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"We regret that we have had occasion to withdrawn from bro.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 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. To shut out any doubt on this matter, we quote directly from 'Matrimonial Causes and Marriage' as follows: "A claim for damages may be made in any petition for dissolution of marriage...Where a petitioner is seeking an order as to the costs of any proceedings instituted by the petition, the petition shall set out particulars of the order sought as to 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.


Some might wonder why, if Robert Roberts did not agree with the reason given by the Melbourne ecclesia for withdrawing from Horace Middleton, he did not say so, for as shown above, his report appeared after the Melbourne report. The answer is simple, and is set out below:


Robert Roberts wrote his comments just prior to departing for New Zealand. He wrote - "At this writing, I am on the point of departing by the Wakatipu for New Zealand, accompanied by sister Roberts" - 'The Christadelphian' September 1898 p.376. Note that in this same communication (above) he also penned his assessment of the Melbourne divorce. It was after this that the Melbourne ecclesia wrote their assessment of the Middleton case. In the same communication (above) concerning their withdrawal from the brother, they also wrote the following: "Brother and sister Roberts sailed for N.Z. on May 25th by the Wakatipu" - 'The Christadelphian' August 1898 p.363.


And so, although their communication appeared in print before his, in actual fact he had written his report prior to the Melbourne report. He could not have seen something which did not at that time exist! The two reports were written quite independently, with no knowledge of the other one. Additionally, there was no later opportunity to correct their unscriptural reason for withdrawal, because Robert Roberts fell asleep in the Lord 23 September 1898, the same month in which his report appeared. He was still on his travels, and in his absence all normal communications (such as the intelligence above) were handled  in Birmingham. Let us now examine the evidence presented here, and decide whether we agree with Robert Roberts or the Melbourne ecclesia. This is important, because extremists have caused havoc with their false interpretations of the words of Robert Roberts, and even more importantly, of the Scriptures.


                                             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 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."

Added Comment - Harry Gordon (mentioned above) spent time with Robert Roberts while he was in Melbourne, and thus would have been fully conversant with his beliefs on marriage & divorce - see 'The Christadelphian' September 1898 p.376. Also see below January 1907 p.44 - Intelligence.

"MELBOURNE.---But we regret to say they still maintain the extreme position taken up by them some two years ago, when they separated themselves from us in dissatisfaction at the ecclesial position in regard to marriage and divorce,---our position, we may say, being identical with that held throughout the brotherhood*. We trust they will yet see the unwisdom and the evil of erecting barriers of fellowship which do not exist in the word of God." *also see below the 1957 letter from A. H. Jannaway.


Concerning the background to the above, and to understand the exact 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 tears. When we do so, the above suggestions we have made are completely corroborated.


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


The following appeared in 'The Christadelphian' November 1875 p.517.

"The command 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 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) has reference to "sue(ing) 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. And on another occasion he maintained that words should always be used to convey only their correct meanings, and that any other use always resulted in confusion and incorrect conclusions.


In 'The Christadelphian' November 1872 p.531 and October 1872 p.491 he wrote - "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...You get the judgment of the law in your favour; and let us suppose the debtor is unable to pay." This was the exact situation in 1898, when the brother who was sued could not pay and went bankrupt (document in our possession). From this evidence, it must be obvious to any unbiased reader why Robert Roberts objected almost 26 years later to the suing for material gain which was involved in the 1898 case. And the fact that this case also happened to involve legal divorce (to which Robert Roberts had no objection) is completely irrelevant.


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

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


January 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*."


March 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 is without ground."


December 1891 IFC - "Christ's words relate to divorce for insufficient cause (as was at that time common among the Jews). He 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."   


November 1892 p.422 - "There seems nothing difficult about Matt. v. 31, 32. The words of Christ amount to this, that his law recognises no cause of separation between husband and wife except conjugal infidelity*. Human law in his day recognised many other causes...He does not mean that if divorced for a proper cause, a woman may not marry again. His words must be taken in their connection."


*see 1866 quotation from John Thomas below.


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

"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. But to carry out this gospel liberty would place a man or woman as a criminal at the bar of Gentile justice and law*. Therefore, 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."

*i.e. in 1866 - this is not so today in most countries, especially where Catholicism has no legal power.


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

"But if the unbelieving depart let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage to such." "Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. But, and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned" - 1st Cor. vii. 12, 14, 27, 28. This, of course, is for brethren in Christ - not outsiders...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."


And in 'Elpis Israel' he wrote in 1849 (original text, not the altered & corrupted current version) -

"If their wives, however, were disobedient and perverse, and chose to depart, "let them; a brother is not under bondage in such cases" (1 Cor. 7:15). They are like those who will not submit to Christ."

Compare Robert Roberts in 'The Christadelphian' August 1874 p.381 -

"Paul expressly recognises the possibility of such a case in 1 Cor. vii. 15. True, Paul speaks of an unbelieving wife, while your question apparently relates to a professing sister, but there is little practical difference between an unbeliever and a disobedient professor. In reference to both, the rule holds good, that "God hath called us to peace"."


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."

*also see above the Melbourne Intelligence January 1907 p.44.


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.

*which prohibits the use of Gentile law-courts by believers for material gain - the subject of this page.


Likewise, the Lord's command in Matthew 5v38-42 to "resist not evil" has no application to a situation where the believer is simply using the Lord's own permissions to escape from an intolerable marital situation, consistent with Matthew 10v23. In Matthew 5v39-42 the specific command is to be passive in the face of physical or legal duress. Also, in v43-48 we find the Lord's command to "love your enemies" etc, which underlines what we have stated in page 1, i.e. "there must not be any desire for revenge" in divorce proceedings. We cannot suppose that the Lord intends to countermand one statement with another. Ecclesiastes 10v10 puts it concisely - "wisdom is profitable to direct". Proverbs 26v4&5 might appear on the surface to be contradictory, but both principles are valid according to the circumstances.

And in answer to some who argue that forgiveness must include continuation or restoration of privileges, we suggest that they read 2nd Samuel 11 & 12 for the Divine estimation and refutation.


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 of a marriage. As Robert Roberts wrote above - "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.


               return to p.1   return to p.2   return to p.3   return to studies 

                                                                                      return to home page-index