The 1898 Melbourne Divorce Case

 

In view of our comments concerning divorce in pages 1 and 2, some have wondered about the Melbourne divorce which took place in 1898. They point out that Robert Roberts, who was in that southern Australian city at the time, condemns it in no uncertain terms. We agree with him.

 

To understand why Robert Roberts denounced this divorce, it is necessary to know the facts about the case, which has been rightly termed "notorious". It is also necessary to understand the prevailing anti-divorce sentiment in the Melbourne ecclesia, which resulted in division over this matter in 1905, and the previous consistent comments made by Robert Roberts over a long period of time.

 

                                                                      The Facts

 

Let us begin by quoting the following references to the 1898 divorce case in 'The Christadelphian' -

 

August 1898 p.363 - Intelligence, Melbourne.

"We regret that we have had occasion to withdrawn from bro. Middleton, on account of his maintaining

the principle that he was justified in petitioning before a Gentile court of law for divorce from his wife".

 

September 1898 p.377/8 - Robert Roberts.

"We returned to Melbourne on Fri., May 6. The Melbourne meetings are well maintained. Some pain  has been caused by the shocking misbehaviour of one brother and the highly unscriptural action of another in connection with it, in seeking redress in the Divorce Court. The incident has discouraged the brethren somewhat. They have not, however, the cause for shame that they would have if they tolerated or countenanced such infractions of the divine law. When brethren confess their sins and forsake them, they are entitled to forgiveness; but when they defend and vindicate them, they stand in the way of their own mercy".

 

To confirm the above facts, read these quotations from 'The Argus', Melbourne 11 May 1898 p.6.

"Mr Justice A'Beckett, in delivering judgment, explained that the dissolution of the marriage was sought from the respondent on the grounds of adultery...I...have to consider whether this co-respondent has brought before the Court evidence which should induce me to withhold that relief from the husband petitioner which he seeks...the evidence...is not such as would warrant the court in refusing the relief he seeks for...and that being so, I pronounce a decree for the dissolution of marriage, and without the slightest hesitation give costs against the co-respondent".

 

It should be pointed out here that there was no compulsion upon the plaintiff to seek damages and costs.

He petitioned in the legal form as required for "costs...and other relief". We are in possession of the official court documents concerning this case, thus leaving no room for doubt about the facts.

(Cp 'Matrimonial Causes and Marriage' (5) DAMAGES and (6) COSTS - pages 602/3 and 694/5).

 

Therefore the contention of some that the plaintiff was compelled to act as he did to obtain a legal divorce is completely untenable. The aim of such false claims, i.e. to try to prove that all divorce is not permissible to believers, is therefore shown to be without any legal foundation. It was entirely the voluntary act of the plaintiff (note above "the relief he seeks") to ask for and receive damages & costs.

 

Three interpretations have been placed upon the words of  Robert Roberts, as follows:

1.       He was disagreeing with divorce for any cause, including the obtaining of it by legal proceedings.

2.       He was not disagreeing with divorce per se for scriptural cause, but was against legal divorce.

3.       He was not disagreeing with divorce per se for scriptural cause, but was against the suing of another for damages and costs in a court of law.

 

On this page, we will present conclusive evidence that No. 3 is correct. This will be found to be borne out by the facts of the case, as recorded in the actual court proceedings above, the anti-divorce sentiment in Melbourne at that time, and the previous consistent comments of Robert Roberts.

 

                                             The Melbourne ecclesia and divorce

 

It is evident that in those years the false Catholic teaching denying divorce and re-marriage for scriptural cause (see page 2)  was present in the Melbourne ecclesia. This is not surprising, because like other heresies it has appeared amongst disciples since not long after the re-discovery of the Truth. In the purpose of God, Israel was commanded not to go to the left (weakness, toleration) nor to the right (extremity, isolation). This vital  subject is explored in our appeal letter.

 

Whereas toleration of many heresies especially "clean flesh" is common today in "Christadelphia" on the left, the anti-divorce heresy seems to have been used by the Lord to isolate those on the right who, like the Pharisees of old, wish to place their own bondage on others. This might well make them feel content, but it causes great suffering to others, "for they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers...in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" - Matthew 23v4; 15v9.

 

The following appeared in 'The Christadelphian' February 1905 p.94 - Intelligence.

MELBOURNE.---The interminable strife over the question of marriage and divorce, raised by the misdeeds of some years ago, has reached another acute stage. Brother H. Gordon encloses a typewritten circular giving extracts from brother Roberts' writings on the subject, extending over a number of years. The views expressed, which are according to scripture and common-sense, regard marriage as "indissoluble", "saving for the cause of fornication" (Matt. v. 32). An extreme party in Melbourne wishes to regard marriage as indissoluble absolutely, and has advertised its unwisdom in the Age newspaper, and apparently division has taken place. Faithful men and women in Melbourne have much need to remember that four souls were led by angels out of Sodom, and what the Lord says of the one who looked back ---ED. C.

 

Concerning the background to this case, to understand the meaning which Robert Roberts had in mind when making his remarks, we must refer to his consistent teachings over a period of more than twenty years. When we do so, the above suggestions we have made are completely corroborated.

 

                      Robert Roberts, legal divorce & the terminology 'legal redress"

 

Robert Roberts wrote in 'The Christadelphian' November 1875 p.517.

"The commandment to be subject to the ordinances of men  does not give liberty to sue debtors at law if that course is inconsistent with the Spirit of Christ. If it does give liberty to sue strangers, it gives liberty to sue brethren, for "the ordinances of men' would allow this. Why, then, do those who advocate the liberty of legal redress against strangers, on the plea of "the ordinances of men", admit it is wrong to apply it to brethren? They are right in this admission; but a similar process of reasoning will show it is wrong as applied to the alien, for if the permission of "the ordinances of men" can give us no liberty to proceed against the brethren, neither can that permission be used as a liberty against strangers in view of Christ's command, "Of him that taketh away thy goods, ask them not again". - (Luke vi.30.)

 

Our comment: It is evident that the terminology "legal redress" in the above (repeated in substance by Robert Roberts as "redress in the Divorce Court" in 1898) equals "to sue debtors at law" (i.e. for material gain). This is the very kernel of what later happened in the Melbourne divorce case. And this is what he objected to, as do we. Being at one time a court reporter, Robert Roberts was exact in his use of such terminology. On another occasion he maintained that words should always be used to convey only their correct meanings, and any other use always resulted in confusion and incorrect conclusions.

 

And to further underline the difference in his mind between normal use of law and suing for gain

 

Robert Roberts wrote in 'The Christadelphian' November 1872 p.530/1.

We are permitted to escape from evil...or to accept the protection of the constituted authorities...That which appears beyond our liberty at present is the resort to any mode of defence or vindication which involves the subjection of others to violence at our hands".

 

He also wrote in 'The Christadelphian' October 1872 p.491.

"What is going to law, but resorting to the utmost extremity of personal violence and coercion?...You get the judgment of the law in your favour; and let us suppose the debtor is unable to pay. What happens? Your servants...the agents of the law are your servants...enter his house and sell his bed, and cast him homeless on the street".

This was the exact situation in 1898, when the brother who was sued could not pay and went bankrupt. The reason recorded at the time was "pressure of creditors who obtained an order against insolvent for cost of divorce case". From this evidence, it must be obvious to any unbiased reader why Robert Roberts objected to the 1898 divorce case. It was not the divorce itself, but the suing for material gain, which is a transgression of the commandments of Christ.

 

On many occasions Robert Roberts recorded his agreement with legal divorce for scriptural cause.                    

                      The following examples from 'The Christadelphian' could be multiplied:

 

1883 p.31 - "Can Christadelphians lawfully disannul the marriage contract, and marry again for any other reason than that given in Matt.5:32?" "Nothing disannuls the marriage contract but death or adultery".

 

1884 IFC - "Divorce is inadmissible according to the law of Christ, except in the case he mentions in Matt. 19:9. Where this case arises, and the parties are divorced, they are at liberty to marry again, both by human law and divine. Objection may be well meant, but it is without ground".

 

1891 IFC - "Christ...recognises no divorce as lawful "save for the cause of fornication".   This severs the bond. Human law recognises this, and we are commanded to submit to human law where it does not conflict with Divine law".   

 

John Thomas wrote in 'The Ambassador Of The Coming Age'* January 1866 p.94 -

 (*re-named 'The Christadelphian' in 1870 - Robert Roberts was the editor of both publications)

"Jesus...forbad divorce upon any other ground than the wife's unfaithfulness. The apostles, whose authority he declared equal to his own in teaching the things of Deity, allowed divorce on another ground, and for the sake of peace to the Christian party...Peter has said: "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man, for the Lord's sake;" provided, of course, that in so doing, his precepts were not transgressed: this apostolic tradition applies also to their ordinances of marriage...Hence, a saint regulated by the word, would have only one wife at a time; he would seek divorce only on scriptural grounds, and avoid the "social evil" as the plague."

 

He also wrote in the 'Herald Of The Kingdom And Age To Come' September 1860 p.202 -

"Still, on the principle of being "subject to the ordinances of men for the Lord's sake", it would be necessary for such not to marry a second contemporary wife without a legal divorce".

 

As an example of the practice of early Christadelphians, here is a quotation from A. H. Jannaway, in a personal letter dated 17 October 1957 - "...the teaching of brother R. Roberts was quoted as the recognised Christadelphian position...That this was the position of the South London ecclesia on Christ's permission for divorce is further confirmed by a case which occurred in the Meeting in the 1890's. A brother of standing in the Truth divorced his unfaithful wife, and later married again. Not only did the ecclesia find no fault with his action, but he was appointed to the office of Managing brother, his wife also was appointed to an important work of ministering to the needs of the brethren and sisters".

 

Some not with us have objected to the above by quoting 1st Corinthians 6v1-8. However this quotation does not mention divorce, and Paul was obviously referring to matters upon which the ecclesia had the power to make judgment - cp v2 - "are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?" & v4 - "Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you...that shall be able to judge between his brethren?". In the days of Israel, the nation, under God, regulated divorce, but today we live in a different dispensation.

 

When a marriage has irretrievably broken down, and there is scriptural provision for divorce, it is necessary to appeal to the authorities for a legal recognition of the divorce. Cp Romans 13v1; Titus 3v1; 1st Peter 2v13,14; Acts 25v10,11. We must bear in mind that legal divorce for scriptural cause is simply a recognition by the authorities of something which has already taken place - i.e. the irretrievable breakdown (by scriptural definition) of a marriage. As Robert Roberts wrote above - "Human law recognises this, and we are commanded to submit to human law where it does not conflict with Divine law". We should accept his wise counsel on this matter, and not be part of an unscriptural division.

 

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