Paton in his parlor
(This article first appeared on Blog 2 in January 2013)
A key platform of early Watch Tower theology was future probation, the belief that countless numbers would get their opportunity to accept Christ and be saved in a future life. George Storrs had championed his take on this doctrine in Bible Examiner, and CTR had promoted the slogan “A Ransom for All.” Both Storrs and others, when accused of being Universalist would argue that their teaching stressed universal opportunity, but not universal reconciliation.
And yet it is not too difficult to see how taking their reasoning a step further could lead some to a Universalist view. Several who broke away from the Bible Student movement promoted the doctrine of universal salvation, and this article is about two large examples, which both had links with the small township of Almont in Michigan. It is a story of coincidence, since some of the key players’ lives overlapped and they knew each other at one time.
As always it must be stressed that this article represents a stab at history, not theology. We are just looking at the historical implications for the Watch Tower Society at certain points in its early history.
The first example was John H Paton. Paton was born in Scotland in 1843, but came to America and ultimately settled in the Almont area. He became a Baptist minister in Almont in 1870, but the appointment was short-lived. He was expelled for heresy (specifically his belief in conditional immortality) in 1872 and promptly built an Adventist Church in Almont, allied to the Michigan Advent Christian conference. His views continued to evolve, and after about two years he parted company from them. He became a supporter of Nelson Barbour’s ministry, finally becoming a co-editor with CTR of Barbour’s magazine Herald of the Morning. When Barbour and CTR split, he supported the fledgling ZWT in 1879 and in 1880 wrote Day Dawn. This was the first major hardback book promoted in the pages of ZWT.
In 1882 Paton founded his own magazine, The World’s Hope, and as the pages of ZWT soon showed became estranged from CTR. He eventually founded The Larger Hope Association – the name suggestive of the “larger” hope of salvation he now promoted. His little Advent church in Almont was renamed the Larger Hope Church. The book “Almont, The Tale of Then and Now” by Hildamae Waltz Bowman page 91 (1985 edition) has a picture of the building situated in North Bristol Street, Almont. According to Bowman, Paton was the only pastor, and when it started as an Advent Church in 1872 it had just fifteen members. It folded through declining membership after twenty five years, or c. 1897. It subsequently became a school building, a rug factory, and then a private home. It still exists as a dwelling today at 318 North Bristol Street.
The Larger Hope Church in Buchanan lasted a little longer. It was another former Adventist Church, and Lizzie Allen was pastor there for some time around 1890. There was a direct rail link from Buchanan to Imlay City, about eight miles north of Almont, and this allowed Paton to visit at will. Newspaper records show funerals conducted in Buchanan by John H Paton (sometimes as Elder sometimes as Rev.) for members such as Isaac Marble (1901), Aaron Miller (1904), Clarissa Mead (1905), Mary Miller Mowbray (1907) and Jane Wagner (1907). However, by 1917, that church too appears to have folded. The Lake Union Herald for October 24, 1917 (a SDA paper) carried the announcement for Buchanan: “The (SDA) company at Buchanan have recently rented the Larger Hope Church building and cordially invite our people to attend their Sabbath school, which has been recently reorganized, also their weekly prayer meeting – Fred L. Segar, S.S. Supt.” The book Greetings from Buchanan (Goodsell and Myers 2005) describes how this arrangement became final: (quote) “In 1921 (the SDA church) bought the building formerly occupied by the Larger Hope Church of Christ on the northeast corner of Moccasin and Third Streets.” After being sold by the SDAs to the Church of Christ in the 1950s, the building was eventually torn down to make a parking lot.
Paton’s magazine had already shut down in 1916. His independent ministry was coming to a close, and he died in 1922. It never became a large force or movement. Nonetheless, for a while it was an alternative home for some who had once associated with CTR’s ministry and ZWT magazine.
Today, his magazine provides historical insights. Paton kept in touch with numerous individuals once associated with CTR, and so his magazine provides historical information including obituaries for William H Conley and Nelson Barbour. Had it lasted just a few more months longer in 1916 it would no doubt have carried an obituary for CTR. It also shows how an alternative spiritual home was on offer for many years for those thinking of leaving the Bible Student movement.
At the time Paton’s activities were winding down, another Almont resident was firing up. This was George Lawley Rogers. There were a number of similarities in their stories. Like Paton, Rogers was born in Scotland (around 1869/1870). After immigrating to Canada, border crossing records show him then moving from Toronto to Almont in August 1910. In the 1920 Almont census his immediate next door neighbour was John Paton’s older brother, David Paton. Rogers became Pastor of the same Baptist Church as Paton had been many years before. Like Paton he eventually left the Baptists due to his changed beliefs, and again like Paton took up the message of universal reconciliation. According to Rogers’ obituary (published in 1947) when Rogers left the Almont Baptist Church nearly the whole congregation went with him. They founded what was called the Grace Tabernacle. These included some who were related by marriage to Paton or “Uncle John”. Such a family link is not all that surprising – in a small place like Almont with the propensity for large families, it would be unlikely for people not to be related in some way.
It would be satisfying to make a direct theological link between the two men, but that cannot be done after all this time. They would certainly know each other, but came from different backgrounds and had different takes on Universalism. Paton’s Universalism stemmed from his Arminian leanings – the concept of free will, but man being given repeated opportunities to ultimately make the right choices for salvation, whereas Rogers’ Calvinistic background (with its overtones of predestination) leant more to salvation being wholly God's achievement. Still, it is quite a coincidence that the tiny place of Almont featured in both histories. One can surmise that any local remnants of Paton’s church might have found a spiritual home in Rogers’ Grace Tabernacle after Paton was gone.
So the connection with the Bible Student movement?
Rogers was to link himself with the Concordant Publishing Concern that formed in 1909 to publish a magazine entitled Unsearchable Riches (hereafter abbreviated as UR). His conversion to universal reconciliation owed a lot to the work of A E Knoch of this group. (Rogers eventually moved from Almont to Los Angeles to work closer with him). Knoch would have a special life-long mission to produce a brand new Bible translation. The Concordant Version (hereafter abbreviated as CV) was to be an extremely literal translation stating in its forward that it “keeps to a minimum the confusion resulting from translating different Greek words with the same English word.” Rogers would be given special credit for his professional help in dealing with NT Greek verbs in this project. He was already assisting Knoch with this work while Paton was alive, probably from around 1919 or even earlier.
There were obviously some WT readers who also had a look at the magazine Knoch edited. Since the theology of UR was both non-Trinitarian and non-Hell fire, they would find immediate points of agreement. This may have prompted some dialogue between CTR and Knoch because UR published a letter from CTR in October 1915 explaining his objections to Universalism. Knoch published his own response, but CTR declined to debate further, explaining that the views of the WT Society were already expressed in details in its publications.
So we come to the year 1920. Paton was still alive, his neighbour Rogers was increasingly supporting the Concordant Bible Concern, and then – seemingly out of the blue – the Watch Tower magazine published a page and half extolling the virtues of the Concordant Bible translation.
It covered part of page 190 and all of page 191 in the WT for June 15, 1920. It was explained that the plates of the Diaglott were now worn and would require considerable work to restore. This new project, to be issued as a part-work starting with Revelation (called The Unveiling) would include an interlinear. It would have the advantage of the Codex Sinaiticus MSS that was not available to Benjamin Wilson when he produced the Diaglott, and also the CV Greek-English interlinear was far more consistent than Wilson’s. The article stated that the WT Society was not the publisher (hence the reason why the CV has never appeared on an official list of WT Society published Bibles) but they were acting as “transmitters in the matter”, forwarding orders to the publishers.
There was another advertisement for the work in the November 1, 1920 WT calling it “unique in a field already seemingly well-worked.”
But then in the WT for February 1, 1921, came the following announcement: “In our issue of June 15, 1920, announcement was made of an arrangement to supply the friends with the Concordant Version of the Sacred Scriptures. This arrangement has not been entirely satisfactory. Some of the friends have been sending orders for future translations. This office will not further handle those. We have on hand a limited supply of the translation of Revelation, designated “The Unveiling”, and when this stock is exhausted we will discontinue handling this work.”
Although the CV Revelation had just been a translation and interlinear with no explanatory material added, it was to be dropped. The WT Society went back to restoring the Diaglott, and remained sole publishers of the latter until it eventually went out of copyright.
When UR later criticised the way the order was revoked, Watch Tower Society President, J F Rutherford, wrote a letter to Knoch explaining why the arrangement had been cancelled. Knoch published it along with his own comments in UR for January 1928. On November 25, 1927, Rutherford had written (in part):
“The notice was inserted in the WATCH TOWER by one who had no authority. The order was given by one who had no authority to order them. When I found that you were advocating universal salvation including the Devil himself, I took steps to see that our Society had nothing whatsoever to do with the distribution of the Concordant Version, and that was the first time it was called to my attention as to how the notice got in the WATCH TOWER. In the service of the Redeemer, J.F. RUTHERFORD.”
The problem from the WT perspective was that this group with Knoch and Rogers and others was not just the producer of a new Bible translation. Like Paton in the 1880s, they were a religious group promoting universal reconciliation. As noted above, they had already provoked a response from CTR. Since they obviously believed they were right and the WT Society was wrong on this key point, it was natural for individuals to proselytise. In the previous issue of UR (November 1927) that reprinted Rutherford’s letter, Knoch wrote:
“The Lord has graciously enabled us to help many who once believed the International Bible Students Association philosophy, and the indications are that He will use us to bless very many more.”
Two key figures from WT history who embraced the Concordant message were Fredrik Homer Robison and Menta Sturgeon.
Robison had lived in Bethel with CTR since before the move from Allegheny to Brooklyn in 1909 and had subsequently been in prison with Rutherford in 1918. He had visited Knoch in search of a Diaglott replacement, and since he was on the WT’s editorial committee in 1920, it was probably Robison who was responsible for the announcement about the Concordant Version in the June 15 issue.
He last appeared as part of the WT editorial committee with the April 15, 1922 issue. He left Bethel at this time, which no doubt had an effect on others. From 1923 he was a sometime writer and speaker for the Concordant Publishing Concern.
A travelling and speaking companion for Robison during 1923 and 1924 was the man from Almont, George Rogers. The two men became friends. So we have Fredrik Robison, who worked with CTR for a number of years, now sharing platforms with George Rogers, who had been a direct neighbour of John Paton’s brother and whose Almont congregation contained Paton relatives. As noted above, Paton had been one of CTR’s early associates. He had been more than that because it was he who conducted CTR’s wedding. One would imagine that the subject must have come up in personal conversation when Robison and Rogers compared notes.
Robison was to die at quite a young age in 1932.
The second key figure who embraced the Concordant’s message in the 1920s was Menta Sturgeon. Sturgeon had been CTR’s travelling companion on his last journey and at one time was suggested as a possible president of the WT Society. He too converted to Universalism, and used his contacts to introduce Concordant speakers to WT adherents, or more likely by the mid-1920s, to former WT adherents. It must be remembered that following 1917 there was a split between those who stayed with the Society and those who did not. Those who left association with the IBSA did not stay as one united group, but fragmented quite rapidly. (A list of some of these groups is given in the full text of the Jehovah’s Witnesses resolution proposed by J F Rutherford in 1931). For those who did not accept the material now presented in the WT, these were confusing times. The Concordant magazine for September 1939 for example, describes one such meeting of former WT adherents; they had already received speakers from two of the seceding groups and were now quite happy to have a former IBSA speaker present the Concordant message to them as well.
The influence of Robison and Sturgeon and others, and their contacts among former contemporaries gave the Concordant people a platform, which for some appeared as attractive as Paton’s message had been forty years before.
Ultimately time moved on, and the principal players passed from the scene. The links and controversies of the early years were generally forgotten. In more recent times the Watchtower magazine has been happy to quote from the Concordant Version NT (see for example w91 2/2 p. 29 and w94 12/15 p.32). Yet, going back in years, the step from belief in future probation to universal reconciliation was easy for some to make. And it does seem curious that one tiny little place, Almont, in Lapeer County, Michigan – less than three thousand inhabitants even today – was to have links with those who supported CTR’s ministry, and then for whatever reasons, decided to look for a spiritual home elsewhere.
Thanks are due to helpers from Almont and Buchanan who checked certain material for me.