Moving Forward in Jehovah’s Service
AS TOLD BY FRANZ ZUERCHER
ON A cold, damp day in February 1912 I stand waiting on the station platform of a small village in Switzerland for the train that will take me first to Berne and then to Paris. I am a little over twenty years old and have decided to go to Paris to improve my knowledge of French.
Beside me stands my father, hardy and erect, his strong features grave and stern. The train draws into the station and the time comes for father to take leave of his youngest son. A brief farewell and “Don’t forget your prayers, my son!” are his only words as I board the train. This parting admonition impresses me as I begin my journey into the world, and into a new life.
In Paris a school friend meets me. The throb of Paris, the sparkling vivacity of its people, have a stimulating effect on me, and soon I am making other good friends with whom I can discuss the many problems of life.
Then one day the director of a large business establishment invites me to accompany him to a Christian Science meeting. I expect to find something for the “inner man,” some answers to questions that increasingly occupy my mind, such as the purpose of life and the future of mankind. However, Christian Science disappoints me from the start when I see a woman mount the platform to preside over the meeting. Soon I lay the literature aside.
Later I spend an evening at a Salvation Army meeting. General Booth, the son of the founder of the organization, is expected to be present. I go along. A large crowd is already gathered. Soon the General appears on the platform with his officer’s staff in his hand. But I am not drawn to this method of evangelizing, for it strikes me as being like a subtle form of hypnotism. As a result, a period of lethargy in religious matters descends upon me.
Now it is summer of the year 1914. Paris is in a fever! Jean Jaurès, a politician in the French socialist camp, is murdered. Almost at the same time Archduke Ferdinand, successor to the Austrian throne, is assassinated in Sarajevo. Now the whole world is in the grip of suspense!
Then the lightning bolt strikes: world war has begun! Never shall I forget the stillness that lay over this so gay city in the wake of this event. I witness the moving farewells, the poignant scenes at Paris stations. Parents part from sons, fathers from wives and children, and the trains roll to the front.
Switzerland, too, is mobilizing and my friend and I consider it our duty to return home and “rally to the flag.” So we travel home through the night, and the same day are in uniform. When I leave my parents, my father says simply: “If you have to kill, my son, then never be cruel.” Even though Switzerland is not at war, soon I am at the Swiss frontier. There I begin once more to turn over in my mind, with increasing unrest, the many questions that haunt me. Why these shocking conditions in the world? Why war among “Christian” nations? I become withdrawn, and although I am promoted twice, my mental attitude is unsettled.
My first military furlough is due and I go home for a few days. I am heavy of heart and searching for answers to those renewed, tormenting “whys.” Perhaps our Protestant minister can help me. He is glad to see me and I appeal to him with the words: “Do you remember that you told us boys that the World Court in The Hague offered a guarantee to young men building careers? I believed you, and now—where do we stand?” His answer to me is: “Aach! Ja! You were always a rather brooding, meditative youth. Of course it is sad what is happening around us, but, look! it is a judgment from God that we must endure and we must pray that He preserve our beautiful country from war and destruction. Just go quietly on your way, and everything will be all right.” I think to myself, “Those are certainly nice sentiments, but answers to my questions they are not!” For the third time I am disappointed in religion.
I bid the minister good-day, and as I walk home I realize that man apparently cannot help me. However, I feel a gradual strengthening of purpose in me and I resolve to find a way out. To this day I can still recall that quiet place, that little piece of earth where I then knelt down before God and prayed that I might be led in the right way.
Later I receive an assignment to work in the Federal Palace in Berne. There, every Sunday, I attend different religious meetings in my search for truth. On leaving one meeting I get into a conversation with a serious-looking man. He tells me he is a preacher of the Adventist Mission. I agree to have him study the Bible with me.
Then one day someone sends me the six volumes entitled “Studies in the Scriptures,” by Charles T. Russell. I find the titles of these books most fascinating. With feverish interest I begin to read the volume entitled “The Divine Plan of the Ages,” and, as I read, the conviction that I am finding Bible truth in these Scripture studies becomes ever stronger. I desire to learn more and so begin attending the meetings of the Bible Students, later called Jehovah’s witnesses, who are the ones distributing this literature.
The friendly Adventist preacher continues his visits, and so I have abundant opportunity to compare truths. Soon I tell him he need not visit me any longer, because I am convinced that I have found the truth. He is visibly disappointed, and with a penetrating look asks me, “Have you fallen into the hands of the Bible Students?” My affirmative answer saddens him, but we part on friendly terms. (I might add here that later, after a lapse of more than thirty years, while I was standing on the street distributing Bible literature during an assembly in a town near Berne, this same gentleman unexpectedly approached me and said: “Mr. Zuercher, I see you have remained true to your faith, whereas I left mine, as I recognized many errors in the Adventist teachings.”)
Although I know I have found the truth, I have not yet officially taken the step of dedicating my life to Jehovah. One day—it is in the autumn of 1918—for recreation I attend a concert of classical music. Casually I pull a colored piece of paper out of my pocket. I do not even remember how it got there. It is a program of the “Autumn Day-Assembly of the Bible Students Association in County Hall in Berne.” I read the text printed on it, which says: “The end of all things is at hand.”—1 Pet. 4:7, AV.
At this, a feeling of guilt steals over me. I think, “And you sit here in this worldly place instead of attending the assembly!” I note further on the printed invitation that an opportunity for baptism is afforded. Candidates are urged to read the chapter, “The Baptism of the New Creation” in the sixth volume of the Studies in the Scriptures. Promptly I leave the music hall to go home and begin reading this chapter prayerfully. It is like scales falling from my eyes! As that Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, so I ask myself, “What prevents me from getting baptized?” (Acts 8:36) Thus, at that assembly in 1918, I am baptized in water in symbol of my dedication to do God’s will. This day is indelibly impressed upon my memory, and from then on I begin to preach wherever I go. Yes, this “first love of the truth” is so inestimably precious!
Now another decision faces me. I begin to appreciate more and more that a Christian cannot serve two masters and that in regard to the conflicts of this world he must be neutral. This issue becomes vital, and I am determined to give an uncompromising answer. The opportunity to do so presents itself quickly, for I am called to go to Officers’ School. I recognize this is the moment to act, for in me echoes the thought, “I can not and will not continue to be a part of this ungodly system.”
Then I sit down and carefully compose a letter explaining my attitude regarding Christian neutrality, sending it to the proper authorities, as well as a copy to my immediate superior. This gentleman, although an officer himself, respects my convictions. Soon my case comes up before an Officers’ Examining Board, where I experience the truth of Jesus’ words at Mark 13:11: “Do not be anxious beforehand about what to speak.” I hardly have time to realize what has happened when I hear the words: “You are discharged from the army.” Fervently I thank Jehovah for his faithful assistance.
MORE FORWARD STEPS
Later, in the summer of 1923, another outstanding day comes in my life. Almost the same day that I am informed that I have been nominated as Secretary-Treasurer in a branch institution of the state, in spite of my stand on the neutrality question, I also receive an invitation from the branch office of the Watch Tower Society in Berne inviting me to enter the full-time ministry!
Two ways open up before me, one offering “career and prestige,” and the other exhorting, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few.” (Matt. 9:37) I realize there is but one right thing to do, and that is to serve Jehovah as fully as I can! So I advise the Berne office of the Watch Tower Society of my decision. Then I enter the office of my superior to hand in my resignation from state service. Kindly he places his hand on my shoulder and warmly wishes me joy and success in my new career.
My first assignment in the full-time ministry is a tour with the “Photo-Drama of Creation,” a collection of Biblical films and slides, through Belgium, the Saar, the Rhine Valley, Alsace-Lorraine and Switzerland, accompanied by two brothers in the faith. Every week we have a four-evening presentation and follow-up lectures. Halls are filled to capacity with attentive audiences. Often when I look out over the sea of expectant faces from behind the curtain before the “Drama” begins, the words burst from my lips: “My Lord and my God! What honor is this you give to men of dust to let them spread abroad your glorious Kingdom truths!”
My share in the Photo-Drama work comes to an end in the spring of 1925, after well over a hundred towns have been served. The president of the Watch Tower Society, J. F. Rutherford, has sent word that the time has come for more emphasis on another method of proclaiming the Kingdom, namely, preaching the message from house to house, supported by public lectures. I am called back to Berne, where I am assigned to work on the magazine The Golden Age, which work gives me deep satisfaction. Later I am given other assignments at the branch, helping to attend to the needs of the congregations and other full-time ministers under our care.
Unforgettable, too, are my annual visits to the congregations in France and Belgium, and the fellowship I enjoy with the friendly band of full-time ministers who have come over from England. They are courageously plowing the ground and sowing Kingdom seed in this virgin territory, especially in France. These visits, which I am privileged to make with Brother Harbeck, the one in charge of the work in the Berne office, are a source of great spiritual strength to me in spite of the great exertion required.
At this time the world scene is changing rapidly, for Nazism has raised its ugly head in Germany. The waves of political unrest soon pile up so high that they dash on to the border line and sweep into Switzerland.
Simultaneous with bitter persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, hostility against Jehovah’s witnesses flares up. In Switzerland, too, there are willing tools of the Devil waiting to fan the flames of hatred against Jehovah’s witnesses. We are often misrepresented to the authorities by our enemies as a highly suspicious, nihilistic organization, inimical to the State. For a time it seems that the authorities are influenced by this propaganda, as legal proceedings are started against us on the basis of “degradation of religion.” However, the results are mostly suspended sentences.
Meantime, in Germany, the Nazi fury rages and our brothers are exposed to frightful, inhuman persecution, which they withstand even at the cost of their lives. Documented material that reaches our office about such persecution is carefully preserved. Then Brother Rutherford approves publishing a book giving the evidence of the sufferings of Jehovah’s witnesses in Germany. It appears under the title “Kreuzzug gegen das Christentum” [”Crusade Against Christianity”] in the German language. It is also published in French and Polish.
In the summer of 1940 Brother Harbeck goes to America to attend a convention of Jehovah’s witnesses in Detroit. He finds that he is now unable to return to Switzerland, since he was originally sent by the Society from the United States. Thus Brother Rutherford appoints me as branch servant.
With the outbreak of World War II so many brothers take a positive stand on the neutrality question that the authorities begin to suspect us of being an organized antimilitary movement. One day in July 1940 our branch headquarters is occupied by a detachment of soldiers and a rigorous search is carried out. A few days later a military truck drives up and confiscates all the literature, which is to be examined by the military press censorship office. They expect to find a sentence that will prove that our Society has instigated the refusal to do military service. Without waiting for the results of this investigation, the army orders the censorship of The Watchtower in Switzerland. This we cannot agree to and so official publication of the magazine is discontinued.
Although connections are interrupted with the head office of the Watch Tower Society in Brooklyn, New York, we are able to get in touch with Sweden after a time and receive The Watchtower regularly in the Swedish language. Then a member of our Berne Bethel, Alice Berner, learns this language. Jehovah blesses her efforts, and so it is possible for us to keep all the congregations supplied with spiritual food.
Further measures are taken against us. At a set time the homes of many congregation servants are invaded and their stocks of literature confiscated. Further, our congregation meetings are put under police surveillance, a detective being present even at the Memorial celebration. Our incoming mail is checked and I am often called in by government officials for long interrogations.
Eventually legal action is started against us. A co-worker, Brother Rutimann, is charged with refusal to take the military oath. I am charged with four offenses, two of which are “undermining military discipline” and “acting in contravention to the ban on propaganda dangerous to the state.” Almost two years elapse before the actual lawsuit comes up in court on November 23 and 24, 1942. There are some heated moments during the proceedings.
The next day judgment is rendered. Brother Rutimann is sentenced to three months in the state penitentiary, which he serves, and the loss of certain civil rights. My sentence is two years in jail. But our lawyer files an appeal, and on April 16, 1943, my sentence is reduced by the Appellate Court to one year penal servitude, suspended sentence, and five years’ loss of some civil rights.
The outcome of this lawsuit has a favorable reaction, and we are able to avoid having the work banned.
Finally, World War II ends in Europe. What a flood of letters now arrives in our office from all the surrounding countries when it becomes known that the work has remained intact in Switzerland! Previously the new president of the Society, Brother N. H. Knorr, wrote me to do all in my power to maintain the work in our country so that at the termination of war contact with our brothers on the continent might be speedily restored. And now it is our very great privilege to render “first aid” to them. Then in December of 1945 we have the pleasure of receiving Brother Knorr into our branch home, accompanied by his secretary, Milton Henschel. These are days of special blessings and important decisions. Brother Knorr leaves instructions for the work.
Summer of the year 1950 brings for me, together with several other co-workers, the crowning of our many years of service. We are invited to attend the grand convention in Yankee Stadium in New York. And in 1953 it is my privilege to attend the second Yankee Stadium assembly. Never shall I forget the overwhelming impression I received as I gazed over the stadium on opening day and watched it fill up and spill over, thousands of attenders even listening from nearby tents. What a mighty demonstration of Jehovah’s irresistible spirit it was!
Since the year 1953 the burden of responsibility has become lighter for me as it has been laid upon younger shoulders, for I have entered the autumn years of life. I am now nearly seventy-five years of age. After more than forty-five years in Jehovah’s service, I still stand unbending in the truth, for which I thank God, as I know it is He who has sustained me. By his undeserved kindness I continue to be a member of the Bethel family at the branch home in Switzerland. To continue as part of this happy working team, to know my time is filled to capacity in my assignment, is a privilege I deeply appreciate. How blessed are those who move forward in Jehovah’s grand service!