Charles Taze Russell

Pastor Russell

Russell was a large man, over six feet tall. He wore a full beard that many of his followers copied. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses are generally against beards today.

Why is Charles Taze Russell famous?

Charles Taze Russell was the founder and first leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination.

When did Charles Taze Russell live?

Charles Taze Russell was born on February 16, 1852 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He was sometimes called by his initials “C.T.”, and as his profile as a religious leader grew, he was often called simply “Pastor Rusell.” He died of a bladder infection at age 64 while on a train passing through Pampa, Texas.

What did Charles Taze Russel do?

Charles Taze Russell spent his early life in Philadelphia, where he helped his widower father run a successful clothing business. Growing wealthy at a young age, he turned his attention to studying the Bible, becoming particularly interested in adventism and millenarianism — theories that claim the end of the world and Christ’s second coming is imminent, and can be predicted by man. In his 20s, Russell started contributing articles to Christian journals and newspapers, and in 1879 he started his own magazine, Watchtower, which he used for the next three decades to share his understanding of the apocalypse, and how good Christians could survive it.

Russell argued that seemingly vague or unclear parts of the Bible actually had very specific meanings that could be decoded through historic and scientific research. Building on the work of other adventist and millennialist scholars, he concluded that Jesus Christ — who he believed to be a being distinct from God — had already returned to earth invisibly, but would not trigger Armageddon and the creation of a new, divine world until 1914. Those who accepted Christ would live for a thousand years in His new kingdom before the final judgment. In the meantime, it was the duty of all “witnesses” to God’s truth (who Russell believed should be called by His Old Testament name, Jehovah) to proselytize, with particular emphasis on gathering the 144,000 saints mentioned in Revelation to help rule alongside Christ.

Russell’s charisma and confidence made him one of the most popular Christian preachers of the late 1800s and early 20th century, and he traveled the world building a global following of so-called “Bible Students” who read his magazine and accepted his theories. Though he was a strong critic of organized religion, in 1884 Russell founded the Watchtower Society, with himself as president, and it gradually assumed the characteristics of a church. While Russell’s prediction of a 1914 apocalypse obviously didn’t come true, his claim that the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) proved a phase of chaos had consumed the world as a prelude to its end helped maintain his credibility. He passed away in 1916 having established the basic beliefs and organizational structure of the Christian sect now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, which today claims over eight million followers across the globe.

What was Charles Taze Russell like?

Charles Taze Russell was a severe but kind and compelling man whose patient and persuasive personality helped make him an effective minister of his teachings. Despite his wealth, he lived relatively modestly and was extremely puritanical, abstaining from any activity that could be considered sinful, including drinking alcohol, eating meat, and most forms of entertainment. While Russell never called himself a prophet, he did believe much of his Biblical scholarship was divinely-guided, and his organization spoke of him as God’s earthly “servant” — which gave him something of an inflated ego. He could be vicious to those who challenged his authority even when he was obviously in the wrong, which caused some factionalism in his movement.

The biggest public humiliation of Russell’s life was his troubled marriage to Maria Frances Ackley (1850-1938), an intelligent, independent woman with whom he constantly clashed. Initially an active figure in her husband’s religious movement, Maria grew frustrated with her lack of authority in the Watchtower Society, a byproduct of Russell’s conservative views of women. Things weren’t helped by Russel’s opposition to sex — which he considered immoral — or his close relationship with a female Watchtower employee many years his junior. The couple had a long and messy divorce, and once single, Maria spent years trying to discredit her ex.

Russell is often alleged to have held a number of bizarre “secret” beliefs, but these are mostly urban legends. He was neither a Freemason nor an occultist, though his obsession with understanding the Bible as literally as possible did lead him to take seriously weird pseudosciences like “pyramidism” that claimed to offer secrets of the ancient world. Politically, Russell was quite left-wing, viewing big business as one of the chief evils of man’s corrupted world. In 1913, he was implicated in an embarrassing scandal when it was revealed his Watchtower Society had briefly sold seeds for supposed “miracle wheat” in order to fundraise.

Americans That Matter is an ongoing effort to offer concise biographies of Americans who have made a difference in the world — for good or ill — through their ideas, inventions, and achievements.

This site was written and illustrated by J.J. McCullough, a Canadian-born Americanophile. Edited by @NathanTsui.

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