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C.T. Russell and the date 1878 by Jason Wright

 C.T. Russell and the date 1878.

If you are or have been a Jehovah’s Witness then the date 1914 will be burnt into your psyche; Jesus Christ returned invisibly in 1914. This repetitive mantra of the Watchtower society is foundational to Watchtower doctrine.

However it is important to understand that had you been a follower of C.T. Russell during the late 1800’s, a very different set of dates would have dominated your thinking. For this study we will discuss one of those antecedent dates, viz. 1878. How important is this date? Does it affect the 1914 date? What hermeneutical method is used to arrive at this date? These are some of the questions this study will address; however before I bombard you with facts and figures it would be wise for us to understand what influences drew C.T. Russell away from orthodox Christianity.

C.T. Russell had been deeply influenced at a young age by the Millerite Movement. This movement, founded by William Miller[1] – a Baptist minister – focused its attention upon historicist premillennialism. In a nutshell historicist premillennialism is a theological system which seeks to identify historical events with the fulfillment of prophecy, especially in relation to the second coming and millennial kingdom.

While scripture encourages a healthy expectation of our Lord’s imminent return[2], historicist premillennialism, especially the system propounded by William Miller went beyond what theologians would call responsible exegesis. Instead of reading meaning out of scripture, Miller’s system sought to read contemporary history back into scripture. In this way parallels between scripture and historical events could be identified which in turn anticipated Christ return. Consequently intricate patterns, types, numerology and even pyramidology[3] were drawn upon to bolster this endeavor.[4]

This is the stream of thought into which C.T. Russell was drawn. However Russell arrived “on the scene” quite late (circa 1870-1876). It was way back in 1844 that William Miller had predicted Jesus Second Advent. Over thirty years had passed since this failed prophesy. Hence by the time Russell came on the scene historicist premillennialism had developed considerably and much revision had already taken place. New groups had formed including the Christadelphians and Seventh Day Adventists. We might say that Russell inherited many of his ideas from prior sources, thus genuinely new thoughts were limited. However, what Russell did do successfully was draw together different approaches, modify existing ideas and build a unified body of doctrine.

With this summary of origins in place let us now look at the date 1878. To do so we must first begin in 1875. By this date Russell had rejected all major tenants of orthodox Christianity. Russell had been attending lectures of the Adventist preacher Nelson H. Barbour. Barbour was predicting that in April 1878 the ‘true’ saints would be resurrected (raptured/translated). In 1876 Russell invited Barbour to speak in Philadelphia, the content of which bewitched him. Consequently Russell was convinced that he had but three years left before the translation occurred.

Whereupon Russell sold the haberdashery chain he had inherited from his Father (current value circa 6.5 million) and invested in Barbour’s ministry. With Russell’s backing Barbour wrote the book “Three Worlds”[5]. In summary the book presented both Russell and Barbour’s eschatological speculations and dispensational views. Thus the book spoke of “three worlds” or dispensations, viz. 1) “The world that was” (pre-flood ruled by Angels) 2) “This world that now is” (ruled by Devil) 3) “The World to come” (Millennium/restoration). The book focuses on typological events leading up to the “World to come” including prophesies which Barbour claimed were already undergoing fulfilment.

Before proceeding we must understand that a key component to historicist premillennial methodology is the “day for a year” principle. Time periods, such as presented in the book of Daniel 7:25: 1,260; 12:11: 1,290; 12:12: 1,335, are interpreted as representing years, i.e. the principle “a day for a year”. Once a historical starting date is agreed upon, one need only count forward to arrive at the terminus year. In this way dates were set for various events to take place.[6] Without application of this principle the chronological systems would collapse.

As has already been mentioned, Barbour’s interpretation is heavily dependent on patterns and typology. In the case of 1878; Barbour draws upon the OT narrative of Elijah. Herein Barbour suggests that the catching away (rapture/translation) of Elijah occurred as a fore gleam or type viz. the rapture of the Church. This typological conclusion is not necessarily wrong, however, the mistake Barbour makes is to go beyond classical typology by attempting to make sense of the Millerite movement in light of Elijah’s translation. Barbour wrote:

“His (Elijah) movements from leaving Gilgal until he crosses the Jordan, have their exact parallels under the midnight cry movement (Millerites), the one in which the Church is represented as going to meet her Lord (Matt 25:6-12)”[7]

Notice Barbour links the Millerite movement with the outworking of prophecy. No longer is Barbour comparing typology, but he is attempting to force historical events relating to the “great disappointment”[8] of 1843/44 back into the text. In this way Barbour can reconcile the reproach brought about by the failure of the 1844 predication by reinterpreting the event as a prophetic precursor to the “rolling away of reproach”. In other words Barbour was saying; the Great disappointment when understood in light of Elijah’s sojourn is pointing to the rapture of the saints. For Barbour the 1878 rapture would vindicate the Millerite movement. Barbour states:

“With the evidence now before us, we must believe that translation is near… will it (the rapture) not roll away the reproach of the ’43 movement?…as we journey on a little further, deliverance may come any time between this (1874) and the end harvest in 1878”[9]

Additional evidence that 1878 was a correct date was drawn from Jesus three and a-half year ministry. Barbour writes:

There was a harvest to the Jewish age…the harvest began and ended with them (the Jews) during Christ personal presence; and hence, continued during a three and a half years of his ministry. The harvest of this Gospel age, which is also the end of this age, measures three and a-half years”[10]

Hence Barbour proclaimed a three and a-half year period was already underway, starting in 1874 (Jesus invisible return/parousia) and ending in the spring of 1878, it was what he called the anti-typical harvest period (parallel dispensation). This period ended with the translation of the Elijah class (little flock) and Jesus taking up his throne and became king in heaven.

So there we have it! In 1877 Russell and Barbour were absolutely sure the translation of the little flock (true church) would occur at latest April 6th 1878. As I prepare this study it is now June 2014, one hundred and thirty six years have passed and the rapture has still not occurred. How then did Russell and Barbour respond when 1878 came and went? While Barbour was distraught, Russell was sure they had the date right but a wrong exception. Hence Russell spiritualised the event. Again this reveals the inherent dangers of historicist premillennialism, and its obsession to make History fit past and future events of scripture.[11]  Russell explains:

“Coming to the spring of 1878…we naturally and not unreasonably expected some change of condition, and all were more or less disappointed when nothing supernatural occurred”[12]

Consequently rather than accept defeat Russell spiritualised the so-called 1878 “resurrection” insisting it was a marked year in which the resurrection of the dead in Christ had occurred, and the bride of Christ members who would die thereafter would immediately join the saints in glory after death. According to Russell the first resurrection had taken place in 1878 and moreover Jesus had been enthroned as King in Heaven in that year.[13] Barbour did not accept this view; he felt a literal resurrection must take place. After further disagreement over the doctrine of atonement Russell withdrew entirely from the Herald of the Morning (Barbour’s editorial) and from further fellowship with Barbour. [14]

Consequently after some eighteen months in Barbour’s movement Russell left in late 1878 and in 1879 began the publication of “Zion’s Watchtower and Herald of Christ presence” Note the magazine was proclaiming that Christ was invisibly present since 1874, made King in heaven in 1878, and would begin his earthly phase no later than 1914.

In hindsight the modern Watchtower Society distances itself from the prophetic speculations of the 1800’s organization, and many JW’s would see this information as nostalgic but irrelevant. Contrary to such a position, it is imperative that every person of faith explores, examine and critique the “religion” they are brought up in or have joined. Truth must prevail. It is ironic that Russell and his followers wanted to escape the pitfalls of denominationalism, and “man’s” traditions and yet fell head long into heresy. The fruit of speculation led Russell to a crossroads. Either he abandoned the tenuous Adventist eschatology or he re-worked it. He chose the latter.

Even though the modern Watchtower Organization rejects Russell’s 1878 date, for many years after Russell’s death several dates were still regarded as foundational. The Watchtower of 1922 May 15 p.147 reads:

“WE HAVE no doubt whatever in regard to the chronology relating to the dates of 1874, 1914, 1918, and 1925.”

However by 1925 the new WT President, J.F. Rutherford was re-working much of the 1800’s chronology. In March 1925, the Watch Tower declared that Christ had been enthroned as king in heaven in 1914, not 1878.[15] In 1927 the Watch Tower transferred the timing of the resurrection of the “saints” from 1878 to 1918[16] The belief that Christ returned invisibly in 1874 was maintained until the early 1930s. However, by 1933, it was taught that Christ had returned invisibly in 1914 and the “last days” had also begun then.[17]

We might wonder how Rutherford could change so many dates without the whole house of cards collapsing. Certainly schisms did occur and today we have a growing number of insurgent “Russellites” busy promoting Russell’s books and writings. However in truth all Rutherford did was what his predecessors had done. Hi simply looked at the current Historical situation as it related to the Watchtower Society and and read this narrative back into scripture, hence new dates and new expectations.


What then can we learn from our examination of the date 1878? Firstly it is a date built upon a failed hermeneutical system, viz. historicist premillennialism. The methodology employed sought to link past and present history with Bible prophecy. It is clear that this hermeneutical system has no safety net, no exegetical boundaries without which re-reading and re-application of scripture is inevitable. We have seen how easy it was to change dates and read something new into verses of scripture and how Rutherford eventually replaced all but one date (1914) with his own chronology.

Today the date 1878 has very little if any meaning for members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. 1878 has been abandoned and 1914 re-jigged to fit a new paradigm. Sadly some ex-JW’s return to the teachings of C.T. Russell believing that they are drawing on a purer form of truth. However this is an irremediable position. Truth and salvation cannot be found in any of the Millerite offshoots. If you are seeking truth seek Jesus, pray to him and ask for divine revelation. Read the scriptures with the presuppositional glasses off and accept the true Gospel of scripture – salvation by grace alone.

“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (YHWH) and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. “ (Romans 10:9)

May we as Christians learn to be very careful how we read, and interpret scripture and avoid where at-all possible imposing our own presuppositions on the text. Thankfully the LORD has provided his Holy Spirit to guide us, along with a large list of theologians to help us!

In closing I would like to make an appeal to all branches of Historicist premillennialism, whether Jehovah’s witnesses, Bible students, Christadelphians or Seventh Day Adventists. Please practice what you preach. The claim is made that you “use the Bible as your sole authority” and yet in practice that is not true. Each system is built upon the errors of men, primarily William Miller. Subsequently no matter which group you belong to you are reading scripture through a theological system, which invariably distorts and changes meaning, both at the historical-critical and theological level.

My prayer is:

“Sovereign Lord, I cry out to you to reach and touch the hearts of those lost in the error of pseudo-Christian cults. Lord please draw lost souls back to yourself. You are the way the truth and the life. May you use this essay and this blog as a powerful tool against the lies of the enemy and break the chains of cultic bondage. May you the King of Kings touch the hearts of those trapped in cults. Above all Lord, may your will be done, Amen Amen.”


Jason Wright



[1] See Millers booklet “Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1844: Exhibited in a Course of Lectures” Published 1834.

[2] (Titus 2:11-14; 1Thessalonians 3:12,13, 5:23; 1John 3:1-3, Colossians 3:1-4, 1Corinthians 1:7-8, 15:51-58; Jude 24).

[3] Although Russell and other Adventist teachers (George Storrs) incorporated Pyramidology into his doctrinal system, much of what he believed was drawn from the writings of Joseph Seiss, a Lutheran preacher, who wrote “Miracle in Stone: Secrets and Advanced Knowledge” published in 1877.

[4] It should be noted that this interpretative method was not the same as that espoused by Nelson Darby and other early premillennial dispensational scholars. Such ones, refused to speculate about Christ exact return, agreeing that it would take place at some unidentifiable time in the future.

[5] In 1871 Barbour wrote and published a small book entitled Evidences for the Coming of the Lord in 1873, or The Midnight Cry, which was a forerunner to the Three Worlds.

[6] For example the 2,300 days of Daniel 8:14 were literal years and started in 455 BC and ended in 1846 with the cleansing of the sanctuary class. It is this style of hermeneutic that governs Russell’s interpretations.

[7] N.H Barbour, Three Worlds page 123, Printed by N.H. Barbour & C.T. Russell Rochester, 1877

[8] The Great Disappointment was a major event in the history of the Millerite movement, a 19th-century American Christian sect that formed out of the Second Great Awakening. Based on his interpretations of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, William Miller, a Baptist preacher, proposed that Jesus Christ would return to the earth during the year 1844. Thousands of followers, some of whom had given away all of their possessions, waited expectantly. When Jesus did not appear, the date became known as the Great Disappointment.

[9] Ibid., 123-124

[10] Ibid., 124-126.

[11] A modern example of reading historical events back into scripture can be seen in the 1988 WT publication “Revelation it’s Grand Climax at Hand” Herein events relating to the period 1914-1925 are read back into scripture as fulfilled prophecy. See page 183-184.

[12] WTR, Feb. 1881, Page 189.

[13] Ibid. See also Edmond C. Gruss, “Jehovah’s Witnesses – Their claims, Doctrinal changes, and prophetic speculation” page 30, 2007.

[14] Barbour himself was gravely disappointed over the 1878 rapture failure and lost his faith in eschatology perhaps even becoming an agnostic by 1880. Russell however spiritualised the event but failed to acknowledgement his indebtedness to Barbour for the “time arguments” (chronology). Thus Barbour wrote:

“Since which he (Russell) has remained faithful to just what he learned from me, prior to the “midnight,” while we “all slumbered and slept”. Namely, that Christ came as King, in 1878; and believes it because of the time arguments, as he learned them from me.” (Herald of the Morning March. 1898, p. 368. Herein quoted from “Jehovah’s Witnesses: Their Claims, Doctrinal Changes & Prophetic Speculation” by Edmond C. Gruss p. 30)

[15] Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, 1993, pp. 138-9.

[16] Example of changes: Light, Book One, “In June, 1927, the Watch Tower published the proof from the Scriptures that those who thus died faithful were asleep in death until the coming of the Lord to his temple in 1918.” Page 78,Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, 1930

[17]The Watchtower, December 1, 1933, p. 362; Golden Age, March 14, 1934, p. 380.


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Categorised in: 1914, False Prophecies

2 Responses »

  1. Great information. Lucky me I discovered your site by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have bookmarked it for later!

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