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Russell, Charles Taze - Timeline Biography

Time Period

02-16-1852 - 10-31-1916


Charles Taze Russell was reared in an evangelical Presbyterian home, but left Christianity as a teenager. In the 1870s, after encountering Millerite preachers who proclaimed Christ's pre-millennial coming, Russell converted, sold his clothing stores, and poured his life and money into promoting adventist theology. He wrote a series of books called Studies in Scripture that encouraged personal Bible study. They sold more than 20 million copies during his lifetime. Russell combined several strands of popular 19th century evangelical theology, but attracted criticism from evangelical Christians for his denial of hell, the immortal soul, the deity of Jesus, and his insistence that God was One, not a Trinity.

After Russell died in 1916, his movement splintered, but the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society that he had founded continued under the leadership of Judge Joseph Rutherford, who changed the name of the Society in 1931 to the Jehovah's Witnesses.

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Charles Taze Russell was born to a devout Presbyterian Scotch-Irish family near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a teen, plagued by doubts about the authority of the Bible and the exitence of hell, he began attending a more liberal Congregational Church before finally leaving the Christian faith altogether. In 1870, he heard an Adventist preacher named Jonas Wendell, who impressed the young Russell with his application of logical thinking to the Bible. Wendell, a former follower of millenarian preacher William Miller, predicted the bodily return of Christ in 1873 or 1874. Inspired, Russell started a Bible study in Pittsburgh and eagerly awaited the second coming. Rather than being disheartened by Christ's failure physically to return by 1874, Russell believed that Christ had indeed spiritually manifested himself in the hearts of those waiting for him that year, inspiring Russell to write his first book, The Object and Manner of the Lord's Return.

Shortly thereafter, Russell met another preacher named Nelson Barbour, who convinced Russell that Christ would finally appear in April 1878. Russell promptly sold his five clothing stores for nearly $300,000 and used the money to publish Barbour's book, Three Worlds, and the Harvest of This World. Barbour and Russell believed that Christ's invisible return in 1874 would be followed by 40 years of evangelism and then, in 1914, the Age of Gentiles would end and God's Kingdom on earth would begin.

When Barbour's prediction for 1878 failed, he became disillusioned, renounced most of his book, and left the ministry he had shared with Russell. Russell then started a new paper, Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence, which would change its name to The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah's Kingdom in 1939 and which remains in mass global circulation today with nearly 46 million copies printed each month.

In 1881, Russell started the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, which despite Russell's insistence that it was not a church, quickly developed into a congregation for his 200 initial followers in the Pittsburgh area. The Society organized regular inductive Bible studies, comparing each passage of Scripture with other passages from both Old and New Testaments. Their practice earned them the name Bible Students, although they also were called Millennial Dawnists and Russellites. In 1886, Russell began his greatest contribution to adventist theology, the seven volume Studies in Scripture. Russell's critics accused him of elevating his own books above Scripture itself when he claimed that studying the Bible without the benefit of Studies in Scripture to be no better than simply not reading the Bible at all. Despite the criticism, nearly 20 million copies of his books were distributed during his lifetime. In 1910, one magazine ranked Studies in Scripture third on a list of the most circulated books in the world after the Bible and the Chinese Almanac.

Russell's theology mixed various strains of 19th century American theology. He was a restorationist who wanted to return Christianity to its primitive origins before church councils and creeds corrupted the faith. He was a pietist as well, eschewing alcohol, tobacco, and even earthly citizenship, writing, "Let the world manage its own government while we wait for ours." His eschatology drew inspiration from adventist theology, awaiting fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in a coming utopian reign of Christ on earth. Like many dispensationalists, he was a Christian Zionist who advocated for Jewish return to and ownership of Palestine.

Despite some congruences between Russell's theology and popular evangelical theology of the late 19th century, evangelical Christians generally considered his teaching heterodox. Russell denied the existence of hell and the Trinity. Jesus was the son of God, by which he meant a man to whom God, or Jehovah, awarded divinity after his selfless sacrifice on the cross. Only 144,000 of those who followed Jesus's example would ascend to rule together with him during the millennial kingdom over the "other sheep" who were saved from annihilation.

Russell's ministry also attracted criticism for less abstract reasons. His marriage to Maria Frances Ackley -- who helped him edit Zion's Watch Tower -- ended in divorce in 1906 amid accusations of infidelity on Russell's part. Russell also had a habit of advertising questionable products in his paper, including "Miracle Wheat," "Millennial Beans," and "A Cure for Surface Cancer." The Miracle Wheat advertisement in particular brought bad publicity when Russell unsuccessfully sued a newspaper for libel when it ran a satirical comic about his profit from the over-priced wheat.

When 1914 arrived, and with it World War I, some Russellites began to question Russell's chronology. Mass, industrial warfare did not strike them as the proper fulfillment of the millennial kingdom. When Russell died unexpectedly in Texas in 1916, the concerns grew into outright schism as multiple groups split off from the organization during the next two decades. After some jockeying for position on the board of the Watch Tower Tract Society, Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford took control of the Society. Rutherford, worried about Russell's lingering shadow over the Watch Tower Tract Society, took steps to distance the organization from Russell. He and two others posthumously wrote the seventh volume in Russell's Studies in Scripture and altered some of the doctrinal content to better fit Rutherford's own views. In 1927, the Society stopped publication of Russell's books and began a policy of not identifying authorship in its literature. In 1931, Rutherford made the final break with Russell's legacy, changing the name of the Society to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Today, the Jehovah's Witnesses are still known for their door-to-door evangelism. Most Americans, at least once in their life, have had two neatly dressed Jehovah's Witnesses knock on their door and invite them to do a Bible study or to sign up for a Watch Tower subscription.

Religious Groups

Timeline Entries for the same religious group: Adventist Family
Adventist Family: Other ARDA Links
Adventist Family: Religious Family Tree


Millenarian Movement

Related Dictionary Terms

Bible, Christian, Christianity, Doctrine, Gentile, Preacher, Prophecy, Scriptures, Theology, Zionism


Charles Russell reading- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-75493
Charles Russell reading- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-75493

Charles Russell preaching- Hathi Trust- from The Overland monthly, vol 60 (1912)
Charles Russell preaching- Hathi Trust- from The Overland monthly, vol 60 (1912)

Charles Russell portrait- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-124523
Charles Russell portrait- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-124523

Charles Russell portrait- Hathi Trust- from The Overland monthly, vol 59 (1912)
Charles Russell portrait- Hathi Trust- from The Overland monthly, vol 59 (1912)

Charles Russell tomb pyramid- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Cbaile19
Charles Russell tomb pyramid- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Cbaile19

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Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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