The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: T

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Thomas, John

John Thomas was born in 1805. The son of a rather restless minister of religion, the young Thomas did not take a very serious interest in religion early in life. He spent part of his childhood at boarding-school, and was apprenticed to a surgeon at fourteen. A frightful Atlantic crossing on the "Marquis of Wellesley" while emigrating to the United States caused him to vow to seek and follow Christian truth. The early contacts in the United States were with the so-called "Reformation", or Campbellites -- later known as the Disciples of Christ, and finally the Church of Christ. But Alexander Campbell, organizer of this "Reformation", was chiefly interested in a broad non-denominational Christian union without creeds, membership of which was not dependent upon assent to doctrine. John Thomas was of a very different turn of mind; his spirit was that of a submission to a straightforward understanding of a divinely- inspired Bible unmodified by later creeds and ecclesiastical traditions.

He occasionally claimed, and others even more vigorously claimed for him, that his matured views on the Scriptures were solely the result of the study of them alone, and that he owed nothing to others. There is much truth in the claim made by John Thomas; his study was no doubt as impartial as it was possible to be in the circumstances. He had an independent and sincere turn of mind and was not likely to follow consciously interpretations that bore the stamp of any particular theological school.

Despite incessant lecturing and controversial correspondence he was a reader of amazing breadth. How this was possible since he was continuously on the move is something of a mystery. But the writings of his formative period -- when he also traveled widely -- show close and accurate familiarity with Plato and other Greek writers; 3rd and 4th century Christian writers; medieval history; the poetry of Burns; first-hand sources of the 16th century Reformation; Milton, Newton, Hobbes, Locke and other 17th century authors whom he quoted at great length verbatim; Gibbon's History of the Roman Empire; an extensive knowledge of most of the principal writers on Biblical prophecy during the previous 70 years, including some who were extremely obscure; and digestion of the enormous contemporary output of books, tracts, and periodicals dealing with prophetic, millenarian and general religious topics.

The mid-19th century was a period of feverish apocalyptic study among Biblical Christians. John Thomas entered this field with fervor, his work culminating in his three-volume "Eureka", which was produced in installments in the fifties and sixties.

John Thomas proceeded to encourage the formation of communities of people sympathetic to the views expressed in his periodical the "Herald of the Kingdom", but these were at first very loose in organisation, and while some adopted the title "Baptized Believers in the Kingdom of God" and others "Bible Christians", there was no unanimity and a variety of designations appeared. The American Civil War precipitated the need for some name. True to the principles for which they stood, John Thomas and his colleagues refused to take part in the hostilities. In Richmond, Virginia, he publicly called attention to the position: "If the Southern and Northern Methodists, Baptists, Campbellites, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Papists think fit to blow one another's brains out, let them do it to their heart's content, but let not Christians mingle in the unhallowed strife."

In 1864 the name Brethren in Christ or Christadelphians was registered at the County Court House at Oregon, Illinois, and application made, asking that this name be accepted as the official title of a religious body. Six years after the Brethren in Christ or Christadelphians had thus officially come into being as a distinct body, John Thomas died in the vicinity of New York.

He was a controversial figure, with a stabbing, pungent style of writing. He seemed to attract some to adulation and drive others to distraction; but he bored no one. He made no apology for engaging in verbal polemics. Disciples, he stated, obtain peace in this age in proportion as they are indifferent to principle. Because of the controversies he inevitably stirred up wherever he taught, it is difficult at the present distance to make an accurate assessment of his personality. During his lifetime opinions varied. "He was fatherly, kind, domestic, disinterested and truly humble." "He was quiet, gentle, courteous, well-mannered modest, absolutely devoid of affectation or trace of self-importance." "He was the most uncompromising, stubborn, self-willed and dogmatic person ever known; having large self-esteem and firmness and deficient benevolence, though a good intellect, and all this hardened by a bilious temperament." Clearly he was a many-sided man!

He was invariably warm to close friends, but bitter experiences with false friends made him somewhat cold and distant with both opponents and strangers. Those who knew him best invariably came into the closest fellowship with him. Memories of him (and a hat of his) still survive and are cherished in the tobacco country of Virginia where so much of his work was done. The author had in 1968 the great privilege of talking with one of the last surviving persons to attend his lectures. He was known far and wide among the Virginia and Maryland planters for his hard riding, firm convictions, and his enjoyment of conversation. A great friend of his in Virginia, and one who in fact stoutly defended the worthy doctor on more than one occasion from outraged hearers, was Albert Anderson, known throughout southern Virginia as "the walking Bible"; great-grandchildren of Anderson are Christadelphians in the same area today.

In intellectual stamina and breadth Dr. John Thomas excelled. On a typical lecturing tour it was not uncommon for him to deliver 130 two-hour addresses on a variety of topics in a matter of two or three months. And it was rare for any of these to contain inaccuracy in any of the Scriptural and historical references with which they were always liberally sprinkled. He ascended the speaker's dais in an unostentatious manner, and rarely worried about conventional introductions. "It is written in the prophets..." he would begin and follow with an expansive and analytical treatment of his theme.

John Thomas traveled widely in the United States, Canada and Britain. His biography, by Robert Roberts, revised and enlarged by later writers, is happily still in print (Dr Thomas: His Life and Works). For details of the "missionary" work of John Thomas after his baptism at Richmond, Virginia in 1847 readers are referred to that book... In his travels during the Civil War in America, he passed alternately from one side to the other to encourage his brethren, sometimes making his way through devastated villages in Virginia before even the smoke of conflict had disappeared. In these difficult and discouraging days he showed a great courage and devotion. (Alan Eyre, from "The Protestors", abridged)

The writings of John Thomas include:

"Elpis Israel", or "the Hope of Israel"
"Eureka": An Exposition of the Apocalypse (in 3 volumes)
"Anastasis": A Treatise on the Resurrection
An Exposition of Daniel
Clerical Theology Unscriptural

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