(2) Editor, Writer and Speaker

Visit of Brother Thomas – 1862 to 1863

Brother Thomas revisited Britain from May 1862 to February 1863. The American Civil War had commenced in April 1861. Its worsening condition led to the cessation of Brother Thomas’ Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come due to the difficulty of distributing the magazine and receiving payment for subscriptions. He therefore proposed to travel to Britain to visit the ecclesias. Brother Roberts invited him to come, which he accepted.

On 28 March 1870 Brother Thomas spoke at a farewell meeting in Birmingham before returning to America. He recalled his three visits, and of the second (1862–3) he mentions his advice to Brother Roberts to move to Birmingham and start a magazine.

The amazing foresight of this advice is still evident in the numerous ecclesias in the Birmingham area today. Importantly much of the population were independent thinkers; by tradition and instinct individualist, and often Nonconformist and Radical. This was ideal ground for the sowing of the seed of the gospel!

“Dr Thomas – His Life  and Work”

T h e b i o g r a p h y o f  Brother Thomas arose  from discussions with  him in Brother Roberts’  home in Huddersfield  during the 1862–3 visit.  It was commenced as a series of articles in The  Ambassador in 1864 but discontinued. It was  published in full in 1884.

Dowieism

During his life Brother Roberts had to deal with  many serious ecclesial issues, some of which led  to a breakdown of fellowship, and division. The  first of these is known as ‘Dowieism’, after a  ‘brother’ in the Edinburgh ecclesia, George Dowie  (1824–1895).

The earliest reference to difficulties between  them was in 1858 when Brother Roberts commenced  preaching in Huddersfield.

“… the criticism [of the advertisement] came  back … that there was too much about immortality in it, and that, in fact, it was not quite an apostolic  performance, as the apostles did not put out bills!  This criticism was symptomatic of the spiritual  divergence that afterwards led to rupture with what  was called ‘Dowieism’, for want of a better name.”

My Days and My Ways, page 40

In 1861 Dowie and others wrote to Brother  Thomas criticising his style of writing, particularly  his criticisms of errors held by others. In September  Brother Thomas replied to them highlighting their  lack of conviction on fundamental doctrines.  Brother Thomas reflects on this opposition to his  second visit to Britain in 1862:

“Many were opposed to it [his visit], including  those who had received what knowledge of the  truth they possessed from my writings. The reason  of their opposition, so far as it appears to me from  observation, was this: they wanted to take just so  much of what they had learnt from my writings  as would satisfy conscience without making them  unpopular. They wanted to be in a position to take  what they pleased and leave out what they pleased,  and throw in some of their own speculations and  traditions, so that when it was all mixed up together, it  would make something more palatable than the hard,  severe, uncompromising notions of Dr. Thomas. The  consequence was that that class of people did not  want me to come over here. They are the people of  whom you may have heard as Dowieites.”

The Christadelphian, 1870, pages 190–191

The term “discuss everything, and settle  nothing” became a regular description of Dowie’s  approach in Britain and Benjamin Wilson’s in  America. The earliest reference to this is in a letter  from Brother Thomas to Brother Tait in Edinburgh,  dated October 22, 1864.

In 1866 Brother Roberts gives a detailed  explanation of the differences between himself and  Dowie and their respective supporters. Dowieism  eventually became no different to the churches.

“The leavening process went on for years,  ultimately the whole mass became so permeated,  that, in 1894, it was agreed to receive persons  whose pre-baptismal knowledge did not include  the things of the kingdom and the name – only  two persons dissenting. Eight years later (with  two dozen dissenters) the Gospel of the Kingdom  was discarded as pre-baptismal faith, and the  communion made ‘free to all baptised persons  holding the common faith of Christendom!’ How  are the mighty fallen.”

William Norrie, The Early History of the Gospel  of the Kingdom of God in Britain, 1904, Volume  1, page 244

Two issues appear to arise from this sad and at  times bitter dispute:

  1. How detailed should a Statement of the Faith (with positive and negative clauses) be?
  2. How should dissidents be handled?

Our current BASF is the result of about 35 years  of drafting and revising, and responding to differing  interpretations of the early versions. It has stood the  test of time now for over 100 years.

On the question of how to handle dissidents,  Brother Roberts took the right approach doctrinally  but did not always consult the ecclesias adequately.  Nevertheless it needs to be said that, at the time, most  of the brethren firmly supported Brother Roberts’  words and actions, including Brother Thomas.

Move to Birmingham – 1863

The Roberts’ move to Birmingham gives us a deep  insight into their understanding of Providence. The  position he thought he had, fell through, and he  then found four other positions, but none were in  Birmingham.

“However, it is not in man that walketh to direct  his steps. He may think he is directing his own steps  at the very moment that God has His hand on the  helm, influencing the thoughts on which his steps  depend, and of this influence he would not of course  be aware. He would only feel that his thoughts were  his thoughts, and his own thoughts …

Here was an embarrassing situation for me and  my partner to consider: leaving Huddersfield for the  sake of the truth in Birmingham: the Birmingham  door closed and four others open. We pondered the  matter for some time. On the face of it, it seemed  as if the indications of Providence were all against  Birmingham. But the truth had been for years our  first consideration; and we could not help feeling  that, by this rule, the four open doors were not  open doors. They seemed, as things were at that  time, to lead away from the field of operations.  And besides, there were four of them. If there had  been only one, it might have been easier to think  the indication decisive. But there being four, choice  was called for, and therefore we felt at liberty to  look at Birmingham as well.”

My Days and My Ways, pages 136–137

Finances

The financial difficulties of the Roberts were due  to several factors:

  1. Their faith was clearly very strong, and their placing of the work of the Truth as the priority above their own needs and comfort  is salutary. Few of us could come close to  matching their commitment.
  2. Their exceeding generosity to others in need, when they had little themselves.
  3. Brother Roberts’ very poor business sense. In 1888, at the suggestion of Brother Robertson of New York, Brother Roberts became interested in  an investment that could benefit the Brotherhood  immensely and assist in the return of Jews to  Palestine and other worthy causes.

“The Jewish colonisation of the Holy Land was  to be helped as no Gentile, and no Jew after the flesh  either, feels moved to help it. The truth was to be  published, both by lecture and literature, as it has  never been in this generation. The poor were to be  helped as never in our age has been possible. Every  grievous load among the brethren, under which  private hearts are bleeding, was to be undone. An  institution for the annual recuperation of the ailing  by a three weeks’ free stay, to which railway fare  would be paid to and fro, was to be provided.”

The Christadelphian, 1889, page 138

May our motives be as high!

Brother Islip Collyer in his biography of Brother  Roberts simply (under)stated that “He was not a  good business man.”

Islip Collyer, Robert Roberts, page 144

The Ambassador of the Coming Age/The Christadelphian  – 1864

It was evident very early on that not everyone  enjoyed The Ambassador, both for its attempt to  systematically expound the gospel, and for his  publication of Brother Thomas’ letters and articles.  The issue of publishing a range of opinions also  arose. Brother Roberts would not open up the  magazine to all writers. Nor would he discuss ‘both  sides’ of an issue where the Scripture lay only one  way. The magazine’s name change occurred in 1869.

Brother Roberts’ early style

That Brother Roberts in his youth was sometimes  too stern in his words he acknowledged later in his  life (in 1893, when 54).

“Someone sending me the number containing  the article, I made it the occasion of a counter  blast in The Ambassador, such as I would not  write now had I to do the work over again – not  that there is anything wrong with the matter or the  argument, but the style is altogether too highly  spiced. I had inevitably taken my style from Dr  Thomas, and his style was not suited to my thinner  mentality. There was too much personal stingo:  too much denunciation: too much high horse and  swashbuckler flourish to go suitably with the mild  discernments of a stripling of 25.”

My Days and My Ways, page 157

Over time his style modified, and he became  less and less comfortable entering into controversy.

Ecclesial organisation – 1864

The need for an ecclesial constitution and a  statement of faith arose in Birmingham as the  number of members increased.

“The second matter in which growth forced our  hands was the matter of what is known as ‘church  orders’. At first we had no rules. Our numbers  were so few and our proceedings so simple that it  would have been pedantic to have employed them.  I felt very averse to their introduction; but we were  compelled to consider the question. The brethren  proposed to give me an official status among them  as ‘ministering brother’, but I objected …

Instead of accepting a position of personal  authority, I drew up a set of rules for consideration  which would have the effect of putting the body  in complete charge of its own affairs. These were  adopted, and were afterwards modified from time to  time in accordance with the lessons of experience.  They substantially remain the basis of ecclesial  operation to the present day …

Time has not increased my admiration for such  a democratic system. It was not admiration that led  me to propose it at the beginning, but a perception of  the necessity for it in the peculiar circumstances of  our century, when there is no basis for the exercise  of Divine authority. The aim was to combine liberty  with order, and law with the absence of authority,  and above all to preserve the fraternal character  required by the law of Christ. In this respect, it was  a compromise, and therefore like all compromises  a little unsatisfactory in some directions.”

My Days and My Ways, pages 151–152

Hymn Book – 1865

Brother Roberts compiled a hymn book called ‘The  Golden Harp’. Other hymn  books followed: in 1869  and in 1874, this latter one  with music

Concern for the poor

From the very first volume  o f T h e A m b a s s a d o r  Brother Roberts published  appeals for poor brethren.  Most years during  Brother Roberts’ editorship  had at least one such  appeal. In 1870 a welfare  fund was established.

Preaching

After moving to Birmingham Brother Roberts  spoke most weeks, including giving a number of  special preaching efforts. After he became the fulltime  editor of The Christadelphian in January 1870,  his speaking and travelling expanded even more.  Remarkably, on 22 July 1897, Brother Roberts  could say at the farewell tea meeting prior to the  Roberts’ departing for Australia:

“I had been just forty years at work: I had just  finished the public exposition of the Scriptures in  Birmingham on a method that had taken us through  the whole Bible, beginning at Genesis and finishing  at Revelation.”

The Christadelphian, 1897, page 351

Sunday school and young people

A Sunday school was commenced in Birmingham  in 1865. The following year (at the age of 26) he  wrote of the need to bring up children in God’s way.  His maturity and thorough Bible knowledge at this  young age can be clearly seen.

Debates

Brother Roberts engaged in a number of debates  (at least eight) with others:8  1. – 1866 with Mr RC Nightingale, unpaid minister  to a Calvinist congregation in Birmingham, on  the subject of the immortality of the soul.

  1. – 1869 with the Rev J Campbell of London on ‘Is the Faith of Christendom Scriptural?’
  2. – 1869 with Mr Thomas Knight on the immortality of the soul and the devil.
  3. – 1871 with a Jew, Louis Stern, on ‘Was Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah?’
  4. – 1874 with Mr Long, member of the Glasgow School Board, on ‘Man and the Earth: Their Destiny as Revealed.’
  5. – 1876 with Charles Bradlaugh on the inspiration of Scriptures.
  6. – 1879 with Mr Edward Hine (of London) on ‘Are Englishmen Israelites?’
  7. – 1884 with Mr Jackson, a Campbellite, on the question of the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham.

As with his speaking style his attraction to  debating changed over time.

“I used to accept and encourage challenges as  the best available means of drawing attention to the  truth, but now when we can get a public hearing  on the truth’s own merits, there does not seem the  same incentive to go through the turmoil of debate.  Nevertheless, with the needful physical vigour, I  would take all the challenges as they come, and put  on one side my increasing aversion to the cock-pitprofanity  more or less inseparable from a joust with  a formal opponent.”

The Christadelphian, 1896, page 257

Brother Thomas’ third visit – 1869

Brother Thomas’ third and last visit to Britain  commenced with his arrival (with daughter Sister  Eusebia Lasius) in Liverpool on 18th May 1869 and  his departure on 4th May 1870. Notable events of  this visit were:

  • Brother Thomas suggested that the magazine be called The Christadelphian.
  • He arranged a salary for Brother Roberts to be full-time editor.
  • He decided to live permanently in England, and bought a house lot in the Birmingham suburb of Olton.
  • His daughter Sister Lasius (a widow) remained in England, pending the return of Brother and Sister Thomas after they sold their house in  New York.
  • He appointed Brother Roberts and Brother Bosher as the executors of his Will.

The Will contained four parts:

  1. Regarding his burial.
  2. To make provision for the support of his wife and daughter.
  3. Transferring funds and literary properties to Brother Robert Roberts for the establishment of a publication society styled ‘The Christadelphian  Society’.
  4. Precluding the use of the name ‘Christadelphian’ by others.

Brother Thomas dies – 1871

When Brother Thomas died the task of guiding the  young ecclesias throughout the world and especially  in Britain now fell to Brother Robert Roberts.  Brother Roberts was just thirty-one years old!

On 4th April Brethren Roberts and Bosher  travelled to New York to conduct the funeral for  Brother Thomas. Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn  was eventually chosen as his final burying place.