Monday 4 February 2019

The Emphatic Diaglott and the Watch Tower Society

(This article on Benjamin Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott interlinear translation was first posted back in 2011. It has attracted quite a bit of attention over the intervening years and has been slightly revised as extra information has come to light)

The Emphatic Diaglott had a major role to play in the early history of the Watch Tower Society. It is quite easy to read up on Wilson’s own history and how the Diaglott came into being. However, this article is mainly written to reveal who actually obtained the plates and gave the copyright to the Watch Tower Society in 1902.

Benjamin Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott was first published in one volume in 1864 after being issued as a part-work starting August 1858 with Wilson’s journal The Gospel Banner. The version published by Fowler and Wells of New York was widely used by various Adventist and Age to Come groups, and the main Age to Come newspaper The Restitution partly grew out of The Gospel Banner. Wilson had been a friend of John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians, but the two ultimately had doctrinal differences and split. While Thomas founded the Christadelphians, Wilson – although strongly anti-organization - had a major role in the founding of the Church of God of Abrahamic Faith. Today, the descendants of his group are usually called the Church of the Blessed Hope or Abrahamic Faith – a faction who did not join the Church of God General Conference in 1920.

Its connection with Watch Tower history (or pre-history) starts when one of Nelson Barbour’s readers, Benjamin Keith, hit upon Wilson’s translation of the Greek word “parousia” as “presence” rather than “coming”. This set minds working on an apparently failed prediction for Christ’s second coming in 1874. If the coming was an invisible presence (although that was not how Wilson would understand the matter) then their expectations had actually been fulfilled – but invisibly. This view ultimately became a major part of Charles Taze Russell’s belief system. (Hereafter abbreviated to CTR).

Once established, Zion’s Watch Tower Society highly endorsed the Diaglott. In Old Theology Quarterly for April 1893 “Friendly Hints on Bible Study and Students’ Helps” pages 9 and 10, the Diaglott is highly recommended as “another of God’s special blessings for our day...While we cannot say this work is perfect, we can say that we know of no other translation of the New Testament so valuable to the critical student – and this includes all to whom we write.”

Early copies had a note pasted in the front entitled A Friendly Criticism, which detailed some doctrinal differences between CTR and Wilson. While praising the work highly, the note drew attention to certain issues such as a personal devil, the pre-human existence of Jesus and his resurrected state - where the actual interlinear and Wilson’s own English version were not thought to harmonize.

At the same time, The Restitution paper carried an advertisement for the Diaglott each week for several decades.

Wilson died in 1900. Shortly after, in 1902, the copyright to the Diaglott was obtained for the Watch Tower Society, and they became its publisher for nearly one hundred years. Anyone who wanted to obtain a Diaglott now had to contact the Watch Tower Society.

The journal “Christadelphian Tidings of the Kingdom of God” for January 2009 in its article “Reflections” commented on how some erroneously thought the Diaglott to be a product of Russellism. It explained that “the confusion probably arises because the copyright for The Diaglott was purchased in the early 20th century by an anonymous buyer who then donated it to the Watchtower Society.”

The article viewed the Watch Tower Society’s publishing the work as “a sad, ironic twist of history.” It stressed there was no evidence that Wilson ever came in contact with Millennial Dawn.

This conflicts with a claim made in Consolation magazine for November 8, 1944, page 4 which states “Mr Wilson knew of the truth, and it is reported that he at one time attended some of the meetings of Jehovah’s people, but disagreed on certain fundamental issues.” It must be said that this is unreferenced information written decades after events, and the words “it is reported” do not necessarily bode well. There are a number of other Diaglott references from Consolation magazine in the 1940s. They state that the Diaglott “was produced about 1867” (February 3, 1943, page 29), that the “Society bought the plates and publication rights from the author, Mr Wilson” (February 3, 1943, page 29), and that Wilson “was a Christadelphian” (November 22, 1944, page 30). We now know that all these statements are incorrect. While the Consolation writers analysed the Diaglott’s strengths effectively, they obviously had limited historical records at their disposal.

What CAN be easily established today is that Wilson would certainly have known of Millennial Dawn and CTR. Wilson wrote for The Restitution almost up to the time of his death in 1900, and The Restitution regularly reviewed CTR’s works and activities. Wilson was also a special contributor to The Millenarian when it reviewed CTR’s Divine Plan of the Ages in February 1887. And a nephew of Wilson wrote a booklet attacking CTR’s theology.

There is also an account of several meetings between Wilson and ZWT Pilgrim J A Bohnet in 1892. Bohnet wrote up the experience many years later in an article on the front page of the St Paul Enterprise for April 4, 1916. He described how CTR had provided Wilson’s address, and how Bohnet visited Wilson several times at his home in Sacramento, California. Amongst other things they discussed CTR’s Friendly Criticism paste-in mentioned above. It was obviously amicable, but there was no meeting of minds – they remained divided on a number of issues including their understanding of the ransom and the pre-existence of Christ.

What does come out from their conversations as recorded by Bohnet is that reports that Wilson objected to CTR using his work so extensively were denied by Wilson. He was also asked point blank whether he was a Christadelphian? Wilson’s answer was, “No, I am a member of no organized denomination.”

Much misinformation has been circulated over how the Watch Tower Society obtained the rights to the Diaglott.

The book “Jehovah’s Witnesses – A Comprehensive and Selectively Annotated Bibliography” published by Greenwood Press in 1999, is one such example. On page 61 it relates how Benjamin Wilson (or as it calls him, Professor Wilson) wanted to sell the rights to the Diaglott because he got into serious financial trouble, but blocked CTR’s attempts to buy them. CTR then used a third party to keep his name out of it, so that Wilson couldn’t stop him. When Wilson discovered CTR had obtained the rights by such a devious method he publicly claimed there were numerous errors in the Diaglott anyway and he was going to produce a revised edition. No supporting references are given for this story, there is no record of anything of the sort in The Restitution – as already noted above, this was a paper with plenty to say about CTR on other issues - and history records that Wilson had been dead for a couple of years when the rights changed hands. We can safely discount such anecdotes as fantasy – with an obvious agenda.

Returning to the above quotation from “Christadelphian Tidings”, their reference to an anonymous buyer harkens back to the Society’s own description of the event. The Proclaimers book on page 606 made the comment: “That same year (1902), the Watch Tower Society came into possession of the printing plates for The Emphatic Diaglott...Those plates and the sole right of publication had been purchased and then given as a gift to the Society.”

The original reference comes from the back page of the Watch Tower for December 15, 1902 (which is not in the reprints). In offering the Diaglott as part of a list of available publications, the blurb stated:

For several years a friend, an earnest Bible student, desirous of assisting the readers of our Society's publications, has supplied them through us at a greatly reduced price; now he has purchased the copyright and plates from the Fowler & Wells Co., and presented the same to our Society as a gift, under our assurance that the gift will be used for the furthering of the Truth to the extent of our ability, by such a reduction of price as will permit the poor of the Lord's flock to have this help in the study of the Word. REDUCED PRICES.--These will be sold with ZION'S WATCH TOWER only.”

So who was this earnest Bible student, anonymous friend and benefactor?

The answer was established in a court hearing in 1907. And it is not rocket science to guess who it really was.

In 1903 Maria Russell initiated court proceedings against CTR for what ultimately resulted in a divorce from bed and board – an official separation, but one where neither she nor CTR were ever legally free to remarry. Much hinged on the issue of financial support, and in April 1907 testimony was taken on CTR’s financial situation. Maria tried to establish that CTR still had considerable funds, whereas CTR testified that, bit by bit, he had already donated his assets to the WT Society. CTR was questioned at length about his financial affairs over previous years.

The Bible House had been turned over to the Society in 1898 and other properties subsequently – including the house Maria had lived in up to 1903. Now they were in 1907, CTR testified he had a small bank balance and an arrangement for board and lodging for the duration of his natural life.

However, the court testimony shows quite clearly that, back in 1902, and for a little while thereafter, CTR still retained direct control of funds in his own name. And in the details of this testimony he explained quite openly just how the Society obtained the Diaglott.

He stressed that the aim had been to allow as many as possible to obtain the Diaglott, and so had made it available on a not for profit basis.

Quoting from pages 204-205 of the transcript of the April 1907 hearing, CTR said (and CAPITALS MINE):

“We publish also a brief New Testament, with an interlinear translation in English, and the marginal translation. It was published originally and for many years, for 30 or 40 years, by Fowler and Wells, of New York. THE PLATES WERE PRESENTED TO THE SOCIETY BY MYSELF. The Society had certain corrections made in the new plates etc., as they were considerably worn, and the edition which Fowler and Wells retailed at $4.00 and wholesaled at $2.66 – 2/3 the Society is now publishing at $1.50 per copy, and it includes postage of 16 cents on this, and as they are nearly all purchased by subscribers to the Watch Tower it goes additional with each volume, and in his subscription to the journal; that is to say, that the Watch Tower for the year and this book that was formerly sold for $4.00 go altogether, with postage included, for $1.50, WITH THE VIEW OF INTERESTING PEOPLE IN THE WATCH TOWER PUBLICATION, and permitting the Watch Tower subscribers to have the Diaglott in every home possible.”

So before CTR donated his remaining assets to the Watch Tower Society, he was able to donate the plates personally to the Watch Tower Society.

The repairs to the plates extended the life of the Diaglott, and the new price made it more accessible to the public. In addition, throwing in a year’s Watch Tower subscription as part of the deal was adroit proselytizing. For instance, any newcomers to the world of The Restitution who wanted a Diaglott (or just wanted to replace a copy), now had to approach the Watch Tower Society for one. It was perhaps not surprising that attacks on CTR’s theology intensified in The Restitution in the early 20th century.

However, this leaves us with the question: Why did CTR chose to remain anonymous, referring instead to a nameless benefactor?

It is here this writer is on shaky ground, because we have no direct way of knowing. But I can suggest two reasons why CTR might have done this.

First, there are his comments in the booklet A Conspiracy Exposed and Harvest Siftings published in 1894.This detailed CTR’s recent difficulties with certain individuals. One was an Elmer Bryan, who made certain accusations against CTR and brought two other brothers (H Weber and M Tuttle) to see him to apply the steps of Matthew 18:15-17. As recorded in the booklet, Brothers Weber and Tuttle heard both parties out and came to the conclusion that Bryan’s accusations were ridiculous. One involved the use of the pseudonym Mrs C B Lemuels (of behalf of Maria Russell) in advertising material some years previously. In dispatching this criticism, CTR said on page 45: “Besides, I bring my own name as little into prominence as possible. This will be noticed in connection with everything I have published – the O(ld) T(heology) Tracts, the DAWNS, etc.”

Looking at the tract series and early editions of the Dawns (Studies) one would be hard put to discover the author. CTR indeed kept quite a low profile. In some respects this was to change when the newspaper sermon work got off the ground. Newspapers wanted personalities and CTR reluctantly became one. But that was further down the line.

But that basic desire to keep a personal name out of matters may have influenced CTR’s decision to donate the Diaglott without claiming personal credit.

A second related reason may be tied to another comment from A Conspiracy Exposed, this time page 40. In connection with a business matter, CTR made the comment that he “preferred to avoid any unnecessary notoriety.” Had the world known that CTR had bought the plates and the rights from Fowler and Wells, there could have been uproar in certain quarters. This writer would theorize that if various Age to Come groups who used the Diaglott knew for certain that CTR had personally brought their baby under his control – and now would only make it available with a year’s worth of his journal – promoting his brand of heresy as they saw it – then cries of “Foul” and “Unfair” would ring out loud and clear.

There would be rumbles whatever happened, but no name – no direct blame. An anonymous benefactor leading to a publishing organisation generously providing the volume at reduced cost to all was far better P.R.

In fact, CTR did the public a great service. He rescued the Diaglott from potential oblivion with the state of the plates as they were. Then that reduction from $4.00 to $1.50 was well worth having. And for around a hundred years thereafter, the Watch Tower Society made this translation readily available to all. Ultimately the copyright expired and the Society’s inventory dwindled. Since 2004, groups like the Abrahamic Faith Beacon Publishing Society published their own version and viewed the translation as “coming home”. Interestingly, the modern versions published have retailed at a far higher price than the Watchtower Society ever charged, even when they did have a fixed contribution for literature.


  1. A great article Jerome, brilliantly researched and put together, as usual. I took so much for granted when I too sparingly used my Diaglott some years back. It should have come with this article in the Introduction!

  2. Thanks for kind words. This article was originally prompted by the discovery of who really was the anonymous donor of the Diaglott plates to the WT Society – an acquisition that no doubt annoyed the Church of God/One Faith movement no end at the time. However, anybody who reads through the transcription of the 1907 hearing between CTR and Maria would discover that information. I have come to the conclusion that while many people have copies of historical documents, far fewer take the time to actually read them. I am sure there is much key information out there already in our collections just waiting for someone to actually read the bits that matter today.