Last Updated on :
IT is not the purpose of this chapter to present a detailed history of the Christadelphian body, nor to recount biographies of its past pioneers or present proponents. Its essential aim has already been accomplished in the preceding chapters; to trace loyalty to the teaching of the Lord through his long absence in the far country. For one thing, the present author, while possessing an antiquarian bent and consequently quite widely read in Christadelphian material ancient, if not always up to date on material modern, knows that there are many others far more competent to write such histories, if ever they should need to be written. In any case "books" will soon "be opened" which will unfold a far more accurate account than any mortal man could write. But for a second reason, a number of excellent publications already exist which document at least the last half of the 19th century and many Christadelphians older than the writer can tell much about the 20th. These publications only need acquiring or in many cases taking down, dusting and reading again. Among these are Robert Roberts' own autobiography (like all modest men he only wrote such a book reluctantly after repeated urging), Islip Collyer's sensitive study Robert Roberts and the centenary booklet One Hundred Years of 'The Christadelphian'.
Yet diligent search among large amounts of periodical and documentary material on two continents has convinced the writer that the proverbial half of the story has not been told. It is not proposed to recount that missing half, but search has suggested that in one last chapter the torch carried through the centuries may be seen taken and raised aloft by those nearer in time and bearing the same name as the author and many of the readers of this book Therefore in an expanding witness only what seem to him to be highlights will be briefly reviewed. Choice is inevitable, and the
choice is mainly of those elements which have been little emphasised in existing works or seem to represent key concepts, individuals or movements. In an age when much that is 30 years old is considered barely worth a sidelong glance and criticism is rifer than emulation, the young and new to the faith for whom this work is mainly written may do well to take inspiration from an earlier generation of Christadelphian faithful. The author accepts full responsibility for his purely personal and somewhat arbitrary selection of material.
In the light of the preceding chapters, the most outstanding contribution of Christadelphian writers in the author's view is their exposition of the principles of "God-manifestation". The beliefs of the Polish Brethren concerning the Godhead were Scriptural, soundly based and reverent. But it was the fires of controversy over Christology which brought forth the rich understanding on this subject evidenced in such works as Phanerosis (John Thomas), The Blood of Christ (Robert Roberts), God-Manifestation (John Carter), Theophany and Witness for Christ (C. C., Walker), and others. A simple outline of this approach is seen in the following from Robert Roberts' Christendom Astray (originally published in 1862 as Twelve Lectures on the True Teaching of the Bible):
"Christ was a divine manifestation -- an embodiment of Deity in flesh - Emmanuel, God with us. 'God gave not to him the spirit by measure', says the same apostle (John 3:34). The spirit descended upon him in bodily shape at his baptism in the Jordan, and took possession of him. This was the anointing which constituted him Christ (or the anointed), and which gave him the superhuman powers of which he showed himself possessed. This is clear from the words of Peter, in his address to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius: "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power: who went about doing good, healing all that were oppressed" (Acts 10:38).
"When Jesus said, 'He that hath seen me hath seen the Father' he did not contradict the statement that 'no man hath seen God at any time', but simply expressed the truth contained in the following words of Paul: Christ is 'the image of the invisible God' (Col. I:15); 'the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person' (Heb.I:3). Those who looked upon the anointed Jesus, beheld a representation of the Deity accessible to human vision.
"Jesus said, 'I and the Father are one' (John 10:30). He could not mean, in view of all the testimony, what Trinitarians understand him to mean, that he and the Father were identically the same person ('the same in substance, equal in power and glory'), but that they were one in spirit-connection and design of operation. This is apparent from his prayer for his disciples, 'That they may be one, even as we are one'. The unity is not as to person, but as to nature and state of mind. This is the unity that exists between the Father and the Son, and the unity that will be ultimately established between the Father and His whole family, of whom Christ is the elder brother."
This book with the provocative title, privately circulated in the 1860's following the lectures in Huddersfield, England, which formed the basis of the work, was probably more effective than any other human publication referred to in these pages. Only thirty years later it could be stated that "it has revolutionised the religious convictions of great numbers of people". For more than a century it has done so, the present writer himself owing an enormous debt to its influence. Probably its greatest effect was in the 1920's and 30's when editions by more than one publisher were distributed by the thousands. For an admittedly sectarian book that has never appeared in a general publisher's list and which has often been offered to the public gratis, its record is remarkable.
A Man of Many Parts
So also was its author. A man of many parts, possessed in the long run of unquenchable optimism and buoyancy of spirit, he led the brotherhood through fair weather and foul in what was virtually a continuous crusade. His appeal was self-confessedly to "the devout but distressed, whom popular theology bewilders, atheism revolts and scientific agnosticism chills and blights." It was from the ranks of exactly the same type of serious minded, honest Godfearers that the Swiss Brethren and Polish Brethren had drawn their zealous converts. Robert Roberts found it so again. In cities where an intelligent, yet pious independence rather than conformity in religion prevailed, he drew enormous crowds -- Birmingham, England, and Melbourne, Australia, being perhaps the most outstanding examples. In both of these cities hundreds failed to gain admission to the cities' largest halls on some occasions. In both these cities also he resided, and converts were numerous. The apex of
Robert Roberts' career was in 1893 when the Birmingham City Hall lectures were given "before thousands of people" on four midwinter Sunday evenings. It is probable that more baptisms resulted from this campaign than any other in Christadelphian history. Even though the copies of the proceedings are now yellowed, brittle, and antique looking, it is not difficult to envisage the scene on the concluding night and hear again the sonorous polysyllables of his peroration pouring forth from a vessel filled to overflowing with the same sense of urgency and intense concern of which Blaurock, Hubmaier, Biddle and others of our earlier drama's cast were so possessed:
Christ in the Earth Again.
LECTURES in the TOWN HALL,
Sunday, Feb. 12, 19 &26, also Mar. 12, 1893.
TO COMMENCE AT 6:30.
ADMIT TO PLATFORM (Entrance Door A, Congreve St.)
(Above: A Ticket for the Birmingham Town Hall Lecture Series)
"'Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom, but he that doeth the will of my Father.' Now is the time for the doing of that will as revealed. Separate yourselves from the multitude that refuse to do it. Don't wait until the only permissible response to your frantic appeal, must be 'Too late; too late; too late.' Now is the accepted time; now, while God is dishonoured; now, while all is darkness; now, while the Bible is unheeded; now, while there is nothing but promise; now, while men blaspheme; now, while the voice
of wisdom is a still small voice on the ear of reason, from which fools turn away. This is the time for that victory of faith, without which it is impossible to please God.
"Whether you choose or refuse, a pall overspreads the political sky. It has been a long time gathering, and it grows denser every year. A storm is visibly brewing before the eyes of all men. The nature of the storm is known only to those who know the Bible. Christ is in that storm, and therefore they will not fear when it bursts ... Low at last will be laid the greatness of man, and all the inventions and institutions of his folly.
"When the storm is spent, the clouds disperse; light will break forth; the sun will pour his healing beams from a cloudless sky; all nature will smile through her tears. His kingdom alone will prevail, and all the children of wisdom in unutterable thanksgiving will rejoice in the arrival of the glorious, long- promised day when mankind, weary of their own folly, and their incompetent ways, will find peace and well-being under the shadow of the Messiah, in fulfilment of the promised blessing of all families of the earth in Abraham and his seed."
The late 19th century was the heyday of the week-long debate, and Robert Roberts, along with many other Christadelphian preachers, rarely missed the opportunity to throw down a glove -- whether the adversary advocated socialism, British-Israelism, atheism, or (to his certain confusion) heaven- going. If the adversary sometimes seemed to show an advantage, it was frequently because the Christadelphian was too straight-forward and honest a debater, and rarely stooped to the worst tricks of the debating technique. But the present writer knows more than one person who left such a verbal battleground a wiser and a convicted soul.
Robert Roberts travelled more widely than the bearded doctor whom he adored. He was in fact on a world tour when his death occurred in San Francisco in 1898. Despite several deep schisms, the period from the death of John Thomas to the end of the century was a period of keen missionary fervour carried out on a shoestring by a small community which at that time was very poor indeed. After the pattern of the 16th century Brethren and of course the earliest Christians, the dictum of Jane, wife of Robert Roberts was: "Every Christadelphian is a missionary".
A "Missionary Phase"
In areas where unusually sizeable Christadelphian populations now exist- Birmingham, London, the U.S. eastern seaboard, Arkansas, Ontario, California, Texas, and the cities of Australia and New Zealand -- deep roots were put down before the end of the 19th century, during this "missionary" phase. In the body's subsequent tendency to honour two or three "pioneers" whose influence lay in editorship of the community organs, the works of many other outstanding but much lesser known sowers of seed should not be forgotten. There was no financial backing for members who promoted their faith in lonely places. Tragedy often dogged the work, which could not be followed up effectively. Converts were isolated from one another, and frequently lost contact; in India, Africa and South America (in Guyana -- then the "end of the world" -- there were at one time in the 19th century hundreds of members) whole ecclesias were "lost". Some were located again after as long as 50 years; others were not. Some efforts of desperately impecunious preachers of the faith in the 19th and early 20th centuries make us boggle today, and we badly need to light a spark from their fires. And where zeal flowed forth, Providence opened channels of opportunity.
"By chance", two men whose homes were a thousand miles apart met on a mountain peak in the Great Smokies, talked until one was convinced and was baptized in a cold mountain spring below; and so Isaac Jones learnt the Way and first brought it to Florida. Later, in 1877, he became a "missionary" to Bermuda and founded an ecclesia, descendants of whose first members still adorn the Faith today. "By chance", two men met on a river boat in the Ganges River. One, the captain, had been given a copy of Elpis Israel by a friend. The other borrowed it, and subsequently baptized himself in the "holy" waters for an altogether holier purpose -- and so began the ecclesia in Calcutta (1). The captain, himself now baptized, heard of it and wrote of the joyous event:
"It was a memorable day -- the firstfruits of the sounding of the pure Gospel in the East, the land of gross idolatry and heathenism. May it please God, the Father of us all, that it may be but the first stone of the ecclesia in this renowned city of palaces."
(1) "Lost" for a century, its last surviving aged member was "found" by a curious coincidence" a few years ago.
In 1865 there were more baptisms reported in India than in Australia. A group in Hong Kong at the same period, known as the. "Christadelphian Synagogue", distributed literature in "Japan, the Philippines, Cochin China, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore, and India.
The brothers Oatman, rugged individualists both, rode the range on the Texas frontier years before the cowboys and Indians had finished scuffling, "travelled the length and breadth of the state", held debates and camp meetings, and are reported to have baptized "a hundred men and women with their own hands" including forbears and relatives of former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Pottowatomie tribe of Plains Indians had for a long time before the coming of the white man to the West revered as sacred an old volume the origin and language of which was unknown. Among the first white men to meet the chief of the tribe was a wandering Christadelphian preacher. To the latter's utter amazement he recognised the "book" as a portion of the Old Testament in Hebrew- -- an identification later confirmed by scholars in Chicago to whom it was sent. He told the chief he could explain the contents of the mysterious book -- and the chief became a respected Christadelphian as a result.
In 1879 James Hepburn, a Scot from Newburgh, set out abroad, and after many vicissitudes, arrived penniless at Barbados in the West Indies. To the friends he made in the first few weeks, he set out the first principles of the Word of God in a floorless shanty by the wayside. Three of them were baptized and one of these became for many years the anchor of the ecclesia. "It is most gratifying", he wrote, "to see the people's interestedness night after night, Bible in hand, hearing and asking questions." (This situation is by no means unparalleled in the same region today.) It must have required uncommon endurance and devotion to handle fourhour meetings nightly for months on end in this tropical climate.
One day a young man approached Hepburn in the street, explained he was convinced of the Truth generally, but had serious doubts on one or two issues. "I requested him to come to my lodgings", is the subsequent comment, "where we discussed the matter for twenty-two hours with satisfactory result." After two or three months a fair sized ecclesia was in being. It was desperately
short of literature for its preaching, and the expedient was adopted of writing out tracts and leaflets in longhand, lending them and then calling back for them in order to lend them to someone else. The Bible Companion did excellent service, as it has for generations of Christadelphians; many people started to read their Bibles. "They searched the Scriptures, therefore many of them believed": boatmen, stevedores, painters, doctors, shopkeepers, and an orthodox missionary working with the American Baptists. The ecclesia so founded subsequently underwent many trials and troubles born of decades of complete isolation, but it has survived.
While slavery still existed in the United States (and elsewhere), coloured and white, even in the South, met as one around the Lord's Table. The Washington D.C. ecclesia had a much beloved negro member while the Civil War still raged. Another, described as "a diligent student and a preacher of persuasiveness", sowed and watered effectively in the New York area. Yet another was a dynamic preacher who carried the message to Jamaica and Guyana. In June 1890 Robert Roberts received the following, signed by two Jamaicans:
"I am compelled to communicate with you on behalf of myself and others who require direction. Some time back a young man by the name of Blenman came to our island for a few months, and preached the Christadelphian doctrine, to the astonishment of myself and others. From Mr. Blenman we received a few small books, and after reading some I was compelled to seek him, but he was not at home, and in a few days I heard that he had left the island. I afterwards sent for "Christendom Astray" . . . to be short, our desire is to be baptized, but there is no ecclesia here to baptize us. What are we to do? We have only been christened in our infancy."
Robert Roberts gave advice, and the Kingston ecclesia came into being (2).
"Christendom Astray" translated
In 1884 a Swiss named Malan who had been baptized while in Birmingham, returned to his native Geneva determined that his light should be under no bushel. Although completely alone in the city he hired a hall holding 400 people, advertised a series of
(2) The present writer, by an unusual "coincidence", met the son and other relatives of one of the signatories while in Jamaica a few years ago.
lectures, had handbills printed, and distributed them himself. He was in no way an orator. It is doubtful, indeed, if he had ever spoken in public before. He decided that the best procedure would be to translate Christendom Astray into French, and deliver the various chapters as separate lectures. The first evening the hall was packed. The theological colleges, masters and scholars, turned out in force. The lone witness acted as president, doorkeeper, and lecturer. At that time a small lightstand was in fact established in French Switzerland and the financial records of the Birmingham ecclesia, show that a sum of £6, then no small sum, was contributed to print a pamphlet in French to assist its work.
Few in this generation will have heard of either Victorine de Verbizier or Peter Doycheff, but both were remarkable Christadelphians. The first was a French Christadelphian of aristocratic lineage who witnessed to the Faith in the south Pacific island of Tahiti. She came to a knowledge of the Gospel in that remote place and was subsequently baptized. About the end of the 19th century, in her extreme old age, she "chanced" to meet another French Christadelphian while in Paris and had the blessings of fellowship during her last days. The second, Peter Doycheff was a vigorous Bulgarian Christadelphian who lived in Plovdiv. For a couple of years he gave addresses on the Bible to a congregation in the town of Yamboli which had been deserted by its regular pastor. He set about publishing pamphlets in Bulgarian, of which the first appeared in 1898 under the title "Are the dead conscious?". Two others followed later; then a war of independence broke out in Bulgaria, and Plovdiv became the scene of bitter fighting. Nothing more was ever heard of Peter Doycheff.
In the Southern Hemisphere
Mention may be made of D. M. Maartens, Adam Shrosbree, and Robert Markham, who in the 1880's and 90's carried of the Way to Afrikaners, South African gold diggers, Zulus and Scandinavians. D. M. Maartens had been dissatisfied with the Dutch Reformed Church when he stumbled across a copy of Elpis Israel in a little town on the Great Karroo. It confirmed what he had learnt by his own studies, and he appealed for a Christadelphian to visit him. The nearest -- 150 miles away by ox-wagon -- made the trip willingly, but the dry season caused the two to wait weeks before there was sufficient water in the Sundays River for the baptism to take place. The event stirred the Boer community for miles around.
Adam Shrosbree learned of the Truth in Tarkastad, a remote rural outpost at that time, and travelled 600 miles to be baptized. He travelled widely over the Eastern Cape and Natal preaching everywhere and, before chaotic conditions were brought about by the Boer War, was tending several small ecclesial groups over a wide area. Robert Markham was a typical roving pioneer of the period, putting his hand to any kind of job and rarely staying still for very long. He had received literature from a Christadelphian in Pietermaritzburg before going north to the hill country where he entered the employ of a Boer farmer. He could not speak Afrikaans, the farmer could speak no English, but over their meals they traded passages of Scripture on subjects such as the nature of man and baptism. One day the farmer asked Markham if he had ever been baptized, and received a negative reply. Then the two men baptized each other. Afrikaner and Briton then worked together in proclaiming the Faith. Some local Zulus heard of these things and invited them to give an account of their new found hope, which they did to an audience of over a hundred. The local ministers of religion put a stop to these proceedings; all, that is, except one. A Wesleyan Zulu preacher, Ndokoza Sibisa, was profoundly disturbed, and set about studying his Bible diligently to see "if these things were so". Ndokoza was baptized and earned the respect of all for his Christlike character.
Robert Markham joined Cecil Rhodes' band of pioneers who were carving large farms out of what is now Rhodesia. He obtained a farm himself (some 6000 acres), left it in the hands of a manager, and set off on a missionary tour of the whole new colony. He visited every farm in the country and actually canvassed practically the entire white population in the course of his rounds. Behind him, in farms and lonely homes on the veld he left copies of the Declaration and other books and tracts. Then he returned home and like a good farmer waited for the seed to germinate. After a space he set off again and revisited every home where he had left his books. He found generally greater interest in loaves and fishes than in the bread which endureth; but on arriving at a farm about 55 miles south of his home in a locality which even today cannot boast a road, he found an answer to his prayer. An Afrikaner farmer, influential in his neighbourhood, had become convinced of the Way, and he and two other members of the Dutch Reformed Church were baptized.
In the 1880's Olaf Wettergren left his native Arendal in Norway and went as a missionary for the "Free Christians" to preach to the Zulus. Soon afterwards he and several friends of his of the same nation and church became Christadelphians, and together they vowed to take their new appreciation of the teaching of Christ to their native land. Several "missionary journeys" were made by one or more of this group at enormous personal cost. On one such trip seven thousand copies of The Declaration and two thousand Bible Companions were given away, besides many other tracts in Norwegian of which we now have no knowledge. Finally, Kristenheden paa Vildspor, a translation into Norwegian of Christendom Astray was completed. In 1907, 7000 copies of this book were distributed "from Vodra to Lindesnes" (the Norwegian equivalent of "from Dan to Beersheba"), including every major town in Norway, personally and through booksellers. 300 papers were asked to review it, and carried advertisements. Thousands of large billboards advertised it, even church notice boards announced it! Leaflets and brochures were distributed to any and to all. In Arendal itself, almost the whole town turned out and packed the largest building to hear the man who had gone away to preach to the Zulus and then decided that his own countrymen needed converting also. At the end of the meeting, a vociferous adversary had to be ejected, and the town authorities refused further use of the hall, but a spirited defence of the returned preacher was made by the editor of the local press. The cost of all this effort, based on a country half a. world away, cannot even be estimated, and only the Lord Himself knows the result of all this sowing. But with shame it must be said that earnest appeals from these South Africans to their British fellow-pilgrims so much nearer Norway largely went unheeded, as did many other like appeals as the 20th century waxed.
Shortly before the death of Robert Roberts, a convert in Burma suggested the establishment of a press in the East for dissemination of Christadelphian literature. "Come over and help us", he wrote. "Will you work only in England and America while we are left alone? Surely hath not God so blessed you for so many years that you might send at least one man to the East?" The hardpressed editor gave the appeal prominent publicity, but it met with no result.
Despite many problems, towards the close of the 19th century it seemed as if a genuinely international fellowship was growing. Christadelphian literature and the annotated list of Bible passages
known as The Declaration were being distributed by zealous members at their own expense in French, Bulgarian, Cape Dutch (Afrikaans), Zulu, Norwegian and German. There were Christadelphians among the first gold-diggers on the Witwatersrand, with the earliest settlers in Rhodesia, on the frontiers of European settlement in South America, Australia, and elsewhere. There were small but vigorous groups of non-European members in the Caribbean, Brazil, Africa, China, India and the United States. Scott to the South Pole and Amundsen to the North carried with them Christendom Astray and other works in their respective languages. At the first South African Fraternal Gathering in Durban in 1897 Britons, Afrikaners, Zulus, Norwegians and Swedes rejoiced together for all that the Lord had done for them.
Sadly, in the 20th century the promise for the community latent at the end of the 19th did not appear to materialise, although ecclesias continued to grow strongly in certain metropolitan areas of the British Empire and the United States. The death of Robert Roberts was undoubtedly a major factor, but there must have been others. Did zeal for material well being so characteristic of the century from its beginning replace zeal for extension of the Gospel? Distant ecclesias were often neglected and forgotten, and promising work in various countries was not followed up. Two world wars in this century, however, did test and try the community and even brought some Christadelphians into national prominence for a time, since the body remained true to the long traditions and refused to be militarily conscripted. One Christadelphian at the time of the first world war had almost legendary powers, and there were occasions when one word from him opened His Majesty's prisons and released detained fellow-members.
The only major evangelising venture in a new country to be undertaken before mid-century was the establishment of a Christadelphian community in Germany, originally sponsored by members converted in the United States. The earliest work, carried out in the troublous days of the Weimar Republic, makes exciting reading, and the community there has never been as large since that time. A Dr. von Gerdtell of the Berlin ecclesia, excommunicated by the Baptists for rejection of the trinity and other doctrines, became the most dynamic preacher during the pre-Nazi period. The most outstanding event in all the work in Germany was the campaign in
Stuttgart in 1930, when he lectured in the Schiller-Realgymnasium to crowds averaging six to seven hundred night after night. On the fourth night Nazi stormtroopers burst into the hall and broke up the meeting, and with each successive night they became more and more menacing. Eventually, police appeared and there was a tense confrontation which ended the campaign. It was a shadow of the fiery trial which was to follow.
A 20th Century Revival
What shall we more say? In recent years the same questing spirit of Bible-inspired, earnest enquiry which has been the dominant theme of these pages has been the spark to revive Christadelphian work and fellowship in some areas and brought them to a few new areas in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific. The Christadelphian body has far greater resources, both relatively and absolutely, than it had at the close of the 19th century. Also and even more urgently -- now is our salvation nearer than when either we or they believed. Shall they who rejoiced at the shoot rise to reprove the sloth of us who behold the blossoming?
The two great challenges which face the body of Christ today are not from rationalism, science, orthodox religion or oecumenism -- even though all these have brought problems to us as they have to previous generations. They are materialism and the unfinished work of witness which lies upon us. Materialism implies that the present span of mortal existence is the supreme goal of human effort. In this connection, perhaps the Bible School movement may be viewed as one of the most important in our generation -- offering a reminder that man does not live by bread alone, and providing an all too rare haven from a world seeking wealth, status, power and fame. And in relation to the second challenge, of worldwide witness, in the formation of the several Bible Mission committees and the work of those who voluntarily assist them, we may hopefully see a new determination to discharge our present responsibilities to a world adrift.
The end of the age, as many students of the prophetic Word mentioned in these articles recognised, is the convergence of two great events. The Lord Jesus Christ said of his own people of Israel: "They will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke 21:24)
The Apostle Paul wrote: "A hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in" (Rom. 11:25). Both the scattering and the worldwide witness to the nations continue until in the last day "all Israel shall be saved", and out of Zion shall come the deliverer. We have watched every sign of the fulfilment of the Olivet prophecy. Yet Jesus our Lord also said: "This gospel of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14).
All Books/Booklets, Editorials, and Articles are FREE and can be downloaded without permission.