One Hundred years ago on October 31, 1916, newspaper headlines shocked the nation. A world-renowned Christian minister died “in the harness” serving the Lord Jesus on a transcontinental speaking tour. To thousands of congregations around the world he was a beloved Pastor. Tens of thousands of individuals were encouraged by hearing his hope-inspiring lectures. Hundreds of thousands were greeted by his distinguished image as they weekly opened their local newspapers to read his faith-inspiring sermons. In the last three years of his life, “some eight million people” saw and heard this dynamic speaker on film as Pastor Russell introduced his epic multi-media The Photodrama Of Creation, with a color motion picture. It was the crowning feature of his outreach ministry. Of course, it broke all records in attendance and technology. Never before had sound and color been incorporated into motion picture presentations.
Yes, one hundred years have past since October 31, 1916, when Pastor Russell died. An era of excellence in the communication of faith and hope came to an end. He served the LORD as a Pastor of Excellence till his last breath. But some will ask—wasn’t Pastor Russell the founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses? No! Nothing could be further from the truth. He preached an opportunity of life for all—even after the LORD gathers all nations to Armageddon. (Zephaniah 3:8, 9)
What did C.T. Russell accomplish?
Just how popular was Pastor Russell? The Overland Monthly, a noted periodical of his era, reported in 1909 that Studies In The Scriptures, by Charles Taze Russell, was one of the world’s three most widely circulated works, surpassed only by the Bible and The Chinese Almanac.
Significantly, The Continent, a publication whose editor often opposed Pastor Russell, once published the following statement concerning him: “His writings are said to have a greater newspaper circulation every week than those of any other living man—greater, doubtless, than the combined circulation of the writings of all the priests and preachers in North America.”
George Swetnam, the official historian for the Pittsburgh Bicentennial in 1958-1959 wrote, “Pastor Russell traveled constantly, covering more than a million miles, delivering more than 30,000 sermons, lectures and talks, writing books totaling over 50,000 pages which have reached a circulation of more than 20,000,000 copies…his influence has easily been the widest of any man whoever lived in the city [Pittsburgh], not even excepting Andrew Carnegie.” (Swetnam, George, Where Else But Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh: Davis and Warde, Inc., 1958, p. 110)
The London Graphic (April 8,1911) described Pastor Russell as follows: “The advent of Pastor Russell brings to this city and country a man of international reputation, who is known almost as well in Great Britain as he is in America…who is reputed to be the most popular preacher in America….”
And, finally, the Christian Globe (May 5, 1910) of London, stated, “Since the days of Henry Ward Beecher and Dr. Talmage, no preacher has occupied so prominent a position in the United States as Pastor Russell of Brooklyn Tabernacle holds today.”
The full impact of Pastor Russell’s ministry can only be understood against the context of church history.
An Overview of Christian History
Life for the Christian minority in the second century was brutally cruel. The pagan religious leaders and civil leaders demanded allegiance to their multiple gods. By the third century many Christian leaders felt a need to compromise Christian doctrine to make Christianity more acceptable to the rulers of the Roman Empire. For starters, they embraced Plato’s “immortality of the soul,” and also met the urgent need to include multiple gods. The “trinity” soon became a hallmark of Christian doctrine. Then Christianity seemingly succeeded beyond its most extravagant hopes, when in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine declared freedom of religion in the Edict of Milan, A.D. 313. It did not matter that he did this for his own political reasons. Christianity eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire in A.D. 380 under the Emperor Theodosius. Through the following centuries the church’s “inglorious” reign over the nations was written in blood. Historians called it the “Dark Ages.”
The worldly church persecuted any and all who rejected its claims—with the amazing cooperation of civil governments. Millions who were consigned to eternal damnation were tortured in this life because their heresies supposedly justified that treatment. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century helped but a little. Luther’s rejection of the doctrine of the “immortality of the soul” was quickly forgotten. Soon the Protestant churches found it expedient to retain much of the “Dark Age” dogmas—especially the trinity and eternal damnation for all who rejected their gospel.
Instead of inspiring greater faith, a tidal wave of infidelity swept over the Christian world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Finally, modernist theology was born. The only response permitted within the precincts of conservatism was to blindly defend the old creeds of the “Dark Ages.” Something had to be done. Where was the “good news” of the “Gospel”? Brighter light, real hope, based on the Scriptures was desperately needed.
Pastor Russell and the Bible Students
In 1870 at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a Bible class was formed for systematic Bible study. Soon they selected Charles Taze Russell as their Pastor. At that time other earnest Christians were also forming independent Bible classes for in-depth Bible study.
Pastor Russell became a leader of thought and activity among these congregations. In 1879 Zion’s Watch Tower was formed—later (1881) known as the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (not to be mistaken as “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the 1931 Watchtower organization). But, Pastor Russell’s Watch Tower Society did not become a dictatorial central authority of the Bible Student movement. It could not. Why? Because all cooperating congregations of Bible Students held strictly to the Scriptural, congregational, concept of self-government. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was basically a publishing house.
Pastor Russell never claimed to originate Bible truths, but rather to recover from the Bible key truths held by the First Century church. He succeeded more than any other person, but not without controversy. Wearied with the “Dark Age” theories of Christendom, he inspired hope and faith in the hearts of the masses. Like faithful believers of the past who followed closely the teachings of Jesus, multitudes clamored to hear his truly “Good News” sermons. He taught that the Bible is its own interpreter—that the Scriptures are the basis of our beliefs—not the traditions of men, councils or synods.
Why do some ministers today use the same old worn out vilifications that “doom and gloom” ministers in Russell’s day used in desperation? Was it jealousy? The people clamored to hear Russell and demanded that the newspapers carry his sermons. Clergy opposition lamented that Pastor Russell’s writings had a “greater newspaper circulation every week…than the combined circulation of all the priests and preachers of North America.” Why? Because Pastor Russell’s message gave sound scriptural hope by contrast with the message of those “doomsday preachers.”
Every Jew, Hindu, Moslem—and even Christians who do not accept the self-acclaimed Christian “orthodox” brand of teaching before their death, are all damned to an eternity of torment. These preachers of “doom” (both in Russell’s day and today) hold in contempt the Gospel of love taught by Pastor Russell and the Bible Students he instructed. Calvinists especially cringed under in the sunlight of this love found in God’s Grand Plan of the Ages. No wonder—they taught that the vast majority of humanity was eternally damned to torture even before they were born! Unable to meet Russell’s scriptural logic, many resorted to personal attacks on him. All these attacks have been refuted.
Not the Founder of “Jehovah’s Witnesses”
After the death of Pastor Russell in 1916, Joseph Rutherford,(a man whom Pastor Russell had recently dismissed from his staff} rapidly returned to Brooklyn from California to seize control of the Watch Tower, dismissed the majority of the Board of Directors and established dictatorial control. The writings of Pastor Russell were soon to be discarded. The Watch Tower under Rutherford became the central headquarters, holding authority over all congregations willing to yield their sovereignty. Basic doctrines of the society seriously digressed from the teachings of Pastor Russell. The methods of conducting the evangelistic work were altered. The more sensational digressions such as refusing blood transfusions and refusal to salute the flag quickly caught the public’s eye.
However, many individuals and congregations refused to surrender their Christian liberty or accept the new teachings. As early as 1917 the exodus from the newly declared sovereign headquarters began. By 1931 over three quarters of those associated with the Bible Student movement in Pastor Russell’s day had separated from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and formed independent and autonomous congregations. Today’s Bible Students trace back their roots through these separatists to Pastor Russell and his teachings.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Founded in 1931
In 1931, fifteen years after Pastor Russell’s death, Jehovah’s Witnesses was founded. Its founder, Joseph Rutherford, presented a startling resolution entitled, “A New Name,” that was adopted at its international convention on July 26, 1931. The resolution first observed that neither “Russellites” nor “Bible Students” were any longer appropriate names. (This claim was ironically true, because over 75% of Bible Students from Pastor Russell’s era had already separated.) Henceforth, they would call themselves “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Joseph Rutherford—NOT Pastor Russell —founded Jehovah’s Witnesses. Pastor Russell died in 1916. Jehovah’s Witnesses was founded in 1931. Rutherford:
- rejected Russell’s key teachings;
- purged Russell’s Bible Students;
- rejected the name Bible Students and
- created the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Pastor Russell as an early Christian Zionist understood and taught from the Scriptures that the scattering and regathering of Israel were prophesied by Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Ironically, Israel, the Jewish people, are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why? Because God called them His Witnesses. (Isaiah 43:1-15)
Pastor Russell v. the so-called “Jehovah’s Witnesses”
The main teaching of Pastor Russell was that Jesus died a “ransom for all.” (1 Timothy 2:5, 6) Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus died only for some. Pastor Russell taught a future probation because millions have died without hearing the Gospel. Even among many who hear it, uncertainty and confusion exist. (John 5:28-29; Acts 15:14-17; Revelation 22:17) Sadly, Jehovah’s Witnesses, like all fundamentalists, believe that if you reject their brand of the Gospel, you are lost eternally.
Pastor Russell believed Bible prophecy, and zealously taught that the Jewish people would be regathered to the promised land. Reality is that the State of Israel has been reborn. (Jeremiah 31:4-12; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Matthew 24:32) “Jehovah’s Witnesses” teach that the regathering of the Jews and the rebirth of Israel is completely unrelated to Bible prophecy.
Clearly and finally, it should be understood that Pastor Russell did not found “Jehovah’s Witnesses” who reject his basic teachings of the “Ransom for ALL. “Charles Taze Russell is respected by Bible Students as their Pastor. Bible Students today, as in Pastor Russell’s day, affirm those teachings on the Scriptures that portray a Gospel of love, wisdom, justice and power in God’s Plan of the Ages.