There are three posts on this subject which I have published in reverse order – simply so that readers can read them in the correct order. Inevitably, they will knock other material off the front pages of this blog, but readers can easily go to the archives to check past posts on other aspects of Watch Tower history.
This research started with a review of The Day of Vengeance published in ZWT (reprints 2278) which mentions a debate in north-east Scotland featuring Bible student Charles Houston and clergyman Donald Davidson. More on the actual debate is found in an earlier ZWT (reprints 1965). Houston shared in colporteur work, and his efforts in Scotland are also detailed in ZWT (reprints 1884).
Two local newspapers for Houston’s home area of Wick gave him considerably publicity. He organised wide distribution of the tract Do You Know? He also organised a series of public meetings. This attracted criticism that prompted Davidson, then minister of Canisbay Free Church, to challenge him to debate. The resulting event was reported in some detail.
The newspapers in question are not available on the internet, and the relevant issues could only be found in the Wick Public library. I am very grateful to the member of staff who checked four months of papers and sent me full scans of all the material. This is an excellent example for other libraries, which sometimes seem to delight in thwarting researchers’ efforts, especially those who cannot actually physically walk through the door. I transcribed all the newspaper references (which came to over 100 pages) and at the library’s request have sent them all the transcripts with a special introduction.
To get an overview, it would good to read through this introduction which follows. It should be noted that, since this was written for the library, it is designed for the general public rather than Watch Tower historians. It assumes that readers are not familiar with Zion’s Watch Tower, Pastor Russell, Millennial Dawn, future probation, etc. Hence, the explanations about beliefs and the personnel involved, and the attempt to maintain a neutral tone.
Following this preface and general introduction, the two separate transcriptions of the debate are reproduced in full.
All the other material – acrimonious correspondence trying to organise the debate, the aftermath, plus separate debates with local worthies on subjects like the trinity – has not been reproduced here. It would have swamped this blog with far too many pages. However, the whole story, totalling 114 pages, can be downloaded as a pdf free of charge from Lulu.com. Simply type in “Houston-Davidson debate” in the search box. Please feel free to copy on this download for any who may be interested.
Read. And I hope – enjoy!
CHARLES NEAVE HOUSTON OF WICK – AN EARLY CONTROVERSIAL EVANGELIST
For the first four months of 1896, hardly an issue of the weekly John O’Groat Journal and the weekly Northern Ensign (both published in north-east Scotland) went by without a letter or a reference to one C N Houston – full name Charles Neave Houston. Houston, a draper in Wick, had become a convert to the Bible Student movement spearheaded by the writer Charles Taze Russell, who published a magazine Zion’s Watch Tower. The magazine still continues today, now named The Watchtower, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As an enthusiastic convert Houston took time out from his business to spread his new views, culminating in a public debate with the minister of Canisbay Free Church. This was reported in detail in the papers. The surrounding correspondence – often quite acrimonious – can be quite entertaining for a modern reader. In those days before instant communication, people were not prepared to wait a whole week before responding to comments they objected to. So, a letter in the John O’Groat Journal (published Fridays) would often be answered in the Northern Ensign (published Tuesdays) and vice versa.
Some background would be in order. From genealogical records, the business news in the Edinburgh Gazette, and then the actual correspondence in the JOGJ and NE, a little bit of Houston’s personal history can be established.
He was born in Canisbay in 1854. He was apprenticed to Peter MacKenzie, a draper in Wick, and ultimately married his daughter, Alice. No children are mentioned in his obituary. He eventually became sole proprietor of the drapery business in 1895.
He took a keen interest in religious matters. When the Pulteneytown Mission Hall was opened in 1887, as an appendage to the Wick Free Church, Charles Houston was reported as one of those giving an address at its first evangelistic meeting. But around 1893 (“some three years ago” as he expressed it in the February 1896 debate) Houston “saw the light” in what he called “that blessed book ‘Millennial Dawn.’”
His obituary mentioned that he had spent time in America where “he became acquainted with several thinkers and writers whose friendship he greatly valued.” This may have been connected with his interest or even his introduction to Zion’s Watch Tower and Millennial Dawn. Or he may have discovered this theology in Scotland. Russell’s evangelistic efforts had reached Scotland first in 1881 – when an American visitor J J Bender had hired boys to circulate over fifty thousand copies of Russell’s small book Food for Thinking Christians in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. Glasgow in particular became an early centre for what became the Bible Student movement. When Houston made an evangelical trip in 1895 he spoke of visiting “the friends” in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Russell expanded his original small book into a much larger one entitled The Plan of the Ages (later The Divine Plan of the Ages), first published in 1886. This became the first of a series known as Millennial Dawn.
As noted above, sometime in the early 1890s Houston came into contact with Millennial Dawn. He was well-known in his area, and his conversion attracted some attention. He cut down on business to make more time for circulating literature, including the aforementioned tour in 1895, which was written up in Zion’s Watch Tower. He arranged for a widespread tract distribution to promote his new views in his own area; and when Charles Russell suggested that supporters might organise public meetings, Houston did that as well.
The newspapers published fairly polite and neutral reviews of Houston’s efforts, but they attracted negative publicity from offended supporters of orthodoxy. A debate on the trinity ensued (Millennial Dawn did not support the trinity) – and feathers were ruffled. It was suggested that merchants should stick to selling their wares rather than becoming teachers, unless it was a plot to advertise the drapery business not available to competitors. As often happens in debates of this sort, Houston was also accused of misrepresenting his opponents’ position, setting up and demolishing straw men. This correspondence petered out as Houston’s opponents withdrew.
But the main controversy that drew the Reverend Mr Davidson into the fray was a doctrine commonly known as “future probation.” Millennial Dawn taught that countless dead would come back in a future resurrection to receive a chance of accepting Christ and gaining salvation. This was not the orthodox position, which dubbed Houston’s views as “second chance.” The argument then developed along familiar lines – one side insisting this was not a second chance but the real first chance for those affected. A variation on this as taught by Houston was that it was really a second chance for everyone, because everyone lost their first chance through the sin of Adam. The other side accused “Future Probationists” of being Universalists; then “Future Probationists” responded that this was not universal salvation, but universal opportunity. And so on. Questions that orthodoxy would sometimes sidestep by saying that it was not for us to know, were answered with irritating certainty by the non-orthodox.
Houston and Davidson met for the first time in the local newspaper offices in Wick. Houston was accused of spreading Millennial Dawn theology amongst Davidson’s flock by paying a man to circulate a tract called Do You Know? Houston not only agreed he had done this, but was adamant he would continue to do so. The tract in question carried the imprimatur – “’Millennial Dawn’ had done more for me as a Christian, and to make the Bible clear to me, than all other books and pamphlets combined. I will supply this Society’s tracts free, and the book mentioned at one shilling, or the reading of it free – C.N. HOUSTON, Wick.’
Houston was quite unrepentant and the exchange between the two men was described as “exceedingly vehement and declamatory.”
However, it was agreed that a debate could take place. For weeks thereafter the two men wrangled through the pages of the newspapers on the exact wording of the debate. Houston wanted to debate the doctrine called the “ransom”. This was too general for Davidson, who wanted to pin Houston down to exact Yes and No answers on matters where Houston believed he needed to give qualified answers. Eventually, they hit on a formula acceptable – just about – to both men, and the debate finally took place on Wednesday, February 26th, 1896, at the Canisbay Free Church where Davidson was minister.
Both the John O’Groat Journal and the Northern Ensign sent reporters. And the two accounts give quite a full picture of what went on. The church of course was full of Davidson’s supporters, quite capable of cheering their man and booing and hissing Houston. Modern readers can make up their own minds on the balance of truth and error expressed on the occasion, but I think it is fair to state that Houston (a bit of a Daniel in a lion’s den) held his own very well. Davidson actually seemed to run out of steam – running short on his allotted time, and eventually declining to argue further, saying that others could debate Houston – there were subjects on which he, Davidson, would not dream of commenting, whereas Houston seemed to have all the answers (even if all the wrong answers as Davidson saw it).
In the aftermath, one paper published an anonymous write-up that gave Houston lavish praise and strongly criticised Davidson. Unsurprisingly, Houston sent the clipping to America to Charles Taze Russell who published it in full in his journal. Houston was also quick to complain that a long list of worthy gentlemen who had put their name to a document condemning Millennial Dawn had now admitted they had never read the book in question – other than selective quotes as provided by Davidson and taken out of context.
Ultimately, and fairly quickly, the newspapers’ correspondents grew tired of the subject and asked for a line to be drawn.
Charles Houston might have become quite well known in the fledgling (Millennial Dawn) Bible Student movement had he not died quite unexpectedly from pneumonia in December 1902 in his late 40s. The newspapers gave a sympathetic obituary. They mentioned his earlier religious affiliations, and a friend took the main funeral service, with support from several local clergy. His funeral did not take place in a church but rather in his house. He was buried in the Wick New Cemetery.
Note on spelling, punctuation and paragraphing etc.
I have decided to let the formatting stand as originally printed. In the actual transcriptions of the debates there is occasional inconsistency in capitalisation for He, Him etc. when talking about God or Christ. This would be down to the reporter, who is trying to make sense of shorthand notes on a subject he may not properly understand. And as often happened in newspapers of the time, there are very long passages where paragraphing is non-existent. However, if readers in Scotland could understand the printed page as presented in 1896, I am sure modern readers can do the same. And spelling has not been adjusted. It is generally very good, but is of course UK spelling rather than US spelling. So any American readers will have to get used to “centre” “honour” etc.