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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Russell Debates Eaton (1903) & White (1908)

Since Brother Russell was so widely known and spoke to large audiences on many occasions, you may wonder what it was like to listen to him. “How different from the ordinary preacher!” exclaims C. B. Tvedt, adding: “No oratory, no emotionalism. No begging to hit the sawdust trail. There was something far more effective and powerful than all of these put together! That was the simple,quiet, confident expounding of the Word of God—letting one scripture unlock another one until it became, as it were, a powerful magnet. In this way Brother Russell held his audience in rapt attention.” Ralph H. Leffler says that before giving a discourse Brother Russell made several graceful bows to the audience. When speaking, he usually stood on the open platform and would walk about, using his arms freely in gesturing. “He never used notes . . . but always spoke freely from the heart,” according to Brother Leffler, who continues: “His voice was not loud, but it had peculiar carrying power. Without ever using sound amplifying equipment (there was none in those days), he could be heard and understood by large audiences, holding them as if spellbound for one, two and sometimes three hours at a time.”

Yet, the man was not important. The message was, and Bible truth was being declared to multitudes. There were many capable Christians proclaiming the good news in those days, and some persons heard their words with appreciation. Opponents were numerous, of course, and they sometimes sought to promote their unscriptural views in public debate with Jehovah’s servants.

In what later appeared to be an attempt by the Pittsburgh ministerial alliance to discredit C. T. Russell’s scholarship and Biblical views, on March 10, 1903, Dr. E. L. Eaton, minister of the North Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, challenged Russell to a six-day debate. During each session of this debate, held that autumn in Allegheny’s Carnegie Hall, on the whole Russell came off victorious. Among other things, he Scripturally maintained that the souls of the dead are unconscious while their bodies are in the grave and that the object of both Christ’s second coming and the millennium is the blessing of all the families of the earth. Russell also made a very strong Biblical denial of the hellfire doctrine. Reportedly, one clergyman approached him after the last session of the debate and said: “I am glad to see you turn the hose on hell and put out the fire.” Interestingly, after this debate many members of
Eaton’s congregation became Bible Students.

Another significant debate took place on February 23-28, 1908, at Cincinnati, Ohio, between C. T. Russell and L. S. White of the “Disciple” denomination. Thousands attended. Russell courageously upheld such Scriptural teachings as the unconscious state of the dead between death and resurrection, and Biblically maintained that Christ’s second coming will precede the millennium and that the object of both is the blessing of all families of the earth. Hazelle and Helen Krull were present and tell us: “Beauty and harmony of truth and fine Scriptural arguments on each subject of debate stood out in stark contrast to the confusing teachings of men. At one point ‘Elder White,’ spokesman and debater for the opposing views, in desperation said that he was reminded of a sign over a blacksmith shop reading ‘All kinds of twisting and turning done here.’ But, to the honest truth seeker, was a demonstration of ‘handling the word of the truth aright’ [on the part of Russell; 2 Tim. 2:15], with resultant harmony.” The Krull sisters recall that Jehovah blessed Brother Russell with His spirit to present the truth ably, and they term the event “a triumph of truth over error.”

J. F. Rutherford accepted a Baptist debate challenge in behalf of the Watch Tower Society against J. H. Troy. It took place in April 1915 at the Trinity Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, before an audience of 12,000 (with an estimated 10,000 being turned away for lack of space) during the four nights of the debate. Rutherford was victorious in courageously defending Bible truth.

In the twelve years following the Eaton-Russell debate, other debating challenges were accepted by God’s servants, though the opponents, perhaps out of fear, usually called off the engagements. C. T. Russell himself did not favor debates, for he was aware of their disadvantages for Christians. In The Watch Tower of May 1, 1915, he pointed out, among other things, that ‘those who are of the truth are bound by the Golden Rule and their presentation must be along absolutely fair lines, whereas their opponents seem to have no restrictions or restraints.’ “Any kind of argument,” wrote Russell, “regardless of the context, regardless of the Golden Rule, regardless of everything, is considered permissible.” He also stated: “So far as the Editor is concerned, he has no desire for further debates. He does not favor debating, believing that it rarely accomplishes good and often arouses anger, malice, bitterness, etc., in both speakers and hearers. Rather he sets before those who desire to hear it, orally and in print, the message of the Lord’s Word and leaves to opponents such presentations of the error as they see fit to make and find opportunity to exploit.—Hebrews 4:12.”

Bible discourses themselves afforded better opportunities to present Scriptural truths, and C. T. Russell often spoke to large audiences. During the years of 1905 to 1907, for instance, he toured the United States and Canada by special train or car and conducted a series of one-day conventions. His public lecture then was “To Hell and Back.” Delivered before packed houses in nearly every large city in both countries, this discourse featured a humorous, imaginary trip to hell and back. Louise Cosby recalls that Russell agreed to give this lecture in Lynchburg, Virginia, and she says: “My father had big posters made advertising this lecture and got permission to place them on the front of the streetcars. This was quite amusing and people asked, If this car takes us to hell, will it bring us back?”

Bible lectures also were featured during C. T. Russell’s trips abroad. In 1903 he had made a second journey to Europe, speaking to audiences in various cities. Then, from December 1911 to March 1912, Russell, as chairman of a seven-man committee, made a round-the-world tour, traveling to Hawaii, Japan, China, through southern Asia into Africa, on to Europe and back to New York. A study of Christendom’s foreign missions was undertaken and many lectures were given, thus spreading seeds of truth that, in time, brought into fruitful activity groups of anointed Christians in far-flung areas of the earth. Besides this worldwide tour, however, C. T. Russell journeyed to Europe regularly and traveled extensively throughout North America on “convention tour” special trains, accompanied by many fellow workers.

- 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, WTB&TS

On March 10, 1903, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh ministerial alliance, Dr. E. L. Eaton, minister of the North Avenue Methodist Episcopal church, formally offered to C. T. Russell a six-day debate on agreed Biblical subjects. (Later it appeared that this was a subtle attempt on the part of the associated clergy publicly to discredit Russell’s scholarship and teaching.) Within two days Russell in good faith accepted the offer, and the debates were finally held in the fall at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall before packed-out audiences.

(1) Sunday afternoon, October 18, Eaton debated affirmatively, that the Bible teaches that divine grace for salvation has been exercised since man’s fall and that there will be no probation after death. Russell Scripturally denied. (2) Tuesday evening, October 20, Russell affirmed that the Bible clearly teaches that the souls of the dead are unconscious while their bodies are in the grave. Eaton denied. (3) Thursday evening, October 22, Eaton affirmed that the Bible teaches that all of the saved will become spirit creatures, and after the General Judgment will enter heaven. Russell denied. (4) Tuesday evening, October 27, Russell, affirming that the Bible teaches that only the “saints” of this Gospel age will share in the “First Resurrection,” also held that vast multitudes will be saved in and by the subsequent resurrection. Eaton denied. (5) Thursday, October 29, Russell affirmed that the Bible teaches that the object of both the second coming of Christ and the Millennium is the blessing of all the families of earth. Eaton denied. (6) Lastly, on Sunday, November 1, with Eaton affirming that the Bible teaches that the divine penalty for sin eventually to be inflicted upon the incorrigible, will consist of inconceivably great sufferings, eternal in duration, Russell vigorously denied this hell-fire doctrine.

Interesting side lights: During the debates several of the local clergy were on the platform with Dr. Eaton to give him textual and moral support, while Russell, alone, stood his ground as a sort of Daniel in a lions’ den. On the whole, Russell came off victorious for each of the six debates and especially the last one, on “hell.” It is reported that one of the attending clergymen, acknowledging that victory, came up to Russell after the last debate, saying, “I am glad to see you turn the hose on hell and put out the fire.” Soon after this exposure of the false doctrines of the “Babylonish” church systems quite a number of Eaton’s Methodist congregation became Bible students. Other debate challenges were accepted, but at the last minute the opposition would get afraid and call off the engagements. However, within twelve years after the Eaton-Russell debates of 1903 two other major duels between Watch Tower Society representatives and leading religious groups did take place. L. S. White of the Disciples denomination engaged with Russell for six debates February 23-28, 1908, at Cincinnati, Ohio, attended by thousands, to observe easy victory again for Russell. The Baptists’ challenge for a debate series in Los Angeles, California, was undertaken by J. F. Rutherford on behalf of the Watch Tower Society against Rev. J. H. Troy. This was before a total audience of 12,000 (an estimated ten thousand being turned away) for four nights in April, 1915, at the Trinity Auditorium. This too turned out to be a signal victory for the Watch Tower Society’s spokesman standing in defense of Bible truth.

- 1955 Watchtower, WTB&TS


Clergy Call for Public Debate

As the circulation of C. T. Russell’s writings quickly escalated into tens of millions of copies in many languages, the Catholic and Protestant clergy could not easily ignore what he was saying. Angered by the exposure of their teachings as unscriptural, and frustrated by the loss of members, many of the clergy used their pulpits to denounce Russell’s writings. They commanded their flocks not to accept literature distributed by the Bible Students. A number of them sought to induce public officials to put a stop to this work. In some places in the United States—among them Tampa, Florida; Rock Island, Illinois; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Scranton, Pennsylvania—they supervised public burning of books written by Russell.

Some of the clergy felt the need to destroy Russell’s influence by exposing him in public debate. Near the headquarters of his activity, a group of clergymen endorsed as their spokesman Dr. E. L. Eaton, pastor of the North Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. In 1903 he proposed a public debate, and Brother Russell accepted the invitation.

Six propositions were set forth, as follows: Brother Russell affirmed, but Dr. Eaton denied, that the souls of the dead are unconscious; that the “second coming” of Christ precedes the Millennium and that the purpose of both his “second coming” and the Millennium is the blessing of all the families of the earth; also that only the saints of the “Gospel age” share in the first resurrection but that vast multitudes will have opportunity for salvation by the subsequent resurrection. Dr. Eaton affirmed, but Brother Russell denied, that there would be no probation after death for anyone; that all who are saved will enter heaven; and that the incorrigibly wicked will be subjected to eternal suffering. A series of six debates on these propositions were held, each debate before a packed house at Carnegie Hall in Allegheny in 1903.

What was behind that challenge to debate? Viewing the matter from a historical perspective, Albert Vandenberg later wrote: “The debates were conducted with a minister from a different Protestant denomination acting as the moderator during each discussion. In addition, ministers from various area churches sat on the speaker’s platform with the Reverend Eaton, allegedly to provide him with textual and moral support. . . . That even an unofficial alliance of Protestant clergymen could be formed signified that they feared Russell’s potential to convert members of their denominations.”—“Charles Taze Russell: Pittsburgh Prophet, 1879-1909,” published in The
Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, January 1986, p. 14.

Such debates were relatively few. They did not yield the results that the alliance of clergymen desired. Some of Dr. Eaton’s own congregation, impressed by what they heard during the series of debates in 1903, left his church and chose to associate with the Bible Students. Even a clergyman who was present acknowledged that Russell had ‘turned the hose on hell and put out the fire.’ Nevertheless, Brother Russell himself felt that the cause of truth could be better served by use of time and effort for activities other than debates.

The clergy did not give up their attack. When Brother Russell spoke in Dublin, Ireland, and Otley, Yorkshire, England, they planted men in the audience to shout objections and false charges against Russell personally. Brother Russell deftly handled those situations, always relying on the Bible as authority for his replies.

Protestant clergymen, regardless of denomination, were associated in what is known as the Evangelical Alliance. Their representatives in many lands agitated against Russell and those who distributed his literature. In Texas (U.S.A.), as an example, the Bible Students found that every preacher, even in the smallest towns and rural districts, was equipped with the same set of false charges against Russell and the same distortions of what he taught.

However, these attacks against Russell sometimes had results that the clergy did not anticipate. In New Brunswick, Canada, when a preacher used his pulpit for a derogatory sermon about Russell, there was a man in the audience who had personally read literature written by Brother Russell. He was disgusted when the preacher resorted to deliberate falsehoods. About the middle of the sermon, the man stood up, took his wife by the hand, and called to his seven daughters who sang in the choir: “Come on, girls, we are going home.” All nine walked out, and the minister watched as the man who had built the church and was the financial mainstay of the congregation departed. The congregation soon fell apart, and the preacher left.

- Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, 1993, WTB&TS

Additional Reading:


Although the Lord's providence did seem to open up the way for the "Eaton-Russell Debate" and later, for the "White-Russell Debate," and through these Debates led the way on to the publication of the Sermons in hundreds of newspapers throughout the world, nevertheless the Editor is not, and never was, much of a believer in the advantages of debating. The Debates mentioned were valuable chiefly as entering-wedges for the newspaper work. On the surface, it might at first appear as though a debate would be an excellent method of presenting the Truth to the public. Let it not, however, be forgotten that it is also an excellent method of presenting the error to the public. While it is true that Truth is mighty and will prevail, nevertheless "the god of this world" has blinded the eyes of men for eighteen centuries so thoroughly that remarkably few even yet see the beauty and force of the great Divine Plan of Salvation as presented by Jesus and the Apostles. On the contrary, the great mass of mankind have had thoroughly drilled into them heathen philosophy--carefully concocted theories and superstitions--and these are well riveted and fastened from childhood's hour.

An audience hearing a debate have the same difficulty that a jury has when hearing the opposing attorneys discussing the merits of a case. Each speaker has certain talent and ability, and each makes a certain amount of impression. It is the same with the general readers when these debates go before them. Those who have the Truth will enjoy the presentation of it, while those who have been schooled and prejudiced in favor of the error from childhood will rejoice in its presentation.

Added to this is the fact that the debates in general are in the nature of a war of words, the disputants each seeking to undo the other's arguments and to prove his own. In such a war of words the Truth is at a disadvantage. Why, do you ask? We answer, Because those who are of the Truth are bound by the Golden Rule, not only in its letter, but also in its spirit; and their presentations of the Truth must be along absolutely fair lines that take in the context and the spirit thereof. On the other hand, our opponents seem to have no restrictions nor restraints. Any kind of argument, regardless of the context, regardless of the Golden Rule, regardless of everything, is considered permissible. Indeed they do not even stop to consider such a trifling (?) matter as the Golden Rule or to exact allegiance to the letter and spirit of the inspired Word. Thus our opponents always have the advantage, not because they are intellectually brighter, but because they can and do use means to bamboozle the minds of the hearers and readers. This the advocates of the Truth dare not do-- have not the desire to do, so surely as they have the Spirit of Christ.

So far as the Editor is concerned, he has no desire for further debates. He does not favor debating, believing that it rarely accomplishes good and often arouses anger, malice, bitterness, etc., in both speakers and hearers. Rather he sets before those who desire to hear it, orally and in print, the Message of the Lord's Word and leaves to opponents such presentations of the error as they see fit to make and find opportunity to exploit.--`Hebrews 4:12`.

This should not be understood to mean that the Editor would never again engage in a public debate, but merely that in order to induce him to debate, his opponent would need to be a person of so great prominence as to bring the matter to the attention of everybody. Only such a consideration would be a proper offset to the wide presentation of error thus accomplished. Otherwise we prefer merely to present the Truth as the Lord opens the way and to leave the presentation of error and its circulation entirely in the hands of others.

- May 1st, 1915 Watchtower, WTB&TS