This section is primarily interested in the history of the organisational structure of the Christadelphians and fuller details of its history can be found in the History Section. Although it can be shown to have started from the activities of a medical Doctor, John Thomas, its organisation has a number of contemporary theological elements that form its basis. He was particularly influenced by the Restoration Movement which was very active in nineteenth century America and which led to the establishment of many new religious denominations. Although this is largely considered in the history section it has some aspects particular to a deeper consideration of our topic here.
The Restoration Movement was a reform movement which was active in nineteenth century America and was initially joined by John Thomas. They believed that Christianity was needlessly fractious and had lost the primitive and necessary nature of first century Christianity. Like much of Protestant Christianity they held the idea that it had succumbed to an apostasy of huge proportions and suggested further that in its structures and creeds it had lost its rightful emphases. All of these features constantly emerged following the Protestant Reformation and to some extent are natural derivations. This is because the belief in the Bible alone inherently is antipathetic to the idea of church authority, history or tradition. This is also to some degree an American feature because many of its early settlers from Europe came fleeing religious persecution. They had experienced the repressive nature of organised religion and they considered the Roman Catholic Church and the Papal System (and indeed other State Churches) very much as the Kingdom of the anti-Christ. However, although in theory this places the role of interpretation into the hands of the individual it has usually been curtailed by creedal systems and the Restoration Movement saw that as one of its weaknesses and they deplored the division and infighting amongst Christians over the interpretation of the Bible and its inherent sectarianism. They were therefore strongly anti-creedal and believed that “the Bible alone without creeds” could serve as a basis of Christian unity. This idea was fully embraced by John Thomas and in fact was one reason why he associated with them. His acknowledged desire was to avoid the sectarianism he had experienced in Britain.
The Restoration Movement sought to be a movement based on principles, rather than a denominational structure with a hierarchy and its general modes of organisation are largely those adopted by the Christadelphians. That is, each congregation was self organised. To a large degree adhesion to various principles was its basis of connection with other similar congregations. Indeed rather than seeing themselves as a new denomination they saw themselves as a restoration of apostolic Christianity. They believed organised Christianity with its creeds and systems of religion was a departure from the primitive nature and spirit of Christianity. They saw Christianity as being greater than sectarianism and saw themselves as a movement without barrieres rather than a new sect and therefore called themselves simply “Christians.”
They did consider other Protestants to be Christian, but believed the power of Christianity could only return by getting away from organisational structures and back to the Bible alone. Time has shown the weaknesses of this approach and John Thomas was a challenge to them. The call to the Bible alone without organised structures led to differing viewpoints being encompassed within the movement, with much debate over what the Bible said. In practice the unity they did achieve was done by setting out a much simpler basis of belief necessary for salvation. There was no denial of truth as a larger construct, but the details were to be a matter of individual conviction rather than being pressed as obligatory and therefore be the basis of division that was to be seen in the contemporary church environments. In short the normal church creeds tended to have much more involved statements than the restorationists who saw in them the establishment of unchristlike division.
As a movement their organisation was held to be Bibliocentric, rather than organisational. They believed that the Bible could be unifying rather than divisive if the church frameworks were rejected. It therefore had a strong anti-authoritarianism and no division between hierarchy and laity. This belief in a restoration of the spontaneity of early Christianity read of in the Bible however left it vulnerable in certain respects. It had no structure to deal with dogmatists insistent they were following the Bible alone but promoting more exclusive bases of salvation. This was the role that John Thomas took within their midst. It tested their belief that by reading the Bible alone everyone would come to a cohesive understanding and agreement. He showed the complexity such a position required in terms of knowledge for individual members. He suggested that both in belief and structure Christianity had lost the faith and challenged debate on the issues. His position evolved on various issues, starting with promoting the idea that people joining the movement should be rebaptised to eventually suggesting that without the right beliefs baptism was ineffective. He was tolerated because his promotion of the idea of the Bible alone was their own, although he suggested it led to an exclusive rather than an inclusive position. They believed he had a right to voice his views, but were concerned at its schismatic effect, its dogmatism and its exclusivism. Many also saw his views as highly speculative too and detracting from the practical focus of Christianity. This movement from inclusive Christianity based on the Bible alone to exclusive ones in fact led to many denominations and is more fully considered from the perspective of the root principle “the Bible alone” and its limitations.
The founder of the Christadelphian movement therefore started with an anti-authoritarian outlook, resistant to creeds and believing the individual with the Bible alone was the divine method. He extended the position of the Restoration Movement to one which promoted a lost faith which could only be restored by fervent independence of mind. He believed although the Restoration Movement promoted the Bible alone, they had never fully done that. He claimed they had retained errors of belief from both Protestant and Romish traditions that were fatal if believed to personal salvation and the method to restore the truth was vigorous debate and individual searing based on the Bible alone.
To summarise, the founding principles of the Christadelphian movement were simply extensions of Protestant and Restorationist ones.
John Thomas eventually came to the conclusion his first baptism was based on a wrong understanding of the gospel, was rebaptised by a helper, and renounced his previous understandings as invalid. He then promoted in Britain and America the gospel he believed he had recovered. His method was to suggest the religious teachers of the day had hidden the gospel and to advocate the Bible alone and independence of thought. This frequently stimulated debates on the Bible and what was taught within it and certain individuals embraced his positions to varying degrees. Some left existing churches to start their own groups, others subscribed to his magazines and books. The initial movement centred more around exegesis than organisation.
Those who did set up groups based around his teachings did not call themselves Christadelphians, although they were their predecessors towards being a denomination. To them it was “the hope,” “the truth,” “the truth as it was in Jesus.” At times they called themselves by many names including “Baptised Believers in the Kingdom of God,” “The Antipas” and “The Royal Association of Believers.” To some outsiders they were called Thomasites. In reality many adopted the free thinking ideas promoted and without any central authority, hierarchy or fixed creed each group decided to what degree it embraced the beliefs of John Thomas, how much liberality it allowed, what rules it formed and how and when it exercised church authority and discipline. The basic organisational structures were unregulated and although he was fixed in his views, not everyone agreed in full with all his positions. The only cohesiveness his movement had was based on his books and magazines and it was around these that the movement formed. In fact in its early days groups would not even know of similar groups in their locality. There was no organisation at all. This inevitably led to diversity within these groups that grated with his sense he had recovered the gospel from error. Exegesis alone did not lead to conformity.
A big development towards being a distinct movement came when John Thomas was rebaptised and published a Confession and Abjuration. This rebaptism, confession and abjuration marked a change from seeking to promote his views within the Restoration Movement where many saw them as either heretical or divisive and where he was a single member – to one where he became the leading voice in attracting people to a new movement. The movement grew centred around his exegesis and publications and as it did so he sought to constrain its initial diversity. This was through exegesis, but also through a growing unwillingness to fellowship anyone not of the same understanding on a growing number of matters. His position therefore developed into a more exclusive one where he was now the heavy weight. His initial promotion of anti-authoritarian principles and independence of thought also meant that many of those who had initial sympathies with the positions he advocated never came to the same full conclusions. This meant that many of those he initially considered brethren were later rejected because they never followed him in all his views. The interaction of these conflicting principles and attitudes is why the history of the Christadelphians is one of contention and schism. He promoted the view that the other churches were comprised of error and were part of a Great Babylon and her daughters.
An early Constitution of the Royal Association of Believers in New York framed by John Thomas and others soon after his Confession and Abjuration by John Thomas is notably less exclusive than Christadelphians are today and allowed Christians of all persuasions to share the remembrance of Christ. This is expressly referred to as “the Lord’s table, and not the table of the Association.” It is essentially the format which has been followed to this day which is a congregational form of organisation set out in a constitution. This was the same structure that the Reformation Movement used as well as many Adventist groups, although they did not object in principle to having paid ministers at times.
Since his views changed and altered through his life and people followed him in his beliefs to varying degrees the development of the Christadelphians was a gradual process that cannot be disconnected from other groups which never used the name Christadelphian at all. Initially many of these were found in the Restoration Movement he joined. Others were found in Unitarian and Adventist churches. The name Christadelphian was eventually adopted by many of these groups and the movement started to move away from its foundational principles of being non creedal. The influence for this was undoubtedly John Thomas himself. The exclusive understandings he had reached led him to begin to advocate separation from others who never saw everything the same way he did. He sought to maintain the non hierarchical organisation, but moved towards creeds in maintaining the true gospel he had come to believe he had recovered as the duty of the believers. This trend was maintained after his death resulting in the definition of a set of creedal dogma that broadly reflected his views. Hence the movement set up a form of organisation based on an adherence to his views.
The structure of the Christadelphians cannot therefore be totally separated from the personality of its founder although it would not be true to say everyone is a follower of him. His influence persisted in making his views into a creed on which church authority has been based. Its character has also been characterised by the dogmatic approach he adopted. He saw this as “contending for the truth” despite the fact that the truth he contended for altered throughout his life. His huge scriptural proof-quoting ability formed the essence of the challenge he presented and was primarily an intellectual attraction. He assumed therefore a position of having superior intellectual understanding and threw down the gauntlet to others to believe or disprove his position. This characteristic has often made the Christadelphians seem argumentative, arrogant and lacking humility as well as seeming to promote intellectual superiority. It has also created a position that seems very often to be lacking in grace and it also seems that many wish to disprove the beliefs of others without taken any time or effort to hear them out.
The Christadelphian therefore tends to inhabit a black-and-white landscape with a firm distinction between truth and error and without grey areas of uncertainty. It has also created a strong us-and-them dynamic which has been as essential for maintaining its beliefs and character as creeds.
In practice, just as the Restoration Movement found, to survive as a distinct community some form of organisation is essential and this in general has been fairly minimal. There has been no hierarchical system, although some members have held more weight of authority in individual congregations as well as the organisation itself. In short those who initially embraced many of the teachings of John Thomas left their existing churches and established self organised communities. The community was and has been resistant to paid preachers or ministers and many groups met within their own homes. This has been practical because they were few in number. In addition all the trappings of established religions were seen to detract from primitive Christianity. Those who did use meeting places tended to rent rather than own and there was a strong initial belief that with the soon return of Christ and the imminent fulfilment of end times prophecy such things were inappropriate anyway.
The early diversity of the movement was noted by Andrew Wilson in an article on the Early Creedal Flexibility on this site and was consistent with the early promotion of independence of thought by John Thomas. As already noted, as he reached more certainty in his own persuasions he became less tolerant of accepting fellowship with others who had not reached his conclusions. As a result he started to become more creedal in his outlook. To some degree this was consistent with the view which had led to his rebaptism, confession and abjuration. That is, that salvation depended upon having the correct knowledge at baptism. It was also apparent that even though people followed his advocacy of independence of thought it never inevitably led to them adopting his understandings. He therefore used his position of influence to curtail this and the movement was becoming more creedal in aspect towards the end of his life. To follow his initial position would have required him to exercise tolerance and consider people brethren and who in following their “independence of thought” could even contend against the positions he now believed to be “gospel truth.”
Fundamentally though John Thomas did not set up a lasting organisational structure. This was achieved by Robert Roberts and others by establishing a fully creedal structure after his death. His role was to establish the doctrines which would be central to it. His position is significant, because it was his interpretations, not others that were set into creeds and although not claiming to be a prophet or inspired directly by God it was his voice that was authoritative in the early movement. The conformity that largely developed is a result of those who believed he had recovered the truth in its finality. The subsequent structure that evolved has largely centred around requiring doctrinal conformity as the basis of inter-congregational acceptance. It has also led to many divisions that remain as a result of this creedal position and to what degree “essential truths” and principles have needed defining. Most of this occurred in a period after his death.
The structure of the Christadelphians therefore as a lasting movement has to be understood therefore as being based around advocating, protecting and defending the idea that it alone is true amongst all Christian denominations, that the rest of Christianity has fallen into apostasy, and that they in some way have recovered the correct key to its understanding. The major foundational incongruity is that although it was founded on the views of John Thomas its actual establishment was based on promoting the Bible alone and independence of thought. The idea that any person or organisation had infallibility or any unique key was soundly rejected. This raises questions about the validity of church authority and on what basis they are now claimed. This one of the difficulties of the concept of the Bible alone. The Bible alone without any central arbiter on interpretation is the root cause of much division within Christianity. Self appointed “correct interpreters of scripture” assert church authority which they reject elsewhere as not having divine countenance.
The adoption of a fixed name and a willingness to finally be viewed as a distinct denomination came as a result of the Civil War in America. In order to gain exemption as conscientious objectors a person needed to be a member of a registered denomination. That is how the name Christadelphian came into existence – by being formally registered in America. Not all the people in the movement however adopted the name Christadelphian, although many congregations still in existence can be traced directly back to a point where they adopted it without any change in membership, constitution or rules. This can be confirmed in a book, The Early History of the Kingdom of God in Britain which is on this site.