From Pittsburgh to the end of the world

(Originally published in the April, 2005 issue of Deek)

Charles Taze Russell was born in Pittsburgh in 1852. His father was a haberdasher and owned his own shop on Fifth Avenue.

From an early age, Russell would have to endure his mother’s horrifying “fire and brimstone” bible stories. Living in a city that Charles Dickens once characterized as “…an ugly confusion of backs of buildings and crazy galleries and stairs,” Pittsburgh in the age of Carnegie was the perfect movie back lot industrial hell for Russell’s nightmare visions of apocalypse, revelation and — for a fortunate few — redemption.

In the preface to the second edition of his Apocalypse Culture , Adam Parfrey writes of “individuals who have the audacity to consider themselves their own best authority, in repudiation or ignorance of the orthodoxy factories of the Church, University or State. The constructions of these folk researchers may often seem wildly amiss, laughable, disreputable, but are more revealing cultural barometers than the acculturated pabulum of compromised and corrupt professionals.” This type of “folk researcher” is an American institution, as exemplified by such eccentrics as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and C.T. Russell.

Russell was an inventor, of a peculiar sort. His earliest work led to such creations as Miracle Wheat, a cure for cancer, and the Millennial Bean (which one joker said took a thousand years to sprout). It was his research into the Bible, however, that led to his own reinvention as “prophet.”

Russell’s philosophical bent was decidedly esoteric, and for his ministry he created a merry mélange of Gnosticism and freemasonry, Adventism and agnosticism. His doctrine dovetailed with Christianity as it’s currently practiced, with a few notable exceptions. Instead of “Hell” he preferred the outright annihilation of the unsaved. He also did away with the doctrine of the Trinity (the whole “father, son, holy spirit” thing), identifying Jesus with Michael the Archangel and reducing the Holy Spirit from a person to a force, like gravity, or levity.

Russell’s first media campaign began in 1873, with his tract, “The Object and Manner of the Lord’s Return,” in which he stated that all his followers — “Living Saints” — would soon be called to heaven. On Good Friday 1878, Russell and his fans donned white robes and assembled on the Sixth Street Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh . The world didn’t end.

Russell thought that his ideas were perfectly rational. He didn’t realize that “rational thought” is nothing more than a trick the ego plays to reinforce itself. Just as he was able to rationalize an end to the world — several times — he was soon able to convince himself that Jesus had, in fact, returned to Earth in 1914. But the return was invisible.

After a life spent preaching, Russell finally met his God on a train through Texas in 1916. He suffered a heart attack. His last words were, “please wrap me in a Roman toga.”

And his followers soldiered on. The loss of Pastor Russell did not spell the end of his movement, nor the end of The End itself. After 1914 came and went the “End Times” theory was slightly modified: The End would come, not in 1914, but at some point during the lifespan of those who had been alive in 1914. By 1994 the Society realized that the world would not end in time for the class of 1914 to see it. Sensing that the “Living Saints” (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to themselves) would soon be a thing of the past, the Witnesses seem to be switching to “Plan B:” real estate.

I don’t know the rationale behind Watchtower Real Estate “Plan B,” but they seem to have applied the same kind of logic that Russell used to apply to his Bible studies.

The Witnesses believe that they are above “worldly” institutions, being “Living Saints” and all, and have gone to great lengths (many times making American legal history doing so) to protect their separation from the government. Indeed, they believe that “Christians must keep themselves clean and unspotted by [the] world’s corruption and defilement, not entering into friendly relations with it, lest they be condemned with it.” Speak to any ex-Witness and you will hear tales of how the average follower has been led to believe that they must sell their home, their business, and their belongings in order that they better prepare for an Armageddon that will never happen. Yet, as of 1994 the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society owned at least thirty-six properties in Brooklyn Heights alone, with an estimated value of over $190 million dollars. Had the end come in 1994, this would amount to a cash payout of about $1,300 for each of the 144,000 “Living Saint” the Witnesses believe will make it to Heaven.

The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society has no official position on how the “Living Saints” are to spend the money.