Thursday, June 26, 2014

A bit more

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Out of Babylon


            The nature of Russell era congregations is misstated by Biblically illiterate historians and sociologists. Edward Abrahams asserted that “Russell used the words ‘alienated,’ ‘isolated,’ and ‘troubled’ to describe his congregations.” We ask, where?            

            Between 1879 and the end of 1916, the word alienated appears in fifty-nine issues of the Watch Tower. Watch Tower writers and Russell especially use it as commentary on Colossians 1:21-23: “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard , and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven.” This is not a statement of social alienation, but of the need for reconciliation with God through Jesus.

            The word appears in quotations from other sources, usually as commentary on the alienation of the young from contemporary churches and the Bible. These are not a reference to Watch Tower congregations. Russell never uses the word alienated in the sense meant by a sociologist. The one place where one might presume he meant it in that sense is found in the January 15, 1912, Watch Tower. Russell wrote: 

The Church has cried in "the wilderness" in the sense that she has been alienated and separated from the world. She has called upon all who would hear to prepare for Messiah's Kingdom. She has told more fully than did John the Baptist of the effect of Messiah's Kingdom – the leveling up of the valleys (the lifting up of the poor), the straightening out of the crooked things and the smoothing of the rough things, that thus all flesh might see, appreciate, understand, experience the salvation of God. Both John and the Church declare that this salvation is to be brought through Jesus and His glorified Bride in Kingdom power. The point we are making is that while John the Baptist was an antitype of Elijah, and was forerunner or herald of Jesus, so, only more particularly, the Church in the flesh is a higher antitype of Elijah, and still more particularly a herald of the Messianic Kingdom. 

            Did Russell suggest that the congregations were socially alienated? Not in the way Abrahams and others suggest, and certainly this one occurrence is not an example of continual usage. Russell says the Church has no part in the world’s social upheavals and essential sinfulness. But the Church has an obligation to the world to uplift, to declare salvation, and to rebuke wrongdoing. Christians are not to approve of the world’s ways. This is not similar to the social alienation that led to the Haymarket affair or the Railroad Insurrection. This is a push for holiness.

            But what of Russell’s use of the word “isolated”? When using it of Watch Tower adherents, especially in the very early days, Russell meant those who were the lone believer in their area, not that they were otherwise isolated from their communities. An example is found in the October 1881 Watch Tower. Russell wrote an extensive report on the progress of Watch Tower evangelism “To strengthen and encourage the lonely and isolated ones.” Reporting Communion observance in 1884, he touched on the small number of believers, using the word ‘isolated’: “In some places only two or three assembled, in others more, and some isolated individuals alone, but the general testimony is that the Master was present at least in spirit; and for aught we know was personally present.” Does this seem to be a reference to social isolation? Not to us. But, as we shall explore, their unique beliefs left them separated partly or wholly from the religious community. Again in 1884, Russell wrote: 

It is comforting to those who stand isolated in their own neighborhood to realize this. There are many such isolated ones, and all have much the same experience –

in the world, tribulation; in Christ, peace. It is also a source of encouragement to learn that while we realize that the harvest is great the laborers are being multiplied, and that so far as we can learn, the saints are realizing their call to make known the glad tidings, and that though their talents be many or few they are not to be folded away in a napkin. We have learned that there are as many ways to preach the Gospel as there are talents among the saints. 

We rejoice with all these that we have been so enabled to comprehend the Gospel as to find that out of the abundance of the heart our mouth must speak; that the love of Christ and the knowledge of his glorious truth constraineth us. 

But while we thus rejoice together, we can but rejoice with trembling as we realize the secret, subtle, and persevering efforts of the Prince of this world to overcome the saints. No artifice or effort is left untried: Opposition, ridicule, rejection, flattery, false reasoning to disprove the truth, cares of this world, bribery with the good things of this world, and allurements of various kinds, are all used as the necessities of the individual cases may require.


            This is within Christian experience. Early Methodists and Baptists, and First Century Christians all experienced isolation because of belief. Plymouth Brethren chose it for the sake of pure belief. The trials Russell described are common to those who live by New Testament standards. Some sociologists believe this is harmful. Adherents in this era felt the isolation, but the counter to it was suggested in this article. Because they were ‘true believers’, they were also evangelists, expressing their beliefs to others. There is no alienation in this. They were determined to speak as God would have them speak, to bring the gospel to any who would hear.

            Russell was aware of this dichotomy. Isolated from “worldly” belief and practice by the desire for holiness and divine approval, adherents also felt compelled to take the Gospel to others. Drawn on his experiences with Watch Tower believers, he wrote: 

But where is this faithful Church to be found? – this people so set apart from the world, so faithful, so loyal and so true? – so ready always to recognize and accept the Lord's help? Does it gather here or there or yonder? and is God manifestly in the midst of its congregation as evidenced by its joyous songs and fervent prayers? Ah, no! it is a scattered flock; so much so that the world does not discover that there is such a people. The world knows them only as isolated and peculiar individuals who cannot assimilate even with the masses of those who bear the name of Christ. There is one in the quiet of country life whose chief interest is not in the harvest of his earthly crops, and who only plants and reaps thus that he may be able to devote himself so far as possible to the reaping of God's harvest. He has glorious tidings for his neighbors far and near, of the kingdom which is soon to be established in the earth. And there is a farmer's wife: in the midst of her busy cares the blessed sound of gospel grace has fallen on her ears. She feels at once like dropping the domestic duties and going abroad to tell the good news. But no; she remembers the Lord's teaching, that he that provideth not for his own house is worse than an unbeliever; and so she says, I will let my light shine here. These little ones around my feet shall learn to rejoice in the truth; my companion, my neighbors, my farm hands and all that I can reach through the mail or the press shall know of it; and all these domestic duties which I realize the Lord would not have me ignore shall henceforth be done with an eye single to his glory. 

Here is an invalid and there is an aged saint. Their faith in the Word of God, regardless of the vain philosophies and traditions so commonly accepted, brings upon them many reproaches which are meekly born for Christ's sake, while they humbly endeavor to let their light shine upon those about them. And yonder in a crowded city are a few who dare to be peculiar – to separate themselves from the customs and habits of social life, to forego the pleasures and present advantages of former social ties, to speak the new and heavenly language, to sing their songs of hope and praise and by every agency within their grasp to send forth the glorious message of the coming kingdom. And then scattered far and near are some unencumbered with earthly cares and joyfully denying themselves, esteeming it a privilege to devote all their time and energy to the great harvest work. Yes, "the Lord knoweth them that are his," and he is in the midst of them. He knows their loyalty to him and they know his voice and are ever ready to follow his leading. Thus no harm can overtake them. They will stand and not fall, and will in the end be crowned as victors. A thousand will fall at their side and ten thousand at their right hand in this day of trial, but they will be kept in the very midst of the wildest confusion. They may, as the trial proceeds and as the faint-hearted and unfaithful fall, be left to stand almost or entirely alone in their several localities; but then they will realize all the more the preciousness of being alone with God. 

            Strict adherence to Bible standards, no matter what the doctrine, has always produced something like this. It is hard for us to see Watch Tower adherents in the Russell era as social misfits in the same sense that those at the extremes of the labor movement and other disenfranchised groups were. Former slaves and their children, poor farmers, under paid and abused laborers, shop girls who prostituted themselves because they were not paid a fair wage suffered from forces outside their control. Separation form ‘the world’ on a doctrinal and holiness basis was a choice. Put in Apostolic terms, either one served God or was part of the world.

            In 1892, Russell wrote a commentary on the International Sunday School Lesson on the First Pslam. Russell said that the righteous man of Psalm One pictured “the man whose heart is perfected in holiness, the pure in heart.” This was “pre-eminently” a picture of Jesus, but “secondarily … of those … justified by faith … new creatures, walking in their Master's footsteps.” They were “sometimes imperfect” through fleshly weakness. The Psalm delineates “three steps” the righteous avoid: “(1) the ungodly – literally, the wicked, (2) sinners or transgressors, and (3) scorners or the conceited and unteachable.” “The proper course is to have no fellowship (sympathy and common interest) with people of any of these classes,” Russell wrote. He explained that this “not mean that we are to treat them unkindly or discourteously, nor that we are never to be seen walking, standing or sitting with such; but it does imply that our company should, as far as possible, be select, and of those who reverence our God, and that other fellowships should not be encouraged.”

Of the three types of wrong-doers Russell identified, he felt most would avoid the unquestionably wicked and common sinners. Most were “in danger of getting into fellowship with the scorners or unteachable.” Association with them would lead “to the same spirit, and that leads gradually to violation of the covenant with God; and that leads to open wickedness and willful sin.” The safe way is to have was to have “no fellowship with darkness: it is never profitable.” The principals in the first Psalm affected church affliation: 

In all the nominal churches there are many who have a form of godliness, but who are really ungodly – far from being in harmony with God and his plan. In the nominal churches are also many sinners, living in known violation of their covenant with God. And there, too, may be found, alas! sometimes even in the pulpits, those who are of an unteachable, haughty spirit, who even scoff at God's Word and make it void through their traditions. Come out from among them; and neither sit, nor stand, nor walk in fellowship with such. (Rev. 18:4; Isa. 52:11.) Stand with God, even if that should seem to imply standing alone. The Lord knoweth them that are his, and he has yet more than seven thousand who bow not to the idol of sectarianism. 

            Obedience to principals of good fellowship brought happiness rather than isolation: 

Some might suppose that one thus isolated would have an unhappy lot; but no, he is truly said to have a delightful experience. He delights day and night in meditating upon God's will and plan. In this he finds a joy and a peace which the world and a worldly church can neither give nor take away. One thus consecrated and full of the spirit of the Lord finds that God's laws of righteousness are not restraints which he would fain be freed from; but, like the Master, he can say, "I delight to do thy will, O my God: thy law is engraven in my heart."

… Such children of God as have reached this degree of development do not wither away and become dead and barren, but, since the root of their new life is fed by the river of God's grace and truth, they are always fresh and joyous and fruitful--adding to faith virtue, brotherly kindness, love, and so are not unfruitful in either the knowledge or the wisdom which surely comes to all who have communion and fellowship with God. Whatsoever such do shall prosper. They have no plans of their own: they desire that God's will shall be done. And since God's plan shall prosper (Isa. 55:11), their plan shall prosper; for his is theirs. 

            Again we observe that this is not the disenfranchisement that Abrahams and others who take the same tack envision. It is engagement but on terms set by holiness. If the world is common and ungodly, it is not association of choice for Christians, but it is populated by those who need to hear the gospel and to whom Christians owe courteous behavior. Some historians and more sociologists take this and similar comments to mean Watch Tower adherents were disenfranchised and disgruntled. They misunderstand the religious spirit of the age.       

            Samuel L. Beiler, a professor at Boston College, a Methodist institution, also wrote a commentary on this psalm suggesting much the same things as Russell did: 

The scorners are those who make an open scoff at religion, and blaspheme and ridicule it. These … are as many now as in Psalmist’s day. They still have their ‘seat’ or assembly and form a deliberate confederacy in wickedness. To ‘sit’ in their ‘seat’ does not necessitate being an open-mouthed blasphemer, but may only imply a silent member of such a company, who in his own heard … harbors such feeling. Beware of mocking, ridiculing, scoffing, scorning sacred things. Such a spirit indicates a heart empty of good and of god, near to destruction. … The ungodly … will be as the chaff blown away by the wind. … In the great day of judgment the hearts that are like empty shells will be found wanting … 

            Those more modern writers who suggest that Watch Tower believers were especially alienated from the world are significantly out of touch with the religious spirit of the age. Watch Tower theology – on the issue of holiness and obligations to fellow men – fits directly into common religious belief. To return to Abrahams’ suggestions, we should note that the third term he suggested, “troubled,” does not seem to us to have been used in the sense he suggests. Since he cites no references, we cannot follow his research trail.

            Zion’s Watch Tower and traveling evangelists served as point of contact from the “twos and threes” and individuals. Hamilton Lincoln Gillis wrote to Russell from Preston County, West Virginia, after the Lord’s Memorial Supper in 1887, noting concern for the small groups. Russell printed it in the May Watch Tower: 

I have the great pleasure to report a very interesting and profitable meeting, on the evening of the 7th inst., of a little company, sixteen in number, who “kept the feast” in remembrance of “our Passover, slain for us.” We remembered the more isolated ones, who were not so privileged; also the little bands of twos and threes, and companies like our own, here and there all over the earth. We prayed also for the dear brothers and sisters in Allegheny; and we doubted not that we were also remembered, and the assurance gave us courage and strengthened us in our glorious privilege. We all join in sending our love and sympathy to you and Sister Russell, and to all the dear household that are privileged to see you face to face.

[1]               E. H. Abrahams: Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, American Studies, Spring 1977, page 61.
[2]               C. T. Russell: Prepare Ye for the Kingdom, The Watch Tower, January 15, 1912, pages 32-33.
[3]               C. T. Russell: In the Vineyard, Zion’s Watch Tower, October/November 1881, page 5.
[4]               C. T. Russell: View from the Tower, Zion’s Watch Tower, August 1884, page 1.
[5]               C. T. Russell: God is in the Midst of Her, Zion’s Watch Tower, August 1891, pages 108-109.
[6]               C. T. Russell: The King of Zion, Zion’s Watch Tower, March 15, 1892, pages 90-91.
[7]              Beiler’s commentary if found in: Boston Homilies: Short Sermons on the International Sunday School Lessons for 1892, page 113ff.
[8]               Letter from H. L. Gillis to Russell, Zion’s Watch Tower, May 1887, page 8. [Not in reprints.] Gillis was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 1836 to Ander and Isabelle Gillis. About 1857 he married Isabel Crawford. They had four children. During the Civil War he served as a private in the 6th Regiment, West Virginia Cavelry (Union).  Though some online genealogies say he died in 1916, he died in 1906. Gillis traveled to Austraila in the late 1890s to mine for opals. On his return, they were stolen from him by an Aleck Cramer. [Swindled by his Friend, San Francisco Call, March 10, 1898] He returned to West Virginia.


Alec Post Basso said...

Dear Brothers,

I'm an Italian Brother from Turin. I really really appreciate your blog. I'm an Organization history amateur, and I think yor work is fantastic!

Alessandro Verdini

Hal.9000 said...

Ho letto con apprezzamento questo articolo che oltre a fare un esame delle critiche infondate mosse a Russell ed ai primi Studenti Biblici ne fa rivivere il clima genuino e fresco nel quale si sviluppava l'attività.

Un sincero ringraziamento per la qualità di questi articoli e per l'ottimo lavoro di traduzione di Roberto.

TeoTerrone said...

Thank you for your valuable work. It is very interesting and instructive.
Takes us back in time and memory: this is our spiritual heritage.