History of the Watchtower Movement Date Setting
Watchtower movement was formally founded in 1879 by Charles Taze
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
Froom, 1954, pp. 799-826
see Jonnson, 1998, p. 45, note 41
see The World Crisis, March
1967, p. 21.
see Jonnson, The Bible Examiner,
Vol. 2:9, 1982, republished in The
Christian Quest, Vol. 1:2; Spring 1988, pp. 37-59
Barbour, The Herald of the Morning,
1907, pp. 368-369
167, 2016 March)
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