The following passage was published in 1961 in “Sects and Society,” written by sociologist Bryan Wilson. It was part of a detailed study of the Elim Tabernacle, Christian Science, and Christistadelphians. The chapter it was taken from (chapter 15) was on “The Social Composition of Christadelphianism.”
Christadelphianism won its first recruits from among the very poorest members of the community - often labourers and manual workers. This was a fact with which the early leaders were well acquainted. Roberts spoke of the visit of Dr. Thomas to England in 1862, and said that then ‘the friends of the truth . . . were poor and without social influence.’1 The Christadelphian repeatedly spoke of the brethren as poor and simple people; of the ‘fewness and poverty of those holding the truth.’2 An outside report of the Christadelphians in Glasgow declared them to be ‘chiefly young men and men of comparatively humble position in life . . .’3 In 1881 Roberts wrote: ‘it has always been the poor who have been given heed to the word of truth. “Not many noble are called” - a very, very few.’4
The early years of the magazine were marked by frequent appeals for clothes and food for the relief of the poorest brethren - a practice which continued until well into the twentieth century. In 1887 the magazine reported ‘During the past month there has been a distribution of blankets and useful things amongst the poorer brethren and sisters.’5 According to Collyer appeals for the poor prevented the magazine from accumulating capital, and even ran into its current expenses.6 In 1883 the Birmingham quarterly meeting reported itself to be low on funds ‘consequent on the large drain in relief of the poor.’7 The charity became virtually institutionalised over the course of time: ‘It has been resolved to devote the second collection on every first Sunday to the relief of those who are in need amongst us . . . ’8
Recent Christadelphian writers, writing more for internal consumption than for the general public, have recognised the lowly condition of early converts. Even as late as 1918 Jannaway said ‘The Christadelphians are a small and insignificant people, judged by the world’s standards . . . they are outside the pale of social recognition . . . “despised and rejected of men.”’9 In his biography of Roberts, Collyer wrote, ‘Most converts were hardworking men with little spare time for study and no experience of a kind that would give them ready utterance.’10
The occupations of new adherents to the Christadelphian cause were, in the early days, often given in the report of the individuals’s immersion, and from an examination of these reports over a two-year period some picture is provided of the type of people who formed the ecclesias during the period of the movement’s growth towards the end of the last century. In a few cases it was stated that the individual was unemployed, and this might have been so for others. Occupation was not always or necessarily mentioned in the reports of convertion, but over the years 1883-4 in 178 cases the information is included. There is a wide range of employments, many with rather specialised names, which makes classification difficult, but the vast majority were manual workers, and lower artisans. The largest single classification was that of domestic servant - these were mainly women and there were fifteen joined the sect during the two-year period. This may indicate that those drawn into Christadelphianism were people who had constant awareness of the prevailing social differences, and to whom the hope of a world in which the last should be first might well have had a direct appeal. Storemen and warehousemen made up thirteen, railwaymen seven, clerks twelve, and painters and decorators seven; five were designated simply as labourers and three as miners.11
The list was not entirely without persons of a somewhat higher station in life, and there were listed one publisher, a newspaper-proprietor, an architect, an accountant, a manufacturer and a medical student. There was also one commercial traveller and one surveyor, although this last designation appears somewhat ambiguous. There were five small shopkeepers and four teachers or assistant teachers. Apart from these few persons the converts to Christadelphianism were the artisans and the poor. It must also be remembered that during the period there were almost as large a number of men converted for whom no occupation was given. This would less likely were the occupations of any of these particularly outstanding or socially significant, and it may be safely assumed that almost all were artisans or labourers. That unemployment, which occurred in the ‘eighties, when it was particularly prevalent in Birmingham,12 affected the Christadelphians is apparent from the appeals and special collections made for those in distress.13
During the period of high emigration large numbers of Christadelphians left Britain to seek a living abroad. Many expressed their desire for a better living, and the departure of dozens of persons from a small sect of perhaps only 2,000 people or so, indicates the social and economic conditions of the membership. In three months in 1883, forty-five brethren were reported as emigrating. Poverty was often the frank cause of such emigration. At Liverpool more than half the ecclesia went overseas within a matter of months, although their experience was not very happy - they were ‘allured to the destination [Queensland] by plausible stories of abundant work, good wages and cheap living,’14 The dissatisfaction with conditions at home is apparent. ‘On account of the difficulty there is in these days of keen, competition to provide things honest in the sight of all men, brother K . . . of this ecclesia has found it desirable to go to New Zealand, and two of our younger brethren . . . availed themselves of his going to endeavour to better their own temporal condition, which has been hampered by similar difficulty.’15 The Christadelphians were apparently acutely aware of their disinherited condition, and anxious to see it altered in this world as well as in the post-adventual dispensation.
Christadelphianism typifies the religious expression of the poor, and the poor were drawn to this gospel of a transformed world in which they would be the rulers. The revolutionary element in Christadelphian teaching was more evident then than today, and undoubtedly accounted for some of the movement’s success. A writer in 1890 expressed the condition of Christadelphians well, and saw the pride taken in the element of persecution, when he reported on a meeting of less than two hundred Christadelphians who met in
one of the most desolate and depressing of our London districts. There is nothing in the appearance of these people . . . to distinguish them from their fellows; they are a little more gaunt perhaps, have just a touch more fire in their eyes, as if the struggle for life had been harder for them than for others . . . [an] expression of despondency [is] habitual to many of them . . . They draw keen delight from being the sect everywhere spoken against and rejoice that every man’s hand is against them, for their hand is against every man; they rejoice, too that they, simple craftsmen as they are, are on one side, which the wealth, dignity and culture of the world, are on the other . . .16
Roberts himself had some glimpse of the appeal of the revolutionary element of the movement: ‘Such small headway as the truth has made in our day has been mainly among the poor and democratic, to whom the aggressive aspects of the truth’s mission has presented more attraction than those that have to do with positive spiritual excellence.17 Christadelphianism offered something of the same kind of ultimate goal as revolutionary socialism, or utopianism, and it brought the force of Scripture to justify the judgment which would be wrought on the rich and powerful of the world.
Christadelphians today are no longer so predominately working-class; their composition is more mixed, although there is still a strong working-class element among them. Today there are a good number of teachers, commercial travellers and office workers among them, and the younger generation of Christadelphians is more markedly of this type than the older. Professional people are not conspicuous, and the legal profession and medical profession are virtually absent from the movement. Today something like a dozen families in an ecclesia of 350 run cars, and it is clear, that whilst many are ordinary working-class people, some of the second and third generation have prospered in the world.
It could not today be said that Christadelphian ecclesias were located in the ‘most desolate and depressing’ districts of the big cities. Normally they are fairly central, where there is only one ecclesia in a town, but even where they are found in the residential areas, these areas are not conspicuously the poorest. Thus in London the ecclesias of the Central Fellowship are at Brixton, Ealing, Ilford, Streatham, Thornton Heath, Tooting, Hendon, Woodford, Wood Green and London N.16. These are not the great central churches such as flourish for a minority movement like Christian Science, nor yet the poor people’s missions in the down-town or slum areas. Principally they belong to suburban areas of middling respectability, typical of the general standing of Christadelphians in this age.
The fact that Christadelphians frequently hire other people’s halls for their meetings, or are in possession of only modest buildings of their own, is not an entirely accurate reflection of the social class of the community. It must be remembered that from the very beginning there has been at least a nominal, and the early days very active, hope for the sudden end of this dispensation. This in itself militated against the construction of elaborate premises for meeting.
Worship is an important aspect of the Christadelphian faith, but devotional activity is faith and praise of a simple kind, and there is strong opposition to elaborate worship and paraphernalia. Those ecclesias which have, in more recent years, built themselves halls of their own, have done so largely for the convenience of having their own place of meeting rather than to erect impressive monuments to their religious creed. Most of the buildings are, in consequence, simple and utilitarian. The very fact that building, or acquisition, of premises has occurred is, however, an evidence of the changed outlook, in urgency if not in content, of Christadelphians. Present-day Christadelphians are no longer so certain of the early advent, no longer regulate their lives entirely to its coming, and are prepared to undertake many long-term plans, and engage in numerous activities the value of which will be recognised only in the remote future. In many ways this change reflects the change of status of a large part of the Christadelphian following; the hope of the end of this dispensation is less keen when adherents have more pleasure in the present order of things. The aggressive element of Christadelphian teaching has disappeared, and the advent appears less immediately likely. At least ninety of the 267 ecclesias in the British Isles today have buildings of their own. The temporary sojourning which Roberts and his contemporaries were convinced was the destiny of the saints of the earth, has clearly ceased to be the dominant expectation, in practice if not in theory.
In consonance with their social circumstances was the limited education of the saints of the nineteenth century. In the main their schooling had been of the most elementary type, although many were probably of that class of working men who had a strong desire to learn and who spent a good deal of time on self-improvement. In early years The Christadelphian itself indicates the eagerness of the brethren for improvement of knowledge, although the magazine had a restricted opinion concerning just what knowledge was worthwhile. Nonetheless, for a sectarian periodical The Christadelphian displayed a relatively catholic interest in a wide variety of educational subjects, and while some were of importance because of their bearing on Palestine, on archaeology, on evolution, or on international politics, other articles dealt with natural science and even, occasionally, and often for the sake of controversion, philosophical and social topics. There were very few learned people in the movement: Roberts was a self-educated man of no mean attainment, although Dr Thomas had, of course, the exaggerated prestige which the medical profession often enjoys among the masses. Thomas wrote of his followers:
The sacrifice which . . . [forsaking orthodox teaching] involves on the part of people generally, is too great to entice the learned and influential members of society. Consequently, those who have been bold enough to take this step comprise many ‘partially educated’ persons. That is to say, they can speak only their mother tongue; but in this they can read the Bible, which is their only authoritative book in divine matters. They are not learned in all the arts and sciences, and modern languages, philosophy, metaphysics etc. Nevertheless they find they can understand the Bible and profit by its study.18
When more learned men did, occasionally, embrace Christadelphianism the magazine made much of their qualifications; but the general attitude to learning was well expressed by Roberts in 1867. Of Edinburgh he had said: ‘Here there are many hindrances [to Christadelphianism]. Orthodoxy is fortified to the heaven. There is a university, several colleges, numerous churches and chapels, and many men, lay and clerical, of great wisdom . . . talented men . . . venerable fathers . . . professors, men of degrees.’19 Correspondents at the time of the apostasy of the Rev. R. Ashcroft were prepared to scoff at ‘mere head knowledge,’ which they associated with this erstwhile doyen of the movement. Scorn was poured on the results of modern scholarship, and Roberts asked . . . ‘has bro. Ashcroft forgot, or did he not ever know, that it is the poor and simple minded (and therefore unlearned) that God has chosen in every age in working out his plan?’20
There was a shortage of speakers for the ecclesias in the early days, and it was commonplace for the smaller places to report their lack of a competent speaker. It is surprising, considering the circumstances of the times, that so many among the brethren, few though they were comparatively, were able to undertake the duties of exhorting and lecturing, and to present the gospel to strangers in meetings and in the open air, and with some measure of success. The early Christadelphians undoubtedly included among them that class of working men common in the early days of socialism who was self-educated and well-educated within limits, with a sound grasp of the subjects which he had learned from his own interest rather than as part of an externally-imposed and automatically pursued course of study. Today Christadelphians present a wide range of educational background. There is a significant and growing proportion, especially among the younger generation, of those whose parents and perhaps grandparents were the early pioneers, of ex-grammar school people, and a sprinkling of university graduates. One Christadelphian has suggested to me that there are between fifty and a hundred graduates in the movement today, and these are principally trained in the natural sciences rather than in the arts and social sciences, the underlying secular philosophy which is so inimical to Christadelphianism.