Reflecting on “Restoration”: The Necessity of Baptism and John Thomas

John Thomas_3In my previous post, I reflected on the Restoration Movement (RM) as it concerned Barton W. Stone. My conclusion was in essence that Stone and his views ought to be shown and acknowledged for what they were: unbiblical. This conclusion was based on the fact that he denied the deity of Christ and the substitutionary atonement. I also based it on the fact that the revival at Cane Ridge included “religious exercises” that do not appear to line up with biblical theology. In this post I would like to reflect on another key player in the history of the RM: John Thomas. I would assume that not many people (including those in the RM) recognize the name John Thomas. However obscure, my introduction to Thomas played an important part in my thought journey concerning the RM.

Before I get to the discussion of Thomas, I would like to stress again my thesis and hope of writing this series of blogs. First, my intention is not to tear down the RM and watch it burn. As I said previously, I have benefited greatly from the RM and continue to have wonderful Christian friends in this fellowship of believers. Moreover, there are aspects of the RM that are biblically sound. Although some may disagree with me, I do not believe it is rotten to the core. My hope, as stated in my first post, is simply this: that the RM will become more biblical in belief and practice. I would also add that I would like to see it become more gracious. The one way I see that these things may occur is by evaluating the RM’s past and present with sound biblical theology. I feel like this is what I have been attempting to do in the privacy of my own mind, and now I simply want to share my thought journey. Feel free to share yours. Now on to John Thomas.

John Thomas and Rebaptism

If Barton Stone represents in a sense the progenitor of liberalism and loose theology in the early RM, John Thomas represents the other end of the spectrum, a kind of hyper-conservatism or legalism (as Alexander Campbell accused him of). Although it was his views on the afterlife (namely, annihilation) that sealed his fate in the early RM, I am concerned here with his view on baptism, what Roderick Chestnut terms a “hyper-exclusivistic” view.[1] It seems to me that if the RM wishes to go forward more biblically and even more graciously, then the view of Thomas ought to be jettisoned once and for all.

John Thomas was a key figure in the early RM before being ostracized and effectively excommunicated by the movement and going on to start the Christian cult known as the Christadelphians (as a side note, I find it interesting that many who defect from the RM go on to start cults or leave the faith entirely). Thomas immigrated from England in 1832 and upon entering Cincinnati met Walter Scott, a very well know leader in the RM who continues to be held in high regard (although he believed in perfectionism and spent at least 100 pages in his publication The Evangelist developing and defending his views).[2] Scott convinced Thomas that he needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of his sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was a teaching that had become accepted among the RM at the time and continues to holds sway for much of the RM.

It was not too long after Thomas’ baptism that he began his publication entitled Apostolic Advocate. In the October 1834 issue of this publication he wrote the article “The Cry of ‘Anabaptism,'” which argued that for baptism to be effective for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the one being baptized and the one baptizing had to know what baptism was for.[3] As Chestnut describes it succinctly, “When that knowledge is lacking the act is meaningless.”[4]

Thomas’ argument was based upon one basic idea: that the Greek word for baptism (baptisma) means “to dye by immersion.”[5] He concluded that this meant that the word “immersion” was only a partial definition of the word “baptism.” One must include the idea of “dyeing.” To be baptized, then, meant that a person is being “dyed” in the blood of Christ in the waters of baptism as a garment is dyed in water to color it. Thus, Thomas argued that “the fluid into which he [the sinner] is plunged must be tinted of bright scarlet color,” the blood of Christ.[6] Of course, Thomas did not believe the water itself is actually tinted with the real blood of Christ. Rather, he explained, “The eye of faith . . . must be open in the person baptized or dyed, as well as in the dyer or baptizer.” He continues,

A dyer accustomed to look upon colored fluids may imagine water in his vat to be so; his imagination, however, will not dye the cloth; so may an administrator of baptism imagine that the subject recognizes the blood of Jesus, but his imagination will not supply the defect thereof. No! the subject must believe and confess for himself or his dipping will be mere immersion and not baptism.[7]

Practically, then, what this means is that every person who does not believe or understand that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and gift of the Holy Spirit must be rebaptized, including those who practice baptism by immersion. Thomas concluded, “I therefore do not believe that sins are remitted by popular baptism [like that practiced by Baptists or other denominations]; which is itself a sin that needs to be repented of. Nothing but the ‘one baptism’ can impart remission, and that ‘one baptism’ is very rarely practised by the sects [denominations]. There are a few exceptions, and exceptio probat regulam, the exception establishes the rule.”[8]

In summary, Thomas believed and taught that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this to occur in baptism, however, both the one being baptized and the one baptizing had to know that this is what baptism is for in order for the baptism to be effective. Otherwise, the person being baptized remained unsaved and would continue in that state until he was “rebaptized.”

Thomas’ article did not cause much consternation at first. Problems arose when he began practicing his teaching in the local church where he preached. As Chestnut relates, Thomas began removing the deacons at his church after finding out they did not know baptism was for salvation when they were baptized.[9] They had believed it was only a symbol of one’s salvation. Thus Thomas’ deacons were not saved yet and did not qualify to be deacons. Some had difficulty accepting Thomas’ hyper exclusivist view of baptism and began speaking out and even writing to Alexander Campbell about the issue. Campbell responded loudly.

Thomas Receives a Rebuke

Alexander CampbellCampbell’s reply to Thomas’ view on baptism may be summarized in six short points, and in my view are mostly spot on.[10] First, Campbell labeled Thomas’ view as legalism, much like how believing Jews required Gentile believers to be circumcised in the manner of Moses before they could become Christians. Thomas’ distinction between “baptism” and “immersion” was mere logic chopping, reminiscent of Pharisaical practice. Besides this, Campbell retorted that if Thomas were to be consistent, then some type of council ought to pass judgment on every one’s baptism to see whether he understood why he was baptized. Campbell, however, preferred that each person examine himself to see whether he was in Christ.

Second, Campbell argued that Thomas’ view led to the conclusion that every Christian’s baptism throughout history was invalid and thus they were lost, and this was an insult to all those who genuinely sought salvation in Christ to the best of his knowledge. Thomas’ view effectively “paganize[s] all immersed persons, and [places] the world, the whole world, Jew, Gentile, and Christian, just as it was on the day of Pentecost.”[11]

Third, Campbell stated that if one had to know what baptism was for in order for it to be effective, then one’s faith is ultimately in baptism itself rather than in the blood of Christ. Faith, in other words, is to be in Christ not in the meaning of baptism. Campbell stated poignantly:

Who is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah the Son of God, and publicly confesses his faith in his death for our sins, in his burial and resurrection, by an immersion into the name of the Father,  the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every such person is a constitutional citizen of Christ’s kingdom.[12]

Fourth, if every person had to understand the meaning of baptism completely in order for the person to be saved, then all the Christians whom the Apostle Paul wrote would have needed to be rebaptized, including the Romans, Galatians, and Corinthians. In each of the letters to these Christians, Paul expounded upon the meaning of baptism (which, by the way, is much more than just “salvation” proper), which means they did not entirely comprehend its meaning. Given Thomas’ view, they would all need to be rebaptized.

Fifth, as hinted at in the previous paragraph, baptism is said to confer all kinds of blessings to the Christian throughout the New Testament. Thus Campbell believed it was not necessary to understand every single blessing that baptism brings. If it was necessary, then certainly rebaptisms would have been plentiful throughout the New Testament, but none is found. It is a one time event, and the only requisite to baptism is belief in the Son of God to take away sins.

Campbell’s sixth point was made in response to what is now famously known as “The Lunenberg Letter.” In a letter written to him by a supposed sister in Christ inquired about his view of baptism: when is one correctly called a Christian? If salvation occurs at the time of baptism, then how can anyone without it be correctly identified as a Christian? Campbell replied very clearly and to the point: if a person’s baptism does not save someone because he did not believe anything occurred at that moment, then the gates of Hades prevailed against Christ’s church, the very thing Jesus said would never happen. If there are no Christians in the world except those in the RM (because they believe that salvation is conferred during baptism), then those who lived throughout history who failed to understand the meaning of baptism were lost. Campbell essentially finished his reply decisively:

But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to the measure of the knowledge of his will. A perfect man in Christ, or a perfect Christian, is one thing; and a “babe in Christ”,” a stripling in the faith or imperfect Christian is another.[13]

And the clincher, in Campbell’s own words:

I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the  name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. . . . It is the image Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.[14]

Campbell never gave up his view that baptism was for salvation. He was simply unwilling to make it the linchpin for one to be considered a Christian. This is not an inconsistency, for one can follow the commands of Christ without knowing exactly what the benefits or fruit that result from following them. What Campbell appears to be ultimately concerned about is what is in the person’s heart–whether the person is honestly putting faith in Christ and following him to the best of his knowledge. The rest God’s grace will cover.

Campbell’s thorough reply to Thomas finally settled the issue in the early RM. Thomas was eventually ostracized and effectively excommunicated from the RM for his hyper exclusivist and divisive views of baptism (along with his other heterodox views). Thomas and his band of followers eventually began what is known today as the Christadelphians.

What About Baptism Today?

BaptismThomas’ view of baptism continues today in some RM circles. Some insist that a person must understand what baptism is for in order for him to be saved. Some also argue that one’s baptism does not save if the person doing the baptizing misunderstands its meaning. In other words, everyone who does not understand correctly the meaning of baptism and is not baptized by a person who also understands it must be re-baptized because the first baptism was not salvific in effect.

It seems to me that many of Campbell’s criticisms of Thomas’ view are still valid today. First of all, if someone must know correctly the meaning of baptism for it to be effectual, this would mean most Christians today who do not hold such a view of baptism are not saved. The gates of Hades hath prevailed over Christ’s church. Moreover, only those in the RM would be Christians because in essence only the RM holds that baptism is for salvation (forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit) outside of Luthernism.  Wouldn’t this render the old RM adage of “we are not the only Christians; we are Christians only” invalid?

I have brought this up to some in the RM before, and the response is typically that someone in the denominations must genuinely believe accurately about baptism and thus the adage is still valid. It seems to me, however, that not many would affirm this, effectively making only some in the RM truly saved (not everyone in the RM even believes that baptism is for salvation as can be observed by many church websites).

Second, why is knowledge of baptism limited to just forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit in order for the person to be saved? As Campbell pointed out, Scripture teaches a lot more than these two things concerning baptism. Logically, one would need to be re-baptized every time he learned something new about the meaning and effects of baptism. If not, where does one draw the line and why?

Campbell’s view of who a Christian is seems amenable to me. It is one who places faith in Christ and repents and obeys him to the best of his knowledge. Moreover, most people in fact obey the gospel in its entirety–believe, repent, and are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Why should complete knowledge of the meaning of baptism be required? I am unclear where to find this in Scripture, not to mention that Campbell makes the apt observation that the passages that deal with the correct meaning of baptism were written to Christians. Evidently, even some in the NT were unaware of what is was for.

Moreover, I would question whether many truly understand the complete meaning of belief and repentance when one comes to faith in Christ. Do new Christians have a complete understanding of whom they have placed belief in and all his (Christ’s) works–propitiation, redemption, love, wrath, incarnation, kenosis, etc.? I highly doubt it, and I think it would be too much to bear to require such. Wouldn’t this be placing faith in one’s complete understanding of baptism, repentance, or belief itself rather than Christ? (I would certainly agree that there is a basic level of understanding needed, but I think the view being discussed here just goes too far.)

Before some conclude too quickly that I have capitulated to the idea that baptism is simply a sign of one’s salvation (a Zwinglian view of baptism), let me emphatically say nothing could be further from the truth. I truly believe that at the time of baptism a person who has faith in Christ and has repented receives salvation. I believe this because this is what I take Scripture to teach and the historical church from the first century through the Reformation (including Martin Luther) believed this. I simply do not believe that someone has to understand the correct meaning of baptism perfectly in order to receive salvation. If a person obeys Jesus’ command to believe, repent, and be baptized, then such a person is saved–no matter what he thinks baptism does or does not do. I am unwilling, along with Campbell, to make one single Christian duty a test of whether someone is a Christian, even baptism. God is gracious, and I think his grace is able to cover those who misunderstand the meaning of baptism. (Ironically, Campbell himself was baptized as an adult when he was convinced that Presbyterian infant baptism was unbiblical, but he still believed baptism was just a sign of his salvation. Thus if one has to believe that baptism is for salvation to be saved, Campbell–the very one who began the RM–has been eternally condemned.)

It should also be mentioned that it would be ideal for a baptismal candidate to understand what baptism is truly for. In the case he does not, however, it seems to me that such a person will be saved based upon the “available light” he has. I agree with Jack Cottrell on this point when he says that “those living in the NT era who through no fault of their own never come to know about the requirement to be baptized for salvation, but who are sincerely doing the best they can to live a life of submission to Jesus as Savior and Lord” will be saved. He continues,

It has rightly been said that at the final judgment God will judge every one of us according the principle of CONSCIENTIOUS RESPONSE TO AVAILABLE LIGHT. Many people, even in the context of Christendom, are through no fault of their own in complete darkness about the NT’s teaching that baptism is a salvation event; they are the victims of centuries of false teaching. Nevertheless they are in their hearts conscientiously submitting to the light they do have about Jesus. If so, even if not immersed for forgiveness of sins in this life, I believe God will accept them on the Day of Judgment based on this principle.[16] 

In the end, then, such a person may not have been biblically baptized, but he may be saved. (If you have not read Cottrell’s article, I strongly recommend it. It can be found here.)

There is certainly much more to say concerning baptism and it’s likely that many more questions have arisen from reading this essay, but the main point here is this (let’s not miss the forest for the trees): just as I wrote about how the early RM accepted Barton W. Stone’s unorthodox theology (see here), so shall the RM accept John Thomas’ hyper exclusivist view of baptism. This essentially means that those who are more moderate and even liberal leaning in the RM today must willingly accept with open arms those who believe one must have an accurate knowledge of the meaning of baptism for the person to be saved. If the RM is willing to accept a theology on one end of the spectrum (liberal), it should allow a theology at the other end (conservative). What leg does anyone in the RM have to stand on to ostracize someone for holding an unbiblical theology? It seems to me that the answer is “none,” for from the very beginning the RM has had liberal theology and hyper conservative theology. In essence, there is no theology that can be objected to in the RM, given its history (not to mention its fear of creeds or even statements of faith).

And this is the very issue which concerns me: the RM has absolutely no theological framework. From the very beginning the RM has accepted liberal as well as conservative theology (perhaps for the sake of unity?). Both the more liberal leaning and conservative leaning desire a no-holds-barred theological framework. “This would be a creed!” they both say, and creeds are an anathema. But certainly there is something that makes a Christian a Christian and if one denies that “something” he is no longer a Christian. Surely there is also something that makes Christianity Christianity, and if that “something” is denied we are no longer talking about Christianity.

I am keenly aware that the reply to my concern is something akin to “our creed is the Bible.” Perhaps (and this is an emphatic perhaps) such an idea was acceptable before Modernism raised its ugly head and denied any kind of objective truth with respect to religion and morality. But we live in a post-modern era, one in which “following the Bible” has taken on numerous meanings. Ironically, Stone and even Thomas believed they were “following the Bible.” I have a suspicion, too, that the famous RM dictum that “in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things love” has been a culprit in this theological morass.

It seems to me that, at the end of the day, some kind of theological framework must be utilized to identify what is acceptable theology and what is not–what is false teaching and what is not–even as an identifier of what the RM is. But what exactly does this look like? I will pursue this question at a later time. Let it suffice to say that what the RM needs is not less theology, but more–more sound biblical theology–and some way to clearly articulate what the RM sees as true and false. Do you have any ideas? I’d love to hear from you!


[1] Roderick Chestnut, “John Thomas and the Rebaptism Controversy (1835-1838),” in David W. Fletcher, ed., Baptism and the Remission of Sin: An Historical Perspective (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1990), 203. This chapter by Chestnut is a great summary of the baptismal controversy that arose between Campbell and Thomas. I rely heavily upon this chapter for this blog.

[2] This is an irony, considering that a few decades ago a small controversy erupted in the midwest among some Independent Christian Church folks teaching perfectionism. This controversy has practically led to a schism with the perfectionists being ostracized and disfellowhshiped by some. We must ask, in a similar manner as we did in the previous post on Stone, if one of the early leaders of the RM (Walter Scott) was accepted while teaching perfectionism, then why are those who are teaching it now disposed? Interestingly, no one seemed to bat an eye at Scott’s perfectionism in the early RM.

[3] John Thomas, “The Cry of ‘Anabaptism,'” Apostolic Advocate 1 (October 1834): 121-29.

[4] Chestnut, “John Thomas,” 207.

[5] Thomas, “Anabaptism,” 122; see also Chestnut’s discussion throughout in “John Thomas,” 216f.

[6] Thomas, “Anabaptism,” 122.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 126.

[9] Chestnut, “John Thomas,” 207.

[10] These points are taken from Chestnut, “John Thomas,” 223-34. Campbell’s original reply is found in Alexander Campbell, “‘Reply’ to Susan,” Millennial Harbinger 6 (September 1835): 417-20.

[11] Quoted in Chestnut, “John Thomas,” 225.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Quoted in Chestnut, “John Thomas,” 230.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See any book on the history of the RM for this, but one can also see Chestnut’s article “John Thomas.”

[16] See Cottrell’s article “‘Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?’ Questioning the Question” here.

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