Bible Student Movement

A Millennialist Restorationist Christian movement emerging from the teachings of Charles Taze Russell, focusing on biblical prophecy and the Second Coming of Christ.

The Bible Student movement is a Millennialist Restorationist Christian movement that originated in the United States in the late 19th century from the teachings of Charles Taze Russell. Known as Pastor Russell, he founded the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society in 1881, which played a central role in the development of the movement.

Early Influences and Development

Charles Taze Russell was born in 1852 to parents of Scottish-Irish descent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In his teenage years, Russell attended the Presbyterian Church and later joined the Congregational Church and the Y.M.C.A. His early religious life was characterized by a deep interest in Christian doctrine, especially concerning eschatology, or the study of the end times.

Russell’s spiritual journey was significantly influenced by Adventist preachers like Jonas Wendell and George Storrs. In the 1870s, he came across the teachings of Nelson H. Barbour, who convinced him that Christ had returned invisibly in 1874. Russell provided financial backing for Barbour’s publication “Herald of the Morning” and collaborated with him in writing “Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World” (1877)​​​​​​.

Key Teachings and Publications

Russell’s teachings emphasized the imminent return of Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth. He published numerous works explaining his views, including “The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return” in the mid-1870s. He also produced “Studies in the Scriptures,” a series of topical studies of the Bible, which profoundly influenced the movement’s doctrine.

His writings focused on biblical prophecy and chronology, predicting significant events such as the end of the “Gentile Times” in 1914 and the beginning of Armageddon. Russell’s views were nontrinitarian, and he rejected traditional Christian doctrines like the immortal soul and hellfire​​​​.

Organizational Structure and Growth

The Bible Student movement was characterized by its decentralized structure. Congregations elected their own elders, and there was no central authority dictating doctrine or practice. This autonomy allowed for a variety of beliefs and interpretations within the movement.

By the time of Russell’s death in 1916, he was pastor to more than 1200 congregations of Bible Students worldwide. His teachings had been translated into over 35 languages, and his sermons were published in numerous newspapers​​.

Schisms and Evolution

After Russell’s death, a power struggle within the movement led to several schisms. The most significant of these occurred in 1917 when Joseph Franklin Rutherford was elected president of the Watch Tower Society. This led to the formation of various independent groups, such as the Stand Fast Movement, the Pastoral Bible Institute, and the Laymen’s Home Missionary Movement.

Rutherford’s faction, which retained control of the Watch Tower Society, eventually adopted the name Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. Other independent Bible Student groups continued under various names, maintaining distinct beliefs and practices. By the end of the 20th century, Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed a membership of 6 million, while other independent Bible Student groups had an estimated total membership of less than 75,000​​​​, organizational changes, and the enduring influence of Charles Taze Russell’s teachings.