(III) THE TRUTH RE-DISCOVERED
REFERENCE has been made to the early contacts with the " Reformation " on Dr. Thomas's arrival in America. He had intended to keep free from any sectarian association, but contrary to inclination he found himself not only linked up with a religious movement but within two years involved in a controversy which continued for many years.
The "Reformation" had its roots in Scotch Presbyterianism. John Glas (1695 1773) was a minister who made an effort to return to New Testament principles, and was deposed in 1730 for opposing alliance with the State. His son-in-law, Robert Sandeman (1723-1771), espoused his views, and established a weekly breaking of bread, emphasized intellect as against emotion, and established a simple form of government for each church in which the work of teaching was extended to others outside the official ministry. Michael Faraday was a member of the Glasites.
The Baptist movement in Britain early in the sixteenth century sprang from the Anabaptists in Germany. In the early periods the Baptists, had a hard struggle for religious freedom, and one Roger Williams left England for America where he founded the State of Rhode Island and established the first Baptist Church in America. A member of the Glasite churches in Scotland, Archibald McLean (1733- 1812), renounced the practice of infant sprinkling, and in 1765 was immersed. McLean had considerable influence, the Scotch
Baptist Churches having their origin in his work. His influence extended to England and Wales. In Wales the uncle and foster-father of Mr. Lloyd George was an elder of a McLean Church, and thus a Prime Minister of Britain in early life was associated with that fellowship. William Jones, who became a minister of a Scotch Baptist Church in London, was also influenced by McLean; he later published two volumes of the Millennial Harbinger (1835-6) in which Alexander Campbell's writings were made familiar to English readers. As Campbell's views were modified Jones published a criticism of them. Another McLean Baptist was James Wallis, who founded a church in Nottingham and was associated with the publication of the Christian Messenger, which ran for 12 years (1837-45), and which was followed by the British Millennial Harbinger at first edited by Wallis. Both these magazines were designed to introduce the teaching of Alexander Campbell in this country. When Dr. Thomas visited Britain in 1848 Wallis strongly opposed him.
Thomas Campbell, the father of Alexander, was born in Ireland, but was educated at Glasgow University for the Presbyterian Ministry. He became a minister of a section of the Presbyterian Church which had sprung from the Seceders. The Seceders had withdrawn from the Presbyterian State Church because they claimed the right for each congregation to choose its own ministers. The Seceders later divided on the question of taking an oath which bound to certain beliefs and practices. The section which would not take the oath were known as Anti-Burghers; to this section Thomas Campbell belonged. Although much strife and bitterness. followed these divisions, Campbell, deeply grieved by the bigotry manifested, tried to bring about reunion in Ireland, but failed. In 1807 he went to America, followed two years later by his son.
The Campbells were both opposed to divisions arising out of doctrinal difference; yet through an effort by the father to overcome these differences by inviting people of all sections of the Presbyterians to partake of communion together, still another sect came into being. Opposition to his policy was so strong that he was compelled to withdraw from ' the Presbyterians; people of different denominations followed him, and in 18og an association was formed for which Campbell drew up the "Declaration and Address". This "Declaration" renounced all systems of theology as tests of fellowship, and this has remained a feature until today of the Churches founded by Campbell. Another revival movement similar in aim to that led by the Campbells was proceeding during this time in America under the leadership of Barton W. Stone. He also was forced out of the Presbyterian Church; he then founded churches known as "Christian", and in 1833 the followers of Stone and Campbell united to form one fellowship. Before this, in 1812, the Campbells were convinced that infant baptism was not scriptural, and both were then immersed on a public confession of the Lord Jesus. For a short time they found a home with the Baptists -- an association which was not happy and which was finally broken in 1832, when a separate organization was formed.
Walter Scott joined the Campbells in 1820. He had been educated in Edinburgh for the Presbyterian Ministry but emigrated. In 1827 he was chosen to be an evangelist, by his labours winning many converts. He appears to have had a logical method of preaching, and presented "the terms of salvation in their Biblical order". These terms were considered to be "Faith, repentance, confession, baptism, remission of sins, and the Holy Spirit", and in the words of the writer quoted: "Thomas and Alexander Campbell both gave him credit for restoring these to the church in a practical way".
In 1823 Alexander Campbell started the Christian Baptist, which ran into seven volumes, and in these Campbell's theology is worked out. In 1830 the Millennial Harbinger followed, and in this journal the contention with Dr. Thomas was waged. The movement started by Scott and Campbell has grown extensively. It is still marked by abhorrence of sectarianism, and an avoidance of a creed (although in general doctrines it in no way differs from other churches of Christendom). It claims to be a return to the faith and practice of early Christianity in the observance of adult baptism and breaking of bread. Its followers are called "Disciples of Christ" in America and number today about one and a half millions; in Britain the assemblies are called "Churches of Christ", and have about 13,000 members. Throughout the world there are two million adherents. These "Churches of Christ" are represented at the Conferences convened by the Protestant Churches; and the historian of the Baptist Churches, Dr. A. C. Underwood, writing in 1947, says: "Quite recently conversations have taken place between representatives of the 'Churches of Christ' and the Baptist Union, with a view to closer relations, not excluding the possibility of union".
We must add to this outline of the Campbellite movement a reference to the fact that the early decades of last century were marked by general religious confusion, mixed with wild enthusiasm. Sects abounded in America, with bitterness and hatred rife, with fantastic notions based on weird interpretations of a few texts. Claims to Holy Spirit guidance were often made ; wild scenes at such revivalist meetings, not free from immorality, were common. Religious discussion at that time was marked by blunt invective, and a harshness of speech was common, and must not be judged by present standards.
Against this background we will now briefly trace the development of Dr. Thomas's understanding of the Scriptures.
We have seen how Dr. Thomas was convinced by Walter Scott that he should be immersed; and also have noted the influence of Scott on the method of presenting the doctrine of the "Reformation": "Faith, repentance, confession, baptism". We have also noted the close connection of the "Reformation" and the Baptist Churches, a connection which led to many Baptists becoming associated with the new movement. They were accepted without any further immersion. In No. 6 of the Apostolic Advocate Dr. Thomas published an article entitled "Anabaptism". In it he points out that the word which signifies "baptized again" is wrongly used of those who were immersed who had previously only been sprinkled, and that while the term is to be deprecated, there are cases where re- immersion was necessary. He discusses the meaning of the word baptize, tracing its use by dyers. Only when there has been a change of colour of the article dipped would it be called baptism. To dip au infidel would avail nothing for salvation, the prerequisite faith, repentance, and confession being lacking. Quoting the process of salvation as set out by Walter Scott, but without mentioning his name, Dr. Thomas argued that an immersion of a Baptist or of a member of any other sect was lacking in understanding and was therefore invalid. The argument is logical and applies Campbell's own principles in a way that should have been approved by Campbell. The movement "began with a stressing of intellectual values" as Dr. William Robinson, the leading scholar of the "Churches of Christ", admits. In this emphasis it followed the method of McLean who was a reasoner on metaphysical lines. But the Baptist members of the "Reformation" resented the implications of Dr. Thomas's article, and Campbell himself was not pleased, as he saw it would hinder the numerical advance of the movement.
Discussion followed in which Dr. Thomas quoted in support of his position an earlier writing of Alexander Campbell. Dr. Thomas then addressed four letters to Campbell, published monthly in the Advocate. They are marked by close reasoning, and a courage to uphold what the writer saw to be truth. He concludes. "And now, brother Campbell, I have brought to a close my views upon this matter. You and my readers can judge whether the Word of God is for or against me. I write not for applause but for truth. An eternity of weal or woe is staked upon our uprightness or demerits here. In view of this, I have not calculated on the. approbation or displeasure that may accrue to me for the position I have maintained. I cannot but express my confidence that you will meet what has been said fairly in the Harbinger. You certainly owe me reparation for the unintentional misrepresentation of my practices, which you have published to the four winds of heaven."
In 1835 the series of 34 questions already mentioned were printed in the Advocate under the heading "Information Wanted". They concerned the nature of man, the purpose of God with the earth, the fulfilment of the promises to the fathers in an everlasting inheritance of the earth. Of the response to the request for information, Dr. Thomas, twelve months afterwards, wrote: "Instead, however, of some one condescending to instruct him, and to impart the information sought, he was forthwith beset on every side. A correspondent wrote putting certain questions to him. The letter containing these obliged him to investigate the subject alluded to more closely, and, unlike the course adopted towards him, he honestly and frankly replied to said querist, according to the light he had. Then began the din of war. The artillery of 'the present reformation', began to play from the heights of Bethany ... His Christian character was traduced; he was classed with 'the wits and the wags, the Paines, and the Voltaires, and all that herd'. Discharges of small arms were levelled at him from divers points; and discontinuances came in from various quarters, because he had the presumption to ask for information few had the courage to give him. But notwithstanding this fusilading he still lives at the service of his friends and readers."
All the clamour and denunciations and attacks on his character, as he declared later, failed in the desired effects. "Instead of intimidating us and putting us to silence it only roused our determination to comprehend the subject; if wrong, to get right; and when righted to defend the right, maintain the right, and overthrow the wrong or perish in the attempt."
In 1837 Dr. Thomas engaged in a debate with a Presbyterian clergyman on the immortality of the soul, the summary of it being published in a large pamphlet, The Apostacy Unvieled. In it Dr. Thomas shows the Bible teaching concerning the nature of man and the true hope of life by resurrection. The effect was virtually a bull of excommunication from Campbell, since Campbell disclaimed all fellowship with him unless he renounced the offending doctrines.
It would appear that the Churches of the "Reformation" were much exercised about Dr. Thomas. This is evident from the fact that the church in Virginia of which Dr. Thomas was a member issued a report about him following a suggestion made in the Harbinger that the church he attended should investigate his teaching. The report condemns as high handed the attitude of Campbell, indicates that some of the members regarded Dr. Thomas's views as speculative, but speaks highly of him as a man. "Although we may hazard the loss of fellowship with many, yet we feel bound to risk the loss rather than sever from our communion one whose walk is so exemplary, and whose devotion to truth is so ardent as that of Dr. Thomas." Another church in Virginia published to all churches a defence of Dr. Thomas personally while dissenting from his views "We have seen him in private and in public, and we have seen nothing but the exemplary Christian; his morals unexceptional, his life rigidly self denying."
Efforts were made by friends of the two disputants to effect a reconciliation, which closed the. breach for a time, but only for a time. Reopened again, no further effort was made to bridge it. Owing to Dr. Thomas's removal to another state the Advocate was suspended in 1839
The next short period, spent on the Investigator, can be passed over as it contributes no information on the development of Dr. Thomas's understanding of the Word. In 1844, however, we reach another stage in the work of reviving the Truth. In that year the first number of the Herald of the Future Age was published. During the first year of the magazine Dr. Thomas removed to Richmond, Va., and stayed with a friend named Malone. Together they visited a Campbellite church in a neighbouring town, with which the Doctor's friend was in fellowship. Dr. Thomas was known to the people and was invited to speak, to which he responded. There was objection to this which led to the expulsion of the Doctor's friend, and this in turn led to a few beginning to hold meetings independently of the Campbellite assemblies. Editing the Herald led to intensified study of God's Word, with a growing perception of its teaching. The progress may be seen from a published summary of "Things Elaborated from the Word during Ten Discourses at New York in 1846". The elaboration of these "things" would give to the New York listeners a good understanding of the first principles of the Truth. But up to this point it had not occurred to the Doctor that the increased understanding of God's purpose made applicable to himself the argument he had used against Baptists being received into fellowship without reimmersion, -- an argument which had begun the course of investigation now nearing its close.
A criticism of the New York lectures concerning Christ the heir to David's throne and the coming restoration of the Jews led to an enquiry on the value of these things as part of the divine revelation. Was any part of divine revelation of no value? He began an article on "The Hope of Israel and the Hope of the World". After his manner he examined passages dealing with hope, and found Paul said "We are saved by the Hope". What was this hope? A number of passages crowded into his mind, and with these scriptures came also a realization that when he was immersed by Walter Scott he was ignorant of this Hope that saves. His immersion then was of no avail; it was not an obedience to the form of doctrine which had been delivered by the apostles. At the time of his baptism he was ignorant of God's promises by which we might become partakers of the divine nature. The Campbellite claim to have restored "the ancient gospel" was not correct: all they had done was to restore the ordinances of apostolic times in their simplicity. With this recognition his duty became clear, and as throughout the controversy he had followed faithfully where the instruction of God's word led, so now he did not hesitate. He wrote a confession and abjuration, in which he reviewed briefly his early life and his contacts with Walter Scott; he gave reasons why he should "abjure the whole transaction, in which we once firmly thought we had believed and obeyed the one only true and apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ". The Confession was followed by a "Declaration" in which he set out what he now saw was the teaching of the Scriptures, and what therefore must be believed for a complete return to apostolic faith and practice.
With the outbreak of revolution in Europe in 1848, Dr. Thomas decided to visit Britain. The visit had important results, which must be noted in this short survey of the revival of Bible Truth. Dr. Thomas at once made contact with the Campbellites in this country, some of whom bitterly opposed him ; understandably so, the more firmly they adhered to the teaching of Alexander Campbell. But a much wider hearing was secured than the Campbell assemblies. This was particularly so in Glasgow where several thousands attended a series of lectures in the City Hall. At a soiree held at the close it was suggested that Dr. Thomas should write the substance of his lectures so that those who had heard them could continue their studies after his return to America. This proposal was approved ; Dr. Thomas decided to prolong his stay in this country, went to London, and wrote Elpis Israel. His own account of how he wrote the book must be here reproduced. He is speaking Of 1849, and says, " By the beginning of the new year I was enabled to commence the composition of Elpis Israel. I did not allow the grass to grow ; but worked while it was called today, and much of the night also. For six weeks the world without was a mere blank, except through a daily perusal of the London Times; for during that period I had no use for hat, boots, or shoes, oscillating, as it were, like a pendulum between two points-the couch above, and the desk below. In about four months the manuscript was completed."
The publication of this volume might be regarded as the end of the journey begun 15 years before. The book is comprehensive, and its sufficiency to enlighten men and women concerning the great salvation is evident from the fact that it has been the means of very many being led to the Truth. For many years it was the one book which was available to introduce the Gospel. A few years later the same truths, in the form of chapters on items of the Faith, were made available in the book Twelve Lectures, later entitled Christendom Astray, by Robert Roberts, but Elpis Israel opens up a wide and comprehensive view of the whole Scriptures. The first two sections of the three into which the book is divided, will in the writer's judgment never be surpassed. Of the third, dealing with prophecy, some things made necessary by passing time will. be said on another page. The lectures by Dr. Thomas in Britain, and the book Elpis Israel, which was the outcome, led to the formation of ecclesias; and the work of preparing a people to be ready for the Lord has gone on for the last hundred years. The preaching of the coming of Jesus Christ to set up God's Kingdom on the earth, the restoration of the Jews, the Millennial reign and its purpose, the offer of everlasting life in Christ by resurrection at his coming, the unity of God and the divine sonship of Jesus, are doctrines which others during the last hundred years have taken up, but it belongs to the work of Dr. Thomas that all parts of the Truth were brought together into a complete presentation of God's purpose.