Sunday, April 02, 2006

The first Christadelphians and politics (2)

I've just received some information from Peter Hemingray, author of John Thomas, His Friends and His Faith, about the registration of conscientious objectors during the American Civil War. I referred earlier to an incident when John Thomas successfully applied for exemption from military service on behalf of 10 believers in the South on the grounds that they were "ministers of religion", while in the North they applied for exemption as members of a denomination named "Christadelphians".

Peter Hemingray has pointed out that the brethren in Virginia were originally known as "Nazarines", rather than "Christadelphians", and refers to a petition* asking for absolute exemption from military service on behalf of the “The Nazarines.” The petition, addressed to John Letcher, who was Governor of Virginia 1860-64, commented on the problem of those exempted from military service being required to perform “non-combatant” service, as a Bill under consideration in the legislature proposed. The petition said: “This is a mistake, at least as far as the Christians called the ‘Nazarines’ are concerned… (we) do not recognize ourselves as citizens in any sense of any of the governments of this world. We therefore admit your right to tax our property. But we would as soon fall down and worship the golden image erected on the plains of Dura by Nebuchadnezzar, than we could yield our persons as the willing slaves of any human authority.”

Peter Hemingray says the petition must have been written in early 1862, for the Virginia Act was passed in March of that year. "Quite who wrote the petition", he wrote, "I do not know: Dr. Thomas seemed to have no knowledge of it for some time afterwards, and I can find no reference to it in the journals of the time. A pity! But I must assume that whoever wrote the petition was behind the inclusion of the 'Nazarines' in the later Confederate Act."

In the Ambassador for April 1865, Dr. Thomas wrote “The Confederate Congress passed an act, exempting them (the Christadelphians in Virginia) from military service, under the name of Nazarenes, on payment of 500 dollars. All are exempted who were members at the time of passing the act:..” On April 15 1863 the Senate passed an Act that said in part:

VIII Every minister of religion authorized to preach according to the rules of his sect, and now in the regular discharge of ministerial duty, and all persons who have been, since the sixteenth of April, eighteen hundred and sixty-two, and now are, members of the society of Friends, or the association of Dunkards, Nazarines, or Mennonists, in regular membership of their respective denominations: provided that such members shall furnish a substitute or pay a tax of five hundred dollars each into the public treasury.

"So whoever wrote the petition", says Hemingray, "was probably behind the inclusion of the 'Nazarines'.” Records show the Quakers and the Dunkards were particularly active from the time that conscription passed from State to Federal level, in April 1862. Their names were present when the first amendment to name whole religious denominations was passed in September of 1862. The “Nazarenes” were added by a joint committee of the two houses, without any recorded debate, on October 3 1862. (Nazarines and Nazarenes are used interchangeably in the record. And indeed Dr. Thomas uses “Nazarene” when he refers to the same incident later.) However, there is no mention as to who proposed the addition of “Nazarines.”

It seems that this Act of the Confederate Congress is the only official Act that has ever specifically named members of the Christadelphian denomination (albeit under a different name) as exempt from military service. It was passed in 1863 after at least six months of consideration. The brethren in Virginia were still known as “Nazarenes” into the 1870s (and should not be confused with the Church of the Nazarene which is a late nineteenth century offshoot of the Wesleyan “Holiness” movement, or the Nazarene fellowship - still in existence - which grew out of the offshoot from Christadelphianism following the 1873 disfellowship of Edward Turney and David Handley.)

Hemingray noted "It is also interesting that, until very recently, main-stream historians have been quite unable to identify who these 'Nazarines' were. Only recently did a diligent researcher follow the same trail as I did, and correctly identified the 'Nazarines' as coming from the group that a little later became known as Christadelphians**."

He also makes this interesting comment:

It is fascinating for the insistence on the very fundamental grounds of our stand then and now against military service: it is that our citizenship is in Heaven. It was not then, nor despite some of our literature, should it be now, primarily because we follow the command of Jesus to Peter, in Mt. 26:52; “Put up thy sword.” This is true, but it is not the cornerstone of our rejection of military service. Rather, it is because we take no part in politics, offer no opinions on our government, live at peace with the whole world and wait patiently for “a new heaven and a new earth.”

One reason this is particularly interesting is that the 'Nazarines' in Virginia were "unpolitical" while the 'Christadelphians' in Illinois (or some of them at least) were 'stalwart Republicans'. It's possible that while the Believers were united in being opposed to military service their reasons for doing so may have differed.

* This was re-published in The Christadelphian for Sept. 1940. It says it was “found among some old Christadelphian magazines,” and appears to be copied from an article appearing in the Christadelphian Advocate for June 1897, p166.

** Peter Brock, an historian of Pacifism, guesses at the connection on p 864 of his Pacifism in the United States.

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