Hayden C. Covington

Hayden Cooper Covington (January 19, 1911 – November 21, 1978) was legal counsel for the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in the mid-20th century. Hayden Covington achieved 37 victories in the United States Supreme Court, the most since the Judiciary Act of 1869 which fixed the Supreme Court of the United States to 9 Justices. He argued numerous cases before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses in defense of their religious freedoms, winning most of them. In 1967, he defended then world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in his legal battle against the draft during the Vietnam War.

Early life

Covington was born in East Texas, and reared on a farm near Dallas, Texas. His father was a Texas Ranger.

An able student, Covington worked his way through law school in San Antonio, successfully passing the Texas bar exam, with an impressively high score, one year before graduation. He was admitted to the Texas Bar in 1933.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Covington was first exposed to Jehovah's Witnesses through the broadcast sermons of Watch Tower Society President Joseph F. Rutherford on radio station KTSA in San Antonio. He was attracted to the group's teachings, and defended several of its members in Texas courts before being formally baptized as a member in 1934.[1]

After Rutherford learned of Covington's successes defending Jehovah's Witnesses, he asked Covington to represent the Society for a case before the US Supreme Court. He was then invited to join the headquarters staff as general counsel in 1939, succeeding Olin R. Moyle.[2]

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes: "I suppose [Connecticut householders] had some right of religious freedom themselves, did they not? I suppose they have the right to be left alone and not to be attacked with these scurrilous denunciations of their most cherished faith. What have you to say to that?"

Hayden C. Covington: "I say we are right!"
 Oral arguments, Cantwell v. Connecticut, (1940)

When Rutherford died in January 1942, Covington maintained his aggressive litigation policy. Covington was elected vice-president of the Watch Tower Society, succeeding the newly elected president, Nathan H. Knorr, despite having been a Jehovah's Witness for only five years. Until 2001, appointment to the board of directors of the Watch Tower Society was almost exclusively limited to those professing to be of the "anointed class" who would "rule as Kings" in heaven with Christ, Covington being the only exception.[3] A subsequent policy change resulted in Covington's resignation from the Vice Presidency and departure from the board in 1945; however, he remained on staff as legal counsel.[4][5] In 1950, he wrote the Watch Tower tract, Defending and Legally Establishing the Good News to advise Witnesses of their constitutional rights in the United States.[6]

Covington was subsequently recognized as one of the greatest civil liberties attorneys in American history. During his tenure as the head of the Watch Tower Society's legal department, he presented 111 petitions and appeals to the Supreme Court. He won more than 80% of the 44 cases he brought before the Court, involving issues including compulsory flag-salute statutes, public preaching and door-to-door literature distribution. He later resigned as head of the Watch Tower Society's legal department, and was eventually disfellowshipped after clashes with the Society's then-President Nathan Knorr and revelations of a drinking problem. He was reinstated prior to his death in 1978.[7]

Cases argued before the Supreme Court

Meeting with US President Harry Truman

In its chapter on Covington, Great American lawyers: An Encyclopedia relates:

Covington reported one meeting in which he and Knorr met with President Harry Truman about a pardon for a Witness who had been convicted of evading the draft. Covington claimed that Truman cursed and claimed to have no use "for that SOB who didn't want to die for his country in time of war."[8]

That meeting apparently occurred on Friday, September 6, 1946. President Truman eventually pardoned 136 Jehovah's Witnesses who had been convicted in draft cases.[9]

Defense of Muhammad Ali

In 1966 and 1967, Covington—with his extensive experience in the US Selective Service System and his many successes representing Jehovah's Witnesses—assisted prize-fighter Muhammad Ali to obtain a draft exemption as a Muslim minister. Covington subsequently sued Ali to recover $247,000 in legal fees.[10]

See also



  1. Penton, M. James Apocalypse Delayed, 3rd Ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 205) pg 106
  2. Penton, M. James Apocalypse Delayed 106
  3. "How the Governing Body Differs From a Legal Corporation", The Watchtower, January 15, 2001, page 28, "Annual meetings of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania have been held since January of 1885. When the ingathering of anointed Christians was underway in the late 19th century, the directors and officers of this corporation had the heavenly hope. In fact, this has almost always been the case. There was one exception. In 1940, Hayden C. Covington—then the Society's legal counsel and one of the "other sheep," with the earthly hope—was elected a director of the Society. (John 10:16) He served as the Society's vice president from 1942 to 1945. At that time, Brother Covington stepped aside as a director to comply with what then seemed to be Jehovah's will—that all directors and officers of the Pennsylvania corporation be anointed Christians. Lyman A. Swingle replaced Hayden C. Covington on the board of directors, and Frederick W. Franz was elected vice president. Why did Jehovah's servants believe that all the directors and officers of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania should be anointed Christians? Because at the time, the board of directors and officers of the Pennsylvania corporation were closely identified with the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, which has always been made up entirely of spirit-anointed men.
  4. "Education for the Theocratic Ministry Advanced", The Watchtower, November 1, 1955, page 650, "On September 24, 1945, H. C. Covington graciously declined to serve further as a member of the board of directors and as vice-president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, not as an evasion of responsibilities, but rather as an effort to comply with what appeared to be the Lord's will for all the members of the directorate and the officers to be of the anointed ones [with a heavenly hope], since his hope was [earthly as] that of one of the "other sheep." ...Covington has continued to head the Society's legal department"
  5. "Declaring the Good News Without Letup (1942-1975)", Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, page 91, "In September 1945, Brother Covington graciously declined to serve further as vice president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (of Pennsylvania), explaining that he wished to comply with what was then understood to be Jehovah's will for all members of the directorate and officers—that they be spirit-anointed Christians, whereas he professed to be one of the 'other sheep.'"
  6. Covington, Hayden C. Defending and Legally Establishing the Good News (New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1950) p. 2.
  7. Penton, M. James, "Apocalypse Delayed", p. 107.
  8. "Covington, Hayden C." by John R. Vile, Great American Lawyers: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, page 138
  9. "United States of America", 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, page 207, "Friday, September 6, 1946, ... Truman listened intently as the Society's lawyer [apparently Covington] developed the features of the resolution to the point where executive clemency was requested. Then, he recalls, "Truman broke in with a flare of emotion and said: ‘I don’t have any use for a S—O—B that won't fight for his country" ... the president thereafter gave his attention to the Society's attorney "as he concluded the request for the release of Jehovah's witnesses being held in prison under the Selective Service Act. Truman then said that he would discuss it with the Attorney General." In time, President Truman appointed his Amnesty Board. They reviewed thousands of court records and draft board files, recommending some pardons. But on December 23, 1947, Truman pardoned only 136 Witnesses"
  10. Muhammad Ali: A Biography by Anthony O. Edmonds, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, page 86

External links

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