Charles Taze Russell

Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Born in Allegheny City (annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907 and known today as the city’s North Side), Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916) was a well-known Christian restorationist minister and founder of the Bible Student movement, which spawned Jehovah’s Witnesses and independent groups after his death. Russell was a charismatic individual but claimed no special vision for his teachings and no special authority on his behalf. He wrote the “clear unfolding of truth” in his teaching was due to “the simple fact that God’s time has come; and if I did not speak, and no other agent could be found, the very stones would cry out.” He considered himself (and others like him) to be “God’s mouthpiece.”

Russell’s family lived in Philadelphia and Allegheny City before relocating to Pittsburgh, where they joined the Presbyterian Church. His father, Joseph Lytel Russell, made the teenager a partner of his haberdashery and by the age of twelve, he was writing contracts for customers. The following year he left the Presbyterian Church and became a member of the Congregational Church. In his youth he chalked Bible verses on city sidewalks in an attempt to make the unfaithful realize the punishment of hell awaiting them. A discussion with a friend caused the sixteen-year-old Russell to question his faith and he began examining various religious philosophies and views, including Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism, but concluded they did not provide the answers he sought.

In the early 1870s, Russell’s family began to analytically study the Bible, exploring the origins of Christian doctrine, creed, and tradition. They believed they had uncovered significant errors in common Christian belief. They thought they had gained a better understanding of true Christianity and were re-baptized in 1874. After Nelson H. Barbour (1824–1905), an influential Adventist writer and publisher, sent Russell a copy of his magazine, Herald of the Morning, the two met in Philadelphia. Barbour eventually convinced Russell that deceased Christians would be raised from the dead in April 1878, prompting him to sell his five clothing stores for three hundred thousand dollars — the equivalent of seven million dollars today — and finance Barbour’s work.

When the highly anticipated rapture failed to occur, both Russell and Barbour were extremely disappointed. The pair disagreed vehemently about the cause of the failed reawakening and engaged in bitter debate, ultimately becoming estranged.

In 1881, Russell established the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society, serving as secretary-treasurer with Pittsburgh industrialist and philanthropist William Henry Conley (1840–1897) assuming the presidency, to disseminate tracts, papers, doctrinal treatises, and Bibles. The organization was chartered three years later with Russell as president; its name was changed to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in 1886.

Russell’s ministry intensified with the organization of the society, and his Bible study group had grown to several hundred local members, in addition to followers on the East Coast who each year re-elected him pastor and commonly called him Pastor Russell. In 1903, newspapers began publishing and syndicating his sermons that appeared in as many as four thousand publications, reaching an audience of fifteen million readers. However, many critics derided him as a heretic. Russell moved the society’s headquarters to Brooklyn, New York, in 1908.

Following his death, he was buried in Pittsburgh’s Rosemont United Cemetery. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society erected a large pyramid near his headstone as a memorial to him.

In January 1917, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869–1942) succeeded Russell as president of the society amid controversy over the election process.

Rutherford’s changes in organizational structure, doctrinal interpretation, and congregational practices prompted many to leave the society.

Followers who continued supporting Rutherford adopted the name Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931 and changed the name of their magazine from Watch Tower to The Watchtower.