for them.