Reading Bumps and Faces;
Phrenology and Physiognomy

A History of the Watchtower's Excursion into the Occult


Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.



Phrenology, from the Greek words for mind and words about or discourse, is the occult science which endeavors to read a person's character from the shape and particularly the peaks and valleys of the skull. It was begun by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). Closely related is the occult science Physiognomy (Greek for nature and interpreter), an effort to understand the mind and personality by evaluating various facial traits as the nose, eyes, chin and cheekbone shape; in short, judging people by their faces. Both fields have been fully discredited today by science, especially phrenology, yet both played an important role in the early history of the Watchtower. One Golden Age article (Pottle, 1925:333) argued that "the character of men can be described in terms of facial features, known as Physiognomy, or cranial characteristics [a field] with the scientific term of Phrenology." This Watchtower writer then argued for such foolishness as various body shapes tell "our story of life" and the body's "vibrations show what we are and do not lie." The vibrations relate to the infamous quack "healer" Dr. Abrams who claimed he could diagnose disease by an "electronic vibratory method."

The Watchtower claims that not only do our "vibrations" reveal our personality and true self, but our palms, spine, and even our feet and "fingernails," if we were "only sufficiently intelligent we undoubtedly could determine what a person thinks or does chiefly, his qualifications etc., merely from a piece of his skin, a hair, or a drop of blood" (p.333). These outlandish ideas, the author argues to give him credibility, were evidently endorsed by Pastor Russell who on several occasions discussed the mysteries of "mental telepathy, mind reading, and women's intuition..." (332-333).


A History of Phrenology:

Phrenology was popular from the middle of the 18th to the latter part of the 19th century, although even "much criticism" about phrenology existed in the 1800's--so much that it was "lampooned in verse and on the stage" (Gregory,1987; 618). The extent of the use of phrenology by the Watchtower is illustrated in the autobiography of Pastor Russell written by William Wisdom (1923). This work contains a number of testimonials from phrenologists about Russell's central role in Gods work. Among those who examined him was a David Dall a "noted mental scientist" who after his October 30th 1911 examination of Russell concluded that the Watchtower Society founder had a large head and a "brain gifted with an uncommon degree of activity. A full basilar region is accompanied by the powerful endowment of the moral, intellectual and spiritual natures." Evidence for this conclusion included Russell's physiognomy, specifically his "large face a large, broad nose with ample nostrils" (p.42). How a "face reader" can know a person's personality from traits as nose shape is an occult conclusion not based on science.

The noted "mental scientist" also included an evaluation of such traits as Russell's eyes which indicate a "communicative disposition [and] benevolence [as]..a leading faculty, [of his] manifesting itself in liberality of sentiment to all mankind, deep desire for the welfare of others, combining warmth of sympathy with rare simplicity of purpose." The "noted" expert allegedly concluded all of these qualities existed in Russell simply from reading the bumps on his head, the dimples on his chin, and the wrinkle in his nose. Presumably he used the charts prepared by well known phrenologists of his day--charts which we now know are completely "mistaken" (Gibson and Gibson, 1966 p.314). Dr. Dall may have been correct about some of his conclusions, such as Russell "Controls the minds of his hearers without making an effort to do so." (p.143) A naive observer, especially someone who religiously followed Russell's teachings, might be inclined to conclude that this assessment was right on the mark. No doubt some of the phrenologists' statements were true, likely because "the expert phrenologists must depend on much more than mere bumps, protuberances, or even noticeable bulges to conclude his findings. An uneven skull naturally gave plenty to work from, as it showed many developments--frequently of the excessive type--with corresponding deficiencies in other faculties," (Gibson and Gibson, 1966 p.313).

One may excuse the Watchtower's fascination with these occult sciences by concluding that since they were once popular, it would appear that the Watchtower then was simply accepting once fashionable ideas. The Watchtower, though, claimed to be God's mouth piece giving His people pure meat in due season. Certainly God would never allow such occult foolishness to litter his publications. Further, phrenology appeared to be based on science--the brain structures for more developed traits would logically seem to be larger, and smaller if not developed. Phrenology actually fell out of popularity long before most of the Watchtower articles and the book on Pastor Russell was written. Discoveries in brain science rapidly demolished the more extravagant claims of phrenology, and their ship sank before the turn of the century--but many of its practicers were "too far at sea to swim a shore" (Gibson and Gibson, 1966 p.313). The few kernels of truth that the field contained was not enough to rescue it, and, importantly, phrenology had "attracted too many quacks and faddists to its banner" (p. 313). Ironically, phrenology was based on both evolution and eugenics which produced a dangerous form of racism:

phrenology ... conceded that the well-developed forehead of civilized man was the stamp of intellectuality, as compared to the sloping forehead of his early ancestors. Conversely, overdevelopment at the base of the skull was the mark of primitive man, indicative of unrestrained instinct. A high, large head showed a greater capacity for sentiments than a low, brain-cramping skull (Gibson and Gibson, 1964 p.304).

The "practicing witch" Sybil Leek spouts a modern racism based on phrenology in these words:

The skull of the male is larger than the female. The skulls of different races and nationalities differ widely in form, and these differences are found to correspond with the known differences of racial and national character, such as the Italians gaining recognition as lovers and the British for their calmness. In the Caucasian, the forehead is prominent and high, the coronal region is elevated and the back-head (back of head) is moderately projected. The facial angle is approximately 80 degrees. The special organs in which the Caucasian brain most excels are Mirthfulness, Ideality, and Conscientiousness (Leek, 1970 p.44).

Many practitioners went well beyond the racist and speculative statements above, some down into the ludicrous. And Watchtower writers were among the most far out, even concluding that a blue nose "is a symbol of austerity, with perhaps a prudish tinge" and that "the size of the nose as also the size of the eyes, is not without significance. The small-nose man can not have a judicial mind, whatever his other excellencies may be. And a man whose nose upturns can no more be expected to administer justice than a pug dog can be expected to act as a shepard." (Golden Age Jan. 19, 1921:224) Such foolish outlandish statements are found everywhere in the early Watchtower publications, and some are still found right up to today. The Watchtower recommended this occultic foolishness with the following enthusiastic endorsement "what a blessing it would be if parents, teachers, educators, physicians, and others were thoroughly informed in regard to the interpretation of physical forms, physiognomy, and particularly to iridiagnosis, so they could long in advance detect approaching sickness and therefore take timely measures to prevent it." (Harbeck 1922:625).

The Watchtower even used phrenology to buttress their theology. Examples include statements such as "the modern science of phrenology throws much light on the constitution of man and supplies spiritual clues" and phrenology could be even more effective if the founders who were "cradled" in the secular prevailing philosophy discarded this philosophy and "delved deeply...into the Bible" (1921:668). One would certainly question the wisdom of accepting a belief structure based upon, as the Watchtower recognizes, the "prevailing philosophy" and not the Scriptures. The Watchtower, while critical of worldly thinking, freely adopted any and all worldly thinking if it seemed to go along with the biases and assumptions of their top leaders. This was why they accepted the anti-scriptural phrenology which "prepared the way for On the Origin of Species (as Darwin acknowledged in his preface), [and] provided a way station on the road to a secular view of life" (Davies, 1955 p.172). Even in its heyday phrenologists "tended to support far-out causes" (Mainwaring, 1980 p.199).

One of the more foolish Watchtower statements is found in an article pushing "Ensign remedies" which are quack drugs, often useless, sometimes harmful. The Watchtower claims these drugs are "strictly biochemic" and a Golden Age article states they are "prepared in accordance with the laws that govern the chemistry of life" (1922:625). Such scientific sounding statements was typical of quackery of the time and also of today. Of course, all chemicals must be made according to the laws that govern chemistry -- no other way exists of preparing any chemicals unless the author had in mind a non-physical spiritual method. The author then makes the astounding statements that Ensign remedies "are neither drugs nor medicines, except in the sense of being corrective. They are physiological foods. By this is meant that they are duplications of the finished materials that compose the cells and tissue and glandular products of the body in health." The author then alleged that disease was a result of the failure of the body's "mills and factories" to manufacture standard materials to a certain level of quality. Today, we recognized that biochemical deficiencies produce some diseases, such as certain forms of diabetics. The author, though was not alleging this, but that "nearly all sickness and disease, and physical and mental imperfection, are due to a failure of the body's 'mills and factories' to manufacture standard products." The solution the author recommends is to supply the body with what is needed. Of course these remedies are drugs, even though the author misleadingly calls them something else (Gloystein 1923:625). The reason he does not want to call them drugs is because the Watchtower at this time condemned doctors and what they did. By using these "non-drugs" the person can "remain independent of doctors who employ drugs, medicines, vaccines, serums, and surgical operations for diseased conditions" (pg. 625). The Watchtower never acknowledge that the source of almost all drugs are "natural" chemicals from plants, animal, or natural compounds that are modified, sometimes only slightly.



The Watchtower Society has always made much of the fact that their leaders are uneducated, claiming that this did not matter because they were instead humble servants of the Lord who were specially blessed by God to run His organization. The lack of education which they bragged about then influenced their accepting a seemingly endless variety of foolish ideas which were, at best, harmless fringe science, and, at worst, has killed multi-thousands of people. True, medical science at this time was in its infancy, but none-the-less many of the ideas the Watchtower adopted were even in their day well recognized to be quack science, such as Abrams' vibration theory of life. Other ideas were long ago discarded as false such as phrenology and physiognomy. Today, although the Watchtower recognizes much of this for the foolishness it is, their wholesale acceptance of so many fringe occultic as well as quack ideas does not speak well of their history. How many ideas and beliefs which they today hold to will likewise turn out to be foolishness or dangerous?

The Watchtower, God's organization they teach, pushed phrenology over a half a century after it was rejected by thinking persons, and did not formerly condemn it in print until 1978--over a full century after it was shown to be wrong. In 1978, they accurately stated "some false beliefs" about the brain "such as phrenology--the study of 'character traits' by feeling bumps on the head" are false. The also finally admitted "the shape of the skull is not determined by the shape of the cerebrum, nor is is possible to assign 'character traits' to specific areas of the brain." (Watchtower, July 15, 1978 p. 17) No mention is made here that the Watchtower pushed and taught as true this false belief for decades. In phrenology as in many other topics the leaders have had to drastically revise their teachings. And in this area, as so many others, they have now conformed to the conventional wisdom which they staunchly condemned for so long. In many ways, they have become what they once condemned, and now condemn what they once were. And the examples of phrenology and physiognomy are only one of hundreds. Dozens of others will soon be explored in the pages of this magazine.




Chambers, Howard. Phrenology for the Millions. Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press. 1968.

Davies, John D. Phrenology; fad and science. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. 1955.

Gibson, Walter and Litzka Gibson. The Complete Illustrated book of the Psychic Sciences. New York, Garden City: Doubleday and Co. 1966.

Gloystein, Prentis. "Biochemic Preparations" Golden Age July 5, 1922 p.625-626.

Gregory, Richard. The Oxford Companion to the Mind. New York, Oxford. 1987.

Harbeck, J. "Iridiagnosis." The Golden Age. July 5, 1928 p.624-625.

Leek, Sybil. Phrenology. London: Collier Books. 1970

Mainwaring, Marion. 1980. "'Phy/Phren'-Why not to take each other at face value." Smithsonian. Nov. p. 193. Vol.11 No. 8.

Martin, J.L. "What is the Spirit of Man?" Golden Age Aug. 3, 1921 p.667-670.

Pottle, A.P. "The Power of the Mind." Golden Age Feb 15, 1925 p. 332-333.

Wisdom, William. The Laodicean Messenger; His Life Works and Characters. Chicago, The Bible Students Book Store. 1923 3rd ed.

Woodworth, C.J. (Ed.) "Color and Physiognomy" Golden Age Jan 19, 1921 p.224.

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