(Investigator 140, 2011 September)


For over 100 years Russellites and Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) forgot William Conley who helped get their religion started.

Pittsburgh businessman William Henry Conley (1840-1897) was a founder of the Watchtower Society (WTS) in 1881, and its first president prior to its incorporation. The better-known Charles T Russell was the president from its incorporation in 1884.

This was discovered by Barbara Anderson when working as research assistant for the WTS book Jehovah's Witnesses Proclaimers of God's Kingdom (1993) which mentions Conley on page 576.

Anderson was a JW for 43 years and a member of the WTS's Writing Department. She subsequently defected from the sect and maintains a website with extensive collections of information.


The WTS, initially named Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society, was founded in February 1881 as an "association".

Its President was Conley; Vice President Joseph Russell (C T Russell's father); and Secretary/Treasurer C T Russell. Conley donated $3500 of the original $5000 capital, Joseph Russell $1000, and C T Russell $500.

In its first year the WTS spent $40,000 (donated mainly by Conley) on the book Food For Thinking Christians and other free literature.

Conley and his wife Sarah (1841-1908) were among the five original Bible Students with which the Russell cult started in 1872/73. The other three were C T Russell, his sister Margaret, and their father Joseph Russell.

The Conleys and Russells became acquainted about 1870 at the Advent Christian Church where they listened to Second Adventist preachers such as Jonas Wendell, George Stetson, and George Storrs.

Advent Christians experienced controversy in the 1870s due to belief in Christ's imminent return and the burning up of the world. This possibly led Conley & Russell to start separate meetings.

The Russells had built J. L. Russell & Son, a chain of five men's clothing stores. Conley was much wealthier — he was co-owner of Riter-Conley Company, a metal fabrication company that supplied mining and other industries. In the late 1880s Riter-Conley had over 600 employees.

In 1876 the Russell-Conley sect amalgamated with some Second Adventists led by Nelson Barbour.

Barbour's cult had predicted Christ's visible return for 1873/1874/1875 and then opted for an invisible return that occurred 1874. (This is the origin of the JW doctrine of Christ's invisible second coming, which until 1930 they placed in 1874 before transferring it to 1914.)

The combined Barbour/Russell cult predicted the "rapture" for 1878 when the "living saints" would ascend physically to heaven. Some of them gathered in white robes on a bridge in Pittsburgh on Passover night but the prophecy failed.

A H Macmillan (1877-1966) who became known as the "grand old man of the [JW] movement" referred to this event in his WTS approved book Faith on the March (1957). He asked Russell about it and Russell said, "However, some of the more radical ones might have been there, but I was not."

In 1879 Russell and Barbour separated. Russell started the magazine Zion's Watch Tower and also predicted 1881 for the rapture.

At this stage Conley was still important in Russell's cult. In 1880 and 1881 the Allegheny City venue for the annual remembrance of Christ's death was Conley's home. (Zion's Watch Tower, April 1881, p208) But in 1882 the venue was the home of Joseph Russell. (March 1882, p325)

Another important split-up occurred in 1882. Barbour's former co-editor, John H Paton, had sided with the Russell faction in 1879 but split from Russell in 1882.

The reasons were:

•    Russell's false prophecy for 1881;
•    Paton's belief in universal salvation which Russell called "heresy";
•    The Trinity doctrine, which Russell rejected in 1882;
•    The ascent of the living saints to heaven which Paton placed near 1914 but Russell still awaited sooner.

Conley's loyalties also changed. In 1882 he stopped giving large donations to Russell and his name stopped appearing in Zion's Watch Tower. In 1884 Russell incorporated the WTS to more effectively handle legal and financial matters and Conley disappeared as president.
Conley joined the Presbyterian Church which believes in the Trinity and conscious eternal punishment for the wicked. It did not believe that Jesus returned in 1874 nor believed in Russell's reinterpretation of the 1878 date, which was that Jesus set up his Kingdom in 1878 and dead Christians were resurrected to heaven.

Conley's religious shift, therefore, suggests extensive repudiation of much of what he previously believed.  Apparently he also accepted Lutheran beliefs since the book Theocratic Kingdom (1884) by Lutheran minister George N H Peters included an acknowledgment of financial assistance from Conley. Later Conley also supported an orphanage, school and hospital in Pittsburgh, sponsored religious conventions, and organized and funded a Christian mission in Jerusalem.

A letter from Conley in Zion's Watch Tower in 1894 (June 11, p1664) supported Russell when a further rift occurred and four elders tried to remove Russell from power. Zion's Watch Tower introduced the letter by presenting Conley as "a member of the early Allegheny Bible Class" without disclosing that he was the Society's first president:
Another brother who was a member of the early Allegheny Bible Class writes as follows:
My Dear Bro. In Christ:—
I have read carefully pages 92 to 119 of A Conspiracy Exposed and Harvest Siftings with special interest, and must say my recollection of events named by you are very much like your own; and while there are some details, in some cases, of which I know nothing, and hence cannot speak as to them, yet I do know there were such transactions as you name, and at the dates given. I am quite conversant with some of the dealings, and am surprised at the very merciful manner in which you speak of those with whom you were associated. "The servant is not greater than his Lord." "If they have done these things in a green tree, what will they do in the dry?"—"Perils among false brethren," etc., etc.

As to myself, you can rely on one thing, viz., All reports stating that I deny the ransom are absolutely false...
    W.H. Conley 


Conley's death (July 1897) was not announced in Zion's Watch Tower — although the deaths of Stetson and Storrs (1879) and Joseph Russell (1896) merited notices.

John H Paton, however, announced Conley's death in his magazine The World's Hope, and stated that he had stayed at the Conley home many times "over the past 20 years":
It is with deep sorrow that we are called upon to record the death of one of our most valued fellow-laborers…and one of the few princely Christian merchants... We refer to Mr. Henry Conley, of Pittsburg, Pa., who passed away at his home in Pittsburg on Sabbath evening, July 25th, after a brief illness of only about a month….

Mr. Conley was a business man of very high standing in Pittsburg, and a vast concourse of his fellow citizens gathered at his funeral to pay their last tribute of respect and affection to his memory. The funeral services were conducted at his home in Pittsburg [and] referred in appropriate terms to his high character and great usefulness.

Mr. Conley…carried the spirit of business enterprise into his Christian work and did nothing by halves. He was one of the few Barnabases of the church and it is easier to supply a dozen preachers than one such whole-hearted Christ-filled business man. But God remains and He is equal to every need.

Mr. Conley's heart was much in the work of, and his spontaneous liberality has largely helped to keep in operation the blessed [evangelizing] which has been so successfully carried on by our friends in Pittsburg.

But his heart had also caught the Master's greater thought for the evangelization of the world. And he has been for many years in the very front of the great missionary movement…

The inspiration of Mr. Conley's life and the theme of his constant testimony was the coming of the Lord Jesus…

The article John H Paton: Forgotten Co-founder of a Sect in Investigator 18 presented Paton as the "Forgotten Co-founder" and as "one of five men who were significant in helping Charles T Russell start the Watchtower movement."

We can now recognize William Conley as a sixth "significant" man as well as another forgotten co-founder.

Barbara Anderson website:



Dictionary of Jehovah's Witnesses at: