Pittsburghers have always had a desperate need to believe: Just ask the thousands of Pirates season-ticket holders. And indeed, as regards Jehovah's Witnesses, "Pittsburgh may justly be considered the base of origin for this group," writes O.M. Walton in his 1958 Story of Religion in the Pittsburgh Area. "Few Pittsburghers are aware of the conspicuous part the city has played," Walton notes, but as the hometown of founder Charles Taze Russell, the city was the first to bear witness to the Witnesses.
Russell was born in 1852, the child of merchants in the town of Allegheny (now Pittsburgh's North Side). According to a 1986 profile of Russell in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Russell showed an interest in religion early on: At age 9, when other kids were playing hopscotch, he was inscribing Bible texts with chalk on the sidewalk.
But Russell was also impatient with church doctrine. Among other things, he had a hard time accepting that a merciful God would punish sinners in hell for all eternity. He also doubted such Catholic concepts as papal infallibility, and Protestant ideas like the belief that souls were predestined to go to heaven or hell. As a teen-ager, Russell broke with his Presbyterian upbringing, and later began devising a new cosmology based on his own reading of scripture. By the late 1870s, Russell had devised the tenets of what he called the "little flock," but would later be called the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Russell believed that in 1914, God and Satan would share rulership of the world and eventually do battle over it. Once the battle was on, a "heavenly class" of 144,000 believers would rule alongside Jesus; until then, Witnesses were to have no truck with earthly governments. ("Let the world manage its own government while we wait for ours," Russell explained.) Russell also believed that souls would be judged not by the depth of their faith as in Protestant religions but by the work they did for the Lord.
This article of faith sounds innocuous, but from it sprung the tradition of the "colporteurs," Witnesses going door-to-door to evangelize their beliefs. Pittsburghers became the first audiences for the Witnesses' message. They also helped to bankroll it; Russell plowed earnings from the family business into publishing the Watch Tower, first from the old family business on Federal Street in 1879, and later from the "Bible House" at 610 Arch St., on the North Side. (In 1909, the Witnesses moved their headquarters to Brooklyn.)
Mainline faiths distrusted Russell, not surprisingly, in large part because he preached that the souls of the wicked would simply perish, rather than suffering eternal torment. (Sparing the wicked eternal torment, after all, took some of the fun out of religion.) But it was a popular argument: As The New York Times noted after Russell's death, "When he first arrived in Brooklyn, Pastor Russell attracted favorable attention by abolishing Hell."
He might have been even more popular if he'd abolished Brooklyn, of course, but Russell's public debates with other theologians drew considerable attention. According to a 1903 Pittsburgh Post account, "thousands were turned away" during one debate held between Russell and one Reverend E.L. Eaton staged at the North Side's Carnegie Hall.
But the Witnesses paid a price for their fame, and their faith. The colporteurs alienated many, and their refusal to salute the flag resulted in charges of sedition during wartime and other jingoistic periods.
Russell had difficulties of his own, thanks to a costly and widely publicized divorce from his wife of 25 years. He was also accused of defrauding the gullible by endorsing products like "Miracle Wheat" and "Millennial Bean," which were said to outgrow other crops thanks to some divine blessing.
But Russell practiced what he preached: O.M. Walton estimates that Russell preached some 30,000 sermons and traveled "over a million miles" spreading the word. And the faithful never deserted him. "[P]eople said that Jesus was a blasphemer," pointed out one of Russell's defenders, E.D. Stewart, in a 1917 magazine article.
Russell died in 1916, on a train passing through Texas. His last words were "Please wrap me in a Roman toga." (Someday, I expect these to be the last words of that other great North Side evangelist, former Mayor Tom Murphy, as well.) The best they could do was a bedsheet from a sleeper car, but by then, Russell's influence on the world and Pittsburgh was assured.