In Bible Examiner (hereafter abbreviated to BE) for October 1877, page 6, the editor George Storrs made one of his periodic pleas for support. While thanking readers for their prayers, he noted that financial help would also be welcome. His paper, he claimed, was unique. He argued “shall the only paper in America that speaks out boldly on this question be compelled to suffer and be crippled for want of funds?” There is an asterisk by the word America, and the footnote reads: “I except “The Herald of the Morning,” a paper published by Dr. Barbour, Rochester, N.Y.”
By this date, Charles Taze Russell (hereafter abbreviated as CTR) was supporting the Herald, (and if only the 1877 issues were extant to check, was probably writing for it as well).
Since the same issue of BE has Storrs debating with CTR over the date-setting properties of Three Worlds, it was obviously not Barbour’s chronological gymnastics that appealed. The doctrine or “question” that set The Herald apart from all other current publications in Storrs’ mind was Future Probation.
It is not the purpose of this article to comment on whom might be nearer the truth on the subject, as we are writing history not theology. But future probation had been a contentious issue for Christendom for centuries.
To define the concept – future probation is the belief that in the future individuals could have a testing period with the prospect of eternal life ahead of them. So their everlasting prospects were not just determined by what they did in this life, but they would benefit from a probationary period in the future after resurrection. It was usually (although not exclusively) tied in with a literal Millennial reign by Christ over a literal earth. However, just who might benefit was a bone of contention amongst those espousing the doctrine – would it include “the wicked” or just the “ignorant” like the heathen or unbaptised infants - and if “wicked” how exactly might one define the term?”
Orthodoxy in centuries past came out strongly against such a concept. If individuals did not accept Christ in this life, then that was it, there was no further chance. One example was in the official creed of the established Church of England. In 1552 Archbishop Cranmer produced the “42 Articles of Faith.” Article 42 attacked those who believed in future opportunities after death with the words: “They also are worthy of condemnation who endeavour at this time to restore the dangerous opinion that all men, be they never so ungodly, shall at length be saved, when they have suffered pain for their sins a certain time appointed by God’s justice.” While attacking a Universalist view, and perhaps a further swipe at the Roman Church’s purgatory (already attacked in article 22), it also reaffirmed that the “ungodly” – however defined – had lost out forever at death. Any other view was “a dangerous opinion.” Since the concept of Future Probation requires a location for it to happen – such as the earth during the Millennium – Article 41 of the same document obligingly condemned believers in the Millennium as heretics. However, it should be noted that ten years later in 1562 these articles ended up on the cutting room floor. The Church of England of today has to manage with just 39 Articles.
When this view was coupled with traditional teachings on hell – that all those not accepting Christ in this life were destined for eternal torment – it was perhaps unsurprising that some felt uneasy at the prospect of millions being so condemned. This was especially so if their opportunities to accept Christ in this life had been limited by geography and circumstance. Putting it in very human terms – was that fair? Those raising such questions were not accusing God of being unfair, but were aiming at the theologians who seemed to suggest that the vast majority of mankind would have been better off not being born at all.
One reaction against orthodoxy was to swing to the extreme of Universalism – the concept that eventually all would be saved. Writers such as John Murray in America promoted Universalism in the 18th century. Universal Salvation might take some time – it WOULD take some time – but ultimately that was God’s plan. Some individuals were even sufficiently magnanimous to include the Devil in these calculations. (A few associated with CTR would eventually leave the Bible Student movement to become Universalists, including John Paton and his aptly-titled Larger Hope Publishing Company).
Once interest in the Second Advent drew various people together in the first half of the nineteenth century, another dimension was added by the acceptance by many of conditional immortality. This doctrine taught that immortality was not automatic, but was conditional. Those who did not gain eternal life would gain eternal sleep. That dealt effectively with the concept of a burning hell, but also affected the concept of future probation. If the wicked – whether through intent or ignorance – were just going to sleep forever, that wasn’t so bad, was it? So while future probation was debated by the Advent Christians and Age to Come groups, the majority came out against the concept, or at least had views on salvation more exclusive than inclusive.
Taking the Advent Christians first, their official histories had some tart comments to make on the doctrine. Isaac C. Welcome in “History of the Second Advent Message” (1874), pages 515, 613, laid into George Storrs’ view of “probation after the Advent” as erratic and radical and “very detrimental to the progress of truth and sound doctrine.” The doctrine was “nearly analogous to Universalism.” Albert C. Johnson in “Advent Christian History” (1918), pages 242-243, described 19th century advocates as a kind of fifth column – “(they were) finally distracted and disorganized by the advocates of future probation theories, who worked their way into the conference quietly until they gained control” – the conference had “been perverted by the age-to-come teachings.”
As suggested by the last quote, Age to Come groups were more sympathetic towards the idea. The first prerequisite for the unsaved to return for their “chance” was somewhere for them to return to, and the Age to Come focus was already on human life for a thousand years. But their paper The Restitution was happy to publish such articles as J.F. Wilcox’s ‘A Major Proposition and its Results’ in July 28, 1875, which categorically pronounced that “the whole...world who have not had God’s revealed word, but who...sinned without law, shall never be raised from the dead...as natural brute beasts they utterly perish in their own corruption.” An article promoting future probation, ‘The Progressive Age’ by Elder J. Parry, was denied publication, so Storrs published it instead in his BE for July 1874. By October 3, 1877, Elder John Foore was writing to The Restitution that he would like the paper “much better if it could be opened for the advanced views such as the blessing of all nations and all kindreds in the age to come.” The request apparently fell on deaf ears.
With other columns denied him, Storrs believed BE to be the primary voice for this doctrine, and fended off critics from all sides. When opponents dubbed the position “second chance” – it was met with the retort that for millions who died in ignorance this was their first chance. When critics then came back with “better chance” – it was met with the riposte, how could that be when now the chance was to be part of the bride of Christ?
Others settled on “fair chance.” As it happened, Storrs didn’t like that description any more than the others (BE October 1875, page 5), but it was more correct – you could say, more fair - in describing his theology
When opposers accused Future Probationists of being closet Universalists – Storrs standard response was that while he did not believe in universal salvation, he did believe in universal opportunity.
And yet Storrs’ position was not quite the same as others believing the doctrine. He defined his position as The Ages to Come. While it sounded like the Age to Come belief in a literal thousand years for humans on earth (and probation for nations then living), Storrs embellished it considerably. He spoke of Ages because he did not believe probation would happen for the dead during the Millennium, but rather after the Millennium in what he called “a succession of ages” or Ages to Come. (BE October 1874, editorial ‘The Ages to Come’). He accepted that not everyone would come back, and had broken with the Life and Advent Union over his belief that wicked dead would not be resurrected; nonetheless, the number would still be sufficient to require potential Ages (plural). And some who came back could still lose out – albeit a minority.
A key scripture for Storrs was Revelation 20 v.5: “But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished.” In his article ‘Due Time’ (BE August 1876) Storrs used this to reason that their resurrection and probation had to take place after the Millennium. Others might interpret this as referring to beneficiaries only coming to full life after passing their test at the end of the thousand years. Those opposed to the concept in its various shapes and forms, might dismiss the verse as an interpolation.
Storrs was a major influence on CTR. CTR chose the BE columns for his first known literary efforts, and in ZWT for May 1,1890, singled out Storrs (along with George Stetson) for special mention before recounting how his understanding of the ransom and restitution developed – to encompass far more than he had previously thought. The original May 1, 1890 issue, page 4, has CTR explaining how “in 1873 I came to examine the subject of restitution from the standpoint of the ransom price given by our Lord Jesus for Adam, and consequently for all lost in Adam, it settled the matter of restitution completely, and gave fullest assurance that ALL must come forth from Adamic death and be brought to a clear knowledge of the truth and to fullest opportunity of everlasting life in Christ.”
When CTR reprinted the article in A Conspiracy Exposed and Harvest Siftings – a special ZWT of 1894, he made several revisions to this paragraph (as found on page 96), including changing the date from 1873 to 1872. All future printings including those from June 15, 1906 (reprints 3821) stick to this revision.
But this was future probation. Without going into details, this was Storrs’ basic message in BE. Storrs had restarted BE in late 1871, after breaking with the Life and Advent Union. We do not know if CTR received Storrs journal then, because the first two years of the revived BE are unavailable. It was a weekly newspaper and may not have survived. But from October 1873 it became a monthly which could be bound into volumes. These have survived, and the Russells are readers from the start. However, they obviously would know of Storrs from his previous reputation. The Russell names are also found in the letters received columns of The Advent Christian Times and the World’s Crisis in the early 1870s – and the Crisis is certainly known to have publicised Storrs’ views by vigorously attacking them at the time.
CTR would claim in ZWT May 1, 1890, page 4, that he brought this concept to Nelson Barbour. “When we first met, he had much to learn from me on the fullness of restitution based upon the sufficiency of the ransom given for all.”
All this helps to explain why in October 1877 Storrs would single out “The Herald of the Morning, a paper published by Dr. Barbour, Rochester, N.Y.” as the only journal he believed to be supportive.
Barbour had already submitted an article endorsing future probation to BE, which was published in September 1876. In ‘The Work of Redemption Progressive: or Ages Employed in Accomplishing It’ Barbour stated “there is much positive scripture...to prove that there is to be probation in the world to come, for all who have not been brought to the knowledge of the truth in this world, and committed the unpardonable sin.”
While the article was sympathetic of Storrs’ views in principle, it was a little short on specifics. And looking closer at the details, there would be a key difference between Storrs’ views and those of Barbour and Russell. As noted above, Storrs taught Ages to Come, and looked beyond the Millennium for future probation to be worked out. In contrast, both Barbour and Russell would favor a more traditional view – that the Millennium was the judgment “day” and that a thousand years would be sufficient.
In Barbour’s Three Worlds (1877) for example, we read on pages 10 and 66: “There is much positive Scripture...to prove that there is to be probation in the millennial age, or world to come, for all who have not been brought to the knowledge of the truth in this world, and committed the unpardonable sin...It follows that probation must end with the thousand years.”
When CTR began publishing under his own name, he presented the same view. From Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return (1877), page 26: “In (their day of trial, when they are on probation for eternal life) their “day of judgment” (not a 24-hour day, but the millennial or judgment age) they will fare better than the Jews — have fewer stripes.” He elaborated further in Food for Thinking Christians (1881), page 95: “It is their judgment day—one thousand years. During all that time, God’s truth, as a two-edged sword, will be quietly, but surely as now, doing a separating work...The great mass of mankind will learn God’s ways, and delight to walk therein. These he calls his sheep—followers, and during the age they are gradually gathered to his right hand.”
Looking at CTR’s theology overall, this was his main message, a legacy from Storrs, in spirit if not in detail. Yes, the second presence of Christ was a key theme with its chronological framework. Yes, “putting the hose on hell” with conditional immortality was a key platform. Yes, there would be issues like clashes with orthodoxy over the trinity. Nonetheless, in CTR’s mind at the time, future probation – summed up by his slogan “A Ransom for All” was what he believed to be the key message of the Bible. And he made sure as many as possible knew it.