Letter to Pastor Robert Vonderlack:
December 10, 1994
Pastor Robert Vonderlack
c/c Philip W. Comfort
Tyndale House Publishers
336 Gundersen Drive
Wheaton, Illinois 60189—0080
A friend of mine passed on to me a copy of WHO’S WHO IN CHRISTIAN HISTORY. I noted with interest your comments on Charles Taze Russell and Joseph Franklin Rutherford. Although raised and educated in the Baptist tradition, I have been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses for a number of years and hence my interest in your comments on Russell and Rutherford. It has been my experience that few that have authored material on Jehovah’s Witnesses have submitted fair, balanced and accurate accounts. Some critiques are simply restatements of previous, faulty critiques and so the errors take on a generational aspect.
With your permission, let me cite some differences that I have with your biographical sketches of Russell and Rutherford.
Regarding young Charles Taze Russell you wrote: "Reacting to his early training in the Congregational Church, he rejected the doctrine of eternal judgment and reliability of the Bible." For the record, Charles was raised a Presbyterian but changed to the Congregational Church. Later, when he was troubled by what appeared to him to be inconsistencies within conservative Protestantism, he wrote: "Gradually I was led to see that though each of the creeds contained some elements of truth, they were, on the whole, misleading and contradictory of God’s Word". Russell respected the Bible as reliable and divinely inspired. Indeed, in the April 1882 edition of the WATCH TOWER, page 7 Russell stated: "The Bible is our only standard, and its teachings our only creed, and recognizing the progressive character of the unfolding of Scriptural truths, we are ready and prepared to add to or modify our creed (faith-belief) as we get increase of light from our Standard." Even today, although you and I are witnessing factional fighting over the reliability of the Bible between liberals and conservatives within major church bodies, no such divisional infighting is found among the Witnesses who take the Bible to be reliable, divinely inspired and sacred.
If you are called upon to update this material, I would like to refer you to these more thorough-going sources: JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES - PROCLAIMERS OF GOD’S KINGDOM,1993, Publishers: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York; and the 1975 YEARBOOK OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES pp 34-79.
Turning to Rutherford you offered: "Rutherford was a descendant of a Baptist family in Morgan County, Missouri; and although he never studied law, he was given a license to practice law in 1892". Providing more dimension to this the 1975 YEARBOOK OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES on page 81 reported: "Joseph Rutherford paid his own way through school.. .While still in school, Joseph Rutherford became a court stenographer. This enabled him to finish paying for his course and also gave him practical experience. After completing his academy education, Rutherford spent two years under the tutelage of Judge E.L. Edwards. At twenty years of age, Joseph Rutherford became the official reporter for the courts of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit in Missouri. When twenty-two, he was admitted to the Missouri bar. His license to practice law in that state was granted on May 5, 1892, according to the records of the Cooper Circuit Court. Rutherford began practicing law at Boonville, Missouri, as a trial lawyer with the law firm of Draffen and Wright. J.F. Rutherford later served for four years as a public prosecutor in Boonville, Missouri."
Now one has to see that this fuller picture paints a decidedly different picture than your comments.
Next, you commented: "He [Rutherford] became the legal counsel of the Jehovah’s Witnesses society and Charles Taze Russell’s attorney in his divorce proceedings and his ‘miracle wheat’ scandal". There are a few problems with this oft repeated account of matters. Let us see what the data show.
The records show that in June 1903 Charles’ wife, Marie Frances Russell, filed in the Court of Common Pleas at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a suit for legal separation-- not divorce. Furthermore, on March 4, 1908 the decree of the court was that the two were legally separated--not divorced.
The ‘miracle wheat scandal’ which involved nearly $1800 now deserves our attention. Back in 1904 a Mr. K.B. Stoner, who was not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, discovered an unusual plant growing in his garden in Fincastle, Virginia. According to the records, the plant "had 142 stalks and each bore a head of fully matured wheat". Subsequently, Mr. Stoner dubbed this plant "miracle wheat". Others took to growing it and the plant won prizes at several fairs. Indeed, on November 23,1907, H.A. Miller, Assistant Agriculturist of the United States Government, filed with the Department of Agriculture a report commending this wheat grown by Mr. Stoner. Later, in 1911 WATCHTOWER readers J.A. Bohnet and Samuel J. Fleming gifted to the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society about 30 bushels of the wheat proposing that it be sold for one dollar per pound and that all the proceeds received by the Society be received as a donation towards it religious work. The gross receipts from "sales" amounted to about $1800. Russell made no profit from the "sales". Incidentally, the records will show that the Society, itself, made no claims about the wheat. When antagonists subsequently criticized Russell for this all who had contributed funds connected to the wheat were offered their monies back. Not one person asked for a refund. Not one. And yet this is called a "scandal". I would argue that what we read in the newspapers about clergy pedophilia, clergy adultery and clergy liberalism meets the definition of "scandalous". Would you agree? The criticism about Russell and "miracle wheat" is another one of those "generational errors", they get repeated and repeated never mind the facts.
Still with the spotlight on Rutherford, you added: "An outspoken personality, he was accused of violating the ‘Espionage Act’ in 1918 on the basis that his views were considered disloyal to his country. He served a term of imprisonment in 1918 and 1919 at Atlanta, Georgia". Here again the complete picture probably would generate a different impression than the one your comments would generate.
Here now is what actually transpired: On May 7, 1918, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued a warrant for the arrest of certain officials of our community. Targeted were J.F. Rutherford, W.E. Van Amburgh, Clayton J. Woodworth, George H. Fisher, F.H. Robison, A.H. Macmillian, R.J. Martin and Giovanni DeCecca. On May 8th, all eight were arrested. They were indicted for: "The offense of unlawfully, feloniously and willfully causing and attempting to cause insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States of America, in , through and by personal solicitation, letters, public speeches, distribution and general circulation throughout the United States of America of a certain book called VOLUME SEVEN-SCRIPTURE STUDIES - THE FINISHED MYSTERY...The offense of unlawfully, feloniously and willfully obstructing the recruiting and enlistment service of the United States when the United States was at war." Specifically one paragraph in the Witness publication was used as evidence for the indictment. That paragraph read: "Nowhere in the New Testament is Patriotism (a narrow-minded hatred of other peoples) encouraged. Everywhere and always murder in its every form is forbidden; and yet, under the guise of Patriotism the civil government of earth demand of peace-loving men the sacrifice of themselves and their loved ones and the butchery of their fellows, and hail it as a duty by the laws of heaven
All pleaded not guilty to the indictments. Interestingly, the book which generated the governmental action was completed before the United States got involved in the war and before the enactment of the Espionage Law. Notwithstanding these and other defenses on June 20, 1918 all of the accused were declared guilty and on the following day they were sentenced.
Eventually when once the general public had been informed of what had happened to these men, letters to release them came from legislators, mayors and other prominent persons. Then on March 2, 1919, the trial judge, Federal District Judge Harland B. Howe sent a telegram to Attorney General Gregory in Washington, D.C. recommending ‘immediate commutation’ of the sentence imposed on the eight imprisoned Christians. The case was heard on appeal on April 14, 1919. On May 14, 1919, their erroneous convictions were reversed. Judge Ward, who was one of the presiding judges, said: "The defendants in this case did not have the temperate and impartial trial to which they were entitled, and for that reason the judgment is reversed."
In the face of this, perhaps you can see why your sketches need to be modified to reflect the truth about these men. I am reminded of the words of Zechariah 8:16,17 (NIV):
"‘These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this’, declares the LORD".