Revisionism About the Governing Body

Posted by Tom on January 23, 1999 at 22:09:37

The concept of a Christian "governing body" as taught by the Witnesses today holds that the first century Christians were governed not by a president or pope, but by a collective body of equal voices composed of the Apostles and older men in Jerusalem. (See for example The Watchtower, November 15, 1971 and December 15, 1971.) In keeping with this idea, it is understood that the various corporations which the original Bible Students and later the Jehovah's Witnesses have formed are solely for the purpose of obtaining legal status and lawfully conducting business. The corporations themselves do not exercise control over the Christian brotherhood, and are in fact, just legal tools at the disposal of the governing body. The Society has on a number of occasions, presented the idea that the Governing Body arrangement has existed from its very earliest days. One of the most recent of these statements appears in the February 1, 1999 issue of The Watchtower, page 17:

"To give the Bible Students legal status, Zion's Watch Tower Society was incorporated in 1884 in the United States, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Its directors served as a central Governing Body, overseeing the global preaching of God's Kingdom."

However this and similar claims that have been made in the last few years are not true. They are pure revisionism. The concept of direction through a collective body was an idea entirely alien to the organization for almost its first ninety years. To prove this, first note what C. T. Russell himself, in the April 25, 1894 issue of Zion's Watch Tower had said:

"Having up to December 1, 1893, thirty-seven hundred and five (3,705) voting shares out of a total of sixty-three hundred and eighty-three (6,383) voting shares, Sister Russell and myself, of course elect the officers, and thus control the Society; and this was fully understood by the Directors from the first. Their usefulness, it was understood, would come to the front in the event of our death." (p. 59)

Since in Russell's own words, the utility of the Directors would come to the fore only in the event of his death, it can clearly be seen that Russell did not view them as a governing body along with himself. Russell was a man in complete control of the corporations.

In support of this fact, the March 1, 1923 issue of The Watch Tower said on page 68:

"We believe that all who are now rejoicing in present truth will concede that Brother Russell faithfully filled the office of special servant of the Lord; and that he was made ruler over all the Lord's goods... Often when asked by others, Who is that faithful and wise servant? -- Brother Russell would reply: "Some say I am; while others would say the Society is." Both statements were true; for Brother Russell was in fact the Society in a most absolute sense, in this, that he directed the policy and course of the Society without regard to any other person on earth. He sometimes sought advice of others connected with the Society, listened to their suggestions, and then did according to his own judgment, believing that the Lord would have him thus do."

Since one person who directs "without regard to any other person on earth" cannot be an equal voice in a collective body, the facts show that contrary to what the February Watchtower states, there was not even a semblance of a governing body at least up to 1916. (The year of Russell's death.) For better or for worse, the organization was completely controlled by one individual.

Following Russell's death, Joseph F. Rutherford was elected president at the annual corporation meeting in January of 1917. Early in his presidency, a power struggle erupted over how the organization would be run. This involved Rutherford and four of the seven Directors whom Russell had appointed (A. I. Ritchie, R. H. Hirsh, I. F. Hoskins, and J. D. Wright). Alexander H. Macmillan, who was an eyewitness to these events, summarized the attitude of these four directors like this:

"It isn't good for Rutherford to control the management of the Society's affairs. We'll inform him that he can be the president; that is, he'll just be a figurehead. He will go out on the road under our direction to lecture but, as a board of directors, we will manage the Society, direct its policies and look after all its affairs." (Faith on the March, p. 77)

Rutherford could have (if he had believed in the concept of a "Governing Body") acknowledged the objections of the majority of the Board and sought to make amends, because in point of fact, he had not recognized the Board of Directors and worked with it as a body. Instead, he had unilaterally taken actions, made decisions, allocated funds, assigned projects, and informed the board only afterwards of what he had done. As Marley Cole clearly put it:

"Four directors wanted a reorganization. In the first place, they wanted whatever Rutherford did to be subject to the Board's approval [...] As things stood, the president was the administration. He was not consulting them. He was letting them know what he was doing only after it was done." (Jehovah's Witness: The New World Society, p. 87)

For example, Rutherford decided to publish a book entitled The Finished Mystery and present it as the posthumous work of Russell. Not only had he not consulted with the Directors about the writing of this book, they did not even know it was being published until the same day that Rutherford released it to the Bethel family on July 17, 1917. Further, after having previously consulted with, in Macmillan's words, "a prominent corporation lawyer in Philadelphia," Rutherford by presidential fiat had dismissed these four directors on that same day, replacing them with men who were more agreeable to his views (A. H. Macmillan, W. E. Spill, J. A. Bohnet, and G. H. Fisher). In the pamphlet war that ensued following their dismissal, Rutherford's claim was that he was exercising rights granted to him under the People's Pulpit Association charter which gave the president "the general supervision and control and management of the business and affairs of said corporation." (Harvest Siftings, part I, p. 20)

The 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses on pages 91 and 92 gives what has become the standard explanation for Rutherford's action:

"C. T. Russell had appointed those men as directors, but the Society's charter required that directors be elected by vote of the shareholders. Rutherford had told Russell that appointees had to be confirmed by vote at the following annual meeting, but Russell never took that step. So, only the officers who had been elected at the Pittsburgh annual meeting were duly constituted board members. The four appointees were not legal members of the board. Rutherford knew this throughout the period of trouble, but had not mentioned it, hoping that these board members would discontinue their opposition. However, their attitude showed they were not qualified to be directors. Rightly Rutherford dismissed them and appointed four new board members whose appointment could be confirmed at the next general corporation meeting, early in 1918."

It can be seen therefore that the entire concept of a collective Governing Body was completely rejected during the Rutherford presidency. Rutherford, like Russell before him, was a man in complete control over the organization and in point of fact, the corporate charter made it this way by allowing the President virtually unrestricted freedom. Further, the idea presented in the 1975 Yearbook, that fellow members of a Christian Governing Body can be dismissed based upon the legality of their status as Directors of a corporation that ostensibly is simply a legal instrument at the disposal of this body is absurd unless one truly believes that it is American corporate law and not the Bible that defines the makeup and procedure of such a body.

In 1942 J. F. Rutherford died and was replaced by Nathan H. Knorr. Rutherford's final days are described in the 1961 book Let Your Name Be Sanctified on pages 335, 336:

"Rutherford was abed on the Pacific Coast when the United States of America was plunged into World War II Sunday, December 7, 1941. Two men of the anointed remnant (one since 1913 and one since 1922) and one of the "other sheep" (since 1934) were summoned from Brooklyn headquarters out to Rutherford's bedside at the home called "Beth-Sarim," San Diego, California. On December 24, 1941, he gave these three his final instructions [...] As viewed from our present time, it appears that there the Elijah work passed, to be succeeded by the Elisha work. It was as when Elijah and Elisha had crossed the Jordan River by means of a dividing of the waters to the east shore and were walking along, awaiting the removal of Elijah."

This description of the passing on of the "mantle of authority" from the dying Rutherford with terms and prophetic parallels like these seems almost humorous in light of more recent claims that existence of a governing body extended through the Rutherford presidency clear back to Russell's time. Commenting on the fact that N. H. Knorr, the new president of the Society, continued to exercise virtually unrestricted freedom Marley Cole states:

"That the president of the Society thereafter continued to exercise such unrestricted freedom may be seen by the following account of N. H. Knorr's actions in relation to bringing forth a new Bible translation." (Jehovah's Witness: The New World Society, p. 88)

As proof of this, Cole went on to quote the September 15, 1950 issue of The Watchtower, pages 315 and 316, which recount the presentation of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures to the Directors:

"Particularly since 1946 the president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society has been in quest of such a translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. On September 3, 1949, at 8 a.m., at the Brooklyn headquarters (Bethel) the Society's president convened a joint meeting of the boards of directors of the Pennsylvania and New York corporations, only one director being absent. After the meeting was opened with prayer the president announced to these eight fellow directors the existence of a "New World Bible Translation Committee" and that it had completed a translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures."

With the exception of the Photo Drama of Creation, The New World Translation was quite probably the largest project the organization had yet undertaken, yet as this excerpt from The Watchtower shows, Knorr, like Rutherford before him, had 'let the board know what he was doing only after it was done'. The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, like The Finished Mystery, had been completed and was ready for printing by the time the board was informed of it. The Governing Body, as the idea is understood today, did not exist until the corporate reorganization of 1976, this in spite of the fact that the concept itself was being taught for a few of years prior to this. Up until this point, control over the corporations translated into control over the Society itself and administrative control over the corporations had rested exclusively with the president. Therefore, the organization for almost its first ninety years has been a monarchical arrangement. There was no "Governing Body". Claims to the contrary are simply untrue and dishonest.