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Watch Tower Society presidency dispute (1917)

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A dispute developed in 1917 within the leadership of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society following the death of society president Charles Taze Russell and election of legal counsel Joseph Franklin Rutherford as his successor. An acrimonious battle ensued between Rutherford and four of the society's seven directors, who accused him of autocratic behavior and sought to reduce his powers. Rutherford claimed the dissident directors had formed a conspiracy to seize control of the society and overcame the challenge by gaining a legal opinion that his four opposers had not been legally appointed. He subsequently replaced them with four new sympathetic directors.[1][2] The four ousted directors later gained 12 legal opinions that Rutherford's actions were "wholly unlawful". The leadership crisis divided the Bible Student community and helped contribute to the loss of one-seventh of the Watch Tower adherents by 1919.

Origins of the dispute

Watch Tower Society president Charles Taze Russell died on October 31, 1916, in Pampa, Texas during a cross-country preaching trip. On January 6, 1917, Joseph Rutherford, aged 47, was elected president of the Watch Tower Society, unopposed, at a convention in Pittsburgh. Controversy soon followed. Author Tony Wills claims that nominations were suspended once Rutherford had been nominated, preventing votes for other candidates,[3][4] and within months Rutherford felt the need to defend himself against rumors within the Brooklyn Bethel that he had used "political methods" to secure his election. In the first of a series of pamphlets from opposing sides, Rutherford told Bible Students: "There is no person on earth who can truthfully say that I ever asked them directly or indirectly to vote for me."[5] By June, the dispute surrounding Rutherford's election as president was turning into what he called a "storm"[6] that ruptured the Watch Tower Society for the remainder of 1917.

In January 1917,[7] Bethel pilgrim Paul S. L. Johnson had been sent to England with orders to inspect the management and finances of the Watch Tower Society's London corporation.[8] He dismissed two managers of the corporation, seized its funds and attempted to reorganize the body. Rutherford—who was convinced Johnson was insane and suffering religious delusions—ordered his recall to New York in late February, but Johnson refused and claimed he was answerable only to the full board of directors.[9] When he finally returned to New York and apologized to the Bethel family for his excesses in London,[10] Johnson became caught up in a move against Rutherford by four of the seven Watch Tower Society directors.

At issue were new by-laws that had been passed in January by both the Pittsburgh convention and the board of directors, stating that the president would be the executive officer and general manager of the Watch Tower Society, giving him full charge of its affairs worldwide.[11] Opinions on the need for the by-laws were sharply divided. Rutherford maintained that Russell, as president, had always acted as the society's manager, and that the January 6 vote by shareholders to approve the by-laws proved they wanted this process to continue under his successor.[12] He claimed it was a matter of efficiency and said the work of the Watch Tower Society "peculiarly requires the direction of one mind".[13] Bible Student Francis McGee, a lawyer and an assistant to the New Jersey Attorney-General, responded: "This is then the crux of the matter. He says he is that one mind."[14] By June, four board members—Robert H. Hirsh, Alfred I. Ritchie, Isaac F. Hoskins and James D. Wright—had decided they had erred in endorsing Rutherford's powers of management.[15] They claimed Rutherford had become autocratic, refusing to open the Watch Tower Society's books for scrutiny and denying Johnson a fair hearing over his actions in London.[15]

At a board meeting on June 20, Hirsh presented a resolution to rescind the new by-laws and reclaim the powers of management from the president,[16] but a vote was deferred for a month after strenuous objections by Rutherford.[17] A week later, four of the directors requested an immediate board meeting to seek information on the society's finances. Rutherford refused the meeting, later claiming he had by then detected a conspiracy between Johnson and the four directors with the aim of seizing control of the society, as he believed Johnson had attempted in Britain.[18]

Within weeks, Rutherford gained a legal opinion from a Philadelphia corporation lawyer that a clause of the Watch Tower Society charter stipulating that its directors were elected for life was contrary to Pennsylvania law, and that all directors were required by law to be re-elected annually. The legal opinion stated that because the January 6 shareholders' meeting had elected only three men to office—Rutherford, Secretary-Treasurer Van Amburgh and Vice-President Andrew N. Pierson—the remaining four board members, who had joined as early as 1904 and had not faced re-election, had no legal status as directors of the society. Even Hirsh, who had been appointed by the board on March 29, 1917 following the resignation of Henry C. Rockwell, was said to have no legal standing because his appointment had taken place in New York rather than Allegheny, as required by law. Rutherford claimed to have known these facts since 1909 and to have conveyed them to Russell on more than one occasion.[19]

On July 12, Rutherford traveled to Pittsburgh and exercised his right under the society's charter to fill what he claimed were four vacancies on the board, appointing A. H. Macmillan and Pennsylvania Bible Students W. E. Spill, J. A. Bohnet and George H. Fisher as directors.[20] Rutherford called a meeting of the new board on July 17, where the directors passed a resolution expressing "hearty approval" of the actions of their president and affirming him as "the man the Lord has chosen to carry on the work that yet remains to be done."[21] On July 31 he called a meeting of the People's Pulpit Association, a Watch Tower Society subsidiary incorporated in New York, to expel Hirsh and Hoskins as directors on the grounds that they were opposing the work of the Association. When the resolution failed to gain a majority, Rutherford exercised shareholder proxies provided for the annual meeting in New York the previous January to secure their expulsion.[22][23] On August 1 the Watch Tower Society published a 24-page journal, Harvest Siftings, subtitled "The evil one again attempts to disrupt the Society", in which Rutherford stated his version of the events and explained why he had appointed the new board members.

A month later the four ousted directors responded with a self-funded rebuttal of Rutherford's statement. The publication, Light After Darkness, contained a letter by Pierson, dated July 26, in which the vice-president declared he was now siding with the old board. Although he believed both sides of the conflict had displayed "a measure of wrongs", Pierson had decided Rutherford had been wrong to appoint new directors.[24] The ousted directors' publication disputed the legality of their expulsion, stating that the clause in the Pennsylvania law prohibiting life memberships on boards had been only recently introduced and was not retroactive, exempting existing corporations from the statute.[25][26] They also claimed that the Watch Tower Society's charter allowed only directors to be elected as officers, and that therefore the election of Rutherford, Van Amburgh and Pierson as officers was void because none had been directors in January. Their advice from several lawyers, they said, was that Rutherford's course was "wholly unlawful".[25][27]

The ex-directors' publication claimed Rutherford had required all Bethel workers to sign a petition supporting him and condemning the former directors, with the threat of dismissal for any who refused to sign.[28] Some workers complained that they had signed under duress; it was claimed that as many as 35 members of the Bethel family were forced to leave for failing to support Rutherford during his "reign of terror".[10][29][30] Rutherford denied anyone had been forced out for refusing to sign the letter.[31] Despite attempts by Pierson to reconcile the two groups,[31] the former directors left the Brooklyn headquarters on August 8.[32]

Rutherford's re-election and aftermath

Publications continued through late 1917, with Rutherford on one side and Johnson and the four expelled directors on the other, each accusing their opponents of gross misrepresentation and trying to usurp authority.[33][34][35] The controversy fractured the harmony of the Bible Student movement and many congregations split into opposing groups loyal to either Rutherford or those he had expelled.[32][36]

The four expelled board members made a final attempt to unseat Rutherford, claiming that although he had the backing of the most powerful shareholders, he lacked the support of the Bible Student movement in general. They therefore called for a democratic vote from all the Bible Students.[37] Rutherford wrote in October, "I did not seek election to the office of President, and I am not seeking re-election. The Lord is able to attend to his own business."[38] Then in December 1918, he outmaneuvered his opponents, organizing a referendum of all Bible Students and Watch Tower subscribers, a month before the annual Pittsburgh convention. Although not binding, votes were counted in more than 800 U.S. congregations, giving Rutherford 95 percent of the vote for president. His opposers ranked 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th on the list of prospective directors, with the highest support given to Rutherford's existing six co-directors.[37] On January 5, 1918, Rutherford was returned to office, receiving 194,106 shareholders' votes. Hirsh received 23,198 votes—the highest among the ex-directors—putting him in 10th place. A resolution was promptly passed to request that Hirsh resign from the editorial committee.[39]

Rutherford stated at the convention that he was aware he had made many mistakes.[39] By mid-1919, about one in seven Bible Students had left rather than accept his leadership,[40] and as many as seventy-five percent by 1928, resulting in the formation of various Bible Student groups such as the Standfast Movement, the Layman's Home Missionary Movement, the Dawn Bible Students Association, the Pastoral Bible Institute, the Elijah Voice Movement, and the Eagle Society.[41]

A later Watchtower described the outcome of the 1917 leadership dispute as the removal of "a class of insubordinate ones who rebelled against the ways of the Lord" before Christ's inspection and approval of the "faithful and discreet slave class" in 1918.[42][43]


A simplified chart of historical developments of major groups within Bible Students



"Russell DID name as the 4th of 5 alternates in case anyone out of the first 5 couldn't serve. This actually made Rutherford his 9th choice out of 10, which might sound bad, but remember that Russell made that will in 1906, the same year Rutherford was just baptized and the same year he agreed to do legal work. Some think Rutherford influenced the will, but I think it's a few months too early for that, and I'd even bet that Russell would have put him higher on the list if he had redone the will closer to 1916 when he died.

(Russell ran the show alone from the 1880's to 1916, but he didn't want a single person replacement like himself. He wanted a 5 person committee to replace him. Rutherford dissolved that 5-person committee, and got the presidency by getting a majority of votes on the 7 person board of directors. (And he only had to replace 4 of the 7 to get that majority)." Source - Disqus comments.



  1. Penton 1997, pp. 50
  2. Rogerson 1969, pp. 37
  3. Wills 2007, pp. 115
  4. An essay at the Pastoral Bible Institute website claims Macmillan chaired the meeting; Rutherford in Harvest Siftings II (pg 26) refers to Ritchie as the chairman.
  5. Rutherford August 1917, pp. 10.
  6. Rutherford October 1917, pp. 28
  7. Rutherford October 1917, pp. 31
  8. Johnson 1917, pp. 2,3
  9. Rogerson 1969, pp. 35,36
  10. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 15
  11. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 5,6
  12. Rutherford October 1917, pp. 31
  13. Rutherford August 1917, pp. 10
  14. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 19
  15. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 4
  16. Rutherford August 1917, pp. 12
  17. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 6
  18. Rutherford August 1917, pp. 22–23
  19. Rutherford August 1917, pp. 15
  20. Rutherford August 1917, pp. 14,15
  21. Rutherford August 1917, pp. 1, 17
  22. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 10
  23. Rutherford October 1917, pp. 27,28
  24. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 8,9
  25. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 7
  26. Wills & 2007 95
  27. Legal opinion, Davies, Auerbach & Cornell, New York, July 23, 1917.
  28. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 9
  29. Rogerson 1969, pp. 37
  30. Johnson 1917, pp. 17, 18
  31. Rutherford October 1917, pp. 29
  32. Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society 1993, pp. 68
  33. Pierson et al 1917, pp. 1
  34. Rutherford October 1917, pp. 1
  35. Johnson 1917, pp. 9
  36. Watch Tower publications since 1917 have continued to denounce those who opposed Rutherford. In its account of the events of 1917, the Society's 1993 history book Jehovah's Witnesses—Proclaimers of God's Kingdom refers to the opposing camps as "those loyal to the Society and those who were easy prey to the smooth talk of the opposers", describing Rutherford's opponents as "disturbers" (pg. 68); The Watchtower of April 1, 1955 described the ousted directors as "ambitious opponents", "rebellious ones" and "anti-society sick ones" and describes those who supported them as "deceived ones"; 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses dismissed the four ousted directors as "rebellious individuals who claimed to be board members" (pg. 87) and men who "ambitiously sought to gain administrative control of the Society" (pg. 92). The 1959 history book Jehovah's Witnesses in the Divine Purpose also claims the legal advice given to the ousted directors confirmed that given to Rutherford.
  37. Rogerson 1969, pp. 38
  38. Rutherford October 1917, pp. 32
  39. Rogerson 1969, pp. 39
  40. Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society 1975, pp. 93–94
  41. Rogerson 1969, pp. 39
  42. "Esther and Mordecai," The Watchtower, June 1, 1931, page 169, "Christ Jesus was placed upon his throne in the autumn season of 1914, and in the third year thereafter, to wit, at the end of 1917, among those consecrated to the Lord there was a class of insubordinate ones who rebelled against the ways of the Lord. Being in line for the kingdom, and becoming offended, insubordinate and rebellious, these were gathered out at the time the judgment of the Lord began at his temple in 1918."
  43. "The Faithful Slave Passes the Test!", The Watchtower, March 1, 2004, pages 13-18.


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