Between September 1871 and April 1879 Brother Robert Roberts was involved in three significant debates. These debates form an interesting part of our Christadelphian heritage. In contrast to our own day, lectures or debates on biblical subjects attracted large audiences. Two of the debates extended over three nights and the debate with Mr Charles Bradlaugh was over six nights even though Brother Roberts had originally requested twelve nights.
The topics of the debates and the speakers were unique. The first debate was with a Jew, a Mr Louis
Stern on the subject Was Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah?, the second, with a Mr Charles Bradlaugh on the subject Is the Bible Divine? and the third with a Mr Edward Hine Are Englishmen Israelites?.
Louis Stern was a member of the Anti-Jewish Conversionist Society in Birmingham. The debate marked the beginning of mutually respectful relations between the Jewish and Christadelphian communities in Birmingham. This led to Christadelphian support for Laurence Oliphant’s appeal for funds for the Rosh Pinna settlement in Galilee.
Charles Bradlaugh was a political activist and one of the most famous atheists of the 19th century1. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866 and became a Member of Parliament in 1880, nearly four years after his debate with Brother Roberts. To take his seat in Parliament he was required to take an oath of allegiance. Because he did not believe in God he refused and asked to take an affirmation instead. As a result of his stand he had to forfeit his seat in Parliament. His seat became vacant and a by-election was held. Bradlaugh was re-elected four times while the dispute continued. In 1888 the legislation was changed and he was finally allowed to take an affirmation and his seat in Parliament.
Edward Hine together with Edward Wheeler Bird and Herbert Aldersmith developed the British Israelite movement. He published a weekly journal called the Nation’s Leader and the monthly magazine Life from the Dead. He also founded the British-Israelite Corporation in 1880. Wikipedia lists details of Edward Hine’s life and works. Interestingly, the references cited include a lecture by Robert Roberts given on 20 February 1879 entitled Anglo-Israelism Refuted and the debates between Robert Roberts and Edward Hine on the nights of 22, 23 and 24 April 1879.
The book itself is based on the official transcripts of the debates. In the case of the second and third debate, Brother Roberts added a review of the debate because he had insufficient time to deal with all his material within the allotted time. His opponents were also offered the same opportunity to add a review but declined. Each transcript of the debates was published by Brother Roberts and subsequently offered for sale.
Although the style and language of the book require closer attention than modern writings, the book is compelling as we follow the arguments of the speakers. The lack of political correctness makes for interesting and sometimes amusing verbal exchanges. Brother Robert’s language is at times colourful. An example is when he refers to Mr Hine’s arguments on Britain being the children of Israel as ‘theological quackery’!
The Kingdom of God
The positive arguments presented by Brother Roberts in regard to Jesus being the Son of God and Messiah in the first debate complement his arguments in the third debate about the re-gathering of Judah and Ephraim and these being one nation with Christ as king to them all. Consequently the two debates give a good outline of the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
The Atheist View
In the second debate Mr Bradlaugh raises some of the arguments we are most likely to encounter with nonbelievers in our own day, eg:
- There is no evidence for the New Testament Scriptures being available in the late first century or early second century.
- The Scriptures are full of contradictions.
- God cannot possibly be an all-good God – the Old Testament in particular encourages evil practices such as slavery.
Brother Roberts, in his insightful way, was able to identify the key arguments and strongly counter them and was not easily distracted by minor points. A lifetime of Bible study prepared him as a faithful defender of the Scriptures. Although involved in public contest he was not diverted by thoughts of human pride but was only concerned with presenting the truth of the Scriptures.
The book is recommended, not only because it gives strong arguments against the incorrect views of each of the opposing speakers, but also because it gives a feeling for the spirit of the times in which Brother Roberts lived. The book is available at the cost of $9.90 from the Christadelphian Scripture Study Service. Orders can be placed via the CSSS website csss.org.au or email [email protected] or phone 08 8278 8256 or 08 8278 6848 or write to 85 Sufolk Road, Hawthorndene SA, 5051