(VI) THE MAN
WE would like to get a glimpse of the man, but this is more difficult than finding out the external facts which, reveal the expositor and the worker. What was the man himself? Only two or three are still alive who saw Dr. Thomas, and any impressions they have must necessarily lie the impressions a child receives. The writings do not help very much -- in fact they may mislead in some particulars. The contributions to the Herald are either essentially expositional or controversial. The first only enables us to know the mind, the second, from one with the directness of speech that marked Dr. Thomas, can create an impression of a man who was merely a controversialist, and upon whose character the truth had left little impress.
We miss in the Herald the exhortational element which has been a regular feature in the Christadelphian almost from its beginning. Doubtless circumstances governed this; Dr. Thomas's work was that of a pioneer and the work of setting forth the true teaching of scripture predominated. When the Christadelphian took the place of the Herald more ecclesias had been established, a more regular form of memorial service adopted, and therefore the feature generally spoken of as "Sunday Morning" naturally found its place.
All the Doctor's writings, however, reveal a keen awareness of the need for living in harmony with God's commandments. Many pages of Elpis Israel can be cited as an example. There are occasional references in his travel records which show that he looked for the "fruits" among the brethren which should be produced when the truth is known. When his own character was slandered by his opponents, brethren and communities who knew him well were quick to declare the facts as they knew I him -- that he was a man of integrity who displayed the Christian graces in everyday life. From a man in love as he was with the Word of God such traits of character would be a natural result. The fact is, the very vigour of his advocacy for doctrine as taught in the Scriptures, together with pungency of style on occasion, has obscured the finer and gentler side.
Three quotations may be made bearing upon the spirit of the man. Many other extracts could be gathered up from scattered allusions, but these suffice. The first is the humble reference to his errors when he made his "confession and objuration":
"We admit, that we have not accepted the slanders and reproaches bestowed upon us with that gratitude the word inculcates. Born and educated in a country where character is more precious than gold, we have, in time past, felt like Ephraim unaccustomed to the yoke, when suffering under the galling imputations of reckless assailants. Experience, however, has taught us, that in this country, slander is the people's broadsword with which they seek to slay the reputations of all who aim to serve them otherwise than in subservience to their passions, in the things of time or eternity. But, blessed be our foes in their basket and store. We thank them for their persecution, and opposition with which they have encountered us. But for these, we should have been, perhaps, like them, 'in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity'. Their course has compelled us to study more diligently than we might have done the Holy Scriptures, that we might be better able to give an answer to every one that should ask a reason of the Hope that is in us. Had they let us alone, it is probable we should have been in good repute indeed with them and their leaders : and might even have been teaching the same fables; which, however, would have deprived us of the pleasure of confessing our errors and mistakes, and of thus publicly renouncing and bidding them adieu."
When he had been the subject of some very hostile comments he penned the following prayer:
"0 Lord God in heaven above, merciful and gracious Father, what can we render to Thee for Thy goodness? Thou hast appointed a day in which Thou wilt judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ! Blessed be Thy holy name. We shall all be judged before his tribunal and not man's. Then the hidden things of men shall be brought to light, and their secret thought shall be unveiled, to their justification or reproof! Thou God seest us all, for all hearts are open before Thee! If Thou beholdest any thing in me displeasing in Thy sight, let me fall into Thy hands, and not into the hands of those who thirst for my destruction! Grant me patience to endure their unrighteousness, and by fidelity and perseverance to overcome the iniquity of their doings; and may the word of the truth concerning the hope of the glorious gospel of Jesus be established in these countries; and may those who now oppose it, in ignorance and unbelief, find mercy of Thee, repenting of their waywardness, and purifying their hearts by faith, that they may be accepted when the Lord comes! 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do'; and may we all at length find an abundant entrance into the kingdom of the future age, to the glory of the great Immanuel's name! Amen! Amen!"
Our third quotation is from the pen of bro. R. Roberts, with whom Dr. Thomas found a home when he visited Huddersfield during 1862, and on his last visit near the end of his life, when bro. Roberts had removed to Birmingham. Bro. Roberts, meeting his guest at the station, says:
"At last a quiet, firmly-set, square-shouldered, literary looking gentleman, in frock coat and chimney-pot hat, with ruddy countenance and white beard, emerged from one of the carriages, and began to pick his way in the crowd, with one valise in his hand. I was quite timid about saluting him, because it might not be Dr. Thomas after all. After following him a little, I said to him with a palpitating heart, 'Mr. Thomas?' He said, 'Yes'. We then exchanged greetings, and I led him out of the station to a cab, and conveyed him to our apartments (by that time changed to 25, Albion Street, the house of brother Rhodes) where my sister companion awaited him in a state of excitement, which soon changed to comfort and joy, in the presence of the cordial and social dignity of a mature and venerable man whom we found so much more interested, if possible, than ourselves in the sublime matters that had engaged our efforts and attention for some years... It is impossible to exaggerate the charm of Dr. Thomas's company under our own roof (though it was but a lodging house roof). He was a totally different man from what his writings prepared us to expect. These writings were so pungent, so vigorous, so satirical, and had such a sledge-hammer force of argument and denunciation that we looked for a regular Boanerges -- a thunder-dealer, a man not only of robust intellect, but of a combative, energetic, self-assertive turn, whose converse would be largely spiced with explosive vocables.
"Instead of this, he was quiet, gentle, courteous, wellmannered, modest, absolutely devoid of affectation or trace of self-importance. His calm, lofty, cordial reverence for the Scriptures was very edifying to us, after several weary years of contact with drivellers and blasphemers; and his interest in all circumstances pertaining to the fortunes of the truth of which we had to tell him was very refreshing after a toilsome course of solitary labour in a cause that all our neighbours pitied us as fools for taking up. It was so gratifying and so strengthening, too, to have his fireside answers to the various scriptural questions we had to propound. 'Let me see', he would say, 'where is that passage?' and would turn it up, and then proceed in his dignified and incisive way to 'open to us the Scriptures'. Household matters and business shrunk into their proper smallness in his company. It was truly a 'little heaven below', the like of which we have rarely since experienced in the rugged journey of probation."
The following concerns the later visit, when Dr. Thomas was accompanied by his daughter:
"When the train drew up at the New Street platform, a white-bearded, military- looking gentleman, accompanied by a slim lady in black, became visible among the crowd that stepped out of the carriages. I quickly saluted Dr. Thomas, who was playfully disappointed. He said he had thought of going aside to an hotel, and not letting us know till he walked into the meeting on Sunday -- which he hoped he might do, unrecognized as a listener! I told him he had no idea of the state of feeling among the brethren, or he would never have dreamt of such a thing ... The Doctor stayed in Birmingham about four weeks. They were weeks of pure enjoyment to all the friends of the truth -- especially to those of us who had the privilege of intimate association with him. His lectures were interesting and powerful; in private he reminded us of Christ by a gravity of deportment that was mixed with urbanity, and a dignity that was sweetened by unfeigned humility, a quiet penetrating depth of intelligence, unweakened by the least approach to frivolity; a cordial interest that was free and natural in all things connected with the truth. It was a great change to us to have one in our midst who was, if possible, more interested in all our arrangements than we ourselves.
"The first meeting for the breaking of bread was a thrilling interest. We were meeting at the time at the Athenaeum Hall, at the corner of Temple Street and Temple Row West, a place capable of holding about 300. None of the brethren had seen the Doctor. They were in full muster to the number of 120 or thereabouts. None were late that morning except the Doctor himself, who came in after they had been all seated for about ten minutes. As he quietly walked in and was led forward to a front seat, there was a deep hush of attention. The meeting that followed was of the sort that goes deep into the memory. After hearty singing and preliminary exercises, the Doctor was called upon, and ascending the platform addressed the assembly. He made no personal allusions of the kind that are common with public speakers. He did not say how pleased he was to be there; how gratifying to his feelings for such interest to be taken in his work, nor how deeply moved he was by the appreciation that had been manifested, etc. He simply said, in dignified and sonorous voice; 'It is written in the prophets' (and proceeded to call our attention to the truth). I was a shorthand writer, but I was too deeply moved by the words of the speaker to take them down, and I am not aware that anyone else took notes of them. They were words of weight and power, such as we probably shall not hear again till we meet in the kingdom of God."