Several letters have come to us recently expressing the same sad observation relative to the visible decline in numbers among our churches. No doubt too, but many more have observed the same for themselves, but have not expressed their conclusions to us. One dear brother opined that the end must be near, and well it might; but not because of a decline among the Old School.
When the Hebrews saw the temple in ruin, and a vast number of the Israelites carried off in bondage, they were made to lament and weep. There was great despondency among them, and their once vibrant harps were hanged upon the willows. Their heads were bowed low. The savory songs of Zion refused to come from their tightened lips, and all seemed a gloom. However, behind all this visible distress and desolation, the expansive and wise purposes of Israel's God went on apace. Jehovah was in no frenzy, nor were His purposes being frustrated by these temporal calamities which mightily fell on the lives of His lamenting people. Were they wrong then to lament their condition? We think not. Those who are led by the Spirit of God cannot but grieve when the City of God is desolated, for whatever reason, and this holds true today as well as in the time of the temple. The little ones of the flock will invariably examine themselves, and all external things, to see what is the cause for these desolations. They do not think lightly of sin, and its probability of being the culprit. Rather, when tribulations arise they begin a swift examination of their lives to see where they may have departed from the faith, and gone a whoring after other gods. Why, you may ask, will they look to themselves for the dread answer to the churches downward spiral? Simply, because they know too well how inclined they are to run to mischief when left to their own devices. Will then this examination of self bring them the wanted answer? What it will do is drive them speedily to God for both answers and comfort, for an examination of self will always conclude in condemnation and wretchedness.
Then the Lord may be pleased to reveal to them His gracious mercies as He did aforetime, or more likely than not, He may bid them watch and wait, until He be finished with His wise dealings towards them. In the desolation of the little flocks of today there may come the sweet words of the Saviour, "... upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matt. 16:18) Such a promise as this, when applied by the gracious Spirit, tends to calm the troubled breast, and revive one's hope that Zion may yet continue to prosper. To which one may reply, "Surely then the Lord will not reduce the number of the Church to bring it to extinction." And we must respond by saying, "Who can tell what the Lord will do?" Perhaps the Lord is cutting away the unfruitful branches; or perhaps He is purging the whole of the branches of the vine. Whatever, we are made to see His gracious hand, and to await the unfolding of His will, and deep design.
On the other hand, the frightful truth may come to them that God has a cause against them for their iniquities and manifold transgressions, and this cause is manifesting itself in the demise of the churches number. Perhaps, emulating the children of the world, they have followed their own carnal devices, rather than the visible hand of the Lord, thus bringing them into a quarrel with their Keeper. "Lord", they cry, "How long wilt thou be angry?" Need they be surprised if there is no speedy answer? As surly as they have a God for their father, all these things are working together for their good, but will that calm them in the hour of confusion and grief? It is very unlikely that it will, for the believer has not found the promises of the doctrine to be sweet when sin lieth at the door. Confession and repentance, those blessed gifts of God, are the impulses of the soul in such a time of consternation and very likely they will be in evidence. The Lord then, after they are brought low, blessedly shows them the whole array of their vileness; then bids them plead the merits of His Son to cure them. Will then, this restore the church, or cause the hemorrhage to cease? Beware, such reasoning, brethren; the Lord never reacts because we act. Rather, we react to His will, seen or unseen; revealed or hidden. God will not change His council. The general trend that is most observable is that the church will continue to fall into a decided decline in most areas. Did not the Lord say, "Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" And again, "The love of many shall wax cold."
How long did the churches Paul planted in Asia last? All but one, the Church at Philadelphia, were in a decline only a few years after he planted them, and most were gone completely within a century. Neither should it be thought a thing incredible that the churches of this land not be spared the same thing. While the Lord has promised to leave Himself a witness in the world He never told us that it would always go under the name of Primitive, or Old School Baptist. In fact, until the early nineteenth century neither of these names were used to identify the assemblies of the saints. As the gospel began to be preached in the vast territories of this nation the Lord was pleased to bless His word and bring many to repentance and a confession of the Lord of their salvation. Hundreds were baptized and added to the little churches, and more and more new churches were established throughout the land. But this reviving was not to last for very long, and soon enough, the Enemy of righteousness was busy sowing discord, false doctrine, and a whole host of other ills among the people of the Lord. And the consequence was very predictable.
We need not relate what the results were. Each reader probably knows well enough for themselves that the church known as the Particular, or Old School Baptist at the time of the Black Rock Convention began a general decline sometime after the War Between the States. We say general, because in some areas there were exceptions. However, as for most, the decline was very evident at the turn of the century. In looking at association minutes of an hundred years ago and comparing them with current ones, you cannot help being struck at the steady decline. And, it appears to have intensified right after the Second World War, until now, when the churches are in a very weak position indeed, as regards numbers.
It will not do for us to turn our faces backward and reflect on what once was a prosperous body of believers. Rather brethren, let us by grace press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling in Christ Jesus. We of the Old School have been blessed for nearly two centuries to have a thriving assembly to worship in. With those of other times it was not as blessed. Many believers dwelt nearly alone, and were thrust on the mercies of the Lord. Should it be our lot to suffer the loss of fellowship, may we bow submissive and thank our Lord for all, both good and ill, for we are not capable of knowing the difference in many cases. And finally, "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God." (Revelation 3:2)
July - August 1989