Watch Tower's Debt to Seventh-day Adventism: A Fascinating Footnote to History
SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISM and the Jehovah's Witnesses movement are of ten confused in the thinking of the public, which sometimes sees them as one and the same organization, partially perhaps because of some superficial similarities.
Both, for example, stress a door-to-door variety of personal evangelism (as does also Mormonism), which sets them apart from most of the established Christian denominations. Both use public Bible lectures as a major means of propagating their faith. Both prominently employ the printed page as a prime medium for the advocacy of their distinctive doctrinal views. Members of both groups have a demonstrated willingness to espouse unpopular causes at great financial (as well as social) sacrifice. And on the theological front both hold as a cardinal tenet of faith the basic belief that death is merely a state of unconscious sleep.
One link between the two bodies less well-known to the general public, however, is to be found in a fascinating footnote to history in sociologist Herbert Hewitt Stroup's definitive work, The Jehovah's Witnesses.'1
Using Charles Taze Russell's own words, Dr. Stroup relates how the founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement "stumbled upon Adventism" as a teenage boy of about sixteen years who had just fallen "an easy prey to the logic of infidelity." Raised a Presbyterian and later a member of the Congregational Church, Russell was now "shaken in faith regarding many long-accepted doctrines" and on the verge of throwing over everything religious and becoming a spiritual dropout.
Then one evening, as Russell tells his own story, the young man, "seemingly by accident, . . . dropped into a dusty, dingy hall" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to hear Seventh-day Adventist evangelist Jonas Wendell expound some strange, if "not entirely clear," religious ideas.
He went, he said, "to see if the handful who met there had anything more sensible to offer than the creeds of the great churches" which, to Russell, were "on the whole misleading and contradictory of God's word" although "each contained some elements of truth." (An attack on "human creeds and systems of misrepresentation of the Bible" would later become a prominent feature of Watch Tower theology.)
And so it was that "there for the first time I heard something of the views of Second Adventism."
Russell later publicly declared2 that this experience in attending this Seventh-day Adventist evangelistic service was a turning point in his life. It was, he said, "sufficient under God to re-establish my wavering faith in the divine inspiration [of the Scriptures] and to show that the records of the apostles and prophets are indissolubly linked."
Russell never accepted Adventism as such, however, despite the fact that God had spoken to his heart in so marked a manner under the ministry of one of its preachers.
Nevertheless, as a consequence, Russell was impelled to confess publicly his "in debtedness" to Adventists; and, in later life, he expressed the conviction that this body was "called of God"—as a precursor of his Watch Tower movement!
Seventh-day Adventists thus came to hold the distinction of being the one religious denomination that Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, never completely condemned during his lifetime!
One cannot but wonder, from the vantage point of history, if Russell's brief en counter with Adventism was responsible in any way for the parallels between the two groups noted above, especially the doctrinal emphasis on "soul sleep."
And, although the historian never says, "If . . ." one finds it difficult to refrain from conjecture as to what different course church history in the United States, and the world for that matter, might have taken had Russell accepted Adventism and turned his prodigious organizing energies into propagating Adventism instead of be ginning a new denomination which one day would encircle the globe to present formidable competition and confront Evangelist Jonas Wendell's successors in every nation on earth!
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1. Herbert H. Stroup, The Jehovah's Witnesses (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), pp. 5, 6. Stroup has taught sociology and anthropology at Brooklyn College since 1942.
2. Watch Tower, July, 1906, cited in The Jehovah's Witnesses.