christadelphian

John Thomas (Christadelphian)

Dr. John Thomas (April 12, 1805 - March 5, 1871) was the founder of the Christadelphian movement, a Restorationist religion with doctrines similar in part to some 16th century Antitrinitarian Rationalist Socinians and the 16th century Swiss-German pacifist Anabaptists.

Early life

John Thomas M.D., born in Hoxton Square, London, on April 12th, 1805, was the son of a Dissenting minister, also named John Thomas. His family is reputed to be descended from French Huguenot refugees. His family moved frequently, as his father took up various pastorships including a congregation in London, a brief but eventful stay in northern Scotland, back to London, and then up to Chorley, Lancashire. John Thomas was a very disciplined student having taught himself Hebrew as a teenager. At the age of 16, in Chorley, he began studying medicine. His family moved back to London, but John Thomas stayed in Chorley. After two years, he returned to London continue his studies at the Guy’s and St. Thomas’s hospitals for a further three years. He trained as a surgeon and had a keen interest in chemistry and biology, publishing several learned medical articles for The Lancet, one of which argued in favour of the importance of the use of cadavers for the study of medicine (it was illegal in England to dissect them at this time).

Emigration to the United States

Like many people of that era, in 1832 his father made the decision to seek fresh opportunities and emigrate to America. So it was that Dr John Thomas, having few ties, decided to go with his family, agreeing to go on ahead and prepare for the family. He took the opportunity to further his career and accepted an appointment as ship's surgeon on the Marquis of Wellesley which was bound from St Katharine Docks, London to New York.

The ship embarked on May 1, 1832 and immediately sailed into stormy weather that lasted the whole voyage. During one ferocious storm the ship lost the top of the main-mast and heavy seas stove in the bulwarks, washing everything moveable off the deck. The ship eventually ran into shallow water and ran aground off the coast of Nova Scotia. The ship was raised up by the waves on twelve successive occasions, each time the keel striking the sea bed with such force that both crew and passengers were convinced the ship would break up.

Fearing that his life was about to end Thomas, determined to die with a prayer on his lips, prayed for mercy. He was very conscious of a void in his knowledge about what was to happen to him should he die. Thus he made a vow to dedicate his life, should he be spared, to religious study and to seeking out the truth about the matter of life and death.

Aided by a change in wind direction, the captain’s efforts to turn the ship back out to sea were successful and after one final bone-jarring grounding, the ship floated free. Thomas never forgot his vow and spent the rest of his life devoted to Bible study, determined to understand the true message of the scriptures.

Association with Alexander Campbell

The Marquis of Wellesley docked in New York and Thomas travelled on to Cincinnati, Ohio where he became convinced by the Restoration Movement of the need for baptism and joined them in October 1832. He later came to know a prominent leader in the movement, Alexander Campbell who encouraged him to become an evangelist, spending his time travelling around the eastern States of America preaching, until eventually settling down as a preacher in Philadelphia. It was here on the 1st January 1834 that he married Ellen Hunt who became his lifelong companion and constant support throughout the trials of faith that persisted throughout his life.

Dr Thomas also wrote for and was editor of the Apostolic Advocate which first appeared in May 1834. His studies during this period of his life generated the foundation for many of the beliefs he came to espouse as a Christadelphian and he began to believe that the basis of knowledge before baptism was greater than the Restoration Movement believed and also that widely held orthodox Christian beliefs were blatantly wrong. Whilst his freedom to believe his unique beliefs were accepted many objected to them being preached as necessary for salvation and this led to a series of debates particularly between Alexander Campbell and Dr Thomas. Because he eventually rebaptised himself and rejected his former beliefs and associations he was formally disfellowshipped in 1837. However, some people associated with him and accepted his views.

At this time the Millerite or Adventist movement was growing and in 1843 Dr Thomas was introduced to William Miller, the leader of the Millerites. He admired their willingness to question orthodox beliefs and agreed with their belief in the second coming of Christ and the founding of a millennial age upon his return. Dr Thomas continued his studies of the Bible and in 1846 travelled to New York where he gave a series of lectures covering thirty doctrinal subjects that later formed part of his book Elpis Israel (The Hope of Israel).

The Christadelphians

Based upon his new found understanding of the Bible, Thomas was rebaptised in 1847 and the groups of congregation and individuals who shared his beliefs continued to grow. In 1848 the movement became international when he travelled to England in order to preach what he now saw as the true gospel message. Upon his return to America Dr Thomas moved from Richmond, Virginia to New York City and began to preach there. He made a point of speaking to the Jewish community because Dr Thomas had come to believe that Christianity did not replace the Law of Moses, but rather fulfilled it. He believed that Christians must, though faith and baptism, become the ‘seed’ (or, 'descendent') of Abraham.

It was at this time that Dr Thomas and those who shared similar beliefs became known as the Royal Association of Believers. This group of believers used the term "ecclesia", a Greek word meaning "called out assembly", to describe them. However, the movement did not have an ‘official’ name until 1864, when a name was chosen during the American Civil War (see below). Instead of having a system of clergy, all the brethren took equal responsibility on a rota to take on the role of presiding and speaking during their meetings.

When in 1861 the American Civil War broke out, Dr Thomas travelled to the South and became concerned that the war had placed believers upon opposing sides. The movement as a whole considered that the war required them to make a stand for what they believed in as conscientious objectors. However, in order to be exempted from military service, it was required that believers had to belong to a recognised religious group that did not agree with participation in war. Thus in 1864, Dr. Thomas coined the name Christadelphian to identify members of the movement. The term Christadelphian comes from Greek and means ‘Brethren in Christ’. It was during the war that Dr Thomas worked on the three volumes of Eureka, which discusses the meaning of the Book of Revelation.

On May 5 1868 Dr Thomas returned to England where he travelled extensively giving lecturers about the Gospel message and meeting with Christadelphians in England. During this period of his life he found extensive support and help from Robert Roberts who had been converted during a previous visit to England by Dr Thomas. Following his return to America he made one final tour of the Christadelphian congregations prior to his death on 5th March 1871 in Jersey City. He was buried in the Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

Legacy

Thomas did not proclaim to be either a prophet, or a type of messiah, but claimed through independence of study to have found out that mainstream Christian doctrines were false and that he could prove that position. Modern Christadelphians generally believe he was right and adhere to the positions he established as defined within Statements of Faith, although a few feel that his inquiring attitude may in fact be the more important legacy.

The results of Thomas' labours were committed to several books, one of which, Elpis Israel, sets out many of the fundamental scriptural principles believed by Christadelphians to this day. Critics have pointed out some of his predictions about the future did not come to pass, a point that Thomas himself (and Christadelphian apologists) accepted could happen.

However, Thomas' expositions on a future state of Israel and the role Great Britain would play in its statehood have seemed to prove accurate. This is seen by many Christadelphians as evidence that Thomas had a correct understanding of Bible prophecy.

Bibliography

Books

  • Anastasis
  • The Apostacy Unveiled (1872)
  • The Book Unsealed: A Lecture on the Prophetic Periods of Daniel and John (1869)
  • Catechesis
  • Destiny of the British Empire as revealed in the Scriptures (1871)
  • Elpis Israel (1848)
  • Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse (In 3 Volumes)
  • Exposition of Daniel (1868)
  • Faith In the Last Days (posthumous anthology of writings from 1845-61)
  • The Last Days of Judah's Commonwealth
  • Mystery of the Covenant of the Holy Land Explained (1854)
  • Odology
  • Phanerosis (1869)
  • The Revealed Mystery

Magazines

  • The Apostolic Advocate (Editor) (1834-39)
  • The Herald of the Future Age (Editor) (1843-49)
  • Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come (Editor) (1851-61)

See also

References

It is important to understand within the references quoted that there is no official hierachy within the Christadelphian body and therefore any individual quote by a Christadelphian writer about what they believe serves little value other than being a statement of personal opinion.

  • Peter Hemingray, John Thomas, His Friends and His Faith (2003: ISBN 81-7887-012-6)
  • Charles H. Lippy, The Christadelphians in North America (Lewiston/Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989).
  • Robert Roberts, Dr Thomas: His Life and Work (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1873). Available online
  • Bryan R. Wilson, Sects and Society: A Sociological Study of the Elim Tabernacle, Christian Science and Christadelphians (London: Heinemann, 1961; Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961).

External links

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