In my young days in the Christadelphian body there was probably an excessive veneration paid to well-known speakers. No doubt this was partly due to the fact that there were less of them.
Ecclesias were not so well-off financially then and could not afford to pay the traveling expenses of a great number of visiting speakers. Education was not so widespread — we were more of what Dr. Bryan Wilson called “the artisan classes”. (Dr. Wilson wrote a sociological study of Christadelphians in a book called Sects and Society, which deserves study.) Perhaps, too, there was still an innate respect for elders and a hold-over from 19th century hero-worship. Whatever the rea- sons, the fact is that young brethren, and many older too, did regard “famous” lecturing brethren with something akin to awe. Whether we are better off now, in the age of disillusion, I do not know. Certainly it seems to me that well-known speakers are not regarded in the same way that we did. Perhaps that is all to the good — for their souls anyway. Whether the young have lost something by it I am not so sure.
Some years ago, I was speaking to an audience of young Christadelphians at the Harrogate Youth Conference and mentioned this change in attitudes towards speakers of repute. I told them how, as a young man, I first met Bro. Islip Collyer, whose speaking and writing I had always so admired. It was at one of the early Whitsuntide gatherings and the great man was surrounded by a bevy of brethren and sisters, so I waited my time and edged towards him with trembling, sweaty hands, and my mouth dried up with excitement, so that when I eventually got to him, all I could blunder out was something to the effect that I so enjoyed his writings and just wanted to shake his hand, which was about all I did, for he seemed a little taken aback by my earnestness.
At this point in my talk the young people roared with laughter, totally amused by the description of my youthful encounter. But I pointed out to them that their reaction simply proved my point. They had no idea what I was talking about. They thought it strange and amusing that a young brother should get himself into such a state, just because he was meeting somebody called Islip Collyer. Poor dears, they had never had the experience, but I still cherish it.
Later on, when he came to speak at Reading in the war years, my wife and I had the privilege of “entertaining” Bro. Islip, and what a delight it was. He was a gentle and humble man, who I am sure would have eschewed any thought of being a great man, and rightly so, but was I any the worse for having such a regard for him? And are young people today any better for being on matey Christian-name terms with brethren whose labors in the Lord over so many years deserve their respect as well as their love? Paul has a good deal to say about our attitude to “elders” (e.g., 1Tim 5; Heb 13; etc.), and although few older brethren would feel themselves either worthy of, or desirous of, such a respectful attitude today, I wonder if the young people themselves are not missing out on something of value to their souls.
On the occasion in question, when we had Bro. Islip in our home, he told us a story about Bro. Robert Roberts, who had been his own “hero” as a young man and whose home he frequently visited. It appears that at tea the great man flicked some water from his celery over his wife Jane, who felt called upon to excuse what she called “these foibles of a great man”. “Tut-tut, my dear”, said her husband, “we don’t meet great men in the Bible,” and went on to quote Psalm 62:9: “Surely men of low degree are vanity and men of high degree are a lie.”
To this, Lady Jane replied, “Ah, yes, but we do read of a great woman.” Poor Bro. Roberts, the “great man”, was nonplussed, for he could not recall where it was and had to have it pointed out by his wife, in 2 Kings 4:8: “in that place was a great woman.”
Len Richardson (Sixty Years a Christadelphian)