Cathleen A. Koenig
The nineteenth-century obsession with prophetic speculation molded the founders of some now well-known faiths, including Ann Lee (Shakers), Joseph Smith (Mormons), and Ellen Gould White (Seventh-Day Adventists). This era of millennial expectation also produced Charles Taze Russell, spiritual father of the group known as the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Born February 16, 1852, Russell was a haberdasher's son. Reared to be a businessman by his widowed father, he was a religious boy who supplemented his modest secular education with extensive reading of religious literature and the Bible. When he tested himself in a debate with an agnostic, though, his faith proved weak and he became disillusioned.
An encounter with an Adventist group restored Russell's confidence in the Bible. The group's influence shaped his theology, and he accepted doctrines such as the denial of the soul's immortality, a belief in the annihilation of the wicked rather than in an eternal hell, and the imminence of Christ's Second Coming. He acquired the Adventist penchant for date-setting for the latter event.
Russell began to associate with a like-minded Adventist named Nelson H. Barbour, with whom he published articles setting out end-time chronology. They claimed Christ, who had returned invisibly in 1874, would call the remnant of 144,000 to heaven in 1914. The millennium of Revelation 20:2 would commence and humanity would have a second chance at life on a paradise Earth.
Russell and Barbour split over doctrinal differences in 1878. Russell sold his businesses and invested the proceeds in a new magazine, Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence. He published a six-volume series entitled Millennial Dawn (later called Studies in the Scriptures), which, in a fit of hubris, he declared to be "practically the Bible topically arranged." It outlined doctrines which the Witnesses still hold today, including Jesus' pre-existence as Michael the Archangel and the idea that the Catholic Church is the primary component of the "Whore of Babylon." The book also embraced some ideas now rejected by the Watchtower Society, such as support for Zionism and the curious belief that the Great Pyramid at Giza corroborated biblical prophecy.
Scandal plagued Russell's tenure at Zion's Watch Tower. Exaggerated claims and excessive prices charged for "Miracle Wheat" were exposed by the Brooklyn Eagle, a newspaper which delighted in baiting him. He sued the newspaper for libel and lost. Marital troubles provided more ammunition for his enemies. Maria Russell attacked her estranged husband publicly, accusing him of infidelity. Although she later dropped the charge during separation proceedings, his reputation never recovered.
When World War I began in 1914, excitement grew among the "Bible Students," as Russell's followers called themselves. Armageddon failed to materialize on schedule, so Russell fell back on a time-honored method of dealing with prophetic failurehe changed the date, this time to 1915. His books were reissued with the new chronology. More disappointments followed, yet he refused to believe his calculations could be mistaken. His final prediction said the arrival of the Millennial Kingdom would occur in 1918. He avoided the disillusionment of that year's uneventful passing by dying on October 31, 1916 while on a speaking tour.
Russell's charisma, spirituality, and the fact that something momentous had happened in 1914 helped his followers to overlook his failed predictions. His movement survived by reinterpreting 1914 as the beginning rather than the end of the final days, a revisionist chronology still taught by Jehovah's Witnesses. While the Watchtower claims Russell as its own, few people who join it today are aware of the false prophecies propounded by its esteemed founder.
Reprinted from This Rock, April 1992