In November 1954, a trial was held in Scotland, in which the Watchtower Society tried to establish before the British court that certain of its members were ordained ministers. High ranking leaders of the Society testified, including vice-president Fred Franz and lawyers for the Society, Haydon C. Covington. Covington's testimony before the lawyer for the Ministry of Labour and National Service included the following:Q. Is it not vital to speak the truth on religious matters? A. It certainly is. Q. Is there in your view room in a religion for a change of interpretation of Holy Writ from time to time? A. There is every reason for a change in interpretation as we view it, of the Bible. Our view becomes more clear as we see the prophesy fulfilled by time. Q. You have promulgated -- forgive the word -- false prophesy? A. We have -- I do not think we have promulgated false prophesy, there have been statements that were erroneous, that is the way I put it, and mistaken. Q. Is it a most vital consideration in the present situation of the world to know if the prophesy can be interpreted into terms of fact, when Christ's Second Coming was? A. That is true, and we have always striven to see that we have the truth before we utter it. We go on the very best information we have but we cannot wait until we get perfect, because if we wait until we get perfect we would never be able to speak. Q. Let us follow that up just a little. It was promulgated as a matter which must be believed by all members of Jehovah's Witnesses that the Lord's Second Coming took place in 1874? A. I am not familiar with that. You are speaking on a matter that I know nothing of. Q. You heard Mr. Franz's evidence? A. I heard Mr. Franz testify, but I am not familiar with what he said on that, I mean the subject matter of what he was talking about, so I cannot answer any more than you can, having heard what he said. Q. Leave me out of it? A. That is the source of my information, what I have heard in court. Q. You have studied the literature of your movement? A. Yes, but not all of it. I have not studied the seven volumes of "Studies in the Scriptures," and I have not studied this matter that you are mentioning now of 1874. I am not at all familiar with that. Q. Assume from me that it was promulgated as authoritative by the Society that Christ's Second Coming was in 1874? A. Taking that assumption as a fact, it is a hypothetical statement. Q. That was the publication of false prophesy? A. That was the publication of a false prophesy, it was a false statement or an erroneous statement in fulfillment of a prophesy that was false or erroneous. Q. And that had to be believed by the whole of Jehovah's Witnesses? A. Yes, because you must understand we must have unity, we cannot have disunity with a lot of people going every way, an army is supposed to march in step. Q. You do not believe in the worldly armies, do you? A. We believe in the Christian Army of God. Q. Do you believe in the worldly armies? A. We have nothing to say about that, we do not preach against them, we merely say that the worldly armies, like the nations of the world today, are a part of Satan's Organization, and we do not take part in them, but we do not say the nations cannot have their armies, we do not preach against warfare, we are merely claiming our exemption from it, that is all. Q. Back to the point now. A false prophesy was promulgated? A. I agree that. Q. It had to be accepted by Jehovah's Witnesses? A. That is correct.Q. If a member of Jehovah's Witnesses took the view himself that that prophesy was wrong and said so he would be disfellowshipped? A. Yes, if he said so and kept persisting in creating trouble, because if the whole organisation believes one thing, even though it be erroneous and somebody else starts on his own trying to put his ideas across then there is disunity and trouble, there cannot be harmony, there cannot be marching. When a change comes it should come from the proper source, the head of the organisation, the governing body, not from the bottom upwards, because everybody would have ideas, and the organisation would disintegrate and go in a thousand different directions. Our purpose is to have unity. Q. Unity at all costs? A. Unity at all costs, because we believe and are sure that Jehovah God is using our organisation, the governing body of our organisation to direct it, even though mistakes are made from time to time. Q. And unity based upon an enforced acceptance of false prophecy? A. That is conceded to be true. Q. And the person who expressed his view, as you say, that it was wrong, and was disfellowshipped, would be in breach of the Covenant, if he was baptized? A. That is correct. Q. And as you said yesterday expressly, would be worthy of death? A. I think - - - Q. Would you say yes or no? A. I will answer yes, unhesitatingly. Q. Do you call that religion? A. It certainly is. Q. Do you call it Christianity? A. I certainly do.
Fred Franz, then vice-president of the Society, also answered questions for the attorney for the Ministry of Labour and National Service.
Q. In addition to these regular publications do you prepare and issue a number of theological pamphlets and books from time to time? A. Yes. Q. Can you tell me this; are these theological publications and the semi-monthly periodicals used for discussion of statements of doctrine? A. Yes. Q. Are these statements of doctrine held to be authoritative within the Society? A. Yes. Q. Is their acceptance a matter of choice, or is it obligatory on all those who wish to be and remain members of the Society? A. It is obligatory.
The British government counsellor later directed attention to certain teachings that the Society had in time rejected, including some involving specific dates. What, he asked, if someone, at the time when such teaching was promulgated, had seen the error in it and had therefore not accepted it? What would the organization's attitude toward such one be? The testimony explains:
Q. Did [Pastor Russell] not fix 1874 as some other crucial date? A. 1874 used to be understood as the date of Jesus' Second Coming spiritually. Q. Do you say, used to be understood? A. That is right. Q. That was issued as a fact which was to be accepted by all who were Jehovah's Witnesses? A. Yes. Q. That is no longer now accepted, is it? A. No. Q. But it was a calculation which is no longer accepted by the Board of Directors of the Society? A. That is correct. Q. So that am I correct, I am just anxious to canvas the position; it became the bounden duty of the Witnesses to accept this miscalculation? A. Yes. Q. So that what is published as the truth today by the Society may have to be admitted to be wrong in a few years? A. We have to wait and see. Q. And in the meantime the body of Jehovah's Witnesses have been following error? A. They have been following misconstructions on the Scriptures. Q. Error? A. Well, error.
Again the question as to how great the authority attributed to the Society's publications is came in for discussion. While at one point the vice president says that "one does not compulsorily accept," his testimony thereafter reverts back to the earlier position, as can be seen:
A. These [Watchtower Society] books give an exposition on the whole Scriptures. Q. But an authoritative exposition? A. They submit the Bible or the statements that are therein made, and the individual examines the statement and then the Scripture to see that the statement is Scripturally supported. Q. He what? A. He examines the Scripture to see whether the statement is supported by the Scripture. As the Apostle says: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good". Q. I understood the position to be - do please correct me if I am wrong - that a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses must accept as a true Scripture and interpretation what is given in the books I referred you to? A. But he does not compulsorily do so, he is given his Christian right of examining the Scriptures to confirm that this is Scripturally sustained. Q. And if he finds that the Scripture is not sustained by the books, or vice versa, what does he do? A. The Scripture is there in support of the statement, that is why it is put there. Q. What does a man do if he finds a disharmony between the Scripture and those books? A. You will have to produce me a man who does find that, then I can answer, or he will answer. Note Franz's waffling. He is unwilling, even under oath, to admit that present understanding can be in error, even though he just finished testifying that what is published as truth today may be error in a few years. Q. Did you imply that the individual member has the right of reading the books and the Bible and forming his own view as to the proper interpretation of Holy Writ? A. He comes - - - Q. Would you say yes or no, and then qualify? A. No. Do you want me to qualify now? Q. Yes, if you wish? A. The Scripture is there given in support of the statement, and therefore the individual when he looks up the Scripture and thereby verifies the statement, then he comes to the Scriptural view of the matter, Scriptural understanding as it is written in Acts, the seventeenth chapter and the eleventh verse, that the Bereans were more noble than those of Thessalonica in that they received the Word with all readiness, and they searched the Scripture to see whether those things were so, and we instruct to follow that noble course of the Bereans in searching the Scripture to see whether these things were so. Q. A Witness has no alternative, has he, to accept as authoritative and to be obeyed instructions issued in the "Watchtower" or the "Informant" or "Awake"? A. He must accept those.
In other words, no matter what an individual finds, he is obligated to believe whatever the Society teaches at that moment. At least, he is obligated not to publicly or privately disagree with the Society, and so if he really cannot bring himself to accept some doctrine, he must pretend to accept it, and live a lie in order to remain in good standing. So, even though the Society states it is fallible and is not inspired, no member is allowed to act on this without serious consequences ranging from loss of congregational privileges to disfellowshipping.
The complete (2 volumes) original court transcript can be purchased here: