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Jack Ryan

The Lost Founder and First President of the Jehovah Witnesses: William Henry Conley

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William Henry Conley. Co-owner of the Riter Conley company that provided steel and manufactured goods during the second industrial revolution. The first president of “Zions Watchtower” which would later be replaced with Charles Taze Russell. Conley eventually didn’t want to be associated with Russell, he didn’t agree with his pyramid theories and thought his 1874 prediction of Armageddon was ludicrous. So he disassociated himself to care for his wife whom he felt was more important than Russell’s cult following at the time. Russell went on to use Conley's $11 million today equivalent to fund his exhibition, and then Conley went on to believe the organization only wanted him for his money which he went to his grave believing. Upon his death, all trace of his existence and founding of Zions Watchtower was erased. An announcement was not made in Zions Watchtower, Russell did refer to him as “an original Allegheny bible student” though. Russell once believed Conley to be anointed, but do to “succumbing to worldliness and falling out, may be given another chance to awake with the great crowd on an earthly resurrection as a man who was hardworking and loyal.” THAT'S all Russell had to say about the president, the first president and founding member. This information wasn’t found out until 45 years later.

Even the @The Librarian mentioned him in his articles such as this one:



Death 25 Jul 1897 (aged 57)
Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, USA
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Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, USA
Plot Section R
Memorial ID 62936475 ·
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3 minutes ago, Jack Ryan said:

Russell once believed Conley to be anointed, but do to “succumbing to worldliness and falling out, may be given another chance to awake with the great crowd on an earthly resurrection as a man who was hardworking and loyal.”

How could Russell have said this if the great crowd were getting a heavenly resurrection according to Russell? Is this an actual quotation of some kind?

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(Investigator 140, 2011 September)


For over 100 years Russellites and Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) forgot William Conley who helped get their religion started.

Pittsburgh businessman 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 with extensive collections of information.


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.

Advent Christians 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.)

The combined 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)

Another important 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 1882.

The reasons were:

•    Russell's false prophecy for 1881;
•    Paton's belief in universal salvation which Russell called "heresy";
•    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 Jerusalem.

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:

Another brother who was a member of the early Allegheny Bible Class writes as follows:
My Dear Bro. In Christ:—
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 absolutely false...
    W.H. Conley 


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 notices.

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 20 years":

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.

Mr. Conley…carried 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 need.

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 missionary movement…

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 movement."

We can now recognize William Conley as a sixth "significant" man as well as another forgotten co-founder.

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William Henry Conley (11 June 1840 – 25 July 1897), was a Pittsburgh philanthropist and industrialist. He was married to Sarah Shaffer (1841-1908). Together, they provided organizational and financial support to religious institutions in the United States. William Conley was trained by his uncle in the printing business for ten years. Conley was co-owner of the Riter Conley Company, which provided steel and manufactured goods during the Second Industrial Revolution.

Bethel Home Mission

The Conleys frequently held prayer meetings and events in their home ministry. Adventist minister George Stetson lived for a time with the Conleys during a prolonged period of illness until his death. The Conley home was sometimes kept open for weeks at a time in support of religious and charity efforts. According to Zion's Watch Tower, annual celebrations of the Memorial of Christ's death were held at the Conleys' home. Conley's home mission was described as Bethel (literally, "house of God"). The first recorded mention of Bethel in association with Conley appeared in 1890, in reference to the missionary house of Miss Lucy Dunne, established by William and Sarah Conley in Jerusalem.

Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society

From 1881 until 1884, Conley was the first president of Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society. Charles Taze Russell, who initially served as the Society's secretary-treasurer, had been publisher and editor of the Society's flagship periodical, Zion's Watch Tower (now known as The Watchtower) since 1879, and later claimed that the Society was started in 1880 and had been functioning informally even before that. In December 1884, the Society was incorporated with Russell as president. In 1896, the Society was renamed Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, and later became associated with Jehovah's Witnesses.

Conley provided practical assistance to other religious publications, including the three-volume series, Theocratic Kingdom by George N. H. Peters; Peters dedicated the work partially to Conley, claiming to be "deeply indebted for sympathy and pecuniary aid in the prosecution and publication of the work."While Conley was still president of the Society, the May 1883 issue of Zion's Watch Tower criticized Peters' work, recommending that readers not purchase the title.

In 1894, Russell introduced a letter from Conley as written by "a member of the early Allegheny Bible Class" rather than the Society's first president. Following Conley's death in July 1897, Zion's Watch Tower provided no obituary, nor any statement of Conley's involvement with the Society.

In an obituary for Conley in the unrelated publication, The World's Hope of August 1897, Zion's Watch Tower correspondent J. H. Paton wrote of the Conley home, "I have shared the generous hospitality of that Christian home. Often has the spacious parlor been opened for the purposes of praise and prayer, and for the proclamation of the good tidings. It has been to many a Bethel—the house of God and the gate of heaven." The previous month, Zion's Watch Tower had used the phrase, "Bethel, House of God, a gate to heaven", in connection with the apostle Paul.

Christian and Missionary Alliance

Conley was a member of the board of managers of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), and was instrumental in funding and organizing it at local, state and national levels through the International Missionary Alliance (IMA). In 1889, Conley funded and organized the CMA mission in Jerusalem under control of his home mission which would later come under the auspices of the IMA and eventually the CMA. In the same year, the International Missionary Alliance was legally incorporated with W. H. Conley's $5000 contribution. The Pittsburgh branch of the Christian and Missionary Alliance was formally established in 1894. Conley was elected president of both the Pittsburgh branch and at the state level, an office which he retained until his death in 1897.

Business and charitable interests

William Conley worked his way from bookkeeper to co-owner of the Riter Conley Company, a worldwide supplier to the drilling, mining, manufacturing, and marine industries. Conley was also director and a stockholder of the Third National Bank of Allegheny.

William and his wife were active in several Pittsburgh charities, including an orphanage and school for African-American children, as well as a local hospital.


William Henry Conley contracted influenza (indicated in one obituary as "La Grippe") early in 1897, from which he never fully recovered. His health was relatively stable until June, at which time he suffered a relapse, after which he seldom left his home. He became bedridden in the last week of his life; on the evening of July 25, 1897, his health rapidly declined, and he died at about 8:30pm. A funeral service was conducted at his home in Pittsburgh.

William Conley was survived by his wife Sarah. After a period of prolonged illness, Sarah Conley died October 1, 1908. In honor of her husband's memory, Mrs Conley left much of her estate—estimated at a value of nearly $500,000 (current equivalent, about $12.18 million)—to the Wylie Avenue Church and the Pittsburg Bible Institute.

- From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 12/13/2010

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