Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat 28:19).
Two disparate items seem to me connected
The number of Christadelphians in the “mission” areas is beginning to approach those in the basically English-speaking areas such as the UK, Australia, and North America etc. At present, of the approximately 55,000 members of the “Central” community, about 25,000 are non-English speaking.
I was looking at the occupation of the members of the early Birmingham, UK ecclesia in 1877. Of the 342 members, about 200 had listed occupations. Of these, the large majority were involved in what we would call skilled manual occupations. No teachers, few professionals, quite a few “domestics”, but the over-preponderance of skilled trades was quite noticeable.1
No such information is currently available to me today, although both Bryan Wilson (1961)2 and Charles Lippy (1989) commented on the occupations of Christadelphians. Certainly in the case of the latter, he observed of the Christadelphians in North America: “My sense is that Christadelphians in socio-economic terms are virtually indistinguishable from the bulk of the population of the United and Canada. They are essentially middle-class folk who work hard for an honest living. I have met Christadelphians who are medical specialists, social workers, college professors, corporate executives, motel owners, dentists, accountants, and homemakers.”3
So the community has transitioned from being a largely artisan community to a much more middle class one, with a preponderance of “white collar” workers, with a relatively few disadvantaged members. And with this transition, which seems to have occurred fairly early in the 20th century, the almost explosive growth of the Christadelphians, particularly in the UK, slowed dramatically. Was this change co-incidental with a the change in occupations of members, or did other factors, such as the internal disputes towards the end of the 19th century and continuing through the 1920’s also play a part? We must not forget the loss of a charismatic leader in Bro. Roberts in 1898.
Into the twentieth century
For about the first half of this period, the number of Christadelphians overall changed little. And it must be admitted that for much of this time our community was more focused on its internal disputes than in actively spreading the gospel. It largely withdrew into its own ranks, with a deep suspicion of any new dynamic activities by its young people. It was really not until 1955, with the formation of the Christadelphian Bible Mission in the UK, that systematic preaching efforts took place outside of the English speaking world. (It is perhaps no coincidence that by the 1920’s, the community had split about five groups, with the Central community in a minority outside the UK: the splits were largely healed by 1955.) The history of these mission activities is dealt with in the fascinating book by Bro. Stanley Owen4, but it is clear the progress was quite slow at the start. However, over the last few decades the work has born much fruit, as can be seen from my opening paragraph.
So over the last half century, the vast majority of increase in the numbers in our community has come from the mission field. Although the numbers have been growing somewhat in Australia and North America, they have been dwindling in the UK. So why is this so? Why did the Christadelphian message have such early appeal? And why does our work on the mission areas bear much more fruit than elsewhere? I believe we can draw some lessons from our history and the current work.
The early appeal
A look at the early work in preaching shows clearly that the message concerned itself with a forthcoming revolution. International politics were the field of which an understanding had to be gained if the prophetic utterances were to be understood in their modern application. The concern was with governments, wars, and power politics. The methods of conversion of the movement were by appeal to reason, by exposition of historical and contemporary politics in terms of prophecy, and by contemplation of the future world to come. There was no attempt to produce an emotional feeling in converts; no pleas for remorse and guilt; salvation could be obtained, at least in part, only through (although not by) knowledge and study. Is appeal was largely to the intelligent, but largely dis-enfranchised working-class population. The poor — and not just the working poor. To cite Bryan Wilson:5
‘Christadelphianism won its first recruits from among the very poorest members of the community — often laborers and manual workers. This was a fact with which the early leaders were well acquainted. Roberts spoke of the visit of Dr. Thomas to England in 1862, and said that then “the friends of the truth . . . were poor and without social influence.” The Christadelphian repeatedly spoke of the brethren as poor and simple people; of the “fewness and poverty of those holding the truth.” An outside report of the Christadelphians in Glasgow declared them to be “chiefly young men and men of comparatively humble position in life . . .” In 1881 Roberts wrote: “it has always been the poor who have given heed to the word of truth. ‘Not many noble are called’ — a very, very few.” ’
It is also clear that these early converts were looking for answers and a future hope, with little real prospect of prosperity in this life. And the lack of any of the modern mind-numbing electronic media left a receptive audience for any with answers to their enquiries.
The current situation in the West
Despite our best efforts, and some success, it must be admitted we are not emulating the early growth. We covered this area in “Preaching in the Americas”, the August 2011 special issue, which was well received — but did not appear to stimulate many efforts. It is clear that these days few are searching for the sort of message we present, with its clear emphasis on knowledge of the Bible Truth as being anecessary precursor for baptism and salvation. We convert very few compared to the evangelical churches around us, with their almost totally emotional appeal. This approach calls forth a response in some, but not very many, of those with whom we come into contact. And its real appeal often depends on establishing trust first, and then conviction and conversion later.
Perhaps the increasing turmoil in the world will result in more interest, but it must be admitted that even the enormous turmoil of the great depression of the 1930’s, or the Second World War, did not produce any great increase in our community. However, the success in many ecclesias of the seminar approach gives us some hope we can still kindle interest in those around us, and at least some ecclesias (and areas) are growing in numbers as a result. It is important that we achieve real success, not just content ourselves with “at least we sowed the seed: God gives the increase”.
The mission area
The work in the “third World”, especially in those areas not dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, does appear to be resulting in more success that in the West. I believe this is because its population mirrors somewhat closely that of the nineteenth century in the UK, the period of our greatest success. So not only are we just spreading the seed, it is flourishing in many areas, and these areas are developing their own teachers of the gospel. I wonder whether we will see a truly inspiring leader arise in this area, who will deliver the message of “The Hope of Israel” with all the drive and verve we have seen so rarely in the past.
So as we wait with patience and certainty for the return of Christ, let us thank God for this opportunity, and support the vital work of preaching the Truth — recognizing that its appeal is not to those living in comfort, surrounded by the modern conveniences of our age. Rather “it has always been the poor who have given heed to the word of truth”. We indeed, most of us, myself included, need to step outside our comfort zone, and either preach more to the disadvantaged of our own community, or support those who do so in foreign lands.
1. Andrew Wilson, in his “History of the Christadelphians”, compared census data to the occupations of those newly baptized in the UK, and came up with somewhat similar conclusions, although with not quite such a preponderance of skilled workers. But Birmingham at the time was the center of the metalworking industry of England.
2. Bryan Wilson, Sects and Society.
3. Charles Lippy, Christadelphians in North America.
4. “Into all the world”: available from the Thousand Oaks Christadelphian Library.
5. Op Cit, p. 300.