Saturday, October 3, 2009

Another view of Watch Tower History

As long as I’ve been ‘editorializing’ lately, I might as well continue.

What passes as Watch Tower history seldom makes an attempt to connect the story to its environment. An example is Russell’s tracting work in the 1860’s. You’ve probably read the story about him chalking scriptures on sidewalks and walls where people were likely to read them. He wanted to save as many as he could from the fires of hell. But do you know what Allegheny City and Pittsburgh were like in the mid to late 1860’s?

There is a census of whores in Allegheny City and Pittsburgh. Prostitution was rampant, and in Allegheny City many of the shop girls were part time whores because they couldn’t live on the substandard wages paid by the small shop owners and cottage industries that characterized that place. Within easy walking distance of the Russell home were numbers of whore houses.

Murders were not rare. In 1872 an especially bloody murder was perpetrated just doors from the Russell residence. A man found his married sister sleeping with someone other than her husband. He broke in the door and stabbed the man to death with a short-bladed knife. His only regret was that he didn’t have a longer blade. It wouldn’t have been so difficult to kill the man if his knife had been longer.

Several tracting and missionary programs targeted Allegheny City. The Evangelical Alliance had one. The description of Allegheny given in the magazine article that profiled it (1857) is lurid. The YMCA had a tracting and Sunday School program. They provided Sunday School teachers and superintendents to local churches. Note the connection to Russell? Yet, none of those who profiled Russell ever bothered to record this. Why not? It’s easily found. It connects him to his environment and explains much of what he did.

As far as most of what passes as Watch Tower history is concerned, Pittsburgh of today is no different than it was 150 years ago. They do not remind you that the world has, to quote a Stephen King character, ‘moved on.’

I’m only scratching the surface here. Do you know what the streets were like in Allegheny in the 1850’s? There was no garbage pickup. You were as likely to step in something you’d rather avoid as to encounter a dead horse abandoned in the street. Anyone tell you this? And if you knew it, did any of the Watch Tower historians you read remind you of it. Why not? This is a vital part of the story.

I’ve had my say, not that it matters. I wish a more talented and younger person had taken this on. It is an injustice that those who should be most interested in this history have covered over or neglected more than they’ve told.


Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for your blog and for comments like this.
Anyway, I'm not sure to understand. What you mention here adds more details to the story, and I enjoy that a lot. But it is not something very significative, in the sense that it does not change the idea. Or am I missing something?


B. W. Schulz said...

If you're missing something, it's only because I didn't fully elaborate. Russell tracted with the YMCA and maybe with the Evangelical Alliance.

The conditions in Allegheny that he found disturbing are reflected in the crime and prostitution (which wasn't always a crime). A good understanding of what the city was like helps us understand what he did.

A private email suggested that these conditions gave Allegheny an old west flavor. Not really. Pittsburgh had one whore per 150 men in 1850. New York 1 to 80, London was worse yet. We tend to forget that the 19th Century world was very different from our own. The amenities were more primitive; health conditions were bad. "Germ Theory" was new. It wasn't even standard practice for a physician to wash his hands in the 1840's, the decade in which J. L. Russell immigrated.

Death and sin loomed large in Charles Russell's experience. When the Allegheny Arsenal blew up, it scattered body parts all over Allegheny and Pittsburgh. Mortality was very high, infant/child mortality was especially high. Russell experienced this within his own family. It coloured his thinking.

Ideas we now see as superstition were common beliefs. Russell shared in these and they coloured his thinking on some matters, including himself.

Yes, we need to know these things to understand the story.