“That looks more like Brother Russell than Brother Russell himself!”
—Viewer of the “Photo-Drama” in 1914.
THIS year marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of the “Photo-Drama of Creation,” an epic visual presentation designed to build faith in the Bible as the Word of God. In an age when belief in evolution, higher criticism, and skepticism had eroded the faith of many, the “Photo-Drama” championed Jehovah as the Creator.
Charles T. Russell, who took the lead among the Bible Students, constantly searched for the most effective and fastest means possible to spread Bible truth. The Bible Students had already been using the power of the printed page for more than three decades. Now a new possibility caught their attention
SPREADING THE GOSPEL THROUGH MOTION PICTURES
The 1890’s introduced silent motion pictures to the public. As early as 1903, a religious film was shown in a New York City church. The motion-picture industry was thus in its infancy in 1912 when Russell boldly launched preparations for the “Photo-Drama.” He realized that this mode of communication could convey Bible truth in a way that the printed page alone could not.
The eight-hour “Photo-Drama” presentation, usually shown in four parts, featured 96 brief recorded Bible lectures narrated by a well-known speaker with one of the most recognizable voices of that era. Classical music accompanied many scenes. Skilled operators played the voice and music recordings on phonographs, synchronizing the sound with color slides and film reenactments of famous Bible stories.
“It encompassed the total picture from the creation of the stars to the glorious climax of Christ’s Thousand Year Reign.”
—F. Stuart Barnes, age 14 in 1914
Most of the film footage and many of the glass slides came from commercial studios. Professional artists in Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and London hand painted the glass slides and the films, frame by frame. Teams of workers in Bethel’s Art Room also did much of the painting, often making replacements for broken slides. In addition to the purchased films, Bethel family members were filmed in nearby Yonkers, New York, as they played the parts of Abraham, Isaac, and the angel who prevented Abraham from actually sacrificing his son.
An associate of Brother Russell told the press that this medium would “interest countless thousands in Scripture, more than anything that [had] been done for religious advancement in the past.” Would the clergy applaud such an innovative effort to reach the spiritually hungry masses? On the contrary, Christendom’s ministers as a whole denounced the “Photo-Drama,” some even using sly or brazen tactics to prevent the public from seeing it. In one venue, a ministers’ union had the electricity cut off.
Nevertheless, audiences packed out theaters to view the “Photo-Drama” free of charge. In the United States, up to 80 cities each day hosted the “Photo-Drama.” Many amazed viewers were seeing their first ‘talking movie.’ Time-lapse photography enabled them to watch a chick peck its way out of its shell and a blossom gracefully unfold. Scientific information of the day highlighted the marvelous wisdom of Jehovah. As mentioned at the outset, seeing Brother Russell on-screen introducing the “Photo-Drama,” one viewer even thought that the speaker looked “more like Brother Russell than Brother Russell himself!”
A MILESTONE IN BIBLE EDUCATION
Author and film historian Tim Dirks described the “Photo-Drama” as “the first major screenplay which incorporated synchronized sound (recorded speech), moving film, and magic lantern color slides.” Films that preceded the “Photo-Drama” had used some of these techniques but not all of them in one presentation, especially one with a Bible theme. And none had a greater audience
The “Photo-Drama” premiered on January 11, 1914, in New York City. Seven months thereafter came the cataclysm later called World War I. But crowds around the world continued gathering together to view the “Photo-Drama,” drawing solace from its vivid scenes of Kingdom blessings to come. By any measure, for the year 1914, the “Photo-Drama” was truly a remarkable presentation.