Hello, my name is Meleti Vivlon. And this is the third in our series of videos into the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses presented by Professor of History, James Penton. Now, if you’re not aware of who he is, he is the author of some well-known tomes into the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses, foremost of which is Apocalypse Delayed, the story of Jehovah’s Witnesses now in its third edition, a scholarly work, well researched and well worth the read. More recently, Jim has come up with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Third Reich. Jehovah’s Witnesses often use the history of the Germans, German witnesses who suffered under Hitler as a way of bolstering their image. But the reality, the history that actually happened, and what really went on during that time, is not quite the way they would like us to think it is. So that’s also a very interesting book to read.

However, today we’re not going to be discussing those things. Today, we’re going to be discussing the presidency of Nathan Knorr and Fred Franz. When Rutherford died in the mid 1940s, Nathan Knorr took over and things changed. A number of things changed, for example, the disfellowshipping process came into being. That wasn’t under Judge  Rutherford. An era of moral strictness was also imposed by Knorr. Under Franz, as a chief theologian, we had even more failed prophecies than under Rutherford. We had the constant reevaluation of what the generation is, and we had 1975. And I think it’s safe to say that the seeds for the current cult-like state that the organization is in were sown in those years. Well, there’s much more than that. And I’m not going to get into it because that’s why Jim is going to be talking. So without further ado, I present to you, James Penton.

Hello, friends. Today, I want to talk to you about another aspect of the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses, something that isn’t generally known by the general public. I want to deal in particular with the history of that movement since 1942. Because it was in January 1942 that Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford, the second president of the Watchtower Society and the man who controlled Jehovah’s Witnesses, died. And he was replaced by the third president of the Watchtower Society, Nathan Homer, Knorr. But Knorr was only one person in the governance of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the period of time that I want to talk to you about.

First of all, however, I should say something about Knorr. What was he like?

Well, Knorr was an individual who in some ways was much more tactful than was Judge Rutherford, and he lowered the attacks on other entities such as religion and politics and commerce.  

But he maintained a certain degree of animosity towards religion, that is- other religions and politics. But he lowered in particular the attacks on commerce because the man apparently had always wanted to be a person in the economic system of America, had it not been for the fact that he was the leader of a religious organization. In some ways, he was a much better president than Rutherford. He was much more skillful in organizing the movement known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

He, as I’ve said, lowered the attacks on other entities in society and he had certain abilities.

The most important ones were number one, the creation of a Missionary School, the Missionary School of Gilead in upstate New York. And in the second place, he was the man who organized the great conventions that Jehovah’s Witnesses were to hold. From 1946 after the war, the Second World War had ended, and on into the 1950s, these great conventions were held in places like Cleveland, Ohio, and Nuremberg, Germany, and the one in Nuremberg, Germany, was particularly important to Jehovah’s Witnesses because of course, it was the place that Hitler had used for making all of his declarations about Germany and about what his government was about to do in getting rid of anyone who opposed him and getting rid in particular of the Jewish people in Europe.

And the witnesses, Jehovah’s Witnesses, were about the only organized religion in Germany that stood up to Adolf Hitler. And this they did, despite the fact that the second president of the Watchtower Society had tried to ingratiate the witnesses with the Nazis. And when the Nazis wouldn’t have it, they went all out in exposing Nazism and taking a stand against Nazism. And one of the most positive things about Jehovah’s Witnesses was that they did take this stand against Nazism. And because most of them were ordinary Germans or members of other societies, ethnic societies, they were not subject to racial hatred on the part of the Nazis.

And for that reason, in the latter part of World War II many of them were released from the concentration camps to do civilian work in aid of the Nazi government or in aid of the people of Germany. They wouldn’t, of course, work in military places, nor would they work in factories for the development of arms, bombs, and shells and whatever.

So they were outstanding because they were the only people in the concentration camps who could have gotten out by simply signing a statement and denying their religion, and going out into the larger society. A small number did, but most of them took a strong stand against Nazism. This was to their credit. But what Rutherford had done was certainly not to their credit. And it is interesting to note that he had changed the doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the early 1930s to deny that the movement of Jews into Palestine, as it was then, was part of the divine plan. He had changed that. Denied it. And of course, from that time on, there was a certain degree of anti-Semitism among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, some of the witnesses preached to Jews in the camps, the concentration camps and the death camps.

And if the Jews in those camps became converts to Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were accepted and liked, and it is true that there was no real racism among Jehovah’s Witnesses. But if the Jews rejected their message and remained faithful Jews to the end, then the witnesses tended to be negative towards them. And in America, there was an example of prejudice against most of the Jews, particularly in New York, where there were large Jewish communities. And Knorr followed up with Russell’s beliefs in the 1940s and in the publication of a work called Let God Be True. The Watchtower Society published a statement saying, in effect, that the Jews had really brought persecution on themselves, which was not really true, certainly not for the general public of Jewish people in Germany, Poland and other areas. It was a terrible thing.

Door to door is blessed by God, even though there was no biblical commandment for this at the time or since. Now then, what were the negatives of the third president of the Watchtower Society, Nathan Knorr. Well, he was an austere man. He came from a Dutch Calvinist background before he was converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he had acted as a sycophant when Rutherford was alive.

Sometimes Rutherford would chastise him publicly.

And he didn’t like this, but when he became the president of the Watchtower Society, he did exactly what Rutherford had done to certain witnesses who would not obey every order from him at the headquarters of the organization. He really was very severe with people, except in large measure from the missionaries that were trained in his missionary school, the School of Gilead. These were his friends, but everyone otherwise had to stand to attention when he demanded that they do something. He was a hard man. 

He was single as long as Rutherford was alive, and for some time after. He did marry, which showed he had a normal sex drive although some suspected that he also had homosexual feelings as well. The reason for seeing this was that he developed what were called “new boys talks” at the headquarters of the Watchtower Society in Brooklyn, New York. And he would often describe homosexual relations, which occasionally took place at the headquarters of the Watchtower Society in very vivid ways. These were called the new boys talks, but later on they came to be not just new boys talks. They came to be new boys and new girls talks.

And there are occasions, apparently, where the persons listening to his talks were terribly embarrassed. And there is at least one case of a young woman fainting as a result of his talks on homosexuality. And he had a strong tendency to attack homosexuals and homosexuality, which may indicate that he had homosexual feelings himself because the ordinary person simply does not make himself aware of his feelings in that way. And whether he is heterosexual and doesn’t like homosexuality or not, he doesn’t talk about it in the way that Knorr did and he didn’t oppose it in such outrageous ways.

Now, he also was incredibly severe with anyone who did not accept his brand of morality. And in 1952 a series of articles came out in the Watchtower magazine which changed the situation from what it had been under Russell and Rutherford.

What was that? Well Rutherford had taught that the higher powers mentioned in the King James Bible at Romans Chapter 13 were Jehovah God and Christ Jesus, not the secular authorities, which practically everybody else had held it to be the case and which Jehovah’s Witnesses now hold to be the case. But from 1929 until the mid1960s, the Watchtower Society taught that the higher powers of Romans 13 were Jehovah, God and Christ Jesus. Now this had allowed Jehovah’s Witnesses to violate a great many laws because they felt that the secular authorities were not to be obeyed if they chose to disobey them.

I remember as a boy, family members and others smuggling items from the United States into Canada and denying that they had anything to report to the customs authorities. I was also told by one of the secretary treasurers of the Watchtower Society that during prohibition in the United States, there was a great deal of rum running from Toronto down to Brooklyn and the carrying of alcoholic beverages into the United States, in violation of American law.

And of course, there was a great deal of drinking at Bethel, the headquarters of Watchtower Society in New York during Rutherford’s Presidency.

But in 1952, despite this holding of Romans, Chapter 13, Knorr decided to legislate a whole new system of morality for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, it is true that the witnesses tended to use the Romans 13 interpretation by Rutherford for all sorts of things that were quite improper. I remember as a young man in Arizona, after I had gone from Canada to Arizona in the late 1940s, I remember hearing about a number of pioneer witnesses who were caught coming into the United States with drugs.

And these pioneers were, of course, arrested and charged under the law for bringing illegal drugs into the United States. I also was very much aware that there was a lot of sexual immorality at the time and that a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses entered into what we would often call common law marriages without having their marriages solemnized. Now Knorr turned on all of this and began to demand a high degree of sexual morality, which goes back to the 19th century to Victorianism. And it was very severe and created tremendous hardship for a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the first place, if you weren’t married in a secular court or by a clergyman, you could be disfellowshipped. Also, if you had more than one wife, as many Africans did, and certain people had mistresses in Latin America, If you didn’t give up every woman, if you were married, except the first one to whom you were married, you were automatically driven out of the organization.

Now, curiously, many people may not realize this, but there is no statement in the New Testament which says that polygamy in itself is wrong. Now, monogamy certainly was the ideal and Jesus stressed this, but not with any sense of legalism. What is clear in the New Testament is that no one could be an elder or a deacon, that is a ministerial servant, with more than one wife.

That’s clear. But in foreign lands such as Africa and India, there were many cases where people became converts to Jehovah’s Witnesses and they had been living in polygamous relationships and suddenly they had to give up all of their wives except the first one. Now, in many cases, this was a terrible thing because the women were cast out, the second wives or third wives were cast out with no support at all, and life was terrible for them at that extent. Some Bible student movements who had broken away from Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, recognized the situation and said, look, if you can, if you convert to our teachings, you must know that you could never be an elder or a deacon in a congregation.

But we’re not going to force you to give up your second wives because there is no specific statement in the New Testament which denies the possibility of having a second wife. If, that is, you come in from another background, another religion such as African religions or Hinduism or whatever it may be, and Knorr, of course, had no tolerance for this.

He also went on to stress the importance of sexual purity and condemnation of masturbation either by a male or a female.

Now the Bible does not say anything about masturbation and therefore to enforce laws like some other religions have done, tended to be very hurtful, particularly to young people. I remember as a boy reading a pamphlet put out by the Seventh Day Adventists, which was severe in its condemnation of masturbation. I was a small boy at the time, I think I must have been about eleven years old. And for months afterwards, when going to the restroom or to the toilet, I was so frightened of their teachings that I wouldn’t touch my genitalia in any way. Much harm has been done by the constant harping about sexual purity, which has nothing to do with the Bible. Onanism, which is used as a basis for some of this, has nothing to do with masturbation. Now, I’m not promoting masturbation in any way. I’m simply saying that we don’t have a right to legislate for others what is pure in personal lives nor in the lives of married couples.

Now Nathan Knorr also insisted on legalized marriage. And if you weren’t married, according to law, in any country where this was legal, in some areas of the world, of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses couldn’t marry under the law and therefore some liberalism was extended to them. But they must be married according to the Watchtower Society and receive a seal in effect, that if they had an opportunity to marry in another place, then they would have to do that.

Much of this caused tremendous hardship and it caused the disfellowshipping of great numbers of people. Now let’s take a look at disfellowshipment or ex-communication as it occurred under Knorr. It had existed under Rutherford, but only for those who personally opposed him or his teachings. Otherwise, he didn’t interfere with the ordinary lives of people, often as he should have done. The man himself had his own sins, and that was perhaps why he didn’t. Knorr didn’t have those sins, and therefore he became self-righteous in the extreme. And besides that, he was to set up a system of judicial committees, which were really inquisitional committees which were simply led by watchtower appointed men. Now these committees were brought in for a particular reason above and beyond the whole question of sexual morality. What was that?

Well, in the late 1930s, the former legal director of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society had raised questions in a personal letter to Rutherford about his running of the organization, which this man felt, and quite rightly so, was wrong. He disliked the extreme use of alcohol at the headquarters of the Watchtower Society. He disliked. Rutherford’s favoritism of certain persons, male and female, and he disliked Rutherford’s

custom of embarrassing and attacking people at the breakfast table when someone had done something that fell afoul of his wishes.

In effect, he even went after the man who was the editor of the Golden Age magazine, which was the forefather of the Awake magazine, and he referred to this man as a jackass, to which this man, Clayton Woodworth, replied.

Oh, yes, Brother Rutherford, I guess I am a jackass.”

This was over a Jehovah’s Witness calendar that he had created and published in the Golden Age. And to his statement, I am a jackass! Rutherford then replied,

I’m tired of you saying that you are a jackass. So Rutherford was a crude individual, to say the least. Knorr didn’t exhibit that sort of attitude.

But Knorr went along with Rutherford in driving this man, not only from the headquarters of the Watchtower Society, but also from Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was a man by the name of Moil. Because he was attacked later in the Watchtower Society’s publications, he took the society to court and in 1944 after Knorr had become president. He won a suit against the Watchtower Society.

And was first awarded some thirty thousand dollars damages, which was a great amount in 1944, although it was later reduced by another court to fifteen thousand, but fifteen thousand was still a lot of money. And besides that, court costs went to the Watchtower Society, which they meekly accepted.

They knew they couldn’t get away with it.

As a result of this, Knorr, with the assistance of the man who was for a time Vise president and was the legal representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a man by the name of Covington, created these judicial committees. Now, why was this important? Why have judicial committees? Now, there is no basis biblically for such a thing. Nor was there any basis. In ancient times, when elders decided cases at law, they did so openly at the gates of particular cities where everybody could see them. And there is no reference to any such thing in the New Testament or the Greek scriptures where whole congregations were to hear charges against someone if it was necessary. In other words, there were no secret cases to be had and there were no secret cases in the movement of Jehovah’s Witnesses until Knorr’s Day. But it was probably Covington, and I say probably it was Covington who was responsible for setting these entities up. Now, why were they so important? Well because of the doctrine of separation of church and state in the United States and similar provisos in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and so forth, under the British common law, the secular authorities would not attempt to rule on the actions of religious organizations, except in two basic cases. Number one, if a religious organization violated its own legal stance, its own rules for what was going on in the religion, or if there were financial matters that had to be discussed then and then only would the secular authorities, particularly in the United States interfere in religious activities. Ordinarily in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, wherever the British common law existed, and in the United States, of course, there was the First Amendment, the secular authorities would not involve themselves in disputes between persons who were disfellowshipped or ex-communicated and any other religious organizations such as the Watchtower.

Now, the judicial committees that were set up were judicial committees which did their business behind closed doors and often without any witnesses or without any records, written records of what went on.

In effect, these judicial committees of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for which Knorr and Covington were probably responsible, certainly Knorr was and probably Covington were nothing short of inquisitorial committees based on the records of the Spanish Inquisitions and the Church of Rome, which had the same sort of systems.

Now what this meant was that if you fell afoul of the leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses or you fell afoul of local representatives of the Watchtower Society or their circuit and district overseers, you virtually had no recourse to justice, and for a long time there were no cases where there were any appeals to anybody.


One man, however, here in Canada, did manage to get a hearing above and beyond the decision of a judicial committee.

But that was a rare case because there was no appeal. Now there is an appeal today among Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it’s a rather meaningless appeal in 99 percent of the cases. This was set up by Knorr and Covington. Now Covington was a very interesting figure and along with Glenn Howe in Canada, these two lawyers were responsible for something that was outside of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be very positive.

Then in the United States, Jehovah’s Witnesses were to fight many cases before the Supreme Court of the United States to permit them to carry on their work and to escape the oppressive legislation of forcing schoolchildren to salute the American flag.

In Canada, the same thing happened as a result of the activities of a young lawyer by the name of Glenn Howe.

And in both countries, tremendous steps were taken in the direction of civil liberties in the United States.

It was through an act of Jehovah’s Witnesses led by Hayden Covington that the 14th Amendment was declared important in matters involving religious freedom in Canada.

The activities of Howe were very important in bringing about the enactment of the Bill of Rights and later the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. So no religious organization has done so much, and so positively as Jehovah’s Witnesses in the area of civil liberties in the larger society and they deserve credit for this, but the fact of the matter is that the idea of religious freedom or even the freedom to criticize or question anything that goes on with on within the Watchtower Society is forbidden. And the Watchtower Society is much more severe in the modern world in dealing with people who are heretics or apostates, so to speak than the Catholic and great Protestant churches. So, it’s a curious thing outside and in the larger society Jehovah’s Witnesses were very positive in establishing freedom for themselves, but this was freedom to do what they wanted.

But no one within the community itself was to be able to question anything they did.

The third person who was important under Nathan Knorr was Fred Franz.

Now, Fred Franz was an amazing little man in some ways. He had a great flair for languages. He took some three years in a Presbyterian seminary before converting to the Bible students later to become Jehovah’s Witnesses.

He was a staunch supporter of Rutherford, and much of the doctrine that was developed under Rutherford came from Fred Franz. And that was certainly true under Nathan Knorr. Nathan Knorr made all of the publications of the Watchtower Society anonymous, probably because he was no writer, and although most of the works were done by Fred Franz, Knorr was the administrative leader, while Fred Franz was the doctrinal figure,

very strange little man. And someone who acted in very strange ways. He could speak Spanish. He could speak Portuguese, speak French. He knew Latin. He knew Greek. And he certainly knew German. Probably from his youth. Now, it didn’t matter when he spoke, or in what language he spoke, the cadence of his speech was exactly the same in every language. Funny little fellow who made remarks which were often quite wild. I remember being at a convention in 1950. I was very young. It was at the time that the woman who was to become my wife was sitting in front of me and sitting with another fellow, and I had a bit of jealousy as a result and decided to pursue her after that. And ultimately, I won. I got her.

But that was when Fred Franz gave a talk on the higher powers.  

Now, the fact is that prior to this talk, it was generally believed that the Ancient Worthy’s, that’s what they were called, all the men that were faithful to Jehovah from the New Testament from the son of Adam, Abel, to John the Baptist, would be resurrected in the last days, who were to govern the other sheep, though, that is, persons who were to go through the battle of Armageddon into the millennium were to be governed by these ancient Worthy’s. And at every convention, the witnesses were waiting to see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob resurrected. And interestingly, Rutherford, of course, had built Beth Sarim in California, which was to house these ancient Worthy’s before the end of the present system of things when they were resurrected to be prepared to go into the millennium.

Well, Freddy Franz said, you may be sitting here, this was at this 1950’s convention, you may be here and you may see the princes who are to rule in the millennium in the new world.

And he shouted this and the convention roared because people wanted to see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob come out on the platform with Freddy.

Well, the fact of the matter was that Freddy then brought in the so-called new light of Jehovah’s Witnesses as they are always bringing it in, even though they may have to reverse it twenty years down the down the pike.

And that was the idea that the persons who were appointed by the Watchtower societies in particular affairs and were not of the heavenly class, which was to go to heaven and be with Christ, were to be here on earth during the thousand-year reign of Christ over the Earth.

And they were to be the princes, along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all of the rest. So that was the sort of thing we got from Freddy. And Freddy was always using types and anti-types, some of which were far-fetched, to say the least. Interestingly, in the last decade, the Watchtower has come out and said they will no longer use types and anti- types unless they’re specifically laid out in the Bible. But in those days, Fred Franz could use the idea of biblical types to come up with almost any kind of doctrine or religion, but particularly on the last days of mankind. They were a strange group of people.

And while Covington and Glenn Howe in Canada really did make positive contributions to the larger societies in which they lived, neither Knorr nor Franz were really significant in this. Now in the period of the early 1970s, a strange thing happened. And a number of men were appointed to develop a small work which turned out to be a large work on biblical affairs. In effect, a biblical dictionary. The person who was to lead this was Freddy Franz’s nephew.

Another Franz, Raymond Franz, now Raymond had been a very important figure in Puerto Rico and in the Dominican Republic as a missionary. He was a loyal Jehovah’s Witness.

But when he and a number of others began to study and to prepare a book. which was called Aid to Bible Understanding, they began to see things in a new light.

And they suggested that the organization should not be ruled by a singular individual. But they came up with the idea of a collective unit, a governing body of men.

And they use as the model for this the Jerusalem congregation. Now, Freddie objected strenuously to this. I think he was right for the wrong reasons.

Fred Franz was to say, look, there never was a governing body in the early church.

The apostles were spread out eventually, and in any case, when the circumcision issue came before the church, it was the apostle Paul and Barnabas who came up from Antioch to Jerusalem, who presented what became basic Christian doctrine.

And the doctrine was not emanated from the church in Jerusalem. It was accepted by them.

And then they stated, we feel we’ve been moved by the Holy Spirit to agree with what the Apostle Paul had argued. So the idea of a governing body was way off base and Freddy Franz said this, but he said it because he wanted to continue the governance of the Watchtower Society and Jehovah’s Witnesses by the president of the Watchtower, not because he was any liberal.

Now, this occurred in the early 1970s, as I’ve mentioned, 1971 and 1972 and for a brief period, from about 1972 to 1975 there was a good deal of liberalizing in the witness organization and the local governments were able to really govern the congregations with little interference by officers from the Watchtower society such as circuit and district overseers who were treated as simply other elders.

The elder system was restored that had been done away with by Rutherford, although in this case they were not chosen by the local congregations, they were chosen by the Watchtower Society.

But during that period, from 1972 to 1973, the Watchtower Society reduced the importance of preaching from door to door by saying that shepherding work within the congregations, in other words, the visitation by elders and caring for the lame, the deaf and the blind was an important factor.

But Freddy Franz had come up earlier with the idea that the year 1975 might mark the end of the present system of things, the present world.

And the Watchtower Society published many articles in the Watchtower and the Awake, which indicated that they thought that this probably would happen. They didn’t say certainly, but they said probably. And the organization began to grow very fast during the period from 1966 to 1975.

But then in 1975—failure.

There was no end of the present system, and once again, the Watchtower Society and Jehovah’s Witnesses had become false prophets, and great numbers left the organization, but in fear of what had happened the governing body then established what went into the motion of turning the clock back, doing away with all of the liberal activities that had occurred during the period 1972 to 1975 and the severity of the organization increased greatly. Many left and some began to take steps to oppose the teachings of the Watchtower Society.

And of course Nathan Knorr died of cancer in 1977.  And Fred Franz became the fourth President of the Watchtower Society and the society’s oracle.

Although he was becoming quite elderly and eventually quite unable to function meaningfully, he remained kind of an icon in the organization until his ultimate death. In the meantime, the governing body, which Knorr had largely named was a conservative body, except for a couple persons, including Raymond friends. And this ultimately resulted in the expulsion of Raymond Franz and the creating really a very reactionary movement that continued on after 1977 under Fred Franz and the governing body. Growth was renewed in the 1980s and some growth continued in the 1990s and into the 20th century.

But another prophecy was that the world had to end before all members of the generation of 1914 died off. When that failed, the Watchtower Society began to discover that great numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses were leaving and new converts began to become far few in most of the advanced world, and later, even in the Third World, the organization began to look back on the past–and lately it is evident that the Watchtower Society is lacking in funds and lacking in growth, and where the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses goes from now on is very questionable. The organization has once again stubbed its toe as a result of its doctrines of when the end will be and that’s very evident to this very day. But with it a continual apostate hunt is in the organization so that anyone who questions anything that the Watchtower leadership is doing, is regarded as an apostate and thousands of persons are being disfellowshipped for even murmuring about the organization. It has become a very, very, very severe and closed organization, which has many, many problems. And I’m here as one who has suffered from that organization and I’m quite prepared to reveal the problems of the Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 And with that, friends, I’ll close. God bless!


James Penton

James Penton is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada and author. His books include "Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses" and "Jehovah's Witnesses and the Third Reich".