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Reviews | Elpis Israel

Elpis Israel

John Thomas

Hardback or e-book (ePub)

546 pages

Elpis Israel

The Christadelphian review (from April 2000)

Elpis Israel

IF there is one book more than any other that shows the Christadelphian understanding of the gospel revealed in the scriptures, then that book is Elpis Israel, written by Brother John Thomas just over a hundred and fifty years ago. It predated the coining of the name “Christadelphian” by a decade and a half, but sets out in a logical manner the distinctive and fundamental beliefs that the Brotherhood, all these years afterwards, still upholds.

The original manuscript was essentially the substance of a lecture series delivered by Brother Thomas during a visit to the United Kingdom from the USA in 1848. After being encouraged by many who heard these lectures to put them into a more permanent form, Brother Thomas stayed for a time in London, and in a feverish period of activity centred mainly on six weeks when — to use his own description — he oscillated like a pendulum between his desk and his bed, he produced this important work.

Before the author’s death in 1871, the work went through four editions, the last of these incorporating some changes, mostly in the third and last part. As he explained in the Preface to that edition, he was agreeably surprised that so few changes were necessary: less than a dozen altogether in the first two parts of the book. Those in the last section were occasioned mainly by developing international events, but also by a more detailed consideration of the subject of resurrection.

The Value of Continual Revision

Since his death, later editions have, correctly in this reviewer’s opinion, continued the process of reviewing the book’s content in the light of changing times and modern discoveries, especially in the field of textual knowledge. Where there is some doubt regarding the scriptural support for any point, this has generally been covered by a footnote, and not by amending the text. A couple of examples will indicate this.

On page 138 of the new edition, the author comments on Romans 5:12, where the margin of the AV has, “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all sinned”. The footnote warns against building too much on this wording, when it says: “This marginal rendering of the AV cannot be sustained. The Revised Version has struck it out”. There is an important point here, for to understand that all mankind sinned in Adam has serious consequences upon how the Atonement is understood. If we sinned in Adam, then we bear in some way the guilt of mortality. It is apparent that this was never Brother Thomas’s view — who famously said that mortality is our misfortune, not our crime — and the footnote sounds an important warning against drawing a different conclusion.

Another footnote on page 66 refers to one of Brother Thomas’s more disputed expositions. Earlier in the book he argued for the existence of pre-Adamic inhabitants who were swept away by a catastrophe that made the earth “without form and void”. He found some support for this view when Adam and Eve were commanded to “replenish the earth, and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). The footnote therefore gently adds the following comment, “But the Hebrew, maleh (to fill) must not be strained. It does not of itself convey the idea, replenish”.

Other Alterations

Another area where changes have subsequently been introduced, following the author’s own policy of revision, is in the third prophetical section. Once again the changes are not great. Where they occur, as for example on pages 384 and 387, they have either been rewritten on the basis of Eureka, a later work by the author, or by bringing in the actual wording from Eureka.

In this latest edition there are no additional changes of these kinds. In a couple of cases some words that have completely fallen out of use in the past 150 years have been altered, but only where the context does not immediately supply the meaning. For example, earlier editions had a sentence that said, “Universalism, a widespreading upas, which teaches that all human beings … shall dwell with God eternally …”. It is extremely unlikely that modern readers will be acquainted with the word ‘upas’, nor is its meaning immediately apparent from the context. Upas is a Javanese tree from which a poisonous substance can be extracted — hence the metaphor for a poisonous effect. In the new edition this word has been changed to read “pernicious influence”.

Apart from these, and the correction of obvious errors (for example, “cave of Machpelah” has been changed to “Shechem” as the burying place of Joseph’s bones, on page 428), the only other change is to the description of spiritual enlightenment in the section on “The Carnal Mind”. The author’s reference to “the aborigines of New Holland, or the Ghelanes of Africa” could be read as reflecting the commonly held view in the times in which he lived, that there are physiological distinctions between the mental capacity of men of European stock, and those of other races. This was not the point he was making, and the removal of one short sentence guards against the misapplication of the passage. The Bible teachings that Brother Thomas uncovered in his day have been enthusiastically received by men and women in many nations, not least in the one-time dark regions of Africa. It was therefore felt that it would be an affront to our brethren and sisters in those countries to leave this section unchanged.

Is the Book a Museum Piece?

None of these comments is intended to suggest that this work is simply a product of its day, and thus a museum piece for the 21st century. From the majestically worded first paragraph it is apparent that the book contains compelling material, and it is fitting that the new edition quotes and illustrates this paragraph on its full colour cover: “Revolving upon its own axis, and describing an ample circuit through the boundless fields of space, is a planet of the solar system bearing upon its surface a population of over a thousand millions subject to sin, disease and death”.

There are very many brethren and sisters who can attest to the impact this work has had in their lives, drawing back a curtain on their understanding of the scriptures. Brother Robert Roberts said that once he first obtained a copy, “I never ceased the reading (at my leisure intervals) until I got through. I rose early in the morning to have more time …” (My Days and My Ways, page 9). And Brother John Carter went on record as saying, “The first two sections of the three into which the book is divided, will in the writer’s judgment, never be surpassed …” (The Faith in the Last Days, page 26).

Yet there can be no doubt that, for many, it is a daunting work. The reasons are three-fold: the book’s length — nearly 500 pages in the new edition — the complexity of its subject-matter and exposition, and its language. This reviewer is strongly of the view that none of these ought to be an insuperable barrier for modern readers.

First, the language is not as difficult as one might think. It is true that Brother Thomas liked using unusual words, some of them difficult to pronounce and rarely used. But, as already mentioned, almost none of them needed changing in this new edition because the context normally provides the meaning. If you have never tried reading Elpis Israel, you will be surprised at how easy it is to read, for a book first published over a century and a half ago.

Secondly, the subject matter is divided into comparatively short sections. The whole book is in three parts (I–“The Rudiments of the World”, 6 chapters; II–“The Things of the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ”, 5 chapters; and III–“The Kingdoms of the World in their Relation to the Kingdom of God”, 6 chapters), but each chapter is further sub-divided into sections of a few pages, each with its own heading appearing in the table of contents. It is not difficult to read one of these sections at a sitting, and each section is complete in itself.

The layout of the book in these various sections also answers the final criticism, that it is a long work. The book does not demand to be read from cover to cover, and, as already indicated, sections can be tackled on their own to great profit for the reader.

This new edition has been completely reset, and is an attractive publication with a clear and readable text. There is a full colour cover, and a colour frontispiece, reproducing the oil painting of the author that hangs in the Christadelphian office. Two comprehensive indexes — a subject index and an index of scripture passages — extend the value of the detailed table of contents. All of these are a tremendous aid to identifying sections in the book that deal with specific subjects or scriptures.

How to Read the Book

The book thus invites the reader to browse its pages. But, like the Ethiopian eunuch faced with the long prophecy of Isaiah, a new reader may well feel that he or she needs a guide. The following are only suggestions, but if they encourage new or fresh reading of the book they will achieve their objective.

  1. Try reading Part I fairly quickly, to pick up the essence of the author’s message, and use it to illuminate the daily reading of the scriptures. There are 180 pages in this part — the length of a ‘normal’ book.
  2. Look through the table of contents, and note sections that seem personally appealing. Read two or three of these more carefully, and note the value of the detailed expositions. It is often helpful to transfer some of the information into your Bible, either by way of an explanatory note, or an interesting cross reference.
  3. In as few words as possible, summarise in the margin of the book the essence of each paragraph. I have done this in my copy, and I still find it a valuable help to pick up the flow of the argument (and those notes were first put there when I was a teenager!).
  4. A personal recommendation for a section of the book to read first is Part II, chapter 2 — “The Gospel Preached to Abraham: His Faith and Works”.

As with all previous editions, this new edition serves more than one function. It will give the honest and enquiring mind a good grasp of the gospel in the scriptures, and help to lead him or her to seek baptism. Yet it is also valuable as a resource for those already committed to the Lord’s service, because it is comprehensive in its treatment of a vast range of scripture subjects.

MICHAEL ASHTON

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