From the January 1941 issue of Reader’s Digest, pages 78-81
Condensed from the November 1940 issue of The American Magazine
[The article contains some factual errors but is an interesting analysis from that era.]
Who are “Jehovah’s witnesses,” who have been beaten by American mobs for refusing to salute the flag?
By Jerome Beatty
Americans have been hearing of late about that hardy band of religious zealots known as “Jehovah’s witnesses.” In many parts of the country they have been jailed, or attacked by mobs and stoned out of town. Led by 70-year old Judge Joseph F. Rutherford, their militant and mysterious prophet, the witnesses have been denounced as fifth columnists, fascists, saboteurs. They stolidly refuse to salute the American or any other flag. They campaign against military training. Shouting, “Religion is a racket,” they attack bitterly the beliefs of Protestants, Jews and Catholics.
Such bellicose tactics have brought the witnesses into the limelight throughout the world. Germany has interned 6000 witnesses who wouldn’t “heil,” and the first conscientious objector executed by the Nazis was a witness. In Canada, where the organization has been outlawed, a magistrate recently sentenced two witnesses to six months in prison, and recommended that they be interned for the duration. Great Britain, however, exempts them from war duty.
In the United States a mob of 300 men besieged a meeting of 50 witnesses in Mooresville, Ind., shouting, “Salute the flag or you won’t leave the hall.” The mob blocked the exit until morning, when police rescued the terrified witnesses. More than 2000 men set fire to the witnesses’ Kingdom Hall in Kennebunk, Maine, dragged members from their beds and beat them in an effort to instill patriotism. Similar violence has occurred in other widely scattered parts of the country.
Seeking to find what is behind this strange organization, I attended many of their meetings and studied their publications. I find no justification for the accusation that they are Nazi propagandists. They abhor all earthly governments and respect only the “Theocratic Government of Jehovah.”
Rank-and-file members sincerely believe that Rutherford is leading them toward an exclusive heaven-on-earth. The practices causing public demonstrations against them spring from a blind faith in their leader rather than from subversive conspiracy. They refuse to salute the flag because, to the judge, a flag is a graven image, and the Bible says, “Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto any graven images.”
The judge insists that Jehovah’s witnesses have existed for 5000 years and cites Biblical mention of them. More conservative accounts record that the society was founded by Pastor Charles T. Russell of Pittsburgh about 1876 as the International Bible Students Association. In 1910 Russell predicted that Christ would return in 1914 and end the rule of imperfect men. Witnesses have twisted his prophecy and say he foresaw the World War.
Taking charge upon Russell’s death in 1916, Rutherford declared Christ had come as predicted, but that he was invisible; that what Russell really meant was that in 1914 the Kingdom of God would begin to assume control of the world. In 1920 Rutherford predicted that Abraham, Isaac and other prophets would return in five years. Now he gives no dates but says that Judgment Day is coming “very soon.” To house the returning prophets, the organization has built a magnificent $75,000 Spanish home in San Diego, California. The judge has landscaped the grounds with date and palm trees, “so,” he says, “these princes of the universe will feel at home.” Meanwhile, the judge and his wife occupy the mansion.
There are about 45,000 active witnesses in the United States. They have some 200,000 followers here and probably 1,000,000 more throughout the world, including thousands of natives in South Africa. They have baptismal ceremonies but, they say, no membership roll. One becomes a witness simply by agreeing to do the will of God, as interpreted by Judge Rutherford.
The judge avoids personal publicity and appears publicly only when trying a case before the Supreme Court or addressing conventions of witnesses. He is six feet tall, paunchy, devoted to wing collars and black bow ties. His organization gives out no facts except his age, that he is married and has a son. The mystery which surrounds his private life helps make his followers think he is not quite of this world.
It is known that Rutherford, the son of a farmer, practiced law in Boonville, Missouri. His opponents say he adopted his title after serving as a temporary judge for four days in a county circuit court. He joined Pastor Russell’s legal staff in 1909. His success before the U.S. Supreme Court indicates he is a good lawyer. He is a first-class organizer and an appealing orator, and he has succeeded in developing one of America’s biggest and strangest businesses.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., the witnesses own a seven-story apartment house and an eight-story printing plant, together worth more than $1,000,000. The 150 witnesses who work in the publishing house for $10 a month live and east free in the apartment building, where they must rise at 6:30 a.m. and retire at 10:30 p.m. The printing plant can produce 20,000 bound books and 150,000 booklets daily. An assembly plant has turned out 40,000 portable phonographs and equipment for 1000 sound cars now used to spread the word. A busy shipping room sends out publications in 80 languages.
By 1927 Rutherford had stopped selling Russell’s books and thereafter made no mention of the founder, whom he once described as “the greatest man since the Apostle Paul.” All the literature was Judge Rutherford’s and he changed the name from “International Bible Students” to “Jehovah’s witnesses.” Some of his 15 books have passed the 2,500,000 mark. Door-to-door canvassers, who are called “publishers,” distribute 11,000,000 booklets and 1,500,000 books a year—five cents for a pamphlet, 25 cents for a book, and $1 for a subscription to The Watchtower. They also sell Bibles and calendars. Witnesses claim they have distributed to date at least 300,000,000 books and pamphlets. They sell about 150,000 phonograph records of Judge Rutherford’s lectures a year, for 70 cents each.
The society owns radio station WBBR in Brooklyn, where its orchestra and singers entertain between recorded lectures by Judge Rutherford. Once he had a nation-wide hookup of 53 stations at a reputed cost of $50,000 per week, but his attacks on religion brought so many complaints that the stations cut him off.
In Port Chester, N.Y., I attended a salesmen’s weekly pep meeting on the second floor of a shabby building. I was welcomed by the “advertising servant” who has charge of literature. In secular life he is a postman. Wall charts showed how far behind were the Port Chester publishers on their quotas. The lesson sheet urged witnesses to “make this the biggest booklet month yet.” The leader ended by insisting that they’d all have to work harder “to put aside all obstacles that are in the way of complete devotion to Jehovah.” The witnesses nodded, and the sales meeting ended with a prayer.
Rutherford makes public no financial report. He says that all income is used to spread the word. The society’s legal expenses for defense of witnesses are large, members say. All attempts to hinder them have been successfully fought. With two notable exceptions: The Supreme Court recently decreed that schools may expel children who refuse to salute the flag, and in 1918 Rutherford and six associates were sentenced to Atlanta Penitentiary for obstructing recruiting.
Witnesses’ regular Sunday-night services are devoted to a study of Rutherford’s writings. The leader reads a question, witnesses recite the answer.
“What do the demons do?” the servant (leader) asks.
An old lady in a shapeless dress raises her hand: “They use religion to debauch the human race.”
Given new prominence by such praise, the old lady sits up, bright-eyed and proud.
“What will become of the haughty know-it-alls?”
A shabby man of about 55 triumphantly shouts, “They will be destroyed at Armageddon! The meek shall inherit the earth!” He throws back his shoulders self-confidently.
At these meetings I saw laborers with worn faces, middle-aged women with sagging cheeks and earnest eyes, and a few young people, poorly dressed. Most of the witnesses were obviously longing for contentment, rest, security. Some are defeated and helpless, ask desperately for no more than enough to satisfy their hunger, shoes with no holes in them, a roof that doesn’t leak. Hating all political leaders, the witnesses find in Rutherford a lift that helps them bear their misery.
Instead of letting them stay home and rest, grim old Judge Rutherford exhorts them along the endless march “to the battlefield of Armageddon.” A cornerstone of the organization is his slogan, “Millions now living will never die.” Witnesses assured me that soon Christ will establish Jehovah’s Kingdom on earth after the Battle of Armageddon, when all but Jehovah’s witnesses will be destroyed by fire, pestilence, flood and sword. The witnesses who have died will join King David and the other princes in returning to earth in the flesh. But police who arrest the witnesses, mobs who attack them, men and women who refuse to buy Rutherford’s literature—all those “goats” will be destroyed. The “sheep” shall inherit the earth and have the happiness, the warm clothing, good food and comfortable homes that the witnesses so desperately long for.