Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change
by George Chryssides
A Review by R. M. de Vienne, PhD.
Chryssides’ new book sets the standard for generalist studies of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is free of polemic, largely accurate and well written. Its outline is orderly and easy to follow. In these respects it is superior to almost every book written about the Bible Student and Witness movements since 1920. This is especially true when compared to ‘studies’ written by those with ‘academic credentials.’ Chryssides book isn’t colored by the ignorant sectarianism of Gruss. It is vastly more informed than Stroup’s sloppy research; it avoids the condescending, human-progress point of view found in Elmer Clark’s Small Sects. And I believe it is more informed that Beckford’s Trumpet of Prophecy.
Chryssides did not have access to Separate Identity while preparing his manuscript, so he was unfamiliar with Russell’s immersion into Age-to-Come belief or how Literalist/Age-to-Come doctrine differs from Millerite Adventism. He occasionally confuses Millenarianism with Adventism, leaving chapter two slightly flawed and weak.
Writing of J. A. Brown’s role in Watchtower history, he says: “Neither Russell nor Barbour mention Brown ... Probably he was not known to these to leaders.” If Russell knew of Brown, I’d be surprised. However Wellcome suggests that Barbour did, and Barbour was familiar with a vast array of prophetic literature. Chryssides says that the earliest published attempt at predictive chronology was John Aquila Brown’s Even Tide. This is inaccurate. Bengal, Newton and many others preceded Brown. An examination of Froom’s Prophetic Faith shows this. Chryssides is confused about Brown’s occupation, noting that he is sometimes described as a silversmith and sometimes as a clergyman. He was a silversmith. His will and court documents make this clear.
Chryssides calls Elias Smith “an early Adventist.” He was not. He was a Literalist, a Millenarian. He did not teach characteristic Millerite doctrine. Chryssides suggests that Barbour ‘discovered’ Bowen’s chronology in the British Library. He consulted it to refresh his memory. It was not a new discovery. Elliott’s Horae in which it is found was a familiar work.
He calls Stetson and Storrs Adventists. This was true enough at one period in their lives, but not at all true when Russell met them. When Russell met them, both were advocating Literalist doctrine and writing for Age-to-Come journals. Both were actively opposed by Adventists.
Chryssides suggests that Barbour was born in Louisiana. He confuses a Confederate veteran of similar name with Nelson Barbour who was born in Throopsville, New York. Barbour had no connection to the American South, but descended from a colonial era Connecticut family.
On page 48, Chryssides suggests that Russell’s doctrines were derived from Adventism. As we demonstrate in Separate Identity, none of his ideas derive from Adventism. On page 51 he suggests that Barbour sent Russell a letter in 1876. Barbour sent Russell his magazine in December 1875. There is no suggestion that he enclosed a letter. Russell’s account of events suggests that he did not, and that it was Russell who first wrote to Barbour. On page 52, citing Maurice Barnett, Chryssides writes of W. H. Conley: “He is said to have donated $40,000 for the publication of Russell’s Food for Thinking Christians.” Relying on secondary web sources is nearly always a bad idea. Original documents say that Conley donated $4000, not $40,000. The bulk of the forty thousand dollars poured into circulation of Food came from Russell’s pocket. I should note too that Stetson died at his own home, not at the Conley’s residence.
The use of the descriptor “pioneers” (page 54) is an anachronism.
On page 56 Chryssides suggests Russell abandoned commercial printing in 1880 and “purchased his own printing house.” Watch Tower publications were printed commercially into the 1920s. Russell originated the imprint Tower Publishing Company, later donating it with all the copyrights to Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society.
On page 56 we find the suggestion that John Corbin Sunderlin and Joseph Jacob Bender traveled to the UK together in 1881. Bender was sent later to replace the ill Sunderlin.
On page 57 he suggests that Russell moved his operation to Brooklyn seeking larger, better quarters. He omits issues connected with Russell’s divorce which, despite Russellite assertions to the contrary, seem to be the primary reason for the move.
This may seem like a daunting and debilitating list of errors. It’s not. One can turn page after page and nod agreement to what one finds there. Chryssides handles “the scandals” without hyperbole or polemics. He considers Miracle Wheat, the Russell marriage, the von Zech issues and the 1908-1909 schism reasonably and accurately. The 1917-1918 schism is presented with equal clarity. The huge volume of material related to the Olin Moyle incident is digested and fairly presented. His account of the 1933 Declaration of Facts addressed to Hitler is stellar. However, neither Chryssides nor Penton seem to be familiar with the details of the Watchtower’s shifting doctrine regarding the Jewish nation. Of the two presentations, Chryssides’ account is the better.
The section on The New World Translation is very well done. However, he takes Mantey’s scolding letter at face value. It is a seriously flawed, misleading letter. Mantey claims work that belonged to the original author of The Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, a paragraph to which Mantey contributed nothing. Chryssides does not address the reasons for Watchtower intellectual “disconnect” when using Greber’s translation. Yet one sees it in other areas. I would, have used this as an occasion to point to flawed Watchtower research in the 1960s that included citing a publisher as an author and not consulting publications afresh but simply re-quoting from previously published citations. This is not a flaw in Chryssides’ book. It’s just my preference.
Chapter eight, “Ethics and Lifestyle,” is particularly well done. Chapter nine, “Worship and Rites of Passage,” notes Watchtower use of A. Hislop’s The Two Babylons without noting that Watchtower writers have for some time seen it as seriously flawed. Chryssides says (page 200) that rejection of birthdays came from Hislop. This is arguably incorrect, though Two Babylons was used to support that view. He attributes an annual Memorial Celebration (communion) to Adventist influence. In fact it is a centuries old tradition and came to Russell through his Age-to-Come connections, not Adventism.
Chapter eleven examines changes in Watchtower doctrines, which were sometimes dogmatically stated and dogmatically retracted. This is a very well-done, accurate chapter. Many who are sympathetic to the Watchtower but puzzled by dogmatism in areas where caution would be the better course will find much of interest. This chapter comments on pedophilia issues. Finally, a rational statement from someone.
While I believe it necessary to point out some flaws, I restate my opening point. This is an exceptional book, well worth the time spent reading it (four times.) It is impossible, or nearly so, to write a book like this and not have errors appear. That some have appeared in this book does not remove it from serious consideration by anyone interested in religious movements such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is very expensive. Hopefully a cheaper, revised edition awaits us in the future.
When H. G. Wells’ Outline of History was published, specialist historians praised the book, often adding that he should have elaborated on their areas of specialty. I’ve tried to resist doing that here. I don’t write generalist history, but detail-laden, narrowly-focused history. If Dr. Schulz and I live long enough to carry our history into the Rutherford era, we will consult Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change.
One last pick: The bibliography lists John Storrs. It’s George Storrs.