Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

Joseph F. Rutherford and other brothers during a visit to Europe

1920—One Hundred Years Ago

1920—One Hundred Years Ago

AS THE decade of the 1920’s dawned, Jehovah’s people were energized for the work ahead. For 1920, they selected as their yeartext “The LORD is my strength and song.”​—Ps. 118:14, King James Version.

Jehovah did strengthen these eager preachers. During that year, the ranks of the colporteurs, or pioneers, increased from 225 to 350. And for the first time, more than 8,000 class workers, or publishers, reported their activity to headquarters. Jehovah blessed them with an overwhelming response.


On March 21, 1920, Joseph F. Rutherford, who at that time took the lead among the Bible Students, spoke on the subject “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” The Bible Students left no stone unturned in their quest to invite interested ones to this event. They rented one of the largest theaters in New York City and distributed some 320,000 invitations.

Newspaper advertisement for the talk “Millions Now Living Will Never Die”

The public responded beyond all expectations. An audience of over 5,000 filled the theater to capacity, and as many as 7,000 had to be turned away. The Watch Tower called it “one of the most successful meetings ever held by International Bible Students.”

The Bible Students became well-known for proclaiming that “millions now living will never die.” At the time, they did not understand that the Kingdom message had to be proclaimed more extensively. Still, their zeal was remarkable. Ida Olmstead, who began attending meetings in 1902, recalled, “We knew that for all mankind great blessings were in store, and we never failed to tell this good news to those we met in the ministry.”


To ensure a supply of spiritual food, the brothers at Bethel began printing some of the literature themselves. They purchased equipment and installed it in a rented building located at 35 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, a few blocks from the Bethel home.

Leo Pelle and Walter Kessler reported for Bethel service in January 1920. “When we arrived,” recalled Walter, “the printery overseer looked at us and said, ‘You have one and a half hours until lunch.’ He put us to work pushing cartons of books up from the basement.”

Leo recalled what happened the next day: “It was our job to wash walls on the first floor of the building. It was the dirtiest job I ever had. But it was the Lord’s work, and that made it worthwhile.”

The flatbed press that was used to print The Watch Tower

Within just a few weeks, The Watch Tower was being printed by zealous volunteer ministers. Sixty thousand copies of the February 1, 1920, issue of The Watch Tower rolled off the flatbed press on the second floor. Meanwhile, in the basement, the brothers set up a press they called the Battleship. Beginning with the April 14, 1920, issue, The Golden Age was also being produced. Undoubtedly, Jehovah blessed the efforts of those willing workers.

“It was the Lord’s work, and that made it worthwhile”


Jehovah’s loyal people were enjoying renewed activity and fellowship. However, some Bible Students had left the organization during the troubled times from 1917 to 1919. What could be done to help them?

The Watch Tower of April 1, 1920, contained the article “Let Us Dwell in Peace.” It made this warm appeal: “We feel sure . . . that everyone possessing the spirit of the Lord . . . is willing to forget the things that are behind, . . . to dwell together in unity and proceed as one harmonious body.”

Many responded to these kind words. One married couple wrote: “We are satisfied that the past year and more has been a mistake in standing idly by while others did the [preaching] work. . . . We hope that we may never more be led astray.” These reactivated workers had plenty of work ahead of them.


On June 21, 1920, the Bible Students began an intense campaign to distribute the “ZG,” a paperback edition of The Finished Mystery. * A large number of these books had been stored when the book was banned in 1918.

All class workers, not just the colporteurs, were invited to share in the distribution work. “Every consecrated [baptized] person in every class who can participate should do so gladly. Let this be the motto of each one now: ‘This one thing I do’​—put out the ZG.” Edmund Hooper recalled that this campaign was for many the first actual door-to-door work they had ever done. He added, “We really began to get the feel of the work that was to expand beyond our wildest expectations.”


Since communication with Bible Students in other countries had been difficult during World War I, Brother Rutherford wanted to encourage these brothers and reorganize the preaching activity. So on August 12, 1920, he and four other brothers departed for an extended tour of Britain, Continental Europe, and the Middle East.

Brother Rutherford in Egypt

When Rutherford visited Britain, the Bible Students held three conventions and 12 public meetings. The total attendance was estimated at 50,000. Summing up the visit, The Watch Tower stated: “The friends were refreshed and lifted up. They were more closely united in love and in service, and many sad hearts made glad.” In Paris, Brother Rutherford again spoke on the subject “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” When the lecture began, the hall was packed. Three hundred people requested additional information.

Poster advertising the lecture given in London’s Royal Albert Hall

In the ensuing weeks, some brothers visited Athens, Cairo, and Jerusalem. To follow up on interest found in these locations, Brother Rutherford established a literature depot in the town of Ramallah, near Jerusalem. He then returned to Europe and established the Central European Office and arranged for literature to be printed there.


In the fall of 1920, the Bible Students released No. 27 of The Golden Age, a special issue that exposed the persecution of the Bible Students during 1918. The Battleship, mentioned earlier, ran night and day to produce more than four million copies of this magazine.

Police photo of Emma Martin

Readers of that magazine learned about the unusual case of Emma Martin. Sister Martin was a colporteur in San Bernardino, California. On March 17, 1918, she and three brothers, E. Hamm, E. J. Sonnenburg, and E. A. Stevens, attended a small gathering of Bible Students.

One man in attendance was not there to learn about the Bible. “I went to this meeting . . . at the direction of the Prosecuting attorney’s office,” he later testified. “I went there for the purpose of securing evidence.” He obtained the “evidence” that he was seeking, a copy of The Finished Mystery. A few days later, Sister Martin and the three brothers were arrested. They were charged with violating the Espionage Act by distributing copies of the banned book.

Emma and her friends were found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. On May 17, 1920, their appeals exhausted, they began serving their sentences. But things soon changed for the better.

On June 20, 1920, Brother Rutherford related their experience at a convention in San Francisco. The audience, appalled at the treatment of these Christians, sent a telegram to the president of the United States. They wrote: “We regard the conviction . . . of Mrs. Martin . . . under the Espionage law as unjust . . . The action of Federal officers in using the power of their office to . . . entrap . . . Mrs. Martin . . . and then to frame up against her a case to have her sent to prison we denounce as . . . outrageous.”

The very next day, President Woodrow Wilson immediately commuted the sentences of Sister Martin and Brothers Hamm, Sonnenburg, and Stevens. Their unjust imprisonment was over.

As 1920 drew to a close, the Bible Students had much to be happy about. The work at headquarters continued to expand, and more than ever, true Christians actively proclaimed God’s Kingdom as the solution to mankind’s problems. (Matt. 24:14) The next year, 1921, would be an even greater year for advertising Kingdom truth.

^ par. 18 The Finished Mystery was the seventh volume of Studies in the Scriptures. “ZG” was the paperback edition, printed as the March 1, 1918, issue of The Watch Tower. “Z” referred to Zion’s Watch Tower, and “G,” the seventh letter of the alphabet, referred to the seventh volume.