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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Filling Spiritual Needs of Early Bible Students

Charles Taze Russell and a small group of associates in and around Allegheny, Pennsylvania, formed a class for Bible study in 1870. As a result of their meetings, they gradually grew in love for God and his Word and progressively came to know what the Bible itself teaches. There was no miraculous speaking in tongues at these meetings. Why not? Such miraculous gifts had accomplished their objective in the first century, and as the Bible foretold, they had ceased. “The next step of progress,” Brother Russell explained, “was the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit, as St. Paul most clearly points out.” (1 Cor. 13:4-10) Furthermore, as also in the first century, there was urgent evangelizing work to do, and for this they needed to be encouraged. (Heb. 10:24, 25) Before long, they were having two regular meetings each week.

Brother Russell realized that it was important for Jehovah’s servants to be a unified people, no matter where they might be scattered around the globe. So, in 1879, shortly after the Watch Tower began to be published, its readers were invited to make request for Brother Russell or one of his associates to visit them. A clearly stated stipulation was “No charge made nor money taken.” After a number of requests came in, Brother Russell set out on a month-long trip that took him as far as Lynn, Massachusetts, with meetings for four to six hours a day at each stop. The subject featured was “Things Pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”

Early in 1881, Brother Russell urged Watch Tower readers who as yet had no regular meetings in their area: “Establish one in your own home with your own family, or even a few that may be interested. Read, study, praise and worship together, and where two or three are met in His name, the Lord will be in your midst—your teacher. Such was the character of some of the meetings of the church in the days of the Apostles. (See Philemon, 2).”

The program of meetings developed gradually. Suggestions were offered, but it was left up to each local group to decide what was best for their circumstances. A speaker might occasionally deliver a discourse, but greater emphasis was given to meetings in which everyone could freely participate. Some classes of Bible Students did not at first make much use of the Society’s publications at their meetings, but traveling ministers, the pilgrims, helped them to see the value of doing so.

After some of the volumes of Millennial Dawn had been published, these began to be used as a basis for study. In 1895 the study groups came to be known as Dawn Circles for Bible Study. Some in Norway later referred to them as “reading and conversation meetings,” adding: “Extracts from Brother Russell’s books were read aloud, and when persons had comments or questions, they raised their hands.” Brother Russell recommended that at such studies participants make use of a variety of translations of the Scriptures, marginal references in the Bible, and Bible concordances. The studies were often held with groups of moderate size, in a private home, on an evening convenient to the group. These were forerunners of the present-day Congregation Book Study.

Brother Russell realized that more was needed than just study of doctrinal matters. There must also be expressions of devotion so that people’s hearts would be moved by appreciation of God’s love and by a desire to honor and serve him. The classes were urged to arrange a special meeting for this purpose once a week. These were sometimes referred to as “Cottage Meetings” because they were held in private homes. The program included prayers, hymns of praise, and testimonies related by those in attendance. These testimonies were sometimes encouraging experiences; included, too, were the trials, difficulties, and perplexities confronted during recent days. In some places these meetings fell considerably short of their objective because of excessive emphasis on self. Kindly suggestions for improvement were set out in The Watch Tower.

Recalling those meetings, Edith Brenisen, the wife of one of the early pilgrims in the United States, said: “It was an evening for meditation upon Jehovah’s loving care and for close association with our brothers and sisters. As we listened to some of their experiences we grew to know them better. Observing their faithfulness, seeing how they overcame their difficulties, often helped us in solving some of our own perplexities.” In time, however, it became apparent that meetings designed to equip each one to share in the evangelizing work were more beneficial.

The way in which the Sunday meeting was handled in some places was of concern to the brothers. Some classes tried to discuss the Bible verse by verse. But at times the differences of opinion as to meaning were not at all upbuilding. To improve the situation, certain ones in the congregation in Los Angeles, California, developed outlines for topical Bible study, with questions and references to be examined by all the class before coming to the meeting. In 1902 the Society made available a Bible containing “Berean Bible Study Helps,” including a topical index. To further simplify matters, starting with the March 1, 1905, Watch Tower, outlines for congregation discussion were published, with questions as well as references to the Bible and the Society’s publications for research. These continued until 1914, by which time study questions on the volumes of Studies in the Scriptures were published for use as a basis for Berean Studies.

- Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, WTB&TS

What were those early meetings like? One of them was based on Tabernacle Shadows of the Better Sacrifices, first published by the Society in 1881. It considered the prophetic significance of Israel’s tabernacle and the sacrifices offered there. Even children benefited greatly from these studies. Recalling these meetings as held in one home, Sara C. Kaelin comments: “The group had increased and sometimes the children had to sit on the steps leading upstairs, but all had to learn and answer questions. What did the bullock represent? The Court? The Holy? The Most Holy? Day of Atonement? High Priest? Underpriest? It was so impressed on our minds that we could visualize the High Priest performing his duties and we knew what it meant.”

“Cottage Meetings” were held on Wednesday evenings. These also became known as Prayer, Praise and Testimony Meetings. Concerning them Edith R. Brenisen writes: “After a hymn and a prayer, the leader read an appropriate scripture, giving a few comments, and then the meeting was turned over to the friends to comment as they wished. Sometimes it would be a joyful experience one had in the service work or some evidence of Jehovah’s special leading or protection. One was free to offer a prayer or ask for a certain hymn to be sung, the words often expressing the thoughts of one’s heart better than the person could. It was an evening for meditation upon Jehovah’s loving care and for close association with our brothers and sisters. As we listened to some of their experiences we grew to know them better. Observing their faithfulness, seeing how they overcame their difficulties, often helped us in solving some of our own perplexities.” This meeting was the forerunner of what has since developed into the service meeting, held weekly by Jehovah’s witnesses today and so helpful to them in their preaching work.

In those early days, “Dawn Circles” were held on Friday evenings. These Bible studies were so named because volumes of Millennial Dawn were used. Ralph H. Leffler recalls that Sunday evening usually was devoted to a Bible study or a discourse on the Scriptures. What was known as a “chart talk” might be given. What was this? He explains: “Under the front cover of Volume I of Studies in the Scriptures there was a long chart. . . . That chart was enlarged to the size of a banner . . . and could be purchased from the Bible House in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. That chart was hung on the wall in front of the audience for all to see as the speaker for the occasion went about explaining its many arches and pyramids. The chart was a graphic illustration of the main Bible events from man’s creation to the end of the millennium and the beginning of ‘ages to come.’ . . . We learned much about Bible history from these ‘chart’ talks. And they were delivered frequently.”

“Chart talks” might be delivered at the regular meeting places of Jehovah’s people or elsewhere. Were these discourses effective? C. E. Sillaway recalls: “The talks must have borne some fruit, for the little group grew from six adults to about fifteen in less than two years.” On one occasion, William P. Mockridge gave a chart talk in a Baptist church in Long Island City, New York, “with the result that several members of [the Baptist preacher’s] church came into the truth and the minister . . . C. A. Erickson also came into the truth and became one of the Society’s traveling . . . speakers.”

- 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, WTB&TS



Upon the inside of this number you will find a copy of the Chart of the Ages, such as we once had mounted upon rollers, the supply of which has for some time been exhausted, preventing us from filling many applications received. We take this method of placing it in the hands of all our readers. We trust that it may have a two-fold effect: first, that you may be blessed by a fresh examination of the chart and its lessons, as expressed in the explanation furnished in the pamphlet "FOOD" page 105. (Every reader is welcome to a copy of "FOOD" free.) Secondly, we hope that being quickened and refreshed by a clear view of our Father's plan, you may be stimulated as well as enabled, to explain the plan to others, illustrating it by the chart. Thus, no matter how simply you tell it, you can preach the "good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people." The chart will not only interest and hold the attention of your thoughtful neighbor, but will make the truth the more easy of comprehension. Thus many can let their light so shine as to honor their Heavenly Father, as well as to bless and refresh their neighbors and friends.

- July 1886, Watchtower, WTB&TS