Following the death of Brother Thomas in 1871,  and as editor of the largest circulating magazine within the Christadelphian community, it fell to Brother Robert Roberts at the age of 31 to guide the ecclesias. Within 15 years he had to deal with two major ecclesial problems and respond to numerous lesser matters as editor.


Just six months after laying Brother Thomas to rest, Brother Roberts, in November 1871, published a  short article by Brother David Handley that led to  controversy and division. It was called “No Man Can Redeem His Brother”. In it Handley stated of Christ that:

“… though Son of David’s daughter, and ‘made  of the woman’, he was a new creation – ‘the Lord  from heaven;’ not dependent on Adam for his life,  but received it direct from the Father, as John hath  it (5:26; 6:57). Here, I think, we see the wisdom  of God in redemption. A body in our nature; a  life independent of our race; the life of the flesh is  given for the life of the world; here is what men of  business call twenty shillings in the pound.”

At about this time (July 1871) Brother Edward Turney of the Nottingham ecclesia was appointed by  Brother Roberts to provide answers to correspondents  in The Christadelphian. In 1873 Brother Turney  distributed a tract entitled “Questions and Answers”  containing 32 questions and in which he “renounced”  his understanding of the atonement and held a view  similar to Handley’s. He believed that Jesus was not a  son of Adam, his body was not under condemnation,  he possessed a ‘free life’, and he was not redeemed  by his own sacrifice. (see Doctrine to be Rejected  #4 in the basf)

In the July 1873 issue of The Christadelphian  Brother Roberts responded to Turney’s views  in a 15 page article entitled “The Sacrifice of  Christ – Questions Answered According to the  Truth, Which Is Never  to Be ‘Renounced’”.  This was followed in  August and September  by 7 and 18 page articles  entitled “The Sacrifice  of Christ”. In October  Brother Roberts’ address  “The Slain Lamb” (given  on 29 August) was  published over 20 pages, and further comments  from readers. An additional eight pages were  written being a list of 85 points to explain the  Scriptural teaching. In this same issue it was  reported that the Nottingham ecclesia had divided  and about 40 members (out of 135) left to form a  new meeting supporting Brother Roberts.

Brother Evans, writing in 1959, provides a  useful overview of the situation:

“The Birmingham Ecclesia met at the  Atheneum Hall on August 26 to hear answers  which were given by brother Roberts to the  theory propounded by brother Edward Turney.  Brother Craddock proposed and brother Egginton  seconded, that brother Roberts should question  brother Turney, who was to lecture on August 28,  but questions were not allowed as the time had been  fully taken up by brother Turney, and so brother  Roberts called a meeting at the Temperance Hall  for the following night to refute the statements by  brother Turney, but the attendance was not what  had been expected. I remember being told that  brother Roberts’ nervous condition after these  meetings was so disturbed that he was confined to  bed, and at the Sunday morning meeting on Sept.  14 a letter written by sis. Roberts at the dictation of  brother Roberts was read explaining that his doctor  kept him in bed through illness. He implored the  brethren to refuse to follow those who were inclined  to follow the ‘new theory’. It was about two weeks  later before brother Roberts could resume activities. After further discussion on the course which  should be pursued to preserve the Truth a meeting  was held on October 30, 1873, of some 142  brethren and sisters who firmly repudiated brother  Turney’s views that “the body of Jesus was not  under condemnation” but that Jesus possessed “a  free unforfeited life”. Other resolutions were passed  chiefly dealing with the property of the Ecclesia,  and a committee of three were appointed to deal  with matters pro tem pending rules being agreed  to by which the Ecclesia should be governed. The  brethren appointed were Thomas Davies, Charles  Meakin and Robert Roberts. The proposed Rules  for Guidance of a Christadelphian Ecclesia  were adopted on November 13, 1873. They  were in substance those which exist today in the  Constitution of the Christadelphian Ecclesia.”

(The Christadelphian, 1959, pages 292–293)

In 1874 Brother Roberts estimated that about  200 had been lost to Renunciationism, but these  numbers were restored soon afterwards as followers  of Turney came to understand their mistake.  Brother Turney died on 18 March 1879. On  the other hand Brother David Handley was reimmersed  on 21 April 1881 after acknowledging  his errors. He died on 31 July 1886.

Support for the Jews

The significance of the Jewish people in God’s  plan and purpose has always been a key teaching  in the Brotherhood from the early days of Brother  Thomas, and it still is. Based on the promise to  Abraham regarding the blessing on those who  bless him, this interest in the Jews was manifested  in numerous practical expressions of support,  particularly fundraising. The first example of this  was in 1874 when £4 was collected for the poor  Jews of Jerusalem. The next year a total of £131  was raised to support the development of Palestine.

“As our readers are aware, the Jewish Board  of Deputies in London have appealed to the Jews  and to ‘the friends of Zion’ in general throughout  the world, for funds to prosecute a scheme for the  Jewish agricultural cultivation of the Holy Land.  Their object is to honour Sir Moses Montefiore on  his retirement from a 50 years’ connection with the  Board, who has requested a proposed testimonial  to him to be put into this form; but though this is  their object, the effect of their scheme will be to  lay the foundation of the pre-adventual return of  prosperity to Zion. This is an object with which  many can sympathise who would not readily be  stirred by personal sentiments towards Sir Moses.”

(The Christadelphian, 1875, page 129)

The sisters also became involved in making  clothes for poor Jews in Palestine. By 1882 the funds  raised were very significant, being nearly £300, and  a large quantity of clothing was also contributed.

Brother William Gee of Crewe

One brother made a very personal contribution to  Palestine by emigrating there. He was William Gee  (1848–13/6/1916) of the Crewe ecclesia. Within  two years of his baptism he decided to emigrate  to Palestine.

Brother Gee left England on 13 April  1888 and took with him a perfume still and a  number of scientific beehives. Soon afterwards a  communication from Haifa (he arrived there on  6 May) announced the shipping of “an enormous  quantity of (Palestine) bulbs” for the English  market. He soon started exporting dried mounted  flowers to England and manufacturing wax and  harvesting herbs for distilling. For a time he worked  for the company building the Acre to Damascus  railway. However after 20 years he returned to  England in 1909, his wife having died, and his  projects all failed. He died on the 13th June 1916  at the age of 67.

The ‘Inspiration’ Division and Brethren Robert  Ashcroft and Joseph Chamberlin

Robert Ashcroft (1842–14/10/1921) was a  Congregational minister. He was baptised on 11th  June 1876 (aged 34) and lived in Rock Ferry, three  miles from Liverpool. Brother Roberts (aged 37)  was evidently so impressed by the conversion of  a minister that he wrote a 16 page article entitled  “A Congregationalist Minister Becomes Obedient  to The Truth, Un-‘Revs.’ Himself, and Gives Up a  Salary of £400 a Year”.

In May 1877 Ashcroft’s speaking appointments  were listed in The Christadelphian. His attractiveness  as a speaker extended to invitations from overseas. The January 1883 issue of The Christadelphian lists Robert Ashcroft as the Assistant-Editor.

In late 1882 another Minister was baptised. This was Joseph H Chamberlin (aged 35), a Methodist  New Connexion minister from Stoke-on-Trent. He was later to ally himself with Ashcroft. In July 1883  he also came to work in the Office being unable to gain employment elsewhere.

The conversion of men of high education and religious status was a great thrill to the brethren.  However in October 1884 Robert Ashcroft commenced a magazine called The Biblical Exegetist.  A serious problem immediately arose when the  content of the first and only issue became known. It  advocated that the Bible was not wholly inspired. In  response Brother Roberts wrote a series of articles  running to 22 pages in the December issue of The  Christadelphian responding to  Ashcroft’s ideas on inspiration.  These were followed by three  pages of letters from others  also expressing grave concerns.  Thirty-five pages of the January  issue were also focused on the  inspiration controversy.

From January to September  1885 Ashcroft published  another magazine called The Truth. This was then superseded  by The Fraternal Visitor. The January 1885 issue of  The Christadelphian discusses a  possible division in the ecclesia, including concern about the  process that might be involved. The Renunciationist  division of 1873 involved Brother Roberts issuing a printed card that if not endorsed by each brother and sister effectively put oneself out of fellowship.

At a meeting on the 2nd February 1885 the Birmingham ecclesia did not agree to pass a resolution declaring the Bible wholly inspired.  The majority (of one) felt that the issue was not one for Birmingham (Ashcroft was a member at  Liverpool) and were concerned that those who did not see a need to withdraw (yet personally believed  in inspiration) would find themselves separated  from others.

From September 1885 Brother Roberts wrote a  series of articles on “To the Elect of God (in a Time of  Trouble)”, including “The Final Consolation” and “A  Letter to My Enemies”, endeavouring to reassure the  Brotherhood. They are some of his finest writing.

On 22 July 1886 the Birmingham ecclesia adopted a new Constitution (including their  Statement of the Faith) with a “Foundation Clause”  added.

“Our Foundation – That the book currently  known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures  of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and his  purposes at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration  of God in the writers, and are consequently without  error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation.”

Many years later Brother John Carter summed up the controversy as one of “fellowship” rather  than “inspiration”.

“We have always maintained that the primary issue between the two fellowships had to do with  fellowship; that the rule which only removed from  office anyone who departed from some element of the One Faith left the door open for many errors to be tolerated. What we have written is there for anyone to read. But because these brethren tolerated  some erroneous doctrine knowing it to be such, we  cannot therefore justly conclude that those they  baptized believed the error. At the time of the  strife and the heated feelings in 1885 some may  have interpreted the resolution on inspiration in a perverse way and others may have tolerated them. But the resolution which was drawn up by Brother Roberts was adopted.”

(The Christadelphian, 1956, page 145)

This dispute resulted in the Suffolk Street Fellowship. Through the efforts of brother Carter  reunion in Britain was achieved in February 1957.

Interesting articles

From the age of 25 when The Ambassador began, Brother Roberts was asked to answer numerous  questions, both doctrinal and practical. Some of the  practical issues are listed below and illustrate the  extraordinary range of questions he had to address.  Some of the questions may seem odd to us but the  ecclesia was a new thing and there was very little  precedent for knowing what to do.

“It was not merely the incessant travelling,  speaking, writing and editing. Problems and knotty  questions were coming in from all over Great  Britain, and even from beyond the seas. If anyone  found a difficult passage of Scripture the editor was  asked for an explanation. If a recalcitrant member  carried democratic liberties to an extreme, causing  trouble and contention in a meeting, the editor  was expected to put matters straight. There were  problems of exposition, of ecclesial management,  and of the application of scriptural precept to  modern life, some problems difficult, some amusing,  and some absurd. Answers were sometimes printed  in the magazine, sometimes given in private letters,  and sometimes by word of mouth. For the most part these problems were new; there was no tradition to  which they could be referred, they needed thought and application. For the most part the answers to difficulties revealed a remarkable maturity of  judgment in so young a man. They certainly needed hard work.”

Islip Collyer, Robert Roberts, page 51

Some of the subjects covered included the  following:

  • Worship of Christ
  • Role of Sisters
  • Clothing fashions
  • Families at Christ’s Return
  • Use of the ‘Magic Lantern’
  • Vaccination
  • Suing at Law
  • Letters of Transfer
  • The Type of Bread and Wine
  • Charging Interest
  • Freemasonry
  • Children Fighting
  • Smoking
  • Eating Blood
  • Drinking Alcohol
  • Theatre-going
  • Reading Novels
  • Saving Money
  • Fornication
  • Brethren and Competitive Cricket
  • Conducting a Funeral
  • Christmas and Easter
  • Eating Pork

Any young brother or sister (and most older  ones too!) would be challenged by most of these  issues, let alone to be virtually alone from the age  of 25 to deal with any and every question or issue  that arose within the Brotherhood. Whether all of  his answers have stood the test of time and further  Scriptural study is irrelevant. The fact that so many  have, and that our position on inspiration and the  atonement, absolutely fundamental issues, owes so  much to Brother Roberts, is the legacy for which we  should all be very grateful. It is extremely doubtful  that any of us could have managed as well.