Modern History of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Part 1—Early Voices (1870-1878)
“SO, THEN, because we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also put off every weight and the sin that easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, as we look intently at the leader and perfecter of our faith, Jesus.” (Heb. 12:1, 2, NW) The writer of that advice was not referring to eyewitnesses of his own running the race as a Christian but was referring to witnesses whom he describes, many of them by name, in his preceding chapter, men and women all the way back to Abel who lived before Jesus finished his earthly ministry and who “had witness borne to them through their faith” that they pleased Jehovah God. (Heb. 11:1-40, NW) They were witnesses of Jehovah the same as Jesus was on earth. (Rev. 1:5; 3:14) In the Bible we have an authentic history of those ancient witnesses, written by some of these witnesses of Jehovah themselves, and all together those writers mention God’s name Jehovah 6,823 or more times.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures, from Matthew to Revelation, we have a history of the Christian witnesses of Jehovah during Jesus and his apostles’ days, written by inspired disciples of his. Since then over eighteen centuries have passed, and in recent years Jehovah’s Christian witnesses have again come to the fore, becoming a subject of much inquiry and controversy. Many have wondered how Jehovah’s witnesses came into existence. Multitudes have gone to accusers and attackers, thinking to get unprejudiced, undistorted information about the modern witnesses of the Most High God. That authentic information may be made available to all for general enlightenment and for the correcting of many who have been misled by antagonistic would-be informers we begin here a series of articles on a “Modern History of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
EARLY HAPPENINGS (1870-1878)
Gradually ‘called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light!’ That briefly describes the modern history of Jehovah’s witnesses as they advanced out of the darkness of Babylonish religious thinking toward increased restorations of new Bible truths. (1 Pet. 2:9, NW) The long night of spiritual darkness out of which these Christian witnesses came had existed from the early part of the second century following the death of Christ’s apostles right up to the latter half of the nineteenth century. Early Christianity with its brilliance of right doctrine and cleanness of theocratic organization began to be eclipsed after the year 100 by a creeping spiritual darkness of Babylonish religious teachings, Grecian and Roman pagan philosophies and rank apostasy. Satan the Devil, ever active to defeat the true worship of Jehovah God, had produced apostate, false shepherds, “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” eventually to bring about desolation to the once spiritually flourishing Christian congregation. In spite of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, which really effected no restoration of true worship, the pall of darkness continued over the minds of misled Christians until the time came for Jehovah to send forth his Liberator, the Greater Cyrus, Jesus Christ, to deliver the true Christian witnesses from their Babylonish bondage.
While their complete release from Babylonish captivity did not come until A.D. 1919, prior thereto for a period of nearly fifty years the witnesses experienced a gradual awakening to prepare them for their hour of liberation as a New World people. This proved to be similar to the case of the natural Jews in captivity to ancient Babylon, where Daniel and many others of Jehovah’s faithful witnesses were aroused to wakefulness years before, to be ready for the restoration of true worship in Jerusalem when it came at last in 537 B.C. So, too, with Jehovah’s witnesses in these modern times, a stir to spiritual wakefulness became apparent from the 1870’s forward.
As to the old-world background and setting for the re-entry of Jehovah’s witnesses on the world scene, the period from 1870 to 1900 proved to be destiny-shaping years for this “atomic-age” twentieth century. Forces political, religious and commercial began to maneuver for position to control the incoming new scientific era. Men and organizations were filled with forebodings as to the weird fast-moving days of the future, which some even visioned correctly as being cataclysmic. At the Vatican Council of 1869-70 the Roman Catholic cult sought to strengthen its organization for the immediate future by declaring its autocratic head, the pope, infallible. The leading Protestant religious organizations became spiritually unprogressive in their ways. Their clergy sought to consolidate their power over the laity. This clerical assumption of greater authority over their flocks meant a backward step from freedom of Christian thought and worship on the part of the masses of professed Christians. Infidelity, higher criticism, evolution, spiritism, atheism and communism began to invade and decimate the great world religious organizations Many of the evangelical churches began to “modernize” their false religious doctrines, not according to restored Bible truths, but according to theories of higher criticism and evolution. The paganized modernist form of theology inundated the churches.
Politically great forces were stirring. The United States of America was just recovering from its Civil War (1861-1865) to regain its strength rapidly for phenomenal expansion into a great world power. Germany had won the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, to be further built up into a powerful European colossus. Britain was passing through golden years of her Victorian era, sparring for future bids of world control. Industrially, the United States, Britain, France and large portions of Europe were undergoing a revolution in consequence of the invention of the steam engine. The industrial revolution was augmented, as the years progressed, by the discovery of electricity, invention of the telephone, the motorcar and the dozens of other “miracles” of this new atomic-destined civilization. Commercialism likewise rose to new heights as a consequence of the industrialization of leading nations and the creation of new “gold mine” business enterprises. Labor unionism also came to the fore to become an antagonist of advancing capitalism. All this meant a wave of materialism, moneymaking and pleasure-seeking. The invisible demonic powers of this old world produced glittering snares of new enticements to blind the peoples to the incoming higher and finer values of restored Christian truth.
Amid these rumblings of industrial, commercial, social and religious changes early voices of small religious groups were heard in their efforts to read the signs of the times and predict the imminent second coming of Jesus, Jehovah’s Christ. Various adventist groups were busy in the United States and Europe, proclaiming a visible return of Christ for 1873 or 1874, even though the American founder of their movement, William Miller, had acknowledged his error and disappointment as to the former set dates of 1843 and 1844. Earlier, the German Lutheran theologian Bengel (1687-1751) had fixed upon 1836 as the marked date for the beginning of the millennium of Revelation 20:6. In Scotland and England others, commonly known as “Irvingites,” raised their voices to announce 1835, 1838, 1864 and finally 1866 for Christ’s return. Christian writers such as Elliott and Cumming looked for the end in 1866, Brewer and Decker predicted 1867 and Seiss favored 1870. In Russia, Claas Epp, a leader of the Mennonite Brethren (Bruedergemeinde), and his associate fixed upon the date of 1889 for a great cosmic happening.a But all these widely proclaimed predictions came to complete disappointment because they were not based on accurate Biblical knowledge of Jehovah’s prophecies. Christ’s return was destined to be, not a physical manifestation as they had assumed, but rather, as the Scriptures now clearly indicate, an invisible presence of glory and power to provoke the greatest crisis ever experienced by man on earth.
Still other voices were heard, but these began to proclaim an impending invisible return of the Messiah. One of these groups was led by George Storrs of Brooklyn, New York. He and his associates after 1870 published a magazine entitled The Bible Examiner, setting forth their views that Christ’s return would be an invisible one. Another group headed by H. B. Rice of Oakland, California, published a magazine called The Last Trump, heralding an invisible return as occurring in the 1870’s. A third group comes to our attention, this time of disappointed Second Adventists who forsook that movement because of the failure of the Lord to return in 1873 as the Adventists had further predicted. This group was led by N. H. Barbour. They radiated their activities from Rochester, New York, performing a preaching service by sending out speakers to whatever churches would open their doors to them. They also published a monthly, The Herald of the Morning. One of this group came into possession of B. Wilson’s Diaglott translation of the “New Testament,” noticing in it that, at Matthew 24:27, 37, 39, the word the King James Version rendered coming is translated presence. This was the clue that led this group to advocate an invisible presence of Christ, claiming it began in the fall of 1874.b
Yet a fourth voice of proclaimers of an invisible presence of Christ comes to view, a group of sincere students of the Bible at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U. S. A., with its chairman, C. T. Russell. Charles Taze Russell was born in Old Allegheny (now part of Pittsburgh) February 16, 1852; he was one of three children of Joseph L. and Eliza Birney Russell.c Both parents were Presbyterians of Scottish-Irish lineage. Russell’s father operated a clothing store business. His mother died when he was only nine years old. While still a boy, he used to write Bible texts with chalk on the sidewalks, and although brought up a Presbyterian, he joined the neighborhood Congregational church, because it was more liberal. At fifteen years of age Russell was in partnership with his father in a growing chain of men’s clothing stores. But while things went well for young Russell in business, he was troubled in mind. The doctrines of predestination and eternal punishment gave him particular difficulty, and by the time he was seventeen he had become an avowed skeptic, discarding the Bible and the creeds of the churches.
During the next few months Russell continued to reflect over the subject of religion, unable to accept it, and yet unwilling to let it go. Finally one day in 1870 he dropped into a dusty, dingy little basement hall near his Federal Street store—
“to see if the handful who met there had anything more sensible to offer than the creeds of the great churches. There, for the first time, I heard something of the views of Second Adventists, the preacher being Mr. Jonas Wendell . . . Though his Scripture-exposition was not entirely clear, and though it was very far from what we now rejoice in, it was sufficient, under God, to re-establish my wavering faith in the divine inspiration of the Bible, and to show that the records of the apostles and prophets are indissolubly linked.”d
Shortly after this Russell and about five others began to meet together regularly from 1870 to 1875 to make a systematic study of the Bible. Note the following description of the change-over of thinking that was the fruitage of these five years of joint Bible study.
“[We] soon began to see that we were living somewhere near the close of the Gospel age, and near the time when the Lord had declared that the wise, watching ones of his children should come to a clear knowledge of his plan. . . . We came to see something of the love of God, how it had made provision for all mankind, how all must be awakened from the tomb in order that God’s loving plan might be testified to them, and how all who exercise faith in Christ’s redemptive work and render obedience in harmony with the knowledge of God’s will they will then receive, might then (through Christ’s merit) be brought back into full harmony with God, and be granted everlasting life. . . . We came to recognize the difference between our Lord as ‘the man who gave himself,’ and as the Lord who would come again, a spirit being. We saw that spirit-beings can be present, and yet invisible to men. . . . We felt greatly grieved at the error of Second Adventists who were expecting Christ in the flesh, and teaching that the world and all in it except Second Adventists would be burned up in 1873 or 1874, whose time-settings and disappointments and crude ideas generally of the object and manner of his coming brought more or less reproach upon us and upon all who longed for and proclaimed his coming Kingdom. These wrong views so generally held of both the object and manner of the Lord’s return led me to write a pamphlet—The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return, of which some 50,000 copies were published.”e
In January, 1876, Charles Russell for the first time received a copy of the monthly magazine The Herald of the Morning as published by the Rochester group headed by Nelson H. Barbour. A meeting was soon arranged between Russell and Barbour, since it was discovered that their views were the same concerning Christ’s second coming as being invisible. As a result the Pittsburgh Bible group of nearly thirty decided to affiliate with the Rochester group slightly larger in number. Russell became a joint editor along with Barbour for The Herald of the Morning. The Pittsburgh group on Russell’s initiative agreed to finance a small printing place in Rochester for the joint printing undertakings. It was also decided to publish a bound book containing their joint views, the work being completed by 1877. The 194-page publication was entitled “Three Worlds or Plan of Redemption,” by Barbour and Russell as joint authors. During this time Russell at the age of twenty-five began to sell out his business interests and went full time into the preaching work, going from city to city to talk to various gatherings of the public, on the streets and, Sundays, in Protestant churches, where he could arrange such with the clergy.
This book set forth their belief that Christ’s second presence began invisibly in the fall of 1874 and thereby commenced a forty-year harvest period. Then, remarkably accurately, they set forth the year 1914 as the end of the Gentile times.—Luke 21:24.
“Hence, it was in B.C. 606, that God’s kingdom ended, the diadem was removed, and all the earth given up to the Gentiles. 2520 years from B.C. 606 will end in A.D. 1914, or forty years from 1874; and this forty years upon which we have now entered is to be such ‘a time of trouble as never was since there was a nation.’ And during this forty years, the kingdom of God is to be set up (but not in the flesh, ‘the natural first and afterwards the spiritual’), the Jews are to be restored, the Gentile kingdoms broken in pieces ‘like a potter’s vessel,’ and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ, and the judgment age introduced.”—Three Worlds or Plan of Redemption, pp. 83, 189.f
After two years of affiliation a testing occurred that brought about a parting of the ways. In 1878 Barbour began to fall victim to higher criticism. He published an article in the Herald—
“denying that the death of Christ was the ransom price . . . saying that Christ’s death was no more a settlement of the penalty of man’s sins than would the sticking of a pin through the body of a fly and causing it suffering and death be considered by an earthly parent as a just settlement for misdemeanor in his child.”g
This plain denial of basic Bible doctrine amazed the Pittsburgh group and Russell. Months of argument ensued in publishing articles in the Herald pro and con on the ransom issue. Finally the Pittsburgh Bible group withdrew association from the Barbour group to undertake a separate Bible publishing work. Many of the Rochester group sided in with Russell and his associates on the ransom issue and they too came over to the Pittsburgh association. This parting proved fatal to the Rochester group, for within a few years the Herald ceased to be published and nothing more has been heard from this early voice sounding the “second coming” call. In our next article we shall see who of these many early voices finally received the go-ahead signal from Jehovah to represent him as His witnesses for future ministerial work.
a The Small Sects in America (1949 revised edition) by E. T. Clark, pp. 33, 34. Catholic Encyclopedia (1910, New York), “Irvingites.” Cyclopædia (McClintock & Strong, 1882, New York), “Millennium”; “Bengel, John Albert.”
b Zion’s Watch Tower, Extra Edition, April 25, 1894, pp. 97-99 (“Harvest Siftings”), W October-November 1881, p. 3.
c J. L. Russell died in 1897 at 84, having been a close associate of his son in the Society’s activities. W January 1, 1898, p. 4.
d Harvest Siftings, 1894, published by the Watch Tower Society, pp. 93-95.
e Ibid., pp. 95-97.
f New York Sunday World Magazine, August 30, 1914, “End of all Kingdoms in 1914”; Pittsburgh Press Sunday Magazine, August 23, 1953, “Pastor Russell”; Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, September 4, 1954, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Continue to Grow in Strength Faith.”
g Harvest Siftings, p. 104.
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Herald of the Morning
God is Love