Doctrinal Evolution and Prophetic Failure
Through 1880 and 1881 Russell grew in confidence as a writer, or at least as an outliner of articles he left for his wife to put in final form. It was a period of doctrinal restatement, and occasionally one of refinement. In one of his dialogue-format articles he wrote:
God’s word is “new every morning and fresh every evening.” In this respect it differs from all other books and, undoubtedly it is a fountain of living waters (truths) from the fact that it contains special dispensational truths, as well as general truth. Thus it is a great storehouse from which the Lord’s servants are to bring forth “things new and old,” that the household of faith may have meat in due season.” I seem to see in a clearer light than ever before, the present condition of the nominal church and its future.
Russell defined himself – and Watch Tower adherents – as dispensationalists. [We demonstrated in one of the introductory essays, Dispensationalism did not originate with Darby but significantly predates him.] For Russell, this meant that scriptural understanding appropriate to the Last Times was due. However, none of Russell’s ‘clearer’ understanding was new or original to him in any way, but it was long established doctrine among millennialists. He did not attribute his “clearer light” to anyone because he saw it as Biblical truth, derived from that source alone. This is not exceptional. Few English language commentators did anything else. It was the German and Dutch expositors who referred to the work of others, and we cannot prove that Russell read any of them, even in English translation. It would lighten a historian’s load of he had.
Never the less, Russell tells us that his theology was not set in stone with his separation from Barbour. He did not remain a Barbourite at heart. And he read widely. The “clearer light” he saw was adopted from standard prophetic expositions. In the article quoted above he identified the great red dragon as the Roman Catholic Church. This wasn’t ‘new’ to anyone, but was doctrine among many Protestants for centuries.
In volume one of Separate Identity we pointed to the prevalence of prophetic interest in Pittsburgh, naming Russell’s pastor as one who promoted this. Within Russell’s religious circle was William James Reid, pastor of pastor of the United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. We do not know that Russell read Reid’s lectures on The Revelation, but he certainly read something similar. Reid said that none of his thought was original, naming his sources. His view of the Great Red Dragon of the Apocalypse was echoed in Russell’s writing as was his view of the composite beast with the Leopard’s body. There are differences, but all differences with Reid find correspondences with other expositors.
Watch Tower adherents were often familiar with commentaries on the prophecies. The Allegheny Study Group spent considerable time reading them, especially when they considered Restitution [Restored Paradise] doctrine. Russell selected from existing commentaries those thoughts which he believed most closely represented the Bible’s meaning. When he met Barbour he was introduced to a prophetic framework based on the Bible’s prophetic numbers. Almost none of this was new to Russell; probably the only ‘new’ thing was Barbour’s “Israel’s Double” argument that asserted that there was a time parallel between events in ancient times and modern times.
We should state too that an online encyclopedia of doubtful worth, at least when it comments on prophecy-based movements, is wrong when it suggests that [continue]
Now to return to our original discussion, the 1880s were a period of investigation into prophetic subjects, and in various ways Russell suggested that his understanding of them was incomplete. Reporting on his 1881 visit to Lynn, Massachusetts, he wrote:
I spoke on the subject of this same chapter to the name-less little company of “this way,” in Lynn, Mass., and concluded my remarks by telling them that I had never seen a satisfactory explanation of the 666. And, though I thought I had given a correct analysis of the symbols of the chapter, yet I could not claim it to be wisdom, since I could not interpret the number. I suggested, however, that if ours be the correct understanding of the time in which we are living – the “harvest” of the age – and if our general application of these symbols be correct, the number should soon be understood. I urged examination on the subject by all, for the Lord is sometimes pleased to give wisdom through the weakest of his children. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast ordained praise.”
If we can accept a statement found in the August 1, 1917, Watch Tower, he remained dissatisfied with his research up to near his death: “Brother Russell often spoke about writing the Seventh Volume [of Studies in the Scriptures], and one of his last utterances about it was to the effect: ‘Whenever I find the key, I will write the Seventh Volume; and if the Lord gives the key to someone else, he can write it’ – or words to that effect.” The problem here – at least for a historian – is that this testimony lacks other support. Still, I do not doubt its accuracy. No-one questioned it, though many were vocal in opposition to the seventh volume. It was entitled The Finished Mystery. The title was derived from Revelation 10:7: “But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.” (AV)
Doctrinal developments in the 1880s were diverse, but always connected to their understanding of prophecy. Three major doctrinal changes, and a few minor ones, come from this period. Two of the major changes came before 1881 and the other after. Each change caused controversy.
That Christ would return invisibly was believed by many before Russell and Barbour adopted the idea. We’ve detailed that elsewhere in this series. Russell came to the idea through Seiss’ Last Times. Barbour was already familiar with the idea, but didn’t adopt it until Benjamin Keith promoted it. All of this we’ve documented before. As did many, they believed in a two-stage Second Advent. Christ would come invisibly, requiring a ‘sign’ to detect it. In time he would become visible for ‘judgments.’ Russell’s explanation as found in Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return was: “We believe the scriptures to teach, that, at His coming and for a time after He has come, He will remain invisible; afterward manifesting or showing Himself in judgments and various forms, so that ‘every eye shall see him.’” The ‘every eye’ quotation comes from Revelation 1:7. Russell footnoted that text, explaining that the verse “does not necessarily teach that that every eye will see Him at the same moment.”
They expected Christ to become visible at least to some in or near 1881, but constant and considerable discussion among Watch Tower adherents modified that belief. Barbourites were tending to discount their shared παρουσία doctrine, drifting back to expecting a visible presence only. A change in Watch Tower belief led to arguments, and Barbour called the new doctrine “spiritualism.”
First Printing of Object and Manner
The discussion became public through an article by Lizzie Allen appearing in the May 1880 issue. Written in response to Barbour’s claims to have uncovered a “clean” theology, his term for his ventures into esoteric belief systems, Allen focused on the sign of Christ’s presence, and the difference in viewpoint between Watch Tower adherents and Barbourites. She referenced Matthew 24:3, presenting a bastarized quotation based on the Emphatic Diaglott, a Greek-English interlinear: “What shall be the sign of Thy parousia, and of the end of the world?” Jesus answer showed, she wrote, “the need of a sign.” Jesus warned (Verses 4-5) that many would claim to be the messiah, deceiving man. Allen’s claim was that “a sign will enable those who obey this injunction to discern between the false and the true.”
This was a basic point, preliminary to other more important thoughts. A “sign” was needed because “of the obscurity which marks the period of his return.” Christ’s presence was not to generate,
physical demonstrations as shall make all aware of it. But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the presence of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and knew not until the flood came and took them all away, so shall also the presence of the Son of man be, (Vers. 37-39.) All things will indeed continue as from the beginning. How then will the church be aware of His presence, except by a sign?
The sign was given only to those who obeyed Christ’s commands, “and these cannot show it to the unfaithful.”
Allen paraphrased Matthew 24:23-28, which reads according to the Authorized Version:
At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time. ”So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.
In her view the ‘lightning” was not, and could not be, natural light, “else His presence would not be likened to the days that were before the flood.” She saw it as spiritual light, “divine truth.” A “great and wonderful unfolding of truth is all that the bible gives us a right to expect during the presence of the Son of man, and before translation,” she wrote. This was meant as a refutation of the assertion of some Barbourites that Jesus would appear to his servants before heavenly resurrection. It was not a rejection of a two-stage parousia, but it planted the seeds for that. If one accepted her arguments, then one understood that Christ’s presence was totally invisible.
She rejected Barbourite belief based on 1 John 3:2: “It doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” If ‘the saints’ do not know Jesus appearance until they are resurrected, then Christ would not appear to humans in advance. She appealed to Colossians 3:4, writing:
Again, when Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall we also appear with Him in glory. (Col. 3:4). Hence, we urge on those who are “looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the Savior's command, “Take heed let no man deceive you.” The light of truth made plain by the Spirit, is the only promised guide, while here we wait. And this to us, is far more convincing than any physical manifestation could be.
The fuller implications of this article are apparent. It set off discussions that did not immediately make it to The Watch Tower. Two of the movement’s principals and some of its new clergy adherents had some familiarity with Koiné Greek [1st Century commonly spoken Greek]. The dust started to settle after a behind scenes discussion of the Greek text of Revelation 1:7 which says of Christ’s return that “Every eye shall see him,” Russell summarized their conclusions in the September 1880 issue of Zion’s Watch Tower. Entitled “Optomai,” a common transliteration of the verb to see, the article summarized usages:
The Greek word Optomai rendered, shall see, in Rev. 1:7. – “Every eye shall see him,” and rendered, shall appear, in Heb. 9:28 “To them that look for Him shall he appear a second time,” does not always mean to see with the eye. It rather signifies attend and recognize. Illustrations of its meaning attend: The priests and elders answered Judas; “See (Optomai--attend) thou to that.” Matt. 27:4. Again, Pilate said, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person; see (optomai – attend) ye to it.” Vs. 24. Also the word look in Acts 18:15. The general signification of the word however, is recognize ...
Again, Jesus said to Mary concerning Lazarus' resurrection, “Said I not that thou shouldst see (optomai) the glory of God? John 11:40. Mary's eyes saw no glory but she did see Lazarus raised, and in the power thus displayed she recognized the glory of God.
Again “All flesh shall see (optomai – recognize) the salvation of God.” Luke 3:6. In the light of these illustrations of the use of the word we can realize that there may be but little seeing of The Christ on the part of the world with the eye. See how similar is the last illustration with the first text quoted – “every eye” and “all flesh” shall recognize Him as the salvation of God.
This was not a novel interpretation. Others asserted this. And it is all within the word’s definition. Walter Roy Goff [1877-1953], a post-millennialist Lutheran clergyman, used the same points to support his views, writing:
[T]he four main passages which are supposed by many people to mean that we shall see with corporeal eyes the Lord's return have about them abundant reason for any careful interpreter to say they do not contain such literal meaning. And if this is so, then the disciples did not expect a visible return of their Lord after the statement of the men in white apparel (Acts 1:11), as some assert ... . And those today, who build up their argument for a visible return on these four passages and others like them, must be wrong, especially since there are definite passages denying a visible coming, (Luke 17:22), “Ye shall desire, * * * * but ye shall not see,” (John 16:10), “I go to the Father, and ye behold me no more,”
This discussion became settled doctrine with the publication of Food for Thinking Christians. If there was indefiniteness in Allen’s article, something much for pointed in Russell’s article, and a definite doctrinal statement in Food. Quoting or paraphrasing Hebrews 12:14; 1 John 3:2; and Ephesians 1:17 but without citing them, Russell wrote:
How will He come again? Briefly stated, we believe the Scriptures to teach that our Lord will never again appear as a man; that at his second coming he will be invisible to mankind; that none will ever see him except the Church: “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord;” that the Church will not see him until changed from natural to spiritual bodies; that then “we shall see him as he is” [not as he was], for “we shall be like him” [not he like us, as at the first advent]. But while none are to see him with their natural eyes, all are to recognize his presence and his power (“the eyes of their understanding being opened”). Hence we read: “Every eye shall see (optomai – recognize) him”
This doctrinal transition brought controversial comments from Barbour, but that conflict is subject matter for volume three of Separate Identity. As clergy outrage intensified after 1895, the Watch Tower invisible presence doctrine was interminably criticized and often misrepresented. This continued through the 20th Century and into the present century. Consider Walter Martin’s comment:
Jehovah’s Witnesses claim scholarship for this blanket translation of parousia, yet not one great scholar in the history of Greek exegesis and translation has ever held this view. Since 1871, when “Pastor” Russell produced this concept, it has been denounced by every competent scholar upon examination.
The reason this Russellite rendering is so dangerous is that it attempts to prove that parousia in regard to Christ’s second advent really means that His return or “presence” was to be invisible, and unknown to all but “the faithful.”
This is a polemicist’s poor research and misrepresentation. His misstatements vary from minor to significant. The 1871 date is wildly wrong, something he could easily have known when he wrote. Russell did not originate the concept, but as we’ve shown elsewhere, it has a long history. He suggests that no “great” Greek-language scholar ever accepted a uniform translation of παρουσία as presence. One supposes that any scholar that disagreed with Martin would not have been ‘great’ in his eyes, including Joseph Rotherham, who noted in the appendix to his translation: “In this edition the word parousia is uniformly rendered ‘presence’ (‘coming,’ as a representative of this word, being set aside). The original term occurs twenty four times in the N. T. [He lists all the verses which we omit from this quotation] ... The sense of ‘presence’ is so plainly shewn by the contrast with ‘absence’ (implied in 2 Co. x. 10, and expressed in Ph. ii. 12) that the question naturally arises, – Why not always so render it?” Martin failed to cite or quote any of the “great” scholars who rejected Watch Tower exposition of παρουσία. When one only writes polemics, it is convenient to avoid citing sources.
Martin misrepresents Russell and modern Watchtower belief, claiming that their view is that only “the faithful” would be aware of it. He puts ‘the faithful’ in quotes, but the phrase is lacking on the pages he sites as is the belief he attributes to Watch Tower adherents. Russell, the modern Watch Tower and Bible Student groups all believe that in time it will become apparent to everyone, at least by the time Christ executes God’s judgment. If one writes a polemic their statements should be accurate, but polemicists are seldom interested in accuracy. Martin’s real objection is that it Russell, and modern descendent religions, present an understanding of prophecy different from his own. The same is true for those who were Russell’s contemporaries and wrote similarly. Many who wrote anti-Russell tracts simply mentioned the teaching without refuting it, relying on shock value to accomplish their purpose. An example is George Whitefield Ridout’s The Deadly Fallacy of Russellism or Millennial Dawnism.
The Narrow Way to Life
Russell dates their discussion of Matthew 7:13-14 to the Allgheny Study Groups early days, but it became a matter for general discussion with October 1880 issue of Zion’s Watch Tower.
 C. T. Russell: Dialogue. Rev. 13., Zion’s Watch Tower, January 1880, page 1.
 C. T. Russell: “The Name of the Beast, Or the Number of his Name”, Zion’s Watch Tower, January/February 1882, page 7-8.
 Long-Looked-For Seventh Volume, The Watch Tower, August 1, 1917, page 226.
 C. T. Russell: Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return, Herald of the Morning, First Edition, 1877, page 39.
 The Watchtower publication Aid to Bible Understanding  and its revision as Insight on the Scriptures comment on Jesus words: “There would be nothing to hide about Jesus’ having come as King, at the beginning of his royal presence.” [Insight, volume 2, page 255] Though this sentence is somewhat convoluted, it suggests only that Jesus’ parousia would be widely known. However, The Watchtower [May 1, 1995, page 12] returned to Allen’s exposition, saying: “As Jesus foretold, in a global way, lightnings of Bible truth continue to flash over broad areas from eastern parts to western parts. Truly, as modern light bearers, Jehovah’s Witnesses prove to be ‘a light of the nations, that [Jehovah’s] salvation may come to be to the extremity of the earth.’—Isaiah 49:6.”
 C.T. Russell: Optamai, Zion’s Watch Tower, September 1880, page 8.
 W. R. Goff: The Handbook of Eschatology, Or, A Consistent Biblical View of the Lord’s Return, Keystone Publishing House, Blairsville, Pennsylvania, 1917, page 34.
 C. T. Russell: Food for Thinking Christians, Watch Tower supplement, 1881, page 63.
 W. Martin and R. Zarcharias: The Kingdom of the Cults, “updated edition,” 2003, page 101.
 J. B. Rotherham: Emphasized Bible, 1897 edition, appendix, page 271.
 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”