“THE present is a time of testing,” stated The Watch Tower of March 1, 1915. “Have we in the past been active merely because we hoped for our glorious change in A.D. 1914, or have we been active because of our love and loyalty to the LORD and His Message and the brethren!” During 1915, some Bible Students battled with feelings of disappointment. Much of the world, however, fought battles of a different kind.
The Great War, later known as World War I, was enveloping Europe. Mechanized warfare was changing the nature of war, affecting civilians on an unprecedented scale. For example, in 1915, German submarines, or U-boats, began plying the waters surrounding Great Britain. On May 7, 1915, one of these U-boats sank the British passenger ship Lusitania. More than 1,100 people died.
The Issue of Neutrality
The Bible Students wanted no part of this war. However, they did not then fully understand the Christian position of strict neutrality. While they did not voluntarily enroll in the army, some of them accepted conscription and endeavored to obtain noncombatant roles. If forced into the trenches, others felt that they could simply “shoot over the enemy’s head.”
The Watch Tower of July 15, 1915, published the story of a Hungarian soldier who was baptized while recovering from his injuries and who later returned to the front lines. The account relates what happened next: “They [the Hungarian soldiers] came within 800 feet of the Russian line, and they received the command, ‘A bayonet charge!’ The Hungarian brother was at the end of the left wing. He sought only to protect himself from the enemy, hence endeavored merely to knock the bayonet from the hand of the Russian with whom he was confronted. Just then he observed that the Russian was endeavoring to do likewise . . . The Russian let his bayonet fall to the ground; he was weeping. Our brother then looked at his ‘enemy’ closer—and he recognized a ‘Cross and Crown’ pin on his coat! The Russian, too, was a brother in the Lord!”*
“Christian Duty and the War,” an article published in The Watch Tower of September 1, 1915, addressed the issue of Christian neutrality. It stated: “To become a member of the army and to put on the military uniform implies the duties and obligations of a soldier as recognized and accepted. . . . Would not the Christian be really out of his place under such conditions?” In time, it became clear that Christians could have absolutely no part in war.
Adjustments at Headquarters
In 1915, seventy members of the Bethel family in New York were informed that because of a lack of funds, they would have to leave Bethel to continue their service in the field. They were told: “We must not involve ourselves in debt nor jeopardize the work in general; hence the decision for the reduction of the expenses along every line.”
Clayton J. Woodworth and two other brothers signed a joint letter from “the Departing Seventy.” This letter was published in The Watch Tower of May 1, 1915. Those leaving noted that they were doing so “with a feeling of joy and thankfulness for the many blessings and privileges” they had enjoyed “as members of the ‘Bethel Family.’”
That change of assignment, while difficult, gave those brothers the opportunity to show where their true loyalties lay. Would they stay faithful to God or become embittered? Brother Woodworth continued preaching, later returned to Bethel, and in 1919 became the first editor of The Golden Age, the magazine known today as Awake! He served as its editor until 1946.
Opportunities for Service
Throughout that difficult year, The Watch Tower urged our brothers to continue preaching. Individuals who had shown interest in the past were given special attention. “We have lists from all over the country of people who have sent in their cards requesting literature,” stated the December 15, 1915, issue. “Our suggestion is that these be called upon . . . with a view to seeing whether they have been side-tracked.” The goal was to fan their interest “into a flame—a zeal for God and for the Truth.”
Then, as now, it was important for Christians to remain focused on Kingdom interests. “We who are now awake should be very active and energetic in the service of God,” stated The Watch Tower of February 15, 1915. God’s servants needed to remain alert. The Watch Tower continued: “We are to watch. What should we watch? Preeminently we should watch ourselves, to keep ourselves from the snares of the present time.”
The yeartext for 1916 exhorted the brothers to remain “strong in faith,” according to Romans 4:20 in the King James Version. This scripture would encourage the faithful in the coming year, a year that brought its own trials.
For years, the Bible Students wore a cross-and-crown pin as a badge of identification. This symbol was on the front cover of The Watch Tower for many years. By the early 1930’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses had abandoned the use of the cross-and-crown emblem.