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  (William Henry) Griffith Thomas (1861–1924), by George Perry Abraham, c.1922 (William Henry) Griffith Thomas (1861–1924), by George Perry Abraham, c.1922
Thomas, (William Henry) Griffith (1861–1924), Anglican evangelical theologian and educator, was born at Bailey Street, Oswestry, Shropshire, on 2 January 1861, the only child of William Thomas (c.1838–1860), a linen draper, and his wife, Annie Nightingale, née Griffith (1840–1926). His parents were married in Liverpool just four months earlier, on 30 August 1860, but his father died of typhoid on 22 October, so Annie returned to her native Oswestry to give birth. Thomas spent his early years there in the home of his grandparents, Dr William Griffith, a local surgeon and apothecary, and his wife, Rosamond. His mother was remarried in 1864, to Joseph Charles, an accountant, with whom she had three more children. The deaths of Dr and Mrs Griffith within six weeks of each other in autumn 1869 led to protracted litigation over the estate (TNA: C16/680/T21). Thomas went to live with the Charles family in Shrewsbury and then Gobowen, but had to leave school at the age of fourteen as a result of their financial difficulties. He spent much of the next twenty years trying to compensate for the early educational opportunities he was denied.

Thomas dated his Christian conversion to 23 March 1878, through the witness of friends in the Young Men's Society at Holy Trinity Church, Oswestry. He knelt down in prayer to submit his life to Christ, and later recalled: ‘When I awoke the next morning … my soul was simply overflowing with joy, and since then I have never doubted that it was on that Saturday night I was “born again”, converted to God’ (Herald of Salvation, Feb 1941, 6). He began to consider Anglican ordination or missionary service, but this met with strong opposition, chiefly from his stepfather. Instead, Thomas moved in 1879 to Clerkenwell, north London, where he worked for three years as a watch dial maker in the firm of his stepfather's brother, William Charles. He studied theology and New Testament Greek late into the evenings, and his health suffered through overwork.

The offer in 1882 of a lay curacy under Benjamin Oswald Sharp at St Peter's, Clerkenwell, provided Thomas with an opportunity to extend his education. He spent the afternoons and evenings in parish work, and the mornings attending lectures at King's College, London, where he formed a lifelong friendship with the principal, Henry Wace (later dean of Canterbury). He was ordained by the bishop of London at St Paul's Cathedral in May 1885 and continued as Sharp's curate. Determined to read for a theology degree, he moved to Oxford in February 1889 as senior curate under Alfred Christopher at St Aldate's Church. He combined this with part-time study at the university, where he matriculated as a non-collegiate student in October 1891. Migrating to Christ Church, Oxford, he was awarded a first-class degree in Trinity term 1895, aged thirty-four.

Thomas was invited to speak at the Islington Clerical Conference in January 1896—it was rumoured to be the only time a curate had been honoured in that way and it was a sign of his growing esteem within the Anglican evangelical movement. Shortly afterwards he returned to London as minister of Portman Chapel, a proprietary chapel which under his leadership became an ordinary parish as St Paul's Church, Portman Square. Here he began to publish at a prolific rate. His first substantial book, Methods of Bible Study (1902), originated as a series of articles in The Life of Faith newspaper. His weekly Bible lectures became devotional commentaries on the life and letters of Peter (1904), the Acts of the Apostles (1905), Genesis (1907), and Romans (1911); and lectures to his confirmation class appeared as The Catholic Faith: a Manual of Instruction for Members of the Church of England (1904), which went through multiple editions as a standard of Anglican evangelical doctrine. In 1902 he led a parish pilgrimage to Palestine and the following year he crossed the Atlantic for the first time to speak at the annual Bible conference at Northfield, Massachusetts, established by D. L. Moody. During these years in London, Thomas was married on 2 August 1898 to Alice Monk (1864–1953), who gave birth to three children, of whom only Winifred Mary (1902–1998) survived infancy.

Thomas's teaching gifts brought him to the attention of the trustees of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (one of whom, Lord Kinnaird, was a member of his congregation at Portman Square). He became Wycliffe's fourth principal in October 1905 and six months later the university awarded him a doctor of divinity degree for his research on the Lord's supper, published as A Sacrament of Our Redemption. The burden of teaching and college administration slowed the rate of his publications, but he still found time to edit The Churchman, write a regular column in The Record newspaper, and organize a series of Anglican Church Handbooks, to which his own contribution was Christianity is Christ (1909). His pastoralia lectures at Wycliffe Hall were published as The Work of the Ministry (1911), dedicated to his ordinands, and his doctrine lectures appeared posthumously as The Principles of Theology (1930), a classic interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Thomas enjoyed a growing sphere of ministry, preaching for the first time in 1906 at the Keswick Convention, where he became a regular visitor. He addressed the Pan-Anglican Congress of 1908 on the subject of theological education and visited Sweden at the invitation of Prince Oscar Bernadotte. During a lecture tour of Ontario under the auspices of the Canadian Bible League in spring 1910 he was approached by Wycliffe College, Toronto, to become their professor of systematic theology, which he initially declined, but it seemed a significant opportunity to strengthen Anglican evangelicalism in North America. Although he would be a loss to England, Wace encouraged Thomas to accept this ‘large and important sphere which Providence seems to offer you’ (The Record, 20 May 1910, 485).

Thomas's years in Toronto were the unhappiest period of his career. He arrived at Wycliffe College only to discover that the chair of systematic theology had been assigned to another, and he was required to teach Old Testament literature and exegesis to junior classes. His international reputation as an author, speaker, and Oxford college principal seemed to be viewed with jealousy by some Canadian colleagues, who criticized his English mindset, and he felt humiliated and unwelcome. Thomas instead invested his considerable energies in itinerant ministry throughout North America. He spoke often at Bible conferences, church missions, and theological seminaries, edited the Canadian Churchman, and contributed to numerous journals including the Sunday School Times, Bibliotheca Sacra, and the Evangelical Christian. At the invitation of Benjamin Warfield he delivered the Stone lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, published as The Holy Spirit of God (1913), a series originally proposed (but rejected) for the Bampton lectures in Oxford. He also became a prominent apologist of the Victorious Life Movement to promote Keswick holiness principles (an emphasis on total surrender to Christ and ‘entire consecration’ in his service) in North America. He addressed several of their Bible conferences, beginning with the first in Pennsylvania in 1913. Thomas's frequent absence from Toronto was one of the aggravating factors that led to a final breakdown of relationships at Wycliffe College and in 1919 he left by mutual agreement. A return to Britain was mooted, and he was talked of as a possible bishop of Chester, which see was then vacant, but the prime minister, Lloyd George, did not act on the suggestion. Instead Thomas moved south with his family to Philadelphia, from where he continued his itinerant ministry.

During his last decade Thomas became increasingly vocal in defence of conservative theology, for example on biblical inerrancy and evolutionary theory. His place in the annals of North American fundamentalism was assured when his essay on ‘Old Testament criticism and New Testament Christianity’ appeared in The Fundamentals, though it was originally written for a British readership and had earlier been published by Drummond's Tract Depot in Stirling in 1905. He defended the ‘verbal inspiration’ of scripture in Stronghold of Truth, lectures delivered to the Montrose Bible conference in 1915 (sponsored by R. A. Torrey), and was one of the founders of the World Christian Fundamentals Association. He also stirred up controversy by his exposé in the Princeton Theological Review of the inroads of modernism among protestant missionaries in China and Japan, which he witnessed at first hand during a Victorious Life excursion in 1920 with Charles Trumbull of the Sunday School Times. None the less, Thomas was never completely at home among North American fundamentalists and his outlook remained that of a displaced Anglican evangelical. He was most content back in the Lake District, among old friends at the original Keswick Convention, where he gave the Bible readings on his last visit to England in 1922.

In his final months Thomas helped Lewis Sperry Chafer and A. B. Winchester to lay plans for the new Evangelical Theological College in Dallas (later renamed Dallas Theological Seminary). He was due to be a visiting professor at the seminary but a few months before it opened he was taken gravely ill, on 16 May 1924, during a lecture tour at Duluth, Minnesota. After a week's rest Thomas made the long journey home and full recovery was expected, but on 1 June he was rushed into Germantown Hospital, Philadelphia. He died there early the next morning, 2 June 1924, of an embolism which had closed a mesenteric artery, and was buried at West Laurel Hill cemetery. His personal library of 4500 volumes and 1500 pamphlets was purchased for the new seminary in Dallas, where an annual Griffith Thomas lecture was established in his memory.

Andrew Atherstone

Sources  

M. G. Clark, William Henry Griffith Thomas, 1861–1924: minister, scholar, teacher (1949) · G. J. Harp and D. Waldrep, ‘W. H. Griffith Thomas: Anglican fundamentalist’, Anglican and Episcopal History, 80 (March 2011), 61–73 · C. W. Kilgore, ‘William Henry Griffith Thomas’, ThM diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1974 · R. A. Lum, ‘W. H. Griffith Thomas and emergent American fundamentalism’, PhD diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1994 · W. H. Katerberg, Modernity and the dilemma of North American Anglican identities, 1880–1950 (2001) · C. M. Loucks, ‘The theological foundations of the victorious life’, PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1984 · J. D. Hannah, An uncommon union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American evangelicalism (2009) · J. S. Reynolds, Canon Christopher of St Aldate's, Oxford (1967) · b. cert.

Archives  

Dallas Theological Seminary archives, Dallas, Texas, papers · Wycliffe Hall archives, Oxford, papers


Likenesses  

bronze bust, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford · photographs, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas, USA [see illus.]