Russellism Today and Yesterday

by Robert C. Hill, ThB.


"Pastor Russell never claimed to originate Bible truths, but rather to recover the truths held by the First Century church. He succeeded more than any other person, of course not without controversy." This  remark of high esteem is not coming from today’s Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society but from many splinter groups known generically as Bible Students. These groups, and not Jehovah’s Witnesses, are Russellites in the true sense of the word.

With the death of Bible Student founder Charles Taze Russell in 1916,dissension started within the ranks of his religious organization. As second president J. F. Rutherford distanced himself from Russell’s teachings,a splintering and exodus of the Russell faithful into new groups or ecclesias began. Some of these early groups, such as the Pastoral Bible Institute and the Layman’s Home Missionary Movement, still exist today.

The Bible Students, estimated to number in the thousands, make claim to being independent but do meet together throughout the year at numerous conventions. All hold to various degrees of truth as taught by Russell and tenaciously promulgate those teachings that they accept. For example, the Christian Millennial Fellowship is still awaiting the return of Christ. While the Fort Worth Bible Students confidently publish, within each issue of their Journal, Russell’s own belief that Christ returned invisibly in the fall of 1874.

I phoned the Watchtower and asked if they have a public statement concerning the Bible Student movement. They claimed not to have an official statement concerning these offshoots other than what they have already published on them. Acknowledging the splits in the early years the Watchtower states, "When the opposers held a convention in 1918, differences surfaced, and a split occurred. Further disintegration followed. Some functioned for a while as small sects with a leader that they admired. None of them devoted themselves to the work of giving a public witness in all the inhabited earth . . . " This is changing as the Bible Students rachet up another notch of public witnessing with the arrival of the Internet.

With the globalization of information through high-technology, the world of religious teachings is only a mouse click away. The Bible Students are using this new technology to disseminate doctrine that denies every major tenet of faith. From their web-sites one can read or download journals, booklets and even works by Russell himself. If you do not have Internet access, more traditional standards of communication continue to be effective.

The Fort Worth Bible Students once remarked that their programs aired on "more than 46,000,000 households nationwide." Yet the use of this technology is not the only way to proselytize. Many Bible Students do it the old fashion way and will rent booths at state and county fairs. Their effectiveness of distributing information cannot be lightly passed by. At a recent Los Angeles county Fair some 18,000 booklets of Bible Student material were distributed. While across the country the Metropolitan Detroit Bible Student Ecclesia sold 147 first volume books of Russell’s at the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

As evangelicals we must be prepared to defend the faith, but not without love. The apostle Paul writes, "But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5).

Robert C. Hill