The evolution of the INVISIBLE JESUS doctrine: a TIMELINE

by Terry 13 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • Terry

    William Miller (1782-1849), preached that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would occur some time between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.

    Miller was invited to preach his "proofs" to churches in many locations. Many heard and became convinced.

    Miller’s followers may have numbered as many as 100,000.

    Churches split everywhere over who believed and who refused to be taken in.

    Those who pinned their hopes on Miller's arguments did whatever necessary to prepare for the event--an event which never took place. What followed has been termed THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT.

    When Christ failed to materialize within the appointed time, Miller set a new date, October 22, 1844. When this new date failed he apologized and admitted he was wrong.

    Many honest and disappointed souls hung their heads in shame and returned to their old churches. But, about a third did not. They dug in. They tried to "fix" the problem.


    Joseph Bates, James White and in particular Ellen Harmon White, chose to believe there was nothing wrong with Miller’s date calculations and started to teach that Christ had indeed returned in 1844

    This return was not to Earth but to His heavenly Sanctuary. (fulfilling Daniel chapter 8 verse 14), and thus started a day of preparation. The actual Second Coming, the Parousia, was imminent. (Smylie 1988)

    The merit of such an argument was that it provided a flimsy scriptural dodge, an excuse, which gave them temporary plausible deniability until they could repair the damage to their chronology.


    Another Millerite, Nelson H. Barbour, came to believe that the correct date for Christ’s Second Coming was 1873, not 1844.

    He started to spread this message, in particular through his 1870 pamphlet called Evidences for the Coming of the Lord in 1873: or the Midnight Cry, and his monthly The Midnight Cry from 1873. In the meantime, 1873 had become 1874, but that did not prevent another disappointment.

    The loosey-goosey nature of these dates should have embarrassed further speculation. It didn't.

    One of Barbour’s readers, B. W. Keith, came up with a solution.

    Having obtained a new translation of the New Testament, Benjamin Wilson’s The Emphatic Diaglott, Keith noticed a marginal alternative translation of Parousia, the Greek word normally translated ‘coming,’ namely ‘presence.’

    None of these men were skilled in Biblical Greek, but the idea took hold that what had started in 1874 was indeed Christ’s invisible presence. (Jonsson 1983)

    This year, Barbour said, started a millennial morning, and the periodical The Midnight Cry became The Herald of the Morning.

    Barbour failed to convince many of his original readers, but he did manage to convert one young man. This man was Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916).


    Barbour and Russell teamed up. Barbour had the "ideas" and Russell had the money.

    According to his account, Russell was astonished when he learned that Barbour had come to the same conclusions as himself.

    At this time, Russell said, he and his fellow Bible students had already come to the conclusion that Christ would not return to destroy, but to bless mankind.

    Russell taught that the Second Coming would be accompanied by the resurrection of the whole of mankind: “ all must come forth from their graves and be brought to a clear knowledge of the truth and to a full opportunity to gain everlasting life in Christ.”

    Russell also seems to claim that he had come to believe in the two-stage coming of Christ before he read about it in Barbour’s periodical, but the actions Russell took make this highly unlikely.

    Russell, being a wealthy young man, paid for Barbour to come down from New York to meet him in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and during the conversation Russell was convinced that Christ had indeed returned invisibly in 1874. When Russell learned that Barbour’s periodical was almost suspended due to financial problems (the original readers were far from convinced by Barbour’s explanation of the 1874 disappointment), he agreed to help finance its publication. Also, he made Nelson Barbour write a booklet that set forth these chronological ideas, which was published and distributed at Russell’s expense. This booklet, Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World, was published in 1877 with both names on the cover, although Barbour wrote it alone.

    Russell was a clever and talented writer who could clearly express his own views persuasively. What sense does it make IF Russell had arrived at the exact same conclusions as Barbour--for Russell to publish Barbour's version? Why pour his personal funds (from the sale of his father's men's clothing shops) into somebody else's intellectual property?
    Would it not make more sense to go it alone and allow Barbour to take a backseat?
  • Terry
    Three Worlds would impress many who read it, with its seemingly amazing number of advanced calculations based on Biblical figures and symbols, all leading up to an array of prophetic dates in their own time. The harmony between many allegedly independent calculations, all pointing to the same overall pattern, made this an important work in the history of this branch of the Adventist movement. In this system, the 6 th millennium of humanity ended in 1873. (A hundred years later, Fred Franz used the exact same argument for the failed 1975 fiasco.)
    Christ’s invisible Parousia started in 1874. This year also started Armageddon, a period of great calamities for mankind, which would end with the full establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth 40 years after the start of his parousia, in 1914. Three and a half years into this period, corresponding to the length of Jesus’ ministry, the remnant of the 144,000 saints – Christ’s church on Earth, along with them Russell, Barbour and their followers – would be raptured. This was 1878, the following year. At the time, Barbour was “not willing to admit that this calculation is even one year out.”

    Clearly, the heavy lifting (mental grunt work) was all Barbour's efforts built on top of the failed ideas of previous Adventist thinkers who had followed Miller's failures seeking success.

    Russell succeeded in pumping enough money into his publishing of these Adventist views that he stirred up groups of people who, like Miller's followers before, were willing to accept the seemingly overwhelming "proofs" for this being a correct understanding.

    This was the beginning of the scientific era in America. A thirst for measurements, calculations, charts, graphs and proofs lent a false air of authenticity to such religious enterprises. A sophistication was added which Miller's preachments sadly and sorely lacked.

    Adventist genius for invention and Russell's money=gullible followers and a movement was started which eventually led to a new religion.

  • Terry

    What Russell found particularly appealing in all this Adventist mumbo-jumbo was the new tool Ben Keith had invented which provided the necessary magic for saving a failed prophecy: SPIRITUALIZING a material event!

    By making Christ's 2nd coming a 2nd Presence and the 2nd Presence a spiritual event (i.e. INVISIBLE) Russell had unlimited possibilities for developing new themes and predictions which could not be nullified by anything as mundane as disproof through a non-happening.

    1878 came and went. Barbour, however, became disillusioned. It is quite apparent that there were a number of disagreements between the two, culminating when Barbour published a series of articles where he rejected the substitutionary atonement doctrine as Russell taught it: that Christ had died as a “corresponding price” or “ransom” to pay the price for Adam’s sin.
    Russell answered in later issues of the Herald, and the rift between the two former associates grew. Russell writes that because of this difference over the ransom doctrine, “I therefore […] withdrew entirely from the Herald of the Morning and from further fellowship with Mr. B.”

    The non-event of 1878 disheartened Barbour and convinced him of error. Not so Russell! It should not seem at all surprising that, at this juncture, Russell began to pull ahead and separate himself doctrinally while developing his own peculiar theology. He, Russell, had learned from his association with Adventists how the game was to be played!

    Proofs, predictions, charts, graphs and scriptures were to be presented scientifically, logically and with no smell of uncertainty about them. Readers would get excited, moved, emotional and believe whole-heartedly what was being fed them. Then, when the predictions failed--it was only necessary to find a way of converting the disproof into a REVEAL of spiritualizing the event on an invisible stage and connect it with scripture.

    Another of Barbour’s close associates, and an important person in the Second Adventist tradition, J. H. Paton , followed Russell, but soon enough split with him in 1881, over similar doctrinal differences.

    The inventor of the secret weapon in his new toolbox, B. W. Keith, was the only important person among the original followers of Barbour’s ideas on chronology and eschatology who stayed with Russell.

    The time was ripe for the clothing store saleman, Charles Russell, to transform into a new identity of preacher extraordinaire: PASTOR RUSSELL.

    Russell had observed and learned how the public was hungry for clever presentations and would give their enthusiastic endorsement and approval to any man who could razzle dazzle them by feeding them a steady stream of thrilling End Times predictions.

    Over the next decades, Russell would become a high profile peddler of, not two piece business suits or waistcoats, but--a new kind of Adventist propaganda with built in safety nets. It was all invisible! He, in effect, became the tailor in The Emperor's New Clothes who could sell the invisible to the public at large and count on their co-operation not to blow the fakery sky high. True Believers can never admit to being wrong!

  • Terry

    After the schism with Barbour, Russell published his own periodical. In July 1879 the first edition of Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence was published. The same year, Russell married Maria Frances Ackley. Clearly, his choice of wife and his publishing debut of the Watchtower were meant to signal a joint venture. Maria was an intellectual, writer, women's suffragette and partner in every way.

    Russell began to revise the chronology he had learned from Barbour. The first test of Russell's powers of diversion and deflection came when he moved the rapture to 1881, to take his followers’ attention away from the failure of the predictions about 1878. Russell sometimes even denied having made such predictions (Penton 1985, 25ff). Denial, deflection and diversion became a pattern for Russell and it served him well.

    How successful was Russell in launching his own enterprise?

    Russell was a tireless writer and he also traveled widely to preach his understanding of Scripture, and the number of his followers grew. Using his personal wealth, Russell made sure the Watch Tower was widely distributed, and his sermons were printed in a large number of newspapers all over the United States. By the time of his death, his total production totaled some 50,000 printed pages, and nearly 20 million copies of his books had been distributed worldwide (Penton 1985, 26). The first of his real books, Millennial Dawn or Studies in the Scriptures was published in 1886. This would become volume I in a series of six books with the same title, and the book was later known as The Divine Plan of the Ages.

    One of the key ingredients to Russell's far reaching success in spreading his peculiar views would be the local participation of true-believers who locally published, advertised and promoted his books and pamphlets. One of the men who joined his efforts was Joseph Rutherford who could recognize a self-promoter when he saw one. (Rutherford would go on to re-establish Russell's religion as a world wide Witness work employing the local yokel approach to distribution.)

  • Terry

    The books, and also the Watch Tower, were translated into German, Swedish and Dano-Norwegian. Russell also traveled. In 1891 he went to Scotland, Ireland, England, Russia, other European countries and even the Middle East. Especially in England and Scandinavia were people receptive to Russell’s preaching.

    At this time, it is worth looking briefly at what Russell taught:

    · Chronology : The importance of Biblical chronology, as we have outlined earlier, can hardly be understated. A large portion of the first three volumes of Studies in the Scriptures was dedicated to various ‘prophetic’ dates.

    · Anti-organization : Russell had learned from George Storrs a clear dislike of organized religion. In Adventist circles, it is common to refer to the Roman Catholic Church as ‘the Whore of Babylon.’ Storrs, and also Russell, widened this application of the apocalyptic symbol to refer to all organized churches and denominations. Russell denied forming a new denomination, even though later events would make it hard for observers to spot such a difference between his own and other groups.

    · Neo-Aryanism : Unlike Barbour and Paton, and even Storrs who were unclear on the question of Christology, Russell openly and directly denied the Trinity doctrine. The preaching of Neo-Aryanism, or more correctly a denial of the Trinity doctrine, should place the Watchtower movement outside mainstream Christianity and lead to much opposition from established churches.

    · Conditionalism : The denial of the doctrine of the soul’s immortality, and especially the emphatic denial of the hell-fire doctrine, was dear to heart to Russell, and is no doubt the reason he was attracted to the Adventist movement. Russell found the idea of God’s eternal torture of the souls totally repugnant and spared few chances to say so. This was met with hard opposition from the mainstream churches.

    · Zionism : The return to Palestine of the Jews, and later, in 1914, a wholesale miraculous conversion of the Jews to Christianity, was a teaching Russell shared with Barbour. Russell was certainly a friend of the New York Jews and Zionism.

    · Near-Universal Salvation : It was the central belief of Russell that Christ returned, not to destroy but to save mankind. He taught the salvation of four different groups, and in this order of importance: 1) The 144,000, the ‘bride of Christ’, in short: the original first-century Christians and Russell’s followers. 3) The ‘Great Company Class,’ Christians not fully worthy of the ‘high calling’ of the 144,000. 2) Israel Restored. 4) Mankind generally. Russell taught that all the three latter groups would be given a new ‘test’ of loyalty after being taught about God’s Plan, and he assumed the majority would remain loyal. Those who did not (and Russell seems to assume there would be few) would be annihilated.

    (See: Hovedoppgave / Master Thesis)
  • Terry

    What seemed to separate Pastor Russell from his contemporaries was his utter neglect of bible doctrine and commentary. His passion and focus seemed to lock in to Chronology, Chronology,Chronology!!

    While all the above doctrines had a central importance to the Bible Students, it is clear that to Russell, they all – with the exception of the salvation doctrine and the atonement – were secondary compared to the chronology. Alan Rogerson explains, referring to the Studies in the Scriptures:

    “The most surprising thing about the six volumes was their lack of discussion of basic doctrines – less than sixty of the 3,000 pages were devoted to discussing the trinity, the immortality of the soul and hell-fire. The second volume contained no doctrinal material at all; ... (One last example: in the first volume Russell devoted only two paragraphs in the whole book to showing that the idea of eternal torment was unscriptural.)” (Rogerson 1969, 17)

  • Terry

    In the 1906 autobiographical Watch Tower article, Russell clearly left the impression that his booklet Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return was written before he met Barbour. Later, the Watchtower Society has explicitly made the claim it was published in 1873 (see Watchtower Publications Index 1930-1985, Yearbook 1975, p. 36 and Purpose 1959). A cursory reading of the booklet itself reveals that he refers directly to Nelson Barbour and that it teaches the presence had already started. So, in Proclaimers 1993 the Watchtower Society indeed admits it was written in 1877, after Russell had been converted to Barbour’s cause, but even in this history version the order of events is reversed, giving the casual reader the impression that Russell himself originated the "invisible presence" doctrine. Also, we find that Russell himself contradicts this view, when he explains how Barbour had convinced him about Christ’s invisible coming in 1874. Whatever the case, the evidence suggests that most, if not all, of Russell’s early doctrines were taken directly from Nelson Barbour.

  • Terry
    1914. As it approached, it was obvious that the events Russell had predicted for the years prior to 1914 would not materialize. No worldwide socialist revolution occurred, and the world was not thrown into anarchy. Russell bought another year by making 1914 into 1915, and he was more and more cautious about his formerly very confident predictions. Then, in August 1914, what we now call World War I broke out in Europe. Even though this was what Russell had explicitly said would not happen in 1914,he nevertheless claimed it as a remarkable fulfillment of his prophecy. This was, said Russell, just the final spasm of the current world.

    The Bible Student community clearly experienced another disappointment when the first excitement about the war had settled. They had expected to be taken to heaven, and it did not occur. It was in this situation that disaster struck the sect: On a train near Waco, Texas, Charles Taze Russell died, October 31, 1916.

  • agent zero
    agent zero

    Very interesting info Terry! So then how did Rutherford take over? how seamless was the transition?

  • Homerovah the Almighty
    Homerovah the Almighty

    Funny isn't how religious doctrines can change randomly when there is a business attached to them, with the WTS. that was exactly the case !

    Some good information there Terry you've been busy lately, I hope the browsing lurkers take a look at this stuff.

    This is what people need when they are trying to walk out of the Kingdom Hall.....Information

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