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As Jehovah’s Witnesses from across Southern California came to Mission Valley last weekend for an annual convention, they may not have known how close they were to a onetime landmark of their faith: A mansion in Kensington that was supposed to house biblical patriarchs like Abraham and Moses upon their return to the earth.
The 10-bedroom Spanish-style house was the 1930s home of a retired judge who steered the Jehovah’s Witnesses during one of their most controversial periods, a time when they changed their name, were prosecuted by the Nazis and helped set the course of religious rights in America.
Joseph F. Rutherford came to San Diego around 1930, about 15 years into his term as president of the church. He’d already made waves by speaking against World War I and even landing in prison with other church leaders on sedition charges.
Among other things, he helped develop the church’s reliance on door-to-door preaching and conversion. By one account, members of the church brought portable record players with them and played his speeches to potential converts.
Rutherford also gave the church its name. Outside of the faith, he’s best known as an influential force in American law, leading the church’s fight for the right to avoid being forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
The church believes that saluting put flags above God. In Germany, church followers refused to salute the Nazi flag, aggravating the Hitler regime and inspiring Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States to take a stand against the Pledge of Allegiance and flag-saluting here. (The Nazis eventually sent thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also often refused military service, to concentration camps.)
Rutherford argued before the U.S. Supreme Court himself in 1940 in favor of the right to reject the pledge. But the justices ruled against him and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the case, with one saying “national unity is the basis of national security.” In the wake of the ruling, vigilantes attacked hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States.
The court reversed itself three years later in another Jehovah’s Witness case, saying schools cannot force students to say the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the flag. The ruling remains in effect.
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, shall prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” the court said in its ruling.
In San Diego, Rutherford became best known as the man behind the mansion for the patriarchs.
In a 1920 book called “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” he’d predicted that biblical leaders like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be resurrected in 1925 and become “the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth.”
While this didn’t occur, Rutherford still chose to be prepared for the return of the patriarchs. He moved into the newly built house in Kensington around 1930, calling it Beth Sarim (House of the Princes). He promptly received gently mocking news coverage after deeding it to King David, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Samuel and others.
Rutherford “pictured the arrival of the biblical delegation, perhaps in frock coats, high hats, canes and spats,” The San Diego Sun reported, although the distinguished men of the Bible wouldn’t be able to just waltz in like they owned the place. A delegation would have to approve the credentials of the ancient leaders before they’d be able to move in.
The Sun had fun, noting the car that the patriarchs would be able to call their own (a yellow 16-cylinder coupe) and adding this about the mansion’s toiletries: “What a thrill giant-shouldered Samson, who wrecked a palace with his bare fists, might find in the gold safety razor and strop!”
Critics attacked the church leader’s lavish lifestyle, particularly his multiple homes. Even his death in 1942 didn’t stop the fighting surrounding him. Jehovah’s Witnesses tried and failed to convince local officials to allow him to be laid to rest at his Kensington home, possibly for health reasons regarding the disposal of bodies.
In the book “Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” author M. James Penton says Rutherford’s followers had begun building a cement crypt at the house during his final days, though he’s said to be spending eternity in New York. A website devoted to research into Jehovah’s Witnesses has color photos that claim to show the crypt’s location.
Rutherford left an important legacy, Penton writes:
While he was doubtlessly a hard, ruthless and frequently cantankerous person… it is probable that only someone like him could have created the basis for making Jehovah’s Witnesses the important, world-wide sectarian movement they are today. …And it was his hardness and organizational abilities, unpopular as they often were, which were to give Jehovah’s Witnesses the iron-like character which they needed to pass through the persecution of the 1930s and 1940s.
As for Beth Sarim, the mansion is still around today at 4440 Braeburn Road on the eastern edge of the Kensington neighborhood. The 5,100-square-foot home was last sold in 1996 for $450,000, patriarchs not included.