We have considered in the previous section something of the exegetical process that led to the potential for a denomination to arise through the teachings of John Thomas. However he died before his beliefs were defined within a fully denominational structure. His approach and emphasis on correct Biblical beliefs as the basis of salvation were however embraced by others. Most significant is another man, Robert Roberts, who proved to be instrumental in a creed setting process that led to the Christadelphians becoming a denomination on the basis of conformity of belief. This process can be read from a Christadelphian perspective in “Robert Roberts, A Study of Life and Character” by Islip Collyer and in his autobiography, “My Days and My Ways.” In many ways there are a huge number of similarities with the life of John Thomas in that it was a life of contentious debate. This time, however, much of this debate was in order to defend the positions established by John Thomas rather than create new positions and a huge number were with people who considered themselves to be part of the Christadelphian movement.
The restructuring of loosely formed groups into defined positions was a painful and prolonged process that involved schism with the disfellowshipping of congregations and individuals who would not conform to written documents and creeds. It also went against the reasons that John Thomas had promoted in his exhortations to those in other churches and which was the justification for the existence of the community. Conformity of thought was to be the new guiding principle based upon the concept that in his major positions John Thomas had recovered apostolic truth. Robert Roberts at one stage clearly stated his position that “the investigative stage was over” demonstrating the relation of John Thomas to the community as having taken the role of a prophet. Elsewhere on this site we reprint in his own words the reasons why he believed the truth was able to be lost for nearly eighteen centuries and also why he believed John Thomas was able to find out and restore the lost apostolic faith.
In its initial stages the doctrinal tightening up was widely accepted, such as with groups who included those who still believed in a supernatural devil that were termed Dowieites. However, new areas of theological disputes kept emerging and at each stage there were debates followed by divisions with new groups claiming the name “Christadelphian” and as a result many returned to their old churches. Today these are usually more charitably termed “fellowships” than “errorists.” The process of “protecting the truth” became involved and complex within a community without a form of central government with different congregations and members taking different stances. The questions involved not simply doctrine, but also the form and exercising of church authority and discipline. It also led to questions about which group was being true to the teachings of John Thomas that still prevails in the smaller groups. This again shows that it has evolved not from the Bible alone. The majority position today is called the Central Fellowship and it has adopted a statement called the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, although other groups with slightly divergent statements still exist. Many of the issues which were divisive have been small, but important to those involved and so there are many different “fellowships” all claiming the name Christadelphian but not accepting each other as full brethren. On a bigger scale, and in a lot of ways, it’s simply an extension of a propensity that Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity has suffered from. In my view I believe it shows in part the limitation of the idea of the Bible alone.
To restate, like many fledgling organisations there was a void when the founder died and the Christadelphian movement could have gone many ways without some defined forms of organisation and system of structuring. In particular the unique Biblical interpretations of John Thomas would have been lost had the organisation remained without defined statements of faith. A system requiring conformity of thought and not the Bible alone is the real reason why they have survived. In general the positions established by the Statements of Faith have been broadly true to the beliefs of John Thomas and have been increasingly revised as different members raised new questions not covered by the statements of faith. In fact in many cases divisions have occurred not because people wanted to follow the promoters of various questions and issues raised, but because they did not want to further define and narrow the basis of membership, often referred to as “the basis of fellowship.”
This means that the history of the Christadelphian movement has been intricately connected with division and schism aligned with ever more highly defined statements of faith and agreements. Reunions in turn have their own set of documentations and statements. Most of the time this remains unconsidered, but if anyone raises questions or suggests change then these various documents and statements get dusted off and can become the formal basis by which church authority and interpretations are upheld.
Robert Roberts was a man who at an early age showed huge devotions to the positions established by John Thomas and was able to carry the huge majority of the movement with him as he established ways to maintain it in those positions. In this process huge numbers were undoubtedly lost to divisions.
His major system of organisation was written in a guide in 1883 called “A Guide to the Formation and Conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias” and is largely the method still used today. It is sometimes referred to in church disciplinary situations and in that sense can be considered to be the Christadelphian rulebook and procedures. Like John Thomas there was a strong rejection of any form of paid ministry and the form of organisation suggested has been a committee approach with names like “recording brother” and “arranging brother” and with voting, constitutions and statements of faith. Robert Roberts also established a principle that connection with other meetings should only be on the basis of stated agreement with a common statement of faith. The first statement of faith used in this way was called the Birmingham Statement of Faith because that was the statement formed by the congregation he was a member of.
Whilst undoubtedly his devotion and personal characteristics played a part in organising the movement, there was an advantage also in that he was a reporter and edited the principal magazine of the group. This was initially set up as “the Ambassador of the Coming Age” in 1864, but prior to the death of John Thomas it was renamed “The Christadelphian” in 1869. It has been the nearest thing the community has had in terms of central organisation, although it has never officially had any formal authority over individual meetings. Almost all baptisms, deaths and important events were noted within a section in the magazine and a huge amount still are.
Many of the divisions, like those of early Christianity, have revolved around the nature of Christ and, although non-Trinitarian, explaining it in other ways has had its own particular set of difficulties. In 1873 there was a separation over the atonement led by Edward Turney called the Nazarene Fellowship and although it ended, a group maintaining this position was re-established. The claim here is that the investigation by John Thomas stopped short of where it needed to go and mainstream Christadelphians called them renunciationists as a result.
In 1885 there was a division over the nature of inspiration by a well respected and prominent Christadelphian, Robert Ashcroft, who had given up a well paid job as a minister to become a Christadelphian. This was a high commitment, because the Christadelphians have always maintained themselves as a lay organisation without paid ministers. The “Inspiration Controversy” emerged when he started a new magazine called “The Exegetist” and in the first and only edition he published an article called, “Theories of Inspiration” which included a consideration of how the Bible was inspired [if anyone has access to this could they contact me]. Robert Roberts made this into an heretical issue and by using his position and influence in his congregation added a Foundation Statement to their statement of faith. He then declared in the only major publication for the community, The Christadelphian Magazine, that they would only remain in fellowship with meetings who would state assent with it. Those who gave formal assent became known as the “Temperance Hall Fellowship” (later to be referred to as Central) and those who did not were called the “Suffolk Street Fellowship” after the locations in Birmingham which became central to the two parties that came out of it. Subsequently the Suffolk Street group set up its own magazine, "The Fraternal Visitor". Ultimately the division was about the limits of the freedom to question and how changes to statements of faith should be changed. Those who did not give assent did not like how it was implemented and in fact neither division actually followed an altered position on inspiration, later reuniting after 50 years. Robert Ashcroft himself later left the Christadelphians and although he broached a controversial topic (and it would be of interest to see what he actually said) some questions about the nature of inspiration remain relevant.
In 1898 there was a disputation over whether being raised for the judgement at the return of Christ was based upon a knowledge of Christadelphian doctrines or whether it was both knowledge and baptism that made a person responsible. Both sides of the dispute have maintained that theirs was the original Christadelphian position. The majority, however, held that it was knowledge and it led to an Amended Clause being added to the Birmingham Statement of Faith. Those who agreed to the change of wording became known as the Amended Christadelphians whilst those who would not became known as the Advocate or Unamended Christadelphians. The statement of faith of the Unamended Christadelphians is often today known as the Birmingham Unamended Statement of Faith (or BUSF), even though it has itself subsequently had amendments. In practice many Unamended Christadelphians hold Amended beliefs, but did not want to be party to a restriction of fellowship based upon the matter.
In 1923 the “Berean Fellowship” was formed in Britain as a result of two members being found to be special constables which was considered wrong. The main body initially accommodated them, but the split remained because some declined from voting to disfellowship them and it was considered that they too should have been disciplined for abstaining to support the measures. In North America they were formed due to different understandings on the atonement. In 1942 the Bereans again divided over marriage and divorce with the stricter party forming the Dawn Christadelphians.
There are many other small groups, mostly with very insignificant numbers, the majority of which come from the Berean Fellowship.
The history of the Christadelphian body has been a highly schismatic one that has centred on the correct interpretation of scripture often over very complex matters, correct understanding being maintained as an essential requisite to salavation. Whilst the founder suggested the burning of religious books and statements of faith, over time, a system of church authority has been established through statements of faith, constitutions, traditions and the status quo exactly like all the other denominations. The Bible alone has not proved sufficient because people have differed on various aspects. In fact the detail to which it has been deemed necessary to agree has led to division on very small matters and the statements of faith historically represent the minimum agreement.
In more recent years the unchristlikeness of some of these divisions has been recognised as schism and some reunions have occurred, although that generosity of spirit has been limited and not extended in general to the wider Christian community. It should be recognised that historically the matters on which these divisions occurred were considered salvation matters and a number of small breakaway groups have formed not believing they have been theologically watertight to the “original” Christadelphian positions. In particular unity agreements often leave room for ambiguity since they take the form of political-type agreements. Sometimes those trying to establish them have the belief the differences are not significant enough to warrant division that not all those they seek to re-link accept and they formulate agreements which both parties are able to agree with, but which do not touch the controversial points directly. In addition most unity agreements have been achieved through the agreement of majority voting in ecclesias which has always left the potential that individuals who voted against have not accepted the agreement of the theological basis generally agreed upon.
In the early 1950s the majority of the Berean Fellowship re-joined the Temperance Hall Fellowship, with the remainder continuing as a separate community. In 1957-1958, there was further reunion with the Suffolk Street Fellowship, which had already incorporated many of the Unamended Fellowship outside North America. This re-united group, which now included the large majority of Christadelphians, became known as the Central Fellowship named after the Birmingham Central ecclesia. In Australia and New Zealand a union occurred in 1958 between the Central fellowship and the Shield fellowship (which was allied to the Suffolk Street fellowship) through an understanding expressed in a document called the Cooper-Carter Addendum. Those who held that the reasons for separation from the Suffolk Street Fellowship remained, opposed the re-union and formed the Old Paths Fellowship.
The biggest division that remains within the Christadelphian community is between the Central (Amended) and Unamended groupings in North America. Large attempts at reunion were attempted under what was called the North American Statement of Understanding (NASU) in recent years, but a consensus of agreement could not be obtained. This has now been restarted with certain Amended and Unamended congregations accepting fellowship based around an agreement known as the UA08 mostly in Ontario, Canada and Illinois, United States. This has resulted in some meetings and individuals who find the unity basis unsatisfactory separating from those party to it, but it's too soon to tell whether this will be a position widely adopted. Many have little interest in maintaining separation over historical, doctrinal issues which are seen to be minor. Some would also like to reunite with the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith (COGAF). The pressure to rejoin some of these small fellowships (or schisms) has also been because of intermarriage and intermingling of members with time. In the case of the Unamended the numbers in individual areas tend to be small and many attend Amended events as a result as do many from other small fellowships and many hold Amended beliefs anyway.