Pastor Russell's Imaginary Sermon

by Leolaia 8 Replies latest watchtower scandals

  • Leolaia

    This is an essay I wrote a while ago:

    Pastor Russell's 1911 Visit to Hawaii: The Case of the "Imaginary Sermon"

    Walter Martin, in his bestselling Kingdom of the Cults, alleges that Pastor Charles T. Russell regularly lied about his evangelistic activities -- particularly, by reporting that he spoke publically in places where his ship only briefly stopped for fuel. As one example, Martin cites the case of a sermon Russell claimed to given on 19 December 1911 in Honolulu. Walter G. Smith, editor of the Hawaiian Star, informed the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that Russell, in fact, only stopped for a few hours for coal. To find out what really happened, I researched newspapers from the time to piece together the story Russell's 1911 visit. I believe the tale about the "imaginary sermon" is much ado about nothing. Timothy White (A People For His Name, p. 54) shows that Russell had an extremely busy itenerary. Before he went to Hawaii on 19 December 1911, he had been spending the winter in Britain delivering sermons, and that was his second visit in the same year. He was also due to deliver many addresses in Asia. Apparently Russell intended to give an sermon in Hawaii, as Hawaii's nickname "Paradise of the Pacific" afforded a perfect opportunity for Russell to expound on the prospects of the future Age.

    Russell arrived on Monday, 11 December 1911 to the San Francisco Bay Area (Oakland, specifically). But he already had his Hawaiian sermon written. Remember that he was about to embark on the largest speaking tour of his life and had to have most of his sermons written in advance. The San Francisco magazine Overland Monthly was to publish his sermons while he was overseas, including the Hawaiian one, which appeared in the March 1912 issue. Russell evidently sent a batch of his sermons to the publishers of Overland Monthly before he embarked on his world tour. Though Russell's Hawaiian sermon began with the line, "As our ship neared your beautiful island I thought back a century," the Pastor certainly didn't have the time to compose such a sermon during his brief stay there.

    The steamer Russell planned to take to Hawaii, the T. K. K. turbine liner Shinyo Maru, arrived in San Francisco Bay on 1 December 1911. This was its second visit to this port. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the ship opened for public inspection on Sunday, 10 December, and several hundred people showed up to visit the "big ocean greyhound," as it was called back then (9 December, p. 17; 10 December, p. 63; 11 December, p. 15). Russell was not there (he was en route from Fresno, California), but he also had more important business in town. Before his departure, Russell "contracted for advertising space" in the Brooklyn Citizen of 18 December to publish his sermon which was to be cabled from Honolulu. Evidently, he had planned to arrive in Hawaii on 18 December. The ship was due to leave on 13 December and since the Shinyo Maru steamed at a speed of 20.23 knots during her trials in 1911, the ship could have arrived to Hawaii as early as 17 December. An article published in the Hawaiian Star of 16 December 1911 (p. 9) noted that the Maru's sister ship Tenyo Maru took only 4 days 18 hours 50 minutes to arrive from San Francisco. Apparently, then, Russell had planned to be in Hawaii on 18 December where he was to cable his sermon to Brooklyn.

    The Shinyo Maru was scheduled to leave San Francisco Bay on 13 December, and the Chronicle that morning interestingly commented: "Among the Shinyo's cabin passengers will be a number of prominent Japanese businessmen. Several insular employeers are destined for Manila. Pastor Russell, an evangelist, and a party of ten will begin a tour of the world on the Shinyo." (p. 17) The ship left promptly at 1:00pm that afternoon, and a thousand Japanese passengers shouted "Banzai!" as the liner departed. The Chronicle the next day published a list of cabin passengers aboard the Shinyo Maru; included among those headed for Hong Kong were General W. P. Hall, Dr. L. W. Jones, Professor F. H. Robinson, and Pastor C. T. Russell.

    By 18 December however the liner was still en route to Honolulu. Captain H. Stanley Smith sent Castle & Cooke in Hawaii a wireless message announcing that the ship would arrive the next day at about 7:30am. Why did the voyage take longer than 5 days? The delay was probably caused by bad weather. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser of 20 December stated this concerning the Shinyo Maru's trip to Honolulu: "Together with every vessel that has come into port during the last week the Shinyo Maru reported having had a hard passage from San Francisco. The steamer is said to be remarkably steady in a seaway as she carried two large bilge keels." (p. 14)

    Since Russell had already paid for advertising space in the Brooklyn Citizen, he decided to send the cablegram anyway from aboard the ship, with the intent to still deliver the sermon when he arrived. If he didn't send the dispatch, the newspaper space he paid for would have been lost. On the other hand, it is possible that there never was a dispatch and Russell had already arranged for the Citizen to publish the prewritten text, and had no opportunity to cancel its publication while at sea.

    The Shinyo Maru arrived in Honolulu Harbor at 7:30am, 19 December. It was a Tuesday morning. Russell and his lieutenants left the ship an hour later. The whereabouts of several of the Bible Students can be ascertained through newspaper reports. First of all, Dr. Leslie W. Jones went over to Bethel Street in the business district to make his party's presence known to the press. He was interviewed by a reporter in the Hawaiian Star office, and left him his card before he went on his way. When the reporter asked him if the missionary committee planned to investigate the religious situation in Hawaii, Dr. Jones replied that "the committee members were going around, while the steamer was in port, making general investigations." No mention was made of a sermon by Dr. Jones.

    Another one of the committee members mentioned by contemporary newspaper reports is General William P. Hall. In the morning he visited General Macomb at his headquarters, "and after made a social visit to the General and Mrs. Macomb at their residence, where he was entertained at luncheon." Later on in the afternoon, he was interviewed by the Pacific Commercial Advertiser.

    But what about Russell? Interestingly, the newspaper reports say nothing about his activities that day. Thus, nothing rules out the possibility that he may have indeed delivered a sermon. It is worth noting that he spent eight hours in Honolulu, not just a "few" as the Brooklyn Eagle later reported. This may have been enough time for Russell to attract the attention of passersby in a park or find an audience in a residence and deliver a lunchtime sermon. According to Thrum's Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1912, the famous Souza Band gave two concerts in 1911 while their ship was in port. There are also good reasons for believing that Russell did not deliver his sermon, as will later be explained.

    Whatever the Russellites did that day, it is certain that they boarded the Shinyo Maru by 4:30pm. Thirteen tardy passengers had to board with great difficulty from launches. The Advertiser of 20 December confirms Russell's presence on the Yokohama-bound ship: "Up in the first cabin the Shinyo Maru carried a varied assortment of passengers. For instance there was pastor C. T. Russell, head of the Brooklyn tabernacle and famous as a preacher the world over, a party of Catholic priests returning to their homes in Australia after a trip to Rome and the Holy Land, a moving picture company with apparatus and films, a professor from the Natural History museum at New York bent on a search for rare specimens of whale in the water around Korea, two singers and a hodgepodge of Japanese and Chinese merchants and officials." (p. 14) According to the Eagle of 11 January 1913, Russell did not reach Yokohama until 30 December. There he delivered another sermon.

    When the dispatch was published in the 18 December issue of the Brooklyn Citizen, the editors of the Eagle discovered another opportunity to find fault with the Pastor. The next day they mailed a letter to Walter G. Smith, the editor of the Hawaiian Star inquiring whether Russell really did deliver a sermon in Honolulu on 18 December. Editor Smith investigated the matter, and then wrote back. According to an extract published in the Eagle, he stated: "In answer to your inquiry of December 19th concerning Pastor Russell, I would say that he was here for a few hours with a Bible student's committee of foreign mission investigation, but did not make a public address as was anticipated." The three last words of Editor Smith's reply confirm that Russell had indeed planned to deliver the Hawaiian sermon.

    On 19 February 1912 the Eagle published Smith's letter, the Brooklyn Citizen dispatch, and a harsh article ridiculing Russell for never delivering the sermon. Walter Martin, in his Kingdom of the Cults, quoted the article in full. This article, however, distorts almost every facet of Russell's world trip and is filled with many half- truths. The headline, for instance, exaggerated the situation: "Pastor Russell's Imaginary Sermons -- Printed Reports of Addresses in Foreign Lands that He Never Made -- One at Hawaii, a Sample." This sarcastic headline implies that delivering "imaginary sermons" was a common occurrence with Russell. A later Eagle article also quoted by Martin elaborates on this distortion: "All during this time the 'Pastor's' sermons were being printed throughout the world, notably when he made a tour of the world in 1912 and caused accounts to be published in his advertised sermons telling of enthusiastic greetings at the various places he visited. It was shown in many cases that the sermons were never delivered in the places that were claimed." In truth, the "many cases" were actually the single Hawaiian case. As Timothy White shows, Russell was quite successful at delivering sermons; between 5 January and the publication date of the Eagle article, Russell had addressed Asian audiences no less than fifteen times.

    Another Eagle distortion can be found in the first paragraph of the article. The unnamed writer reports concerning Russell: "He is delivering sermons into the missions of China and Japan by spending only a few hours in each country." I find it strange that Martin himself did not catch the error of this statement, for he then quotes the 11 January 1913 Eagle article which says something quite different. The second article was written to criticize Russell's busy traveling in Japan and quoted the Japan Weekly Chronicle of 11 January 1912 which clearly states that the Pastor arrived in Yokohama on Saturday, 30 December and left Kobe for Hong Kong on Wednesday, 3 January 1912. This means that Russell had spent at least four days in Japan, which is a far cry from "a few hours." What about China? According to Timothy White, Russell arrived in China (Hong Kong) on 5 January and stayed there until 10 January.

    The most serious claim the article makes is that "Pastor Russell never spoke in Honolulu during the few hours that his ship stopped there to take on coal." Unlike the previous allegations, this charge has documentary evidence to back it up. But we basically have to take Editor Smith's word for it, and assume that Smith was intimately aware of Russell's activity while in town.

    Another problem is that Editor Smith may have investigated the wrong day. The letter the Eagle sent him on 19 December informed him that the dispatch was printed in the 18 December Brooklyn Citizen. Since the Eagle was not aware of the actual date of Russell's arrival, it seems possible that Smith simply realized that the ship had not arrived by the 18th and concluded that thus no sermon was given -- without investigating whether Russell delivered any sermons on the 19th.

    The question of whether Russell actually succeeded in delivering his sermon is thus inconclusive. Russell very likely visited local churches to see firsthand how successful missionaries were in converting native Hawaiians and Asians. That he observed some sort of ecclesiastical or religious activity there is made evident by the following remark in his world tour report: "It is our opinion that the work in Hawaii is a good one, viewed from the humanitarian standpoint, but an utter failure from the standpoint of Christianization." (quoted by White, p. 55)

    It is most instructive to note how Martin misuses Editor Smith's letter. He claims that it brands Russell's sermon a "lie," (and italicizes this word) and leaves "no doubt as to 'Pastor' Russell's character." But does it really? Actually the facts show that Martin is the one who is lying. As pointed out earlier, the excerpts of the letter reproduced by Martin show that Russell had anticipated to "make a public address." Russell had good reason to expect to be in Hawaii by the 18th. Editor Smith certainly did not believe that Russell was a liar. Over a month before the letter was published in the Eagle, Editor Smith wrote an article in the Hawaiian Star which stated his views on the matter. Titled "The Sermon Pastor Russell Didn't Preach in Honolulu," this valuable article was published on 4 January 1912 and made the following revealing statements:

    On December 18 the Brooklyn Citizen published as a cablegram from Honolulu, a report of a sermon preached here on that day by Pastor Russell, the sensational Brooklyn minister. It was a very good sermon, part of which we give below, but it was never uttered here. Pastor Russell came, stayed about a few hours with a clerical and lay committee, and went on. No meeting was held, but below are some paragraphs from the opening part of it. Probably the pastor meant to preach, but he didn't connect.

    According to Smith, Russell simply missed his connection and didn't have enough time to do all the things he wanted. Although the Eagle concluded from Smith's letter that Russell never intended to deliver the sermon, Smith himself said that Russell probably "meant to preach."

    This was not the last word Editor Smith had on the matter. Having been informed by the Eagle of Russell's notoriety in Brooklyn, Smith published another article the next day about Pastor Russell. It was highly critical in tenor and reproduced an Eagle expose on Russell's teachings and personal life. Yet, he still maintained that the Pastor intended to evangelize when he arrived in Honolulu: "That Pastor Russell intended to preach here, had the time of his steamer permitted, is evident from the appearance in a Brooklyn paper of a sermon purported to have been delivered by him in Honolulu, some extracts from this undelivered discourse having been published in the Star." (5 January 1912, p. 6) Smith therefore regarded the Brooklyn Citizen sermon as evidence of Russell's intent to evangelize while in port.

    The most likely explanation, then, is that Russell prepared his speech before leaving San Francisco and gave a copy to The Overland Monthly for publication while he was away (and thus could not retract it later), and then left on the Shinyo Maru expecting to arrive in Honolulu on time to deliver his sermon on the 18th. It is also possible that Russell had already sent his "cablegram" to the Brooklyn Citizen before he left, to be published in advertising space on the 18th. If he actually did send a cablegram from sea, he would have done this to utilize the space he had already paid for. It is unclear, however, whether a cablegram from sea could really have been printed as a cablegram from Honolulu. It is thus clear that either way, Russell did fudge the truth there. It is probable that Russell intended to make his speech the next day, but whether he actually succeeded is unknown (but unlikely). He and his companions were busy that day, and Russell appears to have at least visited local churches while his companions met with other interested peoples and even contacted the local press.

    At most, then, Russell was guilty of sending material for publication that falsely claimed he was in a certain place at a certain time. This was a little dishonest, but Russell may have made such arrangements merely to simplify matters while traveling. There is no evidence he meant to deceive by never intending to speak while in Hawaii. If he expected to be in Hawaii for another day (and the date of the 18th for the advertisement would suggest this), it is hard to imagine him not planning to make a sermon, as this was his modus operandi for the rest of the trip. And he had prepared a most appropriate sermon suited to his audience in Hawaii. Clearly, Martin and the Eagle have exaggerated matters by charging that Russell frequently gave "imaginary sermons."

    Russell was a complex man, and he evidently was himself quite self- deceived. There are other affairs in his life where criticism is certainly due. But the affair of the "imaginary sermon" turns out to be rather trivial, though a minor embarassment for Russell.

    (Originally written 1991; revised 2002)

  • RR

    and your point is?

  • sens
    Russell was a complex man.

    Russell was a nut.

    3 Sens 4

  • Euphemism

    Good research, Leolaia.

    RR... I think that Leolaia has a very good point, namely, defending Russell from a slanderous charge that was made against him. I would think you would support that.

    I think that Russell had a good sense for publicity, and as such may have tended to make rather broad, grand descriptions of what actually may have been trivial affairs. The WTS still seems to suffer from that habit. But I definitely don't believe that he fabricated accouns from whole cloth.

  • Leolaia

    I agree that it is a trivial matter, a minor footnote from Russell's life -- but it was given quite a bit of space in Walter Martin's book which is still widely read, and I feel that for the sake of historical accuracy, something needed to be said about it. That's all.

    I totally agree Russell was a nut, surpassed only by the madness of some of his followers (Woodworth and Johnson readily come to mind).


  • run dont walk
    run dont walk
    I totally agree Russell was a nut,

    Yes, but Rutherford took the cake, at least Russell believed in his words, as crazy as they were.

    Can the same be said for Rutherford, Knorr, Franz etc.

    Russell didn't seem to be as money hungry as the presidents that followed him.

  • johnny cip
    johnny cip

    ok so even if russell gave all the sermons he said he many people were at each 10 50, 100. and did any of them speak english? i don't recall russell having the holy sprit abilty to speak in tongues!!!!!!!!!!!! so the bottom line is even if he made these sermons . moswt there in china or japan could not understand a word he was saying.. and that for the better b/c all Russell was babbling about was false prophecies about 1874 and 1914. etc etc......john

  • Spudinator

    It is interesting to speculate about what would have happened to the WTBTS if Pastor Russell had been on board the RMS Titanic. Or even better yet, the choice of apostates everywhere, J.F. Rutherford.

  • shotgun

    I really take offense to you all calling pastor Russell a nut...

    He was actually Gods spirit appointed NUT delivering wheat... I mean meat in due season.

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