Charles T Russell – Prophet

(Investigator 4, 1989 January)

[The following article was originally an essay for the Australian College of Theology. – Ed.]


Charles Taze Russell was born February 16 1852 of Presbyterian parents. He was educated in public schools and by private tutors. His parents taught him from the Catechism.

At 15 Charles left school and became a partner in his father's store in Alleghany. Pennsylvania. He prayed regularly but did not attend church. One day Charles concluded he had reached the age of "personal responsibility" in matters of faith. He prayed:

Oh, God, I will give Thee my heart... I need God and I need all the blessings You have promised to Your people. Lord, let me be one of Thy people. (1)
Charles joined the Congregational Church and the YMCA and became active in local mission. Often he chalked hellfire slogans on walls. This he discontinued at age 16 when a skeptic convinced him that predestination together with eternal torment was irreconcilable with notions of love and justice. Charles threw his Bible away but continued "feeling after God, desiring to know the truth." (2)

For a year Charles gave prime attention to business. He was a wizard with numbers and did his father's bookkeeping. Meanwhile he read about Asiatic religions and attended occasional church meetings which "left an empty void."

One evening Charles chanced upon a meeting of Second Adventists conducted by Jonas Wendel. Second Adventists were date-setting spin-offs from the Millerite movement which crumbled in disarray when predictions of Jesus' second coming failed in 1844. Wendel believed the world would be burned up in 1873. This rekindled Charles' faith. He reasoned:

"All the creeds of Christendom claim to be founded on the Bible and these are conflicting. Isn't it possible that the Bible has been misrepresented?" (3)
Charles next turned to George Storrs (l796-l879. Storrs, a Millerite from 1842 and leader of the sect "The Life and Advent Union", taught Charles for 3 years, 1869-1872. Storrs had been a major originator of Adventist doctrines. He considered the dead unconscious, identified "Babylon" as Christendom, believed in future universal resurrection, etc. (4) These beliefs passed to Charles, hence to Jehovah's Witnesses:
"And here I should and do gratefully mention assistance by Brothers Geo. Stetson and Geo. Storrs, the latter the editor of The Bible Examiner, both now deceased. The study of the Word of God with these dear brethren led, step by step, into greener pastures…" (5)
Storrs predicted Christ's second coming for 1870. Its failure motivated Charles and 5 others to start a separate study class.

In Rochester, New York, N.H. Barbour, former gold-digger in Australia turned prophet, predicted Christ's coming for 1873, then 1874, finally 1875. When all failed he claimed that Christ had returned invisibly in 1874. In 1876 Charles' group, now numbering 30, amalgamated with Barbour's sect of 100 Second Adventists.

From Barbour Charles learnt about the "Gentile Times". (6)  In The Bible Examiner (October 1876) Charles predicted:

"The Gentile Times will end in A.D. 1914."
By this he meant that Israel would be restored and ruled by resurrected Hebrews to whom all nations would submit, giving world peace by 1914. Barbour also convinced Charles that the living Saints", which included themselves, would rise physically to heaven in 1878.

This expectation caused Charles to curtail business activities and preach on soap boxes, outside churches, and in parks. He called a meeting of all the Christian ministers of Alleghany and Pittsburgh to convince them of Christ's 1874 return and of the imminent miraculous ascent. The result?

"All of the ministers of the two cities refused to believe."  (7)
This repudiation marked the start of Russellism's, hence Jehovah's Witness, estrangement from conventional Christianity.

The haberdashery business of Charles and his father, which had increased from one store to 5 valued at $300,000, now began to be dissipated. Barbour, for example, required new printing equipment.

1878 arrived. One Pittsburgh newspaper reported that Charles, draped in white robes, spent Passover night on Sixth Street Bridge. Charles denied it, adding:

"However some of the more radical ones might have been there." (8)
Charles re-examined the Bible and concluded that the dead saints were raised that night. The living saints would ascend in 1881. This conclusion evidenced "the Lord's continued leading." (9) The ploy of arguing that the date was right but the event expected wrong, was to be used again and again through 15 prophetic failures. Barbour rejected the "plain simple solution" (10) and after further disagreements Charles withdrew.

In 1879 Charles started "Zion's Watch Tower". The high initial circulation, 6,000, was possible because H.B. Rice, a Second Adventist prophet of California, had to close down for lack of finance and so donated his subscriber list to Charles. Charles' sect was now an independent entity


While getting Zion's Watch Tower started Charles met and married Maria F. Ackley. Next his followers, now about 150 in 30 autonomous household "ecciesias", elected Charles "Paster". He had no official training in theology, no ordination, no laying on of hands, not even a true prophecy. The title was therefore misappropriated.

Pastor Russell had a flair for organization an outflowmg personality, an ability to hold audiences. There was no sound equipment then. Yet when in later years he spoke in crowded auditoriums such as Chicago's Grand Opera, London's Royal Albert Hall and New York's Hippodrome Theatre, he was clearly heard. Dignified in frock coat, bowler hat and long grey beard, he would bow gracefully and speak without notes, gesturing freely. Russell was 5' 11'' (180 cm) tall, thinnish, professionally friendly, of saintly demeanour and posed readily for photographs. Even when his sect stretched to 5 continents he still found time for the small fry.

At first Russell solicited donations under the pretension that the donators would neither die nor get sick "except by God's will". (11) When some did die the offer needed amending. But miraculous healings allegedly continued, including arthritics, deaf people, and even old persons restored to youth. (12) This was discontinued in the 1890s.

The miraculous ascent of 1881 failed and was unofficially put off to 1883. Tract production and distribution in 1880, including hiring of 300 New York boys to distribute tracts at church doors, cost Russell $42,000. Such commitment meant no turning back. So, to reduce costs Russell introduced tracteering as a Christian duty within the sect. Being thus kept busy diverted their attention from failed prophecy and instilled a sense of commitment in all. The "keep them busy" stratagem is still successful a century later.

Russell commenced a set of books, "Studies in the Scriptures". Local clergymen opposed their sale in bookstores. Therefore Russell introduced colporteuring in which selected followers earned incomes by doorstep book selling. Russell demonstrated "God's blessing" further by legalizing the sect as a corporation – Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society. Such legalization anticipated problems of control, consolidation and perpetuation.

Russell's gospel now had these elements (13):

1. The Time of the End was 1799-1914.
2. Jesus returned, 1874.
3. Europe would erupt in war, 1906-1908.
4. Armageddon, including Christendom's end, 1910-1914.
5. Miraculous ascent, 1914.
6. World peace, rule by resurrected Patriarchs, 1914.
So much rubbish masquerading as "true light of God's Word" (14) provoked strife.



"Bible House", a 4-story structure in Alleghany, became Russell's headquarters in 1889. Already he had followers overseas. To secure his authority among them, Russell made his first overseas trip 1891 to Britain and the Mediterranean. Next he appointed "pilgrims" to visit ecclesias, give sermons and enforce use of his books.

Russell's early books were already dated. His failed prophecies, ever changing "truth", increasing power and stricter oversight sparked "rebellion". Several small groups split off in 1881. In 1894 four leaders united in accusing Russell of sexual impropriety and of "Pope-like" power. But Maria, Russell's wife, came to the rescue visiting the ecclesias, defending him. There were disturbances in Ireland and Switzerland after 1900. In Melbourne the Branch Leader took 80 of 100 converts with him in 1908. A major revolt in 1911 included the sect's vice president and Russell's private secretary.

The most serious confrontation was with Maria, leading to sensational court battles, lurid accusations and legal separation. Rumours of Russell philandering remained unsubstantiated. The confrontation originated as a power struggle over doctrinal differences. Furthermore, Maria was rejected as a woman. She and Russell lived: "celibate lives for eighteen years". (15)

These 18 years could mean 1879-97 from the marriage until Maria left Bible House. Alternatively they could mean 1888-1906, from the time an adopted daughter shared their apartment until the legal separation. The former interpretation is favoured due to the added claim that Russell: "had lived a life of absolute celibacy." (16) Allegedly Russell chose celibacy to aid his Godly devotion. Alternatively "Brother" Bohnet's words are suggestive if inconclusive:

"I had for many years been a member of the Bible House family, had eaten and lived there, and even enjoyed your uncomfortable bed-lounge with you on various occasions since the year 1895." (17)
As Russellism grew so grew Christian opposition. Some clerics burned Russell's books publicly. Flocks were warned against the "false prophet". Polemics via booklets and newspapers escalated. There were public debates and libel trials. Russell survived all; and as prophetic dates neared his sect catapulted into prominence.


In 1904 Russell changed "by 1914" to "immediately after 1914". Hopes therefore began centering on 1915. When the Russo-Japanese war began, 1904, Russell suggested it would suck in all Europe fulfilling his prophecy for 1906. (18)

Russell travelled to Europe annually. From 1905 there were also annual travelling conventions by hired train around the USA by Russell and up to 240 followers. The 1913 trip covered 12,000km and attracted 40,000 people to conventions in 20 cities. Newspapers began publishing Russell's sermons. Russell had 600 colporteurs plus "an army of tract distributors". (19)  Overseas conventions also became large 600 attended in Jamaica in1905, 4,500 in Britain 1908. Russell's world cruise in 1911-12 for the final fulfilment of Matthew 24:14 attracted large turnouts in many Asiatic countries. In India a small town, Russellpuram, was named after him and 70 ecclesias inaugurated. In Africa Joseph Booth, an Australian Baptist turned Russellite, and convert Elliot Kamwana, baptized 9,100 natives in one year. Russell's books appeared in Zulu, Sixosa, plus 18 western languages.

As 1914 neared, Russell got cautious. He suggested that "immediately after" might mean not 1915 but 5, 10 or even 25 years later!

In 1914 tract distributors numbered 5,100. Worship attendance approached 200,000. Russell's sermons were published by 2,000 newspapers of combined circulation 15 million. But the greatest publicity generator was Russell's "Photo Drama of Creation" – an 8 hour movie/slide marathon with synchronized sound. The turnout from Europe to Australia was tremendous – millions of viewers.

Then World War 1 erupted.

[A photocopy from The Watch Tower of June 1 1917 p. 163 is here omitted. The relevant passage calls Russell a "Prophet of the Lord" :

"Truly there lived among us in these last days a Prophet of the Lord; and although now he has passed from human sight, his works remain an enduring witness to his wisdom and his faithfulness!"]

Table I  Number publicising their faith

1881            100
1893         2,000
1899         2,000
1914         5,100
1918         4,100
1985  3,000,000

Table 2  Watch Tower Circulation

1879        6,000
1890      10,000
1900      12,000
1910      30,000
1915      55,000
1916      47,000
1918      20,000
1985    11.1 million

Table 3  Newspapers printing Russell's
sermons, and circulation totals

1906           5          100,000
1908         11          400,000
1910       500       6,000,000
1912    1,200     14,000,000
1913    2,000     15,000,000
1914    1,000       5,500,000

Table 4  Pamphlets distributed

1870 – 1913   228 million
1914                 71      "
1915                 55      "
1916                 30      "
1917                 31      "
1984                900?   "

Table 5  Books Distributed

1870-1913   6,100,000
1913                865,000
1914                993,000
1915                662,000
1916                453,000
1917                836,000
1918                359,000
1984           59,000,000



Russell interpreted the outbreak of World War as being the war he had awaited in 1906, which would climax in Armageddon and world rule by Israel. He felt it might take "ten months". (20)

Decline set in. In America most colporteurs withdrew. In India the Russellites flocked back to their previous churches. In Germany 380 Russellites joined the army in 1915 and colporteuring ceased. In Africa the disappointment sparked a native uprising. In Belgium attendences declined from 500 in 1912 to 5 in 1918.

But Russell pressed on, travelling and speaking. In his life he travelled a million miles, wrote 50,000 pages, preached 30,000 sermons, and dictated up to 1,000 letters monthly. He died from cystitis aboard a Texas train, October 31, 1916.

Russell's successor, Joseph Rutherford, staked everything on an all out campaign of denunciation against "Christendom", announcing its destruction for 1918. Instead, he himself was imprisoned and his "organization" ruined.

Russell had been: "a foolish man who built his house upon the sand." (Matthew 7:26)



Russell left certain legacies including three corporations, doctrines, faulty chronology, a stance of political neutrality, an anti-Christendom stance, use of law courts, centralized control, policies for meetings, and conventions, pilgrims, and established patterns for publicising the faith.

By 1932 Rutherford had moulded these legacies into a united global preaching machine, dominated by himself. Prophecies of Christendom's destruction kept failing – 1920, 1925, 1926, 1928. Rutherford therefore determined to fulfil them himself. The method? The same way Christianity overcame Paganism – by unity and testimony. Rutherford announced: "God purposes to convert the world by preaching". (21)  He envisaged: "…vast billions coming out of all the kingdoms of the world…" (22)

By 1971 the new leaders boasted of:  "…the largest thoroughly unified activity on earth." (23). And in 1984: "the mightiest preaching activity ever…" (24)  And, still date-motivated it continues in 200 countries and among 5,000 tribes.

What Russell started might yet become real-Christianity's greatest challenge.


1. I.B.S.A. Convention Report 1912 pp. 308-309
2. Ibid p. 134
3. Watch Tower Reprints 1916 12/1 p. 5997
4. Froom, L. E. 1954 The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers Vol. 4 Review and Herald USA; Gaustad, E. S. (Ed.) 1978 The Rise of Adventism Harper and Row USA
5. Watch Tower Reprints 1906 7/15 p. 3821
6. Jonsson, C. O. 1983 The Gentile Times Reconsidered, English Editor: Penton, M. J., Hart Publishers USA
7. Anonymous 1959 Jehovah's witnesses In The Divine Purpose WBTS USA p. 19
8. Macmillan, A.H. 1957 Faith on the March Prentice Hall USA
9. Watch Tower Reprints 1906 7/1 p. 3823; Anonymous 1959 Jehovah's Witnesses In The Divine Purpose WBTS USA p. 20
10. Ibid p.20
11. Watch Tower Reprints 1881 January p. 181
12. Watch Tower Reprints 1883 pp. 436-437; 1885 pp. 748749; 1885 pp. 782-784
13. Russell, C. T. Studies in the Scriptures Vol. 1 pp. 275-295; Vol. 2 pp. 188-211, 234-235; Vol. 3 pp. 23, 59, 150-154, 234-240, 305-306, 362-364; Vol. 4 pp. 77-112
14. Anonymous 1959 Jehovah's Witnesses In The Divine Purpose WBTS USA p. 15
15. I.B.S.I. Convention Report 1913 p. 113; Peoples Pulpit 1914 October 1 p. 3
16. Peoples Pulpit 1918 January 1 p. 4
17. Watch Tower Reprints 1910 3/15 p. 4590
18. Watch Tower Reprints 1904 3/1 p. 3327
19. Watch Tower Reprints 1909 12/15 p. 4532
20. Watch Tower Reprints 1915 1/15 p. 5632; 1/1 p. 5601
21. Watch Tower 1929 10/15 p. 316
22. Schnell, W.J. 1980 30 Years A Watch-Tower Slave Baker Book House USA p. 48
23. Awake! 1971 9/22 p. 3
24. The Watchtower 1984 2/1 p. 14

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