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Showing posts with label John Thomas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Thomas. Show all posts

Monday 27 December 2021

Baconianism and the Intellectual Origins of the Christadelphian Movement

One cannot properly evaluate a religious movement without understanding its intellectual pedigree. The purpose of this article is to delve into a philosophical and hermeneutical school of thought called Baconianism that rose to prominence in early 19th-century America—especially among restorationists such as Alexander Campbell—and undoubtedly influenced John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians. At a descriptive level this will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of Christadelphian origins (for Christadelphians and anyone else interested in the movement). At a prescriptive level, the article also offers a critique of Baconianism.

Restorationism was a religious ideal that rose to prominence in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Although the ideal took many forms, one of the most influential was that of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I have written on this movement elsewhere, but briefly, it was founded by a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), and his son Alexander (1788-1866). The two other most influential leaders in the movement were Barton W. Stone (whose movement merged with the Campbells') and Walter Scott. This movement eventually gave rise to several denominations or groups that still exist today, including the Disciples of Christ, Christian churches, Church of Christ, and Christadelphians (whose founder, John Thomas, broke with Campbell and established his own sect in the late 1840s).

The key premises of the "restoration" spearheaded by Alexander Campbell were that (a) the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations of the day were all apostate, and (b) the antidote was to restore and spread what Campbell called the "ancient gospel and order of things," by attending to the plain truths of the Bible. This would "result in the unity of Christians and the conversion of the world."1

The focus of this article is on the method by which Campbell and his fellow restorationists sought to arrive at true doctrine. This has been called the Baconian hermeneutical2 method because of its conscious indebtedness to Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English lawyer and philosopher who is regarded as the father of the scientific method. Before we describe the Baconian theological method, however, we need to provide background on Bacon's philosophy.

Bacon's main contributions on natural philosophy—what might today be called the philosophy of science—came toward the end of his life. He was a kind of scientific restorationist, in that he called for a "Great Instauration," which aimed at a "total reconstruction of the sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations."3 This restoration was necessitated by deficiencies in the level of knowledge available in his day, in which words often counted more than facts, and superstition and error could easily be perpetuated. If only people used the right methods, Bacon believed, nature could be understood and controlled much better.

Bacon's work Novum Organum was intended to supplant Aristotle's Organum, which represented the traditional account of reasoning in science. The main features of Bacon's method were that it was inductive and experimental.4 It was inductive in the sense that it entailed inferring a general conclusion from particular facts, and experimental in the sense that these facts were to be ascertained from real, practical, systematic experiments. Indeed, Bacon called for new "experimental histories" to be written on almost every area of science as he understood it, creating catalogues of observed phenomena that could then serve as a basis for inductive reasoning. These histories had to be created anew because, in Bacon's judgment, experiments had been undertaken haphazardly in the past, without a view to inducing general principles.

Scottish Common Sense Realism was a philosophy founded by Thomas Reid (1710-1796), a Presbyterian minister and professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, where both Thomas and Alexander Campbell studied.5 As Foster explains,
Central to this philosophy was the belief that the data collected by the human senses, when confirmed by the testimony of others, was a reliable source of knowledge. Against the skeptical philosophy of David Hume, Reid insisted that the things humans perceive are the real external objects themselves, not images created by the mind. Through a careful, slow, painstaking process of experimentation and observation, of collecting data and inducing patterns, one could arrive at the facts—theoretically about anything.6
Reid's philosophy revitalised both realism and the inductive method of reasoning. It entailed a radically optimistic view of the observer's objectivity and a favourable view of the inductive approach to learning and science championed by Sir Francis Bacon.7 Baconianism, as articulated by the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (SCSP), entailed a scrupulous empiricism grounded in confidence in the senses, and inductive control of generalisations by constant reference to "facts".8 As a corollary, "Abstract concepts not immediately forged from observed data have no place in scientific explanation."9

It would be difficult to overstate the influence of SCSP, and Baconianism in particular, on some parts of American Protestantism during the antebellum period.10  As Noll writes,
the Common Sense philosophy has been the sole intellectual tradition for some evangelicals... for these evangelicals most of the functions normally fulfilled by a world view—habits of inquiry, assumptions about the construction and accessibility of truth, attitudes toward certainty and self-reflection—are the product almost exclusively of the Common Sense tradition.11
Allen concurs:
For significant sectors of American Protestantism during this period, Baconianism was held up as the true method for study of both the natural world and the Bible.12

Noll notes that, "As a general rule, when a group professes to live by 'no creed but the Bible,' it is a good indication that it relies consistently, if not necessarily self-consciously, on the Common Sense tradition."13 And this was one of Alexander Campbell's most cherished slogans. "Let the Bible be substituted for all human creeds," he wrote;14 and "We choose to speak of Bible things by Bible words."15 Waers argues that Campbell's appropriation of Scottish Common Sense philosophy was one of the major factors in his rejection of certain Reformed doctrines.16 Equally, Campbell was an enthusiastic admirer of Bacon and his inductive method. He grouped Bacon with Locke and Newton as the three great thinkers of modernity,17 and his movement's first higher education institution was named Bacon College.

Bacon's natural philosophy was at the heart of Campbell's reformation movement. While Bacon had sought a scientific restoration, Campbell sought to employ Bacon's methods in a religious restoration. Having outlined "Lord Bacon's philosophy" of science, Campbell declared, "Now all that we want is to carry the same lesson and the same principle to theology."18 As recent Campbell biographer Douglas Foster puts it, "Campbell would come to rely entirely on the Baconian method to arrive at Christian doctrine".19 In Campbell's theological method, the plain testimony of Scripture provided the "facts" (the data set) from which doctrines (generalisations) could be induced.20 In Allen's words,
In order to bring about 'a restoration of the ancient order of things,' systematic theology was to be rejected and religious discussion confined to the 'plain declarations recorded in the Bible'... In the same way that Bacon wanted to abolish the medieval scholastic theories of science and place science upon an inductive basis, so Campbell wanted to abolish the dogmatic creeds and systems of religion and place Christianity upon an inductive basis.21
Allen notes that the most explicit articulation of this Baconian hermeneutic is found in James S. Lamar's 1860 book The Organon of Scripture.22 Lamar was a graduate of Bacon College and his book received a glowing endorsement from the aged Campbell. For Lamar, the conflict of opposing creeds and doctrines in Christianity was due to "the uncertainty of biblical interpretation," which however was not due either to the ambiguity of the Bible or the depravity or incompetence of its interpreters, but to the use of flawed methods of interpretation.23 What is required, therefore, is "the establishment of an all-comprehensive and pervading method" of biblical interpretation (or "hermeneutical science").24 This is none other than the Baconian method, which he proceeds to explain in great detail. Lamar touts the success of the Baconian method as implemented within the Stone-Campbell reformation:
Their movement, in its incipiency, was a grand and determined effort to burst the bonds of ecclesiastical authority, to separate the Bible from its unholy and unnatural alliance with philosophy, to bring it to bear upon the minds and hearts of men responsible for the reception given to it, and to determine its meaning from its own words, without respect to recognized and consecrated dogmata. Their success is known and read of all... Their sturdy and manly blows battered down the walls which shut out the light of scientific truth, at the same time that they forced the corrupters of the faith to retire from the contest, and leave the Bible in the hands of responsible men in the exercise of common sense.25

 5.1. Hints of Indebtedness to Baconianism

John Thomas (1805-71) was a British medical doctor who emigrated to the United States in 1832. Within a few weeks he had taken up with the Campbells' restoration movement and was baptised by one of its leaders, Walter Scott. By 1834, Thomas had become a protégé of Alexander Campbell and launched his own periodical, The Apostolic Advocate. Within a few years, however, Thomas and Campbell fell out over two issues: Thomas' practice of (re-)baptising Baptists who joined the movement, and Thomas' teaching that death annihilates the human person. The two reconciled but soon fell out again, and by the early 1840s Thomas was persona non grata in many of the movement's churches (though he retained some loyal sympathisers, especially in Virginia). Thomas launched a new periodical, Herald of the Future Age, where in 1847 he published a "Confession and Abjuration," renouncing many of his previous beliefs. Now convinced that Campbell's movement was teaching heresy, he had himself re-baptised and began to enthusiastically spread the gospel as he understood it, both in North America and Great Britain. The result was what would (from 1864 onwards) be known as the Christadelphian community. Thomas continued itinerant preaching, editing the Herald (until 1860),26 and writing books and pamphlets until his death in 1871.

At the beginning of his career as a religious writer, Thomas refers to Bacon when outlining his approach to interpreting the Book of Revelation:
Be it observed, however, that there is not a single speculation in the religion or doctrine of Christ. In my investigation, therefore, I have renounced speculation and substituted, according to the suggestion of lord Bacon, the simple narration of historical facts.27
This is a Baconian statement worthy of Campbell, and suggests that Thomas was basically on board with the movement's SCSP-influenced Baconian hermeneutical programme. Further support for this can be found in Thomas' later writings,28 and he nowhere renounces the programme's basic principles of common-sense interpretation and constructing doctrine inductively.

 5.2. De-Emphasis on Baconian (and all other) Hermeneutics

Despite Thomas' apparent acceptance of Baconianism, his writings differ sharply from Campbell's in the degree of importance assigned to the method. For Campbell, the Baconian method of biblical interpretation was the key to the whole reformation, and if implemented consistently would unlock the door of doctrinal unity among Christians. Therefore he discusses the method frequently and in detail. Thomas seems to have adopted Baconianism, but he very rarely mentions it, or the methodology of biblical interpretation in general. Why is this?

At least three reasons (which are not mutually exclusive) may be suggested. First, the beginning of the restoration movement is usually dated to 1809, when Thomas Campbell published his Declaration and Address. By the time John Thomas joined the movement in 1832, its Baconian hermeneutic was well-established and would have been assumed by most of Thomas' subsequent readers. Moreover, if this hermeneutic were self-evident "common sense," there was no need to defend it or theorise about it; one could just get on with practicing it. Hence, Thomas' relative silence on Baconianism could be attributed to his taking the method for granted.

The second reason is a rhetorical one. Consider the following tension in Campbell's writings. On the one hand, he blames the schisms and parties that have abounded since the Reformation on "philosophy" and "opinions," and calls for "human philosophy" to "be thrown overboard into the sea," substituted by "the Bible only, in word and deed, in profession and practice."29 On the other hand, he is clearly operating within a Scottish Common Sense philosophical framework, and acknowledges his debt to Bacon, Locke, and other philosophers.30 Waers suggests that Campbell did not, or was unable to, see Baconianism as a philosophical theory.31 While Campbell may have missed the irony of using Enlightenment-era philosophy to "restore" ancient Christianity, Thomas may have perceived it. To successfully argue that one is a true "Bible-only" Protestant, one must downplay one's indebtedness to any post-biblical philosophy or hermeneutic. Therefore, by straightforwardly identifying his own interpretations with the "common-sense" or "natural" meaning of the Bible, Thomas could present himself as an independent, objective witness to Christian truth.

The third reason stems from Thomas' schism with Campbell and other schisms in the restoration movement. If all were using the same (Baconian) method of interpretation, and yet were arriving at conflicting doctrines, the method itself must be insufficient. That Thomas thought in such terms is evident from his criticism of disparagement of the hermeneutical training of others, including Alexander Campbell. In assailing Bishop Robert Lowth's translation of Isaiah 18, he writes sarcastically of both Lowth and Campbell,
Yet [Lowth] was profoundly skilled in 'hermeneutics,' at least as much so as any 'bible unionists' of our time, who are making so broad their phylacteries in new translationism, and the laws of exegesis! ... [Campbell] is of course well-skilled in all the settled canons of translation and interpretation sanctioned by the Protestant educated world... [but] what obscurity has he not deepened by his hermeneutics? Pshaw! What are 'canons' worth that reduce prophetic writings to a level with 'an old Jewish almanac?' ... A man may be profoundly skilled in hermeneutics, and yet profoundly incompetent to translate and interpret the Scriptures correctly. He is like one who can name his tools, but knows not how to use them.32
Indeed, Thomas elsewhere dismisses the very term "hermeneutics" as part of a campaign of subterfuge! Commenting on the false knowledge mentioned in 1 Timothy 6:20, he states,
The same thing is styled in our day 'theological science,' 'divinity,' 'ethics,' 'hermeneutics,' and so forth; terms invented to amaze the ignorant, and to impress them with the necessity of schools and colleges for the indoctrination of pious youth in the mysteries they learnedly conceal.33
Elsewhere, Thomas cites biblical passages about the need to be child-like, and about God using the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,34 to argue that hermeneutics and philosophy hinder rather than help the theologian. Indeed, he scolds his former mentor Walter Scott for taking too much interest in Bacon:
Though a very amiable gentleman, Mr. Scott has not yet become 'a little child;' and without this, the Great Teacher saith, we 'cannot enter into the kingdom of the heavens.' Mr. Scott must empty himself of his modern reformers, and the jargon of the schools; he must forget Bacon, Locke, and Logic... his brains are bewildered with analytic and synthetic synopsed until he can see no more; this must all be abandoned. A head under the pressure of all this learned lumber is unfit for the study of 'the word.' The heads of babes and sucklings out of whose mouths the Deity perfecteth praise, are not befuddled with such speculative twaddle. Mr. Scott must cease to ape 'the wise and prudent,' and become as a little child. So skilled in analytic, let him analyze the mentality of a child; and then let him synthesize the elements into a proposition, and conform thereto.35
 5.3. A Common Sense Antihermeneutic

If "hermeneutics" and even "logic" ought to be forgotten, it is clear that for Thomas, neither the Baconian method nor any other method is the way to restore the apostolic order. This reading of Thomas' thought seems to be confirmed by the introduction to Elpis Israel—his evangelistic manifesto, first published in 1848. Thomas does provide information about his approach to the Bible, but he does not lay out his hermeneutic, or even admit to having one. Given this, together with his attacks on "hermeneutics" elsewhere, his hermeneutic would be best described as an antimethodology—defined by Wiktionary as "An approach to study or analysis that eschews the usual methodology, or methodologies in general"36—or antihermeneutic. But how does Thomas propose to interpret the Bible if "hermeneutics" are off the table?

Elpis Israel makes clear that, for Thomas, the only way to arrive at religious truth is to know "the true meaning of the Bible."37 However, there is an evil conspiracy at work: "the human mind has developed the organisation of a system of things impiously hostile to the institutions and wisdom of Jehovah"38; its name is "MYSTERY" and it is none other than Catholic and Protestant Christendom. To arrive at biblical truth, therefore, one must 
Cast away to the owls and to the bats the traditions of men, and the prejudices indoctrinated into thy mind by their means; make a whole burnt offering of their creeds, confessions, catechisms, and articles of religion... Let us repudiate their dogmatisms; let us renounce their mysteries; and let us declare our independence of all human authority in matters of faith and practice extra the word of God.39
Having jettisoned all ecclesiastical dogma and tradition and begun anew with a blank slate, the individual must "Search the scriptures with the teachableness of a little child," believing nothing but what can be "demonstrated by the grammatical sense of the scriptures."40 The virtues that maximise the chances of correctly interpreting the Bible are "humility, teachableness, and independence of mind," and diligent seeking.41 In his other major work, Eureka, Thomas asks a rhetorical question that captures his common-sense antihermeneutic succinctly: "Suppose a man of common sense...study only the sacred books, is it not conceivable that he may acquire a competent, nay, even an eminent knowledge of the scriptures?"42 

Thus, for Thomas, the ingredients for sound doctrine are nothing more than the Bible itself and common sense, exercised with independence, humility, and diligence. One should not fail to notice the Baconian flavour of this antihermeneutic: dumping creeds and dogmas and limiting oneself to what is demonstrable from the grammatical sense of Scripture as adjudicated by common sense are axiomatic in Baconianism. However, Thomas does not place any emphasis or trust in a method. The locus of common sense interpretation is not the method (as with Lamar) but the interpreter. Common sense is a high virtue, and one that ironically—as Thomas writes elsewhere—"is common only to the few."43

Before concluding, we will offer a critique of the Baconian hermeneutic, as espoused by the restoration movement and as practiced (more as an antihermeneutic) by John Thomas. The critique of Baconianism consists of three main points. First, it failed to deliver on its promise of producing doctrinal uniformity among Christians. Second, it failed to recognise important differences between natural science and textual hermeneutics. Third, it is fundamentally anachronistic and foreign to the theological method of the early church.

 6.1. Failure to Deliver Doctrinal Unity

While the young Alexander Campbell was optimistic that application of the Baconian method to biblical interpretation would usher in a golden age of Christian unity, his life's work was in fact beset by "constant and unrelenting conflicts with opponents and colleagues alike".44 Instead of putting an end to denominational sectarianism in Christianity, the restoration simply added more denominations to the list: "in a movement long marked by theological and cultural rifts, the outcome finally was a bitter fundamentalist/modernist controversy and permanent division."45 Foster's biography of Campbell devotes an eight-chapter section to "Defense and Conflict," describing bitter doctrinal disagreements between Campbell and others both inside and outside of his movement.46

Similarly, the young James Lamar was almost triumphal in his book The Organon of Scripture about the Baconian hermeneutic's potential to put an end to doctrinal disagreement. However, 
The intellectual and spiritual odyssey of James S. Lamar from the 1850s to 1900 reflects his increasing disillusionment with the Baconian method as a tool to bring about Alexander Campbell's goal of unity through restoration of the 'ancient order.'47
Lamar would live to see the definitive split of the Stone-Campbell Movement into two denominations, the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, in 1906. Thus, Baconianism failed to deliver the uniformity of doctrine that its proponents sought. And the reason for this probably lies in our next criticism of the method: its downplaying of subjectivity. 

 6.2. (Mis-)Application of a Scientific Method to Biblical Interpretation

Bacon developed his inductive method for the natural sciences, and in this discipline there is some plausibility in the idea of assembling a set of experimental "facts" and reasoning inductively to a conclusion.48 However, when Campbell and others argued for using the same method to construct Christian doctrine, they were overlooking the vast differences between natural sciences and biblical hermeneutics. Notwithstanding the best efforts of Joseph Smith,49 the biblical "data set" is static and cannot be augmented through experimentation. Moreover, "the facts" in the case of a scientific data set typically involve precise measurement of numerical quantities (e.g., temperature, volume, etc.) With good instrumentation, measurement error will be negligible. Assembling "the facts" from the Bible is a far thornier affair: it entails translating and interpreting ancient texts. Translation is not just a matter of "common sense"; it is a complex, multi-faceted task. It requires, inter alia, reconstructing the original text as closely as possible (textual criticism), choosing the degree of formal or dynamic equivalence desired, resolving syntactic and semantic ambiguities, and adding punctuation. Translation already entails a degree of interpretation, but even exegetes who agree on the translation of a text may differ radically on its meaning and theological significance. In short, Scripture is nothing like a simple set of "facts" on which induction can be performed. Hence, the Baconian hermeneutic greatly exaggerates interpreters' objectivity and tempts them to equate their own disputable opinions with "the facts." As Allen summarises:
[James Lamar] seems never to have been struck by the deep irony that marked the movement almost from its inception—the irony of claiming to overturn all human traditions and interpretive schemes while at the same time being wedded to an empirical theological method drawn from early Enlightenment thought. By virtually denying the necessity of human interpretation and the inevitable impact of extra-biblical ideas and traditions, the Disciples allowed their interpretive traditions to become all the more entrenched for being unrecognized.50
 6.3. The Irony of "Restoring" Ancient Christianity Using Enlightenment-Era Philosophy

The third problem is even more fundamental. Baconianism is rooted in the philosophy of Bacon in the 17th century and Reid in the 18th. How could modern philosophy restore primitive Christianity? Or how could the apostolic order be recovered using a hermeneutic that post-dates the apostles by over 1500 years?51 The question answers itself. And if the Baconian approach entails "calling Bible things by Bible names," what is the Bible's name for the Baconian method? Is it not an extrabiblical imposition from human philosophy—the very sort of thing that "Bible only" Protestants seek to abolish from theology?

A defender of Baconianism might respond that the method need not be explained in Scripture because it is accessible to all by common sense. However, if that were the case, we should expect it to have been used in the early church (unless common sense is a modern invention!) Let us look at the thought of Irenaeus of Lyons (writing c. 180 A.D.) as a test case. Irenaeus is a good example because he is one of the Church's earliest "biblical theologians." Notably, he is the earliest extant writer to use the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" to refer to portions of the biblical canon and to defend four as the complete number of canonical gospels.

If Irenaeus were Baconian in his hermeneutic, we would expect him to construct his theology by assembling "facts"—various statements in Scripture—and combining them inductively into doctrines. To use John Thomas' language, we would expect him to be independent of any dogmatic traditions or ecclesiastical authority and to rely only on what is demonstrable directly from Scripture.

Instead, Irenaeus introduces his famous summary of Christian doctrine, the rule of faith, thus: "The church, dispersed throughout the world to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith" (Against Heresies 1.10.1).52 Similarly, in his other surviving work, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, he introduces the Christian faith with the words, "So, faith procures this for us, as the elders, the disciples of the apostles, have handed down to us."53 Thus Irenaeus regards "the elders, disciples of the apostles" as an authoritative source of doctrine.

Opposing the Gnostic heretics, Irenaeus explains in what the true Gnosis (knowledge) consists:
This is true Gnosis: the teaching of the apostles, and the ancient institution of the church, spread throughout the entire world, and the distinctive mark of the body of Christ in accordance with the succession of bishops, to whom the apostles entrusted each local church, and the unfeigned preservation, coming down to us, of the scriptures, with a complete collection allowing for neither addition nor subtraction; a reading without falsification and, in conformity with the scriptures, an interpretation that is legitimate, careful, without danger or blasphemy. (Against Heresies, 4.33.8)
Notice that Irenaeus stresses the importance of the Scriptures and their correct interpretation, but in the same breath acknowledges the importance of apostolic succession for preserving the teaching of the apostles in the Church. Hence, once can recognise heretics precisely by their independence from ecclesiastical authority:
This is why one must hear the presbyters who are in the church, those who have the succession from the apostles, as we have shown, and with the succession in the episcopate have received the sure spiritual gift of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. As for all the others who are separate from the original succession, in whatever place they gather, they are suspect. They are heretics with false doctrine or schismatics full of pride and audacity and self-willed or, again, hypocrites looking only for gain and vainglory. (Against Heresies, 4.26.2)
These few quotations suffice to show that the Baconian hermeneutic is at odds with the theology of Irenaeus of Lyons. One might argue that Irenaeus had already apostatised from biblical truth, despite being only two degrees separated from the apostles (in his youth he heard Polycarp teach, who was taught by John).54 But if this were the case, what evidence can be brought forth to show that other early Christian writers sought to practice a Baconian theological method?

 6.4. Other Problems with John Thomas' Antihermeneutic

The above criticisms apply to John Thomas to the extent that he, too, applied the Baconian method. Thomas, however, merits further criticism for what we have termed his antihermeneutic. Thomas scoffed at "hermeneutics" and "logic" and conflated his own philosophical and methodological presuppositions with "common sense." In his optimism for common sense, Thomas was a man of his times. It was nonetheless breathtakingly naïve for Thomas to dismiss logic and hermeneutics, as though he were not using them himself. Here is a certainty: every theologian uses logic and hermeneutics, which are simply the theory and method of reasoning and interpretation respectively. The one who denies using them merely surrenders much of his capacity for intellectual self-examination and correction. Forthrightness about one's methods and presuppositions is far better than hiding behind the nebulous rule of "common sense."

One person's common sense differs from her neighbour's; Thomas himself wrote (cited earlier) that common sense was "common only to the few." He adds other virtues that enhance the interpreter's chances of success, such as independence, humility, teachableness, and diligence. As correct interpretation is made a function of personal virtues rather than methods and rules of interpretation, objectivity recedes further. Are we sinful human beings well qualified to judge the humility, teachableness, and diligence of ourselves and others? It is no surprise that subsequent Christadelphian writers extolled John Thomas' intellectual virtues and suggested that a restoration of apostolic truth probably would not have happened but for his remarkable attributes.55

The notion that "independence" is a virtue in theologians is, as noted above, totally at odds with the worldview of early Church Fathers like Irenaeus, being instead a characteristic Irenaeus assigns to the heretics he opposes. Indeed, independence and humility seem to be self-contradictory, since the virtue of humility entails submission to legitimate authority, including ecclesiastical (see, e.g., Heb. 13:17). As parents, if our children disregard our rules and make up their own, do we reward them for "independence" or discipline them for disobedience?

In this writer's experience, John Thomas' antihermeneutic legacy lives on in that Christadelphians generally show little interest in, or even acknowledgment of, their movement's intellectual roots. Very little "critical history" of Christadelphian origins has emerged from within the movement;56 Christadelphian historiography has been largely hagiographical. This stands in marked contrast to the wider Stone-Campbell tradition, which has produced voluminous critical research into its own intellectual origins.
Regardless of whether one believes that the Christadelphian belief system is true or not, it does not help anyone when the philosophical presuppositions and hermeneutical methods that gave rise to it go unrecognised and continue to be conflated, in early-19th-century fashion, with "common sense." There is a sector of Christadelphians who have, in recent years, sought to bring Christadelphian theology into conversation with contemporary biblical scholarship. Hopefully, this article may inspire similar scholarly engagement in the matter of Christadelphian history. Even if not, I hope it contributes to the reader's understanding of the Christadelphian movement.
  • 1 Douglas A. Foster, Alexander Campbell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 59-60.
  • 2 The term "hermeneutics" refers to the theory and methods of interpretation of texts, especially the Bible.
  • 3 Barry Gower, Scientific Method: A Historical and Philosophical Introduction (London: Taylor & Francis, 1997), 41. The description of Bacon's method here is largely based on Gower.
  • 4 Gower, Scientific Method, 52.
  • 5 Richard M. Tristano, The Origins of the Restoration Movement: An Intellectual History (Atlanta: Glenmary Research Center, 1998), 20-21.
  • 6 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 36-37
  • 7 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 20-21.
  • 8 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 21
  • 9 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 21
  • 10 For those unfamiliar with the term, "antebellum" means "before the war" and refers here to the decades that preceded the American Civil War (1861-65).
  • 11 Mark A. Noll, "Common Sense Traditions and American Evangelical Thought," American Quarterly 37 (1985): 233.
  • 12 C. Leonard Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: James S. Lamar and 'The Organon of Scripture,'" Church History 55 (1986): 67.
  • 13 Noll, "Common Sense Traditions," 234.
  • 14 A Connected View of the Principles and Rules by which the Living Oracles May Be Intelligibly and Certainly Interpreted (Bethany, VA: M'Vay & Ewing, 1835), 106.
  • 15 The Christian System in Reference to the Union of Christians and a Restoration of Primitive Christianity as Plead in the Current Reformation (Pittsburgh: Forrester & Campbell, 1840), 125.
  • 16 Stephen Waers, "Common Sense Regeneration: Alexander Campbell on Regeneration, Conversion, and the Work of the Holy Spirit," Harvard Theological Review 109 (2016): 612.
  • 17 "Their writings have done more for the world than all the rhetoricians of two thousand years" (The Millennial Harbinger 5 [1834]: 622); "History records no more illustrious names than those of Bacon, Locke, and Newton" (The Millennial Harbinger 7 [1836], 247).
  • 18 The Christian Baptist 6 (1828): 227. Similarly, "Since the days of Bacon our scientific men have adopted the practical and truly scientific mode...We plead for the same principle in the contemplation of religious truth... By inducing matter by every process to give out its qualities, and to deduce nothing from hypothesis; so religious truth is to be deduced from the revelation which the deity has been pleased to give to man" ("Speculation in Religion," The Christian Baptist 4 [1827]: 241).
  • 19 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 38. Allen concurs: "The evidence is strong that Alexander Campbell appropriated Scottish Baconianism to a considerable degree and employed it in the service of his primitivist theology" ("Baconianism and the Bible," 69).
  • 20 "The Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions." (The Christian System, 18).
  • 21 "Baconianism and the Bible," 68-70.
  • 22 The Organon of Scripture, Or, The Inductive Method of Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1860).
  • 23 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 24; cf. Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible," 73.
  • 24 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 25.
  • 25 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 130-31.
  • 26 The name changed to Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come from 1851. The periodical was discontinued due to the American Civil War and was not reprised thereafter.
  • 27 "Observations on the Apocalypse," The Apostolic Advocate 1 (1834): 197.
  • 28 For instance, in 1852, Thomas favourably quotes another British physician's views on the subject of "the investigation of the truth"; that physician was advocating that the Baconian inductive method be applied in biblical interpretation, as in natural science, so that the uniformity of belief enjoyed in science would also be enjoyed in religion ("The Bible Doctrine concerning the Tempter Considered, No. 1," Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 2 [1852]: np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.). In 1858, Thomas includes the following "selection" in his periodical: "Our duty in reference to knowledge in general is to observe facts, rather than to form hypotheses; to go on, as Bacon teaches, in the modest accumulation of positive data, aware that there are eternal truths, whatever may come of your opinions" (Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 8 [1858]: 47).
  • 29 The Christian System, 5-6, 127.
  • 30 "When I begin to think of my debts of thought, I see an immense crowd of claimants...Euclid, and Locke, and Bacon, and Newton, and ten thousand others cast an eye upon me." ("Letter to William Jones," The Millennial Harbinger 6 [1835]: 304.)
  • 31 "It should be noted here that Campbell often inveighed against the use of any theories, philosophical or otherwise, when interpreting scripture. Campbell did not seem to lump his use of SCSP into this category of theorization. For him, the SCSP understanding of the human mind was self-evident and therefore not theoretical or speculative. Perhaps we could say that he was unable to see beyond its horizons. Campbell thought that Francis Bacon corrected the fanciful speculations into which philosophy had declined prior to his time. Because Bacon’s inductive method was so important to SCSP, it is likely that Campbell saw his adoption of SCSP as combatting speculation and theorization"("Common Sense Regeneration," 613 n. 8).
  • 32 Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 3 (1853): np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.
  • 33 Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, 3 vols. (Adelaide: Logos, originally published 1861), 1:198.
  • 34 For instance, at the end of his above-mentioned series on Isaiah, where he argues that it foretells contemporary political events involving Russia, he writes, "Paul gloried in his weakness; and so do we. If one so weak as our stupid self can make 'the most difficult passage of Isaiah' so intelligible and plain, how blind must they be, who with all their classical, theological, hermeneutic, erudition, and 'logic,' can give no better sense to this portion of the word than the translators so often named in this! So true is it, that 'God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.'" Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 3 (1853): np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.
  • 35 "Scotto-Campbellism Reviewed," Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 10 (1860): 60.
  • 36 This term has been used elsewhere for the hermeneutic of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), women's rights activist and author of The Woman's Bible, where she "she calls on her readers to 'be guided by their own unassisted common sense' (2:159) and to read the 'unvarnished texts' of the Scriptures 'in plain English' (1:8) and 'in harmony with science, common sense, and the experience of mankind in natural laws' (1:20)" (Carolyn A. Haynes, Divine Destiny: Gender and Race in Nineteenth-Century Protestantism [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998], 146). Haynes comments, "Such an exegetical methodology (or antimethodology) is in keeping with the Common Sense school and with fundamentalist hermeneutical practices."
  • 37 Elpis Israel (Findon: Logos Publications, 1866/2000), 3.
  • 38 Elpis Israel, 4.
  • 39 Elpis Israel, 5, 8.
  • 40 Elpis Israel, 5-6.
  • 41 Elpis Israel, 6, 8-9.
  • 42 Eureka, 1:341. The ellipsis reads, "perfectly unacquainted with all the learned lore of Ammonius." In context, Thomas is criticising Origen's reliance on the Neoplatonist philosopher Ammonius in his theological method. However, the broader question obtained by removing this ellipsis certainly characterises Thomas' approach to Scripture in general.
  • 43 "A Few First Principles of Common Sense," Apostolic Advocate 2 (1835): 229.
  • 44 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 254.
  • 45 Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible," 80.
  • 46 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 151-272. Conflicts of a doctrinal nature involving Campbell included the clash with John Thomas over "re-immersion" and the immortality of the soul, clashes with Barton W. Stone over the Trinity and Christology, and conflict with a minister named Jesse B. Ferguson over universalism and spiritualism. The conflicts with Thomas and Ferguson ended with schisms.
  • 47 "Baconianism and the Bible," 79.
  • 48 It should be noted, however, that Baconian inductivism has been out of favour since the later 19th century even as a scientific method.
  • 49 The founder of the Latter-Day Saints movement ("Mormons").
  • 50 "Baconianism and the Bible," 79.
  • 51 One might argue that the New Testament writers themselves used an anachronistic hermeneutic in that they often interpreted the Old Testament Christologically and not according to the grammatical-historical sense. However, the early church read the Scriptures Christologically because its worldview had been radically realigned by the Christ-event. Did the Bacon-event really warrant another hermeneutical revolution?.
  • 52 All translations from Against Heresies are taken from Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (London: Routledge, 1997).
  • 53 John Behr, On the Apostolic Preaching: Translated and with an Introduction (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), 42.
  • 54 A reader interested in exploring the early Church Fathers further may wish to consult works such Jimmy Akin's The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (El Cajon: Catholic Answers Press, 2010) or (for a more academic treatment) William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (3 vols; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1979).
  • 55 "Dr Thomas was fitted by natural qualification for the great work achieved by his hand. His intellect was a fine balance between perception and reflection, adapting him for full and accurate observation and correct reasoning, while a scientific education brought out those powers to the fullest advantage... The Doctor was a remarkable man, and was the instrument of a remarkable work, which required strongly-marked characteristics for its accomplishment... firstly, a clear, well-balanced, scientific intellect, and a non-emotional, executive nature, enabling him to reason accurately, and perceive and embrace conclusions in the teeth of prejudice and sentiment; secondly, self-reliance and an independence almost to the point of eccentricity, disposing him to think and act without reference to any second person, and if need be, in opposition to friend as well as foe; thirdly, a predominating conscientiousness impelling him in the direction of right and duty; and fourthly, great boldness and fluency of speech which qualified him for the enunciation of the truth discovered in the face of the world in arms... To a man of different characteristics, the work would probably have been impossible. Dr. Thomas possessed a combination of traits that enabled him to persevere in his course whatever difficulties had to be faced... such, in brief, is the history of that application of his mental powers to Scripture study and polemics which, in the wisdom of God, has uncovered the oracles of divine truth from the mass of ignorance and misinterpretation which for centuries overlaid and obscured them'" (Robert Roberts, Dr Thomas: His Life and Work (web version); "The peculiar mental and moral organisation of Dr. Thomas admirably fitted him for the work he accomplished. His sterling honesty, great faith, resolute will, utter disregard of human opinion, and what seemed a reckless independence of leadership of men, enabled him to do a work that would have failed under other conditions" (L. B. Welch, "The Recovered Truth in the Latter Days," The Christadelphian 31 [1894]: 144-48).
  • 56 A site search of the online archives of two Christadelphian magazines (The Christadelphian Tidings and Testimony) yields no content devoted to the influence of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy or Baconianism on Christadelphian origins.

Saturday 10 October 2020

Dr. John Thomas, Slavery, and Abolitionism: A Case Study in Moral Theology

Dr. John Thomas and the Slavery Question
Theological Analysis
 Ethical Biblicism
 Ethical Adventism

This article studies the views of Dr. John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians, on the American "slavery question." A Christadelphian reader may ask, "to what end?" American slavery was abolished in the 1860s and Thomas died in 1871.1 What possible relevance could such a study have for Christadelphians in 2020? Is this ex-Christadelphian just taking a swipe at the movement's founder? No; what drives our interest in Dr. Thomas' views on the slavery question is that they offer a useful case study in Christadelphian moral teaching. Precisely because the moral issue in question is uncontroversial today, our study can focus on theological method without getting bogged down by disagreement over the issue itself.

John Thomas was born and raised in England and emigrated to America in 1832 as a young medical doctor. He soon joined Alexander Campbell's religious movement and became an influential protégé of Campbell and the editor of a periodical, The Apostolic Advocate. Within a few years, Thomas and Campbell fell out over doctrinal disagreements. Some in the movement sympathised with Thomas, and he retained considerable influence in the mid-1840s through the publication of another periodical, The Herald of the Future Age.2 In 1847, Thomas abjured many of his earlier beliefs and had himself re-baptised, thereby birthing a new sect that would eventually take on the name Christadelphians.3 During the three decades between his arrival in the United States and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Thomas resided in both free states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York) and slave states (Virginia, Kentucky), with occasional tours of Great Britain and Canada (where slavery had been abolished for decades).

At the same time Thomas was going through the theological odyssey that would result in the Christadelphian movement, slavery was becoming the "paramount national issue" in the USA.4 Abolitionist newspapers and periodicals abounded in the North while proslavery sentiment filled the literature of the South. During the mid-1840s, mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists split over the slavery issue.5 "By the 1850s the slavery issue was front and center, igniting the passions of citizens and politicians throughout the country."6 In late 1845, Thomas has already broken definitively with Campbell but is still forging his own theological identity. His Herald receives letters from two antislavery subscribers in the North who are concerned that Thomas has not expressed himself clearly on slavery, which the correspondents believe to be the abomination of the age.7 His rival, Alexander Campbell, has just written a series of articles on slavery in his Millennial Harbinger.8 It is clear that Thomas cannot ignore the question, but how to respond? His elite British education may have predisposed him to see slavery as backward, but he and his periodical are based in Virginia, a slaveholding state. He is certain to alienate some subscribers and perhaps lose friends no matter what he writes on this emotive issue.

In the event, Thomas opts to emphatically downplay the importance of the subject. "[T]he vassalage, or freedom of a barbarous race," he writes, "is an affair of very subordinate consideration." The kind of slavery that demands his attention is spiritual slavery to sin, the common condition of mankind:
In the Herald, we are neither in nor out on this topic, as 'involuntary slavery' is not the subject proposed to be discussed in our pages. We cannot agree with our New York friend, that 'involuntary slavery is the greatest evil and sin in the world.' There is a greater evil and sin than this, and that is, voluntary slavery to sin and Satan. The whites and blacks are all enslaved by the god of this world; they are his willing slaves to work iniquity... We wish to emancipate men from the slavery of Sin; this is the abolition we go in for 'out and out'; and if a man be called being a slave, let him remain in his calling; but, if he can be free, let him use it rather if it be likely to conduce to his spiritual welfare; otherwise not. Political or civil liberty for a few short years is of very little consequence to the freedmen of truth, who are destined to share in the government of the world with Jesus Christ in the Future Age. 'Having food and raiment let us learn therewith to be content.' This is the doctrine we advocate—bondage to Jesus, vassalage to truth and righteousness, and emancipation from Sin, Satan, and the World.9
Replying to one correspondent's insistence on the slave's "human rights," Thomas insists that the master's rights must be considered, too. Thomas infers from Scripture that the slave owner's rights include "a right of property in his slave," "a right to the obedience of their slaves," and "a right to chastise them when they do wrong."10 In his view, slavery is an "enormous evil, but not a sin." Slavery is "regulated, but not abolished, by the word of God," and "we have yet to learn where God has caused it to be written, 'thou shalt not hold man in bondage.'" 

Thomas' statements reflect a belief in white supremacy,11 widespread among whites at the time, but it is his moral-theological reasoning that is our focus here. Thomas claims that enlightened Virginians deplore slavery, but "how to get rid of it without prejudice to all concerned, is a problem which the legislation of the country has yet to solve." Is Thomas then interested in finding such a solution? Not at all:
We leave sectarianism to battle with slavery, we shoot at higher game: we aim to elevate civilized men to communion with God, Antislavery men may emancipate negroes from political thrall, while we would liberate them [i.e., civilized, antislavery men] from the bondage and degradation of sin.
Thomas' position generated some backlash in the North. In a subsequent issue, he mentions having received a scathing letter from "Two brethren in Chicago" who had ordered "a discontinuance of the Herald." Thomas does not print their letter, but in responding to their denunciation he introduces a new argument. Yes, slavery is unquestionably bad, but the duty of Christians is not to meddle in such worldly affairs but "to separate themselves from the world" and "be patient unto the coming of the Lord," who is "at the door." "He will abolish slavery," and Thomas is "perfectly willing to leave the whole affair to his disposal."12 Thomas admonishes his friends in Chicago that to devote their time and energy to abolishing slavery rather than converting sinners to God is to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.13 Thomas reiterates this point after receiving another letter from his New York correspondent: "So we say of slavery it is an evil resulting from sin, but not therefore sinful in the sense of being forbidden. We say, that christians have no business to trouble themselves with it."14 Christ will solve the world's problems at his return; our task is to prepare for this event by living a "holy life" of obedience and "patiently waiting for Christ," without being "distracted by the vain imaginings of political factions and partizans" (i.e., abolitionists).

Over the next decade and a half, as the slavery debate intensified and civil war loomed, Thomas largely avoided the subject. For instance, during his extended visit to Britain in 1848-49, an evening was held in Edinburgh in his honour. Scotland was a noted hotbed of antislavery sentiment—Alexander Campbell (a Scot) was even briefly imprisoned there in 1847 amidst a bitter controversy with an abolitionist.15 Thomas relates that those present on this evening were about to vote on a motion to support his evangelistic work financially when "a very zealous philanthropist arose in the midst, and objected to the vote being taken until I defined my position in regard to American slavery".16 Much to Thomas' relief, it would seem, the chairperson "pronounced the objection irrelevant", considering it unnecessary "to ascertain what were his opinions upon all the debatable questions of the day". In 1852, Thomas and his periodical (now called the Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come) relocated from Virginia to New York, where expressing abolitionist sympathies would have carried little personal risk. However, this change of scenery appears to have had no effect on Thomas' expressed views on the subject.

On those rare occasions when he did return to the slavery issue, Thomas maintained his earlier position while attacking the abolitionist cause vehemently. He declared unequivocally that an abolitionist "cannot be a Christian" and claimed that 1 Timothy 6:3-4 is a prophecy against abolitionists.17 He also accused abolitionists of hypocrisy, though it is unclear what he meant.18 Thomas thus effectively placed abolitionism on his list of "Doctrines to be Rejected"! Elsewhere, he reduced abolitionism to a trifle by including it in a list of "tedious and interminable conjurations" and "foolishisms" that distract one from "the weightier matters of the law."19

Thomas' views on slavery were moderate enough to attract criticism from both sides of the debate. At a speaking engagement in Mississippi, Thomas was accused by a hearer of preaching abolitionism. He retorted that the gospel he preached "Truly...is abolitionism in the largest sense; for the New Dominion will abolish abolitionists and all their spurious sentimentalism."20 During a speaking tour to Toronto, Canada in 1860 (with the Civil War now just months away), an opponent named J. Williams sought to warn away Thomas' audiences by chalking up the sidewalk with accusations that Thomas was a slave-driver (which was untrue, though Thomas had in the past used slave labour on his Virginia farm).21 Later on the same visit, a black man approached Thomas on the street, and after "apologetically inquir[ing]" if he might have a word with Dr. Thomas, asked: "Do you, Dr. Thomas, baptize slave-owners, and fellowship them?" When Thomas responded, "Yes, we do both," the man exclaimed, "Oh!" and hurried away. In view of the "agitation" over slavery that he experienced in Toronto, Thomas felt compelled to restate his earlier arguments that slave-owning is permissible and abolitionism a petty diversion from serious spiritual matters.22

The foregoing does not paint Dr. John Thomas in a very favourable light, but again, the aim of this article is not to pass judgment on him. The fact is that very few religious groups in nineteenth-century America took a unified and resolute antislavery stance (the Quakers being a notable exception). Our purpose here is to understand the theology behind Thomas' position, and how it anticipated subsequent Christadelphian moral teaching.

To summarise Thomas' position, slavery is an evil, a consequence of humanity's fallen state. However, the apostolic writings permit the practice, and it is therefore not sinful to own slaves. Human slavery is a temporary situation in this present life. It is thus a trivial matter for the believer, whose focus should instead be on liberating self and others from spiritual enslavement to sin, by believing in the doctrines taught in Scripture and living a holy life. Abolitionism is foolish, as it turns the believer's attention from eternal things to worldly, political affairs. The believer should avoid any involvement in the slavery debate, which Christ will resolve at his imminent return. I see two fundamental principles in play here, which I would label ethical biblicism and ethical adventism.

By ethical biblicism, I mean a particular approach to morality that seeks to answer any moral question by asking, "What does the Bible say about it?" (I have written about this in a previous article, Moral Theology vs. "What the Bible Says".) Of course, as a Catholic Christian myself, I do hold the Bible as divinely inspired and authoritative. However, the process of answering moral questions is more complex than simply asking, "What does the Bible say?" It requires sound hermeneutics—principles for interpreting and applying divine revelation—and the use of philosophy to arrive at abstract principles that can then be addressed to concrete moral issues.

A pure biblicism can leave us unable to reach firm convictions on moral issues that the Bible doesn't address, such as climate change. It can also cause us to fail to distinguish between contingent and absolute moral realities. For example, Mark 10:1-12 records a dialogue between the Pharisees and Jesus on the permissibility of divorce. The Pharisees cite Scripture to justify their practices, but Jesus identifies this concrete scriptural testimony as a contingent moral precept that is overruled by a higher, more abstract moral principle. What about the slavery question? In 21st-century Western society, with institutional slavery long gone and basically no one still defending it, the "slavery question" seems to be no question at all. However, on biblicist premises, the proslavery position—or Thomas' leave-it-be stance—is unassailable! The institution of slavery is clearly legislated for in the Torah (e.g., Lev. 25:44-55).23 In the first century A.D., the Roman institution of slavery was far more oppressive than what was permitted under the Torah. (A master could have his slave crucified, for instance.) Nevertheless, as John Thomas correctly observed, the New Testament writers do not speak out against slavery. Instead, they command slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18),24 sometimes adding that masters must treat their slaves fairly (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1). Paul instructs slaves to accept their lot in this life (1 Cor. 7:21-24), and sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with a letter that acknowledges the latter's prerogatives.
How then can an antislavery position be defended? As with Jesus' teaching on divorce, one must regard concrete scriptural deference to the institution of slavery as contingent and overruled by more absolute and fundamental principles concerning the inviolable dignity of human life and the equality of humans before God. Unlike the divorce issue, one must do so without any explicit biblical warrant.25 In short, one must leave biblicism behind. A moral argument against slavery must move beyond questions such as, "Is slavery biblical?" or, "What does the Bible say about slavery?" The Bible does indeed contain the "raw materials" for an antislavery moral theology, but it took many centuries of reflection and maturation for the Church to definitively develop one.

John Thomas' biblicist approach to morality is the main reason why he failed to recognise American slavery as sinful,26 and biblicism is part of the legacy he bequeathed to the Christadelphians. Now, it would be unfair to describe Christadelphian moral teaching as purely biblicist. Christadelphians have taken a moral stand on issues such as voting in elections that are not directly discussed in Scripture. However, there is no question that Christadelphian moral teaching has been strongly influenced by biblicism, and is guided more by "Is behaviour x biblical?"—applied atomistically to various issues—than by a thoroughgoing moral theology. Indeed, the most well-known expression of Christadelphian moral teaching, the Commandments of Christ portion of the Statement of Faith, is simply a listing of paraphrased biblical verses with no obvious structure. 

Biblicism leaves one ill-equipped to respond to new moral questions that are not directly addressed in the Bible, or that are addressed only in a contingent way. As such, while claiming fidelity to the biblical text, biblicists actually undermine divine revelation by limiting its authority to what it says, as opposed to what it ultimately implies.

While Thomas did not regard slaveholding as sinful, he did recognise slavery as a social ill. Why then was he unwilling to advocate even a moderate form of abolitionism that would see slavery gradually eliminated? The answer lies in the second fundamental principle named above: ethical adventism. The premises here are a strong emphasis on the imminent Second Coming of Christ and a consequent near-total preoccupation with eternal and spiritual, as opposed to temporal and corporeal, concerns. John Thomas believed that the slavery issue was relatively unimportant because the slave's predicament was only a temporary one in the present life and because Jesus Christ would return very soon and resolve the matter definitively. Thus, slaves should accept their lot and free men should not interfere with slavery.

Ethical adventism has played a significant role in Christadelphian moral teaching ever since. Harry Tennant, for instance, in his article Christ and Protest, argues that 
The disciple's view is much wider than the panorama of his own time or the circumstances of his own life. He does not regard himself as having the right to seek political change or to agitate for social 'justice'... He knows and believes that there is no solution to the world's problems other than the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Once again, as a Catholic, I believe in and expectantly hope for the Second Coming of Christ. However, no one knows when it will happen, so its assumed imminence is no excuse for doing nothing about the problems of this world. Indeed, in Jesus' parables, the Master's sudden return is a reason to be active, not inactive. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that John Thomas was wrong in expecting Christ's Second Advent to resolve the slavery question in the mid-19th century. Fortunately, others did act, and slavery was ultimately ended by political and legal means (though, tragically, only after much bloodshed). Yet, well over a century later, Tennant still supported his claims that Jesus' disciples should not agitate for social justice by observing that the New Testament writers did not instruct their free readers "to urge the abolition of slavery."

John Thomas saw a stark antithesis between living a "holy life" and becoming active in the social justice issues of the day. He quoted Matthew 23:23-24 against abolitionists, calling them hypocrites who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel and neglect the weightier matters of the law. The irony is that in this passage, Jesus describes the weightier matters of the law as "justice and mercy and faith." This may allude to Micah 6:8, which states that what is required of a man is to do justice and love goodness and walk humbly with God. To live a holy life means to do justice: to seek to relieve suffering and end injustice. Hypocrisy occurs precisely when we are scrupulous in honouring God while neglecting our obligations to our neighbours here on earth. To do justice could be as small as giving a thirsty person a cup of water, or as large as helping to end slavery. To say this is not to reduce the faith to a "social gospel" or lose sight of eternal things. In Catholic parlance we speak of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Spiritual works of mercy attend to the spiritual needs of others while corporal works attend to their physical, bodily needs. Both are important; we cannot value a person's liberation from spiritual slavery to sin but devalue a person's liberation from physical slavery as "a very subordinate consideration."

It is not that we are setting our hopes on political solutions to the world's problems. We are to shine our light in the world, to provide the world with glimpses of what eternity holds. And who knows? We may in the process help to produce a more just society, as the 19th century abolitionists did.

Having considered how Dr. John Thomas responded to the greatest moral controversy of his time, my question for Christadelphians is this: do you agree with Thomas' stance? Was he right to oppose abolitionism? If not, why not? And how would the answer inform a moral response to major social justice issues of our own time, such as refugee crises, climate change, or abortion? Shall we say, like John Thomas, that believers "have no business to trouble themselves with" such issues? Or shall we make our neighbours' problems our own, and do justice?

  • 1 This is not to say that slavery is a dead issue; slavery and human trafficking are rampant in many parts of the world today.
  • 2 A note in the first number of the Herald states that Thomas had mailed two thousand copies of the last two numbers of his preceding periodical, The Investigator. Depending whether this means two thousand of each or one thousand of each, this suggests a circulation of one or two thousand. Thomas notes that "All subscribers to the Investigator, unless we are notified to the contrary, will be considered as such to the Herald."
  • 3 The name was adopted during the American Civil War as part of the group's representations to the authorities concerning its conscientious objection stance.
  • 4 Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines: 1741-1850 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 456.
  • 5 Jeff Wallenfeldt, ed., The American Civil War and Reconstruction: 1850 to 1890 (New York: Britannica Educational Publishing, 2012), 8; Jonathan Daniel Wells, A House Divided: The Civil War and Nineteenth-Century America, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2017), 46.
  • 6 L. Sandy Maisel and Mark D. Brewer, Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process, 6th ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 31.
  • 7 One correspondent, writing from New York, indicated that he did not subscribe to any faith but had strong antislavery views. The other, writing from Illinois, was considered by Thomas a brother in Christ. Thomas indicates that the Illinois correspondent was a lawyer who defended escaped slaves who were recaptured by slave hunters in that state.
  • 8 Given Thomas' long-standing ties to Campbell's movement, his periodical must have had many readers in common with the Millennial Harbinger. Despite the acrimony between the two, their views on slavery were quite similar. Both took the position that slavery is socially detrimental but that slave-owning is not condemned by the Bible and thus not sinful. In his critical biography of Campbell, Douglas A. Foster writes that Campbell sought to take a "moderate" position on slavery in order to preserve unity within his movement (A Life of Alexander Campbell [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020], 274-88). The unity motive was probably less of a factor for Thomas, who did not yet shepherd a religious movement and placed a much higher premium on truth (as he understood it) than unity. Nevertheless, any editor of a magazine with subscribers in the North and South would have appreciated the need to tread carefully to avoid alienating subscribers.
  • 9 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 121-22.
  • 10 Thomas discusses the Onesimus affair from Paul's Letter to Philemon at some length, and also cites Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-25, 1 Peter 2:18, 1 Tim. 6:1, and Tit. 2:9
  • 11 For example, Thomas states that masters ought to give their servants, and disciples ought to give their "colored brethren in Christ," "what is just and equal." However, he hastens to add that "it is no part of this justice or equality, to emancipate them, to amalgamate with them, to set them in the parlor or drawing room, and place themselves in the kitchen, &c., &c." In other words, blacks belong in the kitchen and whites in the parlor or drawing room; to do otherwise is to violate the scriptural principle "that all things should be done decently and in order" (op. cit., 122-23). Further on, Thomas states, "In all parts of the world, men have as much liberty as they are fit for, and therefore as much as they deserve. This remark applies to man without distinction of race or color. Observation convinces us, that it is true in relation to the negroes especially".
  • 12 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 156.
  • 13 The accusation of straining at a gnat only to swallow a camel (an allusion to Jesus' denuncation of the Pharisees in Matt. 23:24) is one that Thomas would level at abolitionists repeatedly. See The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 (1860): 134, 204.
  • 14 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 186.
  • 15 The abolitionist opponent, James Robertson, accused Campbell of libel after Campbell refused to debate him on the slavery question, alleging that Robertson had been expelled from a Baptist church for abusing his mother. Campbell was jailed to prevent his leaving the country before the matter was resolved. Foster describes this incident in A Life of Alexander Campbell, 278-82. John Thomas was aware of the incident, for he took to the Herald to mock Campbell for portraying himself as having been persecuted for righteousness' sake. "The Rev. James Robinson's [sic] proceedings are entirely indefensible; but a week in Glasgow Jail is no undeserved retribution in part for Mr. A. Campbell's iniquitous onslaughts upon reputation and character on this Western verge 'of the dark blue sea'" (Herald of the Future Age, vol. 4 [1848]: 249; the issue is printed as vol. 5 but this seems to have been a typographical error.)
  • 16 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 2 (1852). I am following an electronic version of this volume that is not paginated; the passage occurs on page 999 of the PDF.
  • 17 "And therefore he who violates Law, by depriving or striving to deprive his fellow-citizen of his slaves, or of any property to which the Law recognizes his right cannot be a christian. He incurs not only the penalty of the Law, but also the ban of the gospel: for in direct connection with the duties of slaves, the apostle declares—'If any man teach otherwise and consent not to wholesome words, even the word of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing but doting about questions, and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings etc., 1 Tim. iv. 3 [sic]. Thus prophetically has the 'Holy Spirit' depicted modern Abolitionists and their fruits." (The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 3 [1846]: 13).
  • 18 The term is used repeatedly in Thomas' discussion of abolitionism in the 1860 volume of the Herald (pp. 134, 200, 204). In one instance, he writes, "What shall be said of the Christian that is straining with indignation to the bursting of his carcase at the oppression of slaves two thousand or more miles remote, while he is himself oppressing the weak and defenceless at his door! If this be not straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel, we know not what is" (p. 134). It is not clear in what sense Thomas believes northern abolitionists to be guilty of "oppressing the weak and defenceless at his door." If Thomas means that blacks and other marginalised groups were also treated unjustly in the north, he had a valid point, but in that case he ought to have advocated for consistent social justice, rather than abandoning the cause altogether.
  • 19 Concerning the strategies used by the Devil (the Old Man of the Flesh), Thomas writes, "He knew that man was naturally prone to excess in all things; especially in the exercise of his moral sentiments; and that, in obedience to this propensity, he would strain out a gnat, and swallow camels by the herd. Having to work therefore upon a creature thus perverse, he set him to straining out of his cup a multitude of gnats called 'conscientious scruples.' He occupied his time, strength, and energies upon this tedious and interminable conjuration, so that he had no leisure for the weightier matters of the law. He disturbed his 'conscientiousness' about circumcision; how the dead are raised up; what kind of a body they come with; are they raised at all; the teachings of science and philosophy upon these points; this meat should not be eaten; that drink should be tetotally abstained from; the day of passover, and of the new moon, and sabbath days being kept holy; the worshipping of angels; voluntary humility; leavened bread; decoction of raisins; tobacco; abolitionism; conversion of the antipodes; and so forth, and so forth, without end." (The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 [1860]: 134.) Again, he praises the brethren of Evansville, Indiana, for being "uncompounded with porkism, vegetarianism, antitobaccoism, unleavened-breadism, decoction-of-raisinism, phrenosciolism, abolitionism, tetotalism, and a multitude of other foolishisms poured out from the teeming brains of the fanatical and hypocritical infidels of northerndom." (op. cit., 200.)
  • 20 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 7 (1857): 247.
  • 21 On the accusation, Thomas comments, "Of course this was a wanton and gratuitous falsehood... We neither own, hold, nor drive slaves, black, white, or grey... At the same time, we are not an abolitionist, whose political fanaticism and gnat-straining hypocrisy, which are all based upon the infidel speculations of the fleshly mind, we utterly despise" (The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 [1860]: 203-204). Decades earlier, in an 1840 letter to a friend in England, James Wallis, Thomas wrote, "I derived pecuniary supplies principally out of the surplus remaining after the expenses of printing were defrayed; out of the trifle I paid the slave-owner for the labor of his slaves, whom I hired to work my farm, and purchased sugar, coffee, clothes, etc." (quoted in John W. Lea, The Life and Writings of Dr. Thomas [Philadelphia: The Faith Publishing Co., 1915], 111).
  • 22 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 (1860): 203-205.
  • 23 The practice of enslaving fellow Israelites was far more restricted than that of enslaving foreigners.
  • 24 1 Peter 2:18 emphasises that the slave must be obedient even to an unjust master.
  • 25 The notion of the dignity of human life does not follow from any one text (though Gen. 1:26-27 is obviously of great importance), and is a highly abstract notion whose moral implications are not immediately obvious in Scripture. The texts that are most relevant to the dignified status of slaves specifically are 1 Cor. 7:22, Gal. 3:28, and Col. 3:11. Yet, in none of these texts does Paul make the inference that slaves should be emancipated, and in 1 Cor. 7:21-24 he explicitly resists making the move from equality before God to emancipation, though he allows that for a slave to acquire freedom could be a positive outcome. Other texts speak of freedom over against slavery as the ideal, but in a spiritual sense without overt implications for the social institution of slavery (see, e.g., John 15:15, Gal. 4:1-9, 5:1).
  • 26 Thomas' belief in the inferiority of the black race was also a factor, and his understanding of the Bible seems to have played a role here as well. It was widely believed in the 19th century that subjugation of black Africans by Europeans was a fulfilment of the curse passed on Canaan in Genesis 9:25-27, and thus biblically justified. I have not found a place in Thomas' writings where he makes this claim explicitly, but his description of black Africans as "the children of Ham" (The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 124) may allude to it.