Early History of the Watchtower Movement Date Setting

Jerry Bergman


(Investigator 167, 2016 March)



The Watchtower movement was formally founded in 1879 by Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916).

Born on February 16, 1852, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of Scottish-Irish Presbyterian parents, Russell was a former Congregationalist who, while a young man, drifted into agnosticism. Russell's faith was revived by the Second Adventists, a church related to the modern Seventh-day Adventists. In developing his own theological system, Russell borrowed many Adventist doctrines. He also developed his core teachings around the imminent return of Christ Jesus.

Witnesses today still stress the need to proclaim to the world the impending battle of Armageddon, which they believe will soon destroy all wicked humans (i.e., in general, all non Jehovah's Witnesses). Persons who survive Armageddon will live forever on a paradise Earth where no pain, sorrow, or sin will exist, and a select 144,000 persons will spend eternity in heaven with Christ Jesus to rule those persons on Earth.

Jehovah's Witnesses actually had their beginning, not with Russell, but in what is known as the Millerites, an 1850s millennial movement. Historically, hundreds of millennial movements have existed, and the modern movements have much in common with the earlier ones. The modern millennial movement began with William Miller, a Baptist layman and farmer (later a Baptist minister) who settled in New York after the War of 1812.  For some time Miller was a Deist (one who believes that God created the universe and the laws that control it, then left the universe to run itself). He became a believer after an intensive four-year long study of the Bible.  

Miller believed that the Bible was like a cryptic treasure map and he had deciphered the "hidden Biblical chronology" which, through the proper interpretation of symbols, enabled one to discern the exact date of the "end of the age" or the end of this old world. He made many assumptions, such as certain prophetic days were equal to a year but others were equal to some other time span. He also concluded that the prophetic Biblical passages in Daniel and Revelation applied specifically to the 1800s. From this he reasoned that the date for the end of the present world, and the coming of Christ to usher in the millennial reign of Christ would began in about 1843. Although Miller was at first vague about the exact month of the end, he finally decided on between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.  

In 1831 Miller spoke at a revival at Dresden, New York, and soon after proved to be in demand as a speaker to the degree that, within a year, he was able to accept only about half of his speaking invitations. Miller's teachings attracted primarily Methodists, Baptists, and persons in other conservative Protestant denominations. In 1833, he published his first book, Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ About the Year 1843 Exhibited in a Course of Lectures. In 1839, a minister named Joshua Himes invited Miller to preach in his Boston church. Himes, a man with much promotional and organizational talent, was so impressed that he brought the new movement into national prominence. Himes was active in publishing the movement's writings, including its first periodical titled Signs of the Times.

Certain natural events, such as the appearance of a large comet in February of 1843, also gave impetus to the movement. When March 21, 1844 came and went, although many of his approximately 30,000 to 50,000 followers and sympathizers became disappointed and left the movement, many others had come to firmly believe that Christ's return was in the near future. The "great disappointment," as this date is now called, resulted in a multiplicity of new sects in America, one of which became the modern day Jehovah's Witnesses.

Although a large number of mainline churches supported Miller until about 1843, as the movement grew, it encountered increasing opposition from the established churches. Many church laymen and ministers who joined the movement after 1843 were "disfellowshipped" (expelled from the church and not allowed to associate normally with church members), an event that often resulted in even more publicity. This caused Miller's movement to crystallize after 1844 and separate itself from the other churches.  

Soon other dates were predicted, such as October 22, 1844, by Samuel S. Snow.  After this date also failed, a number of churches and sects developed from the original group, including the Advent Christian Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Primitive Advent Church, the Church of God Abrahamic Faith, and Seventh-Month Movement, among others.

Later, the October 22, 1874 date was taught by Nelson Barbour, John Paton and Charles T. Russell. One of the offshoots of the Adventist movement was the Bible Students founded by Pastor Russell, from which has also sprung several splinter groups.

The various groups that broke off, or were highly influenced by the movement started by William Miller, including the Watchtower Society and the Seventh-day Adventists, are all classified as the Adventist family by J. Gordon Melton in his Encyclopedia of American Religions.  

The Witnesses are technically an offshoot of the Second-day Adventist movement, and the Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventists (the largest of the Adventist movements today) both came from the same religious path. C.T. Russell, the Watchtower Society's founder, openly borrowed a great deal from, and was highly influenced by, the Adventist movement as a whole. He was originally part of a group led by Jonas Wendell, an Advent Christian Church minister. In Volume II of Studies in the Scriptures, in a chapter titled "The Manner of the Lord's Return and Appearing," Pastor Russell expressed his belief in the same teaching about the Lord's Return as Wendell.  

Historian Jonnson concluded that Jonas Wendell, and many other preachers within the Advent Christian Church, were influenced by Nelson H. Barbour's 1873 date.   Jonas Wendell published a small pamphlet titled The Present Truth; or Meat in Due Season in 1870 which included Barbour's chronology.   After the 1873 failure, Barbour changed his date to 1874, and his acceptance among Advent Christians rapidly deteriorated. He was "disfellowshipped" in March of 1875 because of his intransigence on his chronology conclusions, and his view that the resurrection had taken place on February 14, 1875.  Jonas did not support Barbour's dates or his views that were attached to it.

Russell's first exposure to Advent theology was in 1869.  When just seventeen, Russell heard the teachings of Jonas and Rufus Wendell, both prominent Adventists. In 1876 he met Adventist Nelson H. Barbour.  Barbour learned from Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott translation of the New Testament that the Greek word "parousia," usually translated "coming," could also mean "presence" — so that Christ might have actually returned in 1874 after all, only he was invisible!  This was a major reason why Russell came to conclude that Jonas Wendell's 1874 prediction might not have been wrong after all.  

In his book The Hope of Christ's Second Coming (1864), S.P. Tregelles claimed that this view, called the secret rapture teaching, was first proposed around 1832. The secret rapture idea was adopted with eagerness by some because it harmonized several contradictory views existing at that time in the movement. The secret coming/invisible presence idea was probably first developed during the Asbury Park conferences held from 1826 to 1830. The idea was already fully developed in a tract written by Henry Drummond, published in 1828, The Lord is at Hand.

Charles Russell had adopted the secret presence idea before he met Barbour, probably as early as in 1874, most likely from reading the publication of which Joseph Seiss was then the editor-in-chief until 1875.  Russell worked with Barbour for only a short time as co-author of The Three Worlds or Plan of Redemption (according to Barbour, in name only) and coeditor of the Herald of the Morning Magazine.  

Russell was very concerned about the Adventist movement's prophetic failures, especially after the 1874 error. During his early years, Russell also worked with other Adventists, such as A.P. Adams, A.D. Jones, and John H. Paton (who later embraced universalism). Barbour wrote many individuals joined, and many left the movement in which he had a part for more than fifty-five years involved, but the movement managed to survive. Some of the leaders who left and went out on their own included Elder John H. Paton, who became interested in 1873-4, "mainly by reading the papers I sent to him; … though he was an Adventist before that.  C. T. Russell first became slightly interested by reading the Herald of the Morning, in 1875, but did not identify himself with the movement until the autumn and winter of 1876-7, through listening to lectures which I delivered …Both men left the movement in 1878. C.T. Russell, although in the movement only about eighteen months, felt competent to start a paper of his own."

Partly because Barbour incorrectly predicted April 1878 as the month when the church would ascend to heaven, and also because of doctrinal disagreements, Russell, Adams, and Paton withdrew their support from Barbour. They immediately began their own journal, primarily under Russell's leadership, first named Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence. Russell obtained Barbour's subscription list (some claim without his permission) and sent a free copy of his paper to each Herald subscriber. The first issue, published in July of 1879, had a printing of 6,000 copies.  The 11 x 15 inch newspaper-sized eight-page journal listed J.H. Paton, W.I. Mann, B.W. Keith, H.B. Rice, and A.D. Jones as regular contributors, all of whom later left the Watchtower for various reasons including doctrinal disagreements.

The Watchtower movement, especially in its early history, but still today, has always experienced much movement in and out of "God's organization." Called a revolving-door religion, as this review illustrates in the early history, schisms and departures of high-ranking members have plagued the movement from its very beginning.  The most recent large schism occurred in 1980 when Bethelite Ray Franz, Ed Dunlap, and many other prominent Witnesses left the movement. Unfortunately the date setting has continued in spite of these failures, taking the stand that they are bound to be right someday.


I Bergman, 2005
II Case, 1918
III Froom, 1954, pp. 799-826
IV Jonnson, 1998
V see Jonnson, 1998, p. 45, note 41
VI see The World Crisis, March 31, 1875
VIIWhite, 1967, p. 21.
VIII see Jonnson, The Bible Examiner, Vol. 2:9, 1982, republished in The Christian Quest, Vol. 1:2; Spring 1988, pp. 37-59
IX Barbour, The Herald of the Morning, 1907, pp. 368-369



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