If we look at the history of the Christadelphians we find that it came into existence as a result of the unique role of a nineteenth century medical doctor, Dr John Thomas, and in the case of the majority of Christadelphians the role of Robert Roberts who largely structured and organised the community into a denomination.
A question that therefore often emerges is whether Christadelphians regard them as prophets. This is universally denied, unlike the founders of other denominations such as the Seventh Day Adventists which elevate Ellen G. White to the status of a prophet, or Christian Science which elevates Mary Baker Eddy. In common with these people John Thomas and Roberts Roberts are founders of a religious movement and therefore stand in a unique position to the establishment of the Christadelphians. The reason they are not believed to be prophets is because they never claimed (and in fact denied) being guided or led directly by God. The uniqueness of their position in relation to the Christadelphians is however sometimes noted by calling them “pioneers”.
To some Christadelphians today they have no relevance at all. Since the claim is to follow the Bible alone, why uphold the teachings or books of men when you can go to the very source that is claimed as the basis? This concept of "the Bible alone" was in fact strongly promoted by John Thomas himself here and here. Nevertheless the fact remains that the Christadelphians were founded through their activities, and without their activities Christadelphians would not exist. In addition many smaller breakaway groups make the claim that the mainstream Christadelphian movement has altered and is altering. Since for 150 years the movement has often referred to its belief set as “the Truth” the question which emerges is how saving truth can change and the smaller groups make frequent reference to the pioneers and the historical events, situations and disputes which led to the statements of faith and which are briefly considered in the history section on this site. The Christadelphian founders therefore occupy a similar position for Christadelphians to that occupied historically in orthodox Christianity by their church fathers. In other words they illustrate what historically Christadelphians believed, what that orthodoxy has been and "the Truth" consisted of.
This is the burden of claiming the truth against the lies of all the rest of Christianity. A group which has all the important saving truth and fixes it rigidly into a creedal system creates incongruities if it changes. In addition since it never comes out of a void, its history holds considerations for the present. In other words it creates its own traditions, and its own church history starts to have value and relevance. Any change after all is a result of lessons created by the past and the stresses of the present create the need for future change. A denial of the need and value of history is one of the problems incidentally of the historical position of the Bible alone and some understanding of the relevance of their own history helps to explain also why the movement today wrestles with the need for change.
The question therefore which this raises is not whether the Christadelphians consider their founders as prophets, but whether or not this is a role that they have fulfilled for the community.
A recognition that the belief that they alone have the truth combined with the centrality of role played in particular by John Thomas and Robert Roberts means that historically and still in many of the small breakaway groups such as the Berean Christadelphians the writings of “the Pioneers” are not only emphasised, but they have been seen as being “raised up by God” or “taking the role of an apostle.” In other words although they weren’t directly inspired or led by God, through providence, circumstance and the hidden work of the angels God used their unique independence of mind, intelligence and will to recover the saving truth.
This was the position developed by the early Christadelphians, in particular Robert Roberts who as well as leading and being instrumental in organising the Christadelphians into a denomination, stated plainly,
“to the charge of holding ‘that the knowledge of Scripture, in the writings of Dr Thomas, has reached a finality we plead guilty.”
“in the writings of Dr Thomas, the truth is developed as a finality, a depot of Christian doctrine”
(The Christadelphian, 1874, pages 408-9)
He also wrote,
“There is but one safe position, and in that we mean, by the favour of God, to entrench ourselves ‘for better or for worse,’ viz., THE WHOLE TRUTH AS BROUGHT TO LIGHT BY DR. THOMAS … We yield not a slavish deference of Dr. Thomas, but we rejoice to be able to see that by the grace of God, he exhumed for us the whole truth, and for this we shall stand till death or the Lord’s coming end the fight”
(The Christadelphian, 1873, p 564)
To believe a man who recovered the saving truth is not a man raised up by God would in fact be a strange position to take, especially when it is a task no one else could manage to do and it was therefore the position adopted by Robert Roberts who wrote in “Dr. Thomas, His Life and Works,” chapter 1,
…but for John Thomas, those who now rejoice in the truth, would still have been sitting, like the rest of the world, in “darkness and the shadow of death”
and which he therefore sought to defend from change by establishing a defined creedal system of church authority with the words,
“the investigative stage is over”
Whilst the initial Christadelphians left their existing churches often because of belief in the exhortation to “search scriptures for themselves” they never did it so that another denomination would take on the role of demanding conformity. That’s why the initial Christadelphian movement contained a diversity, including people still with existing church beliefs few Christadelphians today would entertain such as those who believed in a supernatural devil. This initial approach was gradually superseded by a creedal emphasis based upon the concept that in the teachings of John Thomas truth had been rediscovered to a finality.
This is explored in relation to church authority elsewhere on this site. Theologically it means that in essence the initial exhortation to be a seeker for truth only applies to those outside the community, not those within. The effect of creeds has been in effect that of maintaining one man’s understanding of scripture (that of John Thomas) against differing understandings or interpretations, although on some of the points divided over there is room for controversy as to the total extent.
Here are two contemporary articles contending against this change of position from advocating independence of thought to forming a community based upon conformity of thought:
The effect of this has been an emphasis on “defending the Truth” which was discovered through the personality, independence of thought and intellect of John Thomas. It is promoted for those who are not Christadelphians, but there are delineated boundaries to how far that is allowed within the community. Whilst based upon the positions established by John Thomas it is out of line with his initially stated exhortations. This is why he can be accepted as not being a prophet, but his role as taking the role of a prophet can be missed.
The maintenance of their views has also been through the emphasis on reading only Christadelphian works. Reading other Christian writings was heavily discouraged in the past or with exhortations to “be careful.” The authority of the positions established by the Pioneers does however emerge and since it was based upon the teachings of John Thomas it is no surprise that less reading of his works gradually alters the position and emphasis of the community.
The true position of the community has therefore been reading the Bible with Christadelphian doctrines in mind and with an awareness of the need to maintain them at all costs.
Hence in the introduction to Phanerosis the elevated thinking of John Thomas is proclaimed above others in understanding the nature of God. In a book written by HP Mansfield, “Christadelphian Standards” compiled from writings of the Pioneers we find written on page 104 these words,
“If such works as “Elpis Israel” and “Eureka” are neglected an essential foundation for individual research and investigation is lacking”
and again on page 52,
“Let us treat with righteous indignation any and every appeal to keep quiet as to our views respecting the infallible authorship of the Bible. Let us also treat with scorn any suggestion to hide or shelve the works of Bro. Thomas and Bro. Roberts… If our ecclesias are to advance — if they are to abound in God’s work and favour — we shall have to keep our eyes and ears open, and wish God-speed only to intelligent, right-minded lovers of the Sacred Oracles, and readers and appreciators of the writings to which reference has been made.”
Again from the cover of the Christadelphian Instructor,
These books, and no one can disprove the statement, reveal to us, as no other writings in existence do, the way of salvation –they enlighten, and create faith ---solve problems and thresh out difficulties which perplex and baffle the ordinary man –– reach an altitude in understanding which none of us, ere Christ comes, can ever expect to reach, let alone excel. Emphatically we can say of the authors of these books, “These men are the servants of the most high God, who show us the way of salvation.”
The views promoted by these kinds of words are that the pioneer Christadelphians hold the key to interpreting scripture in the right way and whilst it should be noted that many Christadelphians feel uncomfortable with this, some explanation of the role of the Pioneers is necessary if the saving truth comes from their lives and works. An explanation for the theological position of the Christadelphian founders in the establishment of the community is relevant.
In practice today, the works of the Pioneers are not that well read and since the community was built upon adopting their mindsets, rigorously reading their works and dogmatically defending their positions we would expect the community to alter. This is behind the fear of those who believe that not reading his works has led the community away from the true interpretations of scripture and who in practice assign to them the role of God’s prophets.