Who Were They?
Some opposition writers see Watch Tower adherents in this period as primarily Second Adventists. They base this on Russell’s comment in the February 1881, Watch Tower: “Many of our company were what are known as Second Adventists.” But this is a look backward to 1871, and did not represent matters as they were in the 1880s. Even as things were in 1871, Russell was careful not to say that “most” had been Second Adventists. In point of fact, most were never Adventists of any sort but came from cognate movements.
Edmond Gruss wrote that “many early converts seemed to come from fundamentalist groups who were dissatisfied with their churches.” The paragraph in which we find this claim is mixture of fact and fancy typical of Gruss’ work. He adds: “Russell claimed that most of his followers were from Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist backgrounds,” and then speculates about the reasons for adherence to Watch Tower belief. He plainly did not carefully read the early issues of Zion’s Watch Tower. If he had, his speculations would not have found a place in his book. We note too that one cannot find in anything Russell wrote a statement about “most” Watch Tower adherents’ previous affiliation. Instead, Gruss derived his comment from A.H. Macmillan’s Faith on the March which quotes not Russell but another.
When Russell died, The Christian Advocate, a Methodist journal, said that Watch Tower adherents were “drawn from many churches, probably from our own most of all.” Russell era issues of the Watch Tower tend to support this. While we feel an extended analysis here is distracting, a search of any of the digitalized libraries of early Watch Tower publications should prove the point to our readers. In Allegheny and Pittsburgh, clerical opposition most often came from Methodists, proof that, at least there, Watch Tower theology diminished Methodist churches. And then there is a peculiar statement in a 1904 convention announcement placed in April 24, 1904, Los Angeles Herald: “Mr. Russell is president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, under whose auspices the convention will be held, and is widely known in the religious world, especially among Methodist, as an able supporter of the old theology of the Bible.” This was a poke at the Methodists then in conference in Los Angeles, but it was true enough as Methodist losses to Watch Tower theology proved. In 1910, addressing a convention of believers at Nottingham, England, Russell addressed similarities between Watch Tower doctrine and Methodism: “we see in Brother Wesley a grand man, and who in his teachings is loving and lovable, and he had much truth, but yet he did not have the whole plan.”
Events show that Watch Tower teachings found a home among Baptists. J. F. Young, then pastor of the Ardmore, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), First Baptist Church preached on the twin subjects of “Millennial Dawn” and “Truth and not Opinions.” Without Watch Tower inroads into churches, sermons such as these would not have taken place. It is impossible to find a main-line church or small sect that was not affected by Watch Tower doctrine. The few early responses from clergy turned into a flood of antagonistic sermons, most of which had little effect. Carl L. Jensen, an agent for the American Bible Society, pointed to spiritual hunger as the reason converts found Watch Tower teaching attractive: “I find many homes filled with Millennial Dawn literature. This is especially the case among the nominal church members who are hungering for the food that satisfies, but somehow have neglected the means of grace, until they easily take up with all sorts of fads and isms” Jensen blamed Watch Tower adherents; they neglected the ‘means of grace.’ But lack of satisfying spiritual food was a denominational fault. It cannot be assigned to individuals.
In dozens of ways, clergy and clerical sycophants blamed parishioners and Russellism for their own failures. Even when admitting failure, they shoved blame onto parishioners. In doctrinal and historical context the failure was immense. Some commentaries on Matthew identified the faithful and wise servant of chapter twenty-four as the clergy. Clergy were responsible for the education and faith of congregants. They failed and Russellism blossomed. An example of mixed criticism comes to us from The Continent, the editor of which often opposed Russell. Richard R. Biggar, a Presbyterian clergyman wrote:
The church … is failing woefully … . We may safely say that more than one-half of the people whose names appear on our church rolls do not have any system of Bible reading or Bible study. How sad that this Source-book of our faith, this rule of our faith and practice, is so neglected! We wonder why some of our church members are running off to dangerous and foolish isms of our day. The answer is plain. They are not “rooted and grounded in the word of God. We are not carrying to them Bible study helps, but Russellism and Christian Science and “new thought” cults on every side are thrusting into their hands so called “keys to the Scripture” which confuse them and lead them away from the great fundamentals of our faith “which are able to make them wise unto salvation.”
As Russell often said, the clergy confused Bible content with church creeds, and it is evident that Biggar did that too. To him they were one and the same. Methodists felt besieged by Russell. After prolonged ad hominem, an anonymous writer for The Christian Advocate, probably its editor, wrote:
Russell’s career emphasizes several thoughts: First, the inveterate gullibility of humankind (and its thirst for religious novelty); second, the eagerness of the sinner to believe that having neglected his opportunity here, a loving God will give him another chance; third, the vitality of quackery in religion as in medicine; fourth the importance of the press in carrying on religious propaganda. In the matter of tracts, leaflets, books and periodicals, the followers of Pastor Russell, like the followers of Mother Eddy and Joseph Smith, are using with commendable efficiency that agency of popular religious literature in which the followers of John Wesley should never allow themselves to be outdone.
This ranting Methodist significantly misstated Watch Tower salvation doctrine, doing so for shock value. He blamed former Methodists, converted to Watch Tower belief, claiming they were gullible and seeking novelty. But most significantly, he described Methodists as “followers of John Wesley” rather than of Christ. Russell was right. Creeds supplanted the Bible.
To W. W. Perrier, editor of The Pacific, a Congregational Church magazine published in California, the forms of that church were apostolic. Leaving it isolated one: “He who separates himself from the church, regarding it as an unauthorized body, may belong to the kingdom, but he is, by his poor judgment, placing himself where his influence for Christ will be lessened; and it, in addition to such separation he takes on some of the unscriptural doctrines of the times his influence is more largely lessened.” [The confusing grammar is his.] It is interesting that he found denominational allegiance more important that a relationship to Christ. His defense of denominationalism was a response to a withdrawal letter sent by a new Watch Tower adherent. He described it as “furnished by the publishers of ‘Millennial Dawn.’” The letter disturbed him most when it said the Bible was in “direct conflict” with his church. He characterized those who used the pre-printed letter as “those “without much strength of mind” who are “swayed easily by what they read.” He railed against “cheap books such as ‘Millennial Dawn,’” saying that those swayed by it were “without the facilities by which the fallacies of these books might be made known.”
If members of Congregational churches will ill-prepared to reason on religious subjects, whose fault was that? If a book loses quality as its price declines then the many “cheap editions” of the classics published in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries declined in usefulness as the price declined. That seems a specious argument.
In 1915, Lewis Sperry Chafer pointedly wrote:
The country is being swept by “Russellism” (so-called “Millennial Dawn,” “International Bible Students' League,” etc.), and the appalling progress of this system which so misrepresents the whole revelation of God can only be accounted for in the unsatisfied hunger of the people for the prophetic portions of Scripture. Such a false system, mixing truth with untruth, and designed to interpret all of the divine revelation, is evidently more engaging to the popular mind than only the Scriptural presentation of the fundamental doctrines concerning God, Man and Redemption. Satan's lies are always garnished with truth and how much more attractive they seem to be when that garnishing is a neglected truth! And insurance against the encroachment of such false teaching lies only in correctly presenting the whole body of truth rather than in treating any portion of it as impractical or dangerous. No minister need greatly fear any false system when he is intelligently and constantly feeding the people on the Word in all its symmetry and due proportions. This is not only true concerning the teachings of “Millennial Dawn,” but is equally true of the teachings of “Christian Science,” “New Thought,” “Spiritism,” “Seventh Day Adventism” and all unscriptural doctrines of Sanctification.
As did most clergy, Chafer sent a mixed message. The congregations were not being fed spiritually fed, but it is the members fault because they should be content with the basics of church creed. Others would reject Chafer’s ultra-dispensationalism on the same basis that he rejected Russellism.
Little of this accurately explains why churches lost members to Watch Tower belief. A much more accurate picture derives from letters published in Zion’s Watch Tower. A newly interested reader from Delta County, Texas, wrote to Russell in late 1884, saying:
Some time ago, a copy of the watch tower accidentally (?) got into my house. I read it and became interested very much; have received several numbers since, and “Food for Thinking Christians.” Well, what of it? I hardly know whether to accept it or reject it; in fact, I can’t reject a part of it without rejecting the Word of God. I determined many years ago not to accept or reject any theory until satisfied that the Word of God sustained it. I need not tell you this motto has made me a little “weak-kneed” on some things in my church.
Protestant clergy taught that the Bible was the rule of faith and that each was directly responsible to God. While most church members agreed with that, few practiced it. When they did, questions of faith and belief inserted themselves. This is an example. This letter also exemplifies another common belief. God directs events so his people find the truth. The inserted “?” suggests that finding The Watch Tower might have been a divinely guided event.
Clergy snobbery and Protestant sola scriptura doctrine were in conflict. Even if Scripture was the voice of God to individual Christians, at least in Protestant doctrine, clergymen commonly saw themselves as specially trained, divinely guided interpreters of the Word. Russell and The Watch Tower trespassed on that perceived privilege. Baptists and Methodists ordained as clergy those who never graduated from a college or seminary. Methodists consigned Lutheran clergy to hell and Lutherans fired back at Methodists. But they all saw Russell as an interloper, as trespassing on their privileges. Later they would put the word “Pastor” in quotes when referencing Russell. Russell was chosen by individual congregations as pastor in a way that differed little from Methodist and Baptist practice. And he was as trained in Bible usage as most clergy. They wanted to diminish his message without addressing his teachings. As we observe in another chapter, at best they listed his doctrines (sometimes inaccurately) for shock value but without meaningful refutation. Clergy failure was most apparent when those newly interested in Watch Tower teaching asked pointed questions.
Uneducated clergy abounded, and even among those who graduated from a seminary or university, logic seems elusive. The July 1, 1898, Middlebury, Vermont, Register decried the lack of clergy education: “Culture is not to be laughed down. The dime museum … may caricature it, the penny magazine comment upon it, the back-woodsman laugh at it … and some of our uneducated clergy misconstrue the words of our Lord, until by the wrong use of terms, masses are arrayed against classes.” Closer in time to the era we’re considering, The Richland (Rayville, Louisiana) Beacon and The New Orleans, Louisiana, Times took up the issue.
The Times’ editor suggested that: “Christianity is in no danger from either atheism, infidelity or the discoveries of science, but from its own clergy, for lack of education adequate to the age in which they live.” The Beacon’s editor agreed with this, saying so in an editorial appearing in the August 27, 1881, issue. In point of fact, most clergy were marginally educated. The Beacon’s editor agreed that “clergymen are far behind the really educated and scarcely abreast with the masses,” but he saw even this as an improvement over past decades.
The New Orleans Times suggested that clergy should be thoroughly trained New Testament scholars. The Beacon replied that more was needed. Unsuitable men, not spiritually qualified, entered the ministry, and if educated betrayed their trust:
The cause of Christianity often suffers at the hands of an ignorant preacher. … Therefore, while we freely admit the disadvantages and misfortunes of an uneducated clergy, we think that there is far less danger … from that source than from a godless clergy, which is the inevitable result of educating young men for the ministry regardless of their spiritual qualifications or moral status …
Unprepared, under-educated clergy turned away the questions raised by enquiring believers, who, rather than being untrained theologically were often as educated as the clergy who served them. Also, notorious clergy conduct was documented in the press, making it easy to see the churches they represented as hotbeds of sin and worldliness. While on first blush, Russell’s condemnation of Christendom may seem exaggerated, it was an accurate portrayal of the age.
While researching this book we’ve read a significant amount of contemporary religious periodicals. Many of them are insipid, ill-prepared, and lacking in substance. If we found them thus, their readers did too. A resident of Howell County, Missouri, wrote to Russell in late December 1885 saying: “In 1879, I became a member of the Missionary Baptist church; am one yet, but have been dissatisfied on account of the scarcity of spiritual food.” A letter from a man and wife resident in Chandler, Kansas, represents the feeling of spiritual famine many experienced: “We have been church members for forty years, but we have learned more from the watch tower than we ever learned from the pulpit.” They were eager to circulate tracts.
Russell frequently pointed to compromised churches. No better than social clubs, they admitted anyone. Ministerial standards were lax. We documented this in some detail in volume one, and it was a pronounced factor among those leaving denominational churches for Watch Tower belief. A letter from Orangeburg, South Carolina, appearing in the November 1884, Watch Tower illustrates this:
I am alone as yet, but the light is certainly making some impression. Babylon is visibly unstable and corrupt; her corruption is becoming so enormous that thinking men cannot much longer submit to it; she is actually closing her eyes and ears to known filth in her ministry, as well as laity, and her order is to “hold the fort” against the light now streaming from the Word.
Russell’s Orangeburg correspondent had reason to complain. In 1875, the Orangeburg paper reported the Beecher-Tilton sex-scandal frequently and at length, and in 1879, Alonzo Webster of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was accused of misusing church funds. A long trail of clergy scandal filled the American press. One did not have to look for scandal; the press rubbed readers’ noses in it. But not all clergy opposed Russell; not all found his doctrine improbable or un-scriptural. Some ministers found Watch Tower teachings eye-opening and spirit-filling. We consider some of those in the next chapter.
 E. Gruss: Apostles of Denial¸ Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1986 printing, page 43. A. H. Macmillan: Faith on the March, pages 39-40.
 Pastor Russell, The Christian Advocate, November 9, 1916, page 1466.
 eg: The Wages of Sin, The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dispatch, November 8, 1890.
 Souvenir Notes: Bible Student’s Conventions – 1910.
 First Baptist Church, The Daily Ardmoreite, October 8, 1899.
 Jensen’s annual report found in One Hundred and First Report of the American Bible Society: 1917¸ page 133.
 R. R. Biggar: A Sunday-School Every Member Canvas, The Continent, January 29, 1920, page 140.
 Pastor Russell, The Christian Advocate, November 6, 1916.
 W. W. Perrier: Something New in the Ready Made Line, The Pacific, May 8, 1902
 S. P. Chafer: The Kingdom in History and Prophecy, Fleming H. Revell, New York, 1915, page 13.
 Extracts from Interesting Letters, Zion’s Watch Tower, November 1884, page 2. [Not in reprints.]
 Dime Museums appealed to working-class individuals. They were hardly better than carnival side shows.
 A Peril to Christianity, The Rayville, Louisiana, Richland Beacon, August 27, 1881.
 Extracts from Interesting Letters, Zion’s Watch Tower, December 1885, page 2. [Not in reprints.]
 C. T. Russell: View from the Tower, Zion’s Watch Tower, August 1882, page 2.