AS 1916 dawned, the Great War, later known as World War I, had been raging for more than a year. Losses on both sides were staggering.

The Watch Tower of January 1, 1916, observed: “One influence of the great European war is to turn the minds of some toward religion and the consideration of a future life.” The same article continued: “Let us be alive to our privileges, our opportunities, that there may be no faintheartedness, but a zeal for God and His Message.”

The yeartext for 1916 exhorted the brothers to remain “strong in faith,” according to Romans 4:20 in the King James Version. Many of the Bible Students did so, and they reaped rich blessings from Jehovah.

Pilgrims Provided Encouragement

Traveling representatives of the Watch Tower Society, known as pilgrims, journeyed from town to town, providing encouragement and instruction to the Bible Students. In  1916, at least 69 pilgrims traveled half a million miles in this work.

While speaking at a convention in Norfolk, Virginia, pilgrim Walter Thorn compared the Christian’s fight to the Great War: “It is estimated that there are from twenty to thirty millions of men now under arms. . . . Unknown to the world, there is another company [of soldiers]. They are the Lord’s soldiers, and like Gideon’s band, they also are fighting, but not with carnal weapons. They are fighting for truth and righteousness and they are fighting the good fight of faith.”

Serving Despite Wartime Difficulties

In France, more than one million men were wounded or killed in the First Battle of the Somme, which was fought during the latter half of 1916. Elsewhere in France, hardworking brothers supported the classes, or congregations, even when wartime conditions made this difficult. The  Watch Tower of January 15, 1916, printed a letter from Joseph Lefèvre, a Bible Student who was forced to flee his hometown of Denain, France, when it was invaded by German troops in 1914. He made his way south to Paris and began to associate with the only class of Bible Students in that city. Despite his poor health, he was soon conducting all the meetings.

Later, Joseph was joined by Théophile Lequime, who had also fled Denain. Initially, Brother Lequime went to Auchel, France, where he began translating articles from The Watch Tower and mailing them to brothers in other unoccupied sections of France. He was compelled to leave Auchel by military authorities who grew suspicious of his activities. Brother Lefèvre felt that Brother Lequime’s arrival in Paris was an answer to his prayers.

Their work in Paris was rewarded. Brother Lefèvre reported: “We have a class now of about forty-five . . . A number have known the beauty and privilege of consecration, and they are making large strides in spiritual progress. Nearly all the members attend the weekly testimony meeting.”

They Remained Neutral

As the war dragged on, many of our brothers faced the issue of neutrality. In Great Britain, the Military Service Act was passed, eventually imposing conscription on all men aged 18 to 40. However, many Bible Students steadfastly maintained their neutrality.

For example, The Watch Tower of April 15, 1916, published a letter from W. O. Warden of Scotland. He stated: “One of my sons has now reached the age of 19. He has so far given a good witness for the Lord by refusing to enlist in the army, and if it should come that it will mean being shot for still refusing, I trust he will receive the Heavenly  Grace to stand firm to the principles of truth and righteousness.”

James Frederick Scott, a young colporteur from Edinburgh, Scotland, was tried for failing to report for conscription. After hearing all the evidence, however, the court concluded that Brother Scott “came under the exception provided by the Act” and found him not guilty.

Nevertheless, many others were refused exemption. By September, of the 264 brothers who applied for exemption, 23 were assigned noncombatant service. The remainder, some of whom “suffered various punishments,” were required to perform “work of National Importance, such as road-making, quarrying, etc.,” said a report in the October 15, 1916, Watch Tower. Only five brothers were exempted from military service.

Charles Taze Russell Dies

On October 16, 1916, Charles Taze Russell, who took the lead among the Bible Students at that time, embarked on a lecture tour of the western United States. He never returned home. In the early afternoon of Tuesday, October 31, Brother Russell died at the age of 64 while aboard a train at Pampa, Texas.

Many of the brothers could not imagine anyone taking Brother Russell’s place. His will, published in The Watch Tower of December 1, 1916, outlined his wishes regarding the work that he had taken the lead in for so long. Yet, a question remained: Who would succeed him in this work?

That question would be decided at the annual meeting of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, scheduled for early 1917. Those in attendance took a vote, and the results were unanimous. But the ensuing months revealed that this unanimity was to be short-lived, and fiery trials awaited the brothers.