In 1975 Nathan H.Knorr, president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, was in bad health – diagnosed with brain cancer. He could no longer function or continue to maintain his reputation as a “semi-benevolent dictator” that defined him during his 33-year presidency. Knorr’s genius had been his organizational skills, deferring to vice president Fred Franz for theology and any other issues involving “divine inspiration.”
The Problem with Freddie
When I worked at Bethel headquarters Brooklyn during the early 1960s, only a fool couldn’t see that Fred Franz’s mental state lacked a motor, crankshaft and both turn signals.
Was Knorr blind to this fact? I don’t think so. When he and Fred Franz reached the pinnacle of their unchecked power, both believed that God talked personally to them, but Fred in particular. Knorr may have reasoned that God prefers to reveal new truths to “odd-looking, semi-crazy men with poor social skills.”
Knorr himself lacked most social graces and style. Because Franz could speak with authority, Knorr
may have figured that Fred’s unique personality gave him a “God-like aura” to rank-and-file Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On the other hand, Nathan Knorr wasn’t a fool. By the mid 1960s he’d set up an organizational filter by giving several key men at Bethel the freedom to question (and hopefully “filter”) Fred’s more bizarre predictions and interpretations.
Looking back, one can only speculate why Fred’s “Armageddon is coming in 1975” managed to sift through that filter. My guess is that it may have been caught, but Knorr kiboshed any plan to stop it, thinking his own poor health was God’s way of telling him that “The ‘Big A’ is really on its way!”
The “Filter” takes over
Regardless, the filter had functioned long and well before that slip-up. It should also be noted that one of the filter members was Ray Franz, Freddie’s nephew, who wasn’t afraid to challenge his uncle’s megalomaniacal spins.
Ray Franz was unique among the leaders at Bethel because he had no interest in power. He didn’t pose a threat to those who jockeyed for position in the Bethel hierarchy during Knorr’s declining years. Ray’s passion was love and kindness toward the brothers, not harsh legalistic dictums.
As Nathan Knorr’s health began to decline in the mid 1970s, the men who made up Knorr’s filter, well aware of Fred Franz’s mental state, decided to restructure the organization. Instead of being led by a strong president, they would take over management as a “Governing Body,” with Knorr and Franz as members.
Like most skewed Jehovah’s Witness dogma, this change would be framed as being “Bible-based” and “actually in place since the 1940s.”
When the idea of a governing body was first proposed to Knorr and Franz, they protested. It meant the “Governing Body” – and not the president – would have control of the Organization’s doctrines and policies. Although he and Franz were powerless to stop the change, Knorr insisted that more hardcore members be appointed. Seven of Knorr’s “yes men” were called in to Bethel from outside assignments and asked to serve on the new Governing Body.
It’s clear that the makeup and attitudes of today’s Governing Body are consequences of those original Nathan H. Knorr appointments, but that very first GB will be most remembered for enacting a very sinister doctrine during its initial five-year tenure. Let me explain:
The new Governing Body takes control
On January 1, 1976, the Governing Body officially assumed responsibility for managing the Organization. Seventeen old men (including Ray Franz, Fred Franz and Nathan Knorr) now controlled policy and doctrine for the Watchtower. According to The Watchtower magazine, from that point on God gave “divine revelation” to all members on the Governing Body – not just to Fred Franz and Nathan Knorr.
While Ray Franz served competently on the GB, he found something lacking in his life. He started reading his Bible far more intently than he had ever done before. He didn’t read it with a Watchtower publication to tell him how to interpret things, but rather with an open mind. He encouraged others to do the same, praying for understanding, alone and in small groups.
Soon, he and hundreds of other Bethelites began to question the policy on the doctrines about the 144,000, 607 BC as being a Bible-based date, and blood transfusions. To Ray’s credit, he brought his concerns to GB meetings, where he could be very convincing. However, like most religious groups at the governance level, Ray knew that change takes place very slowly.
While other members of the GB worked hard to improve their positions of power, Ray took his message to the rank-and-file at Bethel and to several key members around the world. He encouraged open-minded people to start reading the Bible. As a result of his urging, many small groups formed and found themselves energized by their studies.
Ray continued to express his concerns to the GB at meetings where they asked him to share his detailed research and interpretations. He recommended that several long-held doctrines be changed and actually received over 60 percent support from fellow GB members when he asked them to repudiate the blood transfusion policy and the 144,000 doctrine.
The Effects of Knorr’s influence
Unfortunately, before the GB assumed authority, Knorr insisted that it take a 75 percent vote to change a Watchtower doctrine. Even with a majority consensus, every time one of Ray’s recommendations came up for a vote, no change could be made. That didn’t stop Ray’s efforts to correct what he believed were genuine errors on the Watchtower Society’s part.
Many years later Ray wrote about that difficult time in his life, “I had spent nearly forty years…serving at every level of the organizational structure. It was those final years that were the crucial period for me. Illusions there met up with reality. I have since come to appreciate [that] ‘the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.’”
The Governing Body eventually reached consensus on one key issue: They had to stop Ray Franz’s questioning of core Watchtower doctrines.
Ray would have to be framed as “someone who no longer loved Jehovah.” He, along with hundreds of Bethelites who supported him, would have to be disfellowshipped. To make that possible, the GB reached the needed consensus to enact a sinister new policy they called shunning – a policy that would be positioned as “a new truth from God.”
A New Policy goes into effect
Before the policy was officially announced to Witnesses, all group studies of the Bible were banned at Bethel. Even if Bethelites were caught reading the Bible without a Watchtower publication, they would be dismissed and could be disfellowshipped. On April 30, 1980, Karl Klein, a member of the GB, summed it up this way when he addressed the Bethel family members, “If you have a tendency towards apostasy, get a hobby and keep yourself busy to keep your mind off of it. Stay away from deep Bible study to determine the meanings of scriptures.”
In November 1981, Nathan Knorr’s version of the Governing Body (with “Freddie” Franz as president) disfellowshipped Ray Franz. Based on what scriptural grounds? Someone saw him eating a meal with his employer (who was also his landlord)- a disfellowshipped person. The GB did not consult with him or allow him to offer a rebuttal. They simply labeled Ray “an apostate,” told everyone that “he had stopped loving Jehovah God” and was someone not fit to speak to. Ray found himself shunned by most Jehovah’s Witnesses, including many who had been his close friends, until his death in 2010.
That sinister start for the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is now its legacy.
Dick Kelly wrote this as a follow-up and to further expand on Cedar’s article series about the Watchtower’s hidden history and racist practices. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses have been led to believe that a “governing body” existed during the first century and that the modern Governing Body existed in the 1940s, shortly after Joseph Rutherford’s death. Very few modern day Witnesses are aware of the political power plays that took place at Bethel during the 1970s when the modern Governing Body was actually established. Kelly, best known for his first book Growing Up in Mama’s Club, released its long awaited sequel The Ghosts from Mama’s Club on May 1st. He invites you to visit his redesigned website to get more information about his books and to share your comments about his articles.