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JOHN Thomas was born in 1805, the same year as Epps. The son of a rather restless minister of religion, the young Thomas did not take a very serious interest in religion early in life. He spent part of his childhood at boarding- school, and was apprenticed to a surgeon at fourteen. A frightful Atlantic crossing on the "Marquis of Wellesley" while emigrating to the United States caused him to vow to seek and follow Christian truth. The early contacts in the United States were with the so-called "Reformation", or Campbellites, now the Disciples of Christ. But Alexander Campbell, organiser of this "Reformation", was chiefly interested in a broad non-denominational Christian union without creeds, membership of which was not dependent upon assent to doctrine. John Thomas was of a very different turn of mind; his spirit was that of the early Brethren -- a submission to a straight-forward understanding of a divinely- inspired Bible unmodified by later creeds and ecclesiastical traditions.
He occasionally claimed, and others even more vigorously claimed for him, that his matured views on the Scriptures were solely the result of the study of them alone, and that he owed nothing to others. In this he can be compared with John Biddle, who also had made something of the same claim. There is much truth in the claim made by John Thomas; his study was no doubt as impartial as it was possible to be in the circumstances. He had an independent and sincere turn of mind and was not likely to follow consciously interpretations that bore the stamp of any particular theological school. However, as in Biddle's case, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there were subtle and unconscious influences at work outside the study of the Bible itself.
Despite incessant lecturing and controversial correspondence he was a reader of amazing breadth. How this was possible since he was continuously on the move is something of a mystery. But the writings of his formative period -- when he also travelled widely -- show close and accurate familiarity with Plato and other Greek writers; 3rd and 4th century Christian writers; medieval history; the poetry of Burns; first-hand sources of the 16th century Reformation; Milton, Newton, Hobbes, Locke and other 17th century authors whom he quoted at great length verbatim; Gibbon's History of the Roman Empire; an extensive knowledge of most of the principal writers on Biblical prophecy during the previous 70 years, including some, such as Bicheno, who were extremely obscure; and digestion of the enormous contemporary output of books, tracts, broadsheets and periodicals dealing with prophetic, millenarian and general religious topics.
The mid 19th century was a period of feverish apocalyptic study among Biblical Christians. John Thomas entered this field with fervour, his work culminating in his three-volume Eureka, which was produced in instalments in the fifties and sixties. Close affinities are apparent between Eureka and Elliott's Horae Apocalypticae published in 1844. Thomas was certainly thoroughly familiar with Elliot. But Eureka is not based on Horae Apocalypticae, since all its main interpretations appear in periodical form in the magazines published by John Thomas before Elliott's work appeared.
Rather, both Elliott and Eureka draw their thematic structure and broad lines of interpretation from a common stream, like distributaries in a delta. The source actually lies back through Newton and Biddle and Brenius to the early days of the Brethren. At that time, with Ferdinand's edict of destruction bringing suffering and martyrdom to so many pious Bible-lovers, the identification of the beast of Revelation 16 with Vienna was more natural than it was in the later 19th century. At that time also the Turk was the "bogeyman" of Europe and it was not difficult to see his role in the Revelation.
The identification by John Thomas of the slain witnesses of Revelation 11 as being a faithful remnant at the period of the 16th century Reformation is also shared -- with some variation due to availability of supporting historical material -- by earlier writers
among the Brethren. Probably because of the historical sources available, Thomas emphasised the role of the Huguenots. He was clearly in some difficulty here, since he was not in doctrinal agreement with the Huguenots and did not approve their use of force; consequently the interpretation at this point is strained. Had he known more of the views and witness of the Brethren, he might have given them more prominence in his interpretation of this period.
Quotations from earlier authors
He was, however, not ignorant of them, even though his sources were poor. He never considered himself the only one to have gone unbiased to the original Christian sources and come to the same considered view of "primitive Christianity". He refers to the 16th century "anabaptists -- as they were ignorantly styled" -- and states his conviction that in their age they had "preserved the truth from dying out". In his quotations of Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, and other 17th century writers, Dr. Thomas intimated that he was aligning himself with a tradition going back centuries. He considered that he was reviving not only original Christianity, but a faith of the 17th century that had been lost or corrupted in the 18th, and quotes with approval the 17th century Baptist confessions (see page 133).
In addition to these recognised historical affinities, John Thomas had other links with the past and with kindred spirits. Mention has been made of certain periodicals published in Rochester, New York. Dr. Thomas subscribed to at least one of these and endeavoured -- unsuccessfully, it should be said -- to gain an opening for his views through it. He viewed it as representing a standpoint with which he was in general agreement. On at least three occasions he visited the Illinois River region of the Middle West and came into contact with some of the groups of independent Christians referred to earlier in this chapter who had similar views to himself.
These contacts were not productive of any close association, and there appear to have been clashes of personality and leadership jealousies. Some associated with John Thomas, while others later federated into what is at the present time the Church of God Conference (Abrahamic Faith) in the United States, with general offices at Oregon, Illinois. An official history of this community by
Hatch claims that Thomas's work was an "interesting alignment" to their own. Because of the abhorrence of denominationalism prevalent among all these groups, their loosely organised federal structure and the prevalence of locally dominant leaders of strong personality, it is not likely that there was complete uniformity of doctrine and practice among them. John Thomas proceeded to encourage the formation of communities of people sympathetic to the views expressed in his periodical the Herald of the Kingdom, but these were at first very loose in organisation, and while some adopted the title "Baptised Believers in the Kingdom of God" and others "Bible Christians", there was no unanimity and a variety of designations appeared.
The American Civil War precipitated the need for some name. True to the principles for which they stood, John Thomas and his colleagues refused to take part in the hostilities. In Richmond, Virginia, he publicly called attention to the position:
"If the Southern and Northern Methodists, Baptists, Campbellites, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Papists think fit to blow one another's brains out, let them do it to their heart's content, but let not Christians mingle in the unhallowed strife."
Brethren in Christ
It was typical of John Thomas' general attitude of not assuming any personally dominant leadership that in presenting in his Herald this important element of faith, he used an article by Dr. Grattan Guinness, who was not associated in any way with him. In 1864 the name Brethren in Christ or Christadelphians was registered at the County Court House at Oregon, Illinois, and application made, asking that this name be accepted as the official title of a religious body. It was an interesting moment when John Thomas chose independently for his friends, without knowledge of the previous event, the same name as had come into being in Switzerland three hundred and forty years earlier, to designate those who refused to "engage in the armies or navies of any government". In 1865 a petition was made to the United States Senate asking for exemption from military service for members of the community.
Six years after the Brethren in Christ or Christadelphians had thus officially come into being as a distinct body, John Thomas died in the vicinity of New York. He was a controversial figure,
with a stabbing, pungent style of writing. He seemed to attract some to adulation and drive others to distraction; but he bored no one. He made no apology for engaging in verbal polemics. Disciples, he stated, obtain peace in this age in proportion as they are indifferent to principle. Because of the controversies he inevitably stirred up wherever he taught, it is difficult at the present distance to make an accurate assessment of his personality. During his lifetime opinions varied. "He was fatherly, kind, domestic, disinterested and truly humble." "He was quiet, gentle, courteous, well-mannered modest, absolutely devoid of affectation or trace of self-importance." "He was the most uncompromising, stubborn, self-willed and dogmatical person ever known; having large self-esteem and firmness and deficient benevolence, though a good intellect, and all this hardened by a bilious temperament." Clearly he was a many-sided man!
He was invariably warm to close friends, but bitter experiences with false friends made him somewhat cold and distant with both opponents and strangers. Those who knew him best invariably came into the closest fellowship with him. Memories of him (and a hat of his) still survive and are cherished in the tobacco country of Virginia where so much of his work was done. The author had in 1968 the great privilege of talking with one of the last surviving persons to attend his lectures. He was known far and wide among the Virginia and Maryland planters for his hard riding, firm convictions, and his enjoyment of conversation. A great friend of his in Virginia, and one who in fact stoutly defended the worthy doctor on more than one occasion from outraged hearers, was Albert Anderson, known throughout southern Virginia as "the walking Bible"; great-grandchildren of Anderson are Christadelphians in the same area today.
In intellectual stamina and breadth Dr. John Thomas rivalled Epps, though he concentrated his energies in a far more organised way. On a typical lecturing tour it was not uncommon for him to deliver 130 two-hour addresses on a variety of topics in a matter of two or three months. And it was rare for any of these to contain inaccuracy in any of the Scriptural and historical references with which they were always liberally sprinkled. He ascended the speaker's dais in an unostentatious manner, and rarely worried about conventional introductions. "It is written in the prophets . . ." he would begin and follow with an expansive and analytical treatment of his theme.
The "Revealed Mystery"
Because prophecy figures large in his major written works Elpis Israel and Eureka, the breadth of his religious interests is often overlooked. The clearest and most balanced in content of his works are to be found chiefly in the periodicals he edited. One of the shorter works, The Revealed Mystery, may perhaps be chosen as representing most fundamentally his overall view of the Christian faith. Though differing in style and order of presentation, its view of that faith is basically the same as the Twofold Catechism of Biddle, the De Vera Religione of Volkel and the confessions of the early Brethren. Significantly the order is not modelled on that of the Apostles' Creed like so many of these last, but leads from a consideration of the faith of Abraham through the "new covenant" to the last judgement. The following excerpt is thoroughly typical of John Thomas in mid 19th century:
"Immortality is deathlessness. God only has a nature in which the death principle never existed. Incorruptibility and life constitute immortality; so that immortality may be defined as life manifested through an incorruptible body. A diamond is incorruptible, but not living; therefore, it is not immortal. Paganism defines immortality to be a particle of divine effluence in all men, hereditarily transmitted, and having personality and consciousness after death! The Scriptures, however, reveal no such conceit. The immortality they bring to light is 'life and incorruptibility through the gospel'; or 'eternal life through the Christ Name'. Immortality is promised only to those who are justified by the name of Jesus; and, being justified, walk worthy of the same.
"Immortality is an investment imposed by divine power upon certain who come forth from their graves; and who, on judicial inspection afterwards, are accounted worthy of glory and honour in the kingdom of the Deity then about to be set up. In this, the resurrection-epoch and era of Israel's regeneration, the earthy bodies from the grave, to wit, the bodies of Christ's accepted brethren, together with the living of the same class who are contemporary with the crisis, are clothed with incorruption or spirit from heaven, which, in the twinkling of an eye, transforms them into spirit, and makes them consubstantial with the nature of the Father and the Son.
The Discourse on Eternal Life which was later printed along with The Revealed Mystery was quite different in approach, illustrating a considerable versatility of character in the author. It shows in fact remarkable similarities in style and method of presentation to the best work of the Rakow authors such as Wissowaty. Its theme is in fact stated in the "fourth proposition" listed in the essay: "Eternal life, though the free gift of God, through Jesus Christ to the world, is nevertheless conditional". In considering this fourth proposition he lists twenty-three passages of the New Testament as "proofs":
"Now, I do not hesitate to say that these passages prove that eternal life is conditional. The expressions 'if', 'he who', 'unless', 'whoever', 'as many as', 'to take from among', 'to everyone who', 'them who', 'to them who', 'that you may' and so forth, are all terms of condition."
John Thomas travelled widely in the United States, Canada and Britain. His biography, by Robert Roberts, revised and enlarged by later writers, is happily still in print (2). For details of the "missionary" work of John Thomas after his baptism at Richmond, Virginia in 1847 readers are referred to that book. It is through deference to an excellent existing work and not a minimising of his contribution that only one or two significant highlights are mentioned in a very colourful career. In his travels during the civil war in America, a brutal conflict which, a hundred years later, is still undergoing almost sickening glorification, he passed alternately from one side to the other to encourage his brethren, sometimes making his way through devasted villages in Virginia before even the smoke of conflict had disappeared. In these difficult and discouraging days he showed a courage and devotion to match any of his 16th century forerunners. He was utterly sickened in his sensitive soul by the bestiality of the war and it is not surprising that he looked longingly across the Atlantic to his native Britain as offering more opportunity for the Word.
Another factor was the strange parochialism of outlook of the American people, for some of whom the rest of the world might not exist. He complained that " " for the average American consisted of the domestic doings at the White House and the scandalous corruptions of local politicos. He found a segment of
(2) 0btainable from The Christadelphian Office.
DRAWINGS OF ALEXANDER CAMPBELL AND DR. THOMAS PLACED HERE
British working folk more amenable to his lengthy expositions of world affairs in the light of the Scriptures, and some of his most thrilling moments were undoubtedly experienced during his visits to Britain.
As a preacher his greatest opportunity came when he spoke on the regeneration of the world in the City Hall of Glasgow, Scotland; the huge auditorium holds six thousand people and night after night not only was the place crammed to bursting point but it is reported that "multitudes could not gain admission". Elated he must have been; conceited certainly he was not. It must be remembered that John Thomas did not appear before that vast concourse as a Christadelphian lecturer -- at that time he disclaimed all names and denominations. But from this campaign Elpis Israel was begotten; the fact that Christadelphian ecclesias exist in Glasgow today as a memorial to this campaign is almost accidental, for he made no deliberate effort to found a sect and was pressured into the publication of this work only through a soiree held afterwards in Paisley, which at that time was the leading stronghold of millennialism in Britain. Another unusual experience was the opportunity John Thomas had to preach in the Virginia State Capitol, to a very heterogeneous audience of legislators and others. There are Christadelphians in Virginia today whose great-grandparents attended these meetings.
It might be wondered why distinct communities have survived the work of John Thomas, while Beggs and Epps have been forgotten. There were two main reasons. One was undoubtedly the long connection and association John Thomas maintained with the Campbellites, years indeed after he had departed from them in terms of doctrine and spirit. He used them as a valuable platform, as Paul used the synagogue, as long as they were willing. From them he drew many friends, as well as from older groups of independent Bible Christians in the mid- west of the United States, Scotland and elsewhere.
The other reason was the conversion of Robert Roberts. John Thomas was a rich expositor, but he did not appear to take a very deep interest in the actual organisation of the Christadelphian community. It was in fact his view that, if the "principles of the truth" had taken possession of the hearts of a number of men and
women, love rather than organisation would build the spiritual edifice of each "ecclesia". He hated crotchets, as he used to call them, and despised little- minded men who were more concerned about technicalities of one sort or another, and usually had self-conceited opinions, rather than a broadly based outlook on the real and permanent interests of the Gospel. He would often remind more businesslike individuals that if this possession of, or rather by, the truth was absent, no amount of organisation could bring it to fruition. It was left to Robert Roberts, a dynamic Aberdonian, to lay more organised foundations for the community. It is a testimony to the permanence of the message and the principles which are the theme of these pages that although Robert Roberts, unlike his mentor John Thomas, knew little or nothing about most of the people, events and ideas which they recount, yet the ecclesial structure, mode of life, faith and practice remain essentially the same.
To conclude consideration of the work and personality of John Thomas, it might be said that from the very nature of his beliefs he was bound to generate hostility. Yet especially later in life, he disliked replying in kind, though that was the spirit of the times. That he was of the same spirit as those mentioned earlier in this book is shown by the following prayer -- to the present writer the most revealing of all the multitude of words that passed his lips or flowed from his pen:
'O 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 thoughts 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!"
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