A letter from an ex-missionary prep student reached Russell early in October 1884. Writing from Hot Springs, Arkansas, he said:
dear brother russell:--Will you be so kind as to send me the watch tower again? Circumstances have been so hard against me that I am not able to pay yet, but I am still wanting more truth. In my young years I was for a time a student in the Missionary College of Basel, Switzerland. While there I began to see into the inconsistencies of creeds. I therefore grew dissatisfied and studied a great deal. But finally meeting with so many apparent discrepancies, I gave up all study. For many years following I regarded the Bible as a structure of man, adapted to the wants and wishes of all sects and the gratification of one class, the clergy. Preelection and predestination seemed to be the chief teachings. Yet I had consecrated myself to the Lord, and I would occasionally pray for light and faith. At last Food for thinking Christians arrived and passed through me like an electric current, bringing me to see the glorious harmony of God's plan. Possessing no Bible, I could not study Food and watch tower by references, but only by the remembering of former reading in German and French text.
Being desirous to do some good, I let my cup of "Food" pass from house to house until I at last lost sight of it. The last person who had it was a Campbelite preacher. I would therefore be very thankful for another one, also the "Tabernacle and Its Teachings." Could also use, say six or eight, to good advantage among inquiring friends. I hope the Lord will bless you and all his people, and enable me to proclaim his name and praise wherever occasion presents, but I am full of fears lest my garments have become so soiled through indifference and neglect that another may be about grasping my crown. But the Lord can extend his helping hand to me as once he did to Peter.
Though brief, his letter leads us into areas we haven’t significantly explored. Much of Russell’s Last Times teaching derived from J. A. Seiss. Seiss delved deeply into German exegesis. Among those he drew from was Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752) whose works were available in English translation. Both a professor and pastor in Württemberg, he believed that the Bible was the progressive unfolding of the divine plan of redemption that climaxes in the second coming of Christ. The Bible, Bengel said, is a self-explanatory whole. The Württemberg approach to Biblical studies developed over time, shifting toward liberal and historical interpretation.
This student’s disgust over conflicting theologies was unexceptional, and, as it did for many, led him to Watch Tower theology. Russell’s correspondent attended the Basler Missionsgesellschaft, otherwise known as Evangelical Missionary Society of Basel, a school meant to educate working-class young men from the Netherlands and United Kingdom for missionary work. It did not provide a university level education, but strove for some competence among its students. In the late 19th Century its message was a mixture of Württemberg theologies. An essay presented by Griffith University says:
A four-year training course had to first instill basic school knowledge – reading writing, arithmetic – and then impart bible knowledge, some theological insights, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English and perhaps an oriental language. It was also highly desirable that candidates had some basic medical knowledge. …
The … tension was never satisfactorily resolved between offering an alternative path to ordination for candidates who did not have a basic education and … satisfying the bottom-line expectations of university-trained theologians who were in charge of the churches. …
One of the teachers, who had returned from missionary activity in India, felt that although rigorous, the training did not impart basic general knowledge, let alone theological understanding. It produced few very successful candidates, because the standards were simply set too high, with too much emphasis on rote learning. … One of the teachers, observed that the level of education reached by most candidates stood in no relation to the invested time and exertion. It left candidates with poor general knowledge, and without a gift of the gab.