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Monday, December 21, 2009

Pastor Russell, The British Isles

WHEN two transatlantic voyagers stepped off the ship in Liverpool, England, sometime in September 1881, little did they think that they were being privileged to start something that was to grow tremendously and bring a great deal of joy to God-fearing Britishers. J. C. Sunderlin and J. J. Bender were two associates of the well-known “Pastor” Charles T. Russell of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and they had come to arrange for the distribution of a 162-page publication entitled “Food for Thinking Christians.”

Each had his plan of action mapped out, and soon Sunderlin was on his way to London, while Bender traveled north to Glasgow. The plan was to select sizable cities, employ a suitable man to recruit helpers, including boys, to give the books out free to people as they came out of church. This was to be a fast work, carried to its conclusion on two successive Sundays. Sunderlin recruited nearly five hundred messenger boys to give out the publications in London. In Glasgow, Bender placed a newspaper ad and caught a train to Edinburgh, where he sought a man to handle the work there. As soon as he had accomplished this he traveled farther afield, arranging distribution in towns such as Dundee and Aberdeen. Back in Glasgow he made a contract with one of eighteen who answered his ad, for distributing thirty thousand of the publications.

Then, zigzagging south, Bender arranged for the work in Carlisle, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, Leeds and other towns in the industrial cotton belt of Catholic Lancashire and in the woolen towns of Protestant Yorkshire. All together, 300,000 of these fine Bible publications were set aside for distribution in Britain.

Though Britain was at the zenith of its commercial power, yet in London and other large cities hordes of urchins, pale, ragged and without shoes or stockings, roamed the streets searching in gutters and rubbish heaps for scraps of food. Girls slaved in sweltering rooms with sewing machines clattering and pressing irons heating on a smelly stove, working nearly the clock around for a mere pittance. There were multitudes of people badly in need of the Bible’s message of comfort. The publication Food for Thinking Christians was to prove to be a real comfort to many, and especially to the poverty-stricken class of people dwelling, for the most part, in slums and finding great difficulty in getting enough to eat.

Hope came to many of these people, and groups of Bible Students soon began to spring up as a result of this widely extended activity. Tom Hart of Islington, London, wrote for and received three pamphlets. He also received Zion’s Watch Tower regularly for nine months, all without charge—a new experience in the religious field. From then on he became a regular subscriber. He was struck by the theme that ran through each issue, namely, “Get out of her, my people”—a Scriptural call to leave Christendom’s religious groups and follow Bible teaching. He and a fellow railwayman, Johnathan Ling, began studying together. This led to Hart’s formally resigning from the chapel in 1884, soon to be followed by Ling and a dozen others who began to meet together. This appears to be the first record of regular meetings of this sort in Britain. Many who shared in such meetings also showed a willingness to engage in the work of spreading enlightenment to others. A Bristol cabdriver wrote: “I feel a great desire to tell it out.”

On July 1, 1891, Charles T. Russell first arrived in the British Isles, landing at Queenstown, Ireland, and made a two-month missionary tour, embracing Britain, Europe and Russia. He concluded that Britain offered the best potential and decided to concentrate activities there. He visited and talked to small groups of Watch Tower subscribers and addressed public meetings of up to two hundred interested persons specially invited in Liverpool and London. He also arranged with a London firm to supply Millennial Dawn books, Bible study aids, at special rates to colporteurs.

In those early days the work of spreading the good news was carried on in a variety of ways. Some part-time workers chose to offer the books in parks and other places where people were relaxing. A party of three covered the London parks in this way. Long conversations on the Bible were common. Others concentrated on business houses. The more usual way, however, was to make house-to-house visits. One brother working every house in small towns in Scotland averaged placements of thirty volumes a day.


The distribution of Food for Thinking Christians was but the beginning. The activity with tracts also prospered. Sarah Ferrie, who had a bedding shop in Glasgow, was a subscriber to Zion’s Watch Tower. She wrote to Pastor Russell saying that she and a few of her friends would like to volunteer to share in the work. Later a huge truck drew up at the door of her business premises. On it were thirty thousand pamphlets. They were well made and all of them were to be distributed free. Aunt Sarah, as she came to be called, and her friends moved into action. Usually three would stand at an unobtrusive distance from a church, each at a different approach to the building, so that churchgoers and others might receive a free publication.

Another active worker, Brother Phillips, was a businessman who visited in rotation a number of towns around Glasgow. He traveled in a different railway compartment each day and distributed tracts to his fellow travelers. Having covered all trains he regularly used, he caught earlier ones each day and repeated the process. At least four persons accepted the truth as a result of this tract distribution on trains. George, son of Brother Phillips, later served in South Africa as branch overseer for many years.

Minnie Greenlees, a relative of Sarah Ferrie, traveled all over the countryside in her “pony and trap” with her son Alfred and his two small brothers. She sent them to isolated farms and cottages with tracts while she herself placed hundreds of copies of the book The Divine Plan of the Ages.

By 1901 the Glasgow group, which first met at Sister Ferrie’s home, had outgrown the accommodations and transferred to the Masonic Halls. In the four years since the congregation was formed, the first one north of the border, it had expanded to some thirty-five persons. There was a great sense of urgency moving the brothers. They distributed hundreds of thousands of tracts throughout Scotland. Many were four-page tracts, rather like small newspapers, containing pointed messages such as, “Many Clergymen Preaching Without Divine Authority Should Stop Preaching,” “The Fall of Babylon,” and others.

In Glasgow alone, a brother reported the distribution of 10,093 copies of the booklet The Bible vs. The Evolution Theory, a booklet that was given away free. This liberal distribution of literature was done, to a considerable extent, outside churches. Seventy-three churches in Glasgow had been visited.

Meantime the rural districts were receiving attention. Alfred Greenlees and Alexander MacGillivray went over much of Scotland on bicycles. They also worked the island of Orkney and the northern part of Britain. MacGillivray later became the branch overseer in Australia.

The spread of Bible knowledge in Scotland may be measured by the fact that in 1903 there were seventy persons present to celebrate the Memorial of Christ’s death. Groups of Bible Students were meeting regularly in no less than six locations in Glasgow. The distribution of tracts, originally done by paid labor, was later organized so that it was done almost exclusively by volunteers. Colporteurs, on the other hand, distributed the bound books published by the Watch Tower Society and maintained themselves on the small margin the Society allowed them on the placement of these publications.


By December 1898 there were nine established congregations in Britain. Help in organization became the pressing need. C. T. Russell had previously sent “pilgrims” from America to work with colporteurs in the field and to address congregations. Pilgrims were spiritually older men who visited congregations giving Scriptural counsel and encouragement. They were really the forerunners of the traveling ministers now known as circuit overseers. Russell then decided to appoint Jesse Hemery, a railway signalman from Manchester, to pilgrim service. For ten years Hemery had responded actively to the tract work organized by Bender, and now he commenced his new service on January 3, 1899.

The year 1900 was but a few days old when Hemery received from Russell a letter that said, among other things: “I am planning something further in . . . the interest of the cause in Great Britain, and I trust that the year 1900 will see it realized to some extent.” Russell’s plan began to go into effect a month later when E. C. Henninges and his wife stepped onto the quay at Liverpool and made their way to London.

Henninges called on a number of booksellers to assess the situation regarding prices, commissions or discounts for wholesalers and the sort of bindings most likely to appeal. He also appointed additional colporteurs. He prepared a circular to go to all the booksellers and newsagents, offering Zion’s Watch Tower, a sixteen-page magazine, at a commission of 50 percent on a year’s subscription of twenty-four issues. The Society undertook to provide the magazines and to pay the postage, in addition to supplying free as many sample copies as the newsagent would guarantee to put in the hands of people likely to become subscribers. The circular pointed out that these extra inducements would operate until a goodly list was established, when the terms would be brought to a par with that of English magazines.

Soon several tons of books and magazines arrived in England to meet the demands of the expanding work. In order to relieve the pressure on American printers, Henninges made arrangements for magazines to be printed in London.

Henninges also sought and found suitable premises at 131 Gipsy Lane (now known as Green Street), Forest Gate, East London, to accommodate an office for the British branch of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. On Monday, April 23, 1900, E. C. Henninges opened the first branch of the Society outside the United States.

Late in 1901 Henninges was recalled to America for a new assignment. In the meantime, Jesse Hemery had arranged his affairs so that he could devote all his time to the ministry, and he was willing to take up an assignment in London. Hence, on Thursday, November 1, 1901, Hemery was appointed branch overseer of the British Isles branch. One of the first things done was to set new prices on the books written by Russell. The decision meant a loss on some volumes, but in the interest of fast distribution the lower figure was suggested by Russell. About this time the Society also published Hints to Colporteurs, indicative of the fact that the ranks of these full-time ministers were expanding.

In April 1903, Russell landed in England for a convention tour. He addressed a number of meetings, including one at Shoreditch Town Hall, London, with a peak attendance of some eight hundred. Conventions on the Continent were followed by visits to Scotland. The last time that Russell had visited Glasgow, in 1891, he had sought out six subscribers for Zion’s Watch Tower. This time attendances rose to a thousand to hear his address on the subject “Millennial Hopes and Prospects.” Other audiences numbering five to six hundred heard Russell in midland and northern towns before he departed for Dublin, where he had an undemonstrative but attentive audience.

On this trip Brother Russell spent time arranging for larger quarters in London. A likely building was located in north London, and so in the autumn of 1903 the branch office was moved from Forest Gate to 24 Eversholt Street, Euston.


Trials were in store for that early organization of Jehovah’s people in the British Isles. Zealous activity on the part of many Bible Students was sure to draw the fire of the enemy. At the same time efforts to bring the organization more into line with Scriptural requirements were due to produce sharp differences within the ranks of the Bible Students themselves. For example, women had played quite a prominent part in the early days in Glasgow and other congregations, conducting Sunday schools for children. This arrangement now came under review and it was soon evident that Brother Russell did not favor it. Some were rather put out by the modified view on woman’s place in the Christian congregation.—1 Tim. 2:11, 12.

On Monday, April 13, 1908, Charles Russell once again visited Britain with a view to making a grand tour with many large public meetings. In Belfast he encountered some opposition from hecklers, which he easily quelled. In Dublin opposition came during a requested question period, the opposition being led by a Y.M.C.A. secretary. Russell showed himself to be equally a master of debate as of exposition, for the encounter left both the secretary and his chief assistant thoroughly discomfited. Throughout Scotland and England halls were crammed, many people not getting in.

The president of the Watch Tower Society made repeated visits to Britain over the years. In May of 1910, he had another three-week itinerary in the British Isles. At Otley, Yorkshire, a town of eight thousand population, six Methodist ministers had caused quite a stir on his previous visit by embracing the truth, for which they were denounced in pulpit and press. On this occasion, one of these six acted as chairman for Brother Russell. This meeting was advertised by the town crier, a burly, pigtailed, costumed man who, ringing a handbell, roared, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” before bawling out his announcement. On this tour the Y.M.C.A. secretary in Dublin prepared reinforcements of preachers to disrupt the meeting, but, according to an eyewitness, Russell ‘virtually plastered the group with scriptures’ and again left the opposers discomfited, to the delight of the audience.

The next year Brother Russell began another British and European tour. He gave an address in a hall packed beyond normal capacity with some two thousand persons in Cardiff, Wales. The Plymouth Brethren had put out a little leaflet that set forth ten points in which it was claimed that quotations from The Divine Plan of the Ages contradicted the Bible. The effect of this was that it helped to advertise the meeting, and at the close of his two-hour talk Russell spent half an hour answering the questions, as well as other questions put orally.

Back in Dublin again for a meeting, Russell was once again confronted by the Y.M.C.A. secretary, who tried to break up the meeting with the help of about a hundred young men of his association. On occasion they yelled and hooted. The questions raised were of the usual order, some being in the form of an attack on Russell. Russell answered them fully and to the apparent satisfaction of all the audience except the rowdies. By the close of this tour Brother Russell had addressed fifty-five meetings in twenty-four cities throughout Europe, with attendances aggregating some forty-four thousand persons. In the same period more than a million pamphlets and papers had been distributed free. Certainly the people of the British Isles, as well as the European continent, were getting to know about Jehovah’s organization.

By the end of 1911 more than three hundred newspapers in Britain were carrying Russell’s sermons. The syndicate handling this work was known as The Pastor Russell Lecture Bureau. It published a descriptive pamphlet about the world tour of which Russell’s visit to Britain in 1912 would form a part. This publication was about the size of Zion’s Watch Tower and outlined the activities of the Society as well as its teachings. It included facsimiles of newspaper cuttings, including many from British papers, giving accounts of Russell’s meetings. It proved to be an effective tool in the spread of Bible truth.

“Class extension” work also began to make good progress. The method was for an appointed elder to select a location and give a series of three “chart talks” on the chronological chart of Biblical dates. These would be followed by three other lectures. After the lecture series those in the audience were invited to meet for regular study. The sense of urgency among the brothers in those days moved them to undertake a distribution of free literature to every farm and isolated homestead in both Scotland and England.


The Society’s view of financial matters during these years manifested reliance on the Lord. Brother Russell, commenting on the world financial account of the Society for 1911, declared: “We doubt not that this indebtedness will soon be cancelled; nevertheless the fact that it is nearly double the shortage of last year cautions us that we must to some extent put on the ‘brakes’; for it is our judgment of the Lord’s will that we spend money only as it is supplied under his providence.”

An incident in Oldham, Lancashire, throws a sidelight on the handling of money. It was the year of the great cotton strike. Oldham, being a cotton town, suffered much distress. The Oldham ecclesia (congregation) decided to provide relief measures. This is how they went about it: In a side room they placed a table and on it three pots or basins. One was for gold, one for silver and one for copper. An elder stood outside the door, and only one person was allowed in at a time. Each one who entered ‘stood alone before the Lord.’ No one else knew whether he or she put money in or took money out. Some who gave in the early weeks said that they had to take money out before the strike ended. However, like the widow’s small jar of oil, referred to at 1 Kings 17:14-16, the three basins never ran dry until all had returned to work again.

Notwithstanding the mounting financial burden on the Society, in March 1911 it was deemed necessary to move into larger branch quarters in London, so the Society took over a property at 36 Craven Terrace, Lancaster Gate, London W. This had a meeting hall large enough to accommodate the growing number of believers in the London area. Formerly known as the Craven Hill Congregational Chapel, the premises were renamed London Tabernacle. It had a large gallery seating almost as many as the ground floor—in all, nearly twelve hundred.

In time the growing activity of the Bible Students in Britain called for changes in the legal structure of the group. On June 30, 1914, the International Bible Students Association was registered under the Companies Acts as an unlimited company. The liability for the mortgage on the London Tabernacle was transferred to the new legal corporation, which became the lessee also of 34 Craven Terrace, then occupied by the Hemerys and ten other members of the Bethel family. The parent legal body was the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Thus the Society in this land became geared to meet not only an expanding volume of work but also the pressures of a shattering kind that were now imminent.


As the keenly anticipated year 1914 drew near, the preaching work did not slow down. A tour by Charles T. Russell in the late summer of 1913 embraced conventions in London and Glasgow. Speaking in London on August 4, 1913, he declared: “. . . the Gentile times will close with October, 1914—not a great while in the distance.” He expressed the belief that the ‘burning up’ to which the Bible refers would be “not a literal burning, but a time of trouble—that is the ‘fire’ spoken of by the apostles and prophets as being the feature which will close this present age, and the feature with which the new dispensation will be introduced.”

When the year 1914 broke, it found the Society intensely active and looking far forward. An entirely new project was launched. To drive home in a striking way truths the Bible Students had been proclaiming for forty years, “The Photo-Drama of Creation” entered the field. The first showing in Britain came in July 1914. The Society produced twenty complete outfits, each consisting of projectors, films, slides, screens, gramophones, records and scenarios. The complete program consisted of four two-hour exhibitions followed by a finale consisting of a lecture. Eighty shows could therefore run concurrently. The aim was to show the “Drama” in the best and largest theaters in the leading cities throughout the country. Advance superintendents made contracts with theater managers. A publicity superintendent followed up and made arrangements for an extensive advertising campaign. Then came the opening superintendent. His task was to check arrangements and make sure all operating details were satisfactory. Finally came the operators to carry out the meeting routine, arrange for the distribution of scenarios and free booklets and to plan for follow-up on all turning in their names as being interested.

The usual plan was for Part 1 of the “Drama” to be run for a full week in any given location. Then Part 2 was shown for the second week, and so on for the four. A fifth session was given over to a final lecture. Of course, the time available had much to do with how long each session of the “Photo-Drama” showing would be. Brother Russell was himself present for the start of the showings in London, where packed houses enjoyed the presentation very much. Then Russell and his party traveled to Glasgow and other Scottish cities to start this new work there also.

The London Opera House, Kingsway, was thought to be an ideal place for the series, but it was taken for granted that the cost would place it out of bounds. However, in October 1914 came an offer from the management for a period, October 12-27, for a fee of £100. The Society seized this opportunity. The brothers in London rose to the occasion and, with only a week to go, managed to distribute some four hundred thousand “Drama” tracts before the opening day. These tracts were really small newspapers copiously illustrated with scenes from the particular part of the “Drama” advertised, and they contained a great deal of descriptive and other reading matter. Also used for advertising the occasion were a large number of window cards and circulars. Brothers called on business houses, stores, hotels, hospitals and all places likely to engage a large staff and supplied them with a quantity of show cards and admission tickets.

There were a great number of box seats available at the Opera House. So special invitation cards were sent out to the aristocracy and people of good address in London. As a result, the boxes were nearly always filled by a class of people, including titled people, that the “Drama” had not hitherto reached. Two bishops were known to have attended. Interest continued to mount as the series at the Opera House progressed. The finale came on Tuesday, October 27, when more than one thousand attended in the afternoon. In the evening the Opera House was again packed and hundreds were turned away, unable to gain admission. Later, the Royal Albert Hall in London was also used for “Drama” presentations. The first seven days’ attendance ran up to 24,192. The report of the showing of the “Photo-Drama” in Scotland at this time indicated that forty-five towns were visited, including Glasgow, with an aggregate attendance of three hundred thousand. The number of names of interested persons handed in at final lectures totaled 4,919.

Following tours of England and Scotland, the “Photo-Drama of Creation” was presented to large appreciative audiences in Belfast, Portadown, Ballymena and other centers in Ireland. The Society also provided a shortened version of the “Drama” with no films or moving pictures, but with slides only. That exhibition was known as the Eureka Drama. These showings too drew substantial crowds of interested persons.

By the end of 1914, after six months of showing the “Drama” in the British Isles, 1,226,650 had seen the exhibition in ninety-seven cities besides London. The spread of the Kingdom message by this and by the regular house-to-house visitation by the Bible Students had resulted in a great expansion of the organization in the British Isles. When the first world war broke out, there were 182 congregations, and the attendance at the Memorial that year amounted to 4,100. But drastic developments were imminent, not only in the world situation, but also within the Society.

- 1973 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, WTB&TS