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Debates sometimes featured in the early Bible Students’ witnessing efforts. CTR was featured in two famous ones, against E L Eaton in 1903 and later against L S White in 1908. The text of both debates was transcribed and published. In 1915 J F Rutherford engaged in debate with J H Troy. Again the text was published, originally in the 1915 convention report, transcribed in the main by Rutherford’s son Malcom.
In the UK a debate was held in Scotland in 1896 between Bible Student Charles Houston and a Scottish Free Church clergyman Donald Davidson which was extensively reported. Houston would have probably become a well-known name in UK Bible Student history, but he died young. For the story of this debate you can check back in this blog or download my book on it. See:
(I know this is a shamless plug, but the download IS free).
However, not all invitations to debate were accepted. Following the Russell-Eaton debate, CTR received a challenge through the pages of the Christadelphian Advocate magazine. The strand of the Age-to-Come movement that developed into the Christadelphians was to split into several different fellowships. An original statement of belief was later “amended” by a sizeable group, leaving those who disagreed as “unamended” Christadelphians. The unamended group was responsible for the Christadelphian Advocate, founded in Iowa in 1885 by Welsh immigrant Thomas Williams.
As you can see from the main article in this issue, CTR was not their favorite person. A member of the Christadelphian ecclesia started publishing materials the editor viewed as heresy. In a swipe at him, the beliefs of CTR and ZWT came in for attack. Amongst the issues that clearly marked out the differences between Christadelphians and Bible students were two mentioned in the paragraph below from October 1903:
In 1904 CTR was challenged by one of their members to debate with the Advocate’s editor.
CTR’s response was polite but negative.
It was also noted that the invitation had not come directly from the editor but just one of the paper’s readers, although the paper had chosen to publish the correspondence.
In 1906 the attempt was made again. CTR’s response was published in the Advocate:
Much as those outside the Christadelphian fellowship tended to lump different Christadelphian groups together, so to a degree did Christadelphians when looking at the developing Bible Student movement. So John H Paton appeared on their radar.
This shows that while Paton’s magazine had a more limited circulation than ZWT (and they confused his magazine title World's Hope with his book Day Dawn), he was still quite well known in these sort of circles.
Having failed to tempt CTR, Williams challenged Paton to a debate. Paton accepted and the two men and their adherents squared up to each other in February 1906.
The results were published in a booklet by the Christadelphian Advocate.
CTR’s debates tended to dwell on conditional immortality and whether or not there was a hell-fire. Paton’s debate centered on his main Universalist platform.
How much the event influenced the respective sides, other than confirm their existing positions, is debateable. But the Christadelphian Advocate felt confident enough to publish the results. Although they did choose to cry “foul” in their introduction.
The May 1, 1915 WT published an article from CTR on the subject of ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF DEBATES. In it CTR wrote:
"Although the Lord's providence did seem to open up the way for the "Eaton-Russell Debate" and later, for the "White-Russell Debate," and through these Debates led the way on to the publication of the Sermons in hundreds of newspapers throughout the world, nevertheless the Editor is not, and never was, much of a believer in the advantages of debating. The Debates mentioned were valuable chiefly as entering-wedges for the newspaper work…So far as the Editor is concerned, he has no desire for further debates. He does not favor debating, believing that it rarely accomplishes good and often arouses anger, malice, bitterness, etc., in both speakers and hearers. Rather he sets before those who desire to hear it, orally and in print, the Message of the Lord's Word and leaves to opponents such presentations of the error as they see fit to make and find opportunity to exploit.--Hebrews 4:12."