Sunday, January 29, 2006

What did Christadelphians set out to be? (2)

A classic work in analysing the history of Christadelphianism is the thesis by Andrew Wilson (himself a Christadelphian) The History of the Christadelphians, 1862-1885: The Emergence of a Denomination *. He explained his objectives in his introduction, which I quote in part:

"Between 1864 and 1885, the development of the Christadelphian community was remarkable. Numerically, it increased from a few hundred to over 5,000 brethren, with an eventual annual rate of about 400 adult baptisms; intellectually, it increased to the point where it had interested a number of notables and academics such as W.E. Gladstone, and had baptised others such as Professor David Evans; polemically, leaders of the movement had challenged or actually engaged in debate not only prominent figures in rival religious groups - ranging from Edward Hine of the British Israelites to the Archbishop of Canterbury - but also non-religious leaders of thought such as Charles Bradlaugh, and non- Christians like Louis Stern the Jew. After 1885, nothing like the same degree of interest or success, as measured in annual baptismal numbers, was registered by Christadelphians.

"The reasons why a small group should attract such interest and support within a twenty year period without one major denomination from which to draw its membership, and why its effervescence should evaporate so quickly after 1885, are the major puzzles which this study sets out to solve”.

Wilson concludes his chapter on "The History of Christadelphians: 1864-1884" with this paragraph:

"Thus, the period 1864-1884 witnessed a whole range of achievements in Christadelphia: numerical success in conversions; success in maturity in dealing with the churches and intellectuals around them, amounting to selective ecumenicism; success in the streamlining of organisation - Birmingham clearly becoming the epicentre of worldwide activity by Christadelphians. Only in Church government was Christadelphianism lacking in development. On the rock of failures in that area, the ship of success foundered in 1884-5, and much of the precious cargo was lost".

To support his claim that in 1884-85 "much of the precious cargo was lost", Andrew Wilson includes extensive statistical information to demonstrate the sudden and dramatic departure of a large number of brethren from the Christadelphian community. 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%.

Andrew Wilson summarises the reasons for the success of the Believers Movement and Christadelphianism to 1885 and includes the following:

The original openness of the Christadelphian community and the accessibility of its creedal formulae to change based on empirical data from the Bible. This commended itself to men from a wide spectrum of orthodox persuasions whose Christianity was of an open-minded, individualist and fundamentalist-rationalist stamp.

Throughout his work Andrew Wilson names some of the academics and scholars of his day, including theologians, professors of Hebrew, and clergymen, who joined the Believers Movement or Christadelphianism in its early days but then left after the "inspiration controversy" and the division of 1884-85.

Much of this openness within the brotherhood and "the accessibility of its creedal formulae to change" was due to the considerable influence of John Thomas whose own views on doctrinal matters changed with increasing maturity, and who steadfastly resisted all efforts to dogmatise the faith in a creed or Statement of Faith. He was challenged on one occasion for having changed his mind yet again, to which he wisely replied, “Must I ever hold to one belief for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me. I will change my mind every day if need be until I get it right at last.”

If we take the early success of the Believers Movement and Christadelphianism as our benchmark, then point # 2 in my summary of "what did Christadelphians set out to be?" is this:

Christadelphians set out to have open minds. They set out to study, read, learn and mature in their faith and would change their minds frequently in the process. They set out to be "teachable" and open to new ideas and eager to explore and discuss them.

* Andrew R. Wilson B.A., M.A., A.R.Hist.S., Shalom Publications, 1997 (fp 1985).

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