Charles Taze Russell (February 16, 1852 – October 31, 1916) was an outstanding 20th Century Christian restorationist minister from Pittsburgh, the United States of America. Russell founded the Bible Student movement, from which Jehovah’s Witnesses and several other independent Bible Student groups sprang after his death. Russell revolutionized the conventional interpretation of the Christian Bible teachings, and his influence is still being felt. At the age of 27 he was already involved in the ministry through a monthly publication, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence (Holden, 2002). This publication was what came to be known later as The Watchtower, published by the Watch Tower and Tracts Society of Jehovah Witnesses, Brooklyn, New York. Russell’s prolific publication skills were developed sincethe age of 12 when he used to write contracts for his father’s business. During his lifetime, Russell has been credited for countless publications, books, pamphlets, track and sermons, which have been distributed across the world. His books continue to be published and distributed by a number of independent groups. Russell had a significant impact on Christian theological teaching which is still witnessed long after his death (Holden, 2002).
Russell’s Early Life
Charles Russell parents’ were Irish-Scottish immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in 1852. He had four other siblings, but was one of the two who survived to the adulthood. Russell’s family belonged to the Presbyterian faith, but later he joined the Congregation Church. His further inducted him in to the family business at the age of 12 where he used to prepare business agreements for the customers for a commission. At the age of 13 Russell’s proficiency in Bible verses was renowned. He used to scribble Bible versus in public places with an obsession for scriptures that dwelt on judgment awaiting sinners. Russell started to question the church teaching on creed, trinity, hell, the cross and other medieval teachings; which prompted him to explore other religions such as, Islam, Confucianism, and Hinduism: none provided the answer he was looking for. In his late teens Russell attended a lecture by Adventist minister, Jonas Wendell that outlined the year 1873 or 1874 to be the time for Christ return. Wendell’s presentation was a turning point for Russell, and he admitted later that it energized his believe that the Bible is God’s word (Penton, 1997).
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In 1870 Russell, his father and a group of friends decided to analyze the Bible to establish the origin of Christian doctrine and traditions. The group findings were bias to the teachings of the Adventist ministers – George Stetson and George Storr – concluded that Christian doctrines taught by the church, including hellfire, immortality of soul and the trinities were not Bible supported. Among those who shared similar views as the Russell’s group was Nelson Barbour whose teaching was based on the conviction that April 1878 would be the time of dead Christians’ resurrection. Russell all along refuted the prophetic chronology, but started to believe in the invincible return of the Christ in a time of two years (Penton, 1997). This new conviction prompted Russell to sell his five cloth stores. Russell encouraged and bankrolled Barbour who outlined their views in the Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World, which was published in 1877. A previous work by Russell was published concurrently with the Barbour’s outline. Russell was willing to lead a Christian revival and held two meetings in Pittsburgh. During these meetings the attendants rejected the idea of imminence of rapture and second coming of Christ (Penton, 1997).
When the year 1878 came and the expected rapture failed to take place, both Russell and Barbour, as well as for their followers, were greatly disappointed . This turn of events made Russell reexamine the doctrine to see if it had any biblical connection. He ended up concluding it was another belief in traditions and switched his teachings. Still embarrassed, Barbour rejected Russell’s new view, and gradually both fell off and finally split. Barbour went to the extent of denouncing some of the ideas they had shared together, including prophetic chronology. After the fall off Russell cut the financial support for Barbour publications and started his own publication, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence; first published in 1879 (Penton, 1997).
Together with William Henry Conley as the president, Russell as the secretary-treasurer founded the Zion Watch Tower Track Society. The mission of the society was to distribute tracts, papers, bibles and doctrine treaties. The publications were printed and distributed by Russell’s private-owned company, Tower Publishing Company at an agreed price, and sold by a group of people who were willing to sell or distribute the material. The society was chartered in 1884 and Russell became the President and later was changed to Watch Tower Bible and Tracts Society. (Holden, 2002).
Russell’s Theology and Teachings
Following their analysis of the bible, Charles Russell and Bible Students Society came in order to believe that Christian tradition and creeds were erroneous and harmful. They intended to restore Christianity to the apostolic era purity. Russell’s views were met with strong resistance from contemporary scholars and church leaders. Russell agreed with the Protestants on the principle of the predominance of the Bible justified by faith but still reckoned that the interpretation had mistakes. Although he agreed with many Protestants such as Millerites, he profoundly differed from the Catholics and some Protestants on several issues.
Russell maintained there was a resurrection of 144,000 virtuous humans while the “great multitude” remained dead awaiting the earthly resurrection. On trinity, he believed the holiness of Christ, although differed from the accepted view by asserting Jesus received the divinity from God the father, after the death. He taught that the Holy Spirit was a manifestation of God power. On Christ’s second coming, Russell taught that Jesus returned the invisibly in 1874 and had been reigning from the heaven since then. Russell anticipated that “Gentile Times” would come to an end in 1914 with Jesus reigning over the Earth (Holden, A. (2002). Accordingly, he believed the beginning of World War in 1914 to be the start of Armageddon; a consecutive deterioration of civilization and climatic attack on a global scale; restoration of state of Israel and worldwide lawlessness. Russell also believed in pyramidology: a belief hat the great pyramid of Giza was built by Hebrews, under the direction of God to be revealed on the present times. According to Russell, certain scriptures such as Isaiah 19:19-20, predicted the future realization of the pyramid and came to believe that various descending as well as ascending passages represented the man’s fall, death of Christ, among other biblical events (Holden, 2002). Accordingly, calculation was made on the basis of one inch per year. Through the study of this monument dates such 1878, 1914, and 1948 were alleged to be found.
Inspired by Nelson Barbour, Russell was a firm believer in Zionism, a belief that God had restored his favor for Jews through a prophetic event that ended in 1878. His presentations, as a result, attracted a large Jewish audience. He insisted that they did not need to convert to Christianity to be saved, since God’s favor was already restored for them. The land of Palestine, according to the belief, was exclusively for the Jews and the time had come for them to return home to form an earthly kingdom based in Jerusalem under reign of God. Russell predicted that Jews will return to Palestine by 1910 to form their own nation. Through Jewish publications he advocated that 1914 will mark the end of “gentiles” rule on the earth and the Jews proclamation of their land. As early as 1883, he predicted that the world climatic condition would slowly but in a remarkable way change as a herald warning to the creation of Eden-like heavenly kingdom on the earth. This teaching is still popular among Jehovah witnesses (Holden, 2002).
Russell’s Controversial Teachings
A remarkable number of Russell’s teachings were in complete departure from the Bible doctrine, and many treated him as a heretic. Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of the offshoots of the original Bible Student’s society founded by Russell are considered as a cult because they propagate most of his teachings. Some of the most notable controversial teachings include the ideal of hell as an illusion and that sinners will “sleep” in death forever rather than being resurrected to be condemned to eternal fire (Holden, 2002). The trinity doctrine was an erroneous doctrine and that Jesus’ divinity was a gift after his death. It was said that the Holy Spirit was the manifestation of power of God. According to Ron Rhodes, Russell and by extension Jehovah’s Witnesses perpetuate a believe system which fits the definition of a cult. He notes that, the teachings illustrate that the Bible is not enough; Jehovah Witnesses have numerous publications, especially The Watch Tower that is venerate to the status of the Bible (Holden, 2002). Jehovah’s Witnesses zealously read the society’s publications that form part of their ministry work. Gallagher and Ashcraft (2006) observe Jehovah’s Witness to affirm“God is no longer allowed to speak as He does in the Bible; He may now speak only as the sect deems proper. Thus, the Word of God is brought under the yoke of man. Jehovah’s Witness believes for one to discover the truth, one has to “read The Watchtower Society publication” (Gallagher & Ashcraft, 2006). That God is the Father, the Son and the Spirit are a doctrine gotten from paganism and influence by Satan. Jesus is designated the title of a god instead of God, and that his death could not cover all the sins of believers had to strive. Salvation, according to the teachings of Russell, is not entirely by God’s grace rather there is a personal responsibly to work in order to achieve the same. God’s grace according to teachings means having the opportunity to get the salvation by putting some efforts. Another view of the grace is that it is the favor given to the faithful followers of the conditions of the movement (Gallagher & Ashcraft, 2006). Mainstream Christianity on the other hand, believes God giving undeserving sinner the salvation gift through exercising faith in Christ Jesus. The teaching of the cross is said to be inspired by paganism and that Christ was tormented on a torture stake and resurrected spiritually and not physically (Penton, 1997).
Russell’s Teachings and Jehovah’s Witnesses Movement
After the death of Charles Russell in 1916, Joseph Rutherford became the president of the Watchtower Society. Under Rutherford the apocalyptic prediction continued. Shortly after Russell’s death, the society publicized that in 1925 patriarch Abraham and his son Isaac were raised from the dead, marking the beginning of Jesus’ a thousand year reign on earth (Penton, 1997). The “last day” beginning, which had failed to start in 1874, was pushed forward to 1914. After the end of 1925 and with no resurrection of Abraham and Isaac, there were renewed disappointment and fallout in the movement (Penton, 1997).
Rutherford declared that all those who became Jehovah’s Witnesses before 1935 will go to heaven as a part of the ‘little flock’ of 144,000. The remainder constitutes the great multitude that would live on earth paradise after the Armageddon. The Jehovah’s Witnesses still believe that Christ appeared invincibly in 1914, and commissioned their own translations of the bible to fit in their teachings. They have predicted the future without success, including the year 1975 as the new start of Christ’s thousand years reign where many followers sold their belongings (Penton, 1997).
Jehovah’s Witnesses left their properties and lefttheir jobs to dedicate to spreading the word. The prophecy never materialized and the explanation given did not convince. As a result, a number of the witnesses left the movement. They believe in restoration of pure worship and he first century church. They emphasize the use of God’s name, Jehovah, whom they believe to be the only true God and the creator of all and the sovereign of the universe. They believe that all worship should be directed to Jehovah and not a trinity god, putting more emphasis on God rather than Christ. Holy Spirit is God’s “active force” instead of a person (Holden, 2002). The legacy of the theology of Charles Russell is well manifest in the teachings and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses and still holds that the ‘last days” began in 1914. They think all other religions, including all Christian denominations are false, comparing them with “Babylon the great or the “Harlot” in the Bible’s book of Revelation (Holden, 2002). Charles Taze Russell’s captivation with apocalyptical prediction and questioning of the church teachings started early in his life. He was greatly inspired by Jonas Wendell that Christ’s second coming and the end of the world would occur in 1874. 1875 being the year when he found Henry Barbour teaching as an answer to most of questions, eventually appeared to be a turning moments in his life. Russell’s teachings attracted many people, especially those who questioned the teachings and traditions of the church. His teachings remain alive among members of Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world (Holden, 2002). Charles Taze Russell was accused of engaging cultism that goes against the mainstream Christianity beliefs, including alleged involvement with Freemasonry. However, his teaching and interpretation of the scripture continue to inspire followers and people from different walks of life.