The Harvest Movement
Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.—Matthew 13:30
By Charles Redeker
In the latter part of the nineteenth century the religious movement known today as the Bible Students had its beginning. It was both the successor to previous reform efforts and the source of fresh outpourings of truth that providentially had become due.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century under Martin Luther and others had struck a bold blow against the medieval church and emphasized the rightful place of the Bible in its stead. This began a sweeping work of doctrinal cleansing with periodic bursts of fervor in succeeding years that was particularly strong in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Especially in the United States the atmosphere of political and religious freedom stimulated the birth of independent religious movements that participated in a further refining process and recovered additional lost truths. Perhaps the most thorough of all the reforms was brought about by the Millerite movement, which attracted widespread attention to a literal expectation of Christ’s return. Though ending in keen disappointment, it left a sanctifying mark upon the believers and prepared the way for fresh revelations of truth.
By the year 1846 two contrary forces were at work in the Protestant religious world. On the one hand, scattered small groups of dedicated believers had separated themselves from the larger, established bodies and were in agreement on certain basic points of Bible teaching.
. The Bible revered as God’s inspired word and sole source of authority. . Salvation by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. . Simplicity of church organization. . The priesthood of believers and their equality in God’s sight. . Immortality a gift of God to the faithful, not inherent in the soul. . The dead sleeping peacefully unto the resurrection. . Baptism by immersion, a symbol of full consecration. . The need for personal holiness in the Christian life. . The nearness of the second coming of Christ. . The purpose of the coming to set up God’s Kingdom on earth and to exalt the church.
On the other hand, the Evangelical Alliance had just been formed in London. This was an organization of more than fifty orthodox church groups that wanted to maintain the basic beliefs of evangelical Protestants and to promote interdenominational unity. As such it is recognized as the early forerunner of the modern ecumenical movement. Some of the nine cardinal points it stressed were:
. The Trinity and the unity of the “Godhead.” . The incarnation of the Son of God. (Christ appearing in the first advent as the God-man in the form of flesh.) . The immortality of the soul. . The resurrection of the body. . The eternal punishment of the wicked in hell fire. . The Christian ministry (clergy) as divinely instituted. (Ordination claimed as an exclusive right of member groups.)
Thus some of the doctrines which were being discarded in the light of advanced Bible study were given new emphasis and held up as the mark of orthodoxy. In this way the Alliance served to keep separate and envelop in darkness the large nominal groups of Christians, in contrast to the little handful who had been cleansed of these errors. And so, as the nineteenth century progressed beyond the midway mark the stage was set for some rather unique additional developments on the religious scene.
The birth of the Bible Student movement can be traced to the year 1876 when Charles T. Russell, a successful young businessman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was elected pastor of a small Bible study group that had been meeting in that city (then called Allegheny) for six years. Having been disenchanted with many of the orthodox teachings of the larger churches, especially the believe that eternal torture was the fate of all but the saints, this group began an independent study of the Bible to determine what it revealed of the character of God and of the divine purpose for mankind. It soon became evident to them that the Bible as a whole had been badly misinterpreted: that the traditional creeds of the faith, while containing some elements of truth, did not properly reflect the great love of God toward his creation nor depict his comprehensive plan of redemption and blessing. They also became convinced that they were living somewhere near the close of the age when a clearer unfolding of the Father’s plans and purposes was promised to the diligent truth seeker. This early period was a time of growth in grace and in knowledge and of laying a strong foundation for fresh light to follow.
For a time in his younger life it seemed most unlikely that Bro. Russell would develop such an intense interest in the Bible or pursue the Christian ministry as his main focus. For although born of Christian parents (in 1852) and brought up in the Presbyterian Church, and later joining the YMCA and the Congregational Church, he was unable to defend the catechism and especially the belief that a majority of mankind was predestined to a hell of eternal torment. In attempting to reclaim a friend to Christianity he found himself overwhelmed at the apparent logic of infidelity and soon became a skeptic himself. Yet in short order, by God’s providence, he was led to see a distinction between the creeds of men and the true teachings of the Bible. This provided the motivation to examine the Scriptures in depth to determine if they held the secrets of God’s plan with respect to humanity; and if they depicted a God who was worthy of worship and devotion.
Bro. Russell freely acknowledged the influence and assistance of other earnest students of the Word in helping to shape his own thoughts and convictions. The Adventists were instrumental at a critical period in reestablishing his faith in the Bible and later in emphasizing the role of time prophecy in relation to other truths. In later years he gratefully recalled the part that George Stetson and George Storrs (editors of The Bible Examiner) had played in uncovering the broad outlines of God’s plan of salvation and, equally as important, in unlearning certain long-cherished erroneous views that had veiled its full appreciation.
Among the beliefs that were very grievous to Pastor Russell and his associates was the expectation of Christ’s return in the flesh to be followed by the end of the world—meaning that the earth and all in it except a few saints would be burned up and destroyed. A string of failed time settings for this event by a number of sects, and accompanying crude ideas relating to the second advent, led Pastor Russell to write a pamphlet (about 1878) entitled, The Object and Manner of the Lord’s Return, with an initial printing of 50,000 copies. This pointed out that Christ’s return would not be in a visible body as commonly believed, but as a mighty invisible spirit being to reign upon the earth, to set up God’s long-promised kingdom, and to bring restitution blessings to earth’s teeming masses.
Even earlier, in 1872, a clear view of the ransom doctrine was gained, and its fundamental importance in the program of redemption appreciated. Most Christians gave assent to the atoning sacrifice of Christ, but failed to understand either how it accomplished a satisfaction of divine justice or that it actually guaranteed a full opportunity for gaining everlasting life. Pastor Russell recognized that Jesus’ ransom sacrifice affected every other Bible truth, as the hub of a wheel from which all other spokes radiated outward. Since all hope of future life and blessings of restitution in the kingdom were seen to depend upon it, it is evident why the ransom became the core doctrine of the movement.
Early in his ministry Bro. Russell’s attention was drawn to the Bible chronology first introduced by Rev. Christopher Bowen of England about 1830, which indicated that the first 6,000 years of man’s history had terminated in the year 1872. This combined with the prophetic understanding gleaned from Adventist sources that Christ had returned as Lord of the harvest led him to deduce that a gathering and reaping work was then due among the Lord’s people. This gave the impetus to begin preaching with great ardor and enthusiasm the good tidings of ransom and restitution, two salvations, the return of Christ, and the nearness of the Kingdom. In harmony with the prophecies of Dan. 12:12 and Luke 12:37, it was a time of blessedness as accumulated errors of past centuries progressively gave way to a flood of light and to clearer insights into the divine plan of the ages.
Consolidating the Work
As the Pastor began traveling and preaching the new found truths, at first from New England to the Midwest, much interest was aroused. At the same time it came to be recognized that a monthly religious journal which fully reflected these truths would be helpful in holding and developing the new interest. This led to the re-issuance of Herald of the Morning, an earlier Adventist-oriented publication, in a cooperative effort with other early associated in the work (N. H. Barbour, J. H. Paton and others). It was followed in 1878 with an entirely new publication, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, issued from Pittsburgh with an initial printing of 6,000 copies. For almost 40 years this journal became a mainstay of the movement, edited continuously by the Pastor, with five associate editors and many regular contributors. It was received eagerly by Bible students everywhere, reaching a peak subscription of about 50,000 by 1915.
The first words of the journal significantly stated the object of its publication. To fully awaken the “household of faith . . . to the fact .. . that we are living in the last days . . . of the Gospel Age,” and pointed out that a new day was dawning with the invisible presence of the Lord. It observed that not only was the end time becoming “discernible by the close student of the Word,” but also by the world at large through manifestation by many outward signs. Subsequent issues elaborated on such signs as global preparations for war, the decline of spirituality, scientific and technological advances of the new day, growing unrest of the masses, a drive for unity among the churches, and renewed interest in regathering the Jews to Palestine.
Counterbalancing the emphasis on prophetic unfolding of events were articles on Christian life and doctrine to assist the believer in mankind progress in the way. These touched on vital areas, such as the ransom sacrifice, the atonement, the sin offering, the great covenants and the development of the fruits and graces of the spirit in order to gain greater character likeness to Christ. The twofold objective was to awaken readers to realities of the new era and “to assist them to put on the whole armor of God, that they may be able to stand in the evil day.” In so doing, the Pastor believed he was actively engaged in the grand work of reaping and gathering together the wheat in the harvest (end period) of the age, preparatory to the full establishment of the kingdom.
The next effort was to organize Bible classes wherever interest in the truth message was shown. This was done in concert with associated believers by traveling to those areas where subscribers to the Watch Tower magazine were located. In the years 1879 and 1880 alone, about 30 congregations were founded in the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, Ohio, and Michigan. Pastor Russell himself visited these classes and spent at least a day in intensive Bible study with each group, lecturing and answering questions of interest.
In later years this procedure of encouraging and serving the brethren at large became the characteristic of the Pastor’s ministry and reflected his zeal for the Lord and love for the truth people. Subsequently hundreds of congregations across the land sprang up and elected him as their Pastor. (By 1916 there were 1,200 such Bible classes worldwide.) They appreciated his doctrine, his exemplary manner of life and his warm, kind personality. In traveling constantly as public lecturer and regularly serving these many classes, Pastor Russell later came to be known as the “ubiquitous preacher,” a phrase coined by the London Press, which also said that he “had the world for his congregation.”
One of his earliest major works was a comprehensive booklet entitled Food for Thinking Christians, published in 1881. It summarized the main doctrinal views of the Bible Students and exposed some of the erroneous beliefs of the nominal churches. It also included a comprehensive “Chart of the Ages” with full explanation, illustrating the plan of God for developing the church, blessing the world, and destroying the incorrigible in second death. More than a million copies of the booklet were distributed free of charge. The success of this effort led to the formation of the Watch Tower Tract Society which thereupon specialized in the distribution of books and tract materials to further the work of the movement.
In 1881 the Society also put out a call for Christian laborers, termed “colporteurs,” to sell Watch Tower subscriptions and distribute various tracts. By 1886 their number had grown to some 300 workers, mostly part-time, and became an integral part of the ministry. The Pastor urged any and all who had been reached by the truth message to devote whatever they could to sharing the good tidings with others by preaching and handing out literature. Some from all walks of life, in this country and abroad, eagerly responded to the call, reflecting the depth of their convictions and the enthusiasm of their leader.
As the light of truth continued to unfold, Pastor Russell saw the need for putting forth a comprehensive exposition of the inspired Word that would properly harmonize the entire Bible. He wanted a topical study that would delineate God’s principles, laws and promises as well as explain Scriptural types, symbols, allegories and prophecies, all in their correct time setting. The result was a six-volume series under the heading of Millennial Dawn (later retitled Studies in the Scriptures), written between 1886 and 1904. To this day many consider it to be the foremost aid to Bible study ever produced, revealing God’s majestic plan for uplifting mankind. The series became another mainstay of the movement, particularly the first volume, The Divine Plan of the Ages, which reach the phenomenal circulation of about 4.3 million in the Pastor’s own lifetime.
Pastor Russell’s prodigious writings were characterized by an easy flowing style that contrasted sharply with the complex theological treatises of his day and were well received. Despite heavy demands, such as of a growing staff of workers at the headquarters office in Allegheny, correspondence that some years topped 300,000 replies, editing the Watch Tower magazine, and extensive travels at home and abroad, he was still able to find time to produce a vast number of tracts and other materials. Some of the leading booklets he wrote were: What Say the Scriptures About Hell (1896—3 million copies), What Say the Scriptures About Spiritism (1897—500,000 copies), The Parousia of our Lord (1898—300,000 copies), and The Bible Versus the Evolution Theory (1898—400,000 copies). The amazing circulation was achieved by door to door distribution and by handouts to churchgoers on Sunday mornings.
As the number of Bible Students increased and the monthly circulation of the Watch Tower magazine readers passed 10,000, regular conventions were scheduled to built up the brethren spiritually. In 1893 the first national assembly was held in Chicago for five days with an attendance of 360. There were prayer meetings, discourses (an hour and a half in length), sessions devoted to answering questions, and an immersion service in which 70 were baptized. After 1898, convention gatherings became more frequent, both regional and general, and were often timed to take advantage of lower railroad rates for Expositions or special events. Their frequency increased from about three per year in early years such as 1899, to 20 regional gatherings of three days or more in 1909. These usually included special meetings for the public which swelled the attendance even more, reaching 1,000 in Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1906; 2,000 in Niagara Falls in 1907; and over 3,000 in the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. in 1912. Outside the country a convention in Toronto, Canada in 1903 drew 800 brethren and over 1,000 public; Kingston, Jamaica in 1905 peaked at 800; London, in 1907, about 550; and Glasgow, Scotland in 1908 numbered about 800.
In 1894 another program was initiated to strengthen the movement. Twenty mature associates were sent out on weekends from Pittsburgh to visit nearby congregations (called ecclesias), both to edify the brethren and to conduct public meetings. This developed later into a full-time activity known as the “pilgrim work,” and proved a valuable asset to maintaining contact with the growing number of classes and to unify their thinking and beliefs. The pilgrims were full-time preachers traveling from one congregation to another, spending a day or two with each group. Their service was greatly appreciated by the brethren at large, who considered it a privilege to entertain them and enjoy their fellowship. The number of such pilgrims increased from just three in 1897 to 25 in 1905, and to nearly 90 in 1916.
Growing Public Awareness
Beginning in 1891, due to the growing interest in Europe, it was decided that Pastor Russell should make his first trip abroad. For two months he and his party toured Ireland, Scotland, Europe, Palestine, part of Russia, Egypt and England. He was greatly encouraged by the enthusiasm for truth that he found in some places, such as Scandinavia, and especially in England, Ireland and Scotland which he viewed as “fields ready and waiting to be harvested.” But in Russia, Turkey, and Italy he saw little readiness for the message. After his return the Society began publishing books in German, French, Swedish, Danish, Polish, and Greek. The first overseas branch office was opened in London in 1900. This was followed by a branch in Germany in 1903 and another in Australia in 1904.
Several other foreign trips culminated in 1911-1912 with an historic round-the-world tour to China, Japan, Korea, the Philippine Islands, India, the Near East, Greece, Italy, France, and England. There were several objectives: to ascertain prevalent social and religious conditions, to evaluate the methods and results of conducting foreign missions by the churches, and to draw international attention to the “truth movement” and its unique message of the harvest time. It gave tremendous momentum to yet another effort that had opened up—the syndicated publishing of the Pastor’s weekly sermons in newspapers in the United States, Canada and Europe. These appeared regularly in over 2,000 newspapers with a combined circulation of over 15 million copies.
Pastor Russell’s increasing popularity and the remarkable growth of the movement were not without opposition. Despite his favor with the general public, his work aroused vigorous resistance from the clergy. They frowned on his lack of seminary credentials, de-emphasis of church organization, and his denunciation of many of the orthodox doctrines of churchianity. At first they attempted to defend their beliefs in a series of public debates; such as the six day encounter featuring Dr. E. L. Eaton at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall before record audiences. But even the most skillful of the ministers could not effectively meet the sound Scriptural arguments advanced by the Pastor, resulting in continued loss of membership in the established churches. This precipitated a new line of attack: vicious attempts were made to smear the personal character of the Pastor and, further, to portray him as the head of a cult that was not truly Christian. Though wholly unfounded, such criticism stalked the movement, found acceptance among many evangelical groups, and have persisted to this day.
Throughout his ministry, Pastor Russell stressed that the Biblical “end times” had begun and he looked for various prophetic fulfillments that were due. Among these was the return of God’s favor to the Jews and their regathering from all the countries in which they had been scattered back to Palestine, the land of promise. But instead of seeking converts from the Jewish community, he counseled them to believe God’s promises that they would be restored as a nation and eventually exert a leading role in the earthly phase of God’s kingdom to bless all nations. This sympathetic view and special message of comfort to the Jews earned him the title of “Christian Zionist” and prompted invitations to speak before large Jewish audiences, such as 4,000 at the Hippodrome in New York City in 1910.
The year 1914 figured very prominently in Bible Student prophetic expectations and carried with it some disappointment and grief. That year was though to mark not only the turning point of God’s dealings with the nations (the ending off the “Times of the Gentiles” prophecy), but the completion of the church and inauguration of the Kingdom as well. In harmony with these expectations, an intensive five-year worldwide preaching effort began in 1909 that was extraordinary by any measure. Colporteurs and other volunteers gave zealously of their time and effort to preach. Millions of copies of a new series of tracts called “People’s Pulpit,” “Everybody’s Paper,” and “The Bible Students Monthly” were distributed in addition to the usual pamphlets and books. Each month a new message was aimed at exposing false doctrines of orthodox religion and clarifying the basic teachings of Scripture. Also a “class extension” activity opened up in 1911 which was directed specially toward the public. In that year alone over 12,000 public and semi-public lectures were given, mostly by a special group of 58 qualified speakers.
The climax of these feverish activities was reached in 1914 with The Photo-Drama of Creation, a unique state-of-the-art audio-visual production depicting God’s plan of the ages from earth’s creation to its perfection in the thousand year reign of Christ. It required two full years and $300,000 to complete, consisting of hand-colored slides and moving pictures, synchronized with phonograph records of voice and music. The showings were put on without any admission charge, aroused considerable interest, and were enthusiastically received. Due to the extraordinary eight-hour length, the presentation was shown on four successive nights. It was a powerful witness, given to over ten million viewers in major cities at home and abroad, from 1914 to 1916.
Evaluation and Legacy of the Early Days
When Pastor Russell passed away in 1916 at the age of 64 it brought great sadness to Bible Students. No doubt his great dedication to the work and the stress of ceaseless labors without adequate rest contributed to his early demise. Throughout his ministry he made no claim of direct revelation from God and considered himself more in the role of compiler of lines of truth from various sources, rather than the originator. In a sketch of the early days of the movement, the Pastor described himself simply as “an index finger” used of God to help others trace “the wonderful plan of God” as recorded in the sacred pages of Scripture. He said further, “Neither is this clear unfolding of truth due to any human ingenuity or acuteness of perception, but to the simple fact that God’s due time had come.”
A majority of his followers, however, were convinced that he had fulfilled a special role in God’s sight: that he held the scriptural office of that wise and faithful servant of Matt. 24:45 and as given a charge over the household of faith to provide spiritual meat in due season. Further, that he was the seventh and last messenger to the Church during its historical course of development, specially noted as Jesus’ mouthpiece to Laodicea (Rev. 1:16; 3:14).
The movement, seldom correctly assessed as to its overall influence due to strong clergy opposition, made a significant impact and provided a clear alternative to traditional orthodox beliefs. The Creator, instead of being cast as a wrathful God, was portrayed as loving, wise, just and powerful, deeply interested in humanity and their eternal salvation. The church, rather than basking in heavenly bliss and mansions of gold, was pictured as being destined to reign with Christ in blessing the remainder of mankind. The masses of humanity were seen, not as predestinated to hell, but as being given a fair opportunity for everlasting life upon earth in the Millennial Kingdom. Only the incorrigible would eventually be destroyed, and that by second death after a full trial period, not punished by everlasting torment.
The Dark Ages dogmas of hell fire, Trinity, and immortality of the soul were exposed as pagan concepts without Biblical authority. There was a new emphasis upon the Biblical end times that called for, not doom and flaming destruction, but an expectation of grand prophetic fulfillments. These spoke of a new day that had dawned in earth’s history. Christ’s invisible parousia, and the imminent establishment of God’s long-promised Kingdom, restitution blessings, the end of war and death, and the restoration to the original perfection lost in Eden were seen as near at hand.
This was the unique legacy of the Bible Student movement, an altogether different mark than that left by traditional churchianity. It revived the pure doctrine of the early church, the “faith once delivered unto the saints”—a faith which had almost been exterminated through successive secular philosophies. A worldwide witness was given, the work of gathering the wheat almost completed, the hearts of faithful believers were greatly refreshed. Many are convinced that it represented the major thrust of our Lord’s commission for the “last days”: This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come (Matt. 24:14).