In the history of Christianity, there have always been brave and faithful individuals who questioned the doctrines and practices of the dominant denominations of their time and day. And perhaps no other person has questioned what the Christian churches taught him more than Dr. John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphian movement.
No Christadelphian would ever say that Dr. Thomas was more than just a man. He was not a prophet or another messiah or any such thing, but just a man who was determined to find out what God was really teaching through the His Word, the Bible. Dr. Thomas believed very strongly that it is crucial for men and women to not simply accept what clergy and theologians have been saying for centuries, but seek out Biblical truth for themselves.
Dr. Thomas was a medical doctor, born April 12th, 1805, in Great Britain. In 1832 his family decided to emigrate to the United States. He went first, taking passage in a ship bound for America. The ship encountered a series of severe storms off the coast of Nova Scotia causing the ship to flounder and shipwreck became imminent. In fear Dr. Thomas cried out to God and vowed that if he survived he would dedicate himself to studying religion until he found truth. God spared the doctor’s life and John Thomas kept his vow.
Dr. Thomas was ultimately bound for Cincinnati, Ohio, where he joined the Campbellite movement (now known as the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ) soon after arriving. The Campbellites were followers of Alexander Campbell, a preacher who was determined to restore Christianity to its first century simplicity and authenticity. Dr. Thomas was rebaptized as a Campbellite, and became a well known speaker in the Campbellite movement.
The early nineteenth century was a time of great religious ferment in the United States, especially on the expanding frontier. America was being settled by a new kind of men and women, who were independent, and untraditional. The last part of the eighteenth century had seen a revival of interest and enthusiasm in the churches known as the Great Awakening. The Methodist movement of John Wesley had swept across the country at the turn of the century. Then came the Campbellites, preaching a reform of the paganism of the churches of the day, to be followed soon by the Millerites (also known as the Adventists) preaching the end of the world. Each of these movement questioned some part of the traditional Christianity of the time.
It was a stirred-up time and place and Dr. Thomas moved in it, editing several magazines, preaching and debating to anyone who would listen. After a few years he came to understand some things that caused some disagreements with the Campbellites. After several meetings with Campbell himself, he found his differences with the Campbellites to be unreconcilable and Dr. Thomas had to leave and push on with his search. Some of the Campbellite congregations left with him, and began to look to him as their leader.
At this time the Millerite or Adventist movement was growing and Dr. Thomas began to associate with this movement. He admired their enthusiasm, their desire for the return of Christ, and their questioning spirit. He influenced the movement and was influenced by it. To this day, some Adventist groups have similar doctrines to the Christadelphians, especially the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith
The group of congregations and individuals who looked to Dr. Thomas grew in the decades that followed. In 1848 the movement became international when Dr. Thomas went to Britain for a speaking tour. In Britain he was very well received and to this day Great Britain has always had the largest number of Christadelphians. Great Britain became another center for the growing Christadelphian community.
Before his tour of Great Britain, Dr. Thomas was based in Virginia. When he returned from Great Britain, he moved to New York and began to preach there, concentrating especially on the Jewish community in New York. Dr. Thomas believed strongly that Christianity was not a replacement for Judaism, but a fulfillment of it, and emphasized that Christians become “grafted on” descendents of Abraham.
The movement had no official name until 1864. The Civil War in the United States found believers on both sides. The movement believed strongly in conscientious objection to participation in war. However, in order to be exempted from military service, believers had to belong to a recognized religious group that did not permit participation in war. So in 1864, Dr. Thomas gave the movement a name to identify it, “The Christadelphians”, which was Greek for “Brethren in Christ”.
Since that time, the Christadelphian movement has grown to include believers in every continent and more than 50 countries. But all Christadelphians recognize Dr. Thomas not so much as a founder, but as an inspirational example of someone who strongly desired to know God and searched the Bible until he found the truth. Such a spirit is not common today, but it is a spirit that pleases God.
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