This section looks further into the way the Christadelphians originated from the personal Biblical interpretations of a man called Dr John Thomas who lived in 19th century America. There are few detailed objective studies of this and most information available comes from Christadelphian sources. One of the most accurate was written by a sociologist, Bryan R Wilson who studied three groups, the Elim Tabernacle, Christian Science, and the Christadelphians including a comprehensive examination of Christadelphian history. Although out of print, used copies can be obtained from sources such as Amazon.
The best Christadelphian study is undoubtedly “The History of the Christadelphians” written by Andrew R Wilson as a thesis.
The story can also be read in “Dr Thomas, His Life and Works,” by Robert Roberts, although it is written from his perspective as a man who established it as a denomination. Another account is available on this site by a “baptised believer in the kingdom of God,” (a name used before “Christadelphian” was coined) in “The Early History of the Kingdom of God in Britain. A shorter booklet, “John Thomas and His Rediscovery of Truth” is available from the Williamsburg Christadelphian Foundation free of charge. More critical perspectives can be read in an online article by a contemporary of John Thomas, David King, called, “A Glance at the History and Mystery of Christadelphianism,” and also in “Unmasking Christadelphianism” by a former Christadelphian, Branson Hopkins, available from Jubilee Resources.
We have already mentioned his near shipwreck. To get into more specifics when John Thomas moved to America he was disillusioned with the sectarianism he had seen in England and he determined to have nothing to do with it at all. He even wrote articles against it. This sentiment was shared at the time by a significant number of folk who joined a new movement (called the Restoration Movement) which had decided to unite on the basis of scripture alone from many different denominations. Their plea was for Christian unity and primitive Christianity and they were a fairly tolerant Christian Group preferring to simply use the name “Christian” rather than any other label. Today they are known as the “Church of Christ” and “Disciples of Christ.
Following his baptism into the movement he was highly praised and proved to be a man of huge energy and intellect gaining a high standing fairly quickly. He also gained prominence as a high demand speaker within the movement, but with very little personal knowledge of scripture, even though his father was a Congregationalist minister in Britain. Feeling his inadequacy he began to study the Bible seriously and following the custom of the time became an editor of his own periodicals such as the Herald of the Future Age and the “Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come.” From an early stage these were controversial. For instance he accepted the view that as a non creedal movement they were forming a restoration of Christianity and used it to assert that those who joined from other churches (such as the Baptists) needed to be rebaptised. In this view a creed was a sign of being part of the apostasy that he contended against.
A significant turning point was when he set up a magazine called “The Apostolic Advocate” and in the first edition set out a long list of questions about the nature of man, mortality, death and the judgment and asked for “information.” There is some antecedent to his thoughts on this matter in that when he was a doctor he wrote several articles for the Lancet magazine, including one as a non believer on the question of whether man had as part of his makeup an immortal soul. It was on these issues in particular that the Christadelphians later emerged as a group with an interpretation of the entire scriptures based upon materialism.
His questions led to a series of debates and disputations, because many saw his questions as in effect setting out his personal positions. The controversies eventually hardened his position from one of asking for information to one of increasing dogmatism. The element which in particular caused offence, however, was his promotion of salvation through correct belief and the idea that any wrong idea affected salvation. In time he would eventually claim all mainstream Christian doctrines came from paganism, put believers in them beyond the pale of God's grace, and would suggest joining the Christadelphian movement required rebaptism as any mainstream Christian ideas constituted “another gospel” rather than “the Truth.”
There was some call at the time for him to be disfellowshipped (due to his schismatic approach rather than his beliefs), in particular by a prominent leader, Alexander Campbell (picture on right), but it was generally resisted by the Restoration Movement. In fact he gained significant invites to attend churches and had an open platform in many places. The free examination of scripture was a theme that was believed necessary for the idea of “the Bible alone” and which John Thomas frequently appealed to. In essence the liberal nature of the movement (which encompassed nonconventional Christian views anyway as people joined from all manner of denominations) gave him considerable scope to dogmatically preach controversial ideas.
Another factor that limited the community from censoring him in any way was a difficulty that has subsequently affected the Christadelphian community too when doctrinal disputes over various questions that have not been addressed or clarified in statemented positions has arisen. That is, it had no hierarchical system. Each congregation governed itself and so any assertion he should be disfellowshipped in a movement without a central form of organisation had no power or influence everywhere. That did not however stop John Thomas later calling people from the movement he left Campbellites (after Alexander Campbell), even though he knew well as a former adherent of the movement that this was not a name they used themselves any more than Christadelphians have ever considered themselves to be Thomasites. He in fact enjoyed considerable liberality and freedom to assert his views within the movement to an extent which would probably not be possible today within the churches that come from the Restoration Movement. Certainly a lot more than is allowed within the Christadelphian community. It did, however, suit his purpose to suggest that conditioning and control by religious leaders had blinded everyone to reaching the conclusions he had reached and despite the broad plea for Christian unity the Restoration Movement was no different.
Eventually a compromise was agreed with John Thomas that he should abstain from preaching his views (unless asked or in his own defence) because it was divisive and had no practical benefits and that it could lead to division. However, subsequently feeling unable to maintain this position he requested an anonymous helper to rebaptise him. The fact that his helper would not have had been baptised with his understanding was not held to be important. John Thomas did this because he felt that without correct beliefs at baptism, baptism was ineffective for salvation. He also published a Confession and Abjuration of his former beliefs and baptism and by extension also those he had been in fellowship with.
The position advanced by John Thomas was not only that scripture could not sustain a multitude of different interpretations. He also made correct interpretation a salvation matter giving “correct doctrine” an emphasis that has subsequently characterised the Christadelphian community. It has led to huge friction when differences have arisen with divisive effects, often over very fine and complex points of theology.
A big belief he inherited from the Restoration Movement was an aspiration to restore first century Christianity as the route to recovery from a great apostasy. Christian history is not seen as a progression that follows from experience with varying degrees of success and failure. It is in essence the opposing idea to the concept that truth is vested in an apostolic progression by tracing a church physically from them as Catholicism claims. To the restorationist history has little value, because all you need in this version is the Bible, not experience. In practice they start a progression towards their own traditions as their own learning curve emerges. A recognition of this explains why some former Christadelphians end up joining well established churches such as the Anglican Church which have that sense of history and also avoid the unbalanced elements that come from a lack of experience that many new movements can have including the cultic elements. Restorationists in essence often embrace a simplistic view of Christian history.
His abjuration therefore marked a big step in position from that of someone seeking to reform a movement to one where he began to be the promoter of a new system of beliefs and which following his death became a fully structured denomination with many of the elements that in his own life he rejected as being controlling and limiting to free thought. In fact the restorationist idea leads in many cases to strong, dominant and dogmatic leaders such as John Thomas establishing their own churches because of its inherent denial of the value of collective experience, although it does have some strengths.
Whereas initially he had sought to reform the reformation movement by pointing to the Protestant Reformation and their own attempt to get back to primitive Christianity and suggesting their reformation had not gone far enough he now decided to strike out on his own. His obvious impediment was the incredulity that throughout history the saving truth had been lost and he had rediscovered it. He had also continually changed and altered his position in America as he developed in his theological beliefs which is why I suspect after his abjuration he came to Britain. Although he was still in demand in America, Britain was new and potentially more fertile territory since his changes from former dogmatically held positions had lost him some credibility.
His first major preaching trip was therefore to Britain and although he had abjured the Restoration Movement in America, he came across seeking to use their churches as the opening he needed. His strategy was undoubtedly successful and that was not only where the largest initial growth of the Christadelphians occurred, it still remains where most Christadelphians are today and it is where its major structuring occurred. It did however open him to charges of deception, because when he arrived he did not make the Restoration Movement in London aware of his abjuration in America and so they accepted him as a brother. In fact they claimed that he deceived them, because although his written abjuration had not reached them, rumours had travelled by ship. On this point Robert Roberts claims that they were simply kept in the dark and no denial had been given because the abjuration was of their views, not of people themselves. As the rumours were clarified by published details in one of John Thomas’ publications reaching them from America, members of the British arm of the Restoration Movement confronted him with the evidence and formally disfellowshipped him. Here is an article by him condemning any form of disfellowshipping as unnecessary making a reference to his own disfellowship.
He gained a wide hearing in Britain with major success in Scotland and the Midlands and whilst in Britain wrote his doctrines down in a book called Elpis Israel, which at one time was expected reading by all Christadelphians. His appeal was based upon a challenge to check the considerable amounts of Biblical proof quotes he presented with a condemnation and rejection of other views as being imbued with paganism. It was based upon advocating independent checking, intellectual debate, and the need to throw off tradition. Sceptics in turn noted the uniqueness of his views and lack of historical precedence, his hostility towards those not adhering to his conclusions, its exclusive and intellectual nature and that materialism was a feature of the Age of Enlightenment [and its emerging scientific worldview]. (read Denial of the Supernatural.)
It should be noted that although John Thomas promoted the Bible alone and no disfellowshipping here he did not accept anyone who never moved with him in his understandings. So as John Thomas altered in his understandings he debated more and more fiercely for them. As he changed views he expected others to change with him and people he accepted earlier on he later would not accept even if they were very similar to him. An example is Benjamin Wilson whom he baptised who later set up the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith (or COGAF) some Christadelphians would like to reunite with today. In fact we should note the kind of immoderate language he used against those who would not follow him in his beliefs.
The results of his preaching campaigns resulted in people leaving churches to set up their own congregations and in the initial stages they were not called Christadelphians. They often used the name “Baptised Believers” instead and they were sometimes referred to by others as Thomasites. Despite his dogmatic approach these adherents did not move into an established denominational structure and were not uniformly true to the teachings of John Thomas and so whilst he created the impetus for a new movement by promoting independence of thought and the restrictions of creeds that meant in practice many of those who left to follow many of his ideas never embraced them fully. So having believed he had come to the “one truth” he found himself with followers who had varieties of what he believed and who considered themselves as having an equal right to independent thought and analysis.
Without any established form of church authority the Christadelphian movement could have emerged as a diverse and very liberal community of free-thinkers. In practice John Thomas throughout his life was a dogmatist (as can easily be established from his writings) in all stages of his progressions of thought. This is certainly not something he would have in practice accepted as his condemnations of others who never followed him fully showed. The pattern that John Thomas followed is therefore a familiar one. It is to want independence of thought for oneself and then to be dogmatic once some knowledge has been gained. Eventually it results in yet another denomination based upon one man’s interpretation of scripture and the formation of creeds and church authority, in the process raising questions about the divine validity of church authority established in this way.
In essence John Thomas established the potential for a denomination through convincing people via the mediums of books, preaching and debate who established various informal groups. It was initially a rejection of mainstream Christianity in all its forms, although not everyone moved to a full acceptance on every point with John Thomas and not everyone became Christadelphians. The end result was that John Thomas believed all the original true saving doctrines had been lost and all of Christianity was part of an apostate system. He was the defender and anyone who didn’t see things his way was part of a harlot or “Great Babylon” system. The same views are incidentally held by a number of denominations, particularly those who are less orthodox, even though they differ amongst themselves in Biblical interpretation.
A major step towards being a denomination was the creation of a distinct name which came about as a result of the American Civil War. The early Christadelphians believed in conscientious objection to fighting wars (as they still do today) and although provision was made in America for that it required an official name to be registered under, which was why the Christadelphian name was registered in 1865. The name itself is taken from the Greek word “Christos” meaning Christ and the word “delphos” meaning brethren. It was intended to mean “Brethren in Christ” but it was noted by David King (from the Restoration Movement) the ending “ian” materially alters this to meaning “followers of the Brethren in Christ” and to be true to the intended meaning the name should have been Christadelphs rather than Christadelphians.