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Bible Students’ convention, Tacoma, Washington, U.S.A.

One Hundred Years Ago—1917

One Hundred Years Ago—1917

“THE new year dawns amidst great strife, turmoil and bloodshed,” stated The Watch Tower of January 1, 1917. Yes, World War I, the global slaughter known then as the Great War, continued to rage unabated in Europe.

Even though the Bible Students did not then completely understand what is involved in true Christian neutrality, many of them made commendable efforts to avoid bloodguilt. For instance, in England, 19-year-old Stanley Willis was determined to remain neutral. Before going on trial for his stand, he wrote: “I feel it a great privilege to be permitted to bear this witness. The Colonel told me this morning that I shall be ordered to don the King’s uniform, and if I refuse, I shall be court-martialed.”

When Stanley refused to compromise, he was sentenced to hard labor in prison. Nevertheless, he kept a positive outlook. Two months later, he wrote: “By the ‘spirit of power’ which the Truth gives, one is enabled to bear patiently . . . things which are much harder for others to bear.” He used his time in prison wisely and stated: “One of the greatest blessings obtained from these recent trials is the privilege of having a fair amount of quiet for prayer, meditation and study.”

Before long, the United States formally joined the conflict. In a speech delivered to the United States Congress on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for a formal declaration of war on Germany. Four days later, the United States entered the war. Christians in the United States soon faced the issue of neutrality.

To fill the immediate need for soldiers, the United States enacted the Selective Service Act in May. One month later, the Espionage Act was enacted. The former made it possible for the U.S. government to draft thousands of men into the war effort, and the latter made it a crime to interfere with those efforts. Before long, enemies of the truth used this legislation to ‘frame trouble in the name of the law’ for Jehovah’s peace-loving worshippers.Ps. 94:20.

Turmoil in a world at war came as no surprise to the Bible Students. For decades they had been calling attention to Bible prophecies that foretold such conditions. However, many were surprised by the controversy that soon erupted among some of Jehovah’s people.

Testing and Sifting

In the United States, trouble began not long after Charles Taze Russell died. At issue was how the affairs of Jehovah’s servants would be administered. Brother Russell had incorporated Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society in 1884 and served as the president of this legal corporation until his death in October 1916. When Joseph F. Rutherford began taking the lead, a few prominent men in the organization, including four who were on the board of directors, exhibited an ambitious spirit.

These four, along with several others, did not like the way Brother Rutherford directed matters. One of the issues concerned the work of Paul S. L. Johnson, who served as a pilgrim, or traveling overseer.

Shortly before Brother Russell died, he had arranged to send Johnson to England as one of the organization’s traveling representatives. There, Johnson was to preach the good news, visit the congregations, and provide a report on the work in that territory. When he arrived in November 1916, the brothers in England welcomed him warmly. Sadly, the adulation he received began to warp his judgment, and he became convinced that he should be Brother Russell’s successor.

Without authority, Johnson dismissed some Bethel family members in England who opposed him. He also tried to seize control of the organization’s bank account in London, at which point Brother Rutherford recalled him to the United States.

Johnson returned to Brooklyn, but instead of humbly accepting the correction he had been given, he repeatedly tried to persuade Brother Rutherford to let him return to England to continue his work there. Failing in this endeavor, Johnson tried to influence the board of directors, four of whom sided with him.

Anticipating that these men would try to seize the organization’s funds in the United States, as Johnson had attempted to do in England, Brother Rutherford acted to remove them from the board of directors. The law required that each member of the board of directors be elected annually by members of the corporation. However, at the annual meeting of the corporation on January 6, 1917, only three members of the board, Joseph F. Rutherford, Andrew N. Pierson, and William E. Van Amburgh, were elected. They filled the positions of president, vice president, and secretary-treasurer, respectively. No election was held for the remaining four positions on the board of directors. The men who had held those positions, the four opposers, had been elected to the board in the past, and it was understood by some that they would hold those positions for life. However, because they had not been reelected at the annual meeting, they were actually not legal members of the board at all! So in July 1917, Brother Rutherford exercised his right to appoint four faithful men to fill the vacant board positions.

As can be expected, the four ousted directors were furious and began a campaign to reestablish their positions. But they failed. While some Bible Students sided with them and formed other organizations, the vast majority of the Bible Students stayed faithful, and the four did not regain their positions on the board of directors.

Advancement Despite Adversity

During this time, Brother Rutherford and the other loyal brothers at Bethel continued to work for the advancement of Kingdom interests. The number of traveling overseers, known then as pilgrims, was increased from 69 to 93. The number of colporteurs, or regular pioneers, increased from 372 to 461. Additionally, for the first time, special colporteurs, similar to modern-day auxiliary pioneers, were appointed. Some congregations had as many as 100 of those zealous workers.

July 17, 1917, saw the release of a new book, The Finished Mystery. By the end of the year, supplies of the book were exhausted and 850,000 more copies were ordered from the firm that printed our literature. *

The reorganization of the work at Bethel that had been started by Brother Russell in 1916 was completed in 1917. In December of that year, The Watch Tower reported: “The reorganization of the Office force . . . was completed and is now moving with a smoothness and efficiency that should characterize any well-managed institution . . . The members of the Office force realize that it is a privilege and not a right to be in the Office.”

In September 1917, The Watch Tower noted: “Since January 1 every month has shown an increase [in literature output] over the corresponding month of the year 1916 . . . This seems to us very strong evidence that the blessing of the Lord has been resting upon the work centered here at Brooklyn.”

Testing and Sifting Not Complete

The opposers had been cleaned out of the organization, and the results of a referendum of the congregations, which were published in The Watch Tower, showed that the vast majority of the brothers supported Brother Rutherford and the faithful men at Bethel. But the testing of these men was not complete. Although 1918 began on a positive note, it would herald the darkest hour in our modern-day history.

^ par. 18 Until 1920, all our printing was handled by commercial firms.