The first 50 years of the revival of the Truth (1848-1898) was a very eventful time for the modern day brothers and sisters in Christ. First there was John Thomas’ lecture tour of Britain and his book “Elpis Israel” getting the movement off the ground in 1848-1849. Then in 1864 the new name “Christadelphian” was chosen further differentiating the believers from apostate Christianity. This was followed closely by the launching of a Magazine by Robert Roberts called The Ambassador of the Coming age which took on The Christadelphian name in 1869, as suggested by John Thomas. As editor of The Christadelphian, Brother Roberts’ leadership laid the groundwork that led to an organized and energized group of believers. Unfortunately, negative events also occurred within the brotherhood during these early years including two major divisions (caused by Renuciationism1 in 1873, and Partial Inspirationism2 in 1884). Along with these positive and negative events, the early years were also a time of strong growth. There were “hardly more than a thousand Christadelphians in the mid 1860’s” 3 but 20 years later the number had swelled to 5,000 to 6,000 brothers and sisters in Christ.4
During the very eventful first ten years of Bro. James and Sis. Sarah Cheetham’s marriage, their family also grew, doubling in size from two to four. As with the early years of the Christadelphians, some of the events in their lives were unpleasant. Married in 1892, the young couple struggled with illness and unemployment as well as friction within their ecclesia. Soon after Bro. Roberts’ death in San Francisco in 1898, fellowship issues caused a new division in the Christadelphian world in general and specifically in the San Francisco ecclesia. One group of brothers and sisters, led by R.C. Bingley, aligned with the Fraternal Visitor5 fellowship and met in San Francisco. Another group consisting of five members, with James Cheetham as Recording Brother, met under the Central Fellowship in Bro. Cheetham’s home in Oakland.
The Central Fellowship ecclesia grew from the original five members (Bro. and Sis. Cheetham, Bro. and Sis. Baldwin, and Sis. Slade-Ross) to eleven members the following year. It’s unknown how Sis. Cheetham felt about the choice that James made to side with Bro. C.C. Walker and the Birmingham, England ecclesia in this Resurrectional Responsibility6 division, but it must have been difficult for her since her best friend in the truth, Sis. Lillie Wade, was now in a different fellowship. Many such difficult choices were made at this painful time in our history. Bro. Walker, the editor of The Christadelphian Magazine at the time expressed it this way: “The truth, or rather the household, is in a terrible muddle at present, especially so in America, so mixed is the belief and fellowship in many ecclesias that one scarcely knows where unity of faith and a pure doctrine are now found.”7
Bro. Henry Sulley, who was the assistant editor to Bro. Walker at the time, visited the Oakland ecclesia in 1902 and expressed his delight with the city’s layout though not with its morality.8
“San Francisco is a fine city, as you would expect it to be, seeing it is the most important seaport on the United States’ western sea-board. Wide streets, lined with fine stores, impress you at once. With few exceptions, the avenues are laid according to the usual American symmetry and regularity. But the striking peculiarity of the city, differing from almost all other American cities, is that the bulk of it is built upon the slopes of hilly ground. Its streets are rectangular, notwithstanding. The trolley lines carry you over its undulations like so many switchbacks. From the elevated portions you get a fine panoramic view of the city, so that you feel familiar with its principal features in a very brief period.
“If one were to judge of the good order of a city by the absence of policemen, then San Francisco is the antithesis of Chicago. The policemen were something like the proverbial presence of the angels—few and far between. But if San Francisco is law-abiding, its social lack of reverence for traditional custom is more marked even than Denver. Practically, there is no Sunday in San Francisco. To-day the retail grocers’ shops were open, also sweet stores and shaving saloons; and, of course, the ubiquitous tobacco emporiums. Restaurants abound. Every shop window was brilliantly lighted, even if closed. People seemed to parade the streets in order to look at the display. A casual observer might be excused for thinking that the stores were all open. On the front of the trolly-cars, blazing advertisements invited you to go and see the “flying Jordans at the Shute.” Having no special duty in the evening, sister Sulley and I strolled into the “Golden Gate Park,” on the way to which we passed the “Shute,” where were roundabouts, swingboats, and switchbacks, &c., in full swing. In the park were boys playing cricket, men wheeling round the cycle-track, children in goat-wagons and riding donkeys at so many cents the trip. It was like a fair in the old country.”
The next evening, Bro. Sulley “gave a talk at the home of brother McKire, where sixteen or eighteen brethren and sisters gathered.” Bro. Sulley’s comments about the evening testify to the fact that the Partial Inspiration division was still an issue in the brotherhood.
“There were present some not in fellowship, amongst whom was a son of brother and sister Rowley, of Birmingham, England. Being called upon to speak, I selected for subject the history of the truth in the nineteenth century. During the address I drew particular attention to the “divisions” which had arisen among brethren, as a foretold necessary condition of the body (1Cor 1:10). It was useless to find fault and say, ‘Such and such a division ought never to have occurred.’ The practical way was to define our own relation to the division when it did occur, leaving the responsibility upon the shoulders of those who had caused it. What avail was it to constantly harp upon some incidents of a personal nature, which did not, and could not, affect the broad question at issue, say in relation to inspiration of the scriptures? There is such a thing as undue distress because of other men’s sins (See Ecc 5:8). Although in making that remark I do not necessarily countenance the gainsaying of the grumblers — none of whom perchance ever carried out the commands of Christ in connection with their offended spirit. Murmuring is of no avail to remedy an evil. Better bear in silence if the sin cannot be absolved in a scriptural way. Some of those who murmur will give account for their hard speeches shortly, concerning whom Paul gives warning in the tenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians.”
Illness and unemployment
After the dramatic events at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, life continued on in a familiar vein for the Cheethams. Sarah’s health remained poor and Jim continued to struggle to support his family. The weight of these issues on Bro. and Sis. Cheethams’ lives are reflected in the words of a letter that Sarah received from her sister-in-law Edith: “And now dear, I do hope you are better…Has Jim plenty of work now? I do hope so. It is so bad for him and you when he is short of work.”9 Because of her illness, Sarah spent a lot of time with the brothers and sisters in Stockton. Stockton was the nearest ecclesia to Oakland and had been the site of James and Sarah’s wedding. Both of the Cheethams would spend a great deal of time with the Stockton Christadelphians over the years. Sarah went there in 1899 in what appears to be an attempt to recover her health. Around this time the Cheethams lost a child, which was stillborn, although the exact date is unknown. It’s not hard to imagine that an unsuccessful pregnancy led to the illness Sarah was suffering at the time which apparently was much like the woman with the issue of blood that Jesus healed. Jim, who stayed in San Francisco to work, wrote to her after returning home from a visit to Stockton to see her. “My Dear Wife, I arrived home all safe, got to the city at 4:15 this morning. Walked up home, it was a lovely morning… I do hope you are feeling better and will get along alright and don’t worry and get so nervous… Dr. Stiles…says he has a case somewhat like yours on his hands now but she is a lady from New York, he says he has been successful in stopping the hemorrhage so far…I did not mean to be unkind nor say anything unkind, but Lizzie you take things very often in a different light and draw a different conclusion than what is intended and take it to heart so much, it makes both of us despondent. Let us try to understand each other better and I am sure we shall both be happier and far more contented. Now don’t think I am giving a lecture so don’t take any offense whatever. I just want to see you bright and well again, so just make up your mind you are going to get well and be the bright and merry spirit you used to be, so now cheer up dearest one and hope for better and happier days to come…I will conclude these few lines hoping to find you much better than when I left with my fondest love and kisses to my dear little wife and boy. Your ever loving husband Jim.”10
The severity of Sarah’s illness was evident in a letter that James wrote to her a week later, “I was very sorry indeed to hear from Robert [their son] what a terrible time you have had and that you have suffered so much. I am indeed thankful that you did not lose your life in the trying ordeal you have gone through. I do hope you are getting along alright and that you will soon be well again. Dr. Preston says you must take the greatest of care of yourself.”11
Despite James’ encouragement, Sarah continued to have a hard time getting well. James himself continued to struggle finding work as evidenced by another letter he wrote. “My Own Dearest One, I received your most welcome letter Saturday evening. Am very sorry to hear you are in such a weak condition and that you have suffered so much but sincerely hope that you are improving and will be able to get around and outdoors…Things are very quiet at the store. They laid two more off last Saturday night; one of them being the finisher that was doing my work that time was off with my hand [when Robert Roberts died]. He has got a better job though at Bare Bros.; went to work there on the Monday following… With fondest love and kisses to my dear little wife and darling boy. Your loving husband, Jim.”12
To be continued…
Gordon Hensley (Simi Hills, CA)
1. Renuciationism was so named when Bro Turney renounced his previous beliefs in the nature of Christ, instead claiming Jesus was incapable of sin.
2. Partial Inspiration was a division started by Robert Aschcroft, who held the Bible was not inspired in areas of history.
3. Sects and Society, Bryon R. Wilson, University of California Press, 1961, page 239.
4. The History of the Christadelphians, Andrew R. Wilson, Shalom Publications, 1985, page 277.
5. The Fraternal Visitor fellowship was so named after the magazine of the “Partial Inspiration” division. This later became known as the Suffolk St Fellowship.
6. The Resurrectional Responsibility Division was started by JJ Andrew, who held that God could not raise to judgment anyone who was not baptized.
7. The Christadelphian Magazine, 1902, page 39.
8. The Christadelphian Magazine, 1902, page 81.
9. Personal letter to Sarah from Edith Genders, April 17, 1899.
10. Personal letter to Sarah from James, May 16, 1899.
11. Personal letter to Sarah from James, May 24, 1899.
12. Personal letter to Sarah from James, May 31, 1899.