His Days and His Ways
A Continuation of the Book as a Biography
CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE: “The Sugar Disaster”.
The inspiration controversy having reached its climax, a New Constitution of the Birmingham Ecclesia was drawn up as described in The Christadelphian for August, 1886. The Basis of Faith contained, as before stated, an initial clause defining our attitude towards the Bible. In this month also there appeared The Christadelphian Instructor, a kind of extended Catechism, a pamphlet of about 60 pages, which has become one of the most useful works on the truth, and is appreciated by many adults as well as by children. Next year (1887) the brethren came into closer connection with the work of Mr. Laurence Oliphant, who was at that time interesting himself greatly in the matter of Jewish Colonization in Palestine. He lived at Haifa, the little seaport on the bay of Acre at the foot of Mount Carmel. Here brother V. Collyer visited him in this year, and was able to report as an eye-witness of his activities. The time seemed ripe for that preadventual colonization of the land that was foretold in the prophets, notably in Ezekiel (chapters 37-39), and the brethren began to feel quite a tangible interest in the Land of Promise, having an influential friend there who was able and will to administer whatever little help they could contribute to an object so dear to them.
In this connection there appeared for a moment to be a promise of considerable means wherewith to help forward the enterprise. But the brotherhood, and some individuals in particular, had to be reminded by rather drastic experience that just as Israel had sold themselves for nought, so they were to be “redeemed without money” (Isa. 52:3). And this introduces a subject which for good reasons is exceedingly distasteful to the present writer, but is by no means therefore to be slurred over in this veracious narative, and that is “The Sugar Disaster.”
I noticed that this melancholy affair has been recorded in Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates, under the article “Sugar.” The following extract will introduce the matter: --:A secret process of refining sugar by electricity said to have been invented by Prof. Henry C. Friend, of New York, announced 1885. He succeeded in organising The New York Electric Sugar Refining Company to carry out the invention; the scheme collapsed and occasioned much loss in America and England by credulous persons, the whole affair being an imposture by credulous persons, the whole affair being an imposture (1888). It cause a temporary panic in Liverpool (Jan.): Mrs. Friend, then a widow, and her daughter were arrested in Michigan (Feb.); William E. Howard, one of the Company, was sentenced to imprisonment for ‘grand larceny’ 21st June, 1889.”
Such is the bald record of what is called in The Christadelphian of the period, “The Sugar Disaster,” which involved, besides “credulous persons,” some to whom that epithet certainly could not apply. A certain brother R. being commercially connected with the affair (though not with the fraud!) was approached by brother Roberts, who thought it would be a good thing if he himself and the brethren in general could secure some of the prospective wealth for the sake of helping forward the work of the Truth in general, and the Palestine Colonization Project in particular. Brother R., however, did not wish to entangle anyone in commercial speculation. But brother R.R. prevailed, and so it came about that “much loss” was occasioned in Christadelphian circles. Cynical friends (and enemies) were of course not slow to add to the affliction by the citation of such scriptures as Prov. 28:22: “He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him”! And they did not scruple to suggest that the whole Christadelphian position was, like “Electric Sugar” itself, and unmitigated fraud! And many who were neither “cynical” nor “enemies” were very naturally exercised and grieved at an episode which, however unjustly, brought the good name of brother Roberts and Christadelphians generally into even momentary disrepute. Some considered that an article (“Yet not altogether”) that appeared in The Christadelphian for December, 1888, was, in nautical phraseology, “sailing too close to the wind,” in its justification of co-operation with the world to the extent of holding shares in the Sugar Refining Company.
When the crash came in the beginning of 1889 brother Roberts went over to New York to investigate, and his article in The Christadelphian for February of that year explained his connection with the affair, which need not be further alluded to now. There were some curious incidents in the winding up of the matter, and in the end it was universally recognised that brother Roberts and all the brethren concerned were the innocent victims of a fraud. As he had been largely instrumental in inducing many of the brethren to hold shares in the company, brother Roberts long cherished the hope of being able to make good the losses he had so unwittingly caused. I used to say that it seemed to me that it would not be divinely permitted, and that the chastening we had got, though very unpleasant was a good deal safer than the possession of abundant wealth. But this, of course, was not a convincing argument, and he would not be convinced; and this led to his being involved in other fiascos later on.
Just at this time, as if to emphasise the darkness and depression, Mr. Oliphant died at Twickenham, near London, and the Palestine projects went under eclipse. Added to this discomfort was the removal of the office of The Christadelphian from Edmund Street, whither it had been removed from The Athenaeum about 1883, to 139, Moor Street, opposite where the Great Western Railway Station of that name now stands. It was the depth of winter, the premises were a sort of ramshackle conversion of a warehouse with goods entrance, and the whole outlook remains as it were the memory of a nightmare.
In anticipation of increased ways and mean The Christadelphian had been increased in size (1888) and brother Shuttleworth had allotted to him sixteen pages per month as “The Christadelphian Fellow Labourer” for the exercise of his peculiar gifts. He had conducted a little weekly, The Lightstand, for a few years, but it was not self-supporting, and was financed by friends. Brother Roberts proposed the solution above indicated. All these pleasant proposals evaporated by reason of “The Sugar Disaster,” and the present writer found himself a servant of brother Roberts, to the great humiliation of all flesh concerned, though by no means to the detriment of the work of the truth, or of either party. The present writer had come over from Australia in 1887 simply and solely with the desire of getting into closer touch with the work of the truth, and entirely against every other desire and interest. And this rough hammer-blow riveted him into it at a stroke.
Next year (1890), to help the situation, brother Roberts projected a new magazine, “a sort of outer-court companion to The Christadelphian,” as he expressed it. It was called Good Company, and ran till midsummer, 1894. It is from its columns, as already explained, that the autobiographical portion of this book is taken. From one point of view it was rather an Hibernian performance, for while it entailed a lot of work editorially and clerically, I very much doubt whether, on a fair calculation, it ever paid its way. But it was an interesting little paper while it lasted. In this year also, Nazareth Revisited (The Life of Christ) was issued, and after twenty-six years this edition has just been exhausted. We had anticipated that Nazareth would have been revisited by the Lord before now.
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