(Investigator #210, 2023 May)


In 1896 Arthur Williams Senior of Western Australia obtained the book The Divine Plan of the Ages. By 1900 he was selling copies of it and other volumes of Studies in the Scriptures to friends and the public.

This unremarkable start led, seven decades later, to an International Convention attended by more than 25,000 people. And even bigger events followed.

People gathering at the Melboune Showgrounds in 1969 to hear the discourse "The Approaching Peace of 1000 Years"


The author of Studies in the Scriptures, Charles T. Russell (1852-1916) founded a nameless American cult in the 1870s of Adventist background. Commentators called it "Millennial Dawn" and "Russellism" and sometimes "Watchtower Society" after the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society which Russell incorporated in 1884 to manage finances, publishing and  legal  matters. The cult underwent numerous revisions in doctrine and in 1931 became Jehovah's Witnesses.

In 1901 Russell sent four followers to open an office in Melbourne, followed in 1903 by his "foster daughter", Rose Ball, and her husband to manage the office. Sending his "foster daughter" was timed to prevent her testifying in his divorce settlement in which Mrs Russell (formerly second or third in the cult's hierarchy) alleged an "improper" relationship between Charles and Rose. (Investigator 130)

By 1908 100 people in Melbourne were associated and received the cult's official magazine Zion's Watch Tower. A theological dispute, centered in Chicago (USA), on the meaning of the Bible phrase "the new covenant" then spilled over to Australia. The majority (about 80) of the Australian converts left Russell's cult and joined Rose Ball and her husband in founding the New Covenant Bible Students.

Russell then appointed R. Nicholson as the new branch manager.

Russell's Studies in the Scriptures had predictions that Armageddon would finish in 1914 with the destruction of all nations, by which time all the "saints"  (his followers) would ascend to heaven. Some sold their homes in preparation. Volume II of his Studies in the Scriptures for example says:

Be not surprised then, when in subsequent chapters we present proofs that the setting up of the Kingdom of God is already begun, that it is due to begin the exercise of power in A.D. 1878, and that 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. (1889, p. 101)

And the harvest of this age began with the presence of our Lord at the beginning of Earth’s Great Jubilee, in 1874, as shown in chapter vi, and ends with the overthrow of Gentile power—A.D. 1914. (ibid p. 234)

Russell himself was accused of various financial scams; and further court dispute occurred with his former wife over alimony.

Russell's followers, however, promoted him widely as a "pastor" of sterling qualifications and 2000 newspapers in 1914 published his sermons!  In South Australia, The Bunyip of Gawler (one of Australia's longest running newspapers) published at least 19 sermons in 1914, most of them 2000 to 3000 words in length.

The Bunyip Sermons in 1914

•    February 20 Divine Justice in The Deluge
•    March 6 The Messiah's Kingdom
•    March 13  The  Battle  of  Armageddon
•    April 3 The Philosophy of the Deluge
•    April 10 Scarlet Sins
•    April 17 The Walls of Hell
•    May 15 The Pains of Hell
•    May 22 Spiritism is Demonism
•    June 12 The Power of God unto Salvation
•    June 19 One True Gospel
•    June 26 The Grace of God
•    July 17 The Wind and the Waves Obey Him
•    July 31 Blind Leaders of the Blind
•    August 7 God's Eye of Pity
•    August 14 God's Laugh
•    August 28 Woe to You Rich  Blessed Ye Poor
•    September 11 One God, the Father and One Lord, Jesus Christ
•    September 18 The God of Love
•    September 25 No Approach to God Except by Jesus


Nicholson, the new branch manager in Melbourne, defected in 1918 and founded the Berean Bible Students Association. Why?

All of Russell's predictions for 1914-1915 had failed. Further dispute began in 1917, after Russell's death, over the book The Finished Mystery. The cult's top American leaders disagreed on how the cult should now be managed and battled for control. The side led  by  "Judge"  Rutherford published The Finished Mystery and called it  "the posthumous work of Charles T. Russell" to strengthen their credentials as rightful successors.    

Predictions in The Finished Mystery began to fail already in 1918. This disturbed many of the cult's members as also did the book's verbal attacks on Christian churches. A New South Wales doctor wrote:

… its vindictive and slanderous aspersions of other religious thought, and its scurrilous cartoons, in no way indicating the spirit of Christ, made  me  throw it aside… (Peoples Paper, September 1, 1918, p. 4)

Rutherford's supporters were more organized, also controlled The Watchtower magazine, therefore publicized their viewpoint more effectively than the opposition. In Australia they held their first national assembly in Sydney in 1921 attended by 300.

By 1922 Rutherford made going door to door mandatory which also applied in Australia. In 1924 the cult started a radio station in Launceston, Tasmania, followed during the next 20 years by another 20 stations.

A major setback were the false predictions for 1925 in Rutherford's Millions Now Living Will Never Die book. The prophecy created much public interest and made cult members zealous in going door to door, but when exposed as false in 1925 many left and never returned.

1929 to WORLD WAR II

Controversy  increased during the 1930s due to verbal attacks by Jehovah's Witnesses on mainstream Christian churches as a "whore" and a "racket" and "frauds". They organized public demonstrations with placards. In their magazines they published insults, mockery, and offensive cartoons such as "Pious Pilcher" spying on a naked woman.

Consolation (Australian)
January 10, 1940, p. 4

"Pious Pilcher" apparently referred to Oxford-born Charles Venn Pilcher, Anglican Bishop in Sydney, lecturer at Moore's Theological College, and a writer and translator of hymns.

JWs also in the 1930s lacked the morals that they nowadays claim to excel at and would go door to door while intoxicated:

Looseness of morals is also quite noticeable. The thought has been prevalent amongst some that it is unnecessary for Jehovah's witnesses to go through the form of marriage prescribed by the state… It has likewise been noticed that some take part in the field service and perform other duties in the organization while under the influence of liquor. (The Watchtower 1935 3/1 76-77)

Some have unwisely concluded that if they were engaged in the house-to-house witness work they could pursue with impunity any course that their appetites might call for. (ibid p. 78)

Another reason for their bad reputation was their doctrine, known as the "Divine Mandate", that marriage before Armageddon is against the Scriptures and people should wait "a few years" until after Armageddon and then "exercise their functions".

Rutherford in his booklet Face The Facts (1938) wrote "The totalitarian combine is going to get control of England and America" which when WWII started seemed to predict Nazi victory. The Examiner (Tasmania) November 7, 1940, reported


Fine  for  Jehovah's  Witness convicted last week on a charge of having, on September 8, 1940, at Crabtree, published seditious words concerning his Majesty the King. Redvers Cyril Domeny McVilly, a Jehovah's Witness, was fined £10, and ordered to pay £9/3/6 costs by Colonel J. P. Clark, P.M., in the Hobart Police Court yesterday.

It was alleged in evidence given previously that McVilly had said that religion was no good and that the Salvation Army was the worst of them all, because it only fed soldiers to go and commit murder. Referring to a picture of the King, he had said: "Don't put your trust in him." He stated further, it was alleged, that Britain would be defeated and that Hitler and Mussolini would rule the world…

With the British Empire facing its "greatest crisis" these were disloyal words. The small penalty was "more in the nature of a warning."

JWs were already so controversial and effective at getting noticed that when Rutherford visited Australia in 1938 his public discourse in Sydney attracted 25,000 (although JWs numbered barely 2000.

In January, 1941, the Federal Government issued an order which declared organizations unlawful whose activities were "prejudicial to the defence of the Commonwealth". The JWs organization — due to its opposition to national service, and predicting the end of the democracies, and generally being a nuisance — was banned and its radio stations, meeting halls, branch office and Sydney warehouse closed.

Nevertheless their Sydney staff managed to publish Australian versions of The Watchtower, Consolation and the book The New World (1942) which reproduced the wording of the American versions but differed in page numbering. JWs also, in 1942, held their "New World Assembly" in seven Australian cities and published a 36-page report.

In 1943 JWs appealed in the High Court. The ban was found to contravene the religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution and removed.

JWs increased during the ban but afterwards declined for several years:

Year    Active JWs
1940    2500
1943    4300
1945    3787
1950    c.5000
1955    8354
1960    14,090


JWs set up a "governing body" in New York in 1944 but this remained largely nominal until the 1970s when it took leadership. Meanwhile real power remained with the president and vice president of the Watchtower  Society.

The post-Rutherford leaders somewhat toned down the offensive verbal attacks on Christian churches, and also got JWs to learn to present short, polite, doorstep sermons.

They called this new strategy "theocratic tact". It worked and JWs increased to about 5000 "publishers" (door to door goers) in 1950.

In 1947-1948 circuit assemblies and district assemblies were introduced and subsequently held every year.

National conventions in Sydney in 1951 and 1954 were attended by the Watchtower Society president, N.H. Knorr.

In 1954 the newly released propaganda film, The New World Society in Action, featured the Organization's New York headquarters, and attracted large audiences in Australia.

The blood transfusion issue got nationwide attention from 1959 onwards. A Melbourne couple with four children refused an exchange transfusion for jaundice to their newborn baby boy and the father was charged with manslaughter. Large headlines read "JEHOVAHS' LET THEIR BABY DIE" and "BABY KILLER SAYS "I'D DO IT AGAIN"" (Melbourne Truth, May 23 1959, April 2 1960)

In 1969 the "Peace on Earth International Convention" in Melbourne, at a time when the Governing Body was implying Armageddon was due in the mid 1970s, attracted more than 25,000 people. Knorr gave the main talk, "The Approaching Peace of a Thousand Years".

Vice president, F.W. Franz, also spoke. He described revisions to the "great tribulation" doctrine. The tribulation no longer starts in 1914 and is cut short by God in 1918 fulfilling Matthew 24:22, as taught since the 1920s, but will start in the near future with the destruction of the world's religions as its first part and Armageddon as its climax.

The next international convention took place in Sydney, 1973. It attracted 34,000, and was noteworthy for a bomb hoax which stopped proceedings for several hours.

In 1972 JWs congregations and branch offices worldwide including Australia restructured from control by one overseer to oversight by a "body of elders". This spreading-out or sharing of authority may have been a safeguard against split-off sects forming during future prophecy failures.

Then, around 1975, instead of Armageddon there came a spate of building activity. When their prophecies fail, the JWs leaders commonly distract their people by involving them in building projects. People who put in physical effort, sweat and time, as well as give money, are unlikely to defect, at least not for a while.

In 1977 a new branch office and printing facilities were constructed at Ingleburn, a suburb of Sydney, 40km SW of the central business area, and the previous office  (in  Strathfield) decommissioned. Numerous "quick build" kingdom halls, each constructed in one or two weekends appeared in many cities throughout Australia in the 1980s. Also assembly halls (which could seat over 1000 people) were built in Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Many JWs felt disturbed at so much construction when their Governing Body was simultaneously encouraging the rank-and-file to cut down on employment and schooling so as to preach more, because Armageddon was imminent. Many JWs sold their homes to finance their preaching or moved to country towns where Armageddon might be less traumatic.

Spurred by two other prophecies – Armageddon to occur in the 20th century, also within the generation of 1914, the latter promoted as "the creator's promise" — JWs  increased steadily. The proportion of  JWs in Australia's population —  of publishers and memorial attendance (the annual meeting to remember Christ's death) —  reached its best in 1995. Subsequently their annual percent increase lagged behind the percent population increase.

Ratio 1 to
Memorial Attendance
Ratio 1 to


368  82,200 190
60,900 313 112,000 170
61,400 327
111,300 181
65,200 345 116,000 194
67,600 353 116,000 206
69,100 369 107,200 238

A new interpretation, introduced around 2010, that by "this generation" Jesus meant two overlapping generations was unconvincing! Why not in another 50 years make Jesus' words mean three generations?

In 2015 Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that JWs had since 1950 failed to report 1006 perpetrators of child abuse, involving 1800 victims, to the police. Newspapers throughout Australia reported this scandal.

The Governing Body in New York justified their don't-involve-the-police policy by quoting a Bible rule that required two observers to a crime before guilt can be established. JWs do not, however, keep secret, if lacking two observers, the crimes of rape (of adults), murder, violent assault, robbery and arson. Child abuse was the exception! But after the Royal Commission the sect agreed to let suspected child abuse be reported to the police.

Many observers concluded that the self-proclaimed moral superiority of JWs over "immoral Christendom" is a sham. Child abuse, false prophecy, ever-changing doctrines, opposition to tertiary education,  excommunication and ostracism for non-conformists, deaths from refusal of blood transfusion, and no obvious charities for the public good, gave the impression that JWs have nothing to recommend them over other religions.


Jehovah's Witnesses Proclaimers of God's Kingdom 1993 WBTS  

Stett, B. and Carmilla, The Rose Ball Story, Investigator #130, January, 2010

The Bunyip

The Divine Mandate of Judge Rutherford and JWs, Investigator #177, November 2017

Two-Witness Rule, Investigator #183, November 2018

Yearbooks of Jehovah's Witnesses WBTS

Dictionary of Jehovah's Witnesses at: