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J F Rutherford: 1917-1919: Information, Misinformation and Disinformation

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This forum currently contains a recent topic where the subject of the 1918 imprisonment and 1919 release of Rutherford and his associates has come up. There is a lot of misinformation under that topic. I'm no expert on the subject, but it's still obvious that even some who present themselves as experts can be misinformed.

There is plenty of documentation and verifiable information out there on the topic, and while there's no real shame in being misinformed, we should be careful not to present ourselves as experts. When a person presents themselves as an expert, their misinformation becomes disinformation. We should strive for honesty.

And it's not that going back to this history is necessarily all that important, but our publications have made it part of fulfilled Bible prophecy, and therefore any mishandling of information about it becomes all the more serious. Also, sometimes when such historical topics are brought up some Witnesses are quick to complain that there is no reason to go back and rehash that old material. Note however, that it is our recent books and Watchtower magazines that regularly bring up such material for review. The "God's Kingdom" book discusses it. Even one of the most recent Watchtowers brings it up again (October 2019 Watchtower):

*** w19 October p. 3 1919—One Hundred Years Ago ***
    While the eight brothers were imprisoned, faithful Bible Students circulated a petition calling for their release. These brave brothers and sisters gathered more than 700,000 signatures. On Wednesday, March 26, 1919, before the petition was submitted, Brother Rutherford and the other responsible brothers were released.
     In a speech to those who welcomed him home, Brother Rutherford said: “I am convinced that this experience we have all gone through is merely to prepare us for more strenuous times. . . . Your fight has not been to get your brethren out of prison. That was merely a side issue. . . . The fight you have been making has been for the purpose of witnessing for the Truth, and those who have done it have received a wonderful blessing.”
     The circumstances surrounding the trial of our brothers may give indication of Jehovah’s direction. On May 14, 1919, the appeals court ruled: “The defendants in this case did not have the . . . impartial trial to which they were entitled, and for that reason the judgment is reversed.” The brothers had been convicted of serious crimes, and these judgments would have remained on their records if they had only been pardoned or if their sentences had merely been commuted. No further charges were laid. As a result, Judge Rutherford retained his legal qualifications to defend Jehovah’s people before the Supreme Court of the United States, something he did many times after his release.

I won't personally get back to this topic for up to a day or so, but welcome anyone with information to present what they know about it, or have heard about it. We can start with our own publications and Wikipedia, of course. But anything that seems like valuable information or interesting questions could be presented for evaluation by all who are serious about such history.

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This forum currently contains a recent topic where the subject of the 1918 imprisonment and 1919 release of Rutherford and his associates has come up. There is a lot of misinformation under that topic

When i was arrested by Civil Police and handed to Military Police and after they transported me to place where i have to serve army, they treated me as Soldier even i was in civil clothes. Later i und

I'm still learning about it. The book "The Finished Mystery" was the initial focus of the investigation, but it was still only a part of the problem. When Rutherford decided to try to sell the bo

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A short version of the story is found in a 1950 Watchtower:

*** w50 7/15 p. 217 par. 3 Postwar Enlargement of the Theocratic Organization ***
By an election held at Pittsburgh’s annual business meeting, January 6, 1917, J. F. Rutherford, the Society’s legal attorney and one of its traveling representatives, was made president of the Pennsylvania corporation, to succeed Brother Russell. He was later elected president of the New York and British corporations. . . .  Shortly after his election the United States got involved in World War I, on April 6, 1917. The publication of the seventh volume of Studies in the Scriptures July 17, 1917, proved fateful, and troublous times for the Society in the United States took on a disastrous aspect. That Bible-study help, The Finished Mystery, was an exposé of the religious systems of Christendom. So the enemy seized upon it as part of their proof that the Society’s president and other members of the organization closely associated with him were guilty of sedition against the government, and Brother Rutherford and seven others were railroaded off to federal penitentiary in the spring of 1918, under sentences of 80 years in prison, and without benefit of bail for their freedom till appeal to a higher court should be effected. After nine months in the penitentiary bail was granted them on March 21, 1919, and they were released. Later the Appeal Court reversed the judgment against them, and in 1920 the indictment against them was disposed of. Thus they were completely exonerated as innocent of the malicious charges of the enemy.

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A longer version of the story is here from a 1955 Watchtower in two parts:

Part 8—International Attempt to Destroy Society Fails

LATER in February, 1918, the United States Army Intelligence Bureau at New York city began an investigation of the Watch Tower Society’s Brooklyn headquarters. False reports had circulated that the Society had installed upon the Bethel home a powerful wireless station capable of sending messages across the Atlantic, and that this instrument was used to communicate with the German enemy. The facts are that in Pastor Russell’s lifetime a brother had presented to him a small wireless receiving set. There was no transmitter. There never was any message sent from the Bethel home by wireless. This was in 1915, before the day of radio broadcasting, when even wireless telegraphy was in its infancy. In 1918 when two Army Intelligence men were going through Bethel they were taken to the roof and shown the penthouse where the wireless receiver had been; and then, in a lower storeroom, they were shown the instrument itself, packed away. By consent the receiving set was taken away by these army men.

On Thursday, February 28, 1918, following J. F. Rutherford’s lecture the previous Sunday at Los Angeles, California, the Army Intelligence Bureau there took possession of the headquarters of the Los Angeles congregation of Bible students, confiscating many of the Society’s publications. The following Monday (March 4, 1918), at Scranton, Pennsylvania, several associates of the Society were arrested, charged with conspiracy, and were put under bond for their appearance for trial in May. Already more than twenty others had been forcibly detained in army camps or military prisons because of the war draft. Outside pressure against the Society was piling up fast.

Courageously carrying forward their work against mounting odds, the band of valiant ones on March 15, 1918, released a new, newspaper-size, two-page tract, Kingdom News No. 1, headed “Religious Intolerance—Pastor Russell’s Followers Persecuted Because They Tell the People the Truth—Treatment of Bible Students Smacks of the ‘Dark Ages.’” Millions of this tract were distributed, exposing the clergy-inspired persecution of these zealous preachers in Germany, Canada and the United States. This tract furthermore advertised the historic lecture to be delivered March 24, 1918, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by the Society’s president, entitled “The World Has Ended—Millions Now Living May Never Die!” Three thousand heard this important lecture. For 1918 a report shows there were 7,000 engaged in placing bound books from door to door, besides uncounted others who were distributing tracts and handbills and giving personal verbal witness. In April further clergy-inspired attempts to intimidate these preachers of the Kingdom message occurred. On April 15, 1918, however, Kingdom News No. 2 appeared, being distributed by the millions of copies, with bold headlines: “The Finished Mystery and Why Suppressed—Clergymen Take a Hand.” The facts of suppression in Canada and the United States up to April 15 were laid bare to the public, exposing the clergy’s efforts to destroy the Society’s activity. In connection with such distribution a petition was circulated, addressed to United States President Wilson:

“We, the undersigned Americans, hold that any interference by the clergy with independent Bible study is intolerant, un-American and un-Christian; and that any attempt to combine Church and State is radically wrong. In the interest of liberty and religious freedom, we solemnly protest against the suppression of The Finished Mystery, and petition the Government to remove all restrictions as to its use, that the people may be permitted without interference or molestation to buy, sell, have and read this aid to Bible study.”

On May 1, 1918, began the distribution of millions of Kingdom News No. 3, which carried the headlines “Two Great Battles Raging—Satanic Strategy Doomed to Failure—The Birth of Antichrist.”

On May 7, 1918, warrants were issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York to arrest eight brothers connected with the Society’s management and editorial committee. They were J. F. Rutherford, W. E. Van Amburgh, A. H. Macmillan, R. J. Martin, C. J. Woodworth, G. H. Fisher, F. H. Robison and G. DeCecca. The next day, May 8, those warrants were served at Bethel by United States Marshal Power. Shortly after their arrest the eight were arraigned in the federal court, Judge Garvin presiding, and all were met with an indictment previously returned by the grand jury, charging that the eight above named—

“unlawfully and feloniously did conspire, combine, confederate and agree together, and with divers other persons to the said Grand Jurors unknown, to commit a certain offense against the United States of America, to wit: the offense of unlawfully, feloniously and wilfully causing insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States of America when the United States was at war . . . by personal solicitations, letters, public speeches, distributing and publicly circulating throughout the United States of America a certain book called Volume VII Bible Studies The Finished Mystery, and distributing and publicly circulating throughout the United States certain articles printed in pamphlets called Bible Students Monthly, Watch Tower, Kingdom News and other pamphlets not named.”

Following the arraignment the defendants were released on bail bond of $2,500 each and the trial was set for June 3, 1918. In its issue of May 11, 1918, The Tablet (Roman Catholic), Brooklyn, revealingly said:

Kingdom News Spread Around—Some May Go to Jail. Joseph F. Rutherford and some of his colleagues are likely to pass their summer months in a villa where they will be protected from mobs who insult them by asking them to buy Liberty Bonds. . . . It is quite interesting to note that Rutherford and all their ilk who take delight in going into convulsions over the [Catholic] Church are always being pursued by government officers. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Americanism seem to be twins.”

The trial began on Monday, June 3, in the federal court in Brooklyn. Affidavits were filed by the eight defendants stating their reasons for believing that Judge Garvin was biased against them and their work, which action automatically adverted the case to Judge Chatfield, who in turn referred it to United States Judge Howe, specially brought to Brooklyn from Vermont to preside at the trial. After a fifteen-day trial (later shown to contain over 125 errors, a mere few of which the appellate court ultimately chose to condemn the entire procedure as unfair) on Thursday, June 20, at 10 p.m., the jury returned a verdict of “guilty.” The next day, June 21, just after noon, Judge Harland B. Howe pronounced the sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia. The court reserved sentence as to Brother DeCecca until later. The New York Tribune of June 22, 1918, said:

“Joseph F. Rutherford and six of the other ‘Russellites’, convicted of violation of the Espionage Act, were sentenced to twenty years in the Atlanta Penitentiary yesterday, by Judge Howe. ‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ said Mr. Rutherford, on his way from the court to the jail, ‘to serve earthly punishment for the sake of one’s religious belief is one of the greatest privileges a man could have.’ One of the strangest demonstrations that the Marshal’s office in the Brooklyn Federal Court has ever seen, was held by the families and intimate friends of the convicted men soon after the prisoners had been taken to the Grand Jury room. The whole company made the old building ring with the strains of ‘Blest be the tie that binds.’ ‘It is all God’s will,’ they told each other, with faces almost radiant. ‘Some day the world will know what all this means. Meanwhile, let us be thankful for the grace of God that has sustained us through our trials, and look forward to the Great Day that is to come.’”

Twice illegally denied bail requested by them at New York, and before completion of a third effort to arrange bail through co-operation of the Supreme Court at Washington, the prisoners were removed from New York on July 4 to the federal penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia. Rutherford, on July 3, 1918, mentions the following in a letter later published:

“We are advised that seven who opposed the Society and its work during the past year attended upon the trial and lent aid to our prosecutors. We warn you, beloved, against the subtle efforts of some of them to fawn upon you now in an attempt to get hold of the Society.”

An executive committee was appointed to head the Society during absence of its imprisoned officers and an editorial committee of five functioned to continue writing The Watch Tower, an issue of which did not fail during these years of crisis. Throughout the country in succeeding months persecution against the Bible Students continued. There were more imprisonments, indignities at the hands of mobs, raids on meeting places, burnings of books and constant vilifications from the press and pulpit. Due to wartime pressures that prevented obtaining needed operational supplies, it was necessary on August 26, 1918, to close the Brooklyn headquarters. The removal was made to an office building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at Federal and Reliance Streets. The Brooklyn Tabernacle office and shipping center had been sold and the Bethel home closed. Thus by the summer of 1918 the once loud organized voice of the witnesses for Jehovah and his kingdom was silenced, their organized work figuratively killed, and deathlike inactivity came over the once energetic band of Christians. They came to be firmly held in bondage by their Babylonish captors.

On November 11, 1918, the first world war suddenly ended. Numerous war prisoners were being released, but no freedom was in sight for the many Bible Students still in prisons and camps throughout the country. While in the Atlanta penitentiary, Rutherford and his seven associates were busy preaching on the inside. They were permitted to conduct Bible classes each Sunday in prison, attended by about a hundred of their fellow prisoners. At Pittsburgh on January 4, 1919, a combination convention and corporation meeting attended by a thousand energetic workers was held to reconfirm the election of Rutherford and the others as officers and directors. They also passed a resolution expressing confidence in the innocence of the eight imprisoned officials. In February, 1919, country-wide agitation was started by certain newspapers for the release of Rutherford and his associates. Likewise the imprisoned men’s friends wrote thousands of letters to newspaper editors, congressmen, senators and governors, urging action. Many were aroused to express themselves in favor of the release. Then in March those friends got busy circulating a nationwide petition, which within a short time was signed by 700,000, asking the government to render justice as to these falsely accused and imprisoned men. Though never presented, this petition was “a witness to the truth”—an outstanding sign of the resurgence of the falsely accused preachers of Jehovah’s kingdom.

On March 2, 1919, Harland B. Howe, the federal district judge who was the first to deny bail after sentencing them to imprisonment, telegraphed Attorney General Gregory in Washington, at his request, ‘recommending immediate commutation’ of the sentences of the eight he named in his telegram. (Gregory’s resignation as attorney general became effective March 4, 1919.) But this maneuver to cause withdrawal of their appeal failed. Instead, on March 21, 1919, under direction of United States Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, bail for the eight was ordered by a three-judge federal circuit court at New York that also ordered them to be returned forthwith from Atlanta to New York for the hearing of their appeal on April 14. The next Tuesday, March 25, they left Atlanta by train for Brooklyn where, on March 26, they were formally admitted to bail, $10,000 each, and released. Banquet receptions awaited them, first, upon their arrival in Brooklyn, and, later, when they rejoined the happy Bethel family, then temporarily at Pittsburgh.

(To be continued)

If God is for us, who will be against us? Who will separate us from the love of the Christ? Will tribulation or distress or persecution or hunger or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . To the contrary, in all these things we are coming off completely victorious through him that loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor governments nor things here nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creation will be able to separate us from God’s love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.—Rom. 8:31, 35-39, NW.


Part 9—Postwar Revival of the Witnesses

THE appeal of Rutherford and his seven associates was set for hearing and was heard April 14, 1919, by the Federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals at New York. A month later (May 14, 1919) their erroneous convictions of the preceding summer were reversed. (Next year, May 5, 1920, the eight men were completely exonerated when, in open court at Brooklyn, on order of the Attorney General, the government’s attorney announced withdrawal of the prosecution.) The appellate court’s reversal of the unjust convictions was reported on page 1 of the then published Brooklyn Eagle, May 15, 1919:

“Russellite Verdict Reversed by Appeal; ‘Trial Was Unfair.’ Judges Ward, Rogers and Manton of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the New York Federal District today reversed the convictions of the leaders of Russellism, who were found guilty last June before Judge Harland B. Howe of Vermont, sitting in Brooklyn, of conspiring to obstruct the draft, discourage enlistment and foment insurrection and insubordination among the armed forces of the Nation. The decision holds that the attitude of Judge Howe was unfair in his treatment of [three] witnesses. . . . Inasmuch as the decision sustains the legitimacy of the claim of the Russellites that their organization, which forbids members to kill, entitled its members to exemption from active service with the Army, there seems little likelihood that the leaders of the cult will ever again be placed on trial. . . . Judge Martin T. Manton dissented from the majority opinion, which was written by Judge Henry G. Ward.”

This is Judge Manton, eminent Roman Catholic, who on July 1, 1918, for no assigned reason, refused bail to Rutherford and his associates, thus forcing nine months of unjust incarceration upon them while their appeal was pending. This, too, is Manton whom Vatican City’s pope, Pius XI, later rewarded by creating him a “Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.” Yes, this is Manton the “mighty one” who himself on June 3, 1939, was brought low and sentenced to imprisonment for shamefully misusing his high federal judgeship by accepting bribes of $186,000 for six decisions.



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1 hour ago, JW Insider said:

charging that the eight above named—

“unlawfully and feloniously did conspire, combine, confederate and agree together, and with divers other persons to the said Grand Jurors unknown, to commit a certain offense against the United States of America, to wit: the offense of unlawfully, feloniously and wilfully causing insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States of America when the United States was at war . . . by personal solicitations, letters, public speeches, distributing and publicly circulating throughout the United States of America a certain book called Volume VII Bible Studies The Finished Mystery, and distributing and publicly circulating throughout the United States certain articles printed in pamphlets called Bible Students Monthly, Watch Tower, Kingdom News and other pamphlets not named.”

causing insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States of America when the United States was at war . . . by personal solicitations, letters, public speeches

Please, what do you know about this?

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16 hours ago, Srecko Sostar said:

Please, what do you know about this?

I'm still learning about it.

The book "The Finished Mystery" was the initial focus of the investigation, but it was still only a part of the problem. When Rutherford decided to try to sell the books with a couple of offending pages cut out of the book, this was not something that the courts or any officials had asked for. It was just Rutherford's way of hoping this would appease the authorities, since specific claims about seditious statements claimed had focused on those pages. The FBI said that cutting out the pages was was not a solution.

Many of these personal solicitations and letters and public speeches were at least indirectly related to the book, The Finished Mystery. But many of them probably were of another nature, based on the evidence that the FBI collected , as some letters and solicitations were for the purposes of Rutherford giving legal advice to those who wanted to avoid being drafted, or avoid fighting even if they were being drafted.

Although it was obvious that Rutherford wanted to be able to help people avoid conscription, to avoid direct military service, and even to avoid supporting the war through alternative service (e.g. hospitals), I have never yet seen anything that would be considered out of line for an attorney trying to give "unofficial" legal advice. But in wartime, such activities are scrutinized much more closely. I think that if there had been direct proof that Rutherford had solicited or encouraged persons to write him for legal advice about getting out of military service, that this could have made sentencing and bail considerations even more difficult for them. The book itself along with other statements made by Rutherford could have been construed as encouragement to help Bible Students find ways to avoid conscription and military engagement.

Also there was a lot of communication between Rutherford and his associates related to the book, the ban on the book, and other means of getting the book published. The book was being reproduced in Watchtower format as special editions to the Watchtower. It was also being reprinted in a publication by a long-time friend of Russell and the Bible Students who published a magazine called "Overland Monthly." Additionally, there were multiple languages that the book had been translated into, and it was important to know whether any of those translations had used even stronger language against the war (than the English version). The book and the ban on the book were being discussed in those early copies of the Kingdom News tracts. Also the fact that the Finished Mystery contained a lot of information from Russell's pre-1917 writings made the FBI look into how the book was produced, and looked into the actual author of the offending parts, and whether some of the original Russell quotes would have made other Russell writings just as liable (as Russell writings were still being distributed). The FBI was also interested in whether the current 1918 meetings and assemblies themselves were still promoting similar statements to those which were found in the book.

I should mention that I am using the term FBI loosely, as the official communications of those handling the investigation includes those from among and between personnel in the Department of Justice who were not in the Bureau of Investigation, attorneys and officials outside the Department of Justice, and even the War Department.  But most of the communications I have read are from agents and officials of the Bureau of Investigation itself (under the Department of Justice). It was not officially referred to as the FBI.

As I get a chance, I might begin sharing some samples of the evidence that the FBI collected.

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There are so many pieces of evidence that I will not be presenting them in any particular order. If anyone is really interested in seeing where these pieces should be placed in a timeline, it would be good to review the order of events given in Watchtower articles above (and the Proclaimer's book, the 1975 Yearbook, "Faith on the March," "God's Kingdom Rules," etc.

Also, I have previously shared some of the pictures from the "Courage" exhibit up in Warwick on the forum:

They probably still available at the same link:


It includes a set of "slides" that highlight various events from 1918 to 1919 related to the ban on the book and related persecution and legal actions taken all over the country. Also note the timing of Kingdom News 1, 2, & 3 in the midst of this.

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spacer.pngThe "Chief" above is the same as "Mr. Bielaski" below. This was a few years before Hoover became the infamous chief of the Bureau.

Also note that there may seem to be some confusion about whether they were collecting evidence to make a case with the "Sedition Act" or the "Espionage Act." The original 1917 Espionage Act was too limited in what it covered, since it focused on activities that could fall under the more limited idea of "Espionage." Some clauses were added to it in 1918 so that a wider range of activities could be prosecuted. This wider range of activities would fall under what is sometimes called the "Sedition Act of 1918." It wasn't really a new "Act," just a way to make it easier to prosecute a wider range of activities, including speech against the war, speech that kept soldiers from wanting to fight, and speech that encouraged civilians to avoid military conscription.  Part of the reason for a confusion between the two terms might be because the full charges had not yet been defined while evidence was being gathered. But another reason is that even if the evidence was related to "sedition" the official name of the law was still the "Espionage Act" of 1917. Obviously, there was no Espionage in the sense of "spying" although spying itself is also associated with obstructing or sabotaging activities by persons who may have loyalties to another country, even if those persons are full citizens of the United States. (Persons with German last names were often looked at suspiciously, even if naturalized or US-born.)

There may be a tacit admission in the following that some attorneys, although acting as if they are in full agreement with the FBI that this book represents the worse kind of treasonable offenses, that they are also admitting that they need more evidence to make a strong enough case.



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Some of the following pieces of evidence will be harder to read, because a raid of various offices of the Watchtower only turned up the Carbon Copies of typewritten letters.

Here is one where Rutherford finds a piece of information that he thinks might be favorable to certain 'conscientious objectors' who make known their objection (application for exemption) immediately after being drafted.


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