Thursday, March 30, 2006

The first Christadelphians and politics

In an earlier post I noted how the name 'Christadelphian' was coined by John Thomas and first used in Ogle County, Illinois, in order to claim exemption from military service for Samuel Coffman and his family and others on the grounds of being members of a denomination with a conscientious objection to military service.

As they were the first to use the name 'Christadelphian' the Coffman's were, strictly speaking, the first Christadelphians.

The following information comes from the "Ogle Co. Portrait and Biographical Album" (Chapman Bros., Chicago, IL, 1886). John Coffman, son of Samuel Coffman, was a Justice of the Peace and Notary Public of Baileyville. The Ogle Co. Portrait and Biographical Album says of him that he was "one of the most progressive and prosperous citizens in the area" and goes on to say that "he is an active worker in public affairs and a zealous Republican in politics. He is also a member of the Christadelphian Church to which he gives his hearty support both in offerings and by his presence and labors" (my emphasis).

It seems the Coffman family generally may have been zealous Republicans. In a biographical note on Addison Coffman (another son of Samuel Coffman) in the "Biographical Record of Ogle Co." (S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago, IL, 1899) we read "Since casting his first presidential vote for Abraham Lincoln, in 1864, Mr. Coffman has been a stalwart supporter of the Republican party, but he has never cared for office, though he has served for three years as commissioner of highways. He is one of the leading and popular citizens of his community and wherever known he is held in high regard."

It's interesting that in the same year in which the Christadelphian denomination was born the first Christadelphians were actively involved in politics, supporting the Republican party and voting for Abraham Lincoln. This is especially interesting in view of the fact that later Christadelphians boasted that the denomination was "entirely unpolitical", and some ecclesias outlawed participation in politics (including voting). At what stage, I wonder, did Christadelphians shift from being stalwart and zealous supporters of political parties, actively involved in public affairs, to being "entirely unpolitical"? And why?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Early influences on Christadelphianism (1) - Did John Thomas discover 'the Truth'?

It has often been said (by Christadelphians) that John Thomas, founder of Christadelphianism, "discovered the Truth" in the 1840s. It seems he subscribed to this idea himself as he named his commentary on The Revelation Eureka - "I have found it!"

I have argued before that John Thomas did not "discover" anything. All the doctrinal distinctives held by Christadelphians can be traced to groups which were either contemporary to John Thomas or predated him. In fact, I will demonstrate in some future articles that John Thomas acquired all his major doctrines from groups or individuals with whom he was in contact. That's not to say these doctrines are either right or wrong - I simply want to look at the influences which acted on John Thomas and the early Christadelphians in shaping the denomination.

I am not alone in saying that John Thomas was an eclectic who acquired (rather than 'discovered') ideas. One of Thomas's early converts was Joseph Chamberlin, a Methodist minister who left Methodism and became a Christadelphian. In his weekly Christadelphian magazine The Aeon Chamberlin wrote:

Another distinguishing fact to be mentioned in regard to Dr. Thomas is, he was not remarkable for the enunciation or discovery of any ONE great truth. There is no one great doctrine which we can hang about his neck, as “justification by faith” is connected with the name of Luther, or “sanctification” with that of Wesley. He did not so much discover a brilliant star as give us a true astronomy; it was not so much the announcement of an unknown truth as the marvellous systematisation of many truths, and the disentanglement of the divine purposes from the web of error which tradition through centuries has woven…

So, nearly every teaching to be found in Dr. T.’s final publications may be found in some fragmentary form or another up and down the theological literature of the world, but nowhere can be found that harmonious system in which these parts are seen crystalising together…

Sketches of John Thomas, M.D.
Joseph Chamberlin, The Aeon, April 10, 1885

Monday, March 13, 2006

Where have I been?

You may have noticed that I haven't posted anything on my blog for over a week. I'd promised to write some more on several threads, as well as some others I'd like to start. However, I've been going through some major restructuring at work and my work-load has increased considerably (hopefully just for the time being). On top of that we have been organising the wedding of our eldest daughter in less than a month from now (and I've discovered just how much work is involved with wedding-planning!)

As well as the other ministry projects we're involved with my time and resources have been stretched to the limit. God does that every now and then I've realised. By stretching us He often develop new strengths in us, or we find that some of our limitations are actually self-imposed.

Anyway, I hope to resume blogging very shortly. I plan to get back into some history with a short series on Early influences on Christadelphianism, with some articles on people such as Benjamin Wilson, author of The Emphatic Diaglott which was once on almost every Christadelphian bookshelf (Jan Stilson from the Church of God General Conference has sent me some microfilmed copies of Wilson's magazine The Gospel Banner which has some excellent material from the period 1858-1868).

I hope to write some more on Jesus' Gospel of the Kingdom under the heading 'I will build my church'. Jesus came preaching the kingdom (and almost never used the word 'church') while Paul built churches (and rarely used the word 'kingdom'). What's that about?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Lord's table - applying the principles.

I believe Jesus intended that we should remember Him by regularly sharing meals together (call them eucharistic meals if you like). This would be the perfectly logical way to live out His message about living in the Kingdom of God, as kingdom-people. Jesus teachings about the Kingdom focussed on living in community, and at the last supper He used the language of Jeremiah to announce that the age of the new covenant was beginning, when God would deal with His covenant-people in a new way. He tied together "remembering" with looking forward, and spoke of the messianic banquet in the age to come when His new-covenant community would come together in a climactic meal.

The language of kingdom and covenants directs us to think in terms of community. Paul picks it up by using the Greek word used in the Septuagint for the community of God's people when they assembled together - ekklesia. What Jesus announced in His Gospel of the Kingdom Paul developed with his practical advice about assembling together as God's people - His church/ekklesia - and living in community.

However, if we were to remember Jesus in the way I believe He intended there would be implications for the way we "do church". Here are just a few suggestions:

1. Our focus would change from the 'assembly hall' to the 'assembled people'. God wants to dwell among His people, not in bricks-and-mortar buildings. Many of the people we are called to reach will never go near our buildings (which, by the way, sit empty most of the week). We must take Christ to the marketplace and meet people where they are, not where we are. We must meet people with the Gospel at their point of need. Formal religious services might be nice (especially for Christians), but for most people they are irrelevant. If our only interaction with other people where Christ is mentioned is inside a 'church' (or ecclesial hall), and in a structured setting, then it is artificial.

2. The emphasis would change from platforms to people. Too many of our spiritual 'conversations' are really monologues. Some people only share their religious experiences from the safety of a platform or pulpit, during an exhortation or sermon. We get used to the idea of people expounding the Bible from a position of authority ('the platform'), rather than to thrashing out the implications for our lives in real-life settings. In some ecclesias the selection of platform speakers is carefully controlled to ensure that only the 'official' view is ever taught, and the ecclesia is poorer for not hearing what God has been teaching the members in the pews through their daily encounters with Him.

3. The focus would change from membership to community. It's possible to be an active member of an ecclesia and not ever deal with other members in community. Someone can attend all the meetings, be active on committees, teach Sunday School, and be a speaker, without ever really getting to know other members of the ecclesia. What do the other members do for their living? Do you know their families? How do they relax? What are their interests? Do you know anything about their struggles, their accomplishments, their spiritual progress? Do you really know them at all? Do they really know you?

Take everyone out of their ecclesial halls and churches and put them in homes, around meal tables. Take them out of their suits and 'Sunday best' and put them in comfortable clothes. Take away their speaking notes and the commentaries in their wide-margin Bibles. Now let them interact with each other. Let them talk about their week. Ask them about what God has done for them. Let the conversations flow naturally and unstructured. Do this week after week and watch relationships develop and friendships form. Watch how community happens. And see how miracles happen when Jesus is remembered by breaking bread and drinking wine as part of a meal together, in the way He intended.