The historical explanation for the origination of the Christadelphian community was an event in the life of a medical doctor, Dr John Thomas. I remember my father telling me the story how as a young man he had a near shipwreck when he travelled from Britain to America to emigrate. This troubled him because he realised he had never worked out his salvation and he vowed to search the Bible out for himself and find out what it really said. As a result, the story goes, he found that all the churches had been teaching wrong doctrines and he “rediscovered the Truth.”
The appeal of John Thomas was to independence of thought and to the independent study of scripture and the claim was that he had recovered the saving truth as a result of his diligence, high intelligence and high independence of thought. In tandem with that it was suggested creeds, church authority, priests, social conditioning and so forth had blinded everyone else.
Historically this claim that existing church beliefs were wrong and he had recovered the saving truth was met with incredulity by people at the time and the community itself today generally plays down the founding claim of the movement and has sought to moderate that position. It is therefore often claimed today that he was one of a whole line of people and groups with the same beliefs (example). The evidence, however, for this is scant and it gained prominence as a result of perceptions created by two books, The Protesters and Brethren in Christ. The author, Alan Eyre, wrote in the introduction to The Protesters these words,
“The author, once naively and unquestioningly accepting the view that Dr. John Thomas “discovered,” as if from a void, the totality of Bible truth as believed by Christadelphians, was amazed to discover source after source which showed that this was at least a serious misrepresentation. It is indeed one which he believes John Thomas himself, were he alive, would be the first to repudiate, as the abundant quotations from early sources in his journals indicate. The nineteenth century, however, was one in which few intellectual debts were acknowledged.”
In the introduction to The Protesters Alan Eyre did seek to issue a reminder that in every respect they might not have held Christadelphians beliefs by stating,
“Some recorded herein perhaps did not have “all the truth” — so the writer has been reminded”
Nevertheless, the impression created by Alan Eyre was that in essence he had found a precedence of people that Christadelphians could consider brethren. That was how his books were enthusiastically accepted and still are by many. That impression was bolstered by selectively mentioning aspects of their beliefs in which there was agreement and omitting elements of their beliefs which were not. It was also a consequence of using words used in specific ways by Christadelphians. For instance, substituting words used by past reformers such as “churches” with “ecclesias” to describe congregations is to place terminology with specific Christadelphian meanings to Christadelphians into the texts. To describe them as “brethren” is to ascribe to them a fellowship situation with a specific meaning to most Christadelphians. It was also a result of the enthusiastic writing approach he adopted in conveying the struggles of Christians of other times.
He wrote, for instance that the purpose of his works was,
“to tell how a number of little-known individuals, groups and religious communities strove to preserve or revive the original Christianity of apostolic times”
This is how Christadelphians have seen themselves, but the beliefs the people he wrote about had, which he never mentioned, would preclude anyone from being a Christadelphian today or considered in that way by them.
Ruth McHaffie, a Christadelphian, explained it this way in Brethren Indeed, page 25:
“If we merely wish to prove that doctrines held by Christadelphians were believed among reformers who preceded John Thomas, then we are travelling an easy road and can find ample evidence. It is entirely legitimate to select one or another and quote from him on the particular point under consideration.
For example, we can cite the brilliant John Biddle to illustrate his perception that the Son is not equal to the Father. But if we wish to see that courageous character as one of the faithful “believers of the Truth” who were “contending for the same promises and doctrines as Christadelphians today…” then we are travelling along a different path. We then have to investigate, as far as we were possible, to what extent he was in agreement with our “first principles,” and to what extent he was not. We have to consider whether, if he were alive today, we would be able to hold out to him the hand of fellowship and welcome him round “our” table or whether, since he believed the Holy Spirit was the chief of the good angels (as well as, in our opinion, other misconceptions), our acceptance of him would mean that we were selling our “salty birthright for a mess of contemporary corruption,” a failure deplored in The Protesters (p. 3).”
Alan Eyre’s books were heavily promoted by Christadelphian sources, but as individuals started to do their own personal research the impressions created in his books that he had discovered former brethren came under scrutiny. They also found resistance within the community to publish evidence which contradicted the impressions he had put forward. This led Ruth McHaffie to do a comprehensive research of all his information. This was published as Finding Founders and Facing Facts (currently out of print), although a summary called Brethren Indeed is still available. Ruth McHaffie’s book is extraordinarily comprehensive in nature and scholarly to an extreme. She wrote more information critiquing Alan Eyre than is contained in his books and she covered the people he wrote about in more depth that he did. Unlike him she also backed up every important statement with source references so her information can be double checked. It was a devastating analysis showing he cherry picked which of their beliefs to show and the evidence was severely misrepresented to prove a position. It remains that whilst evidence can be found to show a few individuals and groups in the past have held some individual Christadelphian beliefs, the people and groups he found would not be consistent with the historical requirements of being a Christadelphian found within the statements of faith and which have been considered essential for salvation.
That the early Christadelphians believed and justified the idea that John Thomas rediscovered the truth can be found in many of their historical documents. In Dr Thomas His Life and Works which is subtitled, “a biography illustrative of the process by which the system of truth revealed in the Bible has been recovered in modern times,” we find an explanation of history designed to explain it. These allow that various scattered elements of truth persisted within Protestant history, as do other writings, but the suggestion is they were marred by an apostasy.
The important element these changing explanations by the Christadelphian body show is the unlikelihood that saving truth could be lost for 1800 years. The next section will consider the real influences behind the emergence of the Christadelphians in the nineteenth century.