Time spent in prison – is it the mark of a dodgy character, or of someone willing to stand up for what they believe no matter what the consequences may be? In the case of “Judge” Joseph F. Rutherford, the average Jehovah's Witness will assure us that is clearly the latter. And the facts which they will point out to us do seem very persuasive.
Opponents of the Watch Tower Society sometimes use this episode from the past to smear the movement. Martin and Klann, for example, refer to Rutherford's imprisonment in 1918 “for violation of the Espionage Act” (W. Martin and N. Klann, Jehovah of the Watchtower, p26.) without mentioning that he was subsequently exonerated. He was released after only nine months of his eighty-year sentence, his trial declared unfair and its verdict set aside pending a retrial. Finally the US Attorney withdrew all charges against him and his codefendants.
So he returns triumphant, the resolute hero who took on the Government and won? Hardly. When all the facts are taken into account neither side comes out with very much credit. With feeling running high during the war, it is hardly surprising that some passages in The Finished Mystery, the book at the centre of Rutherford's anti-war campaign, attracted the wrath of the establishment. Like Russell before him, Rutherford believed that the battle of Armageddon would erupt when the war-weary masses of the common people turned against the institutions of Church and State. “The crisis will be reached when the hitherto upholders of the law shall become violators of the law... Fear for the future will goad the well-meaning masses to desperation, and anarchy will result when Socialism fails.” (The Finished Mystery, p253.) To appear to be advocating revolution during wartime was surely asking for trouble. But Rutherford's prosecutors were evidently much too careless in their determination to secure a guilty verdict. As a result, the Society's lawyers were able to show that there had been 130 procedural errors in the trial. Thus, a retrial was ordered.
Why were the charges withdrawn? With the war over and resultant high feeling abated, there was little purpose to be served in pursuing the case. But there may have been more to it than that. Rutherford's first reaction upon hearing that the Government objected to The Finished Mystery had been to suspend production. Then, when he learned which sections were deemed objectionable, he had those pages removed from all copies prior to distribution. Finally, when he learned that the government still objected to the book, even in its amended form, he directed that all distribution of the book should cease. (The Watch Tower Society, Jehovah's Witnesses, Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, pp650ff) So he had a perfect plea in mitigation if his case had come to retrial.
There was more. No only had Rutherford done all he could to retract the proclamation of a message which the Government object to, the Society even appeared at one stage to go along with Government policy concerning domestic war propaganda. In June 1918, when the case first came to trial, The Watch Tower urged all its readers to join in the national day of prayer for an Allied victory over Germany which the US President had called for. (The Watch Tower Society, Jehovah's Witnesses, Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, p191)
The Watch Tower Society has long made much of its refusal to compromise its beliefs. During the Espionage Act affair, however, compromise was the order of the day and it is not difficult to see why. No effort must be spared to secure the Judge's release for, had he been convicted, he would not have been able thereafter to practise law. He would have been disbarred. His exoneration meant that he could remain a member of the bar of the US Supreme Court and was able to fight many important legal battles on behalf of the Society during the years following his release. And during that time, when refusal to compromise was re-established, it was left to humbler Witnesses to shoulder the burden of conviction and martyrdom.