Before Herzl, There Was Pastor Russell: A Neglected Chapter of Zionism
Years before Theodor Herzl proposed creating a Jewish state, Charles Taze Russell was traveling the world holding Jewish Mass Meetings, beginning in 1879, at which he urged Jews to find a national home in Eretz Israel
Russell was a Zionist, first publishing a public statement of support in 1879, sixteen years before Theodore Herzl’s book supporting a Jewish state in Palestine, and eighteen years before the first Zionist congress.
In 1889, Russell published his third work in the series Studies in the Scriptures, entitled Thy Kingdom Come. One of the chapters is entitled “The Restoration of Israel” and contains both scriptural prophecies and quotes from articles in the popular press about the nascent movement.
In that chapter Russell presents historic parallels which led him to expect that the time for Jews to begin returning to Palestine would be 1878… and heralding the decision by the British Government to support Jewish purchase of land in Palestine (under the terms of the Berlin Congress of Nations in that year) as a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Petah Tikvah, the first modern Jewish settlement, was founded that year.
By the way, recent discoveries in Bible chronology have turned up a number of corroborating clarifications of Russell’s pioneering work.
Russell was not the first or the most famous pastor to support Zionism — Wesley had spoken of a restoration of the Jews in the late 1700s, and the Albury Prophetic Conference of 1829 had agreed upon the return of Jews to their homeland as a harbinger or even a trigger of their expected and desired return of Christ.
in my reading of the history, however, it seems clear to me that Russell stood out as unusual in one major respect — both then and now. Russell unambiguously proclaimed that Jews should not be proselytized to become Christians. To Russell and the movement of Christians he inaugurated, the Jews have their own destiny in the plans of God, apart from the invitation to become disciples of Jesus.
This reflects Russell’s view that Christianity in the current era is a high calling, offered by God to a limited number of people — not the only opportunity for life that the masses of mankind will have.
The main hope of life according to Russell will be the “highway of holiness” that Isaiah spoke of, which he claimed will be offered to all the people who have ever lived during Jesus’ thousand year reign as Messiah.
Russell expected the Jewish people to be among the first to get in step with the Messianic era, because that is what their customs and worship have taught them since the days of Moses:
“A prophet will the LORD thy God raise up unto thee, from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken…”
The “gospel” that has been forced upon Jews during the last two millennia by well-meaning but, I think, misinformed Christians has been an unfortunate assault upon the common sense and decency of Jewish people. It has threatened them with eternal torment, persecuted them with false reports of blood libels, forced them into ghettos and narrow settlements. 1492 was the year King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sent Columbus in search of new lands they coud exploit — and the year all Jews were expelled from Spain, under pain of death or forced conversion to “Christianity.”
Russell taught that such mistreatment of Jews by “Christians” was the true meaning of the parable of “the Rich man and Lazarus” which mainstream Christians use to support their bogus ideas of a burning hell. The conscious torment of each living generation of the Jewish nation — coupled with their ability to observe, across the gulf that separated them from the comforts of the Gentile Christians who now occupied “Abraham’s bosom” — was the hell on earth which Russell taught was an allegorical prophecy of the painful national torture that Jews were subjected to during their years of exile in mystic Babylon — Christendom.
To many Jews, Christianity has from the beginning been offensive to every fiber of their being. When Jesus felt his crowds of followers becoming too big, he intentionally offended them by saying they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
He seemed to relish offending the Jewish religious leaders of his day by healing on the Sabbath. He told his disciples to grab a handful of wheat from the fields as they passed on the Sabbath — enflaming the religious zeal of the most Orthodox Jews.
Jesus also allowed outwardly disreputable people to be prominent in his entourage — former prostitutes, former lepers, women who had been banned for uncleanness. A tax collector was appointed to his inner circle.
Jesus strode into the temple courtyard and in a most offensive way, disrupted the busy work of religious enterprise — despising the pattern of merchandise religion that Christians later perfected.
So from the Jewish perspective Jesus was a false prophet who was exposed by the Romans as an imposter, and not the real messiah who they all knew was supposed to defeat empires and set up a kingdom that would restore the entire world.
In the Apostle’s day the followers of Jesus seemed to attack and violate the laws of Moses. Then as the church grew it set up a counterfeit priesthood and illegitimate, non-Jerusalem based worship, similar to the high places of Baal in their own history. As Christianity descended into darker and darker practices and beliefs, its increasingly violent and hateful style became more and more repugnant to Jews — who as a result of their exile were shifting in the opposite direction — becoming more empathetic and less idolatrous.
By the time Christianity reached its zenith of power and privilege, Christmas Eve to many Jews had become the night their houses were burned or their synagogues desecrated. Easter was, to the Jews, the obviously pagan fertility ritual that counterfeits their reverent Passover celebration of independence from Egyptian paganism and slavery. Their own eyes could not see Jesus as a messenger of peace and brotherhood, but as a disgusting religious icon, an idol or graven image they were commanded to resist.
Russell preached that the “blindness” of Jews toward Jesus was God’s doing, and that God still loves them “for their fathers’ sakes.” Russell taught his Christian audiences that God has great things in store for the Jewish people in the near future, and that the time had already come for Jewish people to return to their ancestral homeland.
Russell also preached that Armageddon or the “day of vengeance” would be much more than a battle in Israel. It would be nothing less than a full trial of Christendom for all its sins of the last 2000 years — including its mistreatment of the Jews.
Taking the words of Paul in Romans 11 to heart, Russell predicted that the Jews would soon be received back into full fellowship with God — observing and accepting a leader who reminded them of Moses. And he most emphatically taught that their return to favor was not predicated upon acceptance of any form of Christianity.
Russell taught that all the ancient Jewish leaders will return from the grave — King David, Samuel, Deborah, Gideon and the others will, he predicted, lead the Jews back into the fullest harmony with God imaginable. Only then would they begin then to see aspects of their law which Jesus had fulfilled, and which their past prejudices and the providence of God had kept them from seeing.
Because Russell was so honoring of Jewish history and destiny, the American Zionist committee invited him to address the Jewish people in 1910. They rented New York’s largest meeting hall of the time, the Hippodrome, and asked him to address a Jewish audience on the topic “Zionism in Prophecy.”
Russell arrived with a small chorus of singers and addressed a packed auditorium of over 4000 people. Several newspapers published the full text of his hour-long speech — which received a standing ovation.
By the way, you do a disservice to history by including a false statement within your question. CT Russell did not found the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Based upon my own conversations with people who were personally acquainted with Russell and lived through that era, the JWs were the result of a hostile takeover of the movement he started by Joseph Rutherford, the attorney who wrote Russell’s will and usurped control of the seven-person committee he left in charge of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society when he died in 1916.
Here are some of the now-deceased people who I spoke with at length when I was much younger, who had first-hand knowledge:
Daniel Morehouse and his wife Nodie (who worked at the Brooklyn headquarters from 1914 until after Russell’s death, and helped prepare and present Russell’s Photo-drama of Creation.
Rose Hirsch (who worked at the Brooklyn HQ, and whose husband was one of the seven trustees named in Russell’s will).
Peter Kolliman, who was an active participant and volunteer from 1912 till the 1940s, first with Russell’s Watch Tower publishing house and then with the Dawn Bible Students Association. This was probably the largest group to which Bible students flocked when the JWs emerged.
Percy Reid of St. Louis, who was an early leader of another publishing house that promoted Russell’s original concepts after the JW takeover. It was called the Pastoral Bible Institute and, beginning in 1918 immediately after Rutherford’s usurpation of power, it published a magazine that is still going strong today: The Herald of Christ’s Kingdom.
Irene Greene, who as a young Christian in Columbus Ohio was present at the rally in a baseball stadium in the early 1930s where the new name Jehovah’s Witnesses was first introduced. (I’m guessing this was a rollout that occurred in many places across the country that year). My memory of that conversation was that the announcement occurred in about 1932 or 1933. Even the name was a usurpation, claiming for an ambitious but temporary Christian organization an honored reference to the Jewish people who God himself had decreed.
Let me summarize: Russell was a more prolific writer and preacher, and just as famous in his day as the late Billy Graham. Russell was a Zionist who left the Jews alone to focus on their restoration efforts, and he encouraged them not to fraternize much with Christians.
The publishing house he owned was never envisioned by him as a divine mouthpiece, only a proponent of ideas which were spreading among independent congregations of Christians who he thought of as refugees from the many sects of what he called “Babylon” — Christendom. He believed that real and true Christian brethren continued to be involved with all the denominations, but he encouraged his followers to reach out to them and try to let them know that a much happier, more inclusive redemptive plan was destined to bring the human race to a new era — the will of God being done both on earth and in heaven.