Also known as "Judge" Rutherford, he was the second president of the incorporated Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. He played a primary role in the organization and doctrinal development of Jehovah's Witnesses, which emerged from the Bible Student movement established by Charles Taze Russell.
Rutherford was born on November 8, 1869 to James Calvin Rutherford and Lenora Strickland and raised in near-poverty in a Baptist farm family. Some sources list his place of birth as Boonville, Missouri, but according to his death certificate he was born in Versailles, Missouri.
He developed an interest in law from the age of 16. Although his father discouraged this interest, he allowed him to go to college under the condition that he pay for a laborer to take his place on the family farm. He took out a loan and helped to pay for his law studies by working as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman and court stenographer.
Joseph spent two years as a judge's intern, became an official court reporter at age 20, and was admitted to the Missouri bar in May 1892 at age 22. He became a trial lawyer and later served for four years in Boonville as a public prosecutor. He campaigned briefly for Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. He was appointed as a Special Judge in the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court of Missouri, sitting as a substitute judge at least once when a regular judge was unable to hold court. As a result of this appointment he became known as "Judge" Rutherford. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1909 and admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States the same year.
Joseph married Mary Malcolm Fetzer of Boonville, Missouri on December 31, 1891. Their only child, Malcolm Cleveland, was born on November 10, 1892. The couple separated after Joseph Rutherford became president of the Watch Tower Society.
In 1894 he purchased the first three volumes of Charles Taze Russell's Millennial Dawn series of Bible study textbooks from two colporteurs who visited his office. He immediately wrote to the Watch Tower Society to express appreciation for the books. He was baptized twelve years later and he and his wife began holding Bible classes in their home. In 1907, he became legal counsel for the Watch Tower Society at its Pittsburgh headquarters, and from around that time began to give public talks as a "pilgrim" representative of the Society. As Russell's health deteriorated, he represented him on trips to Europe, and in April 1915 he was deputized to speak at a major debate with Baptist preacher J. H. Troy over four nights in Los Angeles before an audience of 12,000, debating various subjects, including the state of the dead, hellfire and Christ's Second Coming. Joseph served as chairman of the Bible Students' Los Angeles convention in September 1916.
Biographers describe Rutherford as tall and solidly built with a senatorial demeanor, and a strong booming voice that helped make him a powerful orator.
From the age of 70, Joseph underwent several medical treatments for cancer of the colon. He died at the age of 72, in California. Cause of death was "uraemia due to carcinoma of the rectum due to pelvic metastasis."
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