Saturday, February 04, 2006

Origins of the name "Christadelphian"

In my last message I mentioned that I planned to post something about the registration of the name "Christadelphian" as a denominational name. Coincidentally, a short time later I came across the following comment in an article about the history of Christadelphians:

"Prior to 1861 and the American Civil War, Christadelphians were known simply as the "Brothers or sisters in Christ". However, with the outbreak of War in North America, believers had to register as Conscientious Objectors. The American authorities would not accept the term "Brothers or sisters in Christ" as it was too general, thus the word "Christadelphian" was coined by John Thomas, encapsulating the two Greek words which mean "Brothers and sisters in Christ"."

There is nothing very remarkable about this comment - I've seen similar comments dozens of times before - except that there is absolutely no historical evidence for it. It's possible that it's a Christadelphian "urban myth".

To date I have been unable to find any substantiating evidence for these statements:

(a) Prior to 1861 and the American Civil War, Christadelphians were known simply as the "Brothers or sisters in Christ".

(b) However, with the outbreak of War in North America, believers had to register as Conscientious Objectors

(c) The American authorities would not accept the term "Brothers or sisters in Christ" as it was too general ...

The information I have is this:

(a) The churches which were later to be called Christadelphian initially resisted a denominational name. Throughout the USA and Britain these churches generally went by the names of Believers, Baptised Believers, the Royal Association of Believers, Baptised Believers in the Kingdom of God, and other similar names. They generally referred to each other simply as "believers". I'm unaware of any documentary evidence that they regularly called themselves "Brothers or sisters in Christ".

(b) It was at the home of Jacob Coffman in Illinois that John Thomas, Jacob and Samuel Coffman met to form the new denomination, Christadelphians, during the final years of the Civil War. This was done, apparently, to protect the members from military duty.

There are no records in Ogle county which bear witness to the outcome of this meeting. Nothing is recorded at the county courthouse, although there are dozens of transactions by the Coffmans regarding their real estate transactions, and dozens more recordings by other denominations to register their trustees and board members in order to conduct church business.

If John Thomas did not register Christadelphians as a new denomination within the county, he may have registered it through the war department. If this is so, the records have not been located to document it, although historical researchers have searched for them.

What benefit was there in registering Christadelphians as a denomination during the Civil War? There was no exemption given to clergy in the Union states. The Union’s Militia Act of 1862 did not provide exemption for clergy or conscientious objectors. The only way a man could avoid the military was to pay $300 and hire a substitute. In an interview with the great great grandson of Sam Coffman, Mr. Ralph Coffman confirmed that Samuel W. Coffman did not serve in the Civil War. However, there are no family records available to determine if he hired a substitute, nor could this be determined via a search of Civil War records*.

Presumably, denominations had to register with the federal government and be recognised as pacifists, and to receive tax-free status. An Income Tax was imposed during the Civil War. Those commonly recognized included Shakers, Quakers, and Mennonites. The historical record does not mention the Christadelphians as a recognised pacifist denomination.

Robert Roberts, in Dr Thomas: His Life and Work, provides details of a "certificate" written by John Thomas for the Coffmans. He writes: "the applicants went before a notary public to affirm the genuineness of his signature, and the truth of the certificate in substance and in fact. The County seal was affixed and the document handed to Brother Coffman for safe keeping until such time as it should be required". However, this was not registration as a denomination.

The Civil War involved two governments. Did John Thomas also register his new denomination in the south? He travelled in the south during the Civil War and it would seem that there would be impetus to register a denomination in the south more than in the Union. However, there is no evidence that he registered the Christadelphians with the Confederate government. The Confederate exemption laws were quite lenient to clergy and conscientious objectors, however, even though they desperately needed the manpower. Due to this, he wouldn’t have needed to register his denomination. In fact, Robert Roberts gave details in Dr Thomas: His Life and Work of an incident where ten brethren were granted exemption from military service in the South on the basis that they were "ministers of religion" (chapter 50). So, where is the evidence that Christadelphians were registered anywhere as conscientious objectors?

(c) As there is no evidence that Christadelphians were registered as a denomination or as conscientious objectors, there is also no evidence that 'The American authorities would not accept the term "Brothers or sisters in Christ" as it was too general'. In fact, there is a denomination in the United States called "Brethren in Christ" and they have been in existence longer than Christadelphians (the Brethren in Christ Church in North America began sometime between 1775 and 1788, near the present town of Marietta in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania). Of Anabaptist origins they are also conscientious objectors. Their website says: "At the time of the Civil War in the United States, the Brethren decided to record themselves under the present name of “Brethren in Christ." So, it appears to be simply untrue that 'The American authorities would not accept the term "Brothers or sisters in Christ" as it was too general'.

There is little doubt that John Thomas coined the name "Christadelphian", and that it happened during the American Civil War for the purposes of having membership in a denomination with conscientious objection to military service. But there is no evidence the name or denomination were ever registered with the authorities, and the story as to why "Christadelphian" was adopted is told by Roberts this way:

To assist them in their endeavour to gain exemption from service, they [the Coffmans] desired the Doctor to write something that they might put in to certify the truth of their claims to have a conscientious objection to military service. This raised a question; how was he to describe them in a way that they should be clearly distinguished from all other claimants? Hitherto there had been no particular name for them; they had been baptised believers; in New York they had adopted the title “The Royal Association of Believers,” but that was obviously unsuitable for the purpose of securing exemption from military service.

“I did not know a better denomination that could be given to such a class of believers (writes the Doctor) than ‘Brethren in Christ.’ This declares their true status, and as officials prefer words to phrases, the same fact is expressed in another form by the word Christadelphians, Christou adelphoi, Christ’s brethren.”
The Coffman's went on their way with a "certificate" written and signed by John Thomas saying they were members of a "denomination" called "Christadelphians" and "they claim and demand the rights and privileges so considerately accorded by the Congress of the United States in the statute made and provided for the exemption of members of a Denomination conscientiously opposed to bearing arms in the service of any human government." Thus the Christadelphian denomination was born and named (but not registered).

"Christadelphian" was adopted because John Thomas supposed that "officials prefer words to phrases", but the story which I've heard a hundred times that "the authorities would not accept the term 'Brothers or sisters in Christ' as it was too general" is simply a myth, as is the story that John Thomas registered his new denomination with the American authorities.

* This information comes from an article by Church of God General Conference historian Jan Stilson: "An Overview of the Leadership and Development of the Age to Come in the United States: 1832-1871" in A Journal for the Radical Reformation Volume 10, No. 1, Fall 2001.

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