100 Years Ago: Presidential Debates – Watchtower Style

The Watch Tower Society found that debates were a fairly good way of “marketing” so that this very small religious group could make a big splash.

Russell, as president of the Watch Tower Society, had gained attention especially through the Eaton-Russell debate in 1903 and then White-Russell debate in 1908. He said that he believed the Lord’s providence had opened up the way for those two debates.

So why did Russell put the report about about the Rutherford-Troy debate in the very back as the last article of the May 1, 1915 Watch Tower? And, more importantly, why was the first article in this same issue all about downplaying the value of debates?

Some have guessed that Russell was a bit concerned about Rutherford’s brash and bombastic style, and that it probably did not represent the same style Russell himself had carefully cultivated for the Watch Tower. Russell’s emphasis was on the “high calling” in order to be part of the exclusive “Bride of Christ” and on Christian “character development.” A truly demure “Bride of Christ” would not be found “debating.” Rutherford, on the other hand, had been an experienced political speaker (working for the campaign of William Jennings Bryan). And some would conclude that his legal background as an attorney made him a professional “arguer.”

So the argument goes that Russell was becoming leery of Rutherford’s rise to power in 1915. As Russell’s attorney, he “knew where the bodies were buried” as the expression goes. (For the record, this is just an expression. I am sure there weren’t any real scandals involving dead or buried bodies in Russell’s past. Russell’s act of sending Rose Ball to Australia a few months before she might have been called upon to testify against Russell at his divorce hearing isn’t the same thing. Nor is the fact that Rose Ball’s younger brother died while working in the same house where the claimed hanky-panky with sister, Rose, had occurred.)

Rutherford was indeed becoming much more prominent in 1915, but I don’t really think that there is direct evidence of Russell having a falling out with him, or getting too worried about his rise to power and control.

Still, the general tenor of the first article was quite negative about debates in general. Here several excerpts from the first article below. Notice how the “marketing value” of the debates is the primary concern: “valuable chiefly as entering-wedges for the newspaper work.” [I’ve highlighted some of the negatives in red, and marketing advantages in blue.]


Although the Lord’s providence did seem to open up the way for the “Eaton-Russell Debate” and later, for the “White-Russell Debate,” and through these Debates led the way on to the publication of the Sermons in hundreds of newspapers throughout the world, nevertheless the Editor is not, and never was, much of a believer in the advantages of debating. The Debates mentioned were valuable chiefly as entering-wedges for the newspaper work. . . . a debate . . . is also an excellent method of presenting the error to the public. . . .

An audience hearing a debate have the same difficulty that a jury has when hearing the opposing attorneys discussing the merits of a case. Each speaker has certain talent and ability, and each makes a certain amount of impression. . . .

Added to this is the fact that the debates in general are in the nature of a war of words, the disputants each seeking to undo the other’s arguments and to prove his own. In such a war of words the Truth is at a disadvantage. . . . . .our opponents seem to have no restrictions nor restraints. . . .Thus our opponents always have the advantage, not because they are intellectually brighter, but because they can and do use means to bamboozle the minds of the hearers and readers. . . .

So far as the Editor is concerned, he has no desire for further debates. He does not favor debating, believing that it rarely accomplishes good and often arouses anger, malice, bitterness, etc., in both speakers and hearers. . . .

This should not be understood to mean that the Editor would never again engage in a public debate, but merely that in order to induce him to debate, his opponent would need to be a person of so great prominence as to bring the matter to the attention of everybody. Only such a consideration would be a proper offset to the wide presentation of error thus accomplished. . . .

It’s actually a bit odd that Russell spoke out against them and then said he would do it anyway if he thought the “marketing” opportunity was worth it.

Whether Russell had noticed any dangers in Rutherford methods is hard to say. Rutherford had successfully defended Russell in court through his divorce and he had worked on mitigating other scandals. It seems likely to me that Russell was backing off of the debate scene for the same reasons that he distanced himself from the booklet “Great Battle in the Ecclesiastical Heavens.” He knew that these particular debates had to be very biased, just as the “Great Battle” booklet had to be very biased.

I am proposing that Russell realized that the debate was intended as part of  Russell’s defense campaign. These debates were designed to promote some positive publicity at a time when Russell’s scandals were becoming more and more publicized. Russell knew that these debates had been set up in a biased manner to help mask the scandals. How do we know that?


Rutherford’s report was, as we pointed out, the last article in the same 1915 Watchtower. Even here, Russell repeats his negative view of debates after Rutherford’s report:

[We rejoice greatly that the blessing of the Lord was so richly with our dear Brother Rutherford on the occasion of the debates referred to above. Apparently the Lord guided these debates and blessed the outcome. However, we still feel a prejudice against public debates of religious questions, and have elsewhere expressed our reasons.]

Rutherford’s report was in the form of a letter. Below are some excerpts. Notice the methods that were enacted to “bias” the debate:


The debates are past history now–ending last evening. Every night the auditorium was packed, with probably more turned away than got in. . . . Certainly the Lord’s favor was with us, and the prayers of the many friends were answered. . . . The friends are all happy. . . . If the debates have accomplished no other good, I feel sure they have greatly strengthened the saints here, many testifying that the striking contrast between Truth and error has given them new zeal for service.

I must tell you how the Adversary did not succeed for once. My opponent was well prepared to assault you personally. I judged so from the interviews he had given the press two days before the debate. I said nothing then, but waited my time. About three minutes before we went on the platform for the first night’s discussion I called Brother Troy, my opponent, and two of his friends and two of our friends into a side room. You will recall that we had entered into a thousand-dollar obligation, with securities, that we would refrain from personalities. I then said: “Brother Troy, I desire to be absolutely frank with you and therefore I say this to you before we go on the platform. From your interviews with the press I judge that you intend to assault Pastor Russell from the platform. Of course, you can pursue that course if you wish, but the first time you attempt it I am going to have your bond forfeited.”

His reply was, “May I not mention his name?” “No,” I said, “not one time. I signed this agreement with you to discuss the Bible, and by that contract I am going to abide, and I shall expect you to do the same.” He said, “All right; I am ready.” We went on the platform. Not once did he mention your name throughout the four nights, but it was an awfully bitter pill for him to refrain therefrom. Having prepared along that line and being taken down so suddenly he was much disturbed and labored under much stress, as I could observe, during his first argument. I am confident the Lord directed this matter, and thus saved the debate from being an occasion for personal assault upon you.

. . .

Quite a large number of cards were turned in on each night. I have not the total here just now. I received a real blessing in the whole matter and am indeed grateful to the Lord that He has been pleased to give me this opportunity to bear witness to His great Plan.

This (Sunday) afternoon at the Shrine Auditorium we had a very good public meeting. The friends say there were about 3500 in attendance, 992 of whom turned in their addresses. This afternoon my subject was, “Babylon Before the Great Court”; and I took occasion to tell the people about the assaults the ministers were making against you personally. Several preachers were in the audience, and I stated that I would be glad to furnish a printed reply to each one of such charges. Sorry we did not have the booklet ready, but we will get it to many here when it does arrive. I hope that by the time you come the people will be more anxious to hear you than ever before. I think there are still some of the Lord’s people in this place.

I must take this occasion to say that the success of the publicity for the debates and meetings following here is due to the untiring and faithful work of our dear Brother Page Noll. He made himself very agreeable to the reporters “covering” the debates, and they were favorable to us in every way they could be. A full report of each day’s debate was published by the Express and the Tribune, and I am advised that about 75,000 extra copies were mailed out each day by the newspaper company to various parts of the world. The paper printed cards and distributed them all over the city, calling the attention of the people to the fact that verbatim copies of the debate would be in certain issues of the paper; and doubtless this sold many papers. Brother Noll had gone after the matter in a systematic manner, and the Lord surely blessed his efforts and his faithfulness. If a copy of the debates comes to your notice you will see that more space is given to my argument than to my opponent’s. That is due to the fact that I spoke with much more rapidity than did my opponent. Profiting by your experience at Cincinnati, I crowded in all that I could.

I enclose a clipping from one of the morning papers, wherein you will see that at yesterday’s meeting I spoke of the booklet I am getting out answering the slanderous charges against you. Quite a number are anxious to have these pamphlets, and I hope they may be ready soon.

Never before have I realized so fully the blessed privilege the Lord’s dear children have of praying for each other. I am sure that the prayers of the dear friends throughout the world had much to do with the success of these debates. . . . Brother Woodworth suggested that there must be great interest in Heaven in this debate. The Lord be praised for it all. I am thankful indeed that He was pleased to use me to glorify His dear name in any manner. Brothers Woodworth and MacMillan sat with me on the platform as counsel, and my son was by my side to take anything quickly that I desired and to prepare the copy for me without delay. . . . The Lord arranged it all. . . .

Please express my love to all the dear Bethel family, reserving a large portion for yourself. Please continue to remember me at the Throne of Heavenly Grace.

Yours in the service of the dear Redeemer,


There are quite a few lines in his report that appear to sound “self-serving.” Rutherford makes a case that he “won” the debates without question. But, of course, this has been questioned since then. The actual debate is available in several places online:

Click to access 1915_Rutherford_Troy_Debate.pdf


The Watch Tower articles quoted above can be easily found in several places online, including:


Some interesting comments about the debate are found here:

Edmond C Gruss (Apostles of Denial, p.23)

and from a poster called “Athanasius” on JWN:

Regarding the Rutherford-Troy Debate, you might find it helpful to read the entire script. Bill Cetnar made it available in TROY DEBATES RUTHERFORD (privately published). I think that you can still order a copy from:


Route 3 Weir Lake Road

Kunkletown, PA 18058

The late Bill Cetnar assembled the information from the Los Angeles Express which covered the debate in great detail. Bill Cetnar makes this interesting observation in the book’s forward: “At a Bethel meeting I sat next to John Adam Baeurlein a former International Director and Officer of the Watchtower Society. He mentioned he had attended the Rutherford-Troy debates. I asked him why the Society refused to debate today. He answered: ‘Because Rutherford lost his shirt in debate with Troy.‘ . . . These remarks from this old man who spent 50 years at Watchtower Headquarters were a shock to me.”

Also, we happen to have an example of the type of agreement that Rutherford would enter into to keep the opponent from mentioning any scandals that Russell was involved in. If we read it carefully, the debater could not even quote from any Watch Tower publications. Even this would have been considered too damaging. The following is a portion of one of those “bonds” that Rutherford referred to in the Watchtower. This one comes from a debate that would have happened a few years later, if Rutherford had not created these impossible terms:

From B. H. Shadduck’s Seven Thunders of Millenial Dawn, 1928 ( https://archive.org/details/ThesevenThundersOfMillennialDawn ) we find a portion of one of these agreements:


If it’s hard to read it says, in part, that Dr. Shadduck would follow certain rules, such as:

  1. … furnish a bond of $500.00 as a guarantee that he will not slander Pastor Russell during the debate, or refer to any quotation contained in any periodical or book published by the International Bible Students Association and if the Rev. B. H. Shadduck shall slander Pastor Russell or refer to any quotation or book published by the IBSA he shall at once pay the sum of $500.00 to his opponents in the debate.
  1. That it be understood that to slander means: To circulate a malicious report.

Shadduck believed these rules were meant to make it impossible to frame an argument clearly. It was clearly meant to produce the kind of legal intimidation that would become part of Rutherford’s signature style.

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