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Brethren In Christ
9. ACROSS THE SEAS
The Council of Trent (Trento, in Italy) was held in 1545, under papal auspices. It consisted of Roman clergy, badly frightened by the rapid spread of Protestantism and Bible teaching throughout Europe. The Council was manipulated by two clever Spanish Jesuits, Salmeron and Lainez, specially briefed by their master, Ignatius of Loyola. They persuaded the Council to take the hardest possible line with all dissenters from Rome and organized the Roman Catholic church to work zealously for total reconquest of Europe, using all means fair or foul. By 1700 they had nearly succeeded. As John Thomas expressed it: "In all the breadth of the Great City, which is allegorically styled Sodom and Egypt -- in Rome, Italy, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, the Austrian states and Poland -- the witnesses were overcome and put to death".264
Indeed, so successful was the so-called Romish "counter-reformation" that in the mid-20th century many of the notable historians of Poland, Austria, and Hungary knew nothing of the existence of the widespread brotherhood of the Brethren in Christ in their countries. Even in partly Protestant countries like Switzerland and Germany, they were known only to a few, and totally ignored by most.
By 1700 the existence of several hundred ecclesias of faithful believers - perhaps many more than even the most sanguine estimate -- all over Europe was little more than a memory. Those who had not been exterminated formed tiny, scattered, hidden remnants here and there over the continent. Organized ecclesial life was impossible. Every avenue -- employment, residence, even temporary passage -- was closed to anyone who ventured to associate formally or informally with the heroic few who vainly struggled to keep the lightstands burning. Britain, then in its classical 'golden age' was considered tolerant, yet in 1700 the penalty for anyone who would not assent to the Athanasian (Trinitarian) Creed and the immortality of the soul was:
A modern Polish scholar reminds us:
It was not the persecution of the 1520's -- outbursts of savagery by fire and sword -- but the steady, unremitting pressure of the hounds pursuing the hunted hare. The miracle is the extent to which the Truth survived at all.
In these circumstances, the continued existence of the Brethren in Christ as an organized entity was virtually impossible. Offshoots such as the Mennonites and Baptists did survive as religious bodies, but often at the price of doctrinal compromise. In 1660 the English Baptists, in a confession of Faith presented to King Charles II, stated:
Yet by the early 1700's, little more than forty years later, the most prominent American Baptist minister was a champion of immortal soulism and a vigorous opponent of those who preached the Truth from God's Word.
Thus it was that in the period from 1660, when the sad bands of exiled Brethren moved out of Poland, until the dawn of religious liberty in the English speaking lands a little before 1800, the embers of the Truth as Christadelphians believe it were fanned into flame here and
there by men and women who were often formally members of the "established" churches. They were often courageous enough in writing and even publishing works on the Truth, but their fortitude was not of the order of Sattler90, Hubmaier, Biddle90 and Wiszowaty. These have been called "crypto-believers" -- that is, they officially belonged to an accepted religion but secretly believed the doctrines of an outlawed one.
In fact, in the 18th century there was no longer any specific community with which they could identify. A few who became convinced of the truth of the doctrines of the Brethren tried forming a new sect based on those doctrines; most of these efforts were unsuccessful (see INSET: NATHANAEL HOMES and NATHANAEL HOMES ON THE PROMISES TO ABRAHAM). It needed more than personal conviction to achieve such a goal in the kind of political and social conditions which prevailed during most of the two hundred years following the Catholic 'victory' of 1660.
One case of interest is the famous scientist Sir Isaac Newton (see INSET). For a time he lived next door to a meeting house where a few exiled Brethren met in central London, and from thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts he can be counted a "crypto-believer". Among his many personal expressions of faith -- generally kept to
himself and a few friends -- are the following two:
Yet, ironically, if his convictions on the first of these had become widely known, Cambridge university would have closed its doors on him for the rest of his life; and as for the second, whatever he wrote privately, there is no evidence that he ever followed it up by being baptized himself!
The published literature of the Polish Brethren -- remember their Rakow press alone produced it in twenty languages -- had reached every major library in the civilized world on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as into the personal collections of priests, professors and ministers. The work of German and British Brethren had done so to a lesser extent. All these books sold well on the black market, and were read. Orthodox clergymen were writing vicious diatribes against the doctrines and practices of the Brethren long after their organized ecclesial life had in most places completely disintegrated.
Thus, the last few documents in this volume -- those by HOMES, HOPKINS, EDWARDS and AUSTIN -- were all written by men who believed and often taught Bible truth, or much of it, but were not (so far as we know) baptized members of any group specifically organized to promote it. They all knew of the Brethren through their literature, and were deeply influenced by their teachings and life. If we care to search, we will find that during the entire hundred and fifty years preceding the French Revolution, the Hope of Israel, the "things concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ" were
PAGES 142-143 Inset: NATHANAEL HOMES ON THE PROMISES TO ABRAHAM
taught and believed, as these selections from that epoch clearly demonstrate.
Especially evident is the awareness of the Millennial Hope, and the choice of documents deliberately reflects this. The promulgation of this biblical Hope by these and other likeminded students of the Word was in striking contrast to the vast mass of contemporary theology at the time, which was fostering the view - - later to dominate the Christian world in the 19th century -- that, through missionary work and the gradual upliftment of the human condition, the whole world wouId be converted to Christ, and that the Kingdom of God was the church on earth right here and now, or its spirit in the heart of the believer.
So faith in the second coming of the Lord to reign on earth, which burned so warmly in the hearts of those earnest brethren and sisters who gathered in Mathias Finder's butcher shop in Augsburg in August 1527 (as recounted in Chapter 2), was not wholly extinguished. The writings of the Brethren provided one inspiration; another, which had greatly influenced the Brethren in Poland and Russia in the 17th century, was that of Jewish literature.
The most outstanding of the 17th century Jewish writers to influence Gentile Bible scholars was Manasseh ben Israel, chief rabbi of Amsterdam. Born in the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1604, as a child he was taken by his parents to France and then to the recently independent Netherlands in search of religious freedom. An American religious historian has this to say of him:
PLATE 35: The Title page of The Resurrection Revealed by Nathanael Homes, 1654. Joseph Caryll, the printer, was brave enough to put on his imprimatur. Most such tracts and books were printed secretly and distributed very circumspectly in Britain at that time.
PAGE 146 Inset: SIR ISAAC NEWTON 1642-1727
PAGE 147 Inset: THOMAS HARTLEY ON THE PSALMS AS PROPHECY
leaders were interested in Jewish welfare and were friends of Manasseh ben Israel. He believed that Messiah's appearance was nigh at hand.
This he averred on the basis of the Old Testament prophecies. This conviction is pre-eminently set forth in his book Piedra Gloriosa o de la Estatua de Nebuchadnezzar ("The Glorious Stone or On The Image Of Nebuchadnezzar"), for which Rembrandt made four etchings. His book received the attention of many Protestant theologians, who were likewise convinced of the speedy coming of the Messiah -- only they looked for the second advent."105
PAGE 149 Inset: JOHN LOCKE 1632-1704
PAGE 150 Inset: THOMAS FIRMIN 1632-1697
Another work was The Hope of Israel which is also full of prophetic exposition, and deals particularly with the end of Israel's scattering and exile and the hope of restoration under Messiah. This also was widely read, and among his other writings were four hundred sermons delivered to his eager congregation in Amsterdam.
There is no doubt that Jewish writers such as Manasseh ben Israel encouraged the "crypto-believers" we have mentioned to take an acute interest in things Jewish. So it came about that during the late 17th and the 18th centuries all the prophetic anticipations familiar to Christadelphians, which had been evident in some form in European
languages earlier, now flowered in the English language, both in Britain and America. The return of the Jews to their Land, the future downfall of the Papacy, Russia as Gog and the king of the North, the decline of the Ottoman Turks, and the whole "eastern question" as it became known, were topics of eager discussion and of many tracts and booklets.
There was keen interest, of course, in the question of the "times and seasons" -- when the Lord Jesus would appear the second time without sin unto salvation. On both sides of the Atlantic this matter was discussed at much length. It is very clear that, contrary to many scoffers nowadays, believers in the 18th century did not all believe that Jesus' return was "just around the corner". They knew their Bibles too well for that. In his lengthy book The Millennium, Joseph Bellamy asks "When then shall these things be accomplished?" and he answers:
In 1749, Jonathan Edwards, in his "Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement" put it this way -- referring to the reign of Antichrist:
But he urges all readers to remember the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples: "Thy Kingdom come". And he goes on:
Jonathan Edwards was a remarkable character. A child prodigy -- he entered Yale at twelve, graduated at seventeen -- he became a man of many parts: educator, missionary to the Indians, physicist, administrator, and finally President of Princeton University the year before he died of a smallpox vaccination. He acknowledges that his interest in Bible Truth was aroused by his wide reading of Locke, Newton and Brethren in Europe. He mentions a group in Salzburg, Austria who "living under Popish darkness, merely by reading the Bible, which they made a shift to get into their own language, were determined to throw off Popery and to become so very zealous for the Truth and gospel of Jesus Christ as to be willing to suffer the loss of all things".
The reason for making three selections from Samuel Hopkins will be apparent to Christadelphian readers. Here in the 18th century, not only are the Abrahamic Promise and the Hope of Israel clearly expounded, but the very texture of the language used is already an anticipation of later Christadelphian writers.
It is true to say that the French Revolution was no surprise to those 18th century Bible believers who lived to witness it. Nor was the decline of the Turkish power. Nor was the small early signs of interest in the Jewish return to Zion. Nor was the fate that befell the Papacy under the successive blows of Revolution and Napoleon. Nor was the horror and bloodshed of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars -- yet it was a type of warfare which hardly touched civilians! For these believers two centuries ago, these were their signs of the times, they knew what they heralded. They lifted up their heads, as the final selection in this volume shows.
Thus the seed sown in the heady days of the Reformation in Europe was carried across the seas: across the North Sea to Britain, the Irish Sea to Ireland, and then across the ocean to the Americas. One of the ways in which we can trace the influence of the Brethren in Christ is by noting the places where this seed subsequently sprouted into life. Even though formal organization was difficult, their legacy of scriptural ideas and teachings was still powerful. Time and again, sincere seekers who loved God's Word found in writings such as those selections reproduced in this volume a key and an aid to their
PAGE 153 Inset: JONATHAN EDWARDS ON THE GLORIES OF GOD'S COMING KINGDOM
understanding of the gospel. They leavened the whole religious atmosphere out of which the Christadelphian community later grew.
Janusz Tazbir, probably the most knowledgeable scholar anywhere on the history of the Polish Brethren, has this to say:
PAGE 155 Inset: SAMUEL HOPKINS 1721 -1803
PAGE 157 Inset: SAMUEL HOPKINS ON THE JEWS AT THE TIME OF THE END
PAGE 158 Inset: SAMUEL HOPKINS ON THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES
PAGE 159 Inset: DAVID AUSTIN ON THE "LITTLE HORN' OF DANIEL AND ON ANTICHRIST
PAGE 160 Inset: ON THE RETURN OF THE JEWS TO PALESTINE AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD
PLATE 36: Title page of Abraham Cummings' Dissertation on the Introduction and glory of the Millennium, one of a number of expositions of prophecy prompted by the events of the French Revolution.
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