Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Watchtower (IBSA) recordings

The Photo Drama discs were 12" in diameter. Note that the dates on the label refer to the various patents of the recording company, and do not refer to recording dates.

The Angelophone discs were only 7" in diameter.
The Rutherford recordings were 12" in diameter. The transcription records were 16"

 Introduction by Jerome:

Back in September 2011, I was given permission to reprint an extract from a 1993 article on the Watchtower recordings. The selection dealt with the Angelophone recordings. Noticing that this proved quite popular in the intervening months, I have now obtained permission to reprint the whole article here on Blog 1, after it recently appeared on Blog 2.

The only stipulation made by the original author is that it should be printed as a time capsule, with no updating. So the current facts and figures given are those current in 1993, not today. Then there is certain information the writer would not have had available at that time, such as our more detailed understand of CTR’s religious background, and William Conley being the first Watch Tower president. The latter information was only published for the first time later in 1993. So there may be little inaccuracies to find; however, they have no real bearing on the subject of the article – the historic recordings.

Just one interpolation has been made in red as a result of comments made when the Angelophone extract was published, but that only serves to vindicate the original writer.

The article as it stands was first published in April 1993 in issue 27 of The Historic Record, a specialist magazine for collectors of shellac records, generally playing at 78 revolutions per minute (rpm). The magazine had an international readership, but was published in Britain; so the article comes from that angle, including British rather than American English spelling. The general readership had no interest in the Watchtower as such, but in subsequent issues several collectors from around the world came forward who had examples of its output.

The article concentrates solely on recordings in the English language. There is a vast untapped field for research out there for all the foreign language recordings that were made, both for different countries and for different language groups existing within the United States.

At the end of the original article were a number of pages detailing the various recordings that had been published:  Photodrama, Angelophone, Rutherford lectures, Watch Tower Male Voice Quartet, Organ Records, Advertising Records, etc. These lists have been omitted because this information can now be readily obtained through the internet for any who may have sufficient interest.

It was noted in the comment section on Blog 2 that shellac has proved to be a surprisingly durable storage medium, far superior to current electronic media such as CDs and DVDs. A recent sound archive discussion list commented that commercial coarse groove discs (78s) and vinyl (33s and 45s) do not immediately need to be recopied, as long as the originals are kept in good condition. Unlike recent media storage systems, they have proved to be quite stable information carriers. In practice it means that the recordings of CTR and Rutherford, going back nearly 100 years, could well be more durable than modern Watchtower DVDs.

A religious organisation that issued over 200 different titles on 78 rpm shellac, and who once produced over a hundred thousand records in a year at its peak.  A religious group that sent its workers from house to house in the 1930s with portable phonographs to play 12” recorded sermons on the doorstep. A group that had previously compiled an eight hour audio/visual experience, using dozens of specially produced records. An organisation that in over a hundred years had four presidents, all of whom made recordings – in one case, singing! An overview of historic recordings would not be complete without considering the output of the Watchtower Society – the official arm of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Today the Witnesses are well-known for that unexpected knock on the door, to share their views on scripture. Active in Britain since the 1880s, vigorous proselyting has been one of their distinguishing features. For thirty years (1914-1944) the gramophone or phonograph was an essential piece of their equipment.

The Watchtower magazine was founded in July 1879 by Charles Taze Russell, later known as Pastor Russell. He had been involved in one of the independent Bible study groups common in America at the time, and contributed a number of articles to small Adventist journals like George Storrs’ Bible Examiner and Nelson Barbour’s Herald of the Morning. He differed from the mainstream Adventist belief in a visible return of Christ, and also common beliefs on the end of the world. His journal promoted the second coming as an invisible presence – Christ turning his attention to the earth – and far from being burned up, the earth would one day become a paradise during a literal millennium. The first issue of ‘Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’ Presence’ was an ambitious six thousand copies. Today the (retitled) ‘Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom’ – with much the same basic message – has a circulation of over fifteen million copies each issue in 112 language. It is also produced on cassette: the historic successor to the 78s. By the time of Russell’s death in 1916 there were 1,200 known congregations of Bible Students as they were then called, including nearly 200 in Britain.

In 1881 Zion’s Watch Tower carried the article ‘Wanted – One Thousand Preachers’ – setting wheels in motion that eventually lead to a worldwide organisation of evangelisers. That same year proselyting started in Britain. In 1884 ‘Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society’ was incorporated in the State of Pennsylvania. To hold property and conduct business in the British Empire, the ‘International Bible Students Association’ was later formed. The names ‘Watchtower’ and ‘IBSA’ are the key to identifying official historic recordings today. Charles Russell became the first president of what would commonly be called ‘The Society’.

Prior to the First World War, the Bible Student movement was still numerically small. However, they were very adept in making their message heard. In America there were well-publicised debates with recognised clergy. (Note the warnings about ‘Russellism’ in the film ‘Elmer Gantry’). In Britain there were large public meetings at venues like the Royal Albert Hall and the Bible Students’ own London Tabernacle in Paddington. Hundreds of millions of free tracts were distributed. At one point ‘Pastor Russell’s Sermons’ were being carried by over three thousand newspapers. It was not surprising that recorded sound and the fledgling film industry would be utilised in the campaign.


In 1914 the Society premiered its own audio/visual production called The Photodrama of Creation. It contained about five hours of 4 inch lantern slides and three hours of motion pictures – both slides and films being coloured by hand. The total eight hour production was eventually shown in four parts. It took over two years to make and cost the Society over $300,000 to produce. Running costs were met by local groups.

After visiting key cities in America, the British premiere took place in July 1914 at the Princes Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue. Russell travelled over in person to introduce it. It told the history of the Bible and the world to date, and then the Bible Students’ view of the future. The whole commentary was recorded on 12 inch records, produced by the American Gramophone Co., Bridgeport, Conn.

Russell’s voice could reportedly hold an audience for hours, but it was not suitable for the Photodrama, lacking sufficient ‘bite’ for the acoustic recordings of the day. So only two records actually featured him in person. These contained mini-lectures to introduce and conclude each part, and to cover the intermissions. They were designed to synchronise with films of Russell speaking on the screen. This early attempt at a ‘sound’ film depended on the projectionist keeping a variable speed projector in line with the records played on two large turntables at the front of the hall. It was easier said than done. In the first showings it was not uncommon for Pastor Russell to bow and walk off the screen while apparently still speaking... His brief comments welcomed the audience, gave brief summaries of the drama, and stressed the Bible Students’ slogan – ‘Seats Free – No Collection’.

The actual programme had 24 double-sided recordings containing a total of 96 short speeches at 80 rpm, made by a professional elocutionist named Harry Humphrey, who sounded quite like Pastor Russell. These accompanied the lantern slides. The films were generally accompanied by commercial recordings of classical music. However, some hymns that introduced each part and filled the intermissions must have been specially recorded; the words are taken from the Bible Students’ own hymnals. For example, the old gospel hymn ‘In the Sweet By and By’ uses the words credited to Maria, Russell’s wife, in the 1890 hymnbook. The rousing ‘Our King is Marching On’ (John Brown’s Body) has the line, “The Gentile Times are closing for their Kings have had their day” – a special reference to the Bible Students’ view of the year 1914.

After London, the British version of the Photodrama went on tour. In areas that had no electricity, a shorter version using just tinted slides was shown with a limelight lantern. As a result, a number of extra sets of records were produced. Additionally, many wanted to purchase the two records of Pastor Russell’s voice as a souvenir, particularly when he died in 1916.


With the success of the Photodrama in mind, and the realisation that records were now highly popular, a few Bible Students set up the Angelico Company in 1916. Ostensibly it was to manufacture and sell phonographs, but with each purchase came a set of 50 Angelophone recordings. For some reason they were numbered 49-98, although it is certain that no 1-48 were ever issued. The records were small seven inch discs using the ‘hill and dale’ method to squeeze two minutes on a side at 85 rpm. They were advertised as ‘Old Fireside Hymns’ sung by the celebrated baritone Henry Burr. On the reverse side (also at 85 rpm) were a series of two minute sermons to explain the hymns. These were uncredited, but were Pastor Russell’s own voice. Those who had questions could write to a ‘Free Information Bureau for Angelophone Patrons’. This of course was the Watch Tower Society.

It must have sounded a good idea on paper; reaching people who might be prejudiced by the words Watch Tower. In practice, it was a disaster!

For a start, Henry Burr sounds rather the worse for wear. The hymns contain some high notes that his baritone had considerable difficulty in reaching.
(When this extract was first published a blog reader quoted a modern Wikipedia article to the effect that Burr was a tenor. However, the advertising material for Angelophone at the time called him a baritone. Whatever his range, this was not Burr’s finest hour.) Limited to two minutes many hymns were abridged. The reverse side, Pastor Russell’s short sermons – and the only reason the Bible Students would purchase – was even worse! Russell was now in very poor health and died in October 1916. His voice, unsuitable for the Photodrama, was even more unsuitable now. The recordings were very poorly made, and today (without a transcript) much of what is said is indecipherable. It appears to have been the same at the time because complaints flooded in, and the Watch Tower had to announce they had been re-recorded. This time, Harry Humphrey was hired again. His voice was slightly slower, so the speed for his recordings was reduced to 80 rpm. There is some improvement, but not a lot, and the records soon ceased production. The Angelophone Hymnal disappeared from the Society’s cost list after 1919.


The second president of the Society was Joseph Franklin Rutherford, a Missouri lawyer, popularly known as ‘Judge Rutherford’. Under his presidency a number of changes occurred. Believing the present world order to be in its ‘last days’ since 1914, an increased sense of urgency was felt. While Russell had encouraged missionary work, this had been optional and mainly carried out by travelling colporteurs. In Rutherford’s era active proselyting became an article of faith. In 1931 the Bible Students loyal to the Society adopted the name Jehovah’s Witnesses (based on Isaiah 43 v.10) to stress their active ministry. 78s would have a key role in this.

The advent of radio saw the Society embrace this medium for witnessing: they obtained their first radio station WBBR in 1924. It was the first non-commercial station in New York City. Throughout the 20s and 30s Rutherford’s voice became well-known over the American airwaves, and was beamed to Britain from stations like Radio Normandie. At its peak, over 400 stations gave the movement airtime. They used transcription records, which were 16 inch in diameter, ran at 33 rpm and played from the centre outwards – a problem for collectors who wish to play surviving copies today. Massive leaflet drops encouraged the public to tune in, and on at least one occasion a free 78 was given away for advertising purposes. The magazine Golden Age (now called Awake) for January 15th, 1936, page 240, asked, “Are you willing to pleasantly surprise your neighbours by giving them an advertisement in the modern manner? Have you a phonograph? If so, you may have FREE one 12 inch record...(if you) agree to play the record seven times EACH WEEK until February 23 in the hearing of guests, tradesmen...and other callers...” History does not record just how pleasantly surprised the neighbours were, or what happened if you didn’t manage the seven times a week...

Rutherford’s radio ministry hit problems in the 1930s. His style was blunt, and he refused to be censored. The Catholic Church particularly objected. He criticised certain doctrines, and more sensitive at the time, the involvement of some clerics in politics. The rise of Nazism and Fascism was supported by some as a bulwark against Communism. With hindsight one can see how misguided some were, and Rutherford’s polemics seem prophetic. But at the time strenuous efforts were made to silence him. In 1936 the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Dennis Dougherty, endorsed a campaign to boycott Gimbel Brothers stores if their radio stations honoured its contract with Rutherford, and darkly threatened “more drastic action” if the broadcasts continued. The ensuing battle involved petitions of millions of signatures, quickly organised by the Witnesses, but in 1937 they switched full throttle to an even more direct approach to the public.

Already since 1931, transcription records had been circulated for use in rented halls or public places. In the depression not everyone had a radio, and those that did could always turn it off. It was a little more difficult to silence a visiting group of Witnesses with a loudspeaker in their car!

As the use of radio declined, so mobile transcriptions machines flourished. Photos from London in the 1930s show that some enthusiasts decorated their vehicles to resemble the Watch Tower on the front of their magazine! The curiosity value would claim initial attention, and the indefatigable Witnesses would then canvass the area. These 16 inch records are rare today because the users were asked to destroy them when they became worn and the sound quality deteriorated.

The main problem with this work was the size and cost of the machinery. So in 1934 a new series of 12 inch 78 rpm records was announced, that Witnesses could play in people’s homes. By 1936 this evolved into all Witnesses taking a phonograph and records from door to door. The first Society phonograph weighed a hefty 20 lb – although some used old prams to propel them. By 1936 the Society manufactured a lightweight machine, and in 1940 designed a special machine that could be played closed in a vertical position by the touch of a button. It could replay one recording, store several others, and had compartments for the Witness’s literature, or – like as not – his sandwiches. They would knock on doors, announce they had an important message for the householder, and – straight into the recording... It was difficult to argue with a record – it just carried on regardless, and the novelty had many listening – the first time anyway.

In 1937 a follow-up work started. Those who listened first time around were encouraged to have a regular meeting with the Witnesses. 78s again played a key role. Hour long lectures, previously reserved for the transcription records, were issued on series of 78s to be used in the discussion. The old transcription machines were adapted to play 78s and the older discs were phased out.

Some recordings contain surprises. On side P-113 labelled ‘Safety’ the actual talk of the title has finished, and Rutherford presents a resolution to an enthusiastic 30,000 crowd. There follows a short radio announcement, and then the hymn ‘On the Rock of Ages Founded’ is sung by the Watch Tower Male Voice Quartet. Around this time the Society also issued seven Quartet 78s recorded by Columbia, featuring the singing voice of Fred Franz. This is of interest because Franz would become the Society’s fourth president in 1977, until his death in 1992.

Two recordings in the ‘Rutherford’ series are particularly collectable today because of their historical overtimes. P-114 ‘Enemies’ was the subject of a court case taken to the United States Supreme Court. A Witness named Newton Cantwell, with his two sons, played this record to two Catholics in New Haven, Connecticut, who objected to its message. The listeners could have shut the door on the Witnesses (or as a Middle West farmer once did, blown their phonograph apart with a shotgun!) – instead they called the police, and the Cantwells were arrested. They were charged with a breach of the peace and soliciting funds without a licence. The local court convicted them and the Society took this test case as high as it could go. In 1940 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction. This decision in favour of religious freedom was of importance to not just the Witnesses. The book ‘Reconsecrating America’ by George Goldberg, page 22, relates how the State Prosecutor lost his case by a most remarkable blunder. He argued that it was unlawful “to stir up strife and discontent.” Justice McReynolds then noted that Jesus had stirred up a “good deal of trouble in Jerusalem.” The State’s counsel shot back: “As I remember my Bible, something was done about that!" That was too much for the Judges and the Witnesses won their case!

The other recording, and probably the most interesting listening today, is the lecture ‘Government and Peace’ spread over P-205 to 218. This talk was given at Madison Square Gardens in 1939, and relayed by telephone link to Alexandra Palace and other locations in Britain. Those listening must have wondered what was happening because twenty minutes into the talk a riot broke out!

Somehow (and the how was a matter for considerable debate later) about 500 supporters of Charles Coughlin filled the seats directly behind and above the speaker’s platform. Coughlin was a radio priest whose supporters formed ‘The Christian Front’. He was to be mercilessly lampooned by the folk singer Woodie Guthrie in the anti-fascist song ‘Lindberg’. Rutherford’s lecture was anathema to the Couglinites. When he reviewed the world’s problems since the last Holy Year, including the persecution of the Jews, they started booing. For about ten minutes cries of “Viva Franco”, “Heil Hitler” and “Kill that damn Rutherford” filled the air, and missiles peppered the platform. The loyal audience of 18,000 applauded Rutherford on, as Witness ushers tried to quell the demonstration. Three ushers were later charged with assault by aggrieved demonstrators, but the case was thrown out of court. After about ten minutes the nearly 70 year old speaker left his prepared script. “Note today the Nazis and Catholics that would like to break up this meeting but by God’s grace they cannot do it,” he thundered! There was a howl of approval from the audience and huge applause. The recordings of this incident were used effectively by the Witnesses in attracting new converts for several years.

Rutherford died in early 1942. His last recording was P-292. He was replaced as president by Nathan Homer Knorr. Knorr was a very able administrator, but not a fiery orator like Rutherford. The recording sessions continued with Knorr’s talks at the 1942 conventions (P-292 to 330) but it was not the same. With the war on none of these recordings came to Britain, and shortage of materials prevented their release in America until mid-1943. Further shortages of phonographs disrupted this work, and in 1944 it was generally discontinued.

The times they were a’changing. A phonograph on a doorstep, however strange it sounds today, yielded excellent results for the Witnesses in the 1930s, but in the more sophisticated 40s it would not do. One of Knorr’s first acts on becoming president was to institute a series of new training schools. By 1944 there was an army of trained volunteers who could effectively use their own voices to spread their message. Later generations of Witnesses would still embrace all modern means of communicating their beliefs. There would be more films, vinyl recordings, tapes, videos and mountains of literature, but the age of the 78 for the Watchtower Society passed into history in 1944.


roberto said...

Thanks Jerome for the article

Chris G. said...
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