Robert Robert's Thoughts On Phrenology

By Ex-Christadelphian, part time theist, Joseph Strong

The following short article is a slight change from the recent articles that seem to have caused so much excitement. Hopefully it will cause less trouble and angry words. You need to read and cross reference the references and form your own opinion. I will not do that for you.

For the avoidance of doubt, it is not written to influence any Christadelphian to leave fellowship, nor is it targetted at the bulk of older Christadelphians. It is a call to those who may be considering joining, or being baptised into the Christadelphians to look into the religion deeper than I did before joining. Above all it should be looked at with the words of Matthew 7:24-27 in mind.

Living Bible (TLB)

24 “All who listen to my instructions and follow them are wise, like a man who builds his house on solid rock. 25 Though the rain comes in torrents, and the floods rise and the storm winds beat against his house, it won’t collapse, for it is built on rock.
26 “But those who hear my instructions and ignore them are foolish, like a man who builds his house on sand. 27 For when the rains and floods come, and storm winds beat against his house, it will fall with a mighty crash.”

But don't be offended if you are an atheist, there is not a lot of religion to worry about. It's just that I'm a construction engineer, and Jesus, real or imaginary, worked in his step father's building firm until he took up all that preaching business, so I kind of get where he's coming from.


Phrenology was a science of character divination, faculty psychology, theory of brain and what the 19th-century phrenologists called "the only true science of mind." Phrenology came from the theories of the idiosyncratic Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). The basic tenets of Gall's system were:

1.The brain is the organ of the mind.

2. The mind is composed of multiple, distinct, innate faculties.

3. Because they are distinct, each faculty must have a separate seat or "organ" in the brain.

4. The size of an organ, other things being equal, is a measure of its power.

5. The shape of the brain is determined by the development of the various organs.

6. As the skull takes its shape from the brain, the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies.

Phrenology has been almost universally considered completely discredited as a science since the mid-19th century.

Even during the peak of its popularity between the 1820s and 1840s, phrenology was always controversial and never achieved the status of an accredited science, which was so coveted by its main proponents, such as the Edinburgh lawyer, George Combe and his circle.

Pioneer Christadelphian Robert Roberts had a deep interest in Phrenology from an early age. He picked it up from original Christadelphian John Thomas.

For a while, Robert Roberts earned a living from working with the famous Phrenologists (head feelers/readers) Fowler & Wells. In his autobiography, (my  days and my ways) he tells us of his respect for, and use of Phrenology, which considerably pre-dates his work for Fowler & Wells:

"This Phrenological association was useful afterwards. It was not the beginning of my knowledge of such things, but it was an improvement and a consolidation of knowledge previously possessed. I made my first aquaintance with phrenology in Elpis Israel and through the popular allusions that were flying about at the time when I was between ten and twelve. After this I got a closer view when I was thirteen, through the reading of Dr Thomas's Herald Of The Kingdom, and through these, I was led at the age of fifteen to the perusal of Coombe's Constitution of Man. When I removed to Edinburgh at the age of eighteen, there was a good deal of talk about phrenology then, which helped establish the knowledge I had aquired. My connection with Fowler and Wells was a finishing touch. I have often been thankful that I was so early put in possession of the key to human nature, which phrenology undoubtedly presents, jointly with the key to human history and futurity which the Bible contains, as distinguished from orthodox religion. The two blend together, and give much guidance in a world that is a distracted world from a merely intellectual point of view."

Robert Roberts 1839-1898 (Robert Roberts-an autobiography P79)

The Constitution of Man

Robert Roberts would have used
a device like this to measure
the bumps on people's heads.

He also proposed to "greatly
thin the population of the word."
- See 'Christendom Astray'
chapter 15.

He was the first editor of the
Christadelphian magazine and
a pioneer of the religion.

- He was insane. 
Roberts reference to Combe's book is of interest. It is not really a phrenology book but rather more a natural law book. This became apparent after my  trawling through all  472 pages of it (Free-Google Books). Reference here is useful background to the book and how it came about.

Of note on this reference page also are:

Combe had a "rote" religious upbringing.

His upbringing caused his stifled  emotions, brought about sternness and  his observance of
hierarchies, order and routine.

He had a desire for praise.

He liked to do all the talking.

He had little time for the opinions of others.

Phrenology attracted [such] men because of it's superlative intellectual authority with minimal effort.

Compare the above with the way that  Roberts behaved and how modern Christadelphianism expresses itself.

Combe, it seems did not think well of Fowler & Well's practical application of Phrenology, that is it being turned into a travelling circus for the making of money from reading heads:

"The Fowlers phrenology was entirely a derivation of the British phrenology formed by Spurzheim and the Combe's. Of course in the history of ideas there are no real copies, merely more or less similar imitations. Therefore although the Fowler's phrenology was essentially borrowed wholesale and their doctrines of health, temperance, practical ethics and morality were virtually a transcript of Combe's Constitution of man (1828), the Fowler's rendition of these inspirations was at the same time something new. To the older phrenologists of Britain, Fowler phrenology was a vulgarisation. George Combe avoided mentioning or meeting the Fowlers during his successful lecture tour of America (1838-1840). The Fowlers were professedly practical phrenologists who read thousands of heads for fees, lectured widely and also wrote extensively on the subject. Amongst the well-known heads read by Lorenzo were Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Clara Barton."

1815- Edinburgh Review describes Phrenology as "a piece of thorough quackery from end to end"

George Combe was a Phrenologist but not a racist in the sense that we understand it today. How can this be? George Combe, a man whose phrenological books sold more copies (350,000) during the 19th century than Charles Darwin's Origin of Species(50,000), explained his reasoning: "The qualities which make them [the Africans] submit to slavery are a guarantee that, if emancipated and justly dealt with, they would not shed blood."
For abolitionists, the apparent weakness and timidity of the Africans served two purposes. It countered fears that they would take revenge on their masters if set free. It also provided a moral argument: if Africans were innately weak, society should help them, not enslave them. Of course, in 21st century terms, the idea that an entire continent of people could be thought of as being weak and timid is itself a racist way of thinking, but that is not my main point here.

Arguments raged as to the validity of Phrenology as a science. By the mid 1820's it had it's followers and it's detractors. On publication, Combe's "Constitution of Man" in 1828 he was denounced as an atheist and a materialist.

Dates to Consider

Robert Roberts thought Phrenology a valid enough way to earn his living from in 1860, some 45 years after it had been dismissed as "quackery". In 1848 John Thomas publishes "Elpis Israel", the reference to do with Phrenology that Roberts mentions is minor, but demonstrates Dr Thomas' belief in it as a science. It seems surprising that at that point Phrenology had been surrounded by controversy for 20 years, and that Dr Thomas was a medical doctor, someone who we would hope was well informed.

Racism and Phrenology

extracts from:

 Charles Caldwell, a doctor from Kentucky  revelled in both phrenology and slave ownership. Caldwell was a Europhile, travelling to Paris in the 1820s where he picked up the latest medical craze. He later returned to France in the 1840s in order to hobnob with Pierre Marie Dumoutier, a phrenologist just back from a three-year round-the-world voyage. At the time, Dumoutier's immense collection of skulls and casts could be found at the Musée de Phrénologie in Paris. There Caldwell could practise phrenology, feeling for bumps on the heads of Tahitians and Marquesas Islanders. No doubt he was considered very à la mode back in Kentucky. In fact, Caldwell even boasted of being one of the earliest experts in phrenology in the United States.
 In 1837 Caldwell wrote to a friend claiming that "tameableness" explained the apparent ease with which Africans could be enslaved. This was a standard phrenological argument. Areas located towards the top and back of the skull, such as "Veneration" and "Cautiousness", were routinely claimed to be large in Africans. His correspondent concurred, writing: "They are slaves because they are tameable." Clearly enjoying himself, Caldwell replied: "Depend upon it my good friend, the Africans must have a master."

Modern thinking on Phrenology

In the final analysis, practicing phrenologists were and still are using a method known as cold reading (see Cold Reading, Connecticut Skeptic, Spring 1997). Briefly, cold reading is the technique of making general statements about a target subject, statements which are likely to be somewhat true about almost any human being. In a dynamic cold reading, such as a psychic reading, subconscious feedback from the client is then used to make more and more specific statements, by pursuing the more accurate statements, the hits, and ignoring the misses. The results can seem very impressive, but the technique is actually quite simple once it is understood.

Cold reading can also be done, however, in a static fashion. In such cold readings, a limited set of pre-written statements concerning the subject are chosen according to some method. This can be done by making an astrological chart, reading a palm, or undergoing phrenological analysis. The pre-written statements, as with the opening statements of a dynamic cold reading, are designed to be vague and universal, so that anyone could see themselves to some degree in the statements. Readings such as “You like to be admired by others,” “At times you do not pay close enough attention to details,” or “You tend to feel more affection than you express to others,” are likely to strike a cord of recognition in all of us.

Let's Play The Christadelphian Game

Those who read John's article on Apophenia will guess what's coming next. Christadelphians love to see links between everything as leading to the return of Christ, or indeed anything else. Norman Owen's book "The 66 Books of the Bible" has a box of links on every page so we can "see" how the Bible is all perfectly tied together and coherent.That's just one of many.
So lets play that game ourselves and look for some links from what we have found out here:

As a child Roberts was exposed to, and influenced by, The writings of Thomas his entire lives thinking was dominated by this influence.

Early in life, Roberts was exposed to Phrenology. He believed it even though it was scientifically dubious. By the time of his taking part in it and his combining of it with scripture, it was well past i's sell by date.By the time of his death it had been completely discredited.Consider what you have been exposed to early in life. Is it science or pseudo-science? can it be tested or will it end up discredited later? Will you be forced to stand by it after it has been? Or do you have the option to move on with new science.

John Thomas associated with William Miller, leader of the Millerites, one of the most disasterous millennial cults ever, whose  failed predictions left it's membership in poverty and ridicule.
John Thomas went on to form his own Millennial group, the Christadelphians, and made failed predictions too.

John Thomas and Robert Roberts both believed in The "Science" of Phrenology, even though at the time they were believing it, it was already disputed or denounced by decades (compare with how young earth creationist Christadelphians (and others) always quote long out of date scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas today, and expect respect for doing so). It "fitted in" with what they wanted to believe, so they adapted it and accepted it.

Robert Roberts believed that a combination of the Bible and Phrenology blended together to give guidance. He believed that a pseudo-science, in dispute at the time, combined with the Bible, gave a better understanding than orthodox religion could. Phrenology used the same tricks as palmreading and fortune telling.

It seems likely that while combe's book was about philosophy and natural law, Roberts inserted a deity in place of the natural law, thus making it his own.
Put another way, disputed quackery, 50 years out of date, rolled in with Bible understanding based on the interpretation of one man, John Thomas, was an improvement on, and trumped 1850 years of Christian theology, and forms the foundations upon which Christadelphian belief stands.

Consider what this tells us about how these two set up a religion and understood the Bible. Was it rock or sand?

Ocean Towers

Also known as: Faulty Towers, or The Leaning Tower of South Padre Island.

We see this as a great opportunity to get a bargain right now on what will become the finest quality built tower - in the best location - on South Padre Island. The views and amenities are unmatched, and the units are the some of the largest on the Island.

So began the wonderful pitch for the doomed Ocean Tower on South Padre Island in Texas.
The 134-unit skyscraper on a narrow strip of sand just close to the Mexican border began as ambitious project to create 31-stories of unprecedented views over the ocean. It was touted as the “highest structure in the Rio Grande Valley”. Amenities included with each condo were “Italian marble floors, granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances, custom cabinets, stainless steel fixtures, over-sized Jacuzzi tub and stand-up showers.”

In May of 2008, however, developers noticed cracks in the columns supporting the parking garage. The official explanation is that the parking garage and the tower were mistakenly built connected, forcing the weight down upon the garage instead of on more solid “expansion joints”. The use of expandable clay, which compresses when weight is applied to it, compounded the issue and allowed the parking garage to remain relatively unsettled compared to the tower itself. Preliminary evaluation showed that the tower’s core had sunk 14 to 16 inches, while the attached parking lot had shifted less than half that distance. By July, Ocean Tower was reassuring investors that while the project will be delayed, the skyscraper would reemerge “stronger and safer than ever”. The news broke on November 4, 2008, with a letter to investors:

We are deeply disappointed to report that the construction of Ocean Tower, which was suspended in May, has been terminated with no immediate prospects for completion.

It sat abandoned until September of 2009 when plans were unveiled for its demolition. The 376-foot unfinished skyscraper was brought down with a controlled implosion on December 13, 2009. At 55,000 tons, it is claimed that it was the largest implosion of a reinforced concrete structure in the world. With nearly 98 percent of the above-grade materials used to build the tower scheduled for recycling or reuse, the developers hope to recuperate at least some of the losses.

Of the $75 million loan the developers obtained for building the skyscraper, it is estimated that $65 million evaporated in the rubble.

Owner and developer Antun Domit of Domit Development was quoted as saying:

We did the right thing that we needed to do. You do what you need to do and it was a great project, I wish this would not happen but it did happen.


  1. John Thomas and Charles Darwin lived at exactly the same time and, like us, were very much products of their time. I think it's possible to see Thomas' interest in phrenology almost as a byproduct of the evolutionary thinking going on in scientific circles at that time.

    The history of evolutionary thought is an interesting study in it's own right, but I think it is a stretch to claim that Christadelphianism is built on the imaginations of an insane man who studied phrenology any more than evolutionists would claim that The Origin of Species is the faultless rock upon which they have built their construct.

    I know of no young (under aged 30?) Christadelphian who has read Thomas or Roberts, or who would consider their writings anything other than scientific/political/historical products of their time.

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