Pilgrimage to Beth-Sarim

I squeezed in a visit to Beth Sarim when we visited San Diego in 2008

San Diego, California is a favorite with tourists due to its world famous attractions (such as the San Diego Zoo and Sea World), beautiful beaches and balmy weather. Only a few make the trek up to the historic Kensington Heights neighborhood to see the beautiful mansion built in 1929 for the Watchtower Society’s second president, Judge Rutherford. Really, it’s something that only has meaning to those who have a fascination with Jehovah’s Witness’ history. I happen to be one of those people. Now, I don’t recommend that this now private residence become a tourist destination (although

The Watchtower Society owned Beth Sarim from 1930-1948. Since then it has been a private residence.

it is listed in the City of San Diego’s list of historical places), but I’ll explain some of the reasons for my interest in this mansion that served as Rutherford’s California headquarters for nearly 12 years (1930-1942) as well as some pictures I took during that visit. This article also contains new scans of Beth-Sarim’s rather unique deed that was first published by the Watchtower Society in 1930.

Soon after J.F. Rutherford moved into the mansion, dubbed Beth-Sarim (meaning “House of the Princes”), in early 1930 it became an immediate media sensation. America was in a severe financial tailspin due to the Wall Street Crash just a few months before, headed for the Great Depression with countless thousands living homeless in Hoovervilles.  Many people were no doubt struck with the incongruity of the situation. For example, the Berkeley Daily Gazette of March 15, 1930 carried the story from UPI:

$75,000 Mansion is Willed to King David

By United Press.

San Diego, March 15.

When King David, slayer of Goliath, comes back to earth he will find the $75,000 mansion of James [actually, Joseph] Rutherford awaiting him.

According to a deed recorded today, Rutherford wants King David to have the costly Spanish-type residence. If King David fails to claim the property Rutherford put in trust for him then Rutherford wants some other biblical character to get it.

[G]ideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthae, Joseph or Samuel were named as alternatives to King David.

The identity of these named as owners of the home are to be established by the International Bible Students’ Association and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Rutherford is president of both organizations. Explaining his action, Rutherford said he momentarily expected the return to earth of famous figures of the Old Testament.

Rutherford formerly was a circuit judge in Missouri.

The New York Times (March 19, 1930) headlined:

DEEDS SAN DIEGO HOME TO KINGS OF ISRAEL; Judge Rutherford, in the Interim Occupies the House and Drives the Cars.

Time magazine (March 31, 1930) similarly ran with the story:

Big, blue-eyed Judge Joseph Frederick [actually Franklin] Rutherford, 60, lives in a ten-room Spanish mansion, No. 4440 Braeburn Road. San Diego, Calif. Last week he deeded No. 4440 Braeburn Road, an adjacent two-car garage and a pair of automobiles to King David, Gedeon, Barak, Samson. Jephthae, Samuel and sundry other mighties of ancient Palestine. Positive is he that they are shortly to reappear on earth. Said he: “I have purposely landscaped the place with palm and olive trees so these princes of the universe will feel at home when they come to offer man the chance to become perfect.”

At the time, the Witnesses believed that the resurrection of these Old Testament personages could be expected any day and was the harbinger for Armageddon. This belief (which is no longer held) was succinctly explained in the article “Return of the ‘Princes’” — pp. 17-18 of the November 26, 1941 Consolation:

The facts that have recently come to pass showing the fulfillment of sacred prophecy conclusively prove that the time for the “‘battle of that great day of God Almighty” is very near and that in that battle all of God’s enemies shall be destroyed and the earth cleared of wickedness, preparatory to the complete establishment of righteousness for ever. The affairs of the earth then will be under the complete control of the Messiah, God’s Anointed King over His Theocracy; and the faithful men of old, from Abel to John the Baptist, will be resurrected from the dead as perfect creatures and will act as the representatives on earth of that Theocratic Government. (Hebrews 11:1-40) The Scriptural evidence also abundantly shows that those faithful men will be back on the earth at the beginning of the final battle of Armageddon….

At San Diego, Calif., there is a small piece of land, on which, in the year 1929, there was built a house, which is called and known as “Beth-Sarim”. The Hebrew words Beth Sarim mean “House of the Princes”. The purpose of acquiring that property and building the house was that there might be some tangible proof that there are those on earth today who fully believe God and Christ Jesus and in The Theocratic Government, and who believe that the faithful men of old will soon be resurrected by the Lord, be back on earth, and take charge of the visible affairs of earth. The title to Beth-Sarim is vested in the WATCH TOWER BIBLE & TRACT SOCIETY. You may soon meet Abraham, Daniel, and other like faithful men, who shall be here as perfect, men acting as governors of the new world. Eagerly seek their instruction and hang on their words of wisdom and grace, because they will lead you in the way of righteousness. They are God’s “princes”.

Earlier, a major campaign promoting the book Millions Now Living Will Never Die had predicted these “Ancient Worthies” or “Princes” from the Old Testament would appear in 1925. The failure of that prediction to materialize precipitated many defections from the religion. Despite the failure of the 1925 date, Rutherford still proclaimed the soon resurrection of these Old Testament heroes. So, the assigning of the mansion to them can be seen as a way to re-affirm what was then a central teaching.

A second series of articles about Beth-Sarim appeared in the public press in 1931. For example, the Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal (Dubuque, Iowa) of January 14, 1931 described the automobile held in trust for the “Princes” as a “16 cylinder automobile” and some papers actually printed this picture of Rutherford posed in front of Beth-Sarim with this luxury car:

J.F. Rutherford at Beth Sarim in San Diego with his 16 cylinder Cadillac convertible

The Watchtower Society’s magazine The Golden Age (precursor to today’s Awake!) tried to do damage control to explain “the truth about the San Diego house.” The March 19, 1930 Golden Age (which can be read online here or downloaded here) presented this explanation written by Robert J. Martin, the factory overseer at Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn. After first giving background as to why the house was needed (citing Rutherford’s poor health), Martin told how the deed to the Old Testament “princes” came to be. He explained:

The deed was written by Brother Rutherford himself.

With obvious understatement, Martin quipped:

I am certain there is no other deed to any piece of property like it under the sun.

The March 19, 1930 Golden Age (precursor to Awake!) was the first mention of Beth Sarim in Watchtower publications

The next two pages of this Golden Age issue presented Beth Sarim’s unusual deed in full.

By adding a “provision and condition” to the deed, Rutherford provided that the Watch Tower Society “shall hold said title perpetually in trust for the use of any or all of” the Old Testament personages (such as David, Samson, Gideon, Joseph etc.) whose resurrection was expected momentarily. Rutherford was given the right to be the caretaker of the property for these Old Testament heroes and would surrender the property to them once they arrived “and it shall be used as such for ever”:

Beth Sarim's deed as published in the March 19, 1930 Golden Age

Beth Sarim's deed as published in the March 19, 1930 Golden Age, con't

Martin’s explanation reveals, no doubt, the real reason for Beth-Sarim. Rutherford needed (or desired) the warmer San Diego winters instead of the severe New York winters. The part about the house being dedicated to the Old Testament “princes” was likely more of a public relations tactic to try to assuage concerns on why Rutherford would be living in such a palatial mansion. The media’s cynical reaction to the claim shows that few were convinced.

Martin’s explanation also reveals that, by this time, Rutherford had assumed complete control of the Watchtower Society. There was no Governing Body having oversight of the religion. Rutherford’s work was essential to the Watchtower Organization because he had sole oversight of and did all the production of the “spiritual food” published in Watchtower publications. Prior to 1925, an editorial committee (set up by Rutherford’s predecessor Charles Taze Russell in his Last Will and Testament) had supervised what was published in the Watchtower magazine. In 1925, Rutherford overruled the editorial committee and it was soon disbanded, leaving Rutherford in complete control (see A People For His Name, by Tony Wills, p. 120). So, if Rutherford couldn’t endure New York winters the Watchtower Society would be run by him from California, for there was no one else to lead them in his absence. In fact, after 1930 the bulk of Rutherford’s books, booklets and Watchtower magazine articles were penned by him at Beth-Sarim.

During Rutherford’s lifetime, Beth-Sarim was well-known among Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was mentioned in various Watchtower publications, such as the 1931 Messenger (a convention report), pp. 6,8 and the 1939 book Salvation, pp. 311-312. References to it also continued in the public press, especially when Rutherford died at Beth Sarim on January 8, 1942. Newspapers (such as the Lawrence Journal-World of January 12, 1942) reported Rutherford’s dying wish was to be buried at Beth-Sarim. This created a conflict with San Diego officials who would not give permission for the burial in a crypt on the hillside behind Beth-Sarim overlooking the canyon behind the house (see The Evening Independent — St. Petersburg, Florida of January 26, 1942). My wife’s grandfather spent a couple of weeks in Northern California as part of a vast petition drive collecting signatures to try to sway county officials to allow the burial at Beth-Sarim but to no avail. The Witnesses gave their version of the dispute over the attempt to bury Rutherford at Beth-Sarim in the May 27, 1942 issue of Consolation.

After it was clear that permission would not be given to bury Rutherford at Beth-Sarim, Witnesses had his body shipped East. However, some sources claim that Rutherford last dying wish was not denied to him and that he was secretly buried at Beth-Sarim. The Watchtower Society maintained the property for several years but sold it in 1948. It’s been a private home for many years.

After Beth-Sarim was sold, it was not mentioned in Watchtower literature for many years. A history text-book written in 1959, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, makes no reference to Beth-Sarim. It is mentioned briefly in the 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but only as Rutherford’s winter home. No mention of the unusual deed or dedication to the Old Testament “princes” is made in these history books. It wasn’t until the 1993 book Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom that an acknowledgment was made of the dual purpose of Beth-Sarim in a Witness history text. This was after many years of negative publicity about Beth-Sarim had appeared in non-Witness publications and in the film Witnesses of Jehovah. Still, the 1993 Proclaimers book doesn’t give the whole story about the deed to Beth-Sarim:

The deed, which was published in full in “The Golden Age” of March 19, 1930, conveyed this property to J.F. Rutherford and thereafter to the Watch Tower Society. (Proclaimers, p. 76)

The Proclaimers book (the current history text published by the Watchtower Society) leaves out the most interesting parts of the deed containing the “provision and condition” that the property be handed over to the Old Testament “princes” upon their return and  be “used as such for ever.”

Even though the house has such an interesting and unusual history it is hoped that people who take the detour to see the famous “House of the Princes” are respectful of the current owners. For my wife and I, Beth-Sarim was a quick side-trip. We had much more fun over on the beach behind Hotel del Coronado. Really, your time would be better spent at San Diego’s customary attractions than at this monument to a false prophecy.

After my visit in 2008, I helped edit the Wikipedia article on Beth-Sarim and started collecting and scanning related documents (along with some help from friends) and putting them online. One last document relating to Beth-Sarim that had not been put online was the complete issue of the March 19, 1930 Golden Age which includes the deed written by Judge Rutherford. Helping to get that issue ready for online access has provided the inspiration for this blog article.

Beth-Sarim close-up

Beth-Sarim side-view

The complete March 19, 1930 issue of The Golden Age with the Deed for Beth-Sarim can be downloaded here

For further reading:

Life At Bethel: The World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses

A Memorial to a False Prophecy

What’s Wrong With the Witnesses

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5 Responses to Pilgrimage to Beth-Sarim

  1. tolpuddleman says:

    Hi there. You’re not wrong about this being off the usual tourist track…out in the suburbs hugging the sides of a steep hill if I recall correctly. At least the drive up seemed that way. Nevertheless it was an interesting place to visit. Nothing seems to have changed externally since the time of our visit way back in ’94. We were on vacation from the UK and just had to see this place for ourselves. Glad we did.

  2. Lola LB says:

    This sounds like an excuse to justify owning and using such luxurious properties.

  3. bob funk says:

    great photos–Some friends who lived nearby went and got a few photos for me around 2001.However Im glad to have current news articles of the day which really help put this truth on a firmer ground.What a sad lot so many had back then–as they still do—may the God of grace help them all to leave asap.Thanks for this good work.

  4. May I have your permission to use copies of your photos of Beth Sarim. I have the website christianwitnesses.com. I’m also on Facebook.com.

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