Strickersville, Chester Co., Pa. Ap. 25, 1838
DEAR BROTHER: As you have encouraged a dispassionate discussion of the subject of Associations, I have concluded to throw a few thoughts on the subject into the Signs.
First. I think that some brethren, with whom I have conversed, and with whom I agree in the main question, instituted an unfair comparison in classing them with those modern institutions, against which we, old school Baptists, have entered our protest. There is certainly a difference between them in several essential points. First, in relation to the character of the members. In an old fashioned association, no person is elligible to membership, but a member in good standing in a church of the same faith and order with the association; but in them no character is excluded, an infidel is as elligible to membership as a member of a church. Secondly, in reference to the particular qualification to membership: in an association, the appointment by a church constitutes the particular qualification; but in them, money constitutes the particular qualification, without which even a member of a church cannot be admitted: but with it infidels, gamblers, Turks, or heathen may share the privileges of their society. Thirdly, in respect of offices: in associations officers are chosen for the time being; but in them, offices are set up for sale, thus constituting an aristocracy, not only a war with bible order, but with our political institutions; and calculated to exert a more extensive influence on them than many are aware of. Let the principle be inculcated on the rising generation, and it will become a very easy matter to apply it to political, as well as religious institutions.
Fourth, in point, of the term of membership. In associations, the term of membership continues during the session, and no longer; but in them the term of membership is regulated by the price paid so much for annual, and so much for life membership. In these particulars, there is an evident disparity between them, rendering the former far less objectionable than the latter. In relation, however to the constitutional formality, they are, in my opinion, destitute of scriptural example; but should brethren not feel willing to relinquish them entirely, might there not be some things expunged, rendering them less objectionable? For instance, that of reporting the number baptized, &c. &c. This may appear to some a trifling objection; well be it so, a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. I am inclined to think that it arose from the same principle which prompted David to number Israel, and we all know that he paid dear for his folly; I have no doubt but that the practice has had a deliterious influence on our churches; for instance, from numbering in minutes, it was transferred to public newspapers, and thus exciting an emulation, not only among individual preachers and churches to outnumber each other but in the whole community to outstrip all others, I will tell you, my dear brother, the best man on earth, when he goes to heaven, will have something to leave behind him, and among others that of ambition at least, with many. The fat is, whatever we may be, human nature does not like to be left in the back ground, and we all know that we have a great deal of that about us. For instance, we will suppose that A, B, and C, are pastors of neighbouring churches, and when their letters are read, A has a number to report, B has some, but poor C has the mortification to say, none baptized. This is mortifying to the flesh, not only to C, but to the church with which he is connected; and has often, in my opinion, led to the adoption of improper measures, to swell numbers. I recollect the effect produced on the minds of many baptists, when publishing our aggregate number in public newspapers, first commenced in this country: they seemed to feel like a certain lady we read of in an old book, who said “I sit a queen, and am no widow.” This not only elevated them in their own estimation, but in the esteem of others; they were soon looked upon as a respectable society in the eyes of the world, and worldly professors, I did not like it then, I thought it did not argue well for the cause of truth; and my subsequent observations have abundantly confirmed my suspicions. It was entailed on God’s people, that they should dwell alone, and should not be reckoned with the nations, and every attempt to break that entailment, has been productive of nothing but error and confusion.
Again, the provision for queries found in most constitutions, might safely be dispensed with. I have been looking at the effect of this for many years, and have seen but very little, if any good resulting from it; but much evil (at least in my view). In tracing queries to their source, I have found that in almost every instance, they have originated in some personal difference either between individuals or churches; and though they may involve some general principle, they generally have a particular hearing of a personal nature. This cannot fail to excite unpleasant feelings on the part of those implicated against the querists, and often excites warm, and even angry debates, more consonant to a Legislative Hall, than a religious meeting.
But after all said and done, what does it amount to? Churches will treat Associational decisions, just as they please; so long as they know their independence, and have firmness enough to maintain it: if they like them, well, and if not, they will pay no attention to them, and it seems inconsistant for a body to suffer itself to be tempted into litigations and disputes, without processing power to enforce its discipline. It may be objected to this; that in the multitude of counsellors there is safety; true, but it is no less true that in the multitude of certain counsellors there is danger. We have the counsel of a multitude published, and ratified in heaven, and the church needs no other to inform her what to believe, or how to regulate her internal concerns. The law of Christ, published by himself and his apostles, are not so complicated or intricate as to render it necessary for a regularly organized church to go to associations, or self-created councils to understand them. I have no idea of relinquishing meetings of a general character, when brethren of different sections may have an opportunity of meeting for mutual edification, and spiritual comfort, but it is very desirable that every temptation to unprofitable disputes should be suppressed, and that tedious routine of business so common at Associations, be dispensed with.
But my dear brother, it is pleasing to reflect that the time is not far distant when we shall be placed in circumstances above the least shadow of difference, but until then, we may expect to find a difference of views among brethren on minor subjects, arising from the inculcation of improper habits, which it has not been the pleasure of God fully to eradicate; indeed when I look into my own heart, I can but wonder that I have not run into all the error of the day, and am constrained to raise my daily Ebenezer, and say, Hitherto hath the Lord helped me, and if I am so happy as to live and die in the truth, Grace, Sovereign Grace, must have all the praise. From your poor unworthy brother,
In the joys and afflictions of the Gospel,
Signs of the Times
Volume 6, No. 11.
June 1, 1838