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
In the latter part of the nineteenth century the religious movement known today as the Bible Students had its beginning. It was both a 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 practices and reestablished 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 Bible 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 become separated from the larger, established bodies and were in agreement on these 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 as a gift of God conditional upon faithfulness, not inherent in the soul … The dead sleeping peacefully until 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 exalt the church and to set up God’s kingdom on earth.
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 traditional beliefs of evangelical Protestants and to promote interdenominational unity. As such it is recognized as the early forerunner of the modern ecumenical movement. Among 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 (exclusive to their own group).
Thus some of the very doctrines that 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 the large groups of “nominal” Christians shackled in Dark Age creedal misconceptions and separate them from the little handful which had been “cleansed” of these errors. And so, as the nineteenth century progressed beyond the midway mark, the stage was set for some unique additional developments on the religious scene.
The birth of the Bible Student movement may be traced to the year 1876 when Charles Russell, a successful young businessman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was elected pastor of a small Bible study group that had been meeting in the north side of that city (then called Allegheny). Having been disenchanted with many of the orthodox teachings of the larger churches, especially the belief 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, though 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 youth it seemed most unlikely that Charles Russell would develop such an intense interest in the Bible or pursue the Christian ministry as his main focus. Although born in 1852 of Christian parents and brought up in the Presbyterian Church, and later joining theY.M.C.A. and the Congregational Church, he was unable to defend the catechism, 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.
Pastor 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 subsequently 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 (editor of The Bible Examiner) had played in uncovering the broad outlines of God’s plan of salvation and, equally important, in unlearning certain long-cherished erroneous views that had veiled its full appreciation.
Among the beliefs that were 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 (in 1877) entitled “The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return”; it had an initial printing of 50,000. The treatise 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 had been 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. Because all hope of future life and blessings of restitution in the kingdom were seen to depend upon it, the Ransom became the core doctrine of the movement.
Early in his ministry the Pastor’s attention was drawn to a Bible chronology first introduced by Rev. Christopher Bowen of England (about 1830), which indicated that the first six thousand years of man’s history would terminate in the year 1872. This realization, 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 (heavenly and earthly), the return of Christ, and the nearness of the kingdom. In harmony with the prophecies of Daniel 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 scriptural light and to clearer insights into the divine plan of the ages.
Consolidating the Work
As Pastor Russell 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 reissuance of Herald of the Morning, a former Adventist-oriented publication, in a cooperative effort with other early associates in the work (Nelson Barbour, J. H. Paton and others). It was followed in 1879 by an entirely new publication, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, issued from Pittsburgh with an initial printing of six thousand copies. Pastor Russell himself became editor, with five others originally listed as regular contributors. For almost forty years the journal was a mainstay of the movement and was received eagerly by Bible students everywhere, reaching a peak subscription of about fifty thousand 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 making progress in the way. These touched on vital areas, such as the ransom sacrifice, the atonement, the sin offering, the three 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, Pastor Russell 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 thirty 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. The purpose was not to establish another denomination but to provide for voluntary association of Bible believers, unfettered by imposed creeds.
In later years this procedure of encouraging and serving the brethren at large became characteristic of Pastor Russell’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 twelve hundred such Bible classes worldwide.) They appreciated his doctrine, his exemplary manner of life, and his warm, kind personality. In traveling constantly as a public lecturer and regularly serving these many classes, Pastor Russell later came to be known as the “ubiquitous (widely-traveled, omni-present) preacher,” a phrase coined by the London Press, which also said that he “had the world for his congregation.”
One of his earliest substantial works was a comprehensive 64-page 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 nominally Christian 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 Zion’s Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society which thereupon specialized in the distribution of books and tract materials to further the work of the movement.
In 1881 the Society put out a call for Christian laborers, termed “colporteurs,” to offerWatch Tower subscriptions and distribute various tracts. By 1886 their number had grown to some three hundred workers, mostly part-time, and had become an integral part of the ministry. Pastor Russell 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 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 changed to 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 reached the phenomenal circulation of about 4.3 million in Pastor Russell’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. The enthusiasts ranged from farmers to businessmen, from prisoners to pastors, and from conscientious objectors to military generals. Despite heavy demands, such as 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 high 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 Towermagazine passed ten thousand, regular conventions were scheduled to build up the brethren spiritually. In 1893 the first national convention was held in Chicago for five days with an attendance of three hundred sixty. There were prayer meetings, discourses (an hour and a half in length), sessions devoted to answering questions, and an immersion service in which seventy 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 twenty regional gatherings of three days or more in 1909. These usually included special meetings for the public, which swelled the attendance even more, reaching a thousand in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 1906, two thousand in Niagara Falls in 1907, and over three thousand in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., in 1912. Outside the United States a convention in Toronto, Ontario, in 1903 drew eight hundred brethren and over a thousand public; Kingston, Jamaica, in 1905 peaked at eight hundred; London, in 1907, about five hundred fifty; and Glasgow, Scotland, in 1908 numbered about eight hundred.
In 1894 another program was initiated to strengthen the movement. Twenty mature associates were sent out on weekends from Pittsburgh to visit nearby congregations, both to edify the brethren and to conduct public meetings. This developed later into a full-time activity known as the “pilgrim work.” It proved a valuable asset to maintaining contact with the growing number of classes and to help 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 twenty-five in 1905, and to nearly ninety in 1916.
Growing Public Awareness
Beginning in 1891, due to the growing interest in Europe, Pastor Russell made his first trip abroad. For two months he and his party toured Ireland, Scotland, Continental 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 overseas trips culminated in 1911-1912 with a 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 established 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 Pastor Russell’s weekly sermons in newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Europe. These appeared regularly in over two thousand newspapers with a combined circulation of over fifteen million.
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 many of 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 scriptural arguments advanced by Pastor Russell, resulting in continued loss of membership in many 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 has 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 were the return of God’s favor to the Jews and their regathering back to Palestine, the land of promise, from all the countries in which they had been scattered. 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 the four thousand at the Hippodrome in New York City in 1910.
The year 1914 figured prominently in Bible Student prophetic expectations and carried with it some disappointment and grief. That year was thought to mark not only the turning point of God’s dealings with the nations (the ending of the “Times of the Gentiles” prophecy), but the completion of the church and inauguration of the kingdom as well. Though these latter expectations did not come to pass, they stimulated an intensive worldwide preaching effort beginning 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 clarifying a basic teaching of Scripture and exposing false doctrines of “orthodox” religion. Also a “class extension” activity opened up in 1911 that was directed specially toward the public. In that year alone over twelve thousand public and semi-public lectures were given, mostly by a group of fifty-eight qualified speakers.
The climax of these energetic 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, and consisted of hand-colored slides and moving pictures synchronized with phonograph records of voice and music. The showings were put on without charging admission (“Seats Free—No Collection”), 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 people in major cities at home and abroad, from 1914 to 1916.
Evaluation and Legacy of the Early Days
When Pastor Russell died in 1916 at the age of 64, it brought great sadness to the Bible Students. No doubt his great dedication to the work and the stress of ceaseless labors without adequate rest contributed to his 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 Christian sources rather than as the discoverer. 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 Matthew 24:45 and was given a charge over the household of faith to serve 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 (Revelation 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 “mainstream” beliefs. The Creator, instead of being cast as a wrathful and vindictive God, was portrayed as loving, wise, just, and powerful, deeply interested in humanity and its eternal salvation. The church, rather than basking in heavenly bliss in mansions of gold, was pictured as being destined to reign with Christ to bless the remainder of mankind. The masses of humanity were seen, not as predestinated for torment, but as being given a full and fair opportunity for everlasting life upon earth in the Millennial Kingdom. The incorrigible, after an adequate trial period, would eventually be destroyed by second death, and none would suffer everlasting torture.
The Dark Age dogmas of immortality of the soul, hell fire, and Trinity, were exposed as pagan concepts without biblical authority. There was a new emphasis upon the biblical end times that called for not doom and supernatural destruction, but an expectation of grand prophetic fulfillments. These spoke of a new day that had dawned in earth’s history and heralded Christ’s invisible presence, 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 all 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 by a successive series of secular philosophies. A worldwide witness was given, the work of gathering the wheat almost completed, and the hearts of faithful believers greatly refreshed. Many are convinced that the Pastor’s ministry represented a 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” (Matthew 24:14).