Charles Taze Russell was the founder of a religion that eventually became the modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses. His example demonstrates how untrained and un-discipled people can twist Scripture to fit their own preferences and spread those errors to others. Russell’s spirituality was marked by change, failed prophecy, and controversy. After his death, his followers split, with the most influential group taking on the name of Jehovah’s Witnesses, headed by Joseph Rutherford.
Charles Russell was the son of a businessman and raised as a Presbyterian. In 1868, around the age of 16, he was stumped by skeptical questions of a friend. This led him to question his religious upbringing. Russell came across Adventism, which he found more appealing. By 1870, at the age of 18, he had formed a small Bible study composed of himself and several like-minded people. Already, this group held to certain ideas that deeply contradicted biblical Christianity, such as:
• Rejection of the Trinity.
• Belief that Jesus is identical to Michael the archangel and is God’s first creation.
• Belief that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person.
• Rejection of an eternal hell.
• Rejection of the bodily resurrection of Christ.
• Intense interest in—even obsession with—the return of Christ.
Initially, Charles Taze Russell dismissed attempts to give a prophetic prediction of Christ’s return. That changed rapidly after speaking with Adventist author Nelson Barbour. By 1876, he became convinced that Christ would return in 1878. He sold all his business interests in preparation for the second coming. The failure of that prediction led to a split with Barbour, but there was little doubt among Russell’s more loyal followers. This group was most commonly known as the “Bible Students.”
Russell initiated the Watchtower Tract Society in 1881. He would later claim that Christ had returned—spiritually—in 1874 and that the end of the world would occur in 1914. Students of Russell began claiming he was a prophetic, end-times fulfillment of Matthew 24:45, which speaks of a “faithful and wise servant” awaiting the return of his master. While Russell did not overtly assert this, neither did he deny it. Successors such as Joseph Rutherford later took on that title for themselves, and it eventually became part of Watchtower’s claim to unassailable spiritual authority. Russell wrote six volumes on spirituality prior to his death, collectively known as Studies in the Scriptures.
Of course, 1914 came and went without anything remotely resembling the second coming of Christ. The much-hyped year of 1914 has been the subject of increasingly convoluted explanations by Jehovah’s Witnesses ever since. Russell died in 1916. Around that time, a seventh book—claimed to be written by Russell—was published. In fact, the book was written by associates of Russell and heavily edited by Rutherford. Controversy over that volume, combined with disillusionment over 1914’s debacle, led to a schism, resulting in Rutherford leading a group later renamed Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A look at Russell’s spiritual history shows immediate reasons for concern. As a teenager, he knew little enough about Scripture to answer a skeptical friend’s challenges. Within two years, that same teenager was presumed to be able to interpret the Bible more accurately than any existing church. Not long after, Russell made a drastic change in his approach to eschatology and issued a failed prophecy. At no point did Russell demonstrate any signs of special insight or ability beyond the charisma needed to attract like-minded people. Sincere or not, Charles Taze Russell was a false prophet and a teacher of “another gospel” (see Galatians 1:8–9).
While Russell’s beliefs and efforts were what formed the Bible Students, it would be fair to say the group now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses is more distinguished by the contributions of Joseph Rutherford than of Charles Taze Russell. Rutherford introduced many of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ distinctive doctrines, such as the rejection of holidays, voting, and birthdays. Rutherford is also responsible for the Witnesses’ unique interpretations of Revelation, use of Kingdom Halls, and aggressive door-to-door evangelism. Only about one fourth of Russell’s followers stayed with Rutherford over the years after Russell’s death, during which time the group took on their new name.
Charles Taze Russell is a potent example of why Scripture emphasizes the need for proper discipleship (1 Timothy 3:16) and contains warnings about inexperienced and ignorant mishandling of the Word (2 Peter 3:16–17), seeking those who agree with you instead of seeking truth (2 Timothy 4:3), and accepting a gospel different from the one handed down by Christ and the apostles (Galatians 1:8–9). Had more people been willing to put Russell’s claims to a rigorous test (Acts 17:11), or had they taken note of his failure as a prophet (Deuteronomy 18:22), many fewer people today would be in the grip of a false sect like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.