JOHN THOMAS was born in Hoxton Square, London, on April 12th, 1805. Information concerning his ancestry is meagre, and interest centres more in his work than in his extraction. He studied medicine at an early age in Chorley and London, and contributed to The Lancet occasionally as far back as 1830. His English degree, of that year’s date, is M.R.C.S., his M.D. being an American degree of date 1848. Some insinuations of unfriendly critics have been met by the brief statement of facts that appears in The Christadelphian for April, 1886, 152.
In 1832 Dr. Thomas emigrated to America, making the passage as surgeon to the ship Marquis of Wellesley. The vessel ran ashore on Sable Island, and it was supposed she would be lost with all hands. Dr. Thomas was naturally exercised as to the future state, and finding himself in a state of hopeless ignorance on the matter, resolved, if his life should be spared, that he would end the uncertainty and search out the truth upon the matter.
On getting safely ashore he did not forget this resolution; and in the course of his travels, having been introduced to Mr. Walter Scott, of “Campbellite” associations, and by him convinced of the necessity of baptism, he submitted to immersion as an ordinance appointed of God. From this time onward he became involved with Campbellism and theological expositions and discussions which were altogether distasteful to him, and from which he would fain have escaped. But it was not to be. At Wellsburg, Va., in 1833, he made the acquaintance of Alexander Campbell, and was by him constrained to speak in his meeting-place; which he did, on Daniel’s prophecies, and on the subject of The Apostasy spoken of by Paul.
From this time forth wherever he went he was in demand in this connection. At Baltimore, Md., and at Philadelphia, Pa., he was likewise constrained to set forth what he then believed to be the truth. At Philadelphia he set up as a medical practitioner; but his practice was somewhat hampered by the Biblical studies and speaking in which he had become involved.
In 1834 Dr. Thomas started a monthly magazine called The Apostolic Advocate, in the pages of which he manifested an understanding of the Scriptures, and especially of the Apocalypse, that was rare in those times (and, indeed, in any), and gave promise of the fruit of after years, of which Elpis Israel is a good sample.
About this time, by the growing influence of “the Word”, Dr. Thomas was rapidly becoming “wiser than his teachers”, and trouble ensued. He perceived that the knowledge and belief of the gospel must in God’s appointments precede baptism, and was thereupon re-immersed upon the belief of what he then supposed to be the gospel, and which was certainly much nearer to it than the very rudimentary belief with which he had been immersed a few years previously. Upon this there naturally arose a cry against what Alexander Campbell and his followers called “Anabaptism”. Mr. Campbell controverted Dr. Thomas in The Millennial Harbinger, and he replied vigorously in The Apostolic Advocate, in which, in December, 1835, he published an article in all good faith under the heading, “Information Wanted”, putting forward a series of 34 questions intended to elucidate the Scriptural doctrines of eternal life, the Kingdom of God, and related topics.
This was treated by Campbellism as heretical speculation, and a rupture followed which was never healed.
In 1839, becoming tired of theological strife, Dr. Thomas migrated westward into the State of Illinois, and settled at Longrove upon some 300 acres of land and took to farming, with experiences of an arduous and sometimes amusing character. 1841 found him editing a weekly newspaper at St. Charles, and in 1842 a monthly magazine called The Investigator.
About this time a taste of Job’s experience befell him, for, having removed to Louisville, Va., and determined to sell the farm in Illinois, he intrusted the sale to an agent who absconded with the proceeds, leaving Dr. Thomas not only minus the price but saddled with debt as well.
In 1844 he started a monthly magazine called The Herald of the Future Age, and settled at Richmond, Va., and soon after finally broke with Campbellism, the oppositions of which had done so much to force his attention to the accurate and thorough study of the Scriptures.
In 1847 he had elaborated from the Scriptures the doctrines that find such lucid and ample exhibition in Elpis Israel; and, perceiving that he had after all only just arrived at “the truth of the gospel”, he published in March, 1847, “A Confession and Abjuration” of past erroneous belief and contentions, and was re-immersed for “the hope of Israel”, which Paul preached to the Jews at Rome. About this time also he paid a visit to New York, where afterwards he was to settle. Also about this time he proposed to Alexander Campbell a full and exhaustive written discussion upon the immortality of the soul and related topics. The proposal, however, met with so contemptuous a refusal that several of Mr. Campbell’s friends were alienated by his manner.
An interesting episode occurred also about this time, namely, the phrenological examination of both Alexander Campbell and John Thomas by Mr. L. N. Fowler, of New York. It was a quite independent examination and interestingly illustrated the natural tendencies of the disputants, and is strikingly borne out by the portraits of each.
In 1848 Dr. Thomas visited Britain. He was deeply stirred by the revolutionary upheavals of the time, and before Iris departure wrote on the subject to the New York Star, which, in publishing his letter, spoke of him as “A Missionary for Europe”, which indeed he was, but of an unusual type. Arriving at Liverpool in June, 1848, he made his way South: and by a series of providences a door of utterance was opened for him by the interactions of Campbellite rivalries. He travelled through Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham, Plymouth, Lincoln, Newark, and other places, speaking upon the gospel of the Kingdom of God as occasion offered. Afterwards he made his way to Glasgow, and lectured there, and at Paisley, attracting much attention by his expositions of the prophetic word in its bearings upon the signs of the times.
Elpis Israel itself came out of this visit, as is explained by Dr. Thomas himself in the subjoined PREFACE.
Returning to London, he occupied some months in writing Elpis Israel, and during the time attended a Peace meeting in the British Institution, Cowper Street, at which he moved an amendment to the effect that war was a divine institution in this age of sin and death, and that the coming years were by the prophetic word defined to be “a time of war”, and not “a time of peace”. The amendment was derisively rejected; but the past hundred years have only too sadly well attested the soundness of Dr. Thomas’ views.
Having completed Elpis Israel, Dr. Thomas made a second journey through England and Scotland, among other things contributing a pamphlet to “the Gorham controversy”, under the title Clerical Theology Unscriptural, now out of print; and, in a breezy dialogue between “Boanerges” and “Heresian”, exhibits the Bible truth concerning “original sin”, “remission of sins”, etc., as graphically set forth in other style in Elpis Israel.
After over two years’ absence from America, Dr. Thomas returned, and resumed the publication of The Herald of the Kingdom, which he continued for eleven years, until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1860–61 brought about its suspension.
In 1862 Dr. Thomas revisited Britain and found that, notwithstanding the fact that Elpis Israel had in many cases been burnt in disgust upon its receipt by subscribers, some small communities of believers of the gospel had arisen. For the edification of these, he travelled and lectured through the country once more, returning to America shortly afterwards.
His next, and greatest and last work, was Eureka, an exposition of the Apocalypse, in three volumes (over 2,000 pages), published by subscription, of which the first volume was published in 1862, and the third in 1868. It is a work which none of “the servants of God” should fail to possess.
In 1864, as The Herald of the Kingdom had been suspended, and Dr. Thomas was engaged upon Eureka, at his suggestion The Ambassador of the Coming Age was started under the editorship of the late Robert Roberts, of Birmingham, England, who continued it (as The Christadelphian) to the day of his death in September, 1898.
The progress of the American Civil War bore hardly upon the brethren of Christ, who were found in both the opposing camps, and who abhorred the taking of the sword as a thing forbidden by their Lord and Master, whose dictum is, “All they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword”. In their extremity they desired Dr. Thomas to formulate some appeal to the authorities for exemption from military service on account of their conscientious objections, and subject to such conditions as might be thought fit to be imposed. To save his friends from being called Thomasites, it was necessary to adopt some distinctive name. The name Christian, as Dr. Thomas pointed out, had been appropriated by every Anti-Christian thing under the sun, and was no longer distinctive as it was in the first century. So Dr. Thomas hit upon the name CHRISTADELPHIAN, which, after many years’ “earnest contention for the faith”, conquered for itself a recognition in the allotment of about three inches of space in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, after this manner:—
“CHRISTADELPHIANS (Χριστου̂ ἀδελφοί), a community founded by John Thomas (1848), who studied medicine in London and then migrated to America. There he first joined the ‘Campbellites’, but afterwards struck out independently, preaching largely on the application of Hebrew prophecy and of the language of the Apocalypse to current and future political events. In America and in Great Britain he gathered a number of adherents, and formed a community which is said to have extended to most English speaking countries. It consists of exclusive ‘Ecclesias’, with neither ministry nor organization. The members meet on Sundays to ‘break bread’ and discuss the Bible. Their theology is strongly Millenarian, centring in the hope of a world-wide theocracy, with its seat at Jerusalem. They believe that theY alone have the true exegesis of Scripture, and that the ‘faith of Christendom’ is ‘compounded of the fables predicted by Paul’. No statistics are published.”
In 1869, after the completion of Eureka, Dr. Thomas visited Britain for the last time. He found that the truth had taken root through his labours, and decided to transfer his residence to England for the rest of his days. But it was not to be. Upon his advice the name of The Ambassador was changed to The Christadelphian, which it still bears. After travelling and lecturing among the people created by “the truth” illustrated by his writings, Dr. Thomas returned to New York, but was soon afterwards attacked by illness, and died March 5th, 1871. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, where, by a remarkable coincidence, the late Robert Roberts, who for many years continued his work, was laid beside him in September, 1898.
Of the correctness of Dr. Thomas’ political anticipations from the prophets, the following is offered as proof, in addition to what may be found in the text and footnotes of this edition of Elpis Israel. The subjoined extract is from Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work, a biography by the late Robert Roberts, with copious extracts from Dr. Thomas’ letters and articles.
“Dr. Thomas’ political prognostications, based on prophecy, have been too signally realized to admit of the supposition that he was radically mistaken in his chronological scheme. He predicted the failure of the Hungarian revolt (Herald of the Kingdom, vol. i., p. 98); the uprise of Napoleon III, without mentioning his name (Herald of the Future Age, vol. iv., p. 48); the political and war-developing ascendancy of France under him for a series of years (Herald of the Kingdom, vol. ii., p. 37; vol. iii., p. 16); his interference in the affairs of Italy (Herald of the Future Age, vol. iii., p. 262); his expulsion of the Austrians from that country (vol. v., p. 205); the war between Austria and Italy, resulting in Austria losing her hold on Italy (vol. iii., p. 262); the dismemberment of the Austrian Empire by France (ibid., p. 263); the downfall of the French Empire (Herald of the Kingdom, vol. iii., p. 17); the co-existence of the Pope and King of Italy in Rome (Herald of the Future Age, vol. iii., p. 238) and a number of other things, such as the efforts of Egypt for independence, the attempt of Russia on Turkey in 1854, etc., etc.”—Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work, 316.