Did You Know? (A “Sect”? Or not a “Sect”?)

The early Bible Students (later “Jehovah’s Witnesses”) were defined as both “a sect” and as “not a sect” at various times by their own founder.

Charles T. Russell (founder of  the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society)  denied his movement was asect in reply to a question in the October-November, 1882 Zion’s Watch Tower (ZWT)?

And yet, just one year later – in the October 1883 issue of  Zion’s Watch TowerRussell actually claimed the opposite – declaring that his followers “were a sect”!


1882 – Question: “You say that you are not a sect—that you claim no name but that of Christ and object not to be called Christians, though not of the denomination so called. But are you not as much of a sect as any of the others, only without a name and without a limited and written creed?”

Russell’s Reply: “No, the word sect means a division, or a separation. Every sect separates itself from all other Christians by a doctrinal fence or creed. Any who would be of them must go inside their pen, believe what they believe, deny what they deny, and be called by their sectarian name…

“We stand outside of all these fences and recognize the Lord’s sheep, whether in or out of the nominal churches, as our brethren and sisters; and we urge all in the name of our Master to come out—jump the fence or break it down and come out into the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free and be not entangled with any yoke of bondage. … ‘All of these sects are condemned to destruction, the hour of their downfall has come.'”

Russell described these Christian “sects” as “systems of men, instead of God…” Russell’s reasoning was that they would be destroyed because they were not doctrinally united.

“Thus you see we are not a sect, and that if all Christians would do as we do in this matter, all sects (divisions) would disappear, and we would be all one in Christ.”

Frequently the descriptive word “sect” is negatively applied to a religious body made up of extreme or heretical dissenters that separated from another religious body that its leaders did not agree with doctrinally.

Oddly though, in the October 1883 issue of Zion’s Watch Tower Russell claimed his group was, in fact,  “a sect.”

“Webster defines sect to mean ‘A part cut off,’ Hence a body of persons who have separated from others by virtue of some special doctrine, or set of doctrines, which they hold in common. … Since we hold to a set of doctrines delivered to the saints by Jesus and the Apostles, and since we separate and cut ourselves off from all other religious jurisdiction and control, therefore it follows that we are a SECT. Christianity ‘was a sect itself—a split off from the Jewish church—which was cast off and left desolate, and it was also separated from the world. It was ‘the sect everywhere spoken against.’ (Acts 28:22) Thus, we see, that Christians are a sect or separated class—separate from the world—separate from sinners—separate from all others, in that they accept of Jesus, and salvation through his blood. But there should be no schism or division of this sect; all who are of it should be one.

Ten years later in 1893, in the September 1st and 15th Zion’s Watch Tower article, “THE CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD” and under the subtitle, “The True Church Not A Sect,” Russell stated something a bit different from what he wrote in 1883. He quoted Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of the word “sect” and then wrote, “We are a sect.” Note his 1893 explanation:

“The church of Christ is neither a sect nor an aggregation of sects: it is one and indivisible. It is Christ and all who are united to him…”

After Russell finished his thought by saying the “true church was not a sect,” he once again quoted Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word “sect” as he did in October 1883. ZWT when he said “we are a sect” – that definition being “A part cut off …. hence, a body of persons who have separated from others by virtue of some special doctrine, or set of doctrines, which they hold in common.”

Here we see that Russell changed his viewpoint from Christianity being a sect that split off from the Jewish church to “Christianity is not a schism or sect or split off from Judaism. It is, on the contrary, a new system or religious teaching…”

Imagine for a moment this scenario:

What if you had not read Russell’s claim in the 1893 ZWT that his group was not a sect and you quoted the 1883 article in all sincerity to prove that Russell claimed his movement was a sect? Could you have been viewed as being a liar?

Perhaps because of confusing contradictions like these, are why JW leaders do not want modern Witnesses to read their old Zion’s Watch Tower magazine and other old publications from that era. They might discover just how muddled the teachings were in the early days.

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