It’s obvious to any reasonably astute spiritual person that Rochester, my hometown, is nowhere mentioned in scripture. It’s equally plain that such neglect is grossly unjust. Not only unjust, but arbitrary. After all, if I lived just 90 miles east, in Syracuse, I would at least have minor (yet satisfying) scriptural mention. I think it was Tom Wheatandweeds concluding a District Convention held in that city a few years back, at the Onondaga County War Memorial Auditorium, who pointed out that all in attendance had fulfilled a scriptural pattern. He referred to Acts 28:12, the clown, which reads: “And putting into port at Syracuse we remained three days… " And what if you lived in Rome, NY, 30 miles to the northeast. Well, then you’d have scriptural mention all the time. But Rochester….not even once.
Perhaps, though, things are different when we consider the modern-day history of Jehovah’s people - you know, the one that got underway in the late 1800’s, the one where Charles Taze Russell was a prominent figure. What finds we when we do a search of that period?
Whoa!! Right off the bat we hit a home run! In the very early days of Jehovah’s modern-day Witnesses, Russell came across a fellow searcher of scripture in Rochester by the name of Nelson H Barbour. The latter published a journal called The Herald of the Morning which advanced some doctrinal points that Russell, too, had discerned. The two teamed up and combined their Bible study groups, Barbour’s being the larger of the two. They became coeditors of the Herald. Russell infused cash into it, as it was in danger of going belly-up. They published a book together (in 1877): Three Worlds, and the Harvest of this World.
Ah….but the marriage didn’t last. Barbour began veering away with some ideas Russell didn’t care for, most notably denying the ransom value of Christ’s death, saying that [Russell’s words] “Christ’s death was no more a settlement of the penalty of man’s sins than would the sticking of a pin through the body of a fly and causing it suffering and death be considered by an earthly parent as a just settlement for misdemeanor in his child.” The two squabbled back and forth in the Herald magazine for awhile - each penning separate articles - and then Russell broke off partnership and started a journal of his own: Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, known today as the Watchtower. The Watchtower grew to its present circulation of 37 million. The Herald of the Morning disappeared.
Who was this fellow Barbour? I don’t know if I’d be especially curious, were it not for his Rochester connection. But I spent some time in the library archives [unnecessary, it turned out, since most of the information is also at Wikapedia] and uncovered some basics about him. He was a serious student of the Bible. Born in 1824 and raised among Presbyterians [as I was], he was a little too inquisitive for them and broke off at age 19 to do independent study and preaching. He published some tracts and books before he met Russell, and he founded The Church of the Strangers afterward. A pork chop preacher! Joe Hart might have called him, but such wouldn’t be fair. Unlike storefront preachers today, who, Joe suspected, preached just so as to supply themselves with pork chops, Barbour gives every appearance of being legit. Another Barbour, Clarence A Barbour, was a local Presbyterian preacher at the time, and he gets more contemporary press than does Nelson. Was Nelson the black sheep of the family? And an Elizabeth Barbour - apparently Nelson’s wife - is listed in the records of the Central Presbyterian Church (3/31/1873) as “suspended, erased & excommunicated” [!] Did she stray from Presbyterianism and join Nelson in his heresy? She died in 1901. Nelson died in 1905.
There were a lot of guys like Nelson in those days. In fact, Russell was like him. As the end of the Gentile times approached, there were many in the decades leading up to 1914 who began searching the Scriptures - roving about, as Daniel phrases it. They focused on the fulfillment of prophesies - many of them found in the book of Daniel. You could say they were “keeping on the watch“ as to the Lord’s return. Might they be the “you” of verse 12?
10 Concerning this very salvation a diligent inquiry and a careful search were made by the prophets who prophesied about the undeserved kindness meant for you. 11 They kept on investigating what particular season or what sort of [season] the spirit in them was indicating concerning Christ when it was bearing witness beforehand about the sufferings for Christ and about the glories to follow these. 12 It was revealed to them that, not to themselves, but to you, they were ministering the things that have now been announced to you through those who have declared the good news to you with holy spirit sent forth from heaven. Into these very things angels are desiring to peer. 1 Pet 1:10-12
At any rate, Daniel relates what was told him about prophesies he recorded:
And as for you, O Daniel, make secret the words and seal up the book, until the time of [the] end. Many will rove about, and the [true] knowledge will become abundant. Dan 12:1
You couldn’t count on the Presbyterians or any mainline church to do any such “roving.” They’d long since grown fat and happy with well-paid clergymen who were content to confer God’s blessing on whatever human government they lived under. No, it would be breakaway students - folks like Barbour - and Russell.
In the early twentieth century, Charles Taze Russell enjoyed particular success. The Bible study group he formed has grown into Jehovah’s Witnesses of today. Is it because he was smarter than the rest of them? Or more dedicated? Started with more money? Was more humble? Was more blessed? He would, I think, have emphasized the latter factor. At any rate, the movement he chaired became exceedingly active. Russell himself saw his weekly sermons published in 4000 newspapers. A publication called The Continent said of him: “His writings are said to have greater newspaper circulation every week than those of any other living man; a greater, doubtless, than the combined circulation of the writings of all the priests and preachers in North America; greater even than the work of Arthur Brisbane, Norman Hapgood, George Horace Lorimer, Dr. Frank Crane, Frederick Haskins, and a dozen other of the best known editors and syndicate writers put together.”
In what would have made Sam Harris proud, were he willing to give credit to a “deist,” - which he is not - Russell and associates “called a spade a spade”with regard to the God-dishonoring teachings of the churches. So much so that when the eight principle officers of them was railroaded off to jail in 1918 (convicted under wartime charges of sedition - a conviction reversed nine months later, the original trial having been shown to contain 125 errors) the churches all high-fived each other. Ray H Abrams writes in his book Preachers Present Arms, (published in 1933) “An analysis of the whole case leads to the conclusion that the churches and the clergy were originally behind the movement to stamp out the Russellites. . . .
“When the news of the twenty-year sentences reached the editors of the religious press, practically every one of these publications, great and small, rejoiced over the event. I have been unable to discover any words of sympathy in any of the orthodox religious journals. ‘There can be no question,’ concluded Upton Sinclair, that ‘the persecution . . . sprang in part from the fact that they had won the hatred of “orthodox” religious bodies.’ What the combined efforts of the churches had failed to do the government now seemed to have succeeded in accomplishing for them—the crushing of these ‘prophets of Baal’ forever.”
Upon release from prison -their convictions overturned - the eight officers of the Watchtower were not a bit abashed. They resumed with full vigor their preaching campaign, and, in fact, intensified it. We see the result as the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses today. Of course, we view the movement as not brand new, but a restoration of first century Christianity, following a foretold period of “sleep:”
Another illustration he set before them, saying: “The kingdom of the heavens has become like a man that sowed fine seed in his field. While men were sleeping, his enemy came and oversowed weeds in among the wheat, and left. When the blade sprouted and produced fruit, then the weeds appeared also. So the slaves of the householder came up and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow fine seed in your field? How, then, does it come to have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy, a man, did this.’ They said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go out and collect them?’ He said, ‘No; that by no chance, while collecting the weeds, you uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and in the harvest season I will tell the reapers, First collect the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them up, then go to gathering the wheat into my storehouse.’” Matt 13:24-30
But all that’s mere background for the post at hand. We’re dealing here with the backwater eddy that was Nelson H. Barbour. Rochester Central Library archives list his Church of the Strangers at the address 86 Williams Street* in Rochester.
No way!!! That’s not 100 yards from the old Irondequoit Kingdom Hall! (which is now a dentist’s office) I used to live in that Hall, in a downstairs apartment, when I pioneered back in the 70’s. Let me tell you, this is weird. It almost makes me feel like a bad Elisha, having caught the cloak of a bad Elijah. Of course, he missed by 100 yards, but that is what a bad Elijah would do. And I hate to think of the implications for this blog!
Sheesh! I’m almost sorry I asked.
*It is possible that the Williams St of today, at the very edge of Rochester City limits, is not the same Williams St. of 100 years ago. But I’ll leave matters as they are. How often does a guy get to end a sentence with three exclamation marks?
The Rochester Union and Advertiser for October 5, 1895, page 12 offers the following article on Nelson Barbour:
The 57th installment of the Union’s Series of Saturday articles on Rochester pastors is devoted to the Rev Nelson H Barbour, pastor the Church of the Strangers, located on Williams St.
"Nelson H. Barbour was born at Toupsville, three miles from Auburn, N. Y., in 1824. At an early age the family moved to Cohocton, Stueben County, N. Y. From the age of 15 to 18, he attended school at Temple Hill Academy, Genseco, New York; at which place he united with the Methodist Episcopal Church, and began a preparation for the ministry under elder Ferris. Having been brought up among Presbyterians, however, and having an investigating turn of mind, instead of quietly learning Methodist theology he troubled his teacher with questions of election, universal salvation, and many other subjects, until it was politely hinted that he was more likely to succeed in life as a farmer than as a clergyman. But his convictions were strong that he must preach the gospel even if he could not work in any theological harness. And at 19, he began his life work as an independent preacher. Since which, all that is worth reporting in his life is inseparable from his theological growth. He could not believe in an all wise and loving Father, permitting the fall; then leaving man's eternal destiny to a hap-hazard scramble between a luke-warm Church and a zealous devil. On the contrary he believed the fall was permitted for a wise purpose; and that God has a definite plan for man, in which nothing is left to chance or ignorance.
"Mr. Barbour believes that what he denominated the present babel of confusion in the churches is the result of false teaching and the literal interpretation of the parables.
"The Church of the Strangers was organized in 1879. Mr. Barbour has preached in England, in several Australian colonies, in Canada, and many states of the Union. For the past twenty-two years he has published the Herald of the Morning in this city; claiming that in his 'call' to preach, he confered [sic] not with flesh and blood. Nor was he called to convert the world; but independent of creed, to search for the truth 'as it is in Jesus,' the 'second man Adam,' believing that the restored faith is a precurser [sic] of the millenium [sic] and 'Times of restitution of all things.'"