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THE search for Bible truth by a New Englander, Elias Smith, illustrates the way in which the seeds of the gospel constantly generate new plants in unexpected and sometimes most unlikely places.
Elias Smith was born in 1769 at Lynn, a town about ten miles from Boston, Mass. His education was in the strict puritan tradition of the area and included weighty indoctrination in the Calvinistic Catechism and committing to memory "the greater part of the New Testament". He was 20 years of age when he finally decided to affiliate with the Calvinist Baptist church to which his father belonged. He had earlier been "sprinkled" by the Congregational church which his mother attended, an occasion he always referred to afterwards in a tone of undisguised disgust.
Being of bright intellect, he was encouraged to train for the ministry, and he was "ordained" at Lee, New Hampshire. Shortly after his marriage at the age of 29 he was appointed pastor of a congregation numbering several hundred at Woburn, Mass.
It was about this time that he began to be very unhappy both with his message and its fruits. He noticed that the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and election confirmed people in their pride rather than induced them to humility. On the other hand, those who had no confident assurance of being divinely chosen were hardened the more into sin. The preaching of Dr. Hopkins' "system of divinity", in which he had been rigorously schooled, only served, he wryly commented later, "to stultify my audience".
Despite his admitted fears of the bishop's wrath, he decided on a total re- appraisal of his message, and set about it in a typically thorough manner. "I threw divinity books out of my bookcase, and
began to think of the extent of the love and grace of God to man." He examined afresh the catechism which he had accepted for many years and "found it contained contradictions and impossibilities and was contrary to the plain declarations of the Scriptures".
His bishop was furious and Smith was unceremoniously ejected from his pastorate. But he was undeterred. In revulsion from the Pharisaism of Calvinist doctrine he turned towards Universalism, then being propagated from the colleges of New England. He shrewdly noted that although apparently different, Universalism was really based on Calvinism, the only difference being the number to be saved! In neither case was faith a real power. He decided to "drop both and study the Scriptures". His next step was to repudiate the dogma of the Trinity as unscriptural scholasticism.
Single-minded Zeal for Truth
Intrigued and spurred on by a zeal for Truth, Elias Smith then got down to serious Bible study. "I endeavoured", he wrote some years after, "to attend closely to the plain declarations of the Scriptures of Truth, without any regard to the opinion of any man. My Bible and Concordance are almost the whole of my books. In my search after Truth in the Scriptures, I have been led to reject many things which others hold, and to embrace many things which some reject, because they do not search after what God has said in his word."
There is no doubt, as in other well-known cases, both before and after Smith, that he was sincere and honest in this claim to be objective and unaided in his search for Truth. There is no need to doubt that he allowed the Word to imprint its message upon his mind. Yet he mentioned himself that he was familiar with the writings of the Joshua Spalding, referred to earlier, Newton and others who had taught about the Hope of Israel, the personal return of Christ, the Promises, the Resurrection and the Millennium. No man is an island.
By the end of the 18th century Smith had enough confidence in his new found Scriptural convictions to commence a career of preaching, magazine editing and writing that became typical of many other self-taught religious men of the 19th century. Called "quaint and eccentric" by others of lesser courage, he ranged around the New England townships giving lectures which both stirred and infuriated. Several times he narrowly escaped mob
violence. An ancient copy still survives of a discourse on Nebuchadnezzar's image given in the Jefferson Hall (town unspecified) in 1802. He gathered a congregation of like minds at the town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They repudiated "all names and denominations of Christendom", acknowledged no creed but the Bible and called themselves simply Christians.
Smith then commenced to publish a weekly paper, The Herald of Gospel Liberty, later The Herald of Life and Immortaliy. This is usually considered to be America's first religious weekly periodical. The trend of his thought is illustrated by other titles such as The Day ofJudgement (1805); The Doctrine of the Prince of Peace and his Servants (1805); and The Lovingkindness of God Displayed (1809).
In 1807 a remarkable series of addresses was given at Exeter, New Hampshire, a town about 12 miles from Portsmouth. They deserve our interest for they clearly and closely foreshadow, not only in content but in very format and style, Christadelphian Bible campaigns of today.
Let us in imagination flash back in time, slip into a packed clapboard meeting house among the maple trees of the New England countryside, and listen to the persuasive preaching of the 38-year old Elias Smith in the prime of his powers.
After a preliminary discussion on believing the Bible, he takes the first key to understanding the Bible:
"The foundation of all the glorious things which are to take place concerning the kingdom of Christ, the seed of Abraham, appears to be laid in the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
A detailed Scriptural exposition follows -- explaining the Promises of the Seed, the Land, the Resurrection and the Kingdom. Then he asks:
"Can any person of common sense suppose that God fulfilled all promised to him (Abraham) while he lived a stranger in that land, having no possession at all, living a stranger and a pilgrim? There is something greater than this for him; which will be given him when he shalI rise again with the other saints and reign there (Canaan) with Christ a thousand years."
Subsequent lectures take us on to the Davidic promise, the Hope of Israel and the return of Christ. The return of the Jews to their land (remember this is 1807!) is dealt with as confidently and plainly as if he was living a century and a half later. He examines systematically dozens of passages from the prophets, showing the various steps required before the coming of the Lord. After dealing with Isaiah 62 he comments: "It is not possible for language to express anything plainer than that the return of the Jews is here described." Then again after a consideration of Isaiah 60 he adds:
"How can any person read Isaiah 60 and doubt the return of the Jews to the land of Canaan? It is certain that there has never any such thing taken place among the Jews, or any other nation, as is mentioned in this chapter; therefore it is yet to come to pass. The Lord hasten it in His time. Amen."
This is faith to match Jeremiah, Habakkuk and Daniel as they faced apparent delays in the accomplishment of the purpose of God revealed. His voice rising in eloquence, Elias Smith spans two centuries of turbulent history in confident anticipation:
"What a remarkable day it will be (a day near at hand) when the inhabitants of Europe, Asia, Africa and America shall hear that the Turks who have long trodden down Jerusalem and laid waste the land have agreed to resign the whole land to the Jews and to leave the country . . . when a proclamation shall go forth into every place where a Jew is found calling him to join the great company who are returning to the land of their fathers! When the ships of Tarshish first and others after shall bring the sons of Abraham from distant lands ... this will be one of the last signs of the coming of the Son of Man to reign on the earth a thousand years, when wars shall cease to the ends of the earth and all nations shall call him blessed.
"While I look over these prophecies, see their agreement, and know from the present state of the Jews that they will ere long return to their own land, and there be a great blessing to the world, my soul leaps for joy, I am filled with wonder, joy and love."
In the tradition of the earlier Brethren in Christ, Smith identifies the Man of Sin with Rome, and a Christendom astray from Truth is seen as the "falling away" foretold by the Apostle
Paul. Reviewing a mass of Scriptural testimony, he modestly sums up this topic:
"From all these scriptural testimonies I feel certain that Jesus, who once suffered on earth, will hereafter be honoured on earth, beyond what my tongue or pen can describe."
In a subsequent lecture we hear the clearest evidence that eternal hell fire torture for the damned is a horrifying distortion of truth. We are shown that the words used to indicate the fate of the wicked are destroy, perish, devour, consume, burn up, perdition and end. In typically persuasive fashion Smith points out
"In the Scriptures the end of the wicked is said to be destruction and to be burned as briers and thorns. There cannot be plainer words to describe the complete overthrow of the wicked. The END of the righteous is life, the END of the wicked is death, which cannot mean existence in any sense whatever."
A Moving Appeal
The final address in the series is a moving appeal to heed God's Word of grace and Christ's call to discipleship rather than the vain traditions of men. Its style is eloquent, moving yet simple, an example for us as preachers of God's Word today. Here is no love of controversy for its own sake, no desire either to tickle the ear or needlessly antagonise. This is an earnest call to sincere men and women to love and believe God's offer of life eternal. We do well to pause and listen awhile:
"People have a kind of general system of what is to be hereafter, and thinking this system is right, they suppose the Scriptures must mean their systems, let it say what it will. This is a very great disadvantage to people. We are in general taught ... that there is a wonderful place called Heaven and a place called Hell where the wicked will be tormented without end and be eternally raging and blaspheming God. The small knowledge which people in general have of the Scriptures is used to support what they are taught to call divinity.
"So long as people believe that the plain declarations of Scripture do not mean as they say, so long will they remain ignorant of the real beauty and excellency of the sure word of Prophecy ... whatever things this light discovers we ought to believe and consider true.
"How must every believing heart grow warm while he views the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and when he considers that God will ere long perform all He promised these men, as it respects themselves, their land and their children!
"How glorious do the prophecies appear which speak of the new covenant with the Jews, which shall hereafter be made with that long neglected people, when they shall come from different parts of the earth where they are now scattered, and be settled in the land of their Fathers. While we read that Jesus shall return to the Mount of Olives to overcome his foes, deliver the Jews, reign over Jerusalem, and be the King over all the earth, causing wars to cease to the ends of the earth -- how glorious is the prospect before every believer! Especially when he reads in this prophecy of the glorious event that all the dead saints shall rise to reign with him ... in the new Jerusalem where changes, troubles, sorrow and death are no more. These things I believe in, rejoice in, look and long for.
"To attend to the prophecies as recorded is doing well because it gives us an exalted idea of what Christ, under God, will do before he gives up the kingdom and what he will have when he reigns in the new Jerusalem with all his saints forever.
"To take heed to the prophecies is doing well for ourselves in this way, we have a light all the journey through life in whatsoever situation we are in, if poverty, affliction, pain or loss attend us, the prophecy of future glory will lead us to glory in tribulation, knowing that through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom, where the righteous shall shine as the sun forever, in that day which will dawn at the resurrection of the just, a day without night, sorrow, death or crying."
We do not know the lasting effects of this and other Bible campaigns Elias Smith conducted in the ten years between 1807 and 1817. Some of the lecture titles are suggestive: "New Testament Baptism, with a history of infant baptism"; "The Whole World governed by a Jew, or The Government of Christ as King and Priest"; "The Light not Clear nor Dark; or a Mixture of Human Inventions called Christianity." He and a friend Abner Jones produced hymnbooks, large and small, including many hymns written by themselves. However, neither it should honestly be said, were particularly gifted poets!
Determination to avoid a sectarian label undoubtedly limited the effectiveness of Elias Smith's work. Also he rather disgusted his friends and converts by a five year flirtation with the Universalists (through having too close a friendship with one of their number).
Although he abjured his regrettable lapse, the last 23 years of his long life were mainly spent as what today would be called a quack doctor, building up a sizeable practice with a partner of like interests.
Many who had become "Christians" through Smith's teaching drifted into the Campbellite "Reformation" in the 1830's. Their Scriptural views were apparently something of an embarrassment as this was developed into a broad, popular "orthodox" movement. In this way at least Elias Smith paved the way for John Thomas. Campbell himself recognised the connection, mentioning in his Millenial Harbinger of 1837 that Dr. Thomas quoted Smith without necessarily having borrowed his ideas wholesale. Similar phrases and cliches are used by both of them in their writings, some indeed having passed down from still earlier writers.
Elias Smith travelled little. He refused to found a sect. But the leaven of his witness at the very beginning of the 19th century in one small corner of the United States did an unseen work. In commending one publication in 1808 to the 200 New Englanders whose subscriptions had defrayed the costs of printing, he penned words which can live today:
"To the blessing of God I commend this feeble attempt to increase the knowledge of the sure word of prophecy . . . conscious that I have written according to the understanding God has given me by His Word and spirit, which taught me to know and love the Truth as it is in Jesus.
"It is possible that many who read this work may never see my face in time, and it is likely that some at least will read it when I am laid away in dust.
"I have one request to make, that is, not to believe or disbelieve what is stated in this book on my testimony barely, but to search the Scriptures whether these things are so. If you are an unbeliever, repent, and believe the gospel. If you are believers, pray for me, for yourselves, live as pilgrims, and long for glory. Such, through grace, I hope to meet in the New Jerusalem, where Jesus shall be our light, our glory and our joy forever. To him be glory in the church, throughout all ages, world without end, Amen and Amen."
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