Thursday, February 18, 2010

Guest Post - Review of Charles Taze Russell – His Life and Times – The Man, the Millennium and the Message

A few weeks ago I sent you details of the new biography of Pastor Russell written by Fredrick Zydek, available on Amazon. Having finished reading it, I have written a critical review which I am sending to you to do with as you wish – which may well be to ignore it completely.

You may have felt, on learning that a full biography was out there, that this would devalue your current project. Since Zydek’s book is so full of inaccuracies, I don’t believe that is the case at all. A history needs to have the detail, backed up by references wherever possible – well illustrated by your Nelson Barbour book.

A correspondent in New York who I put onto your Barbour book has emailed me how much he enjoyed it, filling in many gaps. I look forward to your detailed analysis of how he and CTR came together and ultimately parted in your current project.

Sincerely

Jerome

Charles Taze Russell – His Life and Times – The Man, the Millennium and the Message
by Frederick Zydek
A Critical Review

Fredrick Zydek is a good writer who produces very readable prose. His book fills an important historical gap. Although of a different religious persuasion (Zydek is Catholic) this is a very sympathetic portrayal of Charles Taze Russell (hereinafter abbreviated to CTR), with a real respect for what he achieved. It is not hagiography, as one might expect from some sources, nor virulent criticism as one might expect from others. It puts Russell into the context of the times, showing contemporary events alongside his activities.

Unfortunately, there are a number of reservations over accuracy when it comes to the detail. Perhaps the best parts of the book and certainly most accurate, since contemporary data is more readily available, are the last few chapters. These paint a graphic picture of CTR’s last years, where he literally wore himself out with tours and lectures to proclaim what the author calls “his unique and controversial interpretations of the biblical narratives”.

However, for CTR’s earlier years, a big problem with the book is that the writer has relied heavily on anecdotal evidence to fill out the story. Had the book been proofread by more people who have an interest in the subject, a number of errors could have been avoided. For instance the book starts with a well-written account of the coffin ships that brought poor Irish immigrants to America. It is assumed that Charles Tays Russell (CTR’s uncle and the first to make the journey from Ireland to America) travelled this way and arrived in 1838 (page 3). The only problem with this is that when Charles Tays died, he was sufficiently well-known in Pittsburgh to have an obituary in the Pittsburgh Post on December 27th 1875 which reads (in part): He was a native of Ireland and came to New York in 1822. He took his early lessons in active business from A.T. Stewart in New York.

Zydek’s account of the family life of his younger brother Joseph Lytel (CTR’s father) suggests that they did well, whereas there is evidence from Joseph’s wife’s will that he had a serious business failure in 1855. Anna Eliza left the sale of some land in her will to help pay off Joseph’s debts. While it is true that CTR’s siblings, apart from Margaret, all died young, Zydek says they were buried in the Rosemont cemetery (p.7). That is incorrect. While CTR was buried in the Rosemont cemetery in 1916, the rest of his original family, siblings Thomas, Lucinda and Joseph Jr. were all buried in the Allegheny cemetery. (Perhaps the most famous internment here is the songwriter Stephen Foster). In the same Russell family plot were eventually buried mother Anna Eliza, the original Charles Tays, and finally father Joseph Lytel. Some of the gravestones have been rediscovered and raised in recent years. (Check out the Allegheny cemetery, Section 7, Lot 17, grave 1. On their cemetery website you will find eight Russells in total buried here).

The chronology for much of the 1870s is wrong. The book has Russell in touch with Nelson Barbour in 1873 (p. 41) – it was several years later they met. He suggests 1875 as the date for the booklet ‘Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return’ (p.46) - most now agree that should be 1877. It is assumed that Russell replaced Jonas Wendell in the small Bible study group in Allegheny (p.41), but Wendell moved on to Edenboro in 1870 and was replaced for a short while by George Stetson. Zydek only mentions Stetson as one of the editors of ‘Bible Examiner’ (p.36 footnote) – which he wasn’t – that was George Storrs alone. As reported in Advent Christian Church newspapers as well as ‘Zion’s Watch Tower’, CTR conducted Stetson’s funeral service in 1879. And there is no mention at all of William H Conley, the first president of the Watch Tower Society, in whose home the Russells celebrated the Memorial in the first two years of ‘Zion’s Watch Tower’, and who like Joseph Lytel Russell corresponded with George Storrs in the mid-1870s (see Storrs’ ‘Bible Examiner’ November and December 1875).

There are similar problems with chronology for the 1880s. Zydek has Russell producing ‘Old Theology Quarterly’ tracts in 1880 (p.73) before ‘The Divine Plan of the Ages’ was published in 1886. In fact, this tract series started in 1889. It is surmised that the Russell’s “adopted daughter” Rose Ball came to live with them when she was 15 in 1888 (p.101) – in fact Rose Ball Henninges’ death certificate shows she died on November 22nd 1950 aged 81. So either the age or the year is wrong – or both. (CTR gave one year, Maria in court gave another). She obviously was not born in 1875 as the book states on page 45.

Travelling into the 90s, there are further problems with chronology. We are told that Rose Ball marries Ernest Henninges in 1890 (p.101 footnote and p.114), and a cosy picture is painted of the married couples all sharing Christmas dinner together in 1892 (p.130). However, Rose Ball Henninges’ death certificate says she married when aged 25, so would still be single in 1892. CTR is described as taking the Chicago ‘Mission Friend’ to court over the “jellyfish” allegations while he and Maria were still together in the early 1890s (p.146). In fact, the jellyfish accusation did not get publicity until the court hearing of 1906, and the ‘Mission Friend’ caught a legal cold by repeating it after then.

Travelling into the 20th century there are further anomalies. On the Miracle Wheat episode we are told that a Mr Stoner contacted CTR about this cereal in 1904 (page 214). In fact, while Stoner, a farmer, discovered what he called “Miracle Wheat” in 1904 – he did not meet CTR or communicate with him until nearly a decade later. The author seems to assume that his readers know all about the episode with the briefest of references on page 338. For any who don’t know the story, Stoner dubbed his wheat “miracle” in 1904. CTR’s journal published a newspaper report on the wheat in 1908 when it was already an old story, with a short editorial comment. In 1911 two Bible students offered it for sale with proceeds going to the Watch Tower Society. The Brooklyn Eagle published a satirical cartoon about CTR and Miracle Wheat on the front page of its Saturday, September 23rd 1911 edition. CTR sued for libel. The case came to court in January 1913 and CTR lost.

Still in the early 20th century we are told that Maria Russell brought suit for legal separation on the grounds of CTR’s adultery (p.224) – in fact, her council S G Porter specifically stated that adultery was not claimed. Maria was asked the question point blank “You don’t mean that your husband was guilty of adultery?” Maria’s answer “No” (court record April 26, 1906, Maria F Russell vs. Charles T Russell p.10). The author has obviously not read the actual transcript.

The J N Patten whose passing was noted in CTR’s journal on September 15, 1906 (p.233) was not J H Paton, who wrote Day Dawn. The latter John H Paton (not George as Zydek sometimes calls him) was still publishing his “World’s Hope” journal at this time, and lived until 1922. And if Nelson Barbour could be said to have published “Washed in His Blood” in 1907 (p. 246) he did so posthumously. Barbour died in August 1905 and left money for his congregation to publish this final work. And while Frederick Franz (a later president of the Watchtower Society) was attracted to Russell’s message by the booklet “Where Are the Dead” (p.352) – this was not a booklet by CTR but one written by Dr John Edgar of Glasgow (see Franz’ life story in Watchtower May 1st 1987).

A lot of the Zydek’s material comes from secondary sources. So a quote from Nelson Barbour comes, not from Barbour’s journal but from A H McMillan’s paraphrase of it in his book ‘Faith on the March’ (pp.58-60). The author has obviously not consulted Barbour’s original journals, even though they are now generally accessible. As noted above, neither has he consulted the transcripts of the court hearings over Maria Russell’s “divorce from bed and board” – his limited quotes come from secondary sources like Barbara Harrison (p.267) or the Brooklyn Eagle (p.306). These selective quotes have an agenda, and consulting the complete transcript would have given a fuller picture. For example, did the author know that Maria did not just mention Rose Ball when accusing her husband? (Rose was in Australia at the time and therefore unavailable for comment – and even though she was later a major player in the New Covenant Schism never did comment unfavourably on CTR’s conduct). Maria’s testimony also suggested misconduct when CTR locked himself in a servant girl’s room (transcript p. 14). This time the girl in question, Emily Sheersly, was still living in Pittsburgh so was called to testify by CTR’s counsel (transcript p.178-79). Emily insisted she had no memory of any doors locked or any improper action on the part of CTR. Never. Maria’s counsel did not bother to cross-examine.

In the bigger picture, it is fair to say that most of Zydek’s questionable details affect only incidentals to the main story. However, once a few details are found inaccurate, it does create unease as to how much other anecdotal evidence used to flesh out the story may be unreliable. Perhaps one example that sticks in this writer’s mind - I was fascinated to learn that Rose Ball’s brother, Charlie, who according to court testimony died shortly after joining the Bible House family, rose to become Vice-President of the Society in 1893 (p.134). That might of course be correct. But proof anybody?

It is a shame because the book is well written and tells a story that deserves to be told. As noted at the start, its latter chapters are particularly good. It is certainly sympathetic towards its subject. But it really needs a second edition. Or perhaps we need another book to be both objective and thorough.

2 comments:

jerome said...

Since I have been somewhat pedantic in my review, I had better point out two glitches before anyone else spots them. First, CTR’s mother’s name was Ann Eliza Birney, not Anna. That was a typo. However, her gravestone calls her Eliza. Second, on the Miracle Wheat episode, although Mr Stoner discovered the wheat in 1904 as recorded, he (Stoner) did not actually name it Miracle Wheat until 1906. The rest of the account, i.e. CTR’s involvement from 1908, is as reported.

B. W. Schulz said...

Time for a restatement of the rules:

IF you want me to review a book, you must send me a copy at your expense. I will decline all post advertising a book that I have not seen.

You want to shill for a book, that's your business. You want me to review it, mail me a copy.