The Watch Tower of January 1, 1918, opened with the words: “What will the year 1918 bring forth?” The Great War still raged in Europe, but events early in the year seemed to suggest good things for the Bible Students and for the world in general.
THE WORLD TALKS PEACE
On January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson, in his speech to the U.S. Congress, outlined 14 ideas that he felt were essential to a “just and stable peace.” He proposed open diplomacy between nations, a reduction of armaments, and the establishment of a “general association of nations” that would benefit “great and small states alike.” His “Fourteen Points” would later be used in forming the League of Nations and in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, thus ending the Great War.
Despite the turmoil of the preceding year, * peace also seemed to be on the horizon for the Bible Students, as evidenced by the events at the annual business meeting of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
At this meeting, held on January 5, 1918, several prominent men who had been dismissed from Bethel attempted to gain control of the organization. Richard H. Barber, a faithful traveling overseer, opened the meeting with prayer. After a report on the preceding year’s work, the annual election of directors was held. Brother Barber nominated Joseph Rutherford and six other brothers. Then an attorney who sided with the opposers nominated seven other men, including the ones who had been dismissed from Bethel. They were defeated. By an overwhelming majority, the shareholders elected Brother Rutherford and six other faithful brothers to be directors.
Many brothers who were present called this meeting “the most blessed convention they had ever attended.” But their joy was short-lived.
REACTION TO THE FINISHED MYSTERY
For several months, the Bible Students had been distributing the book The Finished Mystery. Honesthearted readers reacted positively to the Bible truths it contained.
E. F. Crist, a traveling overseer in Canada, told of a couple who had read The Finished Mystery and accepted the truth in only five weeks! He said: “Both husband and wife are fully consecrated and are showing wonderful progress.”
One man who received the book shared it with his friends immediately. He was “struck” by its message. He recounts: “I was walking down Third Avenue [and] I was struck on the shoulder by what I thought was a brick, but, alas, it was ‘The Finished Mystery.’ I brought it home and read it all. . . . I have since learned that it was a preacher . . . who threw the book from his window in a rage . . . By that one act of his I firmly believe that he converted more people to a living hope than by any other act of his life. . . . Through this preacher’s wrath we now praise God.”
That preacher’s reaction was not unique. Canadian officials banned the book on February 12, 1918, alleging that it contained seditious and antiwar statements. Shortly thereafter, officials in the United States followed suit. Government agents searched the Bethel Home and the offices in New York, Pennsylvania, and California, seeking evidence against the leading members of the organization. On March 14, 1918, the U.S. Department of Justice banned The Finished Mystery, claiming that its publication and distribution hindered the war effort, a violation of the Espionage Act.
On May 7, 1918, the Department of Justice obtained arrest warrants for Giovanni DeCecca, George Fisher, Alexander Macmillan, Robert Martin, Frederick Robison, Joseph Rutherford, William Van Amburgh, and Clayton Woodworth. They were accused of “unlawfully, feloniously and wilfully causing insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States.” Their trial began on June 5, 1918, but there was little doubt that they would be convicted. Why?
The attorney general of the United States called the law they were accused of violating, the Espionage Act, an “effective weapon against propaganda.” On May 16, 1918, Congress rejected an amendment to the Act that would have protected those who published “what is true, with good motives, and for justifiable ends.” The Finished Mystery figured prominently in their debate. Regarding it, the official record of the U.S. Congress states: “One of the most dangerous examples of this sort of propaganda is the book called ‘The Finished Mystery’ . . . The only effect of it is to lead soldiers to discredit our cause and to inspire . . . resistance to the draft.”
On June 20, 1918, a jury found the eight brothers guilty on all charges. The next day, the judge handed down his sentence. He said: “The religious propaganda which these defendants have vigorously advocated and spread . . . is a greater danger than a division of the German Army. . . . The punishment should be severe.” Two weeks later, these eight brothers entered the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, with sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years.
THE PREACHING WORK CONTINUES
During this period, the Bible Students faced intense opposition. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) thoroughly investigated their activity, producing thousands of documents. These records show that our brothers were determined to keep preaching.
In a letter to the FBI, the postmaster of Orlando, Florida, wrote: “[The Bible Students] are making a house to house canvas of the town and are doing most of it [at] night. . . . They, at least, seem to want to keep the pot boiling by their continued stirring.”
A colonel with the War Department wrote to the bureau to report the activity of Frederick W. Franz, who later served on the Governing Body. The colonel wrote: “F. W. Franz . . . has been actively engaged in the sale of some thousand of volumes of the ‘Finished Mystery’.”
Charles Fekel, who also later served on the Governing Body, faced intense persecution. The authorities arrested him for distributing The Finished Mystery and monitored his personal correspondence. He was imprisoned in Baltimore, Maryland, for one month, labeled an “Austrian alien enemy.” As he courageously bore witness to his interrogators, he recalled Paul’s words at 1 Corinthians 9:16, which say: “Woe to me if I do not declare the good news!” *
In addition to their zealous preaching, the Bible Students fervently circulated a petition to free the brothers imprisoned in Atlanta. Anna K. Gardner recounted: “We were always doing something. When the brothers were in prison, our next job was to get signers. We went from door to door. We got thousands of signatures! We told the people we spoke to that these were true Christian men and that they had been unjustly imprisoned.”
During this difficult time, frequent conventions were held to strengthen the brotherhood spiritually. The Watch Tower stated: “Over forty conventions . . . have been held during the year . . . Glowing reports have been received from all these conventions. Formerly all conventions were held during the late summer or the early fall; but now every month in the year has its conventions.”
Honesthearted ones were still responding to the good news. At one convention in Cleveland, Ohio, some 1,200 attended and 42 were baptized, including a young boy who had “an appreciation of God and of consecration which would put to shame many of mature years.”
As 1918 drew to a close, the Bible Students faced an uncertain future. Some of the property in Brooklyn was sold and headquarters was moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While those who were taking the lead remained in prison, another annual meeting of shareholders was scheduled for January 4, 1919. What would happen?
Our brothers persisted in their work. They were so confident of the outcome that they selected as their yeartext for 1919: “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.” (Isa. 54:17, King James Version) The stage was set for a dramatic reversal of circumstances, which would bolster their faith and strengthen them for the great work that lay ahead.