Saturday, June 03, 2006

Early influences on Christadelphianism (8) - conclusions

When we look at the various people who influenced John Thomas's thinking and with whom he was associated at various times, and the reasons why he separated from them, we see a pattern emerging.

Just to briefly recapitulate:

  • For some time Thomas was very friendly with George Storrs, the foremost proponent of conditional immortality (the mortality of the soul) in the US. After disagreeing about the importance of baptism they parted company, and Thomas wrote some critical words about "Mr" Storrs (no longer "brother Storrs").
  • It appears that John Thomas and Joseph Marsh were close friends for some time. After Thomas was re-baptised he tried to persuade Marsh to do the same. Marsh did not see the need to be re-baptised every time he changed his mind or learned something new, and disagreed with Thomas about this. Thomas persuaded Marsh's church to disfellowship him and later published some very unkind and critical comments about "friend Marsh".
  • Although they agreed on most things Thomas parted company with Benjamin Wilson mainly over the issue of whether the dead would be raised mortal or immortal. He subsequently published a series of personal and defamatory attacks on Wilson, including comments about Wilson's financial affairs.
Here is the pattern I see:

1. If Thomas was unable to persuade someone to agree with him he spilt from them, regardless of whatever they already had in common. Peter Hemingray (John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith) draws a similar conclusion. Referring to the split with Storrs he says: "John Thomas heard and was associated with many of the clamoring voices of the American Reformation, of whom George Storrs was one, but in the end he withdrew from them all" (p. 140, my emphasis).

2. After parting company with these men (and sometimes before parting company) John Thomas published highly critical comments about them. The criticisms were not only of their beliefs, but were often personal and defamatory. (In fact, I'm puzzled why Hemingray titled his book John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith - these men would hardly have considered Thomas their "friend" after the way they were treated. John Thomas: His Enemies and His Faith might have made a more accurate title).

3. Thomas almost always actively preached amongst the congregations associated with his former "friends" and tried to convince their supporters to withdraw fellowship from them and join his emerging denomination. This was so obvious to Thomas's contemporaries that one of them wrote:
"The doctor [Thomas] is very hard on the Adventists, Millerism, and Storrism. I fear he is ungrateful. For had it not been for the Advent movement, I do not believe that this day he would have a corporal's guard of followers. A broken-down ex-Campbellite, he goes north to take advantage of the movement, and is now building on other men's foundations, and all the while exposing its rottenness! Such at least is my opinion of his course."

(Nathaniel Field, Thomasism, Number III,
Expositor and Advocate
, Vol 29 No 24, May 15, 1859, 665)

In an editorial addition to this article Marsh wrote of Thomas's "manifest ingratitude to those who raised him from obscurity to his present notoriety among us".

Hemingray, a defender of John Thomas, substantiates this conclusion with a comment that
"before 1843 almost all his followers had been from the ranks of the Campbellites: after this time, they increasingly came from the Millerites" (p. 111).
By "Millerites" he is referring to the Adventists and the Age to Come movement (including the supporters of Storrs and Marsh).

Preaching amongst the churches from which he had "withdrawn" caused a great deal of resentment, for understandable reasons.

Was Thomas right to withdraw from people with whom he disagreed? Some would say that in doing so he was establishing the importance of "doctrinal purity". But how far does one need to go before the faith is "pure"? While Christadelphians would generally agree that withdrawing from Storrs over a matter as 'fundamental' as baptism was the right thing to do, it becomes questionable whether Marsh's refusal to be re-baptised was in the same category. By the time we get to the withdrawal from Wilson over mortal/immortal emergence it becomes even more questionable. In fact, to this day Christadelphians in North America are divided on that one and the question is still not settled.

Pragmatically, it might have been better if Thomas had stayed in contact and on friendly relations with the people from whom he split. Given time he may have convinced Storrs of the need for baptism. If he'd worked with Marsh, rather than against him, they may have found agreement on re-baptism. If he stayed with Wilson who knows what their combined talents and energies might have achieved. By sticking with his 'friends' Thomas may have eventually persuaded them of the rightness of his views, or he may have learned from them and grown in knowledge. Instead, he helped to divide and fragment a movement which was growing and impacting the broader church and impaired its effectiveness.

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