(Investigator 90, 2003 May)

Charles T Russell, the founder of the Watchtower Society (WTS) and of the sect called Millennial Dawn which became Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs), engaged in public debates and had some success.

By 1913 Russell discouraged further public debate on the grounds that:

1.    Talent makes more impression than truth;
2.    Debate arouses anger, bitterness and malice;
3.    Russell's debates had been intended as "entering-wedges for the newspaper work."
(Watch Tower Reprints 1915, May 1, p. 5685)

He also said:  "If we stop to kick at every dog that barks at our heels, we would be a long time reaching our destination." (Convention Report 1913, 59)
The most likely reason for the change in policy was that public debates would result in false WTS prophecies being advertised by the opposition.

Hundreds of prophecies like the following in The Time Is At Hand (1889) are embarrassing and refute the claim that all WTS teachings are Bible-based and supplied by God:
…we consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, will be accomplished neat the end of A.D. 1915. (p. 99)

…the "battle of the great day of God Almighty" (Rev. 16:14.), which will end in A.D. 1915, with the complete overthrow of earth's present rulership, is already commenced. (p. 101)

But not until the great day of trouble is about closing – not until the Gentile kingdoms are ground to powder and utterly removed, no place being found for them (A.D. 1915, as shown in the preceding chapter) – not until great Babylon is utterly overthown and her influence over the world broken – will the great mass of mankind come to realize the true state of the case. (p. 140)

The harvest work will occupy forty years for its full accomplishment, ending with A.D. 1914. (p. 150)

The "Gentile Times" prove that the present governments must all be overturned about the close of A.D. 1915… (p. 242)

In addition to the problem of undesired publicity for false prophecies the cult's best debater and natural choice to represent it, aside from Russell, was lawyer Joseph F Rutherford.

Russell, however, probably did not want extra prestige for Rutherford because Rutherford was not Russell's choice as a potential successor.

For example, in his Will and Testament C T Russell named a five-man Editorial Committee to determine the content of The Watch Tower after his death. The Will and Testament excluded Rutherford from the Committee. After Russell died, however, two Committee members were replaced with two others one of whom was Rutherford. (Watch Tower Reprints1916, December 1, pp. 5997, 5999)


Early 1916 December 1916
W E Page J F Rutherford
W E Van Amburgh W E Van Amburgh
H C Rockwell H C Rockwell
E W Brenneison R H Hirsh
F H Robison F H Robison

The second reason, therefore, for Russell's policy of discontinuing public debate was probably to keep Rutherford in check – an aim that failed when Rutherford became the next WTS president!

Rutherford, however, would have seen public debate differently. To him – if he could represent Russell – it would be an effective way to gain extra prestige and popularity within the cult. This indeed happened in 1915, April 21-24, in Los Angeles, California.

The Los Angeles Express (April 22) reported:

An immense crowd of men, women and children packed the big Trinity Auditorium to the doors last night to hear J. F. Rutherford, representing the International Bible Students' association and Rev. John H. Troy, representing the so-called orthodox churches…engage in a lively, witty and, at all times, eloquent debate on the State of the Dead. Fully 2500 persons were turned away.
Reverend John H Troy of the First Baptist Church of Glendale was a popular and gifted minister and was endorsed by fifty other ministers. The four topics of debate on four evenings did not include WTS prophecies. Troy did, however, remark that Russell's prophecies were at that very time undergoing failure! The full debate, 48 pages of small type, is in Souvenir Report Bible Students Conventions 1915.

In the 1920s Rutherford phased out public debates. A debate with Dr B H Shadduck, an anti-Rutherford writer and editor of The Sunday School Times, failed to take place because Rutherford's people insisted on "impossible conditions":

That B. H. Shadduck furnish a bond of $500 as guarantee that he will not…refer to any quotation contained in any periodical or book published by the International Bible Students Association, and if B. H. Shadduck shall…refer to any quotation or book published by the International Bible Students Association he shall at once pay the sum of $500 to his opponent in this debate. (p. 3)

One talking-point of the "witnesses" is the boast that the clergy are afraid to debate with Mr. Rutherford. The answer is two-fold.

1. Not one clergyman in 500 has read the books of Mr. Russell and not one in 5000 has contrasted the early and late editions.
2. If one who is informed accepts the challenge, they impose impossible conditions. I have repeatedly offered to debate. My last experience was with a gentleman in the mid-West. He demanded that I come to his town, bear my own expense, debate with him twice a day for twenty days, discuss the questions he proposed and no other, and be silenced by the chairman if I introduced other matters. Not one question, under this rule, would permit me to discuss doctrines peculiar to this cult. I offered to submit the matter to arbitration and this was refused.
(The Seven Thunders of Millennial Dawn, B H Shadduck, 1928, pp. 3 &31)

In the 1930s Rutherford issued challenges for debate to the Pope, which were ignored.

The next presidents of the WTS, N H Knorr and F W Franz, also banned JWs from public debating. They claimed debates settle nothing, are influenced by the speaking ability of the debater, and often get off the topic by criticising the opponent personally.

A WTS letter to a Mike Frederickson said:

When individuals sincerely want to know about our Bible-based beliefs, we gladly take the time to help them. But, we also recognize that when someone merely wishes to argue a point of view, it is not often that anything constructive is accomplished in such a debate. Becoming sidetracked with such debates, we believe, would mean losing valuable time, time that might otherwise have been used beneficially to help sincere persons to learn about God's will and purposes respecting mankind. For good reasons, therefore, we choose not to engage in debates.
(Watchtower B & T Society of New York, Inc. 1994 June 9)
The "losing valuable time" comment ignores the billions of hours JWs spend distributing publications containing doctrines later changed – which changes sometimes lose the sect multitudes of members. The debacle when Armageddon failed to occur in the mid-1970s, for example, lost the sect an estimated 500,000 members!

Debate with an honest intent to find out who's right would have sorted out many false prophecies of the WTS before they were preached and so saved the time of millions of people! When the above letter speaks of "Bible-based beliefs" and "learn about God's will", it implies the unsubstantiated claim that any potential opponent in debate is wrong and nothing can be learned from him.

The real reason JWs won't debate is that informed opponents will likely bring up failed prophecies of the WTS and that would be bad publicity. People would find out what Reverend Troy stated in 1915:

Of all the rot, of all the evaporated nonsense that I ever worried my brains to get to the bottom of, this Millennial Dawn stuff takes the prize.

The truth about Jehovah's Witnesses:


Dictionary of Jehovah's Witnesses at: