Dr. Thomas was born in Hoxton Square, London, on the 12th of April, 1805. His father, who was aristocratically descended, was a high-spirited, proud, and talented man, with an active temperament and energetic mind. His mother was a religious and amiable lady. The Doctor inherited a combination of these elements—the fire and energy of his father being tempered by the softer qualities of his mother, resulting in the gifted, unobtrusive, but indomitable nature with which he was endowed.
His father had been brought up to the East India Civil Service, but left that employment for the ministry, which he preferred to the routine of clerkship. He graduated as a preacher at Hoxton College when 20 years of age, but continued his duties in the East India Company’s offices till he received a “call” from an Independent congregation that met in Founder Hall, behind the Bank of England. This was several years after leaving college. In the interval, he had followed the clerical avocation, here and there, as opportunity allowed. He had not been many years pastor of the Founder Hall congregation, when a misunderstanding arose among the deacons, that caused unpleasantness, and led him to accept a “call” from Huntley, a small town in the north of Scotland, to which his wife and family accompanied him. This was in 1812, the Doctor being then seven years of age.
At Huntley, they only remained a year. The Doctor’s father grew tired of the country and the neighbourhood, and, in the absence of any ministerial “call”, returned to London, where he opened a boarding-school at West Square, Lambeth. The boarding-school prospering, he removed to a large house at Clapham, which he opened as a school for the sons of dissenting ministers. A society which had been formed for the education of the sons of deceased ministers sent him a good many pupils, and the institution was a success. At the end of five years, however, the Doctor’s father, preferring pastoral work to the drudgery of teaching, gave it up and removed to Richmond, Surrey, where he became pastor of a small Independent congregation.
A year afterwards, he received and accepted a “call” from a congregation at Chorley, in Lancashire, to which he removed with his family. Here they remained about four years, at the end of which (with the exception of the Doctor), they returned to London. Dr. Thomas, who was sixteen years of age when his father left Chorley, remained behind to continue his medical studies with a private surgeon, under whom he had been placed two years before. At this time the Doctor was a member of his father’s church, which he had been asked to join by one of the deacons, and for which the deacon reported him to be quite fit, notwithstanding the Doctor’s “profound ignorance of the whole subject of theology”, to use his own language. Six months after his father’s departure he resigned his membership and continued unconnected with ecclesiastical matters till incidents led him into the channel referred to in the previous chapter. About the same time he returned to London and was put under a doctor near Paddington to continue his studies.
At the end of two years he joined the students at Guy’s and St. Thomas’s hospitals, where he attended lectures for three years, at the same time prosecuting his private studies. During a portion of the period, he acted as demonstrator of anatomy in a school connected with one of the hospitals in London. On finishing his medical course, and obtaining his diploma, he spent a year as companion to a London physician, for whom he wrote a course of lectures on obstetrics. At the end of the year, he commenced practice as a physician, on his own behalf, at Hackney, where he continued for three years.
During this time the Doctor wrote, or began to write, a history of the parish, for the completion of which he had to apply to the ecclesiastical authorities for access to the parish records. This was denied, and the authorities, getting to know what was in progress, gave themselves no rest until they had purchased and suppressed the unfinished manuscript. During the same period, he made frequent contributions to the Lancet, one of which is interesting as indicative of the state of the Doctor’s mind on the subject of natural immortality at that time.
Some time before an essay had appeared in the Lancet on “The Materiality of Man, the Immortality of the Soul, and the Vital Principle”. The writer contended that the brain was one and the same thing as the mind, that it existed in all animals, but was more perfectly developed in man, but that man had attached to him “a principle termed the soul” which started into consciousness at death.
Dr. Thomas recollected that something was said about the soul and immortality in 1 Corinthians. He therefore turned to the passage and reflected upon it. From it he gathered that there was a vital or germinating principle which continued attached to every particle after death; all human animal matter, like kinds of seeds, was subject to fixed physical laws, and when it had lain incorruptible, at the time appointed it germinated and rose a new living being from the dust of death. The existence in man of a part of God’s essence seemed to him a “very fallacious notion.”
He therefore wrote an answer to the essay which appeared in the Lancet about the year 1830. In it he contended that the mind and vital principle were one and the same; that those in man differed from those in brutes; he called them the “immortal human principle” and the “perishable brute principle.” The human principle could not exist separately from Deity unclothed by, or independent of matter; that it was not the soul but a constituent of what would after form the incorrupt and immortal soul, and that this vital spirit was to be the quickening spirit of a new and glorious body after death, an immortal creature endowed with the properties of matter inimitably beautiful, the perfection of the Creator’s works. He considered that the mind of man must be immortal because God breathed it into him at his creation.
The interest of this early contribution to the Lancet is that it indicates conclusively that Dr. Thomas’s ideas at that time did not materially differ from those of the religious sects of the day.
Speaking of the matter later, he said:
“We did not believe, for we never knew nor understood that the resurrection of the body was consequent upon an inherent physical quality, but on the bringing of the energy of the Spirit of God to bear on the mortal remains of the dead saints, through the agency of Jesus Christ at his personal appearing; and that the energy, instead of being in the dead body, was extraneous to it, and deposited in Jesus Christ; that because this immortal vigour was laid up in him, he is styled ‘the resurrection and the life,’ and that, seeing he is the resurrection and the life of the saints, in this sense he is called ‘Christ our life.’ We knew nothing about these things which were all ‘hidden wisdom,’ or mysteries, to us in those days.”
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