It is very likely true that we would not be writing this article and you would not be reading it were it not for a certain boat running aground on the treacherous sable shoals somewhere between England and America. That ship carried John Thomas who had taken passage as ship’s doctor in the hope, like so many, of making a start in the new world. The ship had run aground and was crashing heavily on the sand bars, causing one of the passengers to cry out in alarm, “We shall go to the bottom!” provoking the dry retort from John Thomas, “We are already at the bottom!”

Nevertheless his mind had been exercised on the nature of the hereafter and finding himself without any clear idea of what might lie ahead should the worst occur, he was determined never to be caught in that situation again. So John Thomas resolved that should he find himself safely on dry land again he would not rest till he had searched out the truth of the matter. Yahweh undoubtedly knew the material he was working with, for Dr Thomas was not a man to make a decision lightly. This is the first, and perhaps most singular instance of Divine providence in the life of Brother Thomas.

Providence to Glorify the Father

This simple and clear-cut affair, however, does not mean that Brother Thomas had a simplistic view of the Divine hand at work in a man’s life. He was not one to presume upon the Father, nor did he look upon Yahweh as a benevolent Father distributing favours to His expectant children. As Brother Thomas had often argued in books like Elpis Israel (particularly pages 176–177), a man’s faith was incomplete until tested and the real pleasure for God was not merely to see belief, but belief acted upon in unpromising circumstances.

He started this section by writing “that upon whatever principle God might determine to operate, it would certainly be such a one as would redound most to the glory of His wisdom, justice and sovereign power.”

These are the key principles upon which Brother Thomas believed Divine providence operated in a man’s life. As in everything, the honour of God was paramount. It was upon this basis then, I believe, that Brother Thomas lived his own life in the service of God. It was upon this principle he gave some confronting advice to Brother Robert Roberts, advice which he found at first hard to take.

Advice for Brother Roberts

Brother Roberts was advised by Brother Thomas to move to Birmingham. He said there was a wider field for the Truth there. Brother Roberts agreed, but considered the difficulties in the way insuperable. He was in actual employment in Huddersfield with no prospects at all in Birmingham, which appeared to him in the language of Providence to say, “Stay in Huddersfield”. As to that, Brother Thomas considered the “claims of the Truth an equal indication of Providence”. In the event Brother Roberts found his employment terminated at Huddersfield, and offers of work in four towns, none of which were Birmingham! On the face of it, it seemed as if all the indications of Providence were against Birmingham. But he burned his bridges, took Brother Thomas’ advice and went to Birmingham—with nothing but eighteen pence, which he put in the collection. As it turned out, after several miserable weeks Brother Roberts found solid employment with the Birmingham Post, by using a letter of introduction that he had carried about in his pocket all the while.[1] As Brother Thomas predicted, Brother Roberts’ move marked a major advance in the spread of the Truth.

When we look at Dr Thomas’ experience we can understand how he came to hold this view of Providence.

Association with the Campbellites

From the beginning John Thomas’ move to America was a series of unexpected twists, sometimes amusing and sometimes disastrous, but all of which seemed to turn him closer to the rediscovery of the truth of the gospel. The story is “that of a mind circumstantially driven into a path of research which he was not seeking, and impelled forward in it by a series of unwelcome incidents and experiences, which imposed on him the acquisition of knowledge not, in the first instance, sought for, and conclusions as unexpected as they were startling and disastrous to popularity.”[2]

Not long after his arrival in America, Dr Thomas was introduced to the Campbellites in Cincinnati and was persuaded by a Mr Scott that he should be baptised. Being unable to gainsay the arguments of Mr Scott he was baptised by moonlight the same night in the Miami canal. He thought this the end of the matter. Imagine his surprise then upon attending the meeting of Campbellites to be greeted on all sides as “Brother Thomas”. This proved to be the first in a providential chain of circumstances, as Dr Thomas later observed. For this all occurred in spite of his resolve to steer clear of all sects and never wear a party badge and seek the Truth for himself; which resolution, he adds, was “strengthened by an escape from a watery grave. But”, he continued, “our way of seeking the truth proved not to be the way of God”.

Brother Thomas’ baptism led to his acquaintance with Mr Alexander Campbell of Bethany, which was to prove one of the most important experiences in the development of his convictions. Determined and persuasive, the Virginian farmer turned preacher announced to Dr. Thomas on the way to the meeting at Wellsburg that he would call upon him to speak! This was his next surprise. Having searched his Bible for ideas it occurred to John Thomas that he knew of the historian Rollin’s interpretation of Daniel’s four empires in chapter 2. Having read the chapter, Dr Thomas fixed his eyes on the doorpost and emptied himself of all he knew on the subject, then stopped abruptly and sat down. This was the beginning of a career that was to take him over many thousands of miles writing articles and delivering addresses, all of which required more study of the Scripture.

Research and Speaking

From Bethany Dr Thomas travelled east through Pennsylvania where he spent sixteen days. Again, nothing would satisfy the congregation there but that he would speak on every occasion. He said of this: “But the things we have least sought after are the very things we are most engaged in. Our constant desire was to obtain an honourable living by our calling in as quiet a way as possible. But this desire… has been completely thwarted. We never sought the engagements of an editor, nor of a public speaker; and from the time that Mr Campbell put our mettle to the proof until now, we have never addressed the people from inclination, but from a sense of duty and at the earnest solicitation of others.” Mr Campbell’s method turned upon him in the end because the necessary study of the Word led to Dr Thomas’ discovery of the Truth and his subsequent separation from the Campbellites.

After refusing to settle among them as their preacher Dr Thomas left Pennsylvania and came to Baltimore on a Sunday evening, where, to his dismay, he was again asked to address the congregation. Having heard him they were not satisfied until they had hired a hall and called the public together to hear the new preacher! He spoke every night for a week on “The Ancient Faith”!

At the week’s end he went to Philadelphia, where he was instantly greeted with enthusiasm, for their preacher was “very old and dry” and they welcomed the prospect of relief. After three weeks it was proposed that they would find employment for him if Dr Thomas would speak to them on Sundays. This did not prove to be as favourable to Dr Thomas’ professional objectives as it was for the work Providence had assigned to him. As he said, “Having to address the public continually, our time and energies were absorbed in preparing to acquit ourselves as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed rightly dividing the word of Truth.”[3]

Another thing that in God’s wisdom made Dr Thomas eminently fitted for the task ahead was that he “was never cursed with the poison of a theological education… his mind takes whatever impression the word makes upon it, like a blank sheet the impression of the printer’s types.”[4]

Editorship and its Consequences

By a seeming accident of circumstances Dr Thomas found himself the editor of a new magazine. The old preacher felt it was beyond him to go ahead and requested the Doctor to carry it through. Thus The Apostolic Advocate was born. From the first, Dr Thomas was convinced of one thing. He wrote: “The religion of the disciples of Christ cannot be found among any of the popular religions of the nineteenth century.” He followed this up with an amusing but incisive criticism of the practice of infant sprinkling. From the very beginning, this subject contained the seeds for a sharp disagreement with Alexander Campbell that was to set them on totally different courses and bring Truth to light.

The trouble that ended in his separation from Campbellism started soon after a move to Richmond. There, he published an article on “Anabaptism”. Dr Thomas contended that no baptism was valid that was not based on an intelligent faith. The problem was many Baptist ministers had come across to Campbellism. These, Dr Thomas maintained, were nothing better than “immersed infants”. This was offensive to them and thus a threat to Campbell’s ambitions.

On top of this controversy grew another. Dr Thomas published a list of questions originally intended for his father, hoping for some help in understanding the nature of man. The list of thirty-four questions, appearing under the heading “Information Wanted”, contained inquiries such as: “Is man naturally and, therefore, necessarily immortal, ie is he an ‘immortal soul’ because he is a man; or is immortality a gift consequent upon the due observance of certain conditions proposed by God?”

Reaction to Hostility

These questions roused hostility that was never to go away. They were denounced as a new and infidel creed. “We asked for bread”, says Dr Thomas, “but our contemporaries gave us a stone.” However the hue and cry raised against him had beneficial results. He said himself that, if the questions should not have been noticed, it was exceedingly probable he would have thought no more about them. Instead the abuse showered upon him roused his determination to comprehend the subject: “if wrong to get right and when righted, defend the right, and to overthrow the wrong or perish in the attempt”.

Mr Campbell saw that Dr Thomas had by his proposals removed the “torment of fear and the fear of torment”, by which he apprehended he was deprived of a very powerful tool for conversion! Thus commenced a conflict that never abated until it ended in the separation of Dr Thomas from the Campbellites.

Many scurrilous things were published by Mr Campbell against Dr Thomas, climaxing in a demand that the Campbellites of Paineville, where he resided, dis-fellowship the doctor. The Congregation at Paineville and one at Jeetersville wrote letters saying they could not fault Dr Thomas’ doctrine or character.

Dr Thomas saw this as providential and made these comments: “When I review the past, I am inclined to say, ‘Best are all things as the will of God ordains them.’ I know from the Scriptures that all things work together for good to them that love God, and are the called according to His purpose. In my own experience I have verified this. For my own sake I do not regret I have been the subject of misrepresentation, slander and ecclesiastical vengeance. Crooked policy generally defeats itself. I have never had recourse to it, but have always been straightforward and above board, which in the long run is the best policy for it is honest.”

Moving Closer to the Truth

In 1839 Dr Thomas moved to Illinois to try his hand at farming, believing the soil to be better for the reception of seed both vegetable and spiritual. During this time he did not publish The Advocate. The farming proved extremely arduous and unprofitable. He then took up the idea of printing a weekly newspaper in nearby St Charles. Before the projected paper was issued, however, the office burned down, along with his books, medicines and printing materials. Providential circumstances were combining to force the Doctor into the course that would result in emergence of the Truth and abandonment of Campbellism. After a brief visit back to Virginia, Brother Thomas sent instructions to an agent that the farm be sold for him. This the agent did, absconding with the proceeds.

It was on his return to Virginia that events forced Dr Thomas’ final separation from the Campbellites and the establishment of an independent congregation.

Dr Thomas was accommodated in Richmond, Virginia by a Mr R Malone. This gentleman was accused by the Campbellites of fellowshipping the infidel Dr Thomas and forthwith was himself excommunicated, the peculiarity of the situation being that Dr Thomas had never himself been excommunicated! This had little effect on Dr Thomas as he had grown used to such hostility, but the outcome was to be monumental.

The little assembly formed thereby represented the first organic manifestation of the Truth in the modern age!

Further Research and Discovery

Dr Thomas was now publishing the Herald of the Future Age, which necessitated the constant development of his scriptural research.

In 1846 Dr Thomas paid a visit to New York. The visit helped precipitate a crisis in his mind, to which all the study of the last fourteen years had been leading. He lectured there ten times on the promises made to the fathers of Israel, the coming of Christ to sit on David’s throne, ruling over the kingdom of God on earth. The discourses were stigmatised by the reviewers as “chaffy”. This goaded Dr Thomas to intensify his study and set it out in a logical form.

Looking over some old Christian magazines published by Mr Wallis, he was struck forcibly by the Truth that was to turn his life around. That Truth was that the Gospel did not consist only in the “things concerning the name of Jesus Christ”. A belief in the second coming of Christ to establish the kingdom of God on earth was essential to salvation! This was the Hope by which, said the apostle Paul, we are saved. What did he know about this hope when he was immersed? Nothing, he concluded. Led by this conviction Dr Thomas came to the determination that he was immersed into a sect but not baptised into Christ. Accordingly he had had a friend baptise him into The Faith he had now found, the ancient, long forgotten Faith of the Disciples of Christ.

“Thus”, he said, “after a long journey of fourteen years, I had found the truth, which on the ocean I declared I would not rest till I had found, should I be permitted to tread again on terra firma; but, in all this journey, I had been directed in a course very different from what I would have selected if I had been left to map it out for myself. I had been entangled into preaching and editing, and taking part in distasteful theological controversies, which however, in their combined influence, brought me to a knowledge of the one faith, and the obedience which it demands.”

The lessons of Brother Thomas’ life are powerful ones. Obstacles, opposition and hostility are sometimes used by God to draw His people closer to the Truth and develop characters that are pleasing to Him. Our response is to manifest patience and trust in His guiding hand. Our wisdom is to see the circumstances of life, however difficult they may seem at the time, as working together for our eternal good.


[1] My Days and My Ways pp 131–143

[2] Doctor Thomas: His Life and Work p1

[3] The Advocate1834

[4] ibid