The Bible Shield and Reflector magazine commenced in Australia in 1893 under the editorship of Brother Joseph Gamble. When Brother Robert Roberts moved to Australia in 1897 Brother Gamble was keen to relinquish his role as editor and consideration was given to suspending publication of the magazine and replacing it with a Colonial Supplement to The Christadelphian. In the end Brother Roberts supported the establishment of a new magazine called The Shield under the editorship of Brother John Bell of Sydney, to continue Brother Gamble’s work. The first issue appeared in January 1898 and during the closing months of his life Brother Roberts provided a regular segment under the title The Colonial Christadelphian.
The Christadelphian was the international organ of what became known as the Central Fellowship (so named after the Birmingham Central ecclesia), while The Shield served ecclesias in Australia in fellowship with the Birmingham Central ecclesia. Initially there was a harmonious relationship between the two journals. In the early years of the twentieth century, however, a rift began to develop between the new editor of the The Christadelphian (Brother CC Walker) and the editor of The Shield. This expressed itself in differences about the nature and sacrifice of Christ and in divergent approaches to ecclesial life and fellowship. Australian ecclesias tended to align with one or other of the magazines partly on the basis of the style of the editor with which they felt most comfortable.
These were times when communication between Australia and the UK was slow and even interstate travel was costly and difficult. Inevitably this exacerbated the challenge of open and productive communication between brethren. Issues that might have been resolved readily by discussion were allowed to fester. A similar problem based on a lack of trust and communication beset the Israelites after the conquest of Canaan and almost led to civil war within the ecclesia (see Joshua 22).
The estrangement between the editors did not develop overnight. Many ecclesias closely associated with The Shield retained cordial relations with Brother Walker. The Adelaide ecclesia, for instance, wrote to Brother Walker in 1915 inviting him to visit Australia. But over time two groupings of ecclesias developed in Australia – the Central ecclesias which identified with the Central fellowship in the UK and the Shield ecclesias which came to be aligned with the Suffolk Street fellowship in the UK. Both The Christadelphian and The Shield sought to avoid being associated with these groupings in any direct sense but these labels were applied and used regardless. It is clear, however, that not all the members of each group shared all the views promoted by the journals with which that group was associated.
During World War II young brethren from both fellowships found themselves thrust together on work of national importance as an alternative to being conscripted into the armed forces. They found that the beliefs they shared were more significant than the relatively minor issues that separated them. Open communication built trust. In the 1950s, as efforts for reunion in the UK between the Central and Suffolk Street fellowships gathered momentum, brethren of goodwill in various states built on the bonds forged during the war to promote a similar reunion in Australia. It is worth noting that both The Shield and The Christadelphian supported these efforts.
Reunion efforts in Australia were assisted by a letter to the 1956 Adelaide Christadelphian Conference from Brethren Cyril Cooper (editor of The Fraternal Visitor, the magazine of the Suffolk Street fellowship) and John Carter (editor of The Christadelphian) which sought to clarify issues relating to the nature and sacrifice of Christ. This helped brethren in both groups to focus on a shared, Biblically sound understanding of the atonement. That letter was followed in 1958 by a visit to Australia by Brother Carter. Through this work it became clear that, overall, the views of the Shield fellowship were more aligned to the teachings of the Central fellowship worldwide than the Central ecclesias in Australia. Some brethren holding extreme views in both groups rejected reunion but the vast majority were pleased to abandon the disunity of half a century and work together.