WILLIAM CONLEY FIRST WTS PRESIDENT
(Investigator 140, 2011
For over 100 years
Russellites and Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) forgot William Conley who
helped get their religion started.
William Henry Conley (1840-1897) was a founder of the Watchtower
Society (WTS) in 1881, and its first president prior to its
incorporation. The better-known Charles T Russell was the president
from its incorporation in 1884.
This was discovered by
Barbara Anderson when working as research assistant for the WTS book Jehovah's
Witnesses Proclaimers of God's Kingdom (1993) which mentions Conley
on page 576.
Anderson was a JW for
43 years and a member of the WTS's Writing Department. She subsequently
defected from the sect and maintains a website on which she offers CDs
with extensive collections of information.
THE WTS IN THE
The WTS, initially
named Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society, was founded in February 1881 as
an "association". Its President was Conley; Vice President Joseph
Russell (C T Russell's father); and Secretary/Treasurer C T Russell.
Conley donated $3500 of the original $5000 capital, Joseph Russell
$1000, and C T Russell $500.
In its first year the
WTS spent $40,000 (donated mainly by Conley) on the book Food For
Thinking Christians and other free literature.
Conley and his wife
Sarah (1841-1908) were among the five original Bible Students with
which the Russell cult started in 1872/73. The other three were C T
Russell, his sister Margaret, and their father Joseph Russell.
The Conleys and
Russells became acquainted about 1870 at the Advent Christian Church
where they listened to Second Adventist preachers such as Jonas
Wendell, George Stetson, and George Storrs.
experienced controversy in the 1870s due to belief in Christ's imminent
return and the burning up of the world. This possibly led Conley &
Russell to start separate meetings.
The Russells had built
J. L. Russell & Son, a chain of five men's clothing stores. Conley
was much wealthier — he was co-owner of Riter-Conley Company, a metal
fabrication company that supplied mining and other industries. In the
late 1880s Riter-Conley had over 600 employees.
In 1876 the
Russell-Conley sect amalgamated with some Second Adventists led by
Nelson Barbour. Barbour's cult had predicted Christ's visible return
for 1873/1874/1875 and then opted for an invisible return that occurred
1874. (This is the origin of the JW doctrine of Christ's invisible
second coming, which until 1930 they placed in 1874 before transferring
it to 1914.)
Barbour/Russell cult predicted the "rapture" for 1878 when the "living
saints" would ascend physically to heaven. Some of them gathered in
white robes on a bridge in Pittsburgh on Passover night but the
prophecy failed. A H Macmillan (1877-1966) who became known as the
"grand old man of the [JW] movement" referred to this event in his WTS
approved book Faith on the March (1957). He asked Russell about
it and Russell said, "However, some of the more radical ones might have
been there, but I was not."
In 1879 Russell and
Barbour separated. Russell started the magazine Zion's Watch Tower
and also predicted 1881 for the rapture.
At this stage Conley
was still important in Russell's cult. In 1880 and 1881 the Allegheny
City venue for the annual remembrance of Christ's death was Conley's
home. (Zion's Watch Tower, April 1881, p208) But in 1882 the venue was
the home of Joseph Russell. (March 1882, p325)
split-up occurred in 1882. Barbour's former co-editor, John H Paton,
had sided with the Russell faction in 1879 but split from Russell in
The reasons were:
Russell's false prophecy for 1881;
Paton's belief in universal salvation which Russell called
The Trinity doctrine, which Russell rejected in 1882;
The ascent of the living saints to heaven which Paton placed near
1914 but Russell still awaited sooner.
Conley's loyalties also
changed. In 1882 he stopped giving large donations to Russell and his
name stopped appearing in Zion's Watch Tower. In 1884 Russell
incorporated the WTS to more effectively handle legal and financial
matters and Conley disappeared as president.
Conley joined the
Presbyterian Church which believes in the Trinity and conscious eternal
punishment for the wicked. It did not believe that Jesus returned in
1874 nor believed in Russell's reinterpretation of the 1878 date, which
was that Jesus set up his Kingdom in 1878 and dead Christians were
resurrected to heaven. Conley's religious shift, therefore, suggests
extensive repudiation of much of what he previously believed.
Apparently he also accepted Lutheran beliefs since the book Theocratic
Kingdom (1884) by Lutheran minister George N H Peters included an
acknowledgment of financial assistance from Conley. Later Conley also
supported an orphanage, school and hospital in Pittsburgh, sponsored
religious conventions, and organized and funded a Christian mission in
A letter from Conley in Zion's
Watch Tower in 1894 (June 11, p1664) supported
Russell when a further rift occurred and four elders tried to remove
Russell from power. Zion's Watch Tower introduced the letter by
presenting Conley as "a member of the early Allegheny Bible Class"
without disclosing that he was the Society's first president:
brother who was a member of the early Allegheny Bible Class writes as
My Dear Bro. In
I have read carefully
pages 92 to 119 of A Conspiracy Exposed and Harvest Siftings with
special interest, and must say my recollection of events named by you
are very much like your own; and while there are some details, in some
cases, of which I know nothing, and hence cannot speak as to them, yet
I do know there were such transactions as you name, and at the dates
given. I am quite conversant with some of the dealings, and am
surprised at the very merciful manner in which you speak of those with
whom you were associated. "The servant is not greater than his Lord."
"If they have done these things in a green tree, what will they do in
the dry?"—"Perils among false brethren," etc., etc.
As to myself, you can
rely on one thing, viz., All reports stating that I deny the ransom are
Conley's death (July
1897) was not announced in Zion's Watch Tower — although the
deaths of Stetson and Storrs (1879) and Joseph Russell (1896) merited
John H Paton, however,
announced Conley's death in his magazine The World's Hope, and
stated that he had stayed at the Conley home many times "over the past
It is with
deep sorrow that we are called upon to record the death of one of our
most valued fellow-laborers…and one of the few princely Christian
merchants... We refer to Mr. Henry Conley, of Pittsburg, Pa., who
passed away at his home in Pittsburg on Sabbath evening, July 25th,
after a brief illness of only about a month….
Mr. Conley was a
business man of very high standing in Pittsburg, and a vast concourse
of his fellow citizens gathered at his funeral to pay their last
tribute of respect and affection to his memory. The funeral services
were conducted at his home in Pittsburg [and] referred in appropriate
terms to his high character and great usefulness.
the spirit of business enterprise into his Christian work and did
nothing by halves. He was one of the few Barnabases of the church and
it is easier to supply a dozen preachers than one such whole-hearted
Christ-filled business man. But God remains and He is equal to every
Mr. Conley's heart
was much in the work of, and his spontaneous liberality has largely
helped to keep in operation the blessed [evangelizing] which has been
so successfully carried on by our friends in Pittsburg.
But his heart had
also caught the Master's greater thought for the evangelization of the
world. And he has been for many years in the very front of the great
The inspiration of
Mr. Conley's life and the theme of his constant testimony was the
coming of the Lord Jesus…
The article John H
Paton: Forgotten Co-founder of a Sect in Investigator 18
presented Paton as the "Forgotten Co-founder" and as "one of five men
who were significant in helping Charles T Russell start the Watchtower
We can now recognize
William Conley as a sixth "significant" man as well as another