CHAPTER III. BACKUS A SEPARATIST.
State of the "Regular Church" of Norwich.- Mr. Backus Reluctantly Joins It.- Separates from it with Others.-- Reasons for So Doing and for the Separate Movement Generally: 1. Reception of Unconverted Persons into the Regular Churches; 2. Neglect of Discipline; 3. Adoption of the Saybrook Platform; 4. Unsatisfactory Preaching.- Course of Dr. Lord. Anecdote of Dr. Baldwin and Dr. Lord.- Interview Between Rev. Ivory Hovey and Mr. Backus.- Letter of Mr. Hill to Dr. Lord.
Mr. Backus early thought of uniting with the church ill his native place, but was prevented for a time by observing that neither due care was exercised in receiving members nor proper faithfulness to those who were in the church. The same laxity had been common and was still far too prevalent. Referring to the period between 1735 and 1740, Trumbull remarks: "It does not appear that ministers in general, at that time, made any particular inquiry of those whom they admitted to communion, with respect to their internal feelings and exercises. The Stoddardean opinion generally prevailed, that unregenerate men could consistently covenant with God, and when moral in their lives, had a right to sealing ordinances." 1 It is plain that Mr. Lord, pastor of the church in Norwich, agreed with the majority of his brethren; for in 1744 he "obtained a major vote to admit members into the church without so much as a written account of any change of heart."2 The scruples and delay of Backus were not therefore unreasonable. But at length, after ten months, wishing to "enjoy the precious ordinance of the supper," and finding no better way to secure this privilege, he "joined the First Congregational Church in Norwich, July 11, 1742; concluding to bear those things as a burden and to hope for a reformation."
But his connection with this church did not long continue. If there was at first ally prospect of the reformation for which he hoped, it grew fainter and fainter. The burden which he undertook to bear was gradually increased; and therefore in the beginning of 1745, soon after the vote, to which allusion has been made, was passed, 5Ir. Backus and many other persons3 withdrew from the church, and began to hold meetings on the Sabbath for their mutual edification. In August of the next year, they were brought before the church to make known their reasons for this step. These reasons were, for substance, nearly the same which Mr. Backus elsewhere gives; namely, that persons were received into the church who gave no satisfactory evidence of conversion; that many were suffered to remain as regular members, without being dealt with, whose walk was evidently contrary to the Gospel; that the pastor declared his strong attachment to the Saybrook Platform, which had been renounced by the church before settling him; that, while many true doctrines were preached, the nature of conversion and of the soul's walk with God, the teaching of the Divine Spirit and the substance of experimental religion were not clearly held forth; and that many things were publicly and from the pulpit assailed, "which," says Mr. Backus, "my soul well knew to be the work of God." Complaint was also made by one or more of them, that Mr. Lord was no friend to "lowly preaching"4 and had used his authority to prevent it. At an adjourned meeting of the church it was voted that these reasons were insufficient; at a subsequent meeting those who had thus separated "were publicly warned of their errors and admonished to return to the church;" and at a still later meeting, (Oct. 17, 1745), they were by vote "suspended from the communion and from special ordinances till they shall receive better Light and manifest a Desire to return," etc. The separation, however, was permanent. Mr. Backus and his associates became identified with a religious movement of the time. For the same reasons, in the main, which led them to establish a separate meeting, led within a few years to the formation of a large body of Separate or New-Light churches. It is therefore necessary for us to weigh these reasons deliberately and to describe the religious movement and organization which they brought into existence; for in no other way can we understand the times and the labors of him whose history we are writing.
In the first place, then, we find the "Halfway Covenant" generally approved at this time by churches of the standing order. Indeed men who entertained no hope themselves, and who gave no evidence to others, that they had been renewed by the Spirit of God, were often, if not generally, admitted to all the privileges and ordinances of the christian church. Mr. Stoddard taught that a man sometimes "may and ought to come to the Lord's Supper, who knows himself to be in a natural state," that this ordinance "is instituted to be a means of regeneration," and "that the direct end of it is conversion, when the subject that it is administered unto stands in need of conversion." And Mr. Williams, a defender of the Half-way Covenant, in opposition to Jonathan Edwards, mentions two ends contemplated by Christ in appointing the communion: viz. "That such as have grace already should be under proper advantages to gain more, and that those who have none, should be under proper advantages to attain grace." And Edwards himself, who utterly repudiated this view, was forced to lament, that "owning the covenant, as it is called, has in New England, it is to be feared, too much degenerated into a matter of mere form and ceremony; it being visibly a prevailing custom for persons to neglect this until they come to be married, and then to do it for their credit's sake, and that their children may be baptized."5 In a word, it was held that the christian church is but a continuation of the Jewish, the terms of admission remaining unchanged. The position laid down by Mr. Stoddard was practically maintained, viz. "That if unsanctified persons might lawfully come to the passover, then such may lawfully come to the Lord's Supper,-- and they who convey to their children a right to baptism, have a right themselves to the Lord's Supper, provided they carry inoffensively."
But on the other hand, Mr. Backus and those who took the name of Separates, believed,--to use their own words, --" That at all times the doors of the church should be carefully kept against such as cannot give a satisfactory evidence of the work of God upon their souls, whereby they are united to Christ." The views which they cherished on this point were manifestly according to the New Testament and were triumphantly asserted by Jonathan Edwards in his work entitled; "Qualifications for full communion.'' To the argument drawn by ministers of the standing order from the "tares of the field" in favor of their practice, it was pertinently answered that, even if "the field" was intended by Christ to represent the visible church,--which however was called in question by many of the Separates, -- still according to the parable the tares were introduced secretly, by an enemy, to grow and ripen as tares, and not openly, purposely and, by direction of the owner, to be changed ultimately under proper advantages of culture into wheat.6
The Separates were also charged with fanaticism, and especially with the error of supposing, that "the saints certainly know one another by their own inward feelings." Doubtless in the heat of controversy the more zealous of the Separates were many times betrayed into the use of very extravagant language, and a few individuals, it is evident, embraced unscriptural opinions on the subject; but as to the great body of them, their views in regard to the proper evidences of conversion appear to have been sober and scriptural, differing in no important respect from those approved by evangelical Christians at the present day. Mr. Backus says: "When we first appeared against having the worthy and the unworthy partake together at the Lord's Supper,--which was a principal reason of our fathers' separation from the Church of England,--ministers told us as I have before proved, that tares and wheat must grow together in the church till the harvest; for they knew there were many, both in public and private stations, who, notwithstanding their form of godliness, appeared as plainly against the power of it, as the tares appeared by their fruit in the field. But because we would not confound church and world together as they did, they shifted about and accused us of assuming God's prerogative of searching the heart; asserting at the same time that we could not know who were saints and who not. And when it was replied that Christ said: Ye shall know them,7 the return would be: What, are you infallible? Whereupon disputes have ensued which have been carried to extremes on both sides. I confess with shame that I have sometimes been thus ensnared, and so have given occasion to those who desired occasion against us."8
In the second place, a reason for separation was found in the prevalent neglect of discipline by the regular churches. Not merely were those welcomed to full membership in the church who made no pretensions to genuine piety or a change of heart, but many "whose walk was evidently contrary to the Gospel," were allowed to retain their standing with the people of God. It was natural that all who looked upon the church of Christ as a spiritual temple which ought to consist of such only as are, in the judgment of charity, "lively stones," should be grieved at the indulgence shown to open transgressors, and should despair of any reformation in this respect while the Half-way Covenant was retained. In his reply to Mr. Fish, Backus testifies, "that it is a professed rule with many ministers, not to deal with any person in the church for moral evil, till he is9 convicted in the state."
In the third place, Mr. Backus and his friends strenuously asserted the independency of every christian church, and opposed the Saybrook Platform. For this Platform not only referred all ecclesiastical questions of importance to the decision of a synod composed of regular ministers in each county and of (optional) messengers from their several churches, but also made every decision of this council final and authoritative, and the council's own action dependent on the concurrence of a major part of the ministers present.
In a previous chapter we have spoken of Mr. Woodward's share in the production of this scheme, of the trouble and separation which ensued between him and his people, and of the terms of settlement to which Mr. Lord subscribed when he became pastor of the church in Norwich. When now after many years Mr. Lord began to express himself in favor of the Platform and even proposed to attend the association of ministers, though without compromising the independency of his own church, it is not strange that the grandson of Joseph Backus took the alarm and protested against his course. And just at this time opposition to the Platform was greatly strengthened by events which took place in Canterbury. For, in compliance with a major vote of the society, but against a strong major vote of the church in that place, the ministers of Windham County proceeded to ordain and settle (Dec. 28, 1744) Mr. James Cogswell over the church and society. In consequence of this action about fifty families withdrew and established worship by themselves. Moreover the expulsion of two young men, John and Ebenezer Cleaveland, from Yale College, because they chose to worship with the members who separated, served to extend the knowledge of these proceedings, to heighten the indignation of many at every species of religious coercion, and to awaken a strong, though not general, hostility to the existing union of Church and State.
In the fourth place, Mr. Backus and his associates did not think themselves edified by the ministry of their pastor. All of them assigned this as a reason for withdrawing and establishing worship by themselves. They were children of the great awakening, and longed for pungent, discriminating, zealous, Calvinistic preaching. While Mr. Backus acknowledged that the articles and covenant of the church were in general sound, and that many true doctrines were preached by the pastor, he nevertheless declared his conviction that such food was commonly given to the sheep of Christ as they could not live upon, and hence that personal piety or growth in grace demanded the separation. And when we bear in mind the intense religious thought and agitation which characterized this period, the radical and outspoken difference of opinion between the supporters and opponents of Whitefield as to what is the best kind of preaching, it is not strange that separation in almost every case was due in part to such a conviction as Mr. Backus and his companions expressed.
Mr. Lord is put down by the historian of Connecticut among those who favored the great revival, but not in the same class with Pomeroy, Wheelock and Bellamy, who were "the most zealous and laborious in the cause." We have already mentioned his visit to Jonathan Edwards in 1735, and the report which he brought back respecting the work of God under the labors of that eminent divine. We have also referred to the preaching of Dr. Wheelock and others in Norwich. And it may be added, that in 1743, Mr. Lord united with eleven neighboring ministers in a public declaration, which affirms their "persuasion that there has of late, for about three years past, been a great and wonderful revival of religion in the several places to which we minister, and in divers others which we are acquainted with;" and then, after alluding to imprudences and separations, continues thus: "and all of a bad nature and tendency, that we have seen, does not give us any reason to think that there has not been a great and glorious work of divine grace carried on among us, and a great reformation and revival of religion; for which we desire to praise and adore the sovereign mercy of God."
But in the year following,--a year of religious agitation, debate, and coercion in Connecticut, -- he began, it seems, to lay more stress upon the disorders and innovations which attended the great awakening, to look with coldness if not suspicion upon the practice of relating "experiences," and to avow his approbation of the Say-brook Platform. The spirit of conservatism had gained the ascendency, and it was no doubt manifested in his preaching. He felt a degree of sympathy with those who would sustain the established order of churches by the civil power, and who were apprehensive of more evil than good from any considerable change. He often therefore "struck at those things from the pulpit" which were regarded by many as the work of God, and he also forbore to present some of those truths which they found to be most salutary and refreshing. Yet he should be classed, it is evident, with the more evangelical and earnest preachers of that period, and the Separates of Norwich had therefore less reason than many others to establish a distinct meeting for their mutual edification. The prospect of better spiritual food would not perhaps alone have justified them in resorting to such a measure; but this prospect was connected by them with the other reasons which have been mentioned.
Before taking leave of Mr. Lord, we add the following incident from the pen of Dr. Baldwin: "Previously to my baptism, I visited my friends at Norwich, Connecticut. I then took an opportunity of conversing with my former venerable pastor. He received me very kindly, and when at his request I related my religious exercises, was quite melted into tears. But when towards the close of the evening, he suspected, from some of my inquiries, that my mind was not established in the doctrines of Pedobaptism, he remarked to me, in rather a stern tone of voice: "Well, Thomas, if you renounce your infant baptism and are re-baptized, I shall reprobate you, notwithstanding all that you have told me.' I was shocked at the remark, and after a moment's silence replied: 'I hope, Sir, I shall be directed to do what is right.'" It appears, however, that the good man did not execute his threat. For we are informed that "after Dr. Baldwin had become a Baptist minister, his aged relative treated him with great kindness, invited him to preach in his pulpit, and indeed to the close of his life manifested towards him the most parental attention."
A brief narrative will cast still further light upon the Separate movement. By request of Rev. Ivory Hovey of Rochester, Mr. Backus and others met with the former in Beech Woods,10 November 22, 1749, for a conference on their different sentiments and feelings. We give the rest of the account in the words of Mr. Backus. "After commiting the case to God, we began the conference. And first Mr. Hovey asked what we thought of the churches generally in this land. We answered that we believed they were churches of Christ, though greatly degenerated and corrupted. He said he was of the same mind. Next he asked what we thought of the ministers. We answered that we believed many of them were ministers of Christ. He agreed with us therein. Then he asked what were the reasons of our separation, and also how far we did separate from them. We answered, that the reasons were the corruptions which had crept into tile churches, and that we desired to separate from nothing but their corruptions; that although we could not join in the communion of those churches, yet if ally who remained in them and gave evidence of their being saints desired it, we could freely receive them to our communion; and that we desired to join with them in anything that was right. Upon this we had much talk, but could not be of a mind. When he asked our views respecting the power of ordination, we told him that we held the power to be in the churches. He held the power of choosing [a minister] to be in the churches, but the power of ordaining to be in the ministers. [Next he asked our minds concerning the knowledge of the brethren. I told him that the way I knew them, was by what came from them in word and action, and also that the rule which God has given us to know them by is a perfect rule; but as we are imperfect creatures, we may be imperfect in [applying] that as well as in other things. Here he agreed with me. Then he asked concerning visions, prophecies, etc. Herein we agreed that the Scripture is our perfect rule, and that we are not to give heed to anything contrary thereto. We then discoursed about persons' bodies being overcome; and herein we agreed that it was no certain evidence either for or against them. In the whole of our discourse we were kept very free from bitterness on both sides, and we agreed in all but two points. One is, he thought we ought not to separate, but to stay in the churches, groaning under the burdens and laboring for a reformation. The other relates to the power of ordination."
Such then were some of the reasons which led to frequent separations from the standing order in the period before us. The history of Mr. Backus for the next few years will give us ample opportunity to observe still more closely the character of this movement, and to discover the elements of weakness which it involved. It has been stated that Mr. Backus and his friends began to hold meetings by themselves in the beginning of 1745. For upwards of a year they continued to maintain religious worship without any ecclesiastical organization; but on the sixth of July, 1746, they united together in covenant as a church, and engaged to walk in the ordinances of the Gospel. Of their subsequent course--their labors and their sufferings--the limits assigned to our present work forbid us to speak. Yet the reader will be interested in a single letter written to Dr. Lord by one of those who were imprisoned in 1752. For this letter we are indebted to the "Historical Notes" of Rev. F. Denison. It probably illustrates the spirit with which many of the New-Lights suffered and acted.