The 1922 Cedar Point, Ohio, convention of the IBSA is a remembered historical event for several reasons. But a little known one that can now be added is that a member of CTR’s early Bible class from the mid-1870s was there, and was interviewed in the New Era Enterprise newspaper about those early days. His name was Thomas Hickey and in 1922 he was billed as “the only one now living who was a member of Pastor Charles T. Russell’s first little class in Allegheny”.
The above report is found in the New Era Enterprise for December 26, 1922, page 2. We will transcribe the account a little bit later, but first, some background information about Thomas Hickey.
He was born on November 11, 1844, in Tredegar in South Wales, UK. In the 1851 census returns for Tredegar, his father (unnamed) is noted as immigrated, leaving a wife, Joanna Hickey, to support three young children as a dressmaker.
Tredegar was a boom town in the 19th century linked to expanding iron works with their tram road and then steam links down the valley to the aptly-named Newport. But horrendous sanitary conditions and cholera epidemics made it a place to leave if you could. Your religion was probably one of several competing varieties of Baptist or Methodist non-conformism.
According to the Wales-Pennsylvania project, at one point one-third of the population of Pennsylvania was Welsh, and even today there are 200,000 people of Welsh ancestry in the State. From the original Welsh Quakers moving to Pennsylvania, there were soon floods of industrial workers from Wales - slate quarrymen from the North, and from the South coal miners and iron workers, whose skills would be welcomed in industrial centers like Pittsburgh. At the time Hickey lived in Pittsburgh there was a large Welsh St David’s Society there, which still flourishes today.
So Hickey followed a well-trodden path to reach Pittsburgh. He was married to Gwendolyn Bowen with one child, John, when they made the decision to leave Wales and travel to the States in the 1860s. He ultimately had seven children, but all the others, barring one, were born in the States. The exception was his fourth, daughter Anna, who was born around 1874 back in Wales, so - assuming the census enumerator got it right - they must have made a trip back to the old country.
In the 1870 census Thomas is now in Pittsburgh as a puddler in a roll mill. (A puddler was a specialized furnace worker, who converted pig iron into wrought iron.) In the 1880 Pittsburgh census he is still listed as a puddler, with wife Gwennie, and the seven children.
And between those two dates he attended early meetings with Charles Taze Russell.
The account in full from the Enterprise reads as follows:
Among the thousand attending the convention is the venerable Thomas Hickey, of Newcastle, Pa. He is the only one now living who was a member of Pastor Charles T. Russell’s first little class in Allegheny.
He relates that the first convention held was in a building on Federal St., Allegheny, when less than a hundred were present. This was about 1875. The first testimony meeting was held in 1876 in the home of Brother Russell, when six consecrated hearts were present. This gives an amazing contrast when compared with this great convention of over 12,000, with many, many times that number at home all over the world.
In listening to Mr Hickey relating his experiences, it can be seen that this movement grew, not by any organized effort, but simply and spontaneously by a gathering together of consecrated Christians to study their Bibles as their hearts yearned to do.
“Charlie would give them little talks,” he said, “and after awhile he began to go around and speak here and there. When they started to call him Elder Russell, the question arose as to what would be the proper title for their minister. When they asked Brother Russell, he answered simply, ‘We will just go on without any name, for are all one in Christ Jesus.’”
Mr Hickey said he never expected to attend such a convention as this one, and considers it the greatest privilege of his life.
(end of quote)
We have to accept that this is anecdotal evidence from an old man about events nearly fifty years before. We don’t know how good his memory was, or how accurately he was reported by the Enterprise writer, but it gives us a flavour of those early times.
A search in the early ZWTs provides a number of references to a “Brother Hickey” but these all appear to be Samuel I Hickey, a former Presbyterian minister, who had quite a high profile in those early days. So all we have - unless other researchers can find out more - is the Enterprise interview, and also Thomas’ obituary in his local paper.
The above obituary from the New Castle News, January 14, 1927, firmly identifies Thomas as an active member of the International Bible Students Association. It states that he moved to New Castle 22 years before, which would be around 1904, and his final employment status was as a boiler maker.
There is a Thomas Hickey in New Castle trade directories for the 1890s, and this Thomas is described as working in the Vulcan Iron co., so there may be an error in the obituary dates and this is him. Or maybe the 1890s feature some other Thomas Hickey. It was not an uncommon name.
Thomas was certainly well-known enough in his New Castle community to warrant the 1927 obituary, which also detailed two fraternal societies he belonged to, one of which was back in Pittsburgh.
One wonders how many of his surviving five children, fifteen grandchildren and seventeen great-grandchildren continued in the same religious persuasion.