News of the most far-reaching shakeup in the 116-year history of the Jehovah's Witnesses came from Brooklyn in three intriguingly vague paragraphs.
A press release issued Tuesday by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania Inc., as the Witnesses are officially called, talked about "revisions" in legal structure and said that they were dictated by the need to keep pace with growth. Some "revisions."
The president resigned, the ruling Governing Body was stripped of its legal power, and three new corporations were set up to run the society's U.S. operations.
For many of the 980,000 or so Witnesses in the U.S., news of the changes hit like a bolt of lightning. They were made last weekend at an annual business meeting, in Jersey City, but without any public notice or discussion. Milton Henschel, 80, the fifth president, stepped down after eight years, along with six other directors of the Watchtower Society. He remains a member of the Governing Body, which had run the 5.9-million member society with an absolutist hand.
The Governing Body was not abolished, but under the new setup, it will oversee only religious affairs, among them Bible doctrine, evangelization and pastoral care. Henschel's successor as chief legal officer is Don Adams, 75, a longtime insider who has spent 54 years at the world headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. He was born in Oak Park, Ill.
Among his previous assignments, Adams was secretary to Nathan Knorr, the society's third president, and directed world missionary activities. But, even more significant than the change at the top was the corporate realignment, with three new not-for-profits formed to assume control of U.S. legal and administrative operations.
One will oversee construction of houses of worship and technical assistance. Another will supervise personnel. A third will direct a wide range of congregational services. The new No. 2 man, although he is not identified as such, is Max Larson, 85, president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., which handles all legal matters, owns all U.S. facilities, and provides emergency relief.
Six other "experienced ministers" are joining Adams as directors of the new nonprofit corporations. All already held various administrative posts at headquarters. "Basically," said chief spokesman James Pellechia, "Don [Adams] will sign the legal papers."
Why the changes? "For both theological and practical reasons," Pellechia said. Previously, starting with founder (and first president) Charles Taze Russell, the Watchtower Society was led by the man at the top. But, in recent years, presidents have kept a fairly low profile. "I don't believe Witnesses look to any one person now as their leader," Pellechia said. But to critics, who range from evangelical Christians to dissident former members, the official explanation for the changes masks a deeper reason.
One prominent ex-member, Raymond Franz of Winston, Ga., a one-time member of the Governing Body until he quit a dozen years ago, said the move was made to protect the Witnesses from lawsuit liability.
Some defectors have threatened to sue the society over its religious practices, most controversially its ban against blood transfusions and its policy of "disfellowshipping" - or shunning - members who violate rules or practices. Pellechia dismissed this, saying the changes were made to more effectively divide administrative and religious duties.
The new corporations, he said, affect only operations in the United States. Other corporations oversee legal matters in the rest of the world. Like many Witness leaders, Adams shuns the limelight. His only public comment on the change was that he deemed it a privilege to work with the Governing Body.
Witnesses are evangelical Christians, but some of their unorthodox doctrine - among them, denial of the cross as the traditional Christian symbol and rejection of the Trinity - draws heavy critical fire from other evangelicals.
The society runs a remarkable publishing empire - one magazine, The Watchtower, is published in 137 languages and has a circulation of 22 million. It also is among the religious movements showing steady growth. Its latest report showed a 2% rise in members in the past two years.
Someone suggested maybe it was because Witnesses do not pass the collection plate at services. Pellechia laughed. "We hear that a lot," he said.