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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Twenty-Five


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 26, 2015)

Charles Taze Russell, International Bible Students, and Jehovah's Christian Witnesses

Charles Taze Russell (February 16, 1852 - October 31, 1916) was a deeply religious man from his earliest years. As a child he attended services at the local Presbyterian Church. At thirteen he joined a Congregational Church. By age sixteen he was a committed and dissatisfied religious seeker. He could not accept what he was being taught from the Christian pulpits. By his mid-teens he was studying Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism, but his cursory studies convinced him that these too were unsatisfactory.

At eighteen years of age Russell attended an Adventist meeting held by Jonas Wendell (1815 - 1873) and enthusiastically embraced the 1874 date for the "rapture of the Church." Russell's faith in Christianity had been restored. He delved deeply into the teachings of William Miller and his associates and like so many he was excited about the promised soon advent. In 1876 Russell read the influential Adventist writer and publisher Nelson H. Barbour's (1824-1908) Herald of the Morning and believed he had finally found true Christianity. His restored faith convinced him that in 1878 Jesus would return and rapture his true Church away from the earth, and conduct a thousand year global devastation in preparation for the coming Messianic kingdom (the Adventist doctrine on the thousand years following Armageddon is different from most Christian interpretations and less makes less sense in my opinion). Like so many others, Russell sold all of his belongings and donated the money to Barbour to help spread the word. He was now a committed Adventist.

That same year Russell began to write. His first published work seems to have been The Object and Manner of our Lord's Return. Inspired by Adventist prophecy Russell became dedicated to its promulgation. He was a missionary at heart.

In time Russell and Barbour parted ways both physically and spiritually. Russell stopped supporting Barbour and began publishing his own teachings under the title Studies in the Scriptures (SiS). Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence was first issued in July of 1879 (note 26). Russell continued his ministry and Barbour formed "The Church of the Strangers" that same year. Barbour continued to publish the Herald of the Morning.

Based on his own studies of Daniel 9 and other texts Russell's unique Arian doctrines found followers from within the Adventist movement and beyond. His initial views centered around the Adventist (Millerite) belief that the world ("the present evil system of things") was destined to end, but on or around October 1, 1914. He offered support for this belief with Milleresque interpretations of the Bible and his own mystical analysis of the Great Pyramid of Giza. He believe that the mysteries of the universe had been hidden in the pyramids of Egypt.

In 1881 Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society was founded as the vehicle for Russell's teachings and in 1884 the organization was legally chartered. There were now hundreds of "Russellites" spreading his teachings and Russell came to be known as "the Pastor."

As his fame spread the Pastor began receiving global recognition, accolades... and of course condemnation. His critics complained that much of what he was teaching was heretical. Chief among these was his belief in Arianism, the denial of Jesus' divinity (one of the things he had gotten right!). Not only was Jesus not to be accepted as the Third Person of a Trinity, Russell was teaching that he was not God at all, and that in fact he was the physical manifestation of the archangel Michael! While many Millerites believed this, most Americans did know it. Because of Russell's denial of the Trinity and his belief in Jesus as Michael, his detractors had ammo to use in their battle again him. To his credit, the Pastor never wavered in his beliefs.

Major events did happen in 1914, not the least of which was the onset of the First World War, but when 1914 passed without the Advent occurring, a viable answer was needed.

The WatchTower Society explained that Jesus had indeed returned to the earth in 1914 as foretold! His Advent had just been invisible (BF 457,458). While the SDA still had Jesus secluded in Heaven, the Witnesses had him on earth, living invisibly in a New York sky scrapper!

In a move all too reminiscent of the SDA's investigative judgment justification, the Watch Tower Society claimed that on the way to Earth Jesus had been forced to battle Satan. Good news though, Jesus had won and bound Satan to the earth lest he escape God's wrath (based on Luke 10:18). The bad news was that the battle between Jesus and Satan had been so intense that it had caused the First World War! "Obviously" the Watchtower Society (i.e. the true Jews) had triumphed; the War to End all Wars marked the event.

The Last days had now formally begun. The still invisible Jesus was now living in the Watch Tower headquarters awaiting the time set by God for Armageddon.

According to Zion's Watchtower, Jesus had indeed returned to the earth in 1914 just as the Pastor said. He had merely done so invisibly so as to prepare for his work of global restoration. Russell's end time followers, composed of 144,000 'faithful and discrete servants', were granted additional time to preach his message "unto the ends of the earth" (Matthew 24:14). All the wars, natural disasters and bloodshed that have occurred since 1914 are those prophesied by the Bible in Matthew 24 and elsewhere. Russell's prophecy and the explanation of its apparent failure may seem far fetched at first, but when you consider his sources and rationale, coupled with the apocalyptic excitement of the day, it is understandable how millions of people, including the mother of Dwight D. Eisenhower, came to accept his predictions and interpretations and to commit their lives to their promulgation.

Pastor Russell died on October 31, 1916 aboard a train from apparently natural causes. In January 1917, Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford became the new leader of the WatchTower Society. Almost at once, Judge Rutherford began altering Russell's teachings and major controversies arose within the Society. Among the teachings the Judge rejected was Russell's use of Pyramidology (note 27). As early as 1918 there were dissenting voices being heard within the Society. Soon around 3/4 of the congregations had rejected the Judge's reforms, but he held firm as the anointed leader of the sect.

The Judge's rejection of Russell's personal role in the restoration of "the Truth" in February 1927, and his rejection of the Great Pyramid beliefs in November 1928, resulted in an irreparable split within the group. In 1931 the Bible Students who remained loyal to the Judge's reforms adopted a new name: Jehovah's Christian Witnesses. Soon they changed the name of their society to the International Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (International Bible Students Association of Jehovah's Christian Witnesses) (W). The Judge changed the congregational structure from independent study halls of autocephalic communities to a highly structured hierarchy run by Society appointed elders. These elders were pronounced to the "faithful and discrete servant class" of which he, as president, was head.

Unlike the SDA neither Russell nor Rutherford were viewed as prophets. Revelation was found in the research of the faithful and discrete servant class. This remains the case still.

While there are still some Russellite Bible Students groups such as the Dawn Bible Students Association, the organization restructured by Judge Rutherford remains the primary successor of Charles Taze Russell.

While there were differences, like Samuel S. Snow, Ellen White and others, Russell was essentially a Millerite Adventist who carried the teachings in a new yet logical direction.

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