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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Going on the Offensive

IN 1894 twenty part-time Watch Tower representatives were trained and sent out week ends from the Pittsburgh head office to conduct public meetings and to build up new “ecclesias.” This practice was changed in 1897 by confining such visitation service to three full-time representatives known as “pilgrims,” who traveled on set route from congregation to congregation, spending one or two days with each group to bring spiritual refreshment. As the number of congregations or classes of Bible students increased, more pilgrims were sent on the road to maintain organizational contact. In 1905 there were 25; by 1917 there were 93 serving in this way as forerunners of the Society’s present-day earth-wide “circuit servant” arrangement. Since no record was kept of the number of interested persons comprising the respective individual groups in those early times, the only indication we have is from their annual Memorial reports sent to the Pittsburgh headquarters. In 1899, for example, there was an incomplete report from 339 congregations reporting 2,501 participants. In 1900 it is recorded that 280 groups (being only two thirds of the entire number) reported 2,600 attendants at the annual Memorial service. Increases in number of associates were mounting fast, the 1902 Memorial report showing that in only 175 congregations the total attendance exceeded 4,700, representing an individual-congregation average of more than twice that for the preceding year. Finally, by 1903 there were over 20,000 Watch Tower subscribers—an impressively sizable society standing in defense of truth.

Clergy opposition to the Watch Tower Society gradually became increasingly manifest as thousands upon thousands of Bible tracts and pamphlets were constantly being distributed farther from the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) fountainhead. No longer were the Society’s representatives permitted to speak from church pulpits as in the 1870’s. Among the Protestant clergy, in 1846, a sort of preachers’ union, officially called the “Evangelical Alliance,” had been organized for limiting recognition of ordination to those of the major sects already operating theological schools. Its members began to ridicule C. T. Russell, president of the Watch Tower Society, objecting particularly to his being designated “Pastor,” and certain unscrupulous newspapers were used as tools to concoct and spread scandalous lies about Russell’s private differences with his wife. Like their Pharisaical prototypes who had defamed Jesus by calling in question his authority and the legitimacy of his birth, so these modern apostate leaders of religion stooped to attack the person when pained by the sound Biblical information that was being published.

Something new was started that stimulated the dissemination of Bible truth through tract distribution. It was destined to take the clergy by storm. Zion’s Watch Tower for April 15, 1899, proposed what was called “Volunteer Service.” Volunteers were called from all the Christians who attended the Society’s meetings, to undertake a mass free distribution of 300,000 copies of the new booklet The Bible vs. Evolution to people as they left the Protestant churches on Sundays.

“The preferable plan of operations is for the friends who will so engage in each city or village to lay out a program which will insure that no congregation be omitted and that none be served twice. All large congregations require at least two or three for proper rapid service as they come out. And generally the effect is better if the distributors locate half a block away from the church building in each direction in which the people go.”—Pages 93, 94.

In the United States, Canada and Europe this work was taken up enthusiastically by thousands of volunteers. The first year 948,459 tracts were so delivered. Then for years afterward such organized tract-distribution or volunteer work was kept up, especially on Sundays, being expanded in time to include house-to-house distributing, placing the tracts under home doors Sunday mornings. Two or more times each year new tracts were released and these so delivered by the millions to church attenders. Now a flood was reaching even to the church doors, overflowing the religious pastures. The hostile reaction of the clergy became more intense. They tried repeatedly to have the publishers arrested for standing on the street distributing free tracts, as though sidewalk approaches to churches were indeed specially ‘consecrated’ ground. Legal counsel was rendered from time to time because of interference by public officials who were trying, at instance of the clergy, to ‘frame mischief by law’ to discourage and hamper or entirely suppress such street distribution of tracts.

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.

During 1905, 1906 and 1907 Russell toured the entire United States and Canada, conducting a series of one-day conventions. His public lecture was the famous “To Hell and Back,” one which he gave before packed houses in nearly every large city of both countries. In this striking lecture he took his audience on a humorous, witty, imaginary trip to hell and back, which proved to be a devastating exposé of the false doctrine of hell-fire. Before the Eaton-Russell debates Russell and a party made a second tour of Europe in 1903, establishing a branch of the Society in Germany at Barmen-Elberfeld. Then in 1904 another branch of the Society was set up in Australia. By this time seeds of truth were falling into good soil in South Africa, Japan and the British West Indies, where a convention was held in Kingston, Jamaica, attended by 400, and with 600 at the Sunday public meeting.

For the American field the largest convention to that time was held at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, August 29 to September 7, 1908, with an estimated peak attendance of 4,800. In this period from 1890 to 1908 the literature continued to be distributed by the millions, and there were now more than 30,000 Watch Tower subscribers, thousands of whom shared in this organized continuing effort to bring Bible truth to eager Christians. To such a helping hand was given to come out of Babylon and become devoted servants of Almighty God and Christ Jesus. Despite the Protestant “lion’s” angry attempts to destroy the Samson-like Society, the members of its ranks, energized by Jehovah’s spirit, were operating ever stronger.

- 1955 Watchtower, Feb. 15th, WTB&TS