Monday, February 06, 2006

What did Christadelphians set out to be? (8)

The events of 1864, 1873 and 1885 changed the direction of the movement. I have already looked at one of the consequences of these events which were to have a lasting influence in Christadelphianism:

  • There was a shift from the openness to change, from the exciting and lively debate, and the tolerance of the early years, towards a rigid dogmatism.
There were two more major consequences, which I will look at over the next two posts in this thread.

2. As Christadelphians became less tolerant of alternative views there was a shift from diversity to division.

Between 1864 and 1885 there were at least 6 divisions within the Christadelphian denomination, including the major divisions caused by the disfellowships of George Dowie in 1864, Edward Turney in 1873 and Robert Ashcroft in 1885. Other 'minor' divisions (although not minor for the individuals involved) included the following.

  1. Charles Dealtry, who had been baptised by John Thomas, actively preached the Christadelphian faith between 1866 and 1868 and converted many people to Christadelphianism, especially in Whitby. He was denounced in 1868 for teaching that Jesus was the son of Joseph (although he was never disfellowshipped by any ecclesia). Roberts reported in The Ambassador that the converts made by "Mr. Dealtry" (he was no longer called "Bro Dealtry") in Whitby were to be "re-immersed and organized as a Christadelphian ecclesia".
  2. An unnamed ecclesia in 1876 was challenged by Roberts for teaching a doctrine he called "No Willism". It emphasised the divinity of Jesus and included the idea that Jesus pre-existed as Jehovah of the Old Testament, and therefore could have no other will than that of God Himself. Roberts responded by emphasising the humanity of Jesus in a series of articles and by 1877 it was thought that "No Willism" had been stamped out.
  3. Soon after a pamphlet was published by John Birkenhead entitled Letters on the Doctrine of God manifestation, and Extracts from the Most Recent and Advanced Writings of the Late JOHN THOMAS, M.D. It's clear that Thomas's Christology emphasised the divinity of Jesus to a greater extent than Roberts did, especially in his response to 'No Willism' which emphasised (or over-emphasised) the humanity of Jesus. Roberts responded to the pamphlet by querying whether Christ, as the manifestation of God, had a will of his own. He was clearly trying to link Birkenhead's ideas with the "No Willism" heresy he had endeavoured to stamp out. It's unknown how many people were affected, but Andrew Wilson commented that while the numbers were likely to be small "the amount of disturbance caused ... was substantial".
After 1885 the process of fragmentation continued, with another major division in 1894 (Resurrectional Responsibility).

Writing of the Christadelphian ‘proclivity for schism' in this period sociologist Bryan Wilson refers to a

"series of bitter schisms. Excommunication of members and of one ecclesia by another became a common pattern in the attempt to maintain purity of doctrine and association. Whilst undoubtedly some schisms were at least partly a consequence of struggles for informal influence between leading brethren, there was always a strong concern for obedience to the word of God which led to over-scrupulousness, to purging evil men who arose in the fellowship, and hence to divisiveness."

Bryan Wilson, Religious Sects a sociological study, World University Library, London, 1970, p 109.
In his Religion in Secular Society (C.A. Watts & Co, London, 1966, pp 211-212) Bryan Wilson writes of sects which

"have changed ... in a way rather less influenced by the immediate environment, and rather more in accordance with essentially internal pressures. Thus some revolutionist sects have tended over become more preoccupied with the means of their own insulation from the wider society. They have tended to become more concerned with the condition of their own society, with their own inner holiness. Sometimes ... they have developed the proclivity for schism within, often over matters which to the outsider seem trivial in the extreme... The Christadelphians have shown marked tendencies in this direction." (My emphasis)

Robert Roberts himself confessed:
"A state of comparative prosperity ten years ago has been succeeded by one of strife, division and obstruction, and unutterable affliction has followed in the wake of ventures and expectations that seemed big with blessing"
(The Christadelphian, 1890.)

Bryan Wilson, in Social Aspects of Religious Sects (London University PhD thesis 1955), calculated on the basis of figures provided by Roberts in The Christadelphian that there were about 6,000 brethren in the 'central' fellowship in 1884, and less than 3,000 the year after. Andrew Wilson provides extensive statistical information to demonstrate the sudden and dramatic departure of a large number of brethren from Christadelphianism. In overall terms the loss was between 35% and 44% of the brethren in the U.K. compared to a national annual increase in population of about 10%.

Bryan Wilson wrote that "Barely a month passed without a division in some ecclesia."

Andrew Wilson summarised this period of schism this way (my emphases in bold):

"In the seventeen years between the formation of Baptised Believers in 1847 until the adopting of the editor's mantle by Robert Roberts in 1864, no divisions occurred within the movement. In the only slightly longer period of twenty-one years from 1864 to 1885 six major rifts disturbed the theological equanimity within Christadelphia, the last, in 1885, leaving the movement bereft of many members and devoid of momentum. There is undoubtedly some connection between these two facts: it is not impossible that the abrasiveness of Roberts's personality contributed to the friction involved, as some contemporary writers maintained. Second, Roberts's method of dealing with problems - on occasion involving the curtailment of exegesis by the imposition of a guillotine on further discussion - allowed these problems to be swept under the theological carpet, by very dint of having merely brushed them aside. Such strategies accounted, in part, for the recurrence, in similar and at times identical form, of problems throughout the history of Christadelphians." (p. 364)

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