Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Early influences on Christadelphianism (3) - Joseph Marsh

Unitarianism, of several types, seems to have developed in America at the end of the eighteenth century. Two or three groups shared a concern for a return to the "primitive gospel." One of these was the so-called Christian Connection, a minority revivalistic movement on the New England frontier. Another was the Freewill Baptists. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the two groups contemplated merging, since both held similar doctrines, inclined toward primitivism, and practiced open communion. But as they expanded westward across New York State, the "Christians" began more and more to show Unitarian tendencies, which alienated them from the Baptists and turned them toward the followers of Barton Stone — and occasionally toward the Unitarians.

Joseph Marsh was born in Vermont in 1802. Early in Marsh's life his family moved to New York, where his parents were disfellowshiped by the Methodist Episcopal Church for rejecting the Trinity. In 1823, Marsh was baptized into the Christian Connection. The following year he entered the ministry.

In 1841, Marsh wrote fourteen influential articles entitled "The Church of God" in which he encouraged a return of the Church to New Testament principles. Marsh became the leading writer for the emerging Church of God, publishing first the Christian Palladium (1838-43) for the Christian connection, then Voice of Truth (1844-47), the Advent Harbinger, and, finally, the Bible Expositor. Through the Voice of Truth Marsh promoted the doctrine of the Age to Come and the restoration of the Jews to their homeland prior to Jesus' second coming. In 1851 he published a major work called The Age to Come where he carefully elaborated his ideas. He is regarded by many as the founder of the Age to Come Movement.

John Thomas and Joseph Marsh knew each other, probably meeting in 1842, and many of Thomas's early contacts were already readers of Marsh's magazines. After Thomas settled in New York he and Marsh exchanged ideas through their respective magazines. Through this exchange the two became friends, or so Marsh thought. It's possible that they influenced each other as both men were going through a period of change and development in their ideas. They had many things in common, including belief in the oneness of God, the mortality of the soul, the restoration of Israel and the Age to Come. Their friendship and association together could have achieved a great deal in spreading this message. Marsh invited Thomas to Rochester. Thomas stayed in Marsh's home and preached in his church.

However, in 1847 Thomas decided to be re-baptised (he had earlier been baptised by Walter Scott of the Disciples of Christ) after changing his beliefs on several points. He tried to persuade Marsh to do the same, but Marsh was not convinced that his baptism was in any way inadequate. Not content to 'agree to disagree' Thomas turned to Marsh's church (the Church of God in Rochester, New York) and eventually convinced them to disfellowship Marsh. Thereafter they preached in different areas, and in 1858 Thomas published a letter referring to Marsh's supporters as his "parasites".

Marsh's writings had a wide influence and several congregations began in Illinois as a result.

To be continued ...

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