Recent Bible Student History

Rolando Rodriguez

History teaches that after the death of a charismatic leader, chaos reigns. The events that took place after the death of Pastor Russell are no ­exception. After forty years of pastoral work, of editing, writing, and publishing The Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, Studies in the Scriptures, countless booklets, tracts and special interest papers, plus organizing Bible study classes throughout the United States and abroad, it all came to an end—or so it seemed. 

Charles and Maria Russell

Pastor Russell was more than just a charismatic leader. He was a pastor, an elder, a father figure to some, a big brother to others; he was a friend and mentor to many, young and old. His death changed all that. The Society and associations he left behind would continue on without his guidance and spiritual ­insight. In fact they would go in a new direction, on a different road, contrary to most of what he taught and believed. 

Somehow many of the brethren felt that Pastor Russell would remain with the church in the flesh as long as there was work to do; it was difficult to grasp the hard fact that now he was gone. His missionary efforts resulted in thousands accepting the harvest truth. Nearly a hundred thousand subscribed to The Watch Tower. Twelve hundred local Bible Student ecclesias elected him as their pastor. Some of these ecclesias numbered more than a thousand, many of them in the hundreds.

On October 31, 1916, on a train eastward bound through Texas, “Pastor Russell” passed away. The news of his death spread rapidly, and for a time those who knew and loved him for his work’s sake could think and speak of little else as they met one another, except that “Brother Russell is dead.”

What would the tens of thousands of Bible Students do? Would they stay faithful to the man or to the organization he left behind? Would their allegiance be to God and Truth? For some, separating the three was impossible, and rightly so. Pastor Russell was the organization and for others he spoke for God. Still others clamored, “Not the messenger but the message.”

But now he was dead! That he died while still active in the missionary field did not alter the fact that he no longer could be the pacesetter for the brethren who loved the truth they received through him and who would lay down their lives to give it to others. He was gone, and the brethren were stunned. What now?

Siftings, Schisms, and Separation

After the death of Pastor Russell, the Bible Student movement was in chaos. 1914 failed to bring about the glorification of the saints; many of the brethren were still somewhat at a loss. Some had even fallen away from the association in disappointment. But if this were not enough, a bitter power struggle occurred at Watch Tower headquarters over control of the Society.

In 1917 Joseph Franklin Rutherford succeeded Charles Taze Russell as Watch Tower president. He tried and succeeded in gaining complete control over the Society’s activities. The illegal introduction of new by-laws gave the President full control over the affairs of the Society. However, this was not Pastor Russell’s wish. In his last will and testament he had provided for a seven-man board of directors to succeed him. Four members of the Society’s Board of Directors, a majority of the Board, took strong exception to what they regarded as Rutherford’s high-handed behavior and opposed him. Eventually tension between Rutherford and the directors grew and on July 17, 1917, Ruther­ford simply announced to the Bethel family in Brooklyn, New York, during meal time that he had replaced the four directors with his own appointees, using the legal jargon that the directors who had opposed him did not hold their positions legally under Pennsylvania law.

Joseph Franklin Rutherford

The Society would later claim that the deposed directors’ opposition was to the publication of The Finished Mystery, a book released to the Bethel family immediately after Ruther­ford took charge, and that it caused a heated, five-hour debate that followed his announcement. That book was styled the seventh volume of Pastor Russell’s Studies in the Scriptures and advertised as his “posthumous work.” Ru­therford falsely claimed that the four directors and others with them were refusing to cooperate with the Society. Even today Jehovah’s Wit­nesses are told that the four directors who were expelled from the Watch Tower headquarters were wicked and self-serving.

As early as 1917 Bible Students  classes and individuals were withdrawing their support from the Society. The four directors formed an institute to continue the work of Pastor Russell independent of the Society. Others would form corporations of their own. Some Bible Students followed the lead of their favorite elder or teacher. Still others, leery of organization and societies, stayed independent of all others.

As the years went by, more and more of the brethren seeing a change of direction and attitude within the Society soon departed and thus the exodus started. By 1930 the majority of the brethren who worked closely with Pastor Russell had left the Society—many had been forced out. By this time, all of Pastor Russell’s writings were discarded in favor of the writings of Ruther­ford, writings that contradicted each other. By 1929 over a hundred changes in doctrines had been made; the Society no longer resembled that which was established by Pastor Russell and his early associates. The Society had a new look and a new attitude. No longer was it simply a publishing house for the dissemination of Bible literature. Now it was “God’s Theocratic Organization.” To disagree with it was tantamount to treason against God himself.

A New Name

In 1931 Rutherford decided to make a distinction between the independent Bible Students and those loyal to him. He changed their name to “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The Society had become what they themselves ­abhorred in Christendom—a little Babylon. Those Bible Students remaining within the Society heard the admonition, “Get out of her my people!” and fled.

Even today the Watchtower organization describes members of the Bible Student community of that day as “wearing unclean garments,” being “contaminated by apostasy,” being “guilty of wrong practices,” and having “displayed characteristics that were weed-like,” “manifested fear of man,” and having “sold themselves because of wrong practices.” Today, although many of the original Bible Students have died, their children carry on. Children and grandchildren born decades after the events of 1917, even newcomers, are shown no mercy from the Society. These are considered evil and apostate, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are to have nothing to do with them. The Society has even gone so far as to state that Bible Students no longer exist, that they have died out and none remain.

A House Divided

After the death of Pastor Russell it was clear that the work he started should be continued. But who would continue it and how? It was obvious that the Society had no intention of carrying out his wishes as set forth in his last will and testament. The four ousted directors, having failed to secure their position on the board, along with other prominent Bible Students as individuals, congregations, and publishing houses, decided to do the job.

On August 15, 1918, the four ousted members of the board, along with former pilgrim Paul Samuel Leo Johnson, considered publishing The Bible Standard and Herald of Christ’s Kingdom. They would soon have a falling out, and Johnson would go on to found what is today the Laymen’s Home Missionary Movement [one of the unincorporated names used by Pastor Russell and the early IBSA] and publish independently of all Bible Students, introducing a new dispensation of views and doctrines. In December, 1918, Johnson published The Present Truth and Herald of Christ’s Kingdom; in 1920 he published The Herald of the Epiphany [later renamed The Bible Standard and Herald of Christ’s Epiphany]. Johnson taught that since Pastor Russell was the Parousia Messenger during the Lord’s parousia, he must be the Epiphany Messenger during the Lord’s epiphany. Johnson was a prolific writer; he penned the fifteen-volume Epiphany Studies in the Scriptures, two volumes of which were added after his death in 1950.

P. S. L. Johnson

As was the case after the death of Pastor Russell, a number of schisms occurred after the death of Johnson. Raymond Jolly, a former Watch Tower pilgrim, took the reigns. No sooner than he did, disagreements occurred between Jolly and John Hoefle of Mount Dora, Florida, and John Krewson of Fort Myers, Florida, both pilgrims for the Laymen’s. Hoefle, who left the Society in 1928 and joined Johnson, was eventually disfellow-shipped from the Laymen’s in 1956. He began publishing a newsletter under the banner of Epiphany Bible Students Association. John Hoefle died in the 1980s; his wife, Emily, continues the work.

John Krewson was disfellowshipped in 1955 and formed the Laodicean Home Missionary Movement in Philadelphia. He claimed that since Pastor Russell was the “Parousia Messenger” and Johnson the “Epiphany Messenger,” he must be the “Apokalypsis Messenger” since he believed we are now living in the apokalypsis stage of the Lord’s presence. He published the three-volume Apokalypsis Studies in the Scriptures, and the monthly The Present Truth of the Apokalypsis. Krewson died in the 1970s; the work continued until1990 when it stopped.

Pastoral Bible Institute

After Rutherford’s victory, a number of prominent brethren withdrew their support. The first Bible Student Convention held independent of the Watchtower Society took place on July 26-29, 1918, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. In November a few months later two to three hundred people attended the second convention in Providence, Rhode Island. It was at this meeting that the Pastoral Bible Institute (PBI) was formed to resume Pastor Russell’s pastoral work independent of the Society. December 1918 saw the first issue of The Herald of Christ’s Kingdom; it was edited by R. E. Streeter until his death in December 1924. Today the Institute continues to publish The Herald along with other literature.

Watchers of the Morning

In the 1930s, some prominent members of the PBI influenced by the writings of both E. C. Henninges and M. L. McPhail—two prominent pilgrims who left the Society in 1909 ­because of some doctrinal disagreements with Pastor Russell—began to deny that Christ was present and other important doctrines held by the brethren. In 1936 Isaac Hoskins, a director of the Pastoral Bible Institute, and others withdrew from that association in a dispute over doctrinal matters and began publishing The Watchers of the Morning, a journal which continued until June 1957.

The Dawn Bible Students Association

By 1931 most of the Bible Student groups were falling apart or functioning as independent classes or individuals. Along came Norman Woodworth, a man who created the Society’s radio program and left in 1928 to run his own radio program with the help of the Brooklyn  congregation of Bible Students. They produced a little paper, The Bible Students Radio Echoes, containing highlights of their radio program which was called Frank and Ernest. In 1931 a board of directors was elected. “Radio Echoes” evolved into The Dawn and Herald of Christ’s Presence, a bi-monthly journal in 1932. Later it became a monthly. The Dawn was able to re-gather many of the independent Bible Students. In the decades of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the Dawn association grew as a result of an influx from disenchanted Jehovah’s Witnesses who had grown weary of the Watchtower’s doctrinal changes. The Dawn republished Studies in the Scriptures, countless books, booklets, and tracts. Today it continues to produce video and audio cassettes, The Dawn magazine, and other literature for the Bible Student community. Its radio and television programs are broad­cast around the world.

The Christian Millennial Fellowship

The Italian Bible Students Association in Hartford, Connecticut, withdrew their support from the Society in 1928 and changed their name to Millennial Bible Students Church, then to its current name Christian Millennial Fellowship, Inc. (CMF). In 1940 they began publishing The New Creation—a Herald of Christ’s Kingdom. However a few years later Gaetano Boccaccio began to be influenced by the writings of Henninges and McPhail. The CMF eventually discarded most of Pastor Russell’s writings as error. Gaetano Boccaccio was its leader since its inception. He had been with the Society since 1917 and died in 1996. For over fifty years he led this group from Hartford. The group eventually reorganized and has relocated to New Jersey where it is headed by Elmer Weeks.

The Stand Fast Bible Students ­Association

The Stand Fasters get their name from their determination to “stand fast on war principles that our dear Pastor Russell announced.” Charles E. Heard of Vancouver and many others felt that Rutherford’s recommendation in 1918 to buy war bonds was cowardice and a sacrilegious perversion of the harvest work. Feeling that Christians should not support the military in any way, including the buying of Liberty Bonds or involvement in non-combatant service, the Stand Fast Bible Students Association was organized on December 1, 1918, in Portland, Oregon. It published Old Corn Gems and organized conventions throughout the United States. The Stand Fasters accepted the seventh volume and were quite successful, especially among those who did not accept what they saw as compromises over the war issue.

They felt that the harvest was over, organizations were relatively unimportant, and they were organized simply to help each other learn about Pastor Russell’s teachings. Their opposition to public witness was the main reason they were one of the first groups to disintegrate. From the original twelve hundred adherents in 1919 in the northwest and near Wisconsin, this movement eventually disappeared.

The Elijah Voice Society

The Stand Fast was not without its schisms. In 1923 John A. Herdersen and C. D. McCray along with nearly 300 from the Stand Fast Bible Students organized the Elijah Voice Society to engage in an ambitious re­gathering and witness work. They published the Elijah Voice Monthly and numerous tracts, becoming one of the most prominent “seventh volume” groups. They felt they were “called to smite Babylon.” Long before Jehovah’s Witnesses they refused to salute the flag, buy liberty bonds, or contribute to the Red Cross. This group eventually disappeared.

The Servants of Yah

Probably the strangest of all Bible Student groups was headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, and led by C. H. Zook. They believed that Satan’s name was Jehovah, so Jehovah’s Witnesses were really Witnesses of Satan. They were Universalists who deny Armageddon, the flood, water baptism, the ransom, restitution, etc. They had branches in Levittown, New York, and Vienna, Austria. Their doctrines were similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses; only the 144,000 are destined to discover the hidden meaning of the Scriptures and enter heaven. The meaning is hidden partly because they believed our Bible texts were altered. They saw the Bible as primarily prophecy, most of which relates to the present century. They believed that everyone who ever lived will live forever in an earthly paradise except the 144,000 who will live in heaven. This group eventually disappeared.

Schisms Abroad

In other countries many Bible Students did not know what was really happening in the U.S. in 1917; it took time for some to analyze the events and leave.

The British Board of Directors took control of the “London Tabernacle” and formed the Bible Fellowship Union. They began publishing The Bible Students Monthly in 1924, later renamed The Bible Study Monthly so as not to be mistaken with the new Watch Tower which previously published a paper by that name. Albert O. Hudson became the general director and served in that capacity until his death at age 101 in 2000. Today it is run by an editorial committee.


Albert O. Hudson

William Crawford, an original member of the British Board of Directors, caused its first split. He founded Old Paths Publications and produced the monthly journal Old Paths. Countless booklets, books, and tracts were produced.

In 1922 the New Jerusalem Fellowship was formed. They produced a monthly journal and numerous books and booklets before going out of existence in 1992.

At the time of the split in 1917, the Forest Gate Church was the second largest Bible Student group in England. F. G. Guard, father-in-law of William Crawford, led the class in ­divorcing themselves from the Society. In 1939 they started publishing The Forest Gate Church Bible Monthly, along with booklets and tracts. This group disbanded in 1979.

William Robertson formed the Bible Student Publishing Co. before the major split of 1917; he published a quarterly journal The ­Bible Student that was critical of both Pastor Russell and Rutherford. There were certain IBSA ­officials who joined after the split in 1917. This group stopped operations in the 1920s.

The Goshen Fellowship was formed as a result of the ministry of Jesse Hemery. He was undoubtedly the most prominent Bible Student in England, serving as Vice President of the IBSA, a position he held until 1946 since his appointment by Pastor Russell in 1901. He was disfellowshipped by N. H. Knorr in 1951. Although he accepted much of Pastor Russell’s interpretations, he did reject the second presence as being a current reality. Believing Revelation was to be fulfilled in the future, he wrote a few commentaries on Revelation and other books of prophecy. He died in 1955 shortly after founding the “Goshen Fellowship” in 1951. Frank Lewis Brown headed the group for many years, publishing Zion’s Herald, a monthly journal beginning in 1965.

Adam Rutherford, a pyramidologist, found­ed The Institute of Pyramidology. A Bible Student who got most of his inspiration from the Great Pyramid, he published an extensive four-volume set on the Pyramid and it’s teachings, as well as the journal Pyramidology Monthly. He wrote numerous books, booklets, and tracts. His institute ceased operations a few years ago.

The Angel of Jehovah Bible and Tract Society

This organization was founded by Alexander F. L. Freytag who was branch manager of the Swiss Society and who disagreed with some of Pastor Russell’s views even while the pastor was alive. Yet Pastor Russell appointed him in 1898 as Branch Manager. In 1917 he started publishing his views using the Society’s presses and paper. He was ousted in 1919 by Rutherford. He published a four-volume set of Scriptural writings, mostly published in French. His writings have been translated from French into English, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Dutch. He published his own hymn book (he wrote and composed all the music) as well as his own devotional book. He also wrote numerous booklets and tracts. He published two journals, a monthly The Monitor of the Reign of Justice and a weekly Paper For All. There are branch offices in Switzerland, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy. Members of this group view Freytag as “that Faithful and Wise Servant” of Matthew 24:45-47. This group also goes by the name Philanthropic Assembly of the Friends of Man, and The Church of the Kingdom of God, Philanthropic Assembly.

Berean Bible Institute (Australia)

This Bible Student group officially separated from the Society in 1918. It publishes the monthly The Voice and, since 1917, the monthly People’s Paper as well as other books, booklets, and tracts.

New Covenant Fellowship

In 1908-09 E. C. Henninges, the Australian branch manager of the International Bible Students Association, and M. L. McPhail, pilgrim for the IBSA, withdrew their support causing the second largest split in the Society’s history, second only to the 1917 split. They produced a monthly journal The New Covenant Advocate and Kingdom Herald and ­numerous books, booklets, and tracts. After Henninges’ death, his work continued for some years; operations ceased by 1944. Most of the New Covenant Bible Students were left to fend for themselves. Many did not survive and splintered off into non-existence. The Free Bible Students, as they call themselves today, make up the largest Bible Student group in Australia. In recent years there has been a resurgence of Free Bible Student rallying under the new leadership of the Christian Millennial Fellowship.

The Christian Truth Institute

This organization was founded by Frederick Lardent of England. It published the monthly Gleanings for Truth Seekers as well as various booklets and tracts. This group died out.

The New Covenant Believers

Former Watchtower pilgrim M. L. McPhail, supposedly the most loved Bible Student next to the pastor himself, led the “New Covenant” Bible Students in the United States. He published a few books independently, mostly ­relying heavily on the writings of E. C. Hen­ninges. In 1908 they began publishing The Kingdom Scribe which ceased publication in 1975. They also published the Berean News, a small newsletter beginning in 1956; it continues today under the imprint of the Berean Bible Students Church in Lombard, Illinois.

Bible Students Today

Despite the many schisms in the past, today there are many  ecclesias throughout the U.S., Europe, Canada, India, Asia, South America, and Africa, congregating during conventions, exchanging speakers and literature. Many Bible Student ecclesias publish their own monthly newsletters, tracts, and booklets; some have their own journals and ministries. There are many Bible Student committees made up of Bible Students of various ecclesias, to help others in poorer countries. There are Bible Student Retirement Centers in both the U.S. and Europe. They provide good opportunities for studies and fellowship.

Since 1982, International Conventions have been held throughout Europe, beginning first in Austria, then Germany, The Netherlands, France, Hungary, and Poland. There are various Bible Students camps for children during the summer. Dozens of conventions are held each year, lasting one to six days each, providing ample fellowship and spiritual food.

Since the fall of communism, brethren have been found throughout the former communist nations. What binds these brethren together? It is the Truth! It is a belief that Jesus Christ died once for all mankind, that through his ransom sacrifice he purchased every man, woman, and child. The first to benefit are his followers during the Gospel age, those who sacrifice their humanity to follow in the footsteps of their master and become joint heirs with him in the thousand-year kingdom to bless the world of mankind. The next to benefit is the world of mankind who will learn the truth during the kingdom and grow in grace and knowledge and eventually actual perfection. This is the theme of the Scriptures and a theme that has been carried forth by Bible Students since the days of Pastor Russell.