Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.—Matthew 9:17
During the Reformation many Christians became convinced that the creeds of the Dark Ages contained errors. The great reformers and those that followed in their wake began restoring the truths as taught in the Bible.
Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) was no less a reformer than Martin Luther. Indeed his work went beyond that of Luther. Many Christians who were touched by his message claimed that he was the special messenger to the church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22), though he himself declined such a claim.
Charles Russell made no claims to a special revelation from God. His only claim was that it was God’s due time for the Bible to be better understood. Because he was fully consecrated to God and ready, able, and willing to serve God, he was permitted to have an understanding of that plan and the privilege of transmitting it to others. He wanted merely to communicate the beauty of God’s plan to other Christians.
Old Truths Revived
Rather than search out new truths, he revived the great truths taught by the apostles, which had been previously spoken by the mouth of all God’s holy prophets (Acts 3:21). Brought up as a Presbyterian, he consecrated his life to the Lord at an early age and became a member of the Congregational Church as well as the Y.M.C.A. Unable to accept eternal torture and related creedal concepts, he temporarily fell prey to the logic of infidelity and turned his energies into the commercial world, managing his father’s haberdashery business.
In 1870 he came into contact with Adventism in what he described as “a dusty, dingy hall where I had heard religious services were held.” He stopped by “to see if the handful who met there had anything more sensible to offer than the creeds of the great churches.”
Jonas Wendell was the preacher of the day and, while attracted to his thoughts on the second advent, Charles Russell did not believe that the Lord was coming to burn up the world. He reasoned that “if Christ’s coming was to end probation and bring irrevocable ruin upon ninety-nine of a hundred of mankind, then it could scarcely be considered desirable, neither could we pray with proper spirit, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, Come quickly.’ ” As a result he joined in organizing a Bible study class in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.
This introduction to Adventism at the hands of Jonas Wendell was sufficient to convince Russell that the words of the apostles and the prophets were “indissolubly linked.” It sent him back to his Bible study with increased zeal and care. This study showed him that “great masses of Scripture spoke glad things of millennial glory and how blessings would come out of it.” His conclusion was that thus “though Adventism helped me to no single truth, it did help me greatly in the unlearning of errors, and thus prepared me for the truth.”
The Love of God
From 1870 to 1875 the Allegheny Bible study class “came to see something of the love of God, how it had made provision for all mankind and how all must be awakened from the tomb in order that God’s loving plan might be testified to them … as a result of Christ’s redemptive work.” Then the willing and obedient of mankind might be “brought back into harmony with God. This we saw to be the restitution work of Acts 3:21.”
During the early 1870s his contacts with George Storrs and George Stetson, former co-workers with William Miller, led him to fully appreciate the Lord’s ransom work. This supplied the necessary basis for the doctrine of restitution. By 1873 it was clear to him and his group that restitution was for all in Adam, not just those of sufficient age and mental capacity, as he had previously thought. At the same time, they had their understanding opened to the subject of natures being separate and distinct.
The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return
The failed expectation of the Adventists that the world would be burned up in 1873-1874 led Charles Russell in 1877 to write his first pamphlet, “The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return.”
After seven years of study, while attending a display for his father’s business at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, Russell’s attention was drawn to a magazine entitled The Herald of the Morning, published by Nelson H. Barbour. He arranged to meet Barbour in Philadelphia and saw merit in Barbour’s interpretation of chronology.
Linking this chronology with the previously published thoughts on the object and manner of the Lord’s return, Russell and Barbour concluded that the Millennium had begun and that it would be a time of blessing for all mankind.
The two entered into a publishing arrangement, with Barbour handling the lion’s share of the printing and editing and Russell providing the funding, contributing articles, and serving as a traveling lecturer to promote their newfound beliefs. Although it was a worthy paper, The Herald of the Morning was not reaching the masses and means were sought to increase its circulation.
A Meeting of Ministers
By 1877 Charles Russell had become an influential businessman, having been a partner in his father’s firm from the age of eleven. He had gained the respect of the business community and was apparently well known also by the ministers of Pittsburgh. In 1877 he called a meeting of all the ministers of the Pittsburgh and Allegheny area to explain what light the Lord had opened to their Bible study group.
He wanted to spread these truths, letting the established churches carry the message of truth to all the people in a similar manner as had been done a half century earlier by William Miller. He reasoned that if he could convince the ministers that there had been a digression from the Bible’s teachings in the past and that now the Bible could be more clearly understood, then these ministers could use their influence to convince their colleagues nationwide and worldwide, spreading the message through their pulpits to the people. It was a remarkable meeting. About one third of the invited ministers attended, but none agreed with the concepts Russell presented.
He presented the scriptural reasons for believing that the Lord had returned and was in the process of establishing his kingdom to bless and uplift the world of mankind through restitution processes, which were already underway. Among the first of these blessings was the revealing of truths respecting the time period that man was entering into, the seventh millennium.
These truths, however, held certain problems for the assembled ministers. The teaching of a future probation for the masses of humanity did not square with their understanding of the immortal soul and the fear of eternal torture in hell. Future probation would remove this powerful rule by fear. The restitution concept of the Lord’s return could mark them as liars in the eyes of their parishioners on these and other subjects. Also it challenged their view on judgment, for they anticipated a judgment day of twenty-four hours, not a thousand years.
In addition, Charles Russell was not a Trinitarian. This shut him out from further consideration. The Evangelical Alliance of 1846 had made acceptance of the Trinity one of the “essential” doctrines for membership. From the very beginning the Trinity was not taught in either the Watch Tower or in Nelson Barbour’s Herald of the Morning.
Later ministers were to imply Charles Russell was a businessman for whom there was no room in professional religion. Even today we hear people say, “I believe this because my minister told me. He went to school to learn all about the Bible while I went to school to major in another profession. He doesn’t question my professional judgment, and I won’t question his.” In a similar manner the ministers were suggesting that Russell keep his mind on sales figures and other business work and leave the Bible and religion to them.
Whatever their reasons, they rejected the message presented that night in Allegheny. The Pastor realized that this was not the way the Lord wanted the work to go forth. He concluded that the Lord did not want the new wine of Bible truth served through the old wineskins of ecclesiasticism. There must be another way of getting the truth to the listening ears of the saints in the churches.
Pastor Russell decided to give up his earthly business interests and to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the work of ministering to the saints. During the second half of 1878 and the first half of 1879 he became more active in the work of writing for The Herald of the Morning.
A controversy soon sprang up concerning the change to heavenly glory of the saints. Russell and Barbour agreed that the resurrection of the dead saints was due to occur in 1878 but disagreed as to whether to expect a rapture of the saints living at that time. Russell presented the thought that the dead (or sleeping) saints would be raised in 1878 and that the living ones would be changed instantaneously as they died, no longer sleeping in death. Barbour believed there would be a simultaneous rapture.
Difficulties arose in the working relationship of these two as Nelson Barbour began inserting his “corrections” as editorial comments in Pastor Russell’s articles. As co-editor, Russell felt that he had a right to have his comments free of insertions from Barbour, all the more so since he was paying the bills, even offering two-month free subscriptions for the magazine to all interested. The breaking point came when Russell became convinced that Barbour was denying the efficacy of Jesus’ blood, thus invalidating the concept of the ransom.
And so it was in the early part of 1879 that Pastor Russell decided to withdraw his financial and editorial support from The Herald of the Morning and formed The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, publishing, as its journal, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence.