It was once the fashion to introduce books similar to this one with an apology for adding another work to an already well-covered topic. We offer no such apology. The Watch Tower movement is one of the most controversial and most written about religious movements of the last two centuries. It is also one of the least understood and most miss-represented movements. There is no accurately presented history of the Watch Tower movement’s foundation years. This book exists because neither the friends nor the enemies of Charles Taze Russell have produced anything approaching a reasonably well researched and accurate account of the Watch Tower’s early years.
Despite a persistent mythology to the contrary, the emergence of the Watch Tower movement as a cohesive and separate religious identity owes far less to Russell personally than it does to the adoption of mutually agreeable doctrines. This process filled the years from 1871 to 1886. No one doctrinal choice marked Russell and a growing body of associates as unique. The collective did, resulting over time in a separate religious identity.
Friends of the Watch Tower and of Charles Taze Russell, the founder of Zion’s Watch Tower, have seldom passed beyond an uncritical reading of a biographical article published first in 1890, but a wealth of detail is available. A Russell-centric view overlooks the interplay of personalities and the debates that molded the loosely connected group a distinct religion. Russell’s friends have separated the spiritual from the mundane. Compartmentalizing history leaves no room for an accurate narrative. Worse, one recent writer whose book presents a largely favorable picture of Russell manufactured out of his or another’s imagination an entire narrative, almost none of which is correct.
Russell’s admirers put him in a historically untenable position. Even when presenting reasonably accurate narrative, they tend to create or perpetuate a myth. For many of them, Russell was God’s special instrument to restore vital truths. This apotheosis disconnects Russell from the realm of critical history. It presents a false picture of Russell, his associates and opponents. Even if one believes Russell was favored by God, no person of faith should pursue myth-building at the expense of carefully researched, accurate history. If God’s hand directed the Watch Tower movement in Russell’s day, would that not best be shown by a reasonably well-researched presentation of events that reconnects Russell to his environment? If Russell had a place in God’s work, mythologizing him hides it.
Opposition writers also manufacture, distort and misrepresent events. This is especially true of former adherents. Several examples come to mind. Some suggest Russell plagiarized Paton’s Day Dawn. One frequent though seldom accurate writer suggests that Russell stole the Herald of the Morning subscription list. One former adherent has turned himself into an Internet “troll,” posting in the comments section of any news article about Jehovah’s Witnesses that Russell was an Adventist. The claim of Russellite Adventism is common. Aside from the fact that this claim is wrong, we are at a loss to explain how having been an Adventist would tarnish Russell’s character. Russell was baptized a Presbyterian; he was a Congregationalist; he became a One Faith Millenarian with Age-to-Come views. He was never an Adventist. Only the intellectually lazy would associate him with Adventism.
Almost none of the published material meets an academic standard. Of those few books that do, none of them consider the founding period in any detail. All of them derive what little they say from a single article from the 1890 Zion’s Watch Tower with some additions from Alexander Hugh Macmillan’s Faith on the March. There is a consequent failure to grasp key events in the growth an independent religious movement. And there is a significant misdirection, because of the very narrow and contracted view of Watch Tower history found in the Russell’s 1890 article.
Without looking further, writers have uniformly suggested an Adventist origin for Watch Tower theology. There were undeniable contacts with Adventism, and many of the early adherents came from the fractured Adventist movement. Researchers tend to focus on what became the Advent Christian Church, ignoring interchanges with other Adventist bodies, including the Life and Advent Union, independent Adventist congregations and Sabbatarian Adventists. The focus has been on the development of Watch Tower doctrine from Millerite Adventism. This is a mistake.
As commonly told, Russell was introduced to Millerite Adventism by Jonas Wendell and other Adventists. Some suggest a Seventh-day Adventist connection, which is laughably ignorant. Russell is supposed to have adopted much of Millerite theology. Though he denied ever having been an Adventist he was one.
This is wrong. None of Russell’s doctrines owe their origin to Millerism or any of the descendent Adventists organizations. Russell’s belief system, with a few key exceptions, was developed while in association with Age-to-Come believers, especially those in the One Faith Movement. This movement was most closely associated with The Restitution, a newspaper published in Plymouth, Indiana. Russell’s closest associates were connected to One Faith or some form of Age-to-Come belief. This includes George Storrs.
Storrs was an independent Age-to-Come believer, abandoning Millerite Adventism in 1844. You will find some of that history documented in this book. Storrs and those loosely associated with The Restitution avoided organizational structure. The movement spoke with conflicting voices, but they held some key doctrines in common. They believed in a restored paradise earth without the fiery destruction predicted by Adventists. They believed that the prophecies, indeed all of scripture, should be taken as literal. The Jews would be restored because the plain literal sense of Scripture suggested they would be. They were divided on other issues. Storrs taught a Fair Chance doctrine that some called Second Probationism. A significant minority of One Faith believers followed this path. We will detail other differences between the two movements.
There are several reasons why this part of Russell’s history is miss-represented.. Many of Russell’s contemporaries, particularly those outside the two movements, lacked a clear understanding of what Adventism was and how it differed from Age-to-Come and other pre-millennialist beliefs. One finds One Faith and Christadelphians described as Age-to-Come Adventists – a name they rejected. Because Adventists, Millenarians, and Christadelphians believed that Christ’s return was near, outsiders lumped them under the one name.
While some of Russell’s contemporaries and some academic writers today confuse Age-to-Come belief with Adventism, the two parties did not. They saw themselves as distinct doctrinally. The decade of the 1870s was a transitional period for the Advent Christian Association. It was rapidly transitioning from a lose association having belief in the near return of Christ and good Christian conduct as the sole standard of association into a Church with more closely defined doctrine. Some who associated with them were ostracized and found new associates among Age-to-Come believers. George Stetson was one of these, though he died before a decisive break between the two bodies occurred.
The division between Literalist and Adventist belief affected Watch Tower adherents. Subsequent tensions between Russell and Adventists derive from his Age-to-Come (also called Millennairan) belief system which was derived from British Literalism. These differences would serve as a sieve that would catch and remove from fellowship those who accepted other systems. Paton and his followers, many of whom had been Adventists, rejected Literalism, and this rejection of “plain sense” exegesis accounts for many of their differences. Arthur Prince Adams plainly says that his differences with Russell are based on his rejection of Literalist belief. Adams sought the “hidden meaning” behind the Bible’s plain words. He explained this in the introductory article to the first issue of his magazine:
By Spirit of the Word I mean its real and intended meaning, in contradistinction to its apparent and surface meaning, or the “letter.” It is a common mistake among Christians to suppose that the Bible is written in very plain and simple language, and that the correct meaning is that which lies upon the surface – the most obvious and apparent sense. If I err not, the truth is just the opposite of this. The Bible often means something very different from what it says; there is a hidden, mystical sense that is like the pearl hid in the depths of the sea, the real jewel.
This stands in stark contrast to Russell and his associates. They sought the Bible’s plain words. It is not our purpose to suggest he succeeded in that quest. That determination is best made by our readers. But we state the difference in theological perspective. It explains much.
Another reason Russell is seen as a closet-Adventist derives from un-reasoning opposition to his teaching. The name Adventist was seen as a pejorative. Adventists were uniformly seen as on the fringe of American religious life. Newspapers noted every passing and failed prediction, every supposed and real extreme among Adventists. The described as “Adventist” those who were not such. They manufactured events. Adventism became a hot-tar soaked brush for editors to use when news was sparse. Painting Russell with the brush of extremism is a fad among opposers. There is, however, a real story behind the myth. One of our goals has been to tell the real, historically verifiable, story.
We believe our research restores detail. In doing so, we believe that a clear understanding of events emerges. We examine the roots of Russell’s theology, tracing his doctrinal development to various individuals and publications. This dispels the myth that Russell and his early associations studied in a vacuum, independent of the commentary or exposition of others. We explore the doctrinal disunity among early adherents. How Russell and his associates addressed this explains the transition from mere readership to an ecclesiastical unity.
There is a startling lack of perspective in most “histories” of the Watch Tower movement or of the antecedent and cognate groups. Advent Christians liked to claim there were thirty thousand adherents world wide. We could discover no valid basis for that claim and believe the number was much smaller. One Faith believers played a significant role in Watch Tower history. They counted about four thousand adherents in 1880. Russell sent out six thousand copies of Zion’s Watch Tower’s first issue. Numbers dropped precipitously as real interest replaced hoped-for subscribers. Yet, by 1883 Russell could report fourteen thousand subscribers. The belief system reached England before Russell first published his magazine. There was an adherent in France in the 1870s. The message reached Germany in 1885, perhaps earlier. It reached Norway about 1880 via personal letters. This represented a social shift not just among millennialists but in American religion, and that makes this story important.
The actors in this religious and social drama are archetypical. Of special interest to us is the self-view of the principal and many of the minor players. You will find N. H. Barbour who saw himself as God’s spokesman even if almost no one else did. He died with fewer than a thousand adherents by his claim, and realistically probably had fewer than two hundred truly-interested followers. You will meet Frank Burr who believed he heard Christ’s voice. There is John Paton who saw himself as divinely chosen, the recipient of divine revelation. There is Russell who believed himself divinely led, as God’s “special agent for special times.” We find Elizabeth [Lizzie] A. Allen who agonized over her life choices. We meet J. C. Sunderlin who because of war wounds became an opium addict, seeking relief in religion and a quack cure. Which of these you sympathize with will depend on your approach to this story.
We leave issues of faith largely untouched. We’ve taken a historian’s approach. We will tell you what Russell said of himself and others. We will tell you what his associates said and did. We will not tell you that all this was guided by Holy Spirit or God’s own hand. That’s not a historian’s place. We will leave that analysis to your own their prayerful (or skeptical) estimations of themselves and others. We have avoided the trend among modern historiographers to analyze motives. We’ve borrowed our approach from 19th Century historians who told their tales in detail, but with little commentary. So we owe much to Francis Parkman, H. H. Bancroft, and Israel Smith Clare, historians who within the limits of available documentations gave their readers detailed, largely accurate, narratives.
However, we cannot entirely escape addressing motives. When required to do so, we limit ourselves to presenting them in the words or by the unambiguous acts of those involved. Russell is overly kind to Albert Delmont Jones. Jones was a disreputable man, a thief, a fornicator, a religious fraud. We tell that story here as much as possible from public record and his own words. Other scandals will appear. (We humans are prone to stupidity.) So you will read about William Henry Conley’s faith cure house, its pastor, his relationship to the women and girls associated with Conley’s faith-cure belief. There are others you won’t read about because we cannot verify to our satisfaction that there was real scandal. Suspicion attaches to one of Russell’s early associates and a young teenage girl. We tell as much of that story as we can verify. We leave the unverified gossip to the ebay posters, the Internet scandal mongers, and the conspiracy theorists and inept wikipedia writers.
As perverse as it seems to say so, the endless divisions that we chronicle here resulted in doctrinal unity. They were key to the formation of an ecclesiastical unity centered on Zion’s Watch Tower and its editor, Charles Taze Russell.
Watch Tower history as it has been written resembles Greek mythology. As with Greek mythology the stories are often told in conflicting ways. If you have ever read the myths of Pan’s parentage, you understand what I mean. In the Russell mythology there is Russell the saint and there is Russell the devilish, religious fraudster. We have limited ourselves to Russell the man. We deal with unfounded claims in each chapter. In the process, we probably offend everyone with a personal commitment to the myths. We have enjoyed bursting bubbles. Watch the footnotes carefully. We detail false claims in footnotes where we do not always do so in text. We’ve been even handed in this. You will find us faulting claims made by true believers and by opposition polemicists.
The first chapter considers Russell’s youth. Several key ideas and some minor statements fall to research. Unlike a Bible Student writer, we do not chronicle Russell as the modern-day Samuel, destined to be God’s special servant in the last days. We do not question his belief. This is not about belief. It’s about accurately told history. So, while we recount what his mother said, we keep it in the context of real, verifiable events. Others can put these events in the context of their belief systems, and we may hold to belief systems of our own. But we only tell the story as we can verify it, and we do that largely through Russell and his contemporary’s own words supplemented with documentary evidence.
An endless amount of incorrect material is out there. That it exists is a personal irritant. In many ways, writing this history has been a salve to my irritation derived from the misguided, sometimes purposely incorrect, and incurious approach of others. I do not care if you hate or adore Russell. I do not care if you see any of the descendant religions as God’s authoritative voice to humanity. We’ve written this book to present accurately research history that meets academic standards. Our goal is to tell the history in detail so that all the trends, events and outcomes make sense.
Mythology replaces history when lack of curiosity is coupled by lack of thorough research. Among Russell’s modern-day friends this is especially pronounced. A number of letters passed between us and institutions representing descendant religions. In a nearly uniform way, they focus on Russell, express lack of interest in anyone else, and simply do not look for detail. This distorts the history. Russell did not function in a vacuum. He was influenced by his friends, by his enemies, by what he read and experienced. These details are recoverable. The biographies of his early associates are available to a determined researcher. The “brothers” Lawver, Hipsher, Tavender, Myers, and a host of others who receive more or less mention in Zion’s Watch Tower were living people who had a physical and spiritual presence in Russell’s life and an effect on his beliefs. There are many others, some of considerable but forgotten prominence, who significantly contributed to Watch Tower history and to the development of a unified body of believers. But where are Aaron P. Riley or the small group in West Virginia who withdrew from the Church of Christ to form a congregation? Not in any history of the Watch Tower of which we are aware. Why is Calista Burk Downing a name without biography in histories of Zion’s Watch Tower?
Probably there are several reasons why the Watch Tower story hasn’t been told with nay sort of depth. Lack of curiosity is a prime one. Past exchanges with interested parties elicited comments such as, “Thank you for the photocopies. We’re only interested in Russell himself.” This approach is part of the Saint Russell myth. Time and circumstances have wounded this approach so that some who sustained it in the past are no longer able to do so.
The other major problem has been lack of resources. The resources we use to reclaim the biographies of Russell’s earliest associates and to restate their place in Watch Tower history have always been out there. They are somewhat easier to find now than they were twenty years ago. But individuals and organizations with more resources than we have could have found them if they had the curiosity to pursue the matter.
Attachment to a religious mythos in preference to accurately told history has stifled curiosity. We have encountered a certain amount of fear and resentment while writing this book. A university professor who is writing a competing book strongly objected to our consideration of One Faith belief because it undermines his premise. Another writer fears that we will refute a story they wish to tell. A Bible Student expressed considerable discontent that we do not present Russell as the God-directed Faithful and Wise Servant. We’re writing history, not religious commentary. One person of considerable talent as a writer, though he is published anonymously, suggested that this history might show his religion as other than the Truth. Truth rests with God. Truth is never embodied in his human servants simply because they are human.
Another issue we address, though on a limited scale, is the disconnect between the lives of Russell and his associates and the world they lived in. The only redeeming feature of a recently published biography of Russell is the author’s attempt to reconnect to contemporary history. Russell was born into a world without flush toilets. In court testimony someone tells of carrying “the slops” through Bible House to drop them down a drain. I’m old enough to remember my stay in a forty room mansion in Ohio where the only facilities were a two-door wooden outhouse. Most of our readers aren’t that old. Russell was born into a world of no garbage collection, where the streets were rank with filth. He walked down streets littered with the leavings of draft animals and their owners. He was taught by teachers who were outnumbered by students one hundred to one, who had little education of their own and few resources to improve what they had.
We are disconnected from the social issues of Russell’s day. Allegheny City and Pittsburgh were by reputation better, more peaceful cities than some of the more easterly American cities. Yet, they were filled with prostitution (we give details) and violence. A gruesome murder took place just doors from the Russell’s home. The Western states were subject to Native American uprisings and brutal repression. The period from the 1870s to the 1890s was one of re-occurring financial depression. Shoeing the feet of children was a major concern and a major expense. Scandal was the norm in politics. People were willing to see the period as “the last days” because it was violent, politically unstable, and seemed very much to be exactly what Jesus had predicted.
An English writer described Allegheny City and Pittsburgh in terms of the industrial area of Staffordshire. Writing in 1859 he said that “there are the same red brick housed and workshops, the same smoke, the same uneven streets – from the heavy weights drawn over them – and at night, the glare of the iron furnaces at work.” The houses were built “close up to the very tops of the hill-sides, and presenting something of the appearance which the old town of Edinburgh does when viewed from off the Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat.” Pittsburgh and Allegheny City were large, rambling, ill designed places. In 1853 the combined population was about one hundred ten thousand. It was an area of churches. We detail Russell’s associations with several denominations.
This was the era of Louisa Alcott’s Little Women. Read it. It will help you connect to the age we consider. Pay attention to the details. Note the cold, rat-infested house; consider the poverty, the infant mortality, the approach to morals and religious infidelity. The era in which these events transpire is both familiar and alien. This was an era of invention. The telephone was a marvel. Cities were electrified, but most homes were without electricity. They had gas if there were fortunate, oil lamps or candles if not. Few saw a telephone. The Penny press and letter from friends connected one to the outside world.
The American west was still the Wild West. The year Russell met Jonas Wendell the first transcontinental rail tracks were joined at Promontory Point, Utah. New and more powerful steam engines were marvels. Indian wars replaced the Civil War. When the Allegheny Bible Study Class was re-examining old belief, grasshoppers plagued Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri, eating varnish off furniture, paint off houses and peaches to the pits. War and rumors of war were everywhere. The Franco-Prussian was altered the face of Europe. Russia and Turkey fought, both brutalizing civilians, especially women and little girls. Fears of a general European war found a place in newspapers. Discontent and abuses in the Reconstruction South led to talk of a second Civil War. The United States had unsettled claims against the United Kingdom related to the Confederate raider the CSA Alabama. There was talk of war. An English parliamentarian suggested a test of arms. Cooler heads within the British government noted that while America maintained a severely reduced army, it had a million men trained to arms and baptized in blood. Any war with America would in high probability cost the empire the newly formed Canadian Confederation.
Disasters beyond human control brought with them a sense of impending or wrought Divine judgment. Currency and credit manipulation by European banks, prominently the Bank of England, amounted to a quiet war against the United States. Credit manipulation brought consequences beyond those foreseen in boardrooms. Labor issues, oppressive working conditions and issues of social equality led to riot and insurrection. The year of Barbour and Russell’s grand missionary tour saw Pittsburgh burned and Federal troops engaged in battle with railroad workers. A large segment of Americans embraced protectionism. Depressions swept America and Europe. “Banker,” always a ‘dirty word,’ became a blacker pejorative.
A pope died and another was elected. Many Protestants (and interestingly, some Catholics) saw the popes and the Roman Catholic Church as the embodiment of the more negative prophetic images. American Protestants watched Catholic affairs in that light. The pope was variously seen as the Biblical “man of sin” or the Anti-Christ. The Roman Church was seen as Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots. By the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century, a significant number saw Protestant churches as the Harlot’s Daughters. Interactions with Catholics were suspect and scrutinized as a possible fulfillment of prophecy. Otto von Zech, a German-born Evangelical Lutheran clergyman was expelled from the Ohio Synod in part for refusing to characterize the Catholic Church as Anti-Christ.
Our ancestors were not (taken as a whole) stupid, nor were they more gullible than our contemporaries. But their frame of reference was different. While the shift to a secularist society had begun, most were still profoundly religious. Religion was a social and political power, influencing –sometimes irrationally – public decisions. If they were ready to believe what might seem to us irrational doctrines, we should note that the same tendency exists today, though more often expressed in conspiracy theory, political polemic, or ill conceived private and public policy. We haven’t improved; we have only changed focus. The characters in this history deserve a sympathetic consideration.
This is a far different book than we envisioned. We anticipated a slim volume somewhat like our biography of Barbour. We believed the basic facts were known, though as presented by most writers the story lacked detail. As our research evolved, we made format decision, some reluctantly. Among the decisions we hesitatingly made was that leading us to present more or less extensive biographies of the principals. You will find most of those in volume one. We believe these biographical excursions are necessary for a comprehensive understanding of the Watch Tower movement’s early years.
B. W. Schulz