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His Days and His Ways

A Continuation of the Book as a Biography


CHAPTER  THIRTY-EIGHT:  The Bradlaugh Debate (1876) and  The Inspiration Controversy (1885).          


Controversy subsiding, the work of the truth and its testimony was resumed in something like normal channel.  A new Hymn Book with music in both notations was brought out in 1873, and contributed largely to that excellence of congregational singing that has been remarked upon in more than one Christadelphian meeting by competent musical critics.  Another reason, of course, is that the people “sing with the understanding also” (I Cor. 14:15).  The truth intelligently received, and loved and obeyed, generates intelligent enthusiasm in praise.  Perhaps this is the stronger reason of the two.


The Montefiore Palestine Colonisation Scheme was launched in 1875, and The Daily Telegraph appealed to the non-Israelitish public to join their Jewish fellow-citizens in contributing to the testimonial to Sir Moses Montefiour which was to take this form.  Needless to say “Jews inwardly” were more than ready to contribute according to their ability, and brother Roberts was able to send a cheque to the paper (L100 or so), with a long letter dealing with current developments in their relation to the Hope of Israel.  It is regretted that the limits of this volume do not admit of its reproduction.  It will be found in The Christadelphian, 1875, p. 340.  From that day to this, when “the time of Jacob’s trouble” is surely at its worst, the brethren have maintained a brotherly solicitude for the persecuted people of God.


Looking back over the troubled years, the next activity that seems to challenge attention is the Bradlaugh Debate of 1876.  This was a great event for the little community –a sort of David and Goliath encounter, for Mr. Bradlaugh was a man of herculean proportions and great experience in secularist debates, while “David” was just “David, as we know.


After a lot of preliminary correspondence it was arranged that there should be a Six Nights’ Discussion, three night (June 13th, 14th, 15th) at Leicester; and three nights (June 20th, 21st, 22nd) at Birmingham.  The proposition was to be: -- “That the Scriptures are the reliable and authentic record of Divine Revelation.”  Mr. Roberts to affirm –Mr. Bradlaugh to deny.  The discussion duly came off and was fully reported, making with “A Review of the Discussion by Mr. Roberts,” a book of over 160 pages of small type.  It has now for a long time been out of print and is not likely to be reprinted.  The most divergent views of the discussion have been entertained by parties on either side thereof, each claiming the victory.  The true merits of the case, of course, lay on the side of the Scriptures; but Mr. Bradlaugh’s tactics were to admit nothing, deny everything, and raise every conceivable side issue possible.  The immediate effect upon a relative of brother Roberts was to reclaim him from a threatened lapse into secularism. As for ourselves, we read the report (not having heard the debate) with a sense of extreme irritation at Mr. Bradlaugh’s tactics.  A discussion is interesting where both parties are honestly in search of the truth for its own sake, and at whatever cost; but where one is wholly given over to obscurantism and blocking the course of truth, it is otherwise.  Mr. Bradlaugh made an exceedingly good handling of a bad case.


On one point (and more in all probability) subsequent discoveries have proved Mr. Bradlaugh wrong as to facts.  He hazarded the assertion that, “There is not a scrap of Tatian existing except in a quotation of Eusebius.”  But all the time manuscripts were in existence, and in 1886 the Borgian Museum at Rome received from Egypt and Arabic MS. which was a version of the Syriac of Tatian’s Diatessaron.  An English translation appeared in 1894 by Mr. J. Hamblyn Hill (T. and T. Clark), entitled The Earliest Life of Christ ever complied from the Four Gospels: being the Diatessaron of Tatian (circ. A.D. 160).  Mr. Bradlaugh had strenuously denied that the four gospels could be proved to have existed as early as A.D. 150.  Facts were against him here as all through the discussion.


If the brushes with scepticism in Yorkshire had prepared brother Roberts for the encounter with Mr. Bradlaugh, that encounter was to prepare him for one much more bitter, in which the character of the Scriptures was to be assailed, not from without but from within the body.  It was some years coming, but in this year 1876 (July) “A Congregationalist minister became obedient to the Truth, un-‘Rev’d’ himself and gave up a salary of L400 a year.”  Such was the announcement in The Christadelphian, 1876, p. 313.  Robert Ashcroft, for such was the minister’s name, was an engaging personality, at that time about 34 years of age; and a man also of some eloquence, but without sufficient stability of character to “endure unto the end.”  That he endured much is indisputable, and brother Roberts felt a great affection for him in consequence, and it was a very great grief of mind when, through stress of controversy, separation had to come.


But this is anticipating a little, or perhaps more than a little, for it was not till nine years afterwards that The Inspiration Controversy arose.  For a long time all went well.  “Extracts from the Diary of a Congregationalist Minister” appeared month by month in the Christadelphian, affording sad evidences of the lifelessness of clerical theology.


About this time the Russo-Turkish war (1877) greatly exercised the brethren, and a special effort was made to draw the attention of the public to Prophecy and the Eastern Question by means of a pamphlet with that title written by brother Roberts.  The pamphlet is well known, being still current in a modernised form.  It was a great testimony.  Copies were sent to all the members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and to very many public men all over the kingdom.  By August “between 12,000 and 14,000 copies of the pamphlet were in circulation.”  Mr. W.E. Gladstone gave it a tremendous impetus by the following letter, in which he acknowledged a copy sent to him: --

                                                                                                                                DUNSTER, January 24th, 1877.

                “SIR, -- Allow me to thank you for your tract, which I shall read with great interest; for I have been struck with the apparent ground for belief that the state of the East may be treated of in that field where you have been labouring.  ----Your faithful servant, W.E. GLADSTONE.

                                R. ROBERTS, Esq.


The political (press) adversaries of Mr. Gladstone rated him soundly for “supporting the cause of a few pig-headed local guardians of an American impostor, and a crack-brained enthusiast”!  But many papers treated the matter in a very different spirit, quoting the foregoing letter in extenso; and thus an advertisement was obtained which could not otherwise have been procured “for love or money.”  Never had there been such a testimony for the truth, and the brotherhood was made to feel that, as in the case of Philadelphia of old (Rev. 3:8) the Lord “had set before them an open door.”


Another thing sprang out of the Russo-Turkish war in relation to the brethren, and that was the question of Military Service.  A petition was drawn up, which appears in The Christadelphian for March, 1878, “Praying the Exemption of the Petitioners (the Christadelphians) from Conscription for Military Service.”  It was based upon the earlier petition drawn up by Dr. Thomas, and in a modified form has been presented to Parliament in connection with the present war [the Great War. 1914-18.] with the result that exemption has been granted, conditional on the performance to the satisfaction of duly constituted authority, of alternative “work of national importance.”  Mr. Gladstone undertook to present this petition of 1878 if necessary.  But it proved to be unnecessary, as was once more the case in the South African War of 1899-1902, when the matter was revived.  It is truly wonderful to think that Britain has been for so many years free from Compulsory Military Service.  And yet more wonder (when one looks across to Germany) to think that in the providence of God exemption has been granted to the brethren as it has been.


This year there was commenced in The Christadelphian a series of chapters on The Ways of Providence, a theme for which the mind of brother Roberts was peculiarly well suited.  They were published in book form in 1881, and the book is by many considered to be the author’s best work.  Its peculiar interest lies in the fact that it abundantly illustrates from Bible history how easy it is for God to control the affairs of His children even in these days of His “silence”; and how the most untoward events (apparently) may turn out to be the channels of divine blessings untold.


“Anglo-Israelism” was much to the front about this time, due to the activities of Mr. Edward Hine, and another good advertisment for the truth was secured in a three-nights debate on the question.  “Are Englishmen Israelites?” which took place between brother Roberts and Mr. Hine in Exeter Hall, London, on April 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 1879, Lord William Lennox in the chair.  Mr. Hine was far from being the equal of Mr. Bradlaugh in making the best of a bad case, and the debate was an easy victory for the truth.  A full report of the debate was published of 127 pages (now out of print).  The lecture was entitled “The True Position of Britain in Prophecy,” and the substance of it is still current in the pamphlet, “Anglo-Israelism Refuted.”  The Anglo-Israelite theory, though in many ways absurd, yet had this one redeeming feature about it, that it drew attention to the prophets.  In fact, in some cases (including that of the present writer) it proved a stepping-stone to the truth.  As concerning the debate, R. Ashcroft said that brother Roberts “was in his very best form”; and a correspondent of The Rock said: “Of Mr. Roberts I know nothing.  Some said he was a Baptist, others that he was a Unitarian; but whoever he be, he proved more than a match for a dozen Mr. Hines.”  This testimony is true, as any reasonable man who reads the debate must admit.


Through The Christadelphian of this year (1879) there appeared a series of papers on “Pulpit Perplexities,” by R. Ashcroft.  And in August a prospectus of Seasons of Comfort, a volume of fifty-two Sunday Morning Addresses at the Breaking of Bread.  “Personal Explanations and Proposals” were made.  In brief, brother Roberts had encountered several losses, and one in particular through unadvisedly lending a brother a sum of money which represented subscriptions to The Christadelphian, paid in advance!  The brother made default, and there was trouble.  The proposal was to publish this volume at a price (seven shillings and ten-pence, post free) that would redeem the situation.  This was done, amidst various comments and actions, friendly and otherwise, the net result being that through a natural blunder no small spiritual gain and edification accrued to believers of the truth, especially to scattered individuals and small communities in the far corners of the earth.  By-and-bye, the price of the book was reduced to little more than half the original figure.


Next year (1880) another book came into existence “without any design on the part of the writer,” as was stated in the preface.  This was Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse.  The lectures were delivered in the Temperance Hall, Birmingham (January 15th to April 15th), “not with a view to publication,” and were “reproduced from brief notes made by several shorthand writers during their delivery.  Their publication is due to the importunities of those who heard them and others who heard of them.”  “Perhaps,” said the author, “the design existed where The Ways of Providence have their roots and source.”  The book has done, and is doing, good and useful work as an easy introduction to the study of the Apocalypse; introductory to the voluminous exposition of Eureka.  While these lectures were in progress the present writer was at sea (Australia to England) coming in contact with these activities of the truth at the end of this year.  Next year (1881) there was a course of lectures on The Return of Christ, in the Town Hall, Birmingham.  These (four) lectures were published in pamphlet form, and this was about the first Christadelphian literature that came in the way of the present writer.  He did not then suppose that in after years he would be so intimately connected with it.


There was also begun in this year a series of chapters in The Christadelphian on The Visible Hand of God –a companion theme to The Ways of Providence, which dealt with the invisible working of divine providence.  These chapters, on Miracles, Signs and Wonders, were published in book form in 1883, and the book is still in circulation.  Another work of this time was The Trial, a sort of dramatising, in the form of a lawsuit, of the evidences of the resurrection of Christ.  The full title ran as follows: --“The Trial of the Most Notable Lawsuit of Ancient or Modern Times –The Incorporated Scientific Era Protection Society v. Paul Christman and other –In the Court of Common Reason –Before Lord Penetrating Impartiality and a Special Jury –Issue; ‘Did Christ Rise from the Dead?’ –Verbatim Report by a shorthand writer.”  The book was published anonymously, by Houlston and Sons, London, so that the argument might not be prejudiced by its Christadelphian associations.  It is an exceedingly clever and even “racy” book, “this clever Jeu d’esprit,” as one critic styled it.  One of my dearest friends (in common with others) did not like the drapery, but I enjoyed the book exceedingly, and got some hundreds of copies sent out to Melbourne, Australia, and circulated, having several of the “Opinions of the Press” reprinted in circular form as an advertisement.  Several of these “opinions” were very good indeed, and one paper actually guessed the authorship by reason of the life-like portraiture of “Mr. Bad Laugh,” the shade of Mr. Bradlaugh!  This paper said that the portraiture in this case was done to the life, and that one could almost imagine the Member for Northampton in the witness box.  “And this,” added the paper, “inclines us to the belief that the author of The Trial is no other than Mr. Robert Roberts, with his memories of his debate with Mr. Chas. Bradlaugh” –or words to that effect.  At the end of The Trial appeared this announcement:


                                                                                By the same Author:

                                                                In the press and will shortly appear –

                                                                        CHRISTENDOM  ASTRAY.


For the time was coming when the book, hitherto comparatively hidden away under the clolourless title “Twelve Lectures,” was to have an entirely new lease of life, and to become a much more potent instrument in the work of the Truth.


In this year 1882) Britain went into Egypt, and Dr. Thomas’ anticipations in Elpis Israel in 1848 received so striking a justification and fulfillment, that the brethren were full of exultation and hope of the speedy appearing of the Lord.  It was felt that a special effort to draw attention to the prophetic word was required, and brother Roberts wrote the pamphlet England and Egypt –Porphecy Fulfilled and Fulfilling, reviewing the events of the past thirty years, quoting in full Dr. Thomas’ exposition from Elpis Israel, and showing the important bearing of the British occupation on the questions of Jewish Restoration and British Imperialism.  The pamphlet           had a wide circulation, and a second edition is still current.  But now it sadly needs revision and bringing up to date, for much history has been made in Egypt since 1882.


A Guide to the Formation and Conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias, based on the lessons of thirty years’ experience, was published by brother Roberts in 1883; and Christendom Astray followed next year.  In its new form, Long Primer, demy 8vo, it made a substantial book of about 400 pages, and with its new and very definite (though necessarily somewhat aggressive) title, more quickly challenged attention.  It was widely advertised, and became more than ever a pioneer work in the truth.  At this time also (1884, October) there was commenced in The Christadelphian a series of chapters on The Life of Christ that were afterwards (1890) published in book form under the title Nazareth Revisited. But at the end of this year The Inspiration Controversy for a while eclipsed nearly all other literary effort than was related to it.


The Christadelphian for December, 1884, is mainly taken up with the question “Is the Bible the work of Inspiration?” the leading article being republished in pamphlet form and still current.  The reason of this was the R. Ashcroft, having wearied under the restrictions of the truth, though still retaining a nominal connection, and having left Birmingham for Liverpool, started a magazine (The Exegetist) in the first number of which (and the only one that ever appeared), he propounded the doctrine of partial inspiration of the Scriptures.  He maintained that only such parts of the O.T. as could not otherwise be produced were inspired; that the Bible contained a human (i.e., an erring) element; and that inspiration  only covered “all that may be said to belong to divine revelation proper: by which is to be understood everything in the Scriptures that may have been beyond the power of man to discover for himself.”  This was supplemented presently from another source with the doctrine of erring inspiration.  Brother Roberts was dismayed.  He had made the most of the ex-Congregationalist minister and loved him as a brother; and had even given him the lists of names and addresses of subscribers to The Christadelphian to help launch the new magazine.  And this was the result!  The Birmingham ecclesia and nearly all the ecclesias in the country were at once plunged into a new controversy which is the foundation of all.  Long and bitter experience had determination in action that could not be discerned and appreciated by those who were not like-minded, and strong and bitter resentment arose over his prompt and uncompromising hostility to the popular clerical doctrine of a very fallible Bible.  Six months of misery were endured in the Birmingham ecclesia, and then there came  the inevitable division.  The great number, both of the executive and the general body, declared for a wholly inspired and infallible Bible: and so declaring, dissolved the ecclesia, and re-incorporated themselves as The Birmingham Christadelphian Ecclesia, placing at the head of their “Statement of Faith” forming their “Basis of Fellowship” the following:



                That the book currently known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purpose at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration of God in the writers, and are consequently without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation (II Tim. 3:16; I Cor. 2:13; Heb. 1:1; II Pet. 1:21; I Cor. 14:37; Neh. 9:30; Jno. 10:35).


The minority formed a separate meeting, and the division endures to this day.  Unity of mind of the subject was and is alleged by the minority, but one looks in vain for any such statement as the foregoing in their Basis of Fellowship.  As for the ex-Congregationalist minister, he returned to his clerical associations, and afterwards even drifted into Spiritualism.


Again there was the establishment of a rival magazine, and the usual bitternesses of controversy; but it was a good and not a bad thing for the truth.  The Bible is less and less esteemed in clerical schools where pseudo-criticism is rampant, and it needed a rough blast like this to wake Christadelphians up to a sense of their responsibilities.  As to the subject of this biography, he felt the stress of the situation very keenly in many ways.  In this troubled year (1885) he was moved to write a series of (four) letter, “To the Elect of God in a Time of Trouble” (February, March, April, May), and a fifth (June), “A Letter to My Enemies.”  In the judgment of the present writer, these letters form the high-watermark of the spiritual attainments of the deceased.  They breathe quite the spirit of David and of Christ.


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