LOCAL ASSOCIATIONS AND GENERAL ASSEMBLIES.
There is some obscurity hanging over the origin of Local Associations. That they sprang up during the time of the Commonwealth, and that they rapidly multiplied when once the idea was broached, are facts abundantly attested; but which Association can rightly claim to be the first, there is no small difficulty in determining. The Confession of the Seven Churches in London, published in 1644 hints at the idea of association in the forty-seventh article: "Although the particular congregations be distinct and several bodies, every one as a compact and knit city within itself; yet are they all to walk by one rule of truth; so also they, (by all means convenient), are to have counsel and help one of another, if necessity require it, as members of one body, in the common faith, under Christ their head." But how far this "counsel and help" led to united action, does not appear. Grantham's declaration, in his Christianismus Primitivus, published long after Local Associations and General Assemblies had become common among at least one section of the Baptist denomination, exactly expresses the purpose which was contemplated in establishing them. "The mutual consultation of many churches together, shows not the superiority of churches one above another; but only the brotherly interest which they have in the strength of each other, and the duty which lieth upon the churches one to help another in their difficulties. And, doubtless, her strength thus united is the most powerful means under heaven (through the virtue of Christ's promise to be with them as His Church), to stop the current of heresy, and to keep the churches in unity both in doctrine and manners."
The special cause which led, some half dozen or more years after publication of The Confession of the Seven Churches, to a general desire for greater union among the Particular Baptists, was the earnest letter received by the London churches from the churches in Ireland. In this letter they say, "that their beloved and faithful brother, John Vernon, the bearer of the letter," will, through God's blessing, "be suddenly with you. . . . His conversation hath been in zeal and faithfulness, the Lord having put it into the hearts of all his congregations in Ireland to have a more revived correspondence with each other by letter and loving epistles, in which practice we found great advantage, not only by weakening Satan’s suggestions and jealousies, but it hath brought a closer union and knitting of heart; and, which is not an inferior consideration, we have hereby been enabled feelingly and knowingly to present each others wants and conditions before our God. In the same manner, we shall be enabled to answer our duty towards you, and you towards us, and so bear each other's burdens, and fulfill the law of Christ in our very near relation. We hereby earnestly request the same brotherly correspondence with you and from you, and, by your means, with all the rest of the churches in England, Scotland, and Wales, whom we trust will be provoked to the same things, which we hope may be mutually obtained once in three months." The same letter also asks for "a perfect account of the churches of Christ owned in communion with them;" and offers "one request more, if it hath not been lately practised;" namely, "that they would send two or more faithful brethren, well acquainted with the discipline and order the Lord's house, able to speak seasonable words, suited to the necessities of the people, to visit, comfort, and confirm all the flock of our Lord Jesus, that are, or have given up, their names to be under His rule and government in England, Scotland, and Wales."
This letter produced a powerful effect upon the churches in London. After a day of fasting and prayer, they agreed to adopt its suggestions. Inquiries were at once made of the several churches in different parts of the island; but we have no means of ascertaining the result. The letter sent to the Welsh churches has been preserved; and from this we learn, that "the several churches of Christ in London," as the senders describe themselves, were anxious "to obtain a full account of all the churches in England, Scotland, and Wales;" and for the purpose of gathering this information from the Principality, they urge their Welsh churches to visit the several weak and scattered brethren in their part, and near adjacent, that it may be known "what churches and societies they at London may groundedly communicate with."
Although there is no extant record of the result of this correspondence, it is a fair inference, that the churches which mooted the question of union by letter and visits, and set the example of it, speedily adopted other means of periodical association with one another. If only this inference could be established, it would entitle the London Baptist Association to claim the foremost place among the many Associations that have since been formed in England, Scotland, and Wales.
The Somerset Association.
In November of the same year (1653) in which the letter from Ireland aroused the churches in London, an Association of Particular Baptist Churches was formed in the West of England. There is little doubt that this union was the result of the circulation of that letter by the London Baptists. The first meeting of the Somerset churches, and the churches of Wilts, Devon, Gloucester, and Dorset, was held at Wells "on the sixth and seventh days of the ninth month." At this meeting one of the subjects of debate was, "Whether laying on of hands on baptized believers was an ordinance of Christ?" The majority agreed that there was no warrant for it, in precept or precedent; that whether it were practised by the churches or not, it should not be made a condition of communion, and that any minister who so contended for it should not be permitted to preach in any of the associated churches. They yet unanimously decided, at the same meeting, that the ordination of both ministers and messengers should not only be preceded by prayer and fasting, but should be accompanied with the imposition of hands "The circular letter" was signed by Thomas Collier, one of the many Baptist ministers singled out by Gangræna Edwards for abuse. "He is a master-secretary," says Edwards, "and a man of great power amongst them. He hath emissaries under him, whom he sends abroad and commands to several parts, as Syms, Rowe, &c., and supply his place in his absence. He hath done much hurt in Lymington, Hampton, Waltham, and all along this country." In other words, Collier was one of the most indefatigable Particular Baptist ministers in the west of England, and zealously fulfilled the office to which he was called--the General Superintendent and Messenger of the Associated Churches.
This first Local Association, of which we have any account, must have regarded its meetings as profitable to the churches generally, since it met again two months afterwards. Collier a second time signs "the circular letter." The next meeting was held at Bridgewater, "on the eighteenth day of the second month," in 1655. This Association was chiefly remarkable for its outspoken letter to the Baptist churches in Ireland, who were then receiving State aid, very much to the astonishment of the Baptists in the West of England. "Dear brethren," say they in their fraternal letter, "we desire the Lord to teach you to deny yourselves in this case; and truly we have heard likewise of the great vanity and pride in apparel of some of the brethren in the ministry with you; and whereas, they should be patterns in humility, meekness, and a good conversation, they are too much patterns of the contrary. These things, dear brethren, have often sounded in our ears (and indeed hath pierced our hearts), not only from enemies, but friends. And indeed we cannot doubt that the large allowance from the State in Ireland hath drawn over many brethren to be preachers there; not but we rejoice in the flourishing of the Gospel in that nation, and could desire that there were more publishers of it; but it would have added to our joy had they come there upon better principles. We desire not to mention particulars in this case; but that we hope is reformation, which will be our joy in the Lord, being that which indeed hath ministered matter of grief and sorrow to our souls." To these rebukes of their friends, the Irish ministers do not appear to have taken much heed. "Our brethren in Ireland”, says an entry which follows a copy of the letter in the records of the Association, "did never to this epistle return us any answer, which was our trouble." It is, perhaps, difficult to determine how far the charges of the Somerset Association were correct; but one is disposed to regard some of their strictures as founded on reports too hastily accepted, since in the following year the same Irish brethren wrote to some Welsh churches, warning them "to take heed of the sin of earthly mindedness,” and "to labour after a just, blameless, and shining life."
They also advised them, as they were "now in prosperous times, to prepare for a storm." "Let those that are rich among you strive," they further say, "to be large-hearted to the poor; and so much the more because of the present distress, and because of the great hatred of the world, which saints of our judgment endure. . . . We desire you to follow after enlargement of heart, both in contributions towards the poor and other church uses, and in the maintenance of them who dispense the Word unto you; that such dispensers may give themselves wholly to the work, in which duty some of us have observed, on your side of the water, sundry persons, yea, we fear churches, have come short." It seems scarcely probable that churches who were fairly open to all the rebukes of the Somerset letter would write in this strain to others.
There is one other counsel in this epistle of the Irish ministers to the two Welch churches in Glamorganshire which is worth noticing. It is a bit of advice about books. "Besides ministerial teaching," says the letter, "we would commend unto you the use of good books," “and," as if in some doubt as to whether these simple Welsh people would know what "good books" they should "use," they add: "take advice of some goodly preacher what are fit to buy."
The Somerset Particular Baptist Association published a Confession in 1656, to which we have referred in a previous chapter. This was first designed, so they tell us, "rather for a trial of their unity in the faith, and for closer fellowship one with another:" but fearing to be confounded with men who held "free-will, and falling from grace" in their neighbourhood (the General Baptists); and wishing to utter their protest against "such as pretend to a light and voice within them, without any relation to Christ and the Scriptures" (the Quakers) they considered that there was "more than ordinary necessity" why they should give publicity to their Confession. It substantially agrees with the Confession of the Seven Churches or London Confession.
This Association was held half-yearly, and continued to meet until 1657, after which time its records cease. But there was no fixed rule as to the intervals at which Local or county Associations are held. Among the General Baptists they met either quarterly, half-yearly, or annually, according to the convenience of the churches associated, the principal town in the district being generally selected as the place of meeting. Almost every part of the country had its General Baptist Association, since this was one of the first steps taken on the formation of even a small number of churches; and where the churches were few and far between, two or three counties held a common meeting, like the Western Particular Baptist Association just mentioned. The persons entitled to attend were messengers, elders, and brethren. The next Local Association was
The Midland Association.
The Midland Association of Particular Baptist Churches was formed in 1655, at Warwick. A preliminary meeting was held on the third of May, when the pastors and messengers of the following churches agreed upon "Sixteen Articles of Faith and Order:" Warwick, Morton, Bourton-on-the-water, Alcester, Tewkesbury, Hook Norton, and Derby. It is supposed that the excellent and devoted minister of Warwick, Rev. Daniel King, was the chief agent in securing the formation of this ancient Association. The articles which had been unanimously agreed upon, were taken back by the pastors to their several churches, to be examined and approved; and on the 26th June of the same year, the Midland Association again met at Moreton-in-the-Marsh. The assembled brethren then formally adopted the Sixteen Articles, appending their names on behalf of the churches they represented. In substance these Articles agree with the Confession of the Seven Churches. After this statement of their basis of union, the Association determined the objects of their union." The churches were to be helpful to each other; first; in giving advice, after serious consultation and deliberation, in matters and controversies remaining doubtful to any particular church, according to the plain example of the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch. (Acts xv. 23, &c.) Secondly; in sending their gifted brethren to use their gifts for the edification of the churches that need the same, as they shall see it to be reasonable, as the Church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch. Acts xv. 22. Thirdly; in giving and receiving also, in case of the poverty and want of as plainly doth appear in the approved and due acting of the Churches of the Gentiles towards the Church at Jerusalem. Rom. xv. 26. Fourthly; in a joint carrying on of any part of the work of the Lord, as is commanded to the churches, as they shall have opportunity to join therein, to the Glory of God. See 2 Cor. viii. 19-23. Fifthly; in watching over each other and considering each other for good, in respect of purity of doctrine, exercise of love and good conversation, being all members of the same body of Christ (1 Cor. xii. 12), who, therefore, ought to have care one for another (ver. 25), especially considering how the glory of God is concerned in their standing and holy conversation. The churches now associated are desired to take these things into consideration, and to signify by their messengers, at their next meeting, how far they close with the same, and what they judge expedient to be further considered and done, for the glory of God and the good of the people."
In autumn of the same year the Midland Association again met at Moreton; and the following year three meetings were held; but it appears to have been their plan rather to hold their gatherings half-yearly. In 1658 they assembled in Easter week at Alcester, and appointed their second meeting to be held at Moreton in September. It is not certain whether their forebodings on the death of Cromwell did not occasion this second meeting to be omitted. They certainly met in the early part of 1659, after which time their meetings ceased for about thirty years, owing to the persecutions of all classes of Dissenters by Charles the Second and James the Second.
In order to give efficiency to their Association, the Sixteen Articles, with Scripture proof-passages, were printed and extensively circulated among the churches, the Baptist families of that period being diligent to have them read in their households, and compared with the Word of God. They were also careful to admit only such churches into their Association as approved of the Sixteen Articles, and particularly objected to the "Free-willers," as the General Baptists were then often called. Written copies of their proceedings, or, as they styled them, "their Conclusions and Results," after every meeting, were circulated among the churches, in order to keep up an interest in the Association. The ministers and messengers, we are told in one of their Records, were very exemplary in this particular duty. The churches themselves frequently set apart a whole day for fasting and prayer previous to the Association, to ask God's blessing to rest upon the meetings.
One of the founders of this Association Rev. James Wilmot, of Hook Norton, was one of the many hundreds of sufferers during the persecutions under Charles the Second. Crosby says: "Mr. James Wilmot, of Hook Norton, and Mr. Charles Archer, of Sweakly, in the county of Oxford, joint pastors of a baptized congregation meeting at Hook Norton, were great sufferers for their nonconformity. About the year 1664, they were taken at their meeting, and carried to the Castle of Oxford. At another time they were sent to Whitney Gaol. Mr. Wilmot was fined twenty pounds, for which all his goods were seized. They, not finding enough on the premises to satisfy them, seized upon the goods of Mr. Humphrey Gillit, a woolman, who was taken at the same meeting with him. Mr. Wilmot's father, a zealous Churchman, went to Sir Thomas Pennystone, the justice, who committed his son, and desired his release. The justice replied, ‘He shall rot in gaol.' Says Mr. Wilmot, ‘Another justice had said the same, but he is now dead.' ‘Though he be dead,' replied Sir Thomas, ‘yet his work shall not die.' Mr. Thorp, the gaoler at Oxford, was most severe. He would not permit them to pray together; and if they craved but a blessing on their meat, he would come in a great rage and disturb them, saying, ‘What! are you preaching over your victuals?' The goods of Mr. Wilmot, who had been twice imprisoned in Oxford Gaol, were carried to Chipping Norton, and there publicly cryed for sale, on several market days; but none would bid for them. Then they were carried to Swansford, to one of the informer's houses, who could make no money of them; and in the end they came again to Hook Norton, and proclaimed there that if anyone would lay down twenty shillings, they should have them all; a friend of Mr. Wilmot's did so, and he had all his goods again. When Mr. Wilmot was released from Whitney Gaol, they excommunicated him, and several writs were issued against him. But he, being informed of them, absconded, and so escaped their hands." [Crosby’s History of the Baptists, Vol. III, pp. 124, 125.]
Mr. Eccles, the pastor of the Bromsgrove Church, which united with the Midland Association after the Revolution, also suffered for his opinions. He was greatly ill-used, was put into Worcester Gaol, and would have remained there, but for the generous behaviour of Mr. Swift, one of the Members of Parliament for the county of Worcester, who became his bondsman for a thousand pounds, by which means he obtained his release.
The Midland Association was reconstructed in 1690, and has ever since annually held its meetings with great regularity. During the first thirty or forty years after this period, the original doctrinal basis of the Association was tacitly acknowledged; but various causes led to subsequent deviations; the scarcity of the copies of the Confession of Faith; the absence of any authorised record of the proceedings of the Association; and the fact that for a long period the circular letters were only written. "The dregs of Arminianism were," according to the fears expressed in the Bromsgrove Letter to the Association in 1787, "received by some of the ministers and churches of the Association" and in 1790, "the Association deemed it proper to resolve--that no church be admitted but such as profess to believe the doctrines maintained in the heading to the circular letter, namely--personal election, particular redemption, free justification, efficacious grace, and the final perseverance of the saints." Bromsgrove, it should be mentioned, is the only one of the nine churches that united in the reconstruction of the Association in 1690, which still continues in it, and is therefore the mother church; and of the seven churches which formed the Association in 1655, one is extinct, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, and the remaining six are now united with other county Associations. A great number of the circular letters from 1713 down to the present day are still in existence, and reveal the anxiety which has been uniformly held for the devotion and piety of its individual churches In 1752 the Association met at Birmingham, and in their letter to the churches that year they recommend--"As a testimony of Christian love, let all the churches spare their minister at least one Lord’s day in the year, to supply destitute churches. We beg you to be content for that day without a supply, if none can be had." Unfortunately the original Association Book has been lost, and the present book only dates back to 1817. [“The History of the Midland Association of Baptist Churches. By W. Stokes, London, 1855.” Many very interesting particulars are to be found in Mr. Stokes’ admirable digest of the History of the Midland Association, from which this account has been taken.]
Most of the Local Associations among the Particular Baptists virtually contemplated similar objects in their union to those formally announced by the Midland Association, and with these objects the Local Associations of the General Baptists substantially agreed. Adam Taylor, the General Baptist historian, says, that the usual business transacted at their Local Associations related to (1) the reformation of inconsistent or immoral conduct, whether in ministers or private Christians, (2) the prevention or suppression of heresy, (3) the reconciling of differences between members and churches, (4) giving advice in difficult cases, whether respecting individuals or societies, (5) proposing plans of usefulness, (6) recommending cases that required pecuniary support, and (7) devising the most effectual means of promoting the spread of Christianity in the world at large, but especially in their own churches.
It is not easy to ascertain how many Associations existed at the time of the Commonwealth, since new ones were constantly being formed, and old ones dissolved; but there is good ground for affirming that they were found in every part of the country. Some of them dwindled away soon after the Restoration of Charles the II; but others continued to meet, despite the oppressive and cruel measures that were enacted to crush out Dissenters of every name. In 1678, for example, the Buckinghamshire General Baptist Association was attended by fifty-four messengers, elders, and brethren. In the same year a new Particular Baptist Association was formed at Hempstead, Herts, with which were united the Baptist church in Petty France, London, and several churches in the country. Dr. Nehemiah Coxe, on his return to his church in London, "gave an account of the comfortable issue of the meeting of the messengers of the associated churches, and of their desire that for the future some brethren on behalf of this (Petty France) and other congregations in the city, might be, as occasion is offered, appointed to assist at their meetings." The records of the Petty France Church tell us that these meetings were held half-yearly, and that one or both their ministers generally attended them, "to assist there, on behalf of the church." The "County" Association, as Ivimey calls this Particular Association, continued to meet now in the country, and once in every few years in London, until 1682, when a great storm of persecution came down upon the church in Petty France. This minute, passed in the spring of the same year, will illustrate the character of the church--"In regard to the uncertainty of our obtaining conveniency of meeting as formerly, by reason of the present persecutions, and our exclusion from Petty France, that the contribution for the poor be made by monthly subscription, and our usual times of breaking bread be altered from three weeks, to once every month, to be computed from this day, May 27, 1682." The "County" Association managed to find some quiet nook in London the following April in which to hold their half-yearly meeting, the last as far as we have been able to ascertain.
General Baptist Assemblies.
Before the period of which we are writing, the General Baptists had felt that, while their Local associations were useful in their several districts, more concerted action and general co-operation was needed than these Associations supplied. To meet this want they established General Assemblies, which were usually held in London. The Assemblies were composed, like the Local Associations, of messengers, elders, or ministers, and brethren. Mr. Grantham enters very carefully into the question of the claims and character of "General Assemblies" in his remarkable and scholarly treatise. ["Christianismus Primitivus:" Book II. chap. 10, pp. 132-143.] In this we are shown that Local Associations are conventions of the pastors of as many churches as by reason of vicinity of country, and acquaintance with each other, who, without the disturbance of the public peace, meet together;" and that "General Assemblies are meetings for mutual consultation of many churches upon emergent occasions." He then treats “of the question, Who hath power to convene General Assemblies?"--answering it by saying, that this is equally pertaining to churches, and all pastors; but that which calls the Assembly is, the emergency of the occasion." The second and third questions he discusses are these--"How far agreements made by a General Assembly do oblige the churches concerned by their representatives;" and "What sort of Christians are to give voice deliberative and decisive in General Councils and Assemblies."
The "Orthodox Creed" thus describes "General Councils or Assemblies: "General Councils, or Assemblies, consisting of bishops, elders, and brethren of the several churches of Christ, and being legally convened, and met together out of all the churches, and the churches appearing by their representatives, make but one church, and have lawful rights and suffrage in this general meeting, or Assembly, to act in the name of Christ, it being of Divine authority, and is the best means under heaven to preserve unity, to prevent heresy, and superintendency among or in any congregation whatsoever within its limits, or jurisdiction. And to such a meeting, or Assembly, appeals ought to be made, in case any injustice be done, or heresy and schism is countenanced in any particular congregation of Christ; and the decisive voice in such Genera! Assemblies is the major part; and such General Assemblies have lawful power to hear and determine, and also to excommunicate." (Article xxxix.)
The date of the first Assembly of the General Baptists is uncertain; but Mr. Grantham speaks of Assemblies in 1671, as already established and approved; [“Sigh for Peace,” pp. 130-132.] and in the treatise just quoted, published in 1678, he says, after mentioning the meeting recorded in Acts xv., "according to this precedent," (or as he spells it, "President,") the baptized churches in this age and nation (although unworthy to compare with those worthies) have kept an Assembly-General for many years, for the better settlement of the churches to which they are related." There is no mention of the General Assemblies of the Particular Baptist Churches during this period, except the words of Grantham be regarded as intimating their existence. The Assembly of the General Baptists adhered to Grantham's definition, and only met on "emergent occasions." During a period of nearly forty years (from 1689 to 1728), there were only twenty-two meetings.
That Grantham had great faith in the value of these Assemblies is patent to every reader of his books. In one of them he thus writes: "They are, through the blessing of God, the best expedient under the sun for composing divisions in the churches. Here the liberty of Christians should be, yea, must be maintained; though they differ right much in their opinions in matters of religion. We know well, that, not only the Christians in the ages bordering on the primitive, but even the Apostles of our Lord, did allow Christians of very different persuasions, freely to deliberate on things propounded in such Assemblies. For my part I could heartily wish that all the congregations of Christians in the world, that are baptized according to the appointment of Christ, would make one Consistory, at least sometimes, to consider the matters in difference between them. For if this be not admitted, there are no means remaining, as I conceive, to heal their divisions; and consequently to obtain that peace which should rule in the hearts of all God's people, because they are thereunto called in one body."
The system of Local Associations and General Assemblies gave rise, says Adam Taylor, ["History of the English General Baptists." Vol. I. pp. 460-1.] to a custom of appeal from the decision of particular churches. When any member thought himself aggrieved by the proceedings of his church, he might appeal to two or more neighbouring churches, and ask them to hear and judge the case. If the appeal were received, a meeting of the deputies of each of the religious societies, or churches, to which the appeal was made, was appointed; and, after hearing both parties at length, judgment was given. But if either party still remained dissatisfied, the whole question could be brought before the Local Association to which they belonged. There was yet a final appeal from the Local Association to the General Assembly. The discontented considering, after a time, that they had a right of appeal, and differences becoming thereby protracted, and a captious spirit engendered, the Assembly of the General Baptists at length resolved that no such cases should be received by them, unless with the mutual consent and request of all parties concerned.
A further danger to the independence of the individual churches was checked, by restraining the power of both Local Associations and General Assemblies to offering advice. The decision therefore, in either case, only challenged respectful attention from the wisdom, experience, and piety of the persons who composed such meetings. "We ought," says Grantham, "to consider with great respect, what is concluded by a General Council of Christ's true ministers; yet we may lawfully doubt of what they deliver, unless they confirm it by the Word of the Lord."
The Caffynite Controversy.
A few years before the Revolution what is known as the "Caffynite Controversy" broke out among the General Baptists. As it led to a rupture in their General Assembly, and to the formation, and continuance for some time of a rival body called The General Association, it is necessary to give some brief account of its origin, progress, and apparent termination. Mr. Matthew Caffyn was pastor of the church at Horsham, in Sussex, and is described as a minister eminent for his diligence and success, who contributed much to the spread of the General Baptist interest in those parts, and had suffered greatly for his attachment to it. He was a man of good natural abilities, which had been improved by a liberal education; an expert disputant who, for half a century, had been considered the champion of his party, and was often called to defend it against able opponents. He also held the position of "messenger" to the churches in Kent. Adopting opinions at variance with the general sentiments of the Denomination on the nature of Christ, and freely expressing them to his friend Mr. Joseph Wright, of Maidstone, his friend thought it his duty to sacrifice private friendship to the public good. Wright preferred a charge against Caffyn at the General Assembly in 1686, of denying both the divinity and the humanity of Christ, and demanding that he should be expelled from the Assembly, and from all communion with the churches therein represented. Crosby says that Caffyn, in his answer to these charges, "readily acknowledged that there were some things in the Athanasian Creed which were above his understanding, after the most diligent and impartial examination, and that therefore he never had, nor could as yet receive it as the standard of his faith He insisted upon it, that the Holy Scriptures contained all that could be necessary for a Christian to believe and profess; that if he were from hence catechised ever so severely he should not decline a free and open declaration of his sentiments; alleged his belief in Christ, as the Word, in the beginning of the creation of God; and that he was in the highest imaginable sense, God, consistently with that most established truth, that there can but be one absolutely supreme God. He thought Christ was the ‘God over all,' intended by St. Paul, which he could understand conformably to our Lord's own declarations concerning Himself. That, as to His flesh, He believed that Christ was of the seed of the woman, the son and offspring of David, conceived indeed miraculously, but born of Mary in the same natural way as other children. That it had been his study and delight to exalt and honour his Saviour, both as God and man, to the highest degree of thought. That he had never disturbed the minds of any Christians about unrevealed sublimities, but was willing everyone should have the same liberty and judgment which he claimed for himself; that he was far enough from perfection in knowledge; but, as his friends well knew, was always open to conviction, and thankful for every addition and further light."
The Assembly were satisfied with Caffyn's explanations, and Mr. Wright was "much discountenanced for his unbecoming reflections, and want of charity," but did not relinquish his purpose; and again brought his charge against Mr. Caffyn at an Assembly held at Aylesbury, this time being supported by a friend whose name is not known. A second time Mr. Wright failed, since, says, Crosby, "that reverend body resolved to maintain amity and friendship with Mr. Caffyn, though he might vary a little in some abstruse unrevealed speculations." Mr. Wright now withdrew from the Assemblies, protested against them all; but the controversy did not cease. Mr. John Wailer was excluded from the Bucks churches for holding similar views, and Mr. Caffyn wrote to support him under his persecution. Caffyn now openly advocated his opinions, and talked freely of them at the Assembly in 1692. The following year the former charges were again preferred, backed by Caffyn's letter to Waller, and Caffyn's known words uttered at the last Assembly. The greater part of the meeting voted that Mr. Caffyn "was not guilty of the matters charged against him;" but, to establish their own orthodoxy, declared, "that the opinions ascribed to Mr. Caffyn were heresies." This gave great offence to some; and a spirited "Protest" against it was signed by sixteen "messengers, elders and brethren, representatives of several congregations in divers parts of the nation," in order to "clear themselves and the congregations to which they belonged of those gross errors, and of countenancing them." The Assembly adjourned for three years.
The General Association.
In 1696, the subject was again resumed. The Protesters insisted on Mr. Caffyn's being brought to trial; and if found guilty excluded from the communion of the churches in the Assembly. A third time the majority decided in Mr.Caffyn's favour, re-affirming, in fact, their former opinion. The Protesters now withdrew, and soon after published "The reasons for their separation." They also resolved to hold an annual meeting in London, at the time of the General Assembly, to consist of the messengers, elders, and brethren of the churches which approved of their secession. This meeting they styled the General Association; to distinguish it, as they say, "from particular associations held in divers parts of the country." The first meeting was held in May, 1697, and was attended by The representatives of the churches of White's Alley, London; Deptford, Kent; Rainham, Essex; Wilbram, Cambridgeshire; Aylesbury, Cuddington, and Berkhampstead, Bucks. The following year they were joined by the Church under Dr. W. Russell, London, and the congregations at Brainford, Essex, and Ashford, Kent.
This did not end the dispute. At the Assembly in 1697, Mr. Amory presented a letter from the Western Association, earnestly calling upon it to bring Mr. Caffyn to immediate examination; and the following year Mr. Garrett brought up a similar request from the Northamptonshire churches, and Mr. Hooke from the churches in Lincoinshire. Mr. Caffyn is allowed to explain himself for the fourth time. So unsatisfactory were his explanations that Mr. Amory said to Mr. Caffyn, before all the Assembly, "that God, whom my brother Caffyn worships, is none of my God; neither will I worship Him. That Christ that he worships is none of my Christ; neither will I worship Him." The old expedient was again adopted; the sentiments ascribed to Mr. Caffyn were declared to be heretical, an investigation, however, being promised at the next Assembly in 1700. Meanwhile several additional churches joined the seceders, and others were only waiting the issue of the promised trial.
The trial came to nothing. An "Expedient," as it was called, was proposed as a possible basis of union, not only with the seceders (who had already been admonished as "walking disorderly, and desired to return"), but with those who were still dissatisfied in the Assembly. This consisted of an obscure and ambiguous resolution, drawn up by four members of the two parties in the Assembly, and was offered to, but rejected by the General Association. The breach was now fast widening between the disputants. In some little temper, ill befitting the grave character of the Assembly, they "agreed to stand by what they did in 1696;" and also declared that those who published any of their own "conceptions concerning the expressions in the ‘Expedient,' should be regarded as disturbers, and be accountable to the Assembly." Two years afterwards the charges were again renewed by the Northamptonshire Churches; and a fifth time the Assembly declared Mr. Caffyn's statements satisfactory. The Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire churches now went over in a body to the General Association.
A temporary reconciliation was afterwards brought about by a book entitled, A Vindication of the Ancient General Assembly. This book was laid before the General Association meeting at White's Alley, in June 8th, 1704; and, as a consequence, they sent messengers to the General Assembly then sitting at Goodman's-fields, inquiring how far it was prepared to stand by the overtures made in the Vindication. The same day the Assembly replied, that though they had not in any way, as a body, been concerned in the publication of that book, they accepted its overtures, and hoped the General Association would also. A conference ensued between four brethren from each party; a number of articles of faith and conditions of union were drawn up, and agreed to; and the next day, the members of the General Assembly and the General Association met as one body.
The union, after all, was only seeming, and not real. The Assembly had, throughout, protested against the errors ascribed to Mr.Caffyn, although adhering so tenaciously to him; but the General Association determined that, upon the first sign of any breach of the new basis of union, if they were refused a hearing, or could obtain no redress, they would resume their meetings. This actually took place a few years after.
The General Assembly, thus seriously weakened as to numbers, gradually became weaker in other ways. The conciliatory and yet inflexible Scripturists were succeeded, as one after another the older men were called away to their reward, by a class of men who carried their speculations farther than Caffyn ever ventured. Greater prominence was now given, by the more popular and learned men, to "right reason;" and the liberty which insisted on retaining men known to differ very broadly from the earlier views of the General Baptists, speedily showed its effects. By degrees, the majority of the ministers became Anti-trinitarians; and it is as an Anti-trinitarian body that the shadow of the Assembly of the old General Baptists still continues to meet in London every Whitsuntide. The Lincolnshire churches who united in the General Association joined the New Connexion of General Baptists in 1770, and the other churches have either dwindled away, or have, like Ashford, Rainham, and others, become united with the various county Associations of Particular Baptist churches.
The First Particular Baptist General Assembly.
The first General Assembly of the Particular Baptist churches, "the greatest of the Assemblies," as Marlow calls it, was the one called by a letter from the London churches, the year after the landing of William of Orange. As it marks a new era in the Particular Baptist churches, it may not be without interest to quote the letter entire.
"London, July 22, 1689.
“To the Church of Christ at----. Kind salutations.----We, the elders and ministering brethren of the churches in and about London, being several times assembled together, to consider the present state of the Baptized Congregations, not only in this city, but also in the country, cannot, but first of all, adore the divine wisdom and goodness of Almighty God, in respect of His late most gracious Providence, for our deliverance from that dismal dispensation which threatened us, from the continual and unwearied attempt and designs of the enemy of our sacred religion and civil liberties; by which means our sinking and drooping spirits are again revived, and our earnest hopes and long expectations raised and afresh quickened, in respect of the more full and perfect deliverance of the Church of God, and His more glorious appearance, for the accomplishment of those gracious promises and prophecies contained in the Holy Scriptures relating to the later days.
"But, in the second place, we cannot but bewail the present condition our churches seem to be in, fearing that much of that former strength, life, and vigour which attended us is gone, and in many places the interest of our Lord Jesus Christ seems to be much neglected which is in our hands, and the congregations to languish, and our beauty to fade away, (which thing, we have some ground to judge, you cannot but be sensible of as well as we); and from hence we have been put upon most mature and serious considerations of such things that may be the cause thereof, and amongst others are come to this result--That the great neglect of the present ministry is one thing, together with that general unconcernedness there generally seems to be of giving fit and proper encouragement for the raising up of an able and honourable ministry for the time to come; with many other things which, we hope, we are not left wholly in the dark about, which we find we are not in a capacity to prevent and cure (as instruments in the hands of God, and His blessing attending our Christian endeavours), unless we can obtain a general meeting here in London of two principal brethren, of every church of the same faith with us, in every county respectively. We do, therefore, humbly entreat and beseech you, that you would be pleased to appoint two of your brethren, one of the ministry, and one principal brother of your congregation with him, as your messengers, and send them up to meet with the rest of the elders and brethren of the churches in London, on the third of September next; and then we hope we shall have that before us, and be also helped to consider such things that may much tend to the honour of God, and further the peace, and well-being, and establishment at present, and also the future comfort of the churches. We hope you will readily, notwithstanding the charge [cost], comply with our pious and Christian desires herein; and, in the meantime, to signify your intentions forthwith in a letter, which we shall have you direct to our reverend and well-beloved brethren, Mr. H. Knollys, or Mr. W. Kiffin. This is all, at present, from us, your brethren and labourers in God's vineyard, who greet you well in the Lord Jesus Christ, and subscribe ourselves your servants in the Gospel,--
"WILLIAM KIFFIN, BENJAMIN KEACH,
"HANSERD KNOLLYS, EDWARD MAN,
"JOHN HARRIS, RICHARD ADAMS,
"Brother Kiffin lives in White's Alley, Little Moorfields."
This letter was everywhere well received, and the ministers and messengers of more than a hundred churches in England and Wales met at the time appointed. The Assembly continued its sittings for eight or nine days, was pervaded by a solemn, earnest, and united spirit, and transacted business of real importance to the welfare and prosperity of the churches. The Assembly afterwards issued a pamphlet, entitled--The Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of divers Pastors, Messengers, and ministering Brethren of the Baptized churches, met together in London, from September 3-12, 1689, from divers parts of England and Wales, owning the doctrine of personal election and final perseverance; sent from, and concerned for more than a hundred congregations of the same faith with themselves.
The first day was spent in "humbling themselves before the Lord, and in seeking of Him the right way into the best means and method for repairing their breaches, and recovering themselves into their former order, beauty, and glory." On the second day, they agreed upon certain preliminaries, as the foundation or rules of their Assembly, in order to guard again any misapprehensions in the minds of the members of their respective churches, declaring that "they disclaimed all manner of superiority, or superintendency over the churches, having no authority or power to prescribe or impose anything upon the faith or practice of any of the churches of Christ, their whole intendment being to be helpers together of one another, by way of counsel and advice." Differences in individual churches "in point of communion" were to be left undisturbed; and differences between one church and another were not allowed to be debated, "until the rule that Christ hath given in the matter (Matt. xviii. 15) be first answered." Even their advice is regarded as “not binding to any one church till the consent of that church be first had, and they conclude the same themselves." Moreover, "all things offered by way of counsel and advice were to be proved out of the Word of God, and the (particular) Scripture annexed." The "breviates" of the meeting were to be transcribed and sent to every particular church, with a letter. Each person was to present to the Assembly his letter of recommendation from the church to which he belonged, and none were to be permitted to speak without the general consent of the Assembly. After the letters from the several churches were read, and prayer offered, the meeting adjourned.
On the third day and following days various business was transacted. The first related to the establishment of a Baptist fund. It was agreed, that it should be originated as "a free will offering, to be collected with all convenient speed;" and that this fund should be kept up by annual collections in each church, "weekly, monthly, or quarterly, according to their own convenience." The fund itself was to be devoted to the following purposes:--first, to help the weaker churches in the maintenance of their ministers, so that they (the ministers) might give themselves wholly to preaching the Gospel; secondly, "to send ministers that are ordained, or at least solemnly called to preach, both in city and country, where the Gospel hath, or hath not yet been preached, and to visit the churches"--the ministers to be selected by at least two churches in London or the country; and, thirdly, "to assist those members that shall be found in any of the churches that are disposed for study, have an inviting gift, and are sound in fundamentals, in attaining to the knowledge and understanding of the languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew."
Then followed the discussion of numerous questions proposed to the General Assembly by the several churches. It is significant that the very first question discussed was the ever-recurring one even now--"Whether it be not expedient for churches that live near together, and consisting of small members, and are not able to maintain their own ministry, to join together for the better and more comfortable support of their ministry, and the better edification one of another?" Of course the Assembly answered in the affirmative. The duty of each church to provide "a comfortable maintenance for the minister, according to its ability," was also agreed upon in the same way; likewise the propriety of each church "to provide itself with such a minister, and solemnly set him apart his office." The fourth question reads curiously by the light of our own day--“Whether baptized believers are not at liberty to hear any sober and pious men of the Independent and Presbyterian persuasions when they have no opportunity to upon the preaching of the Word in their own assembly, or have no other to preach to them?" The "breviates " say, "Concluded affirmatively. Acts xviii. 24, 25, 26." [The General Baptists substantially agreed with them on this point. At the General Association in 1701, "Brother James Clarke complained of some that neglected their duty in assembling with the church, and go to hear Presbyterian ministers at such times as the church is assembled." The General Association declared that "it was the duty of the members to assemble with the church; and that all that were negligent therein should be admonished to make good their places."--MS. Proceedings of the General Association, Vol. 1. p.29]
Of the other questions on which an opinion was asked, these were some: the unlawfulness of delaying the ordination of "gifted brethren" for many years, whether for the office of elder or deacon; the observance of the apostolic rule about marriage (1 Cor. vii. 39); the evil of neglecting the services agreed upon by the church; and how persons are to be dealt with who "will not communicate to the necessary expenses of the church whereof they are members, according to their ability." The last question the Assembly thus answered---"Resolved, that upon clear proof, the persons so offending, as aforesaid, should be duly admonished; and if no reformation appears, the church ought to withdraw from them. Ephe. v. 3; Matt. xxv. 42; 1 John iii. 7." [The General Assembly of General Baptists eight years after (1697), suggest another method of meeting this kind of remissness: "It is the agreement and advice of this Assembly that the deacons, or such are deacons, in every congregation, in receiving the church's collection, do take notice of the particular receipts; namely, from whom, and what; and if they observe any short therein, to advise and admonish to more liberalitie; and if not to acquaint the churches themselves with that, so that there may be an equality in the performance of that great duty.--MS Proceedings of the General Assembly, Vol. I. p. 12.] Persons who withdrew from "the fellowship of any particular church, and joined themselves to the communion of the National Church," the Assembly suggested should "be reclaimed by all due means of instruction and admonition;" and if not reclaimed, rejected. They affirmed, in answer to other questions, that believers were actually reconciled, justified, or adopted, when they are really implanted in Jesus Christ by faith; that the first day of the week should be religiously observed as the Lord's Day; that the excess of luxury in dress was "a shame and scandal, and needed reformation," that it was an unquestionable advantage "for our brethren now in the ministry, to obtain a competent knowledge of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin tongues, that they may be the better capable of defending the truth against opposers;" and that "an elder of one church may administer the ordinance of the Lord's Supper to another church of the same faith, being called so to do by the said church, necessity only being considered."
In addition to the transaction of this business, the Assembly agreed upon a vindication of themselves, as a whole, "against taking any part in recognising the dispensing power" claimed by James the First, proclaimed their abhorrence of his arbitrary acts, and announced their hearty determination "to venture their all for the Protestant religion, and the liberties of their native country." That a few congregations should have taken advantage of this "dispensing power," they urged, was no reason for laying "the whole party under reproach and infamy." They thus conclude their minute on this subject:--"We do, with great thankfulness to God, acknowledge His special goodness to these nations in raising up our present King William, to be a blessed instrument in His hand to deliver us from Popery and arbitrary power, and shall always, as in duty bound, pray the Lord may continue him, and his royal consort, long to be a blessing to these kingdoms, and shall always be ready, to the utmost of our ability, in our places, to join our hearts and hands, with the rest of our Protestant brethren, for the preservation of Protestant religion, and the liberties of the nation."
The Assembly advised the churches to read the London Confession of Faith; affirmed their approval of "a certain little book, lately recommended by divers elders dwelling in and about the City of London, entitled, The Minister's Maintenance Vindicated" (written by Benjamin Keach), urging that it be "dispersed among all our several congregations;" and agreed upon a "circular letter" to the churches generally, in which they recommended the adoption of a general fast for the tenth of October, next ensuing, setting forth their reasons for its appointment. The chief reasons are these:--"The decay among the churches of first love, faith and zeal for the ways and worship of God; the length of time during which this decay had been going on; and the many more judgements which God had brought upon the nation; the need for penitence, and the out-pouring of God's Spirit, that they may understand whereabouts they are;" and the call for "earnest cries and supplications to the Lord for the lineal seed of Abraham, the poor Jews."
The letter was signed by thirty brethren, "in the name and behalf of the whole Assembly;" and the meeting broke up, with the agreement that the next General Assembly should be held "at London, on that day which is called Whitsun Monday, 1690."
The proceedings had been opened and concluded every day with solemn prayer. The total number of persons actually present was one hundred and fifty; and so thoroughly united were they in heart and mind, that at the close, they could say,--"Scarcely one brother dissented from the Assembly in the sentiments of his mind in any one thing proposed to their serious considerations."
The Second and Third Particular Baptist General Assemblies.
The next meeting assembled in June, 1690, and continued its sittings from the ninth to the sixteenth; and a third was held in the same month in the year following. From some remarks made in the letter to the churches written by this third Assembly, it appears that the attendance of the country brethren had not been so numerous at this as at the preceding Assemblies. "Let not the incident charges you are exposed to," say they, in inviting those "who live in the country to send up their particular messengers" to the next meeting, "be a discouragement, we being persuaded that our friends in the City who are not liable to such charges, will make a compensation by a more liberal contributing to the public stock." In these days of quick traveling to London, and at surprisingly cheap rates as compared with any other time, it is difficult to understand the cost and trouble of a journey nearly two hundred years ago to the metropolis from Wales, or from the most northerly parts of England. The chief business transacted at the third General Assembly related to the Particular Baptist Fund.
At this time (1691), there were at least a dozen Local Associations of the Particular Baptist Denominations in England and Wales: London, Middlesex, Kent and Essex formed one; the churches in Somerset, Dorset, Wilts, Gloucester and Bristol a second; the churches in Oxfordshire and Berks a third; Norfolk and Suffolk a fourth; the Devon churches a fifth; half a dozen churches in Yorkshire, Cumberland and Northumberland, a sixth; the Hampshire churches a seventh; Herts, Bucks and Bedford an eighth; Stepton and Haddenham a ninth; seven churches in South Wales and Hereford a tenth; Carmarthenshire an eleventh; Worcester, Warwick, part of Oxford, Leicester and part of Hereford a twelfth, there being only six churches at that time in the whole of these counties; Broomsgrove, Warwick, Dimock, Hereford, Tewkesbury, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Hook Norton, Alcester, and Kilby.
The Four Particular Baptist General Assembly.
The fourth General Assembly met in London in May, 1692. The associated churches then numbered one hundred and seven. As the Local Associations seemed to have lessened the interest felt in the General Assembly, by supplying a nearer and readier means of fraternization and counsel, the following resolutions were adopted:--
"1. That whereas, for some years past, the churches have had several associate and county meetings, and one General one in London annually, it is now proposed to divide this General meeting into two, and to keep one in the west, and another in the east; that in the west to be at Bristol, and the other in London. It is desired that all the churches will send messengers once a year, as may be most for their conveniency: and that either from their particular churches, or those that live remote from such Associations as they think meet to keep. 2. That the meeting at Bristol be kept annually at the time called Easter; and that at London at the time called Whitsuntide. 3. That two messengers be sent down from London every time to that at Bristol, and also two sent up from that at Bristol to London, for the maintaining of General Communion."
Again the Assembly showed great anxiety about "the fund" for "keeping those ministers that are poor," and "for the education of those brethren that may be approved to learn the knowledge of those tongues wherein the Scriptures are written." Churches were urged, "for the better keeping up of the fund, to make their collections quarterly."
Something of the difficulty already felt by the General Baptists in their Assembly now began to trouble the Particular Baptists; and they also guarded themselves from degenerating into a Court of Appeal by agreeing; (1) that these Assemblies are not to be accountable to one another any more than churches are. (2) That no churches make appeals to them to determine matters of faith or fact; but propose or query for advice." The question about "singing the praises of God in public Assemblies" was referred by this Assembly to seven brethren; but the account of this we shall give in a subsequent chapter.
Although there were only one hundred and seven churches represented in this fourth Assembly, it must not be supposed that the whole of the churches in England "owning the doctrines of personal election and final perseverance” accepted the invitation. There were many churches in Bedfordshire, for example, founded by the labours of John Bunyan, which were not included. The "prince of allegorists," as Macaulay styles Bunyan, did not make baptism by immersion on a profession of faith a condition of church fellowship; in which he was also supported by Henry Jessey and Vavasor Powell; but the brethren who were united together in this General Assembly were chiefly on the opposite side, and both William Kiffin and Henry d'Anvers among the Calvinistic Baptists, and Henry Denne among the General Baptists, wrote with some bitterness, at least, so Bunyan tells us, in favour of their opinions.
The Fifth Particular Baptist General Assembly.
The fifth General Assembly met at Bristol the following April. The first day was spent "in solemnly seeking the face of God in prayer, for counsel, advice, and guidance" in their work. "On the second day, after seeking the Lord, the letters from the several churches were read, and a particular relation of the state of all the churches was given in by their several messengers. Some questions were proposed, and the meeting was dismissed, with the blessing of God."
The remaining days during which the Assembly continued its sittings were spent in discussing the various questions proposed to it by the different churches. Chief among these were some touching certain "irregularities," as they were deemed, which had crept into the churches, in regard to the administration of the ordinances of the Lord's Supper and baptism. The Assembly declared "that no private brother (however gifted), if not solemnly called to the ministerial office, and separated, thereto, ought to administer" either the one or the other; but an elder might, "called to the office by the suffrage of the church, who had not yet been ordained by the laying on of hands." They were equally emphatic in discouraging men "who, being vainly puffed up with their fleshly minds, did presume to preach publicly, without being solemnly called and appointed by the church thereto." "We advise and desire," say they, "that every particular church would do what in them lies to discountenance this practice, and to prevent all such from exercising their pretended gift, it being contrary to Romans x. 15. And also that they would not send forth, nor suffer, any person among themselves to preach publicly, of whose qualification they had not had sufficient trial, and whom they had not called thereto; that the name of God may not be dishonoured, the peace of the churches disturbed, nor the reputation of the ministry blemished."
The question of "the education of youth," had also been troubling some of the older men. They were afraid that this constant desire on the part of the Assembly to encourage and help young men in acquiring a knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek languages, sprang out of a mistaken preference for human learning; or, at any rate, an opinion that they regarded such learning as "equal with the gifts of the Spirit." The Assembly quieted the nerves of these less educated brethren by declaring, they abhor and detest any such principle and practice;" regard "the gift of edification as a distinct thing from acquired parts;" are not ignorant of the fact "that men may attain the greatest degrees in human learning, and yet, notwithstanding, be ignorant of Christ and His glorious Gospel." They are also quite willing to confess "that God does sometimes bestow greater gifts, for the edification of His Church, on some who have not attained a knowledge of the tongues, than He doth on some others who have," "that still the churches of Jesus Christ should improve what gifts they have, and pray for more." Of course it was "a great snare and very dangerous," to think that "the hidden wisdom of God" could be comprehended by mere human learning; and it was "a great abuse of such learning, if it puffed men up, made them lean upon it, and. despise the brethren who had the gift of edification, but lacked their education." "The knowledge of tongues, moreover, is not essential, or absolutely necessary, to constitute a minister of the Gospel;" and yet "they dare not limit the Holy One, who bestows gifts for edification upon the learned, as well as upon the unlearned."
The Sixth Particular Baptist General Assembly.
The sixth General Assembly was held in London in June of the same year; that is, two months later than the meeting at Bristol. Andrew Gifford and George Fownes (the last died in Gloucester Jail) were the Bristol delegates. The first and second days were spent in a similar manner to the first and second days at Bristol. The four remaining days were given up to business. The rules of the first Assembly were now somewhat relaxed: "Every one had liberty to speak without interruption;" and difference of opinion would be listened to "if expressed with Christian charity." After reading and assenting to the minutes of the Bristol Assembly, they again determined "to continue and uphold the Fund." It was also agreed, "that a Catechism be drawn up, containing the substance of the Christian religion, for the instruction of children and servants." From his knowledge and judgment, William Collins, the pastor of the church in Petty France, was wisely selected to draw up this Catechism, many editions of which were afterwards published. "It continues to be," wrote Dr. Underhill in 1854, "the only Catechism of value among (Particular) Baptists." In the preface to this Catechism, it is declared that, as their Confession "was almost in all points the same as that of the (Westminster) Assembly and Savoy;" so, in this "shorter account of Christian principles," there is a close agreement with the shorter Catechism of the Assembly." The only other item of business was a resolution agreeing "that the Confession of the baptized churches of the last impression should be translated into Latin, with all convenient speed;" a resolution which seems to have remained a dead letter.
The seventh General Assembly met in Bristol in April 1694. From the letter which they addressed to the London churches, it is evident that their old affection for these General Assemblies had declined. The Bristol brethren wrote to say "that they were grieved that the very men who, a few years ago, had done so much to promote Associations," had grown lukewarm in regard to them; that they were "troubled" at the delay in the publication of the Catechism, which the London churches "had minuted that brother Collins should draw up;" and hoped thousands would be soon printed, "and sent abroad to the churches."
From this time we hear no more of the General Assemblies of the Particular Baptists in London ; but the Western half of the Assembly continued to meet annually from 1696 to 1730, and the records have been preserved of every year but one between those dates.
The London Association.
In 1702 the Western Association met at Trowbridge, at which it was agreed "that a letter should be sent to the London churches to excite them to renew their association with the churches in the country." This was not the first time that the Western brethren had striven to fan the expiring zeal of the London churches, and it is hard to conjecture what led the latter to pass over in silence these various overtures. But though the appeals did not lead to a renewal of the connection between the two, it incited the ministers in London to form an Association of their own churches. In 1704 thirteen churches agreed to this proposal, and met on the 17th of April, at Lorimers' Hall. These were--Broad-street, Old Gravellane, Wapping; Pinner's Hall; Goat Yard-passage, Horsley Down, Southwark; Pennington-street, Virginia-street; Church-lane, Limehouse; Artillery-lane, Spitalfields; Paul's, Shadwell; Devonshire-square; Little Wild-street; Bagnio-court; Collier's Rents, White-street, Southwark; Lorimers' Hall; and Joiners' Hall, Friars'-lane, Thames-street. Rev. John Piggot, minister of Little Wild-street, preached a sermon from Rom. xiv. 19, which was afterwards printed under the title, "Union and Peace recommended." Rev. Richard Adams, minister of Devonshire-square (formerly incumbent of the parish church Humberstone, near Leicester, and one of Cromwell's Triers), was chosen moderator. The letters from the churches were read, each of which submitted some subjects for the discussion and decision of the Association. To regulate the business, it was at once agreed that whatever the Assembly might adopt should only be regarded as advice, and not be binding on the churches any further than they should severally determine; that each speaker should stand up, "address his discourse to the moderator, and no other person shall speak until he sits down; that no opinion wherein any of the churches represented in this Assembly differ from the rest shall be controverted in the Assembly;" and that "the several matters recommended to the consideration of this Assembly by letters from the churches shall be considered in the same order in which the letters were received."
The meetings lasted three days. Various questions affecting the welfare of the London churches were discussed. One referred to the rule to be observed in the reception by one church of members from another. It was suggested that such reception "should not be without recommendation, or, at least, without sending messengers to the church from which such persons come;" and that the reasons for desiring such dismission should also be sent to the church to which they belong. Another tried to check the migratory tendency of London churches, "the flying camp," as the Rev. John Newton designated them. The Assembly agreed: "That the members of each church ought ordinarily to attend the worship of God in the church to which they stand related, and to make a common practice of deserting the assemblies to which they belong," for the sake of running hither and thither after other ministers, however gifted "is a great discouragement to the ministers of their churches; that it occasions the neglect of the poor among them, and that the continuance of such a practice has a tendency to weaken, and will, perhaps, in time, issue in the dissolution of some churches." A third subject arose out of the separations and secessions which occasionally take place in Congregational churches; partly upon a change of ministers; and partly through a difference of judgment on matters of doctrine or discipline. To meet such cases, it was resolved: "That in case the minor part of any church break off their communion from that church, the church state is to be accounted to remain with the major part. And in case the major part of any church be fundamentally corrupted with heresy and immorality, the minor part may and ought to separate from such a degenerate society; and either join themselves to some regular church or churches, or else, if they are a competent number, constitute a church state by a solemn covenant among themselves." A fourth subject sprang out of the controversy then raging about Dr. Tobias Crisp's Antinomian sermons. Here is a single specimen of his opinions:--"Let me speak freely to you; and, in doing so, tell you that the Lord hath no more to lay to an elect person; yet, in the height of iniquity, and in the excess of riot, and committing all the abominations that can be committed, I say, even then, when an elect person runs such a course, the Lord hath no more to lay to that person's charge than God hath to lay to the sin of the believer; nay, God hath no more to lay to the charge of that person than He hath to lay to the charge of a saint triumphant in glory." This abominable doctrine, utterly subversive of all morality, greatly shocked the London Assembly, and by the following decision they strongly condemned Crisp's Antinomian principles and supported the principles which were called by his friends, the Neonomian opinions. They said:--"It is the opinion of this Assembly that the doctrine of sanctification by the impartation of the holiness of Christ's nature does, in its consequences, render inherent holiness by the Holy Spirit unnecessary, and tends to overthrow natural, as well as revealed religion." A fifth subject referred to the maintenance of ministers. During the time of persecution under the Stuarts, many ministers had followed some secular calling, and had not received any income from their churches. The men who followed them often found the people unable, perhaps, also, unwilling, to furnish what the first General Assembly calls, in its Confession, "a comfortable supply." Either, therefore, with a view of shaming the churches into a more generous treatment of their ministers; or, in order to supplement the narrow and inadequate income they received, the following resolution was adopted--"That it be recommended to the several associate churches represented by this Assembly that each church do make an annual collection for the relief of such ministers in and about London, dwelling within the bills of mortality, as have but a small allowance from the churches to which they belong." The sixth matter of business referred to the imposition of hands at the ordination of elders and deacons; the Assembly declared it to be "an ordinance of Jesus Christ still in force." The seventh subject related to the education of ministers. A fund for this special purpose was deemed" highly useful," in order the better to fit for the ministry "those who are blessed with promising gifts; and also for furnishing others, who have not time to attain to a knowledge of the tongues, and some other parts of useful learning, with such English books as may be thought most proper for their assistance and improvement." Each church was recommended, for this purpose, either to make collections, or offer subscriptions. The eighth resolution enjoined the frequent observance "of days of fasting and prayer, as much tending to the edification of the churches;" and suggested that not only should "each congregation" set apart such days, but that it would "sometimes be better for several churches to assemble together, when this can be conveniently attained." It is, therefore, apparent how anxious the London Assembly was to promote the peace and permanent welfare of the churches.
The next meeting was held at Joiners' Hall, in March, 1705. For some cause or other four out of the thirteen churches had meanwhile withdrawn from the London Assembly--Broadstreet, Devonshire-square,[Mr. Adams, says Ivimey, took offence at some of the business of the previous Assembly, and gave a different statement of its transactions from those given by Mark Key, the assistant minister, and John Toms, who was both a minister and deacon.] Bagnio-court, and Lorimers' Hall; and that only one other church in London had joined them: Paul's-alley, Barbican, of which Mr. Richard Allen was minister. There were several other churches in London, but they also stood aloof, perhaps afraid of the possible attempt to infringe upon their congregational liberty, or weary with the too frequent discussions which unwise and self-willed men had caused in them.
Rev. Joseph Stennett was the preacher, and was also chosen moderator at this second meeting of the London Assembly. After the reading of the letters from the churches, four brethren--John Ward, pastor of Luton; Ebenezer Wilson, just invited from Broadmead, by the church near Spitalfields; Mark Key, assistant minister of Devonshire-square church; and Benjamin Cooper, of Broad-street, Wapping--requested to be present, a request which was at once complied with. The preliminary articles of the former meeting were re-adopted, and also the circular letter. They were called upon to act on the suggestion made in reference to secessions at the first meeting; the particular case being that of a congregation at Winchester House, near St. Mary Overie's Dock, Southwark. The members of this congregation were chiefly seceders from other churches in London, and who held what our Baptist historian calls "the unscriptural crudities and unhallowed opinions of Dr. Crisp."
How long the London Assembly continued its meetings is not on record, but it has been conjectured that it dwindled away after the deaths of Mr. Joseph Stennett, and Mr. John Piggott, who both died in 1713, and within a few months of each other.