From Small Beginnings to Spiritual Prosperity
as told by Lloyd Burtch
I GREW up as a barefoot boy among maples, oaks and pine trees in the midwestern part of the United States. But the old log house where I lived, the log barn and the oaken bucket hanging in the well disappeared a long time ago. After living on the farm for a few years, we moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where mother died. I then moved to South Dakota to live with my brother.
While working on ranches in South Dakota, I read one of Pastor Russell’s sermons in a farm newspaper. As I recall, the subject was about “Armageddon and the End of the World.” This aroused my interest greatly, stirring up a desire to learn more about the Bible. The year was 1912. The following year found me in Oregon working on a dairy farm. While I was there a young man came out from the city of Portland to talk to the family on the farm about the truths of God’s Word. I listened with rapt attention and was soon convinced that what he said was the truth. Not long after that I dedicated my life to the service of God, symbolizing it by water baptism. What a great joy that was!
My first experience in the service of God was distributing tracts on Bible subjects from house to house. My companions and I used a paper called “The Bible Students Monthly.” We would go out early in the morning and toss these Bible publications onto the porches of the people. Beginning around 6 a.m., we would be through three hours later. This was our regular service to God every Sunday. It was in this manner that part of the ministry was carried on at that time. From a small beginning it has grown and prospered.
When I heard that Pastor Russell was coming to visit Portland, I was thrilled. I made it a point to be present when the time arrived for him to give his advertised talk “The World on Fire.” Not only was I there in the high school auditorium where the talk was given, but I was sitting on the stage directly behind Brother Russell. For over two hours he spoke about creation, faith structures, the soul and things to come. The audience listened in fascinated silence. He spoke without notes in a graceful and easy manner. That was a big day in my life, a great joy that I have never forgotten.
On October 31, 1916, Brother Russell died. What would happen now to the work of bearing witness to God’s purposes and truths? Would the work go on? Many of us wondered about it. I was told by some who were close to Brother Russell that he had realized that a great preaching work was yet to be done. He had said: “We must go to the people. We must take the message to them.” The work did continue.
A few of us had the privilege of showing the Photo-Drama of Creation, an illustrated Bible lecture with colored projection slides and motion pictures. The lecture was on recordings that were synchronized with the slides and the movie film. But trouble lay ahead for us, and we could sense its coming. We were in for great testings of our faith.
Religious leaders had manifested much hatred for Pastor Russell and for us who distributed his enlightening publications. The world empire of false religion, called in the Bible by the name “Babylon the Great,” began closing in on us. (Rev. 14:8) Because of persecutions, fear gripped many of the brothers. Unable to stand up under the trial of their faith, many left God’s organization. A strong exposure of the opposing clergy appeared in the book The Finished Mystery, also known as the “Seventh Volume.” It caused an intensification of religious persecution, with the religious leaders of Christendom scheming to do away with “the Russellites,” as they called us.
PERSECUTION SETS IN
Following the example of the persecutors of the early Christians, the religious leaders soon had the Bible-study book The Finished Mystery banned. Nevertheless, we continued our house-to-house visits, taking orders for the book, which we would deliver on a return visit. With the declaration of war by the United States on April 6, 1917, our enemies played upon public patriotism and emotions to intensify the persecution of us. Babylon the Great was becoming ever more hateful toward us.
As if persecution was not enough trouble, the Devil began to cause divisions and fighting within the ranks of God’s people in an effort to disrupt the organization from within. Some ambitious individuals in the organization began selfishly to seek power for themselves. They claimed that those in the headquarters of the organization, known as the Bible House, were compromising and were too broad-minded. They called them “broadviews.” This, of course, led to confusion and misunderstanding among the brothers. What were they to do? Should they remain loyal to those in the Bible House or leave the organization? A number of persons who had prominent positions of oversight in the congregations left the organization. They called themselves the “Standfasters,” getting their name from the Bible book of Galatians where, in the Authorized Version of the Bible, it speaks of standing fast in the “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” (Ga 5:1) The Standfasters soon began wrangling among themselves.
It was during the trying times of 1918 that the Bible tract called “Kingdom News” began to be published. The first issue was released March 15, 1918, and it was my privilege to have part in its distribution.
As I continued to engage in the Christian work of distributing Bible publications I had an experience similar to that had by the apostle Paul when he was in Philippi. (Acts 16:19-24) I was put in jail because of my Christian work. One Sunday morning a brother and I got up at 5 a.m. and walked to our preaching territory. We were through distributing tracts to the houses by nine o’clock. It so happened, however, that the acting mayor of the city lived in that territory. When he found the Bible message we left on his front porch, he came out looking for us and finally found us waiting for a streetcar. We were arrested and taken to the police station. Unable to find anything seditious about our literature, they charged us with distributing literature without a license and sentenced us to spend seventeen days in jail as well as to pay a fine of $200. Unable to pay the fine, we stayed in jail for thirty days, at which time some of the brothers paid what was left of the fine so we could be released.
Our first big convention was at Cedar Point, Ohio, September 1-8, 1919. It caused a big change in the brothers, bringing them a new spirit and a new outlook. The officials of the Watch Tower Society who had been unjustly sent to prison were now free and determined to push the worldwide proclaiming of the good news of God’s kingdom.
The clergy of Christendom had been pleased when the Society’s officials were sent to prison on June 21, 1918. They had remarked to one another: “They are ‘finished ministers.’” Those persecutors had in mind the book The Finished Mystery when they called us “finished ministers,” in the belief that we were through as proclaimers of the good news. They hoped that they had seen the last of us Bible Students, but our convention at Cedar Point in 1919 let them know that we were very much alive and active, and we have continued to be so ever since then.
While in Lansing, Michigan, in the year 1920, I wrote to the Watch Tower Society in Brooklyn expressing my desire to serve at the headquarters there, which is known as Bethel. Shortly thereafter I received an invitation to come to Bethel, but it was on a temporary basis to do some special work there. I arrived at Bethel in June 1920 to begin a new experience, a new work and a new joy.
I was assigned to help wrap for mailing The Golden Age, which now is called “Awake!” The particular issue I was working on contained a stinging exposé of the brutal treatment given Jehovah’s witnesses at the instigation of the clergy of Christendom. This issue, No. 27, was declaring God’s judgments against Babylon the Great, the world empire of false religion. My temporary assignment at Bethel became a permanent one.
In time I was assigned to work on a flatbed printing press in the Watch Tower Society’s printing plant, which, at that time, was located at 35 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. This was the Society’s first printing plant. With only three floors to the building the printing operation was confined to a mere 3,000 square feet. In the basement we had a printing press that we fondly called “the old battleship.” It so filled the room that there was barely enough space to move around. On the third floor, where I worked, there was a small hand-fed flatbed press. Twenty of us worked here like busy bees in a hive. Despite the cramped quarters we enjoyed every minute of our work, because it was service to God.
We printed many things on that flatbed press, such as covers for the booklets Millions Now Living Will Never Die and Talking with the Dead. When “the old battleship” was busy printing The Golden Age and booklets, we printed the Watch Tower magazine on the flatbed press. At that time a printing of 60,000 copies of each issue was considered to be a stupendous number of magazines. Now The Watchtower has a printing of 4,300,000 copies in 66 languages, a tremendous growth from a small beginning.
In those days we had another printing shop in the Bethel home, the place of residence for the workers at the Society’s headquarters. In a small room under the dining room we had two linotype machines, two small hand-fed presses and a cramped composing department. From these small beginnings of printing efforts the Society has grown to have three huge buildings, the largest having thirteen stories, for printing, binding and mailing Bible publications. This gigantic printing plant keeps more than a million of Jehovah’s witnesses supplied with the Bible-study aids that they distribute in their ministry. When this is compared with the 8,801 who engaged in the ministry back in 1922, it is very evident that we have grown from a small beginning to spiritual prosperity.
On March 1, 1922, we moved our printing equipment from Myrtle Avenue to larger quarters at 18 Concord Street in Brooklyn. With a small truck we moved most of the heavy things. When we came to the big cylinders of the “battleship” press, we found them to be too heavy for the truck to carry. We were stumped. We did not know how we would be able to get them to the new quarters, but when we awoke the next morning our problem was solved.
Two inches of snow fell unexpectedly during the night, and it solved our problem. We made a skid and rolled the cylinders onto it. Hooking the truck to the skid, we dragged it to the new location, with the skid sliding smoothly on the snow. The cylinders were then lowered through the basement window at the place on Concord Street. For years thereafter, the plant manager, R. J. Martin, found pleasure in telling the brothers at conventions about this unexpected snowfall that solved our moving problem.
With more room to carry on our printing activities, we decided to get some more equipment. Some of the machinery we bought was new and some second hand. One of the secondhand Premier presses that was bought is still being used in our big, modern printing plant today. It is more than fifty years old. Our production in the new place on Concord Street increased to about 2,000 books a day and more than one million copies of The Watchtower a year.
In this same year of 1922 we attended a grand assembly at Cedar Point, Ohio. A fine spirit was in evidence. Everyone in attendance was joyful over the way the organization was getting reestablished after the crippling blows struck it by the enemy in 1918. The big day of this assembly was when a banner over the platform was unfurled, revealing the slogan: “Advertise the King and Kingdom.” This was electrifying, and it stimulated all there to take hold of the ministry with greater zeal.
It was also in 1922 that the Society purchased property on Staten Island in New York City for the purpose of erecting a radio station. One Saturday afternoon the president of the Society, Brother Rutherford, took some of us with him to Staten Island. Upon arriving at the property that had been purchased, he pointed to a spot in the heart of the woods on the land and said: “All right, boys. Here is where we start digging. We are going to build a radio station on our land.” And did we dig! Every weekend during that summer we were at it.
On one Sunday afternoon following a day’s work, we were gathered around a table outdoors while eating. Brother Rutherford told us about some of his experiences in prison. He was unjustly imprisoned in 1918 and released by court order in 1919. While there he became determined to strike hard at Babylon the Great. He said: “I would take hold of the bars of my window, look up at the stars and say: ‘Lord, if you ever let me out of this place I will do my best to cut old Babylon right in the middle.’” Now he was endeavoring to carry out his resolution. During the years that went by after that, he did hit hard at Babylon the Great, the world empire of false religion. Because of his frankness in speaking the revealing truth about false religion, the clergy of Christendom came to hate the very mention of his name.
At an assembly I attended in Toronto, Canada, in 1927, I heard Brother Rutherford give the lecture “Freedom for the Peoples.” He gave false religion a terrific blast in that talk. During the lecture the radio announcer for the National Broadcasting Company, who was on the platform, felt certain that his telephone would ring at any moment to inform him that the talk had been cut off the air. Despite the cutting truths that were spoken about false religion, the broadcast continued without interruption. And so until he died in 1942, Brother Rutherford did not let up in his offensive against Babylon the Great. His revealing exposé of the hypocrisy and unscriptural teachings and actions of the religious leaders of Christendom made him many bitter enemies among the clergy. They resorted to all sorts of unlawful means, including mob violence, in an effort to silence him and Jehovah’s witnesses.
A NEW ADMINISTRATION BEGINS
Following the death of Brother Rutherford, a new administration began with Nathan Homer Knorr as president of the Watch Tower Society. A gigantic training work got under way, having as its objective the making of all associated with the Society ministers capable of giving sermons at the doors. To help achieve this objective a ministry school was begun on February 16, 1942, at the Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn. At the inauguration of this school, I recall hearing Brother Knorr say: ‘If the world does not learn anything else from us, it will learn one thing—that Jehovah’s witnesses have been with Jesus and learned from him.’
All over the world theocratic ministry schools were established by Jehovah’s witnesses in their local congregations. In them old and young have been learning to speak the pure language of God’s Word in unity and in harmony. The Watchtower Bible School of Gilead was also established in New York in 1943 to train missionaries, and they have been sent out to open up new territories and to strengthen the already-existing congregations. Additionally, since 1959, centrally located Kingdom Ministry Schools have sprung up in many parts of the world to equip overseers to give the best possible spiritual oversight to the flock of God. As might be expected, this training for the ministry has resulted in a great increase in Jehovah’s organization as the preaching of the good news of God’s kingdom has continued to expand. Jehovah has blessed this work, giving these proclaimers of his kingdom unity and mutual love.
In 1942, when this intensive educational program got under way, there were 5,232 congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses that reported worldwide, with some 106,000 persons sharing in the preaching activity each month. Now there are 22,761 congregations and 1,040,836 proclaimers of the Kingdom good news around the world.
It seems to me that Psalm 90:16, 17 would well apply to these servants of the Most High. “May your activity appear to your own servants and your splendor upon their sons. And let the pleasantness of Jehovah our God prove to be upon us, and the work of our hands do you firmly establish upon us. Yes, the work of our hands, do you firmly establish it.”
Assemblies, too, have contributed to the growth of the theocratic organization. In 1955 I had the privilege of attending conventions of God’s people that were held in Europe. Never will I forget the touching scene I saw in Nuremberg, Germany. At the close of the assembly there on Sunday, August 14, a rain that had been coming down during the day stopped and a beautiful rainbow appeared in the sky as the setting sun came out of the clouds. In this beautiful setting, the great crowd of some 100,000 persons began waving handkerchiefs in farewell to Brother Knorr and other representatives of the Society’s headquarters who were on the platform. As they did this the orchestra played “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” This demonstration of warm Christian love and unity was so moving that many of us had tears in our eyes.
Of course, there have been other outstanding conventions in recent years too. Particularly do I think of the Divine Will International Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York in 1958. For that assembly 253,922 persons from 123 lands overflowed both Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds to receive Bible instruction, and 7,136 new Witnesses were baptized. Then, in 1963, there was the marvelous “Everlasting Good News” Assembly, which actually traveled around the world with 583 delegates, convening with thousands more in twenty-four principal cities in the course of ten weeks. For this assembly the total attendance was 580,509 persons from 161 lands, and 16,653 were immersed. What marvelous evidence of the spiritual prosperity of Jehovah’s visible organization!
When I look back over my years in God’s service to 1920, I can clearly see how Jehovah’s organization has, from a small beginning, grown to great spiritual prosperity. From our small group of only about 8,000 ministers in 1920, I have witnessed a growth to more than one million ministers who are preaching in 194 lands and in 162 languages. This indeed has been a happy experience. I have seen Jehovah lift his dedicated people from bondage and restraint in 1918 to freedom, making them the greatest body in the world that is proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom and teaching his Scriptural truths. Jehovah has blessed his people with marvelous spiritual prosperity.
The growth of our printing facilities since 1920 is another indication of Jehovah’s blessing on his organization. When we began printing at 35 Myrtle Avenue, we had “the old battleship” press and one hand-fed flatbed press. Now we have thirty-one presses, with more being added. Instead of only three floors with 3,000 square feet of floor space, we have 22 square blocks of floor space. In 1920 we could bind 2,000 books a day; today we bind as many as 43,400 in a single day. In 1920 we printed 60,000 copies of each issue of The Watchtower, with all being hand-fed into the small flatbed press. Our present capacity with all presses running steady is 1,250,000 magazines a day. What we did in one year back in 1922 in the way of printing magazines we can now do in one day. This marvelous expansion is all for the glory and honor of Jehovah God.
To witness this growth of Jehovah’s modern-day organization from a small beginning, as I have, has been a great blessing. The great increase in our capacity to print Bible publications as well as our ability to distribute those publications has made possible the fulfillment of the prophecy that the good news of God’s kingdom would be proclaimed in all the world as a witness to the nations. (Matt. 24:14) Much has been accomplished, but the end is not yet. More is to be done until Jehovah vindicates his name by bringing the present wicked system of things to its end and ushering in his promised new era of peace and righteousness.