Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Other Doctor Thomas

by "Jerome"

(a slight revision of an article first published on Blog 2 in May 2011)

A Church of God General Conference historian Mark Mattison in a widely circulated article The Provenance of Russellism makes some links between the Age to Come (One Faith) movement and the early work of Charles Taze Russell. In Mattison’s estimation there are actually few connections. However, the research on this blog has made a lot more, starting at least with an Allegheny group meeting at Quincy Hall, Lacock Street, being listed as a One Faith congregation under the pastoral care of Elder G D Clowes in 1874. (The Restitution, November 5, 1874). (Clowes’ death would be noted in ZWT for March 1889 – reprints page 1110)

But there is one fundamental error this article would like to address – the identity of a Dr Thomas who is quoted in Zion’s Watch Tower in June 1881. Mattison tries to make a connection between what became three distinctive religious groups. The paragraph in question reads:

The most interesting point of contact, however, appears in the Zion's Watch Tower, June 1881, Vol. 2, No. 12. The evidence is a short two-sentence by-line of an article entitled "The Credibility of the Scriptures." It reads: "Extracts from an Address Delivered by Dr. J. H. Thomas before the 'Liberal League' (an Infidel Society), of this City and published in the Restitution." Three related movements are represented here. Charles Russell, the founder of what was to become the Jehovah's Witnesses, printed an article by John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians, via The Restitution, the official publication of the Church of God. (end of quote)

The article identifies Dr J H Thomas with John Thomas the founder of the Christadelphians. That is incorrect. Although Charles Taze Russell (hereafter abbreviated to CTR) does not give a date – which no doubt led to the writer’s assumption – it can be established that the address given before the Pittsburgh Liberal League dates from around May 1881. Dr. John Thomas died ten years earlier in 1871.

The other Dr Thomas, J H Thomas MD, lived in Pittsburgh. In 1881 his address was 25 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa. (The Christadelphian October 1881). From the late 1860s he had corresponded with Robert Roberts, editor of The Christadelphian. In the early 1880s Thomas branched out to include The Restitution with his submissions. From 1881 he became a regular Restitution contributor, and at least four of his sermons were reprinted as tracts and sold by their office. This apparently continued until his Christadelphian brethren caught up with him!

His first published lecture is in the January 26, 1881 issue of The Restitution, given before the Liberal League, Pittsburgh, Pa. on January 16. The title is ‘Man as He Was, as He Is, and as He Shall Be’ and from the May 18 issue of Restitution is advertised as a tract.

Dr Thomas followed this with another lecture given at the Liberal League which was reprinted in The Restitution on May 18, 1881, covering pages 2 and 3. No date is given, but it would have been very shortly before publication. The title was Reasons Why I Believe the Bible to Be the Word of God. This was the lecture picked up by CTR and republished in abridged form under the new title The Credibility of Scripture in Zion’s Watch Tower June 1881 (reprints pp. 231-233). CTR credits The Restitution for the original, and adds that the Liberal League is an Infidel Society.

This too was turned into a Restitution tract, being advertised from the June 1, 1881 issue onwards.

While a Bible Study group led by CTR was now active, with its own regular magazine, there was obviously still a separate Age to Come presence in the Pittsburgh area. While their meetings were not advertised in The Restitution as such, a correspondent, Samuel Wilson, in the November 8 issue of 1882 spoke of One Faith meetings in Pittsburgh. He wrote (on page 3):

“From Brother L C Thomas I learned that a body of believers has been called out in Pittsburgh, and that they meet regularly each week. This, as your readers will remember is the home of Brother J H Thomas who has written a number of powerful articles and pamphlets recently. I have not had the pleasure of meeting any of the brethren at Pittsburgh but hope that ere long there may be some means by which all of like precious faith in the East may be able to have stated general assemblies for mutual work and fellowship.” (end of quote).

How long these regular weekly meetings continued is not known. That they were well distanced from CTR’s activities was made quite clear in The Restitution for February 22, 1882, page 1, when Dr Thomas went out on a preaching tour from Pittsburgh to meet scattered groups of like faith. When visiting Bloomsburg he wrote: “I am sorry to say that the believers here are tinctured with Russelism (sic), which is subversive of the truth as it is in Jesus”. A Christadelphian observer, a Brother Bittles, wrote his own report to The Christadelphian for May 1882: “Dr Thomas lectured twice at Berwick, Pa., and once at Bloomsburg, Pa. at which places he did much to neutralize the influence of that subtle enemy of God’s truth, called Russellism, which is a mottled mixture of truth and Universalism”.

It is interesting to note that by the third year of Zion’s Watch Tower publication, CTR’s activities were sufficiently unique for the epithet Russellism to be in common use in at least two journals, with the assumption that readers would understand what was meant.

The One Faith group knew quite a bit about CTR. Three Worlds had been advertised in its pages (May 30, 1877). Then Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return was sent to all Restitution subscribers at CTR’s expense (February 27, 1878) and was subsequently reviewed unfavourably by J B Cook in the June 26, 1878 issue.

As the gulf widened, it would be interesting to know if Russell and Thomas knew each other personally. As professional men in the same area as well as writers on religious topics it would be unusual if their paths did not literally cross at some time.

Dr Thomas’s flirtation with The Restitution provoked controversy amongst Christadelphians. There was even a warning about him the January 1883 Christadelphian. “Brother Gunn writes: I had hoped that some of the brethren in the United States would have cautioned you long ago against Dr J H Thomas, who certainly is not sound in doctrine, and is striving to hold a position in which he can do great damage to the truth – passing as a Christadelphian and fraternizing with the vile Restitution...”

Not surprisingly, readers of The Restitution did not take too kindly to their paper being called “vile” and there was some correspondence on the subject.

A debate rumbled on in The Christadelphian. Editor Roberts defended his decision in the January 1883 issue to publish works by Thomas, stating he had published them in good faith from a man of education who had sent in publications “apparently in harmony with the truth”. Correspondents in the April 1883 issue added that “(Thomas) seems to hold the truth himself, but is unprepared to exact it in every particular as the basis for fellowship with others”.

It was around this juncture that Thomas decided to relocate. What appears to be his last letter to The Restitution for a number of years (December 12, 1883) showed he had moved to Rochester, NY. It reads:

I wish to correspond with a physician holding the truth or favorable thereto, with a view to joining with me in the electro-medical treatment of acute and chronic diseases. He must be a graduate and accustomed to general practice – a thoroughly honorable and practical man. Would prefer an unmarried man.

Address, Dr J H Thomas, 90 North Avenue, Rochester, NY (end of quote).
Of interest is that Nelson Barbour, also an exponent of electro-medical therapies, was already in Rochester. One wonders if their paths crossed, and how Thomas’ relocation affected the Age to Come congregation in Pittsburgh.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper lists Dr J H Thomas as a speaker at Christadelphian meetings in Rochester at least between 1884 and 1888, but then things appear to change again. The Christadelphian for May 1890 reported on a debate on the resurrection, between a “brother” Williams and Dr J H Thomas of Rochester. Thomas is not listed as “brother” and the resulting pamphlet from the debate is being sold by Williams.

By this time, Thomas had returned to the pages of The Restitution. Articles, letters, even one poem, appeared again from the February 13, 1889 issue onwards. A funeral report in the August 8, 1894 issue has a service conducted by Dr J H Thomas of Pittsburgh, so Thomas had now gone back to Pittsburgh. Assuming that Pittsburgh only held one J H Thomas MD at the time, his Pittsburgh address was given in a patent remedy advertisement found in the San Francisco Call newspaper the following year, April 6, 1895, page 5. A testimonial from J H Thomas, MD, 320 Liberty Street, Pittsburgh, Pa. reads:

For several months I have been suffering from rheumatism, I had taken all the usual remedies with no real benefit. I took one bottle of Paine’s celery compound and found myself much improved. The second bottle is nearly gone and I consider myself cured. (end of quote).

Forget electro-medical therapies - celery juice was the answer!

Perhaps the final coda to the story of Dr Thomas comes from The Christadelphian in 1925. There is a brief funeral report from Pittsburgh for a Sister Thomas, widow of Dr J H Thomas.

Ultimately the link with CTR is brief. Thomas and CTR lived in the same area for some time, and on that basis likely met. CTR published one of Thomas’s lectures. However, in other lectures (as recounted in both The Restitution and The Christadelphian) Thomas warned people of the dangers of Russellism.

But he certainly wasn’t the Doctor Thomas who founded the Christadelphians. On that score perhaps we can leave the last word to The Christadelphian for September 1882. In commenting on J H Thomas’s tract The Word Made Flesh, the by-line wryly comments:

An exposition that would probably be endorsed by the other Dr Thomas if he were not in Greenwood Cemetery.

Acknowledgement – my thanks to correspondent “baptisedbeliever” who provided the references from The Christadelphian.


Anonymous said...

Well researched.

Expertly written.

Most interesting!

Well done!

Keep 'em coming!

roberto said...

Jerome is Jerome.

Ton Hollander said...

Thanks Jerome, very interesting
And clear