Conventions Proof of Our Brotherhood
CONVENTIONS have become a regular feature of the modern-day organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But national and international gatherings of worshipers of Jehovah took place long before the 20th century.
Jehovah required all the males in ancient Israel to assemble at Jerusalem for three seasonal festivals each year. Some of the men brought their entire family along. In fact, the Mosaic Law required that every family member—men, women, and little ones—be present on certain occasions. (Ex. 23:14-17; Deut. 31:10-13; Luke 2:41-43) At first, the attenders were people who lived within the boundaries of Israel. Later, when the Jews became widely dispersed, those in attendance came from many nations. (Acts 2:1, 5-11) They were drawn together not merely because Israel and Abraham were their forefathers but because they recognized Jehovah as their grand heavenly Father. (Isa. 63:16) These festivals were happy occasions. They also helped all who were present to keep their minds on the word of God and not to become so involved in the daily affairs of life that they might forget the more important spiritual matters.
In like manner, the conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern times center on spiritual interests. To sincere observers these conventions give undeniable evidence that the Witnesses are united by strong ties of Christian brotherhood.
Early Conventions of Bible Students
Arrangements for gatherings of Bible Students from various cities and lands developed gradually. Unlike traditional church groups, the Bible Students, by means of their conventions, quickly got to know fellow believers in other places. At first, these conventions were held at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in connection with the annual commemoration of the Lord’s death. In 1891 notice was specifically given that there would be a “convention for Bible study and for celebrating the Lord’s Memorial Supper.” The following year, the Watch Tower carried a prominent heading announcing “BELIEVERS’ CONVENTION, AT ALLEGHENY, PA., . . . APRIL 7TH TO 14TH, INCLUSIVE, 1892.”
The public in general was not invited to those early conventions. But, in 1892, some 400 persons who had given evidence of faith in the ransom and sincere interest in the Lord’s work were present. The program included five days of intensive Bible study and another two days of helpful counsel for the colporteurs.
Said one who was present for the first time for one of these gatherings: “I have been at many Conventions, but never before at one like this, where the will and plan of God are the only and the incessant topic from rising until retiring; in the house, on the street, at meeting, at lunch and everywhere.” Regarding the spirit displayed by the delegates, one from Wisconsin, U.S.A., wrote: “I was much impressed by the spirit of love and brotherly kindness manifested on all occasions.”
A change in arrangements for the annual convention took place in 1893. In order to take advantage of favorable railroad fares in connection with the Columbian Exposition that summer, the Bible Students gathered in Chicago, Illinois, from August 20 to 24. This was their first convention outside the Pittsburgh area. However, with a view to making the best possible use of time and money for the Lord’s work, no further general conventions were held for a few years.
Then, starting in 1898, the Bible Students in various places began to take the initiative locally to arrange for assemblies, to be attended by people in a limited area. In 1900 there were 3 general conventions organized by the Society; but there were also 13 local assemblies in the United States and Canada, most of which were for just one day and were often held in connection with the visit of one of the pilgrims. The number kept growing. By 1909 there were at least 45 local assemblies in North America, in addition to conventions served by Brother Russell on special tours that took him to various parts of the continent. A main portion of the program at one-day assemblies was designed especially to stir interest on the part of the public. Attendance ranged from perhaps a hundred up to several thousand.
On the other hand, general conventions, attended mainly by the Bible Students, emphasized instruction for those fairly well established in the way of the truth. For these conventions, special trains filled with delegates would come from principal cities. Attendance was, on occasion, as high as 4,000, even including a few delegates from Europe. These were times of genuine spiritual refreshment that resulted in increased zeal and love on the part of Jehovah’s people. Said one brother at the close of such a convention in 1903: “I would not take a thousand dollars for the good I have received from this Convention;—and I am only a poor man, too.”
Pilgrim brothers who might be in the area spoke at the assemblies. Brother Russell also endeavored to attend and serve on the program at local assemblies as well as at larger conventions in the United States and often in Canada. That involved much travel. Most of it was done on weekend trips. But, in 1909, a brother in Chicago hired several railroad cars to transport delegates who traveled with Brother Russell from one convention to another on a tour. In 1911 and 1913, entire trains were chartered by the same brother to take hundreds of delegates on convention tours lasting a month or more and covering the western United States and Canada.
Travel on such a convention train was a memorable experience. In 1913, Malinda Keefer boarded one at Chicago, Illinois. Years later, she said: “It didn’t take long to realize we were one big family . . . and the train was our home for a month.” As the train pulled out of the station, those who came to see them off sang “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” all the while waving hats and handkerchiefs till the train was out of sight. Sister Keefer added: “At every stop on the trip there were conventions being held—most were for three days, and we stayed one day with each convention. During these stops Brother Russell gave two talks, one to the friends in the afternoon, and another to the public in the evening on the subject ‘Beyond the Grave.’”
In other lands too, the number of assemblies was growing. They were often quite small. About 15 were present for the first one in Norway, in 1905; but it was a beginning. Six years later, when Brother Russell visited Norway, special effort was put forth to invite the public, and the attendance on that occasion was estimated at 1,200. During 1909, when he attended conventions in Scotland, he spoke to about 2,000 in Glasgow and another 2,500 in Edinburgh on the intriguing subject “The Thief in Paradise, the Rich Man in Hell, and Lazarus in Abraham’s Bosom.”
At the conclusion of the early conventions, the brothers had what they called a love feast, reflecting their feeling of Christian brotherhood. What did this “love feast” include? As an example, the speakers would line up with plates of diced bread, and then the audience would file past, partaking of the bread, shaking hands, and singing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds Our Hearts in Christian Love.” Tears of joy often ran down their cheeks as they sang. Later, as their numbers grew, they dispensed with the handshaking and breaking of bread but would conclude with song and prayer and, often, prolonged applause to express their appreciation.
Launching a Global Campaign of Kingdom Proclamation
The first major convention after World War I took place at Cedar Point, Ohio (on Lake Erie, 60 miles west of Cleveland), from September 1 to 8 in 1919. Following Brother Russell’s death, some who had been prominently associated with the organization fell away. The brothers underwent severe testing. Earlier in 1919, the Society’s president and his associates had been released from their unjust imprisonment. So there was keen anticipation. Although first-day attendance was rather low, later in the day more delegates arrived on special trains. Then the hotels that had offered to accommodate the delegates were swamped. R. J. Martin and A. H. Macmillan (both of whom were included in the group recently released from prison) volunteered to help. They worked at assigning rooms till past midnight, and Brother Rutherford and many of the others had a good time serving as bellhops, carrying luggage and escorting the friends to their rooms. There was an infectious spirit of enthusiasm among them all.
Some 2,500 were expected to attend. However, in every way the convention proved to be more than anticipated. By the second day, the auditorium was already overcrowded and additional halls were put to use. When that did not prove adequate, the sessions were moved outdoors into an area where there was a pleasant grove of trees. About 6,000 Bible Students from the United States and Canada were present.
For the principal talk on Sunday, at least 1,000 of the public also came, swelling the audience to fully 7,000, whom the speaker addressed in the open air without the aid of any microphone or amplifying system. In that discourse, “The Hope for Distressed Humanity,” J. F. Rutherford made it clear that the Messianic Kingdom of God is the solution to mankind’s problems, and he also showed that the League of Nations (which was then being brought to birth and which had already been endorsed by the clergy) was in no way a political expression of God’s Kingdom. The Sandusky Register (a local newspaper) carried an extensive report on that public discourse, as well as a résumé of the activity of the Bible Students. Copies of that paper were sent to newspapers throughout the United States and Canada. But there was much more to the publicity that emanated from this convention.
The real climax of the entire convention was Brother Rutherford’s “Address to Co-laborers,” which was later published under the title “Announcing the Kingdom.” This was directed to the Bible Students themselves. During that speech the significance of the letters G A that had appeared on the convention program and in various locations at the convention site became clear. Announcement was made concerning the coming publication of a new magazine, The Golden Age, for use in directing the attention of people to the Messianic Kingdom. After outlining the work to be done, Brother Rutherford said to the audience: “The door of opportunity is opening before you. Enter it quickly. Remember as you go forth in this work you are not soliciting merely as the agent of a magazine, but you are an ambassador of the King of kings and Lord of lords, announcing to the people in this dignified manner the incoming of the Golden Age, the glorious kingdom of our Lord and Master, for which true Christians have hoped and prayed for many centuries.” (See Revelation 3:8.) When the speaker asked how many desired to share in the work, the enthusiastic response was inspiring to behold. As one man, the audience of 6,000 rose to their feet. By the following year, more than 10,000 were sharing in the field service. The entire convention had a unifying and invigorating effect on those in attendance.
Three years later, in 1922, another memorable convention was held at Cedar Point. It was a nine-day program, from September 5 to 13. In addition to the delegates from the United States and Canada, some came from Europe. Meetings were conducted in ten languages. The average daily attendance was about 10,000; and for the talk “Millions Now Living Will Never Die,” so many of the public were in the audience that the attendance nearly doubled.
The Bible Students did not gather at this convention with the thought that they were planning for work here on earth that would extend for decades into the future. In fact, they said that it might well be their last general convention before “the deliverance of the church . . . into the heavenly phase of the kingdom of God, and indeed into the actual and very presence of our Lord and our God.” But however short the time might be, the doing of God’s will was their foremost concern. With that in mind, on Friday, September 8, Brother Rutherford delivered the memorable discourse “The Kingdom.”
Prior to this, large banners containing the letters A D V had been hung in various parts of the grounds. During the discourse the significance of those letters became evident when the speaker urged: “Be faithful and true witnesses for the Lord. Go forward in the fight until every vestige of Babylon lies desolate. Herald the message far and wide. The world must know that Jehovah is God and that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. This is the day of all days. Behold, the King reigns! You are his publicity agents. Therefore advertise, advertise, advertise, the King and his kingdom.” At that moment a large banner, 36 feet long [11 m], unfolded before the audience. On it was the rousing slogan “Advertise the King and Kingdom.” It was a dramatic moment. The audience applauded enthusiastically. Elderly Brother Pfannebecker, in the assembly orchestra, waved his violin above his head and said loudly with his heavy German accent: “Ach, Ya! Und now ve do it, no?” And they did.
Four days later, while the convention was still in session, Brother Rutherford personally shared with other conventioners as they engaged in the work of Kingdom proclamation from house to house in the area within 45 miles [72 km] of the convention site. It did not end with that. The work of Kingdom proclamation had been given a powerful impetus that would reach around the globe. That year more than 17,000 zealous workers in 58 lands shared in giving the witness. Decades later, George Gangas, who was at that convention and who later became a member of the Governing Body, said regarding that program at Cedar Point: “It was something that was written indelibly in my mind and heart, that will never be forgotten as long as I live.”
Milestones in Spiritual Growth
All the conventions have been times of refreshment and instruction in God’s Word. But some of them have been remembered for decades as spiritual milestones.
Seven of these occurred, one year after another, from 1922 through 1928, in the United States, Canada, and Britain. One reason for the significance of these conventions was the powerful resolutions that were adopted, all seven of which are listed in the box on the next page. Although the Witnesses were relatively few in number, they distributed as many as 45 million copies of one resolution, and 50 million of several others, in many languages worldwide. Some were broadcast on international radio hookups. Thus an extraordinary witness was given.
Yet another historic convention was held in Columbus, Ohio, in 1931. On Sunday, July 26, after hearing Scriptural argument, the Bible Students adopted a new name—Jehovah’s Witnesses. How appropriate! Here is a name that directs primary attention to the Creator himself and that clearly identifies the responsibility of those who worship him. (Isa. 43:10-12) The adoption of that name infused the brothers with greater zeal than ever before as proclaimers of God’s name and Kingdom. As a letter written that year by a Danish Witness expressed it: “Oh, what a magnificent name, Jehovah’s Witnesses, yes, may all of us indeed be such.”
In 1935 another memorable convention was held, in Washington, D.C. On the second day of that convention, Friday, May 31, Brother Rutherford discussed the great multitude, or great crowd, referred to at Revelation 7:9-17. For over half a century, the Bible Students had tried in vain to identify that group correctly. Now, at Jehovah’s due time, in the light of events already under way, it was pointed out that these are persons who have the prospect of living forever right here on earth. This understanding gave fresh significance to the evangelizing work and explained Scripturally a major change that was then just beginning to take place in the makeup of the modern-day organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The convention in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1941 is remembered by many who were present for an opening-day talk entitled “Integrity,” in which Brother Rutherford focused attention on the great issue that confronts all intelligent creation. Ever since the talk “Ruler for the People,” in 1928, the issues raised by Satan’s rebellion had been given repeated attention. But now it was pointed out that “the primary issue raised by Satan’s defiant challenge was and is that of UNIVERSAL DOMINATION.” Appreciation for that issue and for the importance of maintaining integrity to Jehovah as Universal Sovereign has been a powerful motivating factor in the lives of Jehovah’s servants.
In the midst of World War II, in 1942, when some wondered whether the preaching work was perhaps just about finished, the convention public talk delivered by N. H. Knorr, the newly designated president of the Watch Tower Society, was “Peace—Can It Last?” The explanation in that discourse of the symbolic “scarlet-colored wild beast” of Revelation chapter 17 opened up to the view of Jehovah’s Witnesses a period following World War II in which there would be opportunity to direct yet more people to God’s Kingdom. This gave impetus to a global campaign that over the years has reached into more than 235 lands and is not yet finished.
Another milestone was reached during a convention at New York’s Yankee Stadium on August 2, 1950. On that occasion it was an amazed and highly delighted audience that first received the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. The rest of the New World Translation was released in installments during the following decade. This modern-language rendering of the Sacred Scriptures restored the personal name of God to its rightful place in his Word. Its fidelity to what is in the original Bible languages has made it a tremendous asset to Jehovah’s Witnesses in their own study of the Scriptures as well as in their evangelizing work.
On the next-to-last day of that convention, F. W. Franz, then vice president of the Watch Tower Society, addressed the audience on “New Systems of Things.” For many years Jehovah’s Witnesses had believed that even before Armageddon some of Jehovah’s pre-Christian servants would be raised from the dead to be princes of the new world, in fulfillment of Psalm 45:16. You can imagine, then, the effect on the vast audience when the speaker asked: “Would this international assembly be happy to know that here, tonight, in our midst, there are a number of prospective princes of the new earth?” There was tremendous and sustained applause along with shouts of joy. Then the speaker showed that the Biblical use of the term translated “prince” along with the record of faithfulness of many of the “other sheep” in modern times allowed for the belief that some now living might well be selected by Jesus Christ for princely service. He also pointed out, however, that there would be no bestowing of titles on those entrusted with such service. Concluding his discourse, he urged: “Onward, then, steadily, all of us together, as a New World society!”
There have been many other highly significant discourses delivered at conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses: In 1953, “New World Society Attacked From the Far North” was a gripping explanation of the significance of the attack by Gog of Magog as described in Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39. That same year, the discourse “Filling the House With Glory” thrilled those who heard it as they saw before their very eyes tangible evidence of the fulfillment of Jehovah’s promise, at Haggai 2:7, to bring the precious things, the desirable things, out of all nations into Jehovah’s house.
The most outstanding convention of modern times, however, was held in New York in 1958, when over a quarter of a million people overflowed the largest facilities available to hear the discourse “God’s Kingdom Rules—Is the World’s End Near?” Delegates were on hand from 123 lands, and their reports to the convention audience helped to strengthen the bonds of international brotherhood. To contribute to the spiritual growth of those present and for their use in teaching others, publications were released in 54 languages during that extraordinary convention.
In 1962, a series of talks on the theme “Subjection to Superior Authorities” corrected the understanding that the Witnesses had as to the meaning of Romans 13:1-7. In 1964, “Passing Over From Death to Life” and “Out of the Tombs to a Resurrection” broadened their appreciation of Jehovah’s great mercy as manifest in the provision of the resurrection. And many, many more of such convention highlights could be cited.
Each year there are tens of thousands, yes, hundreds of thousands, of new ones in attendance at the conventions. Although information presented is not always new to the organization as a whole, it often opens up to new attenders an understanding of the divine will that truly thrills them. They may see and be moved to take hold of opportunities for service that change the entire course of their life.
At many conventions attention has been focused on the meaning of certain books of the Bible. For example, in 1958 and again in 1977, bound books were released that were devoted to discussion of the prophecies recorded by the prophet Daniel regarding God’s purpose to have one world government with Christ as King. In 1971, it was the book of Ezekiel that was given attention, with its emphasis on the divine declaration, “The nations will have to know that I am Jehovah.” (Ezek. 36:23) In 1972, prophecies recorded by Zechariah and Haggai were given detailed consideration. In 1963, 1969, and 1988, there were extensive discussions of thrilling prophecies of Revelation, which vividly foretell the fall of Babylon the Great and the incoming of God’s glorious new heavens and new earth.
The conventions have highlighted varied themes—Theocracy’s Increase, Clean Worship, United Worshipers, Courageous Ministers, Fruitage of the Spirit, Disciple-Making, Good News for All Nations, Divine Name, Divine Sovereignty, Sacred Service, Victorious Faith, Kingdom Loyalty, Integrity Keepers, Trust in Jehovah, Godly Devotion, Light Bearers, and many more. Each of these has contributed to the spiritual growth of the organization and those associated with it.
Stimulus to the Evangelizing Work
Large conventions, as well as smaller assemblies, have been a source of great encouragement in connection with the preaching of the good news. Discourses and demonstrations have provided practical instruction. Experiences enjoyed in the field ministry as well as those related by people who have recently been helped to learn Bible truth are always on the program. In addition, the actual field service that was scheduled during conventions for many years was very beneficial. It gave a fine witness in the convention city and was a source of great encouragement to the Witnesses themselves.
Field service became part of the scheduled convention activity in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in January 1922. It was also featured during the general convention held at Cedar Point, Ohio, later that year. Thereafter, it became a regular practice to set aside a day, or part of a day or parts of several days, for delegates to share together in preaching activity right in and around the convention city. In large metropolitan areas, this gave people who might seldom be contacted by the Witnesses an opportunity to hear the good news about God’s purpose to give eternal life to lovers of righteousness.
In Denmark the first of such service days at a convention was arranged in 1925, when 400 to 500 met at Nørrevold. For many of the 275 who shared in field service at that convention, it was their first time. Some were apprehensive. But after they had a taste of it, they became enthusiastic evangelizers in their home territories as well. Following that convention and until the end of World War II, there were many one-day service assemblies held in Denmark, and the brothers were invited from surrounding towns. Increased zeal was evident as they shared unitedly in the ministry and then met to hear talks. Similar service assemblies—but two days in length—were held in Britain and the United States.
At bigger conventions the field activity of the delegates often took on large proportions. Beginning in 1936, the convention public talk was advertised by orderly parades of Witnesses who wore placards and distributed handbills. (Those placards were initially referred to as “sandwich signs” because they were worn one in front and one in back.) At times, a thousand or more Witnesses participated in such parades at a given convention. Others shared in regular house-to-house calls, inviting all to come and hear the program. It was most encouraging to individual Witnesses to work with others and to see hundreds, even thousands, of other Witnesses sharing in the ministry along with them. At the same time, the public within a considerable radius came to know that Jehovah’s Witnesses were in town; people had opportunity to hear for themselves what the Witnesses teach and to observe their conduct firsthand.
The talks given at the conventions often were heard by far more than the visible audience. When Brother Rutherford, at a convention in Toronto, Canada, in 1927, delivered the lecture “Freedom for the Peoples,” it was carried by a history-making chain of 53 broadcasting stations to a vast international radio audience. The next year, from Detroit, Michigan (U.S.A.), the speech “Ruler for the People” was broadcast by twice as many stations, and shortwave radio carried it to listeners as far away as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
In 1931, major radio networks refused to cooperate with plans to broadcast a convention discourse by Brother Rutherford; so the Watch Tower Society, working with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, forged its own network of 163 stations, including the largest wire-connected network that had ever been on the air, to carry the message “The Kingdom, the Hope of the World.” Additionally, over 300 other stations in many parts of the world broadcast the program by transcription.
During the convention at Washington, D.C., in 1935, Brother Rutherford spoke on the subject “Government,” forcefully drawing attention to the fact that Jehovah’s Kingdom under Christ will soon replace all human governments. Over 20,000 in the Washington Auditorium heard it. The speech was also carried by radio and telephone lines around the globe, reaching Central and South America, Europe, South Africa, islands of the Pacific, and lands of the Orient. Those who heard the talk in this way may well have numbered in the millions. Two leading Washington newspapers broke their contracts to publish the discourse. But sound cars were deployed by the brothers to 3 points in the city and 40 other places surrounding Washington, and from these the speech was rebroadcast to further audiences estimated at 120,000.
Then, in 1938, from Royal Albert Hall, in London, England, the straightforward discourse “Face the Facts” was carried to some 50 convention cities around the globe, with a total attendance of about 200,000. In addition, a vast radio audience heard that speech.
Thus, although Jehovah’s Witnesses were relatively few in number, their conventions played an important role in the public proclamation of the Kingdom message.
Postwar Conventions in Europe
For those who were present, certain conventions stand out above all others. This was true of the ones in Europe immediately after World War II.
One such convention was in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on August 5, 1945, less than four months after the Witnesses had been released from the German concentration camps. Some 2,500 delegates were expected; 2,000 of these would need rooming accommodations. To fill the need for places to sleep, local Witnesses spread straw on the floor of their homes. From all directions the delegates came by every means possible—by boat, in trucks, on bicycles, and some hitchhiking.
At that convention they laughed and wept, they sang, and they thanked Jehovah for his goodness. As one who attended said: “Theirs was the unspeakable joy of a theocratic organization just freed from fetters!” Before the war, there had been fewer than 500 Witnesses in the Netherlands. A total of 426 were arrested and imprisoned; of these, 117 died as a direct result of persecution. What joy when at the assembly some found loved ones that they thought were dead! Others shed tears as they searched in vain. That evening 4,000 listened with rapt attention to the public talk that explained why Jehovah’s Witnesses had been the objects of such intense persecution. In spite of what they had suffered, they were getting organized to press ahead with their God-given work.
The following year, 1946, the brothers in Germany arranged for a convention in Nuremberg. They were granted the use of the Zeppelinwiese, Hitler’s former parade grounds. On the second day of the convention, Erich Frost, who had personally experienced the brutality of the Gestapo and had spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, delivered the public talk “Christians in the Crucible.” The 6,000 Witnesses in attendance were joined by 3,000 of the public from Nuremberg for the occasion.
The final day of that convention proved to be one when sentences were to be announced at the war-crimes trials there in Nuremberg. Military authorities declared a curfew for that day, but after prolonged negotiations they agreed that in view of the stand that Jehovah’s Witnesses had taken in the face of Nazi opposition, it would be inappropriate to hinder them from concluding their convention in peace. Thus, on that final day, the brothers assembled to hear the stirring talk “Fearless Despite World Conspiracy.”
They saw the hand of Jehovah in what was taking place. At the very time that men representing a regime that had tried to exterminate them were being sentenced, Jehovah’s Witnesses were meeting to worship Jehovah at the place where Hitler had put on some of his most spectacular displays of Nazi power. Said the convention chairman: “Just being able to experience this day, which is just a preview of the triumph of God’s people over their enemies at the battle of Armageddon, was worth nine years in concentration camp.”
Other Memorable Conventions
As the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses has expanded, conventions have been held around the earth. All of them have had outstanding features for those who were present.
At Kitwe, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), in the hub of the Copperbelt, a convention was scheduled to be held during the visit of the president of the Watch Tower Society in 1952. The site was a large area on the outskirts of one of the mining camps, in a place now known as Chamboli. The top of an abandoned anthill was leveled, and a thatched shelter was built on it to serve as a platform. Other thatched shelters for sleeping, with double decks, extended out 200 yards [180 m] from the main seating area like the spokes of a wheel. Men and boys slept in some; women and girls in others. Some of the delegates had traveled two weeks by bicycle to be present. Others had walked for days and then finished the trip on a primitive bus.
During sessions those in the audience were very attentive, though seating was on hard bamboo benches in the open. They had come to hear, and they did not want to miss a word. The singing of that audience of 20,000 brought tears to the eyes—it was so beautiful. There was no accompaniment by musical instruments, but the harmony of the voices was exquisite. Not just in their singing but in every way, unity was manifest among these Witnesses, though they were from many backgrounds and tribes.
And can you imagine the feelings of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Portugal when, after a struggle for freedom of worship that had gone on for nearly 50 years, the Witnesses there gained legal recognition on December 18, 1974. At that time they numbered only about 14,000. Within a few days, 7,586 of them packed out a sports pavilion in Porto. The following day, another 39,284 overflowed a football stadium in Lisbon. Brothers Knorr and Franz were with them for that happy occasion, one that many will never forget.
Organizing International Gatherings
For well over half a century, Jehovah’s Witnesses have held large, multicity conventions simultaneously in many lands. Their feeling of international brotherhood has been heightened on these occasions when they have all been able to hear principal discourses originating in a key city.
It was not until 1946, however, that a large international convention drew together in one city delegates from many parts of the earth. This was at Cleveland, Ohio. Although travel in the postwar era was still difficult, attendance reached 80,000, including 302 delegates from 32 countries outside the United States. Sessions were held in 20 languages. Much practical instruction was given with a view to expanding the work of evangelizing. One of the convention highlights was Brother Knorr’s talk about problems of reconstruction and expansion. The audience applauded enthusiastically as they heard plans for enlargement of the Society’s headquarters printing and office facilities, as well as its radio broadcasting facilities, for establishment of branch offices in principal countries of the world, and for expansion of missionary work. Immediately after that convention, details were worked out so that Brothers Knorr and Henschel could make an around-the-world trip to implement what had been discussed.
In the years that followed, truly history-making conventions were held in New York City’s Yankee Stadium. At the first of these, from July 30 to August 6, 1950, delegates were present from 67 lands. Included on the program were brief reports by branch servants, missionaries, and other delegates. These gave the convention thrilling glimpses of the intense evangelizing work being done in all the lands from which they had come. The final day, attendance rose to 123,707 for the discourse “Can You Live Forever in Happiness on Earth?” The theme of the convention was “Theocracy’s Increase.” Attention was directed to the great increase in numbers. Yet, as the chairman, Grant Suiter, emphatically pointed out, this was not done to laud any brilliant minds within the visible organization. Rather, he declared: “The new strength of numbers is dedicated to Jehovah’s honor. That is the way it should be, and we would not have it any other way.”
In 1953, another convention was held at Yankee Stadium in New York. This time the attendance peaked at 165,829. As was true of the first convention there, the program was packed with discussions of thrilling Bible prophecies, practical counsel on how to accomplish the preaching of the good news, and reports from many lands. Although sessions began at about 9:30 a.m., they usually did not conclude until 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. The convention provided eight full days of joyful spiritual feasting.
For their largest convention, in New York in 1958, it was necessary to use not only Yankee Stadium but also the nearby Polo Grounds as well as overflow areas outside the stadiums to accommodate the convention crowds. On the final day, when every seat was filled, special permission was granted to use even the playing field of Yankee Stadium, and what a thrilling sight it was as thousands streamed in, removed their shoes, and sat on the grass! The count showed 253,922 in attendance to hear the public discourse. A further evidence of Jehovah’s blessing on the ministry of his servants was seen when 7,136 at this convention symbolized their dedication by water immersion—well over twice the number that were baptized on the historic occasion of Pentecost 33 C.E., as reported in the Bible!—Acts 2:41.
The entire operation of these conventions gave evidence of something much more than efficient organization. It was a manifestation of God’s spirit at work among his people. Brotherly love that has as its basis love for God was evident everywhere. There were no high-salaried organizers. Every department was manned by unpaid volunteers. Christian brothers and sisters, often family groups, cared for the refreshment stands. They also prepared hot meals, and in huge tents outside the stadium, they served the delegates at a rate of up to a thousand per minute. Tens of thousands—all of them glad to have a share in the work—served as attendants and cared for all the needed construction, cooking and serving of meals, cleanup, and much more.
More volunteers devoted hundreds of thousands of hours in order to fill the housing needs of delegates. In some years, to care for at least some of the conventioners, trailer and tent cities were organized. In 1953 the Witnesses harvested 40 acres [16 ha] of grain, free of charge, for a farmer in New Jersey who leased them his land for their trailer city. Sanitary facilities, lighting, showers, laundry rooms, cafeteria, and grocery stores were all installed to care for a population that exceeded 45,000. As they moved in, a city sprang up overnight. Scores of thousands more were housed in hotels and private homes in and around New York. It was a mammoth undertaking. With Jehovah’s blessing, it was carried out successfully.
Conventions on the Move
The members of this international brotherhood are keenly interested in fellow Witnesses in other lands. As a result, they have seized opportunities to attend conventions outside their home countries.
When the first of the Clean Worship Assembly series convened at Wembley Stadium in London, England, in 1951, Witnesses from 40 lands were present. The program emphasized the practical side of true worship and the making of the ministry one’s life career. From England, many Witnesses traveled to the Continent, where nine more conventions were to be held during the next two months. The largest of these was in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where 47,432 were present from 24 lands. The warmth of the brothers was demonstrated at the close of the program when the orchestra began to play and the German brothers broke out in a spontaneous farewell song commending to God their fellow Witnesses who had come from abroad to join them. Handkerchiefs were waved, and hundreds flocked across the field to express personal appreciation for this grand theocratic festival.
In 1955, more of the Witnesses arranged to visit their Christian brothers abroad at convention time. By means of two chartered ships (each with 700 passengers) and 42 chartered planes, delegates from the United States and Canada went to Europe. The European edition of the paper The Stars and Stripes, published in Germany, described the influx of Witnesses as “probably the biggest mass movement of Americans through Europe since the Allied invasion during World War II.” Other delegates came from Central and South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. In spite of efforts of Christendom’s clergy to prevent the Witnesses from holding their conventions in Rome and Nuremberg, these two and six more were held in Europe during the summer. Attendance ranged from 4,351 in Rome to 107,423 in Nuremberg. Another group of 17,729 assembled at the Waldbühne in what was then called West Berlin, which could be reached with somewhat less risk by brothers from the Eastern zone of that era. Many of these had been in prison for their faith or had family members who were then in prison, but they were still firm in faith. How appropriate the convention theme—“Triumphant Kingdom”!
Though there had already been many international conventions, what took place in 1963 was the first of its kind. It was an around-the-world convention. Beginning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the United States, it moved to New York; next, to four major cities in Europe; through the Middle East; on to India, Burma (now Myanmar), Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, New Zealand, Fiji, the Republic of Korea, and Hawaii; and then back to the North American mainland. In all, delegates from 161 lands were present. Total attendance exceeded 580,000. There were 583, from some 20 lands, that moved with the convention, attending in one country after another, clear around the globe. Special tours enabled them to see places of religious interest, and they also shared with their local brothers and sisters in the house-to-house ministry. These travelers cared for their own expenses.
Latin American delegates had been well represented at most of the international conventions. But in 1966-67, it was their turn to host the conventions. Those who attended will never forget the drama that brought to life the Bible account regarding Jeremiah and that helped everyone to appreciate its meaning for our day.* Bonds of Christian love were strengthened as visitors saw firsthand the background against which a vast campaign of Bible education is being carried on in Latin America. They were deeply moved by the strong faith of fellow believers, many of whom had overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles—family opposition, floods, loss of possessions—to be in attendance. They were greatly encouraged by experiences such as that of a frail Uruguayan special pioneer sister who was interviewed and who had with her on the platform many of the 80 persons she had already helped to progress to the point of Christian baptism! (As of 1992, she had helped 105 persons to the point of baptism. She was still frail and still a special pioneer!) How heartwarming, too, to meet missionaries from the very earliest Gilead classes still on the job in their assignments! Those conventions were a fine stimulus to the work being done in that part of the world. In many of those lands, there are now 10, 15, or even 20 times as many praisers of Jehovah as there were then.
A few years later, in 1970-71, it was possible for Witnesses from abroad to fellowship with their brothers at international conventions held in Africa. The largest of these conventions was in Lagos, Nigeria, where all the facilities had to be built from the ground up. To protect delegates from the hot sun, a bamboo city was built—seating areas, dormitories, cafeteria, and other departments. This required 100,000 bamboo poles and 36,000 large, woven reed mats—all of them prepared by the brothers and sisters. The program was put on in 17 languages simultaneously. Attendance reached 121,128, and 3,775 new Witnesses were baptized. Numerous tribal groups were represented, and many of those present were people who used to war against one another. But now, what a joy to see them united in the bonds of genuine Christian brotherhood!
After the convention, some of the foreign delegates traveled by bus into Igboland to see the area most seriously affected by the recent civil war. A great sensation was caused in town after town as the visitors were greeted and embraced by local Witnesses. People rushed into the streets to watch. Such a demonstration of love and unity between black and white was something they had never seen before.
In certain lands the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses makes it impossible for them all to come together in one place. However, on occasion, several large conventions have been held at the same time, followed by more, week after week. In 1969, the unity felt at conventions arranged in this way was enhanced by the fact that some of the principal speakers shuttled back and forth by air between the conventions, thus serving them all. In 1983 and 1988, a similar oneness was felt when a number of large conventions using the same language were tied together, even internationally, by telephone transmission of key discourses given by members of the Governing Body. The real foundation of the unity among Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, is the fact that they all worship Jehovah as the only true God, they all hold to the Bible as their guide, they all benefit from the same spiritual feeding program, they all look to Jesus Christ as their Leader, they all seek to manifest the fruits of God’s spirit in their lives, they all put their trust in God’s Kingdom, and they all share in taking the good news of that Kingdom to others.
Organized for International Praise to Jehovah
Jehovah’s Witnesses have increased in number to the point that they outnumber the population of scores of individual nations. In order for their conventions to accomplish the greatest good, much careful planning is required. However, simple published requests as to where Witnesses from various areas should attend are usually all that is needed to assure that there will be ample room for everyone. When international conventions are planned, it is now often necessary for the Governing Body to consider not only the number of Witnesses from other countries who would like to go and are in position to do so but also the size of available convention facilities, the number of local Witnesses who will be attending, and the amount of housing available for delegates; then a maximum figure can be allotted for each country. That was true in connection with the three “Godly Devotion” Conventions held in Poland in 1989.
For those conventions some 90,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses were expected from Poland, in addition to thousands of newly interested persons. Many were also invited to attend from Britain, Canada, and the United States. Large delegations were welcomed from Italy, France, and Japan. Others came from Scandinavia and Greece. At least 37 lands were represented. For certain portions of the program, it was necessary to interpret Polish or English talks into as many as 16 other languages. Total attendance was 166,518.
Large groups of Witnesses at these conventions had come from what was then the Soviet Union and from Czechoslovakia; sizable groups were also present from other Eastern European countries. Hotels and school dormitories could not house everyone. Hospitably, the Polish Witnesses opened their hearts and their homes, gladly sharing what they had. One congregation of 146 provided sleeping places for over 1,200 delegates. For some who attended these conventions, it was the first time they had ever been at a large gathering of more than 15 or 20 of Jehovah’s people. Their hearts welled up with appreciation as they looked out at the tens of thousands in the stadiums, joined with them in prayer, and united their voices in songs of praise to Jehovah. When they mingled together between sessions, there were warm embraces, even though difference of language often kept them from saying in words what was in their hearts.
As the convention came to an end, their hearts were filled with gratitude to Jehovah, who made it all possible. In Warsaw, after the farewell comments by the chairman, the audience burst into applause that did not abate for at least ten minutes. After the final song and prayer, the applause resumed, and the audience lingered in the stands for a long time. They had waited many years for this occasion, and they did not want it to end.
The following year, 1990, less than five months after the lifting of a 40-year-long ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in what was then East Germany, another thrilling international convention was held, this one in Berlin. Among the 44,532 present were delegates from 65 different countries. From some lands, just a few had come; from Poland, some 4,500. Words could not express the deep feelings of those who had never before had the freedom to attend such a convention, and when the entire audience joined in songs of praise to Jehovah, they could not hold back their tears of joy.
Later that year, when a similar convention was held in São Paulo, Brazil, two large stadiums were needed to accommodate the international audience of 134,406. This was followed by a convention in Argentina, where again two stadiums were used simultaneously to accommodate the international audience. As 1991 began, further international conventions were getting under way in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand. Large audiences from many nations were also on hand that year for conventions in Eastern Europe—in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and what is now Croatia. And in 1992, delegates from 28 lands counted it a special privilege to be among the 46,214 in St. Petersburg for the first truly international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
Opportunities for Regular Spiritual Refreshment
Not all the conventions held by Jehovah’s Witnesses are international gatherings. However, the Governing Body arranges for major conventions once a year, and the same program is enjoyed worldwide in many languages. These conventions may be quite large, providing opportunity for fellowship with other Witnesses from many places, or they may be smaller and held in many cities, making it easier for new ones to attend and enabling the public in hundreds of smaller cities to get a good closeup view of a large cross section of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In addition, once a year each circuit (made up of perhaps 20 congregations) assembles for a two-day program of spiritual counsel and encouragement.* Also, since September 1987, a special assembly day, an upbuilding one-day program, is arranged for each circuit once a year. Where possible, a member of the Society’s headquarters staff or someone from the local branch office is sent out to share in the program. These programs are greatly appreciated by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In many areas the assembly sites are not distant or hard to reach. But that is not always the case. A traveling overseer recalls an elderly couple who walked 47 miles [76 km] with suitcases and blankets to attend a circuit assembly in Zimbabwe.
Field service during the convention is no longer a feature at all these assemblies, but that is not because the Witnesses in any way view it as less important. In most cases people who live near the assembly sites are now being visited regularly by the local Witnesses—in some instances, every few weeks. The assembly delegates keep alert to opportunities for informal witnessing, and their Christian conduct gives a powerful witness in another way.
Evidence of True Brotherhood
The brotherhood manifest among the Witnesses at their conventions is readily evident to observers. They can see that there is no partiality among them and that genuine warmth is evident even among those who may be meeting one another for the first time. At the time of the Divine Will International Assembly in New York in 1958, the New York Amsterdam News (August 2) reported: “Everywhere Negroes, whites and Orientals, from all stations in life and all parts of the world, mingled joyously and freely. . . . The worshiping Witnesses from 120 lands have lived and worshiped together peacefully showing Americans how easily it can be done. . . . The Assembly is a shining example of how people can work and live together.”
More recently, when Jehovah’s Witnesses held simultaneous conventions in Durban and in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1985, the delegates included all the major racial and language groups in South Africa, as well as representatives from 23 other lands. The warm fellowship among the 77,830 in attendance was readily evident. “This is beautiful,” said a young Indian woman. “To see Coloureds, Indians, whites, and blacks all mixing together has changed my whole outlook on life.”
This feeling of brotherhood goes beyond smiles, handshakes, and calling one another “brother” and “sister.” As an example, when arrangements were being made for the “Everlasting Good News” Assembly worldwide in 1963, Jehovah’s Witnesses were notified that if they would like to help others financially to attend a convention, the Society would be glad to see that the funds benefited brothers in all parts of the earth. There was no solicitation, and nothing was taken for administrative expenses. The funds all went for the stated purpose. In this way, 8,179 were assisted to attend the convention. Delegates from every country in Central and South America were given help, as were thousands from Africa and many in the Middle East and the Far East. A large proportion of those assisted were brothers and sisters who had devoted many years to the full-time ministry.
Toward the end of 1978, a convention was scheduled to be held in Auckland, New Zealand. Witnesses in the Cook Islands knew about it and longed to be present. But the economy in the islands was such that it would have cost each one a small fortune to make the trip. However, loving spiritual brothers and sisters in New Zealand contributed the round-trip fares for some 60 of the islanders. How happy they were to be present to share the spiritual feast with their Maori, Samoan, Niuean, and Caucasian brothers!
Typical of the spirit among Jehovah’s Witnesses was what took place at the conclusion of the “Divine Justice” District Convention in Montreal, Canada, in 1988. For four days Arabic, English, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish delegates had been enjoying the same program but in their own languages. However, at the end of the final session, all 45,000 of them joined together in the Olympic Stadium in a moving display of brotherhood and unity of purpose. Together they sang, each group in its own tongue, “Come sing with us . . . ‘Jehovah reigns; let earth rejoice.’”
Seventy more of such dramas were presented at conventions during the next 25 years.
From 1947 to 1987, these had been held twice each year. Down till 1972, they were three-day assemblies; then a two-day program was instituted.
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“I was much impressed by the spirit of love and brotherly kindness”
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Convention trains—all aboard!
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Not high-salaried convention organizers, but unpaid volunteers
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Unity between black and white
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Seven Significant Convention Resolutions
In 1922, the resolution entitled “A Challenge to World Leaders” called on them to prove that humans have the wisdom to rule this earth or else to admit that peace, life, liberty, and endless happiness can come only from Jehovah through Jesus Christ.
In 1923, there was “A Warning to All Christians” of the urgent necessity to flee from organizations that fraudulently claim to represent God and Christ.
In 1924, “Ecclesiastics Indicted” laid bare the unscriptural doctrines and practices of Christendom’s clergy.
In 1925, “Message of Hope” showed why those that claim to be the guiding lights of the world have failed to satisfy man’s greatest needs and how only God’s Kingdom can do so.
In 1926, “A Testimony to the Rulers of the World” put them on notice that Jehovah is the only true God and that Jesus Christ now rules as earth’s rightful King. It urged the rulers to use their influence to turn the minds of the people to the true God so that disaster might not befall them.
In 1927, the “Resolution to the Peoples of Christendom” exposed the financial-political-religious combine that oppresses mankind. It urged the people to abandon Christendom and put their confidence in Jehovah and his Kingdom in the hands of Christ.
In 1928, the “Declaration Against Satan and for Jehovah” made clear that Jehovah’s anointed King, Jesus Christ, will soon restrain Satan and destroy his evil organization, and it urged all who love righteousness to take their stand on Jehovah’s side.
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Features of Some of the Big Conventions
Hundreds of enthusiastic delegates arrived by ship, thousands by plane, tens of thousands by automobile and bus
Good organization and lots of willing workers were required to locate and assign sufficient rooming accommodations
During these eight-day conventions, hot meals—tens of thousands of them—were regularly served to delegates
In 1953, a trailer and tent city accommodated more than 45,000 delegates
In New York, in 1958, 7,136 got baptized—more than at any one time since Pentecost of 33 C.E.
Greeting signs from many lands were displayed, and sessions were held in 21 languages, in New York in 1953
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Delegates to the IBSA convention in Winnipeg, Man., Canada, in 1917
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J. F. Rutherford speaking at Cedar Point, Ohio, in 1919. He urged all to share zealously in announcing God’s Kingdom, using “The Golden Age”
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Convention at Cedar Point in 1922. The call went out: “Advertise the King and Kingdom”
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George Gangas was at Cedar Point in 1922. For some 70 years since then he has zealously proclaimed God’s Kingdom
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Delegates to the 1931 convention in Columbus, Ohio, who enthusiastically embraced the name Jehovah’s Witnesses
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“New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures” being released by N. H. Knorr in 1950
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Discourses by F. W. Franz on fulfillment of Bible prophecy were a convention highlight (New York, 1958)
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For many years field service was a prominent part of every convention.
Los Angeles, U.S.A., 1939 (bottom); Stockholm, Sweden, 1963 (inset)
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When J. F. Rutherford spoke from Washington, D.C., in 1935, the message was carried by radio and telephone lines to six continents
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In Nuremberg, Germany, in 1946, Erich Frost gave the fiery discourse “Christians in the Crucible”
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Open-air convention in Kitwe, Northern Rhodesia, during visit of N. H. Knorr in 1952
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In 1958 an audience of 253,922, overflowing two large stadiums in New York, heard the message “God’s Kingdom Rules—Is the World’s End Near?”
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Grant Suiter, convention chairman at Yankee Stadium in 1950
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John Groh (seated), discussing convention organization with George Couch in 1958
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In 1963 an around-the-world convention was held, with delegates from some 20 lands traveling with it right around the globe
Kyoto, Japan (lower left), was one of 27 convention cities. Delegates in the Republic of Korea got acquainted (center). A Maori greeting in New Zealand (lower right)
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A convention that served 17 language groups simultaneously, in a bamboo city built for the occasion (Lagos, Nigeria, 1970)
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Three large conventions were held in Poland in 1989, with delegates on hand from 37 lands
T. Jaracz (on the right) spoke to delegates in Poznan
Thousands were baptized in Chorzów
The audience applauded at great length in Warsaw
Delegates from what was then the U.S.S.R. (below)
Portions of the program in Chorzów were translated into 15 languages