I can understand why a former Jehovah’s Witness would ask the question, why should a former Bible Student be interested in Jehovah’s Witness activism? Hopefully this little history will provide some answer to this question. Contrary to the implications of Watchtower’s revisionist representation of its beginnings and growth, there was no smooth transition from Bible Students into Jehovah’s Witnesses as the organization matured. This is far from the truth. Many Witnesses, even those few who are aware that the Bible Students movement still exists as a separate religious sect from Watchtower, are not aware of the closely entangled, turbulent and lurid history as Watchtower gradually expelled the very sect that started the Society, and replaced them with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Over the course of the last year or so I have taken a strong interest in former Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activism. My interest stems from my own struggle to free my mind from the imposition of doctrines and culture that originated with Charles Taze Russell, the founder of Bible Students movement and Watchtower, Bible and Tract Society. I was born a fourth generation Bible Student in the mid-1950s.
After a lifetime of severe inner conflict and confusion, I was finally able to extract myself from the dangerous shame based religious system that had devastated my childhood family. A dogmatic system of twisted beliefs and culture that had also come too close to destroying the beautiful little family I had started with my wife. Visiting activist websites and listening to YouTube accounts of former Jehovah’s Witnesses resonated strongly with me regarding my own hard fought battle for freedom. I probably would not have been drawn into Watchtower activism however, if it were not for the fact that Watchtower’s headquarters are moving practically into my backyard.
Around 2009 I read a small news article in our community newspaper announcing Watchtower’s plans to move its world headquarters out of Brooklyn to Warwick New York. However, this news hadn’t become real to my wife and me until around 2011 when Watchtower began construction of its new World Headquarters just four miles from my home. In the years since, my wife and I have seen long caravans of large Greyhound sized buses and smaller transport vehicles running in a continuous circuit back and forth from volunteer living quarters to the construction site, like bees in a hive. We watched as the forest was plowed to bare earth, concrete foundations poured, and steel beams erected. Now that the site is nearing completion Watchtower stands to me as a permanent reminder of the organization historically behind the smothering religion I only too recently escaped.
Having become involved in some of the Ex-Jehovah’s Witness activism, I came to realize that many Jehovah’s Witnesses do not know that Bible Students still exist. While Watchtower today is proud to parade their nearly 140 year heritage before their followers, it presents a biased revisionist history that leaves many gaps. In particular, Watchtower omits most of the shadowy events that took place in the years subsequent to the death of the Watchtower’s founder. Watchtower cannot dodge its early connection to the Bible Student movement in the organization’s formative years, but contrary to the events that actually occurred, the Society portrays a seamless transition from Bible Students into Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Early Family History
My family became entangled with Watchtower around the turn of the 19th century. I have both paternal and maternal great grandparents that became Bible Students as far back as the mid-1890s. My parents and all four of my grandparents were Bible Students. In fact all of my extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. were Bible Students. I had no close family that were not Bible Students. Having grown up in a Bible Student family I heard many stories about how the family “came into the truth.” My paternal grandfather was a Bible Student elder in the 1920s, the tumultuous critical years leading up to the formation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I heard his bitter tales of how Judge Rutherford stole the movement away from the Bible Students, and of his experience in challenging what he considered to be heretical doctrinal changes that had been introduced by the Judge during that period.
My maternal grandmother emigrated from Scotland with her parents in 1909, and moved to Brooklyn near the newly relocated Bethel. She told tales of riding with “Pastor” Russell on the train from Brooklyn to the New York Temple where meetings were held. When Russell died my great grandparents did not accept Judge Rutherford’s election to the Society’s Presidency, and stopped meeting with the Bible Students shortly after Russell died.
Russell’s death hit the movement hard. While the Watchtower today downplays Russell’s position within the organization, Bible Students nearly worshipped the man, and bitterly lamented the loss of their beloved Pastor and unchallenged leader of the movement. Between 1916 and 1931 when Jehovah’s Witnesses came into being, the majority of the original Bible Students had either cut ties with Watchtower or were disfellowshipped for dissenting against the doctrinal changes that had been introduced into the organization.
Watchtower’s Early Bible Student Years
For about forty years Charles Taze Russell was the indomitable force behind Watchtower. Russell’s charisma and drive forged a movement that by the time of his death, was beginning to pick up momentum. From a single small Bible Study group that included his father and sister, there were tens of thousands of Bible Students and thousands of ecclesias by the time of his death (congregations were known as classes or ecclesias, and are still called by that name today by the Bible Students).
Russell’s magnetism and prolific writing endeared him to this following. By the time of his death the majority of Bible Students were convinced that he was a special messenger from Jehovah God himself, i.e. the Laodicean Messenger. Within this early movement, devotion to this man bordered worship which Rutherford came to denounce as “creature worship.” A.H. Macmillan in his 1957 history, Faith on the March, indicated that this level of reverence became repugnant to Rutherford. So strong was Rutherford’s feelings over the movement’s idealization of Russell, when he finally achieved unchallenged doctrinal control over the movement, Rutherford denounced celebrating customary individual milestones as being “creature worship,” and forbade members from commemorating birthdays, mother’s day, etc. There are many documented sources that speak about the character of Joseph Franklin Rutherford, and nearly all show him to be a dominating, ill-tempered and bitter man. While the mark of Rutherford has been clearly impressed upon the current organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, even the Watchtower today avoids putting his face too far forward publicly over the bad reputation that resides over this miserable man.
Looking back at Rutherford’s legacy and seeing the type of man he was, one would naturally wonder why the movement permitted him to rule over them. To understand this one has to understand more about the events transpiring in the movement in the years that followed Russell’s death. The fifteen years between Russell’s passing and the institution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931 were known to those Bible Students living through them as “the dark years.” While Watchtower might tend to whitewash over many of the events occurring in the movement through the 1920s, Bible Students on the other hand have their own bias over what transpired, and the truth of the events must lie somewhere in between the two accounts.
On the one hand the Society implies that as the organization grew and matured, the members of the movement associated with Watchtower took on a new name by which to be identified. This then begs the question: then why, after over half a century calling themselves Bible Students, should the membership see the need to take on a new name? Watchtower today never gives an explanation for the change from Bible Students to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Bible Students on the other hand, bitterly accuse Rutherford as corruptly conspiring to take control over the movement. That as soon as he had taken over the Watchtower’s Presidency he immediately began to wrench the Society from the Bible Students to serve his own nefarious self-serving objectives. Bible Students view themselves as helpless victims of a Stalinist tyrant who wholesale purged the Bible Students from their entitlement.
One may never be able to know the exact truth of what truly happened in those years. All the individuals who lived through that period have long passed away. However, the aftermath of those events is with us today and Watchtower’s modern presentation of those events has not been an honest one to their followers. This is evidenced by the fact that the Bible Students continue to exist today as an organized movement.
There are several histories written from Watchtower’s perspective. In 1993 Watchtower published its Proclaimer’s Book. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses today are familiar with this book, which appears to be comprehensive but is missing many important facts. Another recounting of Watchtower’s early history is A.H. Macmillan’s Faith on the March, published in 1957. This book is interesting since its author, A.H. MacMillan, was both a close personal associate of Charles Taze Russell and Joseph Rutherford during both their presidencies. MacMillan remained loyal to the Society until his death and presents Rutherford as a man misunderstood by many who saw only his external eccentricities and brute personality.
Another strange history is documented in a rare book, The Laodicean Messenger, written and published in 1923 by A.H. Wisdom, a Bible Student who practically worshipped to Russell. This last publication is essentially the only major publication of that critical transition period presenting a Bible Student’s historical perspective. Much of the Bible Student’s side of the events transpiring in the 1920s was passed down by word of mouth to subsequent generations. There are a few minor histories that can be found on Bible Student websites but most of these are anecdotally based. One important Bible Student, Norman Woodworth, first cousin to Clayton J. Woodworth, editor of the Golden Age magazine, provided his reflections of the early years of the movement and his personal interactions with C.T. Russell, along with other key players during Watchtower’s evolution (i.e. key individuals to Watchtower’s formation including A.H. MacMillan, W.M. VanAmburgh, and Woodworth’s own cousin C.J. Woodworth). I knew “Brother” Woodworth personally - the most respected Bible Student elder in the Bible Student’s post-Watchtower years, and my grandfather’s best friend for fifty years. Woodworth passed away in 1976 and was an elder in the New York ecclesia, the Bible Student class I was born and raised in.
Norman Woodworth left (actually was disfellowshipped from) the Society in 1928 along with many other Bible Students I personally knew. I look through some of the old Watchtower Yearbooks from the 1920s and see familiar names of individuals who played an important part in the Bible Student’s fellowship in which I grew up. Again many of the facts of the events occurring in the 1920s have been lost with a past generation.
The fact that all those directly involved with that period are now deceased makes it nearly impossible to know the exact truth of what happened during those years. However, I will recount some of what I learned from available written material, but also from my experience with family members who lived through that time, as well as from the accounts of early Bible Students I knew such as Norman Woodworth and Russell Pollack.
Before diving into what some Bible Students deemed “the dark years”, I think it is important to understand a few key doctrines that the Bible Students and Watchtower promoted prior to Russell’s death in 1916. It should be noted that the early Bible Students movement in every sense of the word qualified as a high control group, despite the lack of Watchtower control over individual eccelsia. Bible Students at that time unquestionably revered Pastor Russell and his teachings. A very distinct culture developed within the movement that isolated and uniquely distinguished this new religion. Mental and emotional coercion techniques (such as guilt tripping and emotional blackmail) were used extensively against members. With the emphasis that Satan had been cast out of heaven into the Earth, members emphasized separating themselves from the “world.” By 1910 Russell discouraged independent Bible Study and accentuated the need to study only his writings or else lose the truth. Bible Students developed a black and white view of the world, and held to a set of standards, values, and expectations for behavior that would be nearly impossible for any human being to meet.
Bible Students employed a shame based culture and imposed these unrealistic values on their children who were expected to accept the truth for their own. One example of the type of coercion used by Watchtower even in its earliest years concerns “the Vow” Russell imposed on the movement in 1909. In this circumstance, Russell used strong shaming tactics to induce elders and general membership to take the Vow. This is an interesting piece of Watchtower history as it was intended to prevent improper interaction between the sexes and to enforce a puritanical degree of morality upon Bible Students. The Vow also emphasized the need for members to avoid occultism, which has always been a hallmark of Watchtower paranoia from its inception. The Vow came into being as a result of the controversy that churned over Russell’s divorce from his estranged wife Maria. Maria had alleged sexual and moral improprieties against her husband as a basis of her divorce suit. It wasn’t long after the court proceedings that the Vow came into being. Russell pushed hard to have Bible Students adopt and commit to the Vow. He compiled a list of those willing to take the Vow in an attempt to coerce the “friends” into taking it themselves. Russell in short argued that if one is committed to living a pure life, why should they have any problem taking the Vow and adding their name to the public list of those who had taken it?
Interestingly, the Vow continued to be a matter of controversy within the Bible Students as late as the 1980s, and was read at many conventions, including the Bible Student General Convention where it was read every morning as part of each day’s daily opening ceremony.
For decades Bible Students looked forward to 1914 as the end of Gentile rule over Israel. Christendom was to be destroyed through a “Great Time of Trouble,” and Armageddon. Society in general would break down into utter chaos and depravity and “lest those days be cut short no flesh would be saved.” Following the destruction of Earth’s religious, social and governmental institutions (i.e. the Present Evil World), God would establish Christ’s glorious one thousand year Kingdom of Righteousness. All of this was to happen before the ending of the year 1914. As that year began to approach, Russell began to balk somewhat over the predictions he had made.
Bible Students believed that sin had entered into the world by Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. All of humanity therefore inherited sin through Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and perfection. However, Christ offered himself as a substitute for Adam’s transgression and being made human from an angelic plane of existence, offered himself in sacrifice to God and thus ransomed and redeemed the human race. Adam and Eve, and every human who had lived and died would be entitled to a resurrection in Christ’s Kingdom, and given an opportunity to live forever. This teaching is the doctrine of the “Ransom.” Of all the teachings adhered to by Bible Students, this doctrine is the one most revered as being the cornerstone of the faith.
Unlike Watchtower’s teachings today, Armageddon was not Jehovah’s righteous indignation to punish and destroy all of humanity that do not become Jehovah’s Witnesses. Bible Students believed that God’s intent was mainly to destroy institutions and governments, not people per se. They believed that many if not most “worldly” people would live though Armageddon into the Kingdom, and receive an opportunity for perfect life.
Russell and Watchtower only preached a single call, Bible Students knew as the “high calling.” Those responding to Watchtower’s message, and who were consecrating and baptizing themselves to do God’s will, believed that if faithful to their call would comprise the 144,000 heavenly associates of Jesus. Those who failed to make their “calling and election sure,” would make up the Great Company. They believed that once an individual sacrificed his life to God, symbolized by baptism, this person had forfeited their right for an “Earthly” resurrection. So according to Russell, the Great Company was also a heavenly class, except not on as high a plane of existence as the immortal anointed class.
During the thousand year Kingdom if anyone did not accept the principles of righteousness, they’d be sent to the “second death” by God. Bible Students did not teach eternal torment and dispensed with the notion of an eternal torment in Hell as unscriptural. They believed however, that incorrigible were to enter into the “sleep of death” forever and thereby go forever into a state of non-existence. Those running for the high calling were also in jeopardy of the second death. If a consecrated and baptized individual did not qualify for either the 144,000 or the Great Company, because they sacrificed their right to a human resurrection, they would “go into second death.” When I was baptized as a Bible Student at age 23, no sooner than I raised my head from the water and I heard the fellow who dunked me, “now you have to watch your Ps & Qs, or it’s the second death!” My first thought was “wow, thanks bud.”
Another important Watchtower teaching during the years prior to Russell’s death included the notion that Jesus was invisibly present in Earth’s atmosphere beginning in 1874. Why discuss what Bible Students believed? The main reason why these teachings are mentioned is that there are the things that Bible Students were convinced were the absolute truth when Russell passed away. So strongly did most Bible Students venerate Russell, they would not accept any deviations from anything he had taught. Rutherford used Bible Student’s rigid belief system against them in his design to redirect Watchtower’s purpose. By altering a few of the core beliefs, Rutherford could “sift” out those Bible Students who stood fast in their loyalty to Russell from those whose loyalty was more centered on the organization. This “sifting” process transpired throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.