Government-controlled Three-Self Churches accuse the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be related to Freemasonry. But they misunderstand the Witnesses’ early history.
One reader wrote to Bitter Winter that he has heard the Jehovah’s Witnesses denounced in sermons by pastors of the government-controlled Three Self Church. That this happens confirms that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are indeed present in China, although not in an open way. They are not included in the list of the xie jiao. However, their activities are regarded as illegal by the CCP and the Chinese anti-xie-jiao Web site regularly publishes anti-Witnesses propaganda originating from abroad, mostly from Russia.
Our reader wrote that he heard Three-Self pastors claim that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were founded by the Freemasonry. This is an old accusation in the West, but is based on a misunderstanding. We looked into the matter and found that some Christians in China do publish anti-Witnesses texts based on their alleged connections with Freemasonry. Some of their quotes from early Witnesses text are, however, inaccurate. Scholars in the West, including the undersigned, have examined the question long ago and came to different conclusions. Here is a summary of their findings.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a 20th century development of a movement established in 1878 by Pastor Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), whose followers were known as the Bible Students. Evangelical critics of contemporary Jehovah’s Witnesses have often claimed that they have Masonic origins, and that Russell was himself a Freemason. Evidence of Russell’s affiliation is however never provided, which supports the conclusion that it does not exist and Russell was not a Freemason.
In fact, Russell was occasionally critic of Freemasonry, as evidenced by an article he published on the Bible Students’ magazine, The Watch Tower, on June 15, 1895. “The Order of Free Masons, – Russell wrote – if judged by its past history, has some secret object or scheme, more than fraternity and financial aid in time of sickness and death. And, so far as we can judge, there is a certain amount of profane worship or mummery connected with the rites of this order and some others, which the members do not comprehend but which, in many cases, serves to satisfy the cravings of the natural mind for worship, and this hinders it from seeking the worship of God in spirit and in truth – through Christ, the only appointed Mediator and Grand Master.” This is a rather standard Christian criticism of Freemasons, and should be enough to dismiss any hypothesis about a special relationship between Russell and Freemasonry.
There are, however, other texts which show Russell’s familiarity with the Masonic language. In the very first sermon collected in the posthumous book Pastor Russell’s Sermons, the founder of the Bible Student, having mentioned secret societies in general and the “blood-curdling” Masonic oaths in particular, states that “it is not part of my mission to attack any of these orders, nor to inveigh against their procedures. I merely refer to them here; I merely call your attention to the fact that this is a common method amongst men which evidently has the sanction of many, because I wish to draw your attention on the fact that the Almighty God Himself is the founder of a secret society. Moreover, while there are certain correspondences between the human secret orders and the one of Divine origin, we shall find as we should expect that the latter is in every way superior to all others” (Pastor Russell’s Sermons, Brooklyn, New York: International Bible Students Association – People’s Pulpit Association, 1917:5). These texts are quoted in the Chinese attacks against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but with mistakes in the translation and out of context.
In fact, in the sermon, Russell goes on to explain that Abraham established an Order of the Melchizedek Priesthood of which he, and later Jesus Christ, became subsequent Grand Masters. This Abrahamic and Christian Order, Russell stated, is of divine origin and infinitely superior to orders established by humans such as Freemasonry. And “as in some secret societies there are different steps or grades – for instance, all Masons are familiar with the secrets pertaining to the first degree, yet not all Masons are familiar with the secrets, etc., pertaining to the thirty-second degree, so in God’s Secret Order there are first principles of the doctrines of Christ which must be known to all who belong to the order, and are also ‘deep things of God’ which may be known only to those who have made advancement” (Pastor Russell’s Sermons, 6).
In another sermon later collected in the same volume, Russell claimed that many different traditions did await the Messiah in similar terms. “Freemasons, he wrote, have waited twenty-five hundred years for the same glorious personage, as Hiram Abiff, the great Master Mason whose death, glorification and future appearing are continuously set before them by the letters upon their keystones. He died a violent death, they claim, because of his loyalty to the divine secrets typed in Soloman’s [sic: a typo for “Solomon’s”] temple. He must reappear, they claim, in order that the great antitypical temple may be completed” (Pastor Russell’s Sermons, 113).
Russell also used symbols similar to those adopted by contemporary Freemasonry, including a cross within a crown (similar to the Evangelical “covenant ring”; after Russell’s death Jehovah’s Witnesses repudiated the cross as a Christian symbol altogether), reproduced for several years on the frontispiece of The Watch Tower, and a winged sun. And Russell shared with many Freemasons an interest for the Great Pyramid, which he thought may ultimately confirm God’s instructions to humankind (see e.g. Millennial Dawn. Volume III: Thy Kingdom Come, Allegheny, Pennsylvania: Tower Publishing Co., 1891:309-376). These interests were abandoned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses after World War I, when they also denounced Freemasonry as a Satanic enterprise.
As far as Pastor Russell is concerned, we cannot conclude from the use of symbols such as the cross within a crown or the winged sun that he was in favor of Freemasonry. These symbols were used in his time by Freemasons, but they were also used by many Protestant groups, some of them openly anti-Masonic. The sermons tell, however, a different story. They confirm that Russell was familiar with Freemasonry, perhaps because some of his relatives were indeed Freemasons (he came from a family of Pittsburgh merchants, and Freemasonry was popular among Pittsburgh’s bourgeoisie). The audience for which the sermons were intended was also obviously conversant with Masonic symbols and with characters such as Hiram Abiff. This was to be expected in 19th century middle-class America.
Russell, however, used Masonic imagery as a mere rhetorical device. To those familiar with Freemasonry he explained that the only “secret society” capable of guiding humans to salvation was Christianity. References to Freemasonry were, thus, only a convenient metaphor used for leading his audience to Christianity. Evangelical critics, whose aim is to warn those who presumably are very hostile to Freemasonry against Jehovah’s Witnesses by claiming a secret link between the Witnesses and the Freemasons, read these texts out of their respective contexts. Simply stated, there is no such link, secret or otherwise. Their conclusions may be helpful to those who want to attack the Jehovah’s Witnesses today in China, but are not supported by the historical record.