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Reviews | Dr Thomas: His Life and Work

Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work

Robert Roberts

Hardback or e-book (ePub)

272 pages

Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work

The Christadelphian review (from December 1954)

The Life and Work of Dr. Thomas

THE record of the beginnings of the Truth in modern times should always be available in a convenient form, and this has been recognized by the republication of bro. Roberts’ Life and Work of Dr. Thomas. Any young brethren and sisters thinking “What a tedious volume this will probably be!” will be quite mistaken. Here is no dull, heavy work.

Bro. Roberts published the first edition of this biography in 1873. In spite of the lengthy extracts from correspondence and magazines now over a century old, and in spite of its old fashioned and faded printing, the reviewer (who is not an ancient) read this first edition with extraordinary interest only a year or so ago. Bro. Roberts was perfectly at home with his subject and wrote in lively style about an indomitable pioneer of the gospel of the Kingdom and the Name.

John Thomas, born in London six months after the battle of Trafalgar, was brought up in a Congregationalist atmosphere, but at 16 left the church. He studied medicine first at Chorley and then at St. Thomas Hospital (bro. Boulton adds also at Guys), and soon revealed literary talent in his frequent contributions to the Lancet. His father having decided to emigrate to America, it was arranged that John should precede him. Accordingly at 27 he sailed from London in the Marquis of Wellesley, a passenger boat of “about 500 tons burthen, built of strong teak and copper bottomed”, on which he had obtained the post of ship’s surgeon.

Then follows the vivid story of the Doctor’s near shipwreck off Sable Island, told in language reminiscent of an earlier shipwreck, that of R. Crusoe. To one terrified passenger who exclaimed “We shall go to the bottom”, the Doctor made the characteristic observation that they were already at the bottom and could not get lower. Highly dissatisfied with his ignorance of his personal future in the event of his being drowned, he made his famous resolve that if he reached land he would not rest until he had discovered the truth about God and man. He faithfully carried out his resolution.

The Doctor now came into touch with the Campbellites, a sect newly formed from the Baptists and led by Alexander Campbell, whose early career was remarkably similar to that of the Doctor. Campbell had left Ireland for America in 1808, but shipwrecked off the Scottish coast and sitting on the stump of a mast he had resolved to enter the ministry. Reaching America he had fallen in with the Baptists, but disagreeing with their laxity had finally formed a new sect in 1832, the year the Doctor arrived in America. Similarly the Doctor first fell in with the Campbellites, by whom he was immersed at Cincinnati, but later questioning the Scriptural nature of certain of their beliefs, was constrained to form a new community, later to be known as Christadelphians.

Today the Campbellites, or Disciples of Christ, have a world membership of some two millions, although their adherents in Britain have steadily declined from 16,596 in 1930 to 9,334 last year. Among their more notable members have been the United States President Garfield and Mr. J. B. Rotherham, translator of the Emphasized Bible, whilst the first Earl Lloyd George was brought up in the Campbellite church at Criccieth.

Dr. Thomas was 17 years younger than Alexander Campbell, but following their meeting in Virginia in 1833 the two got on famously, Campbell soon introducing the Doctor to platform work, which he really disliked. But there was no escaping it, and the Doctor’s lectures in various cities on “The Ancient Faith” were well received.

The Doctor was next persuaded to edit a new monthly magazine, The Apostolic Advocate, which may be thought of as the great-grandparent of the Christadelphian, the Doctor’s writing around this time being described by a Philadelphia journal as “Style chaste, reasoning close; takes high ground; treats all human authority very unceremoniously; appeals directly to the Scriptures …”

That the Doctor was a well read man is evident from his familiarity not only with Milton, Newton, Gibbon, Mosheim and the English poets, but also with the early Christian fathers.

Two years after their introduction the friendship between the Doctor and Campbell began to cool. The Doctor objected to so many Baptists being allowed to join the (Campbellite) faith without being re-baptized, and his controversy with Campbell over this issue is interesting to read.

The debate had scarcely begun to die down when the fat was well and truly in the fire with a series of 36 questions published by the Doctor in the Apostolic Advocate for December, 1835, under the heading “Information Wanted”, of which the general tenor was to query the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, taken for granted by the Campbellites in common with all their contemporaries. The Doctor was only 30 at the time, and this new and bold enquiry will serve to introduce a feature of his life’s work which may commend him to enquiring young brethren and sisters of today not as an antiquated figure but a thoughtful and courageous fellow-seeker after truth of 120 years ago. After embracing Campbellism the Doctor did not devote his time and energy to his medical practice, leave the study of the Scriptures to others and become a narrow champion of orthodox Campbellite doctrine. He became a champion of Bible truth and as a result got into trouble with the Campbellite authorities. Yet he was ready both at this time and when much older to acknowledge mistakes whether of doctrine or temper, his whole appeal being not to tradition, Campbellite or otherwise, but to the teaching of the Word of God. The title of the second monthly magazine he published, The Investigator, is typical of his attitude.

In 1837 Campbell disfellowshipped the Doctor, but not all the Campbellite churches accepted his excommunication. Not only was the Doctor known to be a sincere and shrewd expositor of the Scriptures, but—and this is another point of the highest importance—he was also known to be a man of exemplary Christian walk. For a time the breach between the two men was healed, and now the Doctor decided to leave Virginia for the far north-west. Here must be noted a third important feature of the Doctor’s life and character. At first for personal reasons but later wholly for the Truth’s reasons, he was prepared to undergo the greatest privations. At 35 he now undertook, entirely on horseback, alone and unprovided with any means of self-defence, a journey of 900 miles “over mountain and moor and through forests and swamps” from Virginia to Illinois. He took a farm (without farmhouse) 33 miles from Chicago (then a town of 6,000 inhabitants). But the rigours of farm work and the trying experiences which followed his abandonment of the farm so aged him that on revisiting a Campbellite meeting in Virginia in 1842 he was only recognized with difficulty.

After a year’s stay in Kentucky, where he was generously lodged with two friendly Campbellite elders, the Doctor was induced to resume magazine activities, the Herald of the Future Age being the outcome, and then in 1844 the Doctor and a few of his friends met together at Richmond, Virginia, for the breaking of bread and public proclamation of the Gospel. “This”, writes bro. Roberts, “may be regarded as the first organic manifestation of the truth in the present age.”

A series of lectures in New York was followed in 1847 by the formation of the New York ecclesia, and in 1848 the Doctor sailed for England to preach the Truth in this country, which he did for the first time at Nottingham on July 30, 1848. More lectures were given at Nottingham that August, resulting in the formation of the Nottingham ecclesia, and the Doctor also spoke at Derby, Birmingham, Lincoln, Newark and Plymouth. The Doctor was still not quite out of fellowship with the Campbellites and, in fact, was sufficiently well regarded by that body in Lincoln as not only to lecture under their auspices there, but to represent them at the Campbellite Conference at Glasgow in the autumn of 1848. In Glasgow the Doctor lectured to audiences of over 5,000 people, visited Paisley where he was entertained in “princely style” by Mr. Coats, a Scottish Baptist and founder of the now world famous firm of J. and P. Coats, Ltd., and returned to Glasgow. Then at eleven o’clock on the evening of October 12, at the close of a special soirée presided over by a Glasgow city magistrate, a member of the audience rose and publicly proposed that the Doctor should “publish the matter of his lectures in a book, that his friends and the public might possess it in a tangible and permanent form”. This was the origin of Elpis Israel.

During the following months the Doctor spoke at Edinburgh, Harrogate, Aberdeen, Dundee, Plymouth and Liverpool. At Aberdeen a local boy was alleged to have fallen asleep during part of the Doctor’s lecture, but it can safely be testified that the boy made ample amends later, for his name was Robert Roberts. This is just one out of a host of attractive and illuminating sidelights in the biography.

After a holiday on the Continent, the Doctor returned to America, and here we must pay particular tribute to the painstaking and careful labours of bro. W. H. Boulton, under whose guidance the biography has been revised. In the first edition of 1873, the activities of the Doctor from 1832 to 1850 occupied nearly 280 pages, whereas the interesting and busy years from 1850 to 1871 were compressed into five pages. Bro. Boulton has remedied this by devoting over 40 pages to an attractive and valuable account of the Doctor’s labours both in America and Britain during these last twenty years.

The first ecclesial constitution (that for New York meeting) came out in 1852. Among other arrangements was one, not out of date, that the exposition of the Word was to be done with much thought and few words, and that “to open a masked battery upon brethren is not exhortation and . . . will not be allowed”. Modern northern ecclesias will be pleased to hear that the exhortation was to come after the Breaking of Bread.

The writing of Eureka, the Doctor’s exciting and important experiences during the American Civil War, his second visit to Britain and his reception and entertainment by bro. Roberts (then only 23) and sis. Roberts at Huddersfield in May, 1862 (an ecclesia having recently been founded in that redoubtable Yorkshire town), the Doctor’s suggestion that bro. Roberts should remove to Birmingham and start a periodical there (of which the first number appeared in July, 1864, as The Ambassador of the Coming Age, soon to be changed to The Christadelphian) further labours in America, his third visit to Britain in 1868 where he delivered 145 discourses, and finally his death on March 5, 1871—all these and much more are well and pithily told. Finally, we have an estimate of his character and work by the original biographer, supplemented by bro. Boulton.

Over 120 years have gone by since Doctor Thomas was baptized at Cincinnati, over 80 since his death. Bro. Boulton was born whilst the Doctor was alive and hard at work; as disciple and writer he is a link with the pioneer who under the good hand of God has put so many in his debt. Bro. Boulton’s latest literary contribution to the cause of the Truth will secure the perpetuation of the work and example of bro. John Thomas for years to come, perhaps until the end of the present dispensation for which pioneer, biographers and all faithful disciples looked and do look.

J. B. NORRIS

The Testimony review (from March 1970)

Dr. Thomas – His Life and Work

THE above is the title of the book written by our late brother Robert Roberts in 1873. In the preface he remarks, “It is not a mere story – not a story at all, in the ordinary sense. It is the illustration of a development of Bible truth which, in the absence of miracle and direct communication from God, has taken years to come to maturity: which the world at large is unaware of: which some part of the professing Christian world, knowing of it, rejects with bitterness: which others have received with joy …”.

Present day readers, who are so used to the superficial lightness of reading and speech, pressed out in newspaper and radio, will not take so kindly to such a book as Robert Roberts wrote. It is, however, one that all brethren and sisters should seek to read. It may be “heavy going” in parts, but it is very well worth reading.

The book is hardly a Life of Dr. Thomas. It would be of interest to know more of him, but it is better that we should have an account of how the Truth was found, rather than a detailed biography of the man. It is from this point of view (that is, the discovery, or recovery of the Truth), that Bro. Roberts’ book should be read. It is not adulatory, but records the progress of Dr. Thomas’ “spiritual education; and that should interest any brother or sister”.

The reason for Dr. Thomas’ investigations is well known. During the hazards of the journey across the Atlantic in 1832, when his death by drowning seemed a most likely prospect, he determined to seek the truth about “religion” – if safely brought to land. Very happily for us he survived, and soon came into contact with the “Campbellite” sect: was baptised by them, and it was not long before he became a prominent speaker and writer.

However, by diligent reading of the Scriptures, he began to question what he had accepted as truth, and after some thirteen years of intensive Bible study, realised what constituted the essential principles of apostolic truth. There is no doubt as to the originality of his research. He was a well-informed man and had read extensively in science, history and literature, as his occasional allusions to his own writings show. He was living at a time when there was much investigation into prophecy, and Dr. Thomas himself must have read an enormous amount in this connection – as witness, for example, his preface to volume 3 of Eureka. (Eight large pages of small print and charts.)

It is due to his labour that the body to which we belong came into existence. R. Roberts’ book shows this to be true. In conjunction with it, R. Roberts’ own Autobiography, My Days and My Ways should be read; the thirty-six chapters of which were reproduced in 1917, with a seven-chapter Appendix by the late C. C. Walker. We might well, also, read the late Islip Collyer’s Life of Robert Roberts.

These two books can stir up the heart and can make us thankful for the arduous labours of Bro. Roberts, who lived in times so very different from the comparatively easy-going days we now experience.

Brethren and sisters who have not read the books mentioned would indeed profit by so doing and would, we are sure, have an increased appreciation of THE “TRUTH as it is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21 – The New English Bible), which these early brethren did so much to bring to light from the Scriptures.

S. F. JEACOCK

(Originally published in the March 1970 edition of The Testimony Magazine (page 97), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

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