A Tale of Two Associations
James M. Renihan
ARBCA General Assembly
On July 22, 1689, a letter was sent from seven London pastors to Calvinistic,
or as they came to be known, Particular Baptist churches all over England
and Wales. Their country was just beginning to emerge from 30 years of
oppression under the tyranny of Charles and James Stuart, and these men
knew that there had been very serious consequences for their sister churches
during these three decades.
They were men of experience. William Kiffin, the de facto leader of
the Particular Baptists in the country, was 73 years old. He had been
involved with the movement from its very beginning in the 1630s, watching
it grow from a handful of churches in London to over 200 across the nation.
Hanserd Knollys was 91 years old. In 1629 he had enrolled at Katherine
Hall, Cambridge, while Richard Sibbes was master of the college and Thomas
Goodwin one of its fellows. He was ordained deacon and priest in the Church
of England, but renounced his ordination during William Laud's reign as
archbishop, and fled to New England. Returning to London in 1641 he soon
began (because of the birth of a child) to wrestle with his views about
baptism, and adopted Baptist views. For the next 45 years or so he would
be pastor of one of the largest Particular Baptist churches in London.
Benjamin Keach, at 49 years old, was the youngest of this trio. He was
pastor of a large and growing church in Southwark and would become the
most prolific author among all the 17th century Particular Baptists.
These three and their companions George Barrett, John Harris, Edward
Man and Richard Adams, knew that the years of persecution had seriously
depleted the strength of many of the churches. Even in the darkest days,
they had been in contact with the assemblies scattered across the countryside,
and the reports that came in were often very sad and discouraging.
Among other things, their letter says:
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 much 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. . . .
What kinds of things were they talking about?
In Plymouth, there was a church which had thrived in the 1650s under the
bright light of the ministry of Abraham Cheare. From 1661 until his death
in 1668 he spent most of his time in prison for preaching the gospel.
After his death, the church went for 19 years without a pastor, and declined
very seriously. When they finally called Robert Brown in 1687, he died
within 3 months of settling with them. They then called a Mr. Warner who
accepted the invitation but soon decided that the financial prospect was
insufficient and rescinded his acceptance. Next came Robert Holdenby from
Ireland, who settled in Plymouth in August 1688, but by the next March
had asked to be dismissed from his duties. The church refused, only to
grant his second request for dismissal a year later. A once bright light
was now flickering dangerously.
In Bristol, persecution had been severe. George Fownes, pastor of the
Broadmead church died in prison in 1685. The Records of the church indicate
that during the 1680s public worship was regularly interrupted by the
sheriff and his men. At the other Particular Baptist church in Bristol,
Andrew Gifford and his co-pastor William Harford were imprisoned a combined
minimum of 7 times. Churches could hardly flourish when their leadership
was incarcerated. In addition, many of the Baptists in the west country
had been deeply involved in the abortive rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth.
Sampson Larke, pastor of the Lyme, Dorset church, was executed for his
part in that sad tale. So also were two of William Kiffin's grandsons.
The pressures were immense. One source estimates that a minimum of 300
dissenters were hanged in the 1680s, and over 800 were sold into slavery
in the West Indies.
In London, the trials had been almost as bad. In 1685, a Baptist woman
named Elizabeth Gaunt was burned at the stake for sheltering one of those
indicted in Monmouth's rebellion. Henry Danvers, pastor of the church
at Houndsditch, fled for his life to the continent in 1685 and died there
two years later. Hercules Collins, pastor of the church at Wapping, languished
in jail and wrote his book Voice From the Prison in an attempt to encourage
his people to endure in the midst of trial. The records of the Petty France
and Devonshire Sq. churches speak of many disruptions in public worship
caused by their persecutors, so that at times they were unable to meet.
How could churches flourish under such conditions?
But there were other factors troubling the men who called the 1689 meeting.
Doctrinal defections were a serious issue. The so-called "Apostle
of the West Country," Thomas Collier, so greatly used of God to plant
solid churches in the 1650s and '60s, had adopted a strange combination
of Arminian and Socinian views, and had published several works attacking
the 1677 edition of the London Confession and the London pastors identified
with it. His influence among the churches of the western counties was
strong. In other places, High Calvinism, eternal justification and attendant
antinomianism had begun to infiltrate some of the churches: the congregation
at Kilby, Leicestershire, would in a few years be split over these doctrines.
The Quakers were so effective at promoting their teaching about the inner
light that even one of Benjamin Keach's daughters (Hannah) went over to
their position. In London, there was a small but vocal strain of 7th day
sabbatarianism that attracted people away from the orthodox Particular
Baptist practice of observing the 1st day as the sabbath. In addition,
many paedobaptists were poised to take up the offensive against the Baptists,
perhaps most notable among them being John Flavel. The men who sent out
this letter knew that there was a very pressing need to reassert and consolidate
the solid doctrinal and confessional convictions which had energized the
Particular Baptist testimony for nearly 5 decades.
They were also concerned with a pernicious practical issue that had
invaded many of the churches. The letter states that a fundamental concern
was "the great neglect of the present ministry." What they mean
is this: In some of the churches, a view had been adopted which opposed
the financial support of the ministers of the churches. It had probably
come as a reaction to the tithes demanded in support of the clergy of
the national church, but its effects were devastating. Pastors were not
able to give themselves over to prayer and the ministry of the Word, and
declension set in all round. They also mention that there was a "general
unconcernedness . . . of giving fit and proper encouragement for the raising
up an able and honourable ministry for the time to come." Of the
first generation of church leaders, only Kiffin, Knollys and Henry Forty
were still alive. The next generation was aging, and some like Nehemiah
Coxe had also already passed on. Who would replace these men as they went
to be with Christ? There was a very practical concern for the future of
As they considered all of these pressing difficulties, they determined
that the best means available to address and relieve the needs was to
begin a national association by calling a general assembly of representatives
from the churches throughout the country. For these men, the solution
to their problems was to be found in inter-dependence, mutual support,
and cooperative involvement. Together they could accomplish much more
than would be possible as individual churches. Their methodology was not
new. From their beginnings in the 1640s, the Particular Baptists had formed
local and regional associations. Now, they were simply applying, on a
national level, principles that were well established among them.
So the letter was sent, and in response 107 churches sent representatives
or communicated their interest in the first "General Assembly of
divers Pastors, Messengers, and Ministring-Brethren of the Baptized Churches
from divers parts of England and Wales owning the doctrine of Personal
Election, and final Perseverance" held from Sept. 3-12, 1689 and
hosted by Knollys' church in London.
I. The London General Assemblies 1689-92
When the representatives of these churches gathered for 9 days of meetings,
there was a true sense of hope and expectation. Listen to the opening
words of the 1689 Narrative, a published report of the meeting:
"Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ;
It doth not little affect our Souls to see how ready you were to comply
with that Christian and Pious Invitation you had, to send one or two worthy
Brethren, as your Messengers, to meet with the rest of us in this great
Assembly; for which we return to you our hearty Thanks: hoping, that not
only we, and the Churches of the Saints to whom we are related, at this
present time will have cause to bless, praise and magnify the Father of
Mercies, and God of all Comfort and Consolation upon this account; but
that the Ages to come will have some Grounds to rejoice and praise his
holy Name, hoping through the riches of his Grace, and divine Blessing
upon our holy Endeavours, such great and gracious Effects will attend
the result of our Consultations in this Assembly; which were chiefly to
consider of the present state and condition of all the Congregations respectively
under our Care and Charge; and what might be the causes of that Spiritual
Decay and loss of Strength, Beauty and Glory in our Churches; and to see
(if we might be helped by the Lord herein), what might be done to attain
to a better and more prosperous State and Condition.
And now, Brethren, in the first place, with no little Joy we declare
unto you how good and gracious the Lord hath been to us, in uniting our
Hearts together in the Spirit of Love, and sweet Concord, in our Debates,
Consultations, and Resolves, which are sent unto you, there being scarcely
one Brother who dissented from the Assembly in the Sentiments of his Mind,
in any one thing we have proposed to your serious Considerations, either
in respect of the cause of our Witherings, nor what we have fixt on as
a means of Recovery to a better state, if the Lord will.
And therefore, in the second place, be it known unto you that we all
see great cause to rejoice and bless God, that after so dismal an Hour
of Sorrow and Persecution, in which the Enemy doubtless designed to break
our Churches to pieces, not only us, but to make the whole Sion of God
desolate, even so as she might become as a plowed Field, the Lord was
pleased to give such Strength and Power in the time of need to bear up
your Souls in your Testimony for Jesus Christ, that your Spirits did not
faint under your Burdens in the time of your Adversity; so that we hope
we may say in the Word of the Church of old, Though all this is come upon
us, yet we have not forgotten thee, neither have we dealt falsly in thy
Covenant. Our heart is not turned back, neither have our Steps declined
from thy way. Though thou hast sore broken us in the place of Dragons,
and covered us with the shadow of Death, Psal. 44. 17,18,19.
What unanimity! For more than a week, in examination of the pressing
problems among the churches, in theological debate and in determining
on proposals to provide remedies they confess that there was hardly one
dissenting voice in all their deliberations. But what did they do?
The Narrative says that the Assembly was intended to do three things:
learn exactly the state of the churches through reports from each one,
consider the specific causes of their weaknesses, and set in motion methods
to help the churches recover and prosper. On the first day of their meeting,
the entire day was spent "in humbling ourselves before the Lord,
and to seek of him a right way to direct into the best Means and Method
to repair our Breaches, and to recover our selves into our former Order,
Beauty, and Glory." The second day was spent in organizing and determining
the by-laws of the Assembly, and in reading letters from the churches.
Beginning on the third day, proposals and recommendations began to be
made. A fast day was called in all the churches, to be observed on Oct.
10. They sensed that the different congregations needed to seek the Lord
intensively and cry out to Him for help and guidance. They unanimously
adopted the 1677 Confession of Faith, and urged all the members of each
church to familiarize themselves with its contents. Similarly, they declared
their "Approbation" of the anonymously published book The Gospel
Minister's Maintenance Vindicated (it was written by Benjamin Keach) and
urged that every church obtain a copy. This book was a defense of the
financial support of pastors.
Another significant proposal that was adopted and implemented by the
Assembly was to begin a fund, to be raised from all of the member churches,
that might be used for three purposes: 1. To assist poor churches in providing
suitable remuneration for their pastors; 2. To provide the financial means
to allow pastors to itinerate in evangelism of the lost and edification
of the churches in the country; and 3. To provide financial support so
that promising young men might be trained in "knowledge and understanding
of the Languages, Latin Greek and Hebrew" and prepared for the ministry.
A standing committee of nine trustees from London churches was appointed,
charged with soliciting and distributing the funds that were received.
The Assembly also debated a series of theological questions, among which
were such topics as the support of ministers, propriety of dress, eternal
justification, and the duty of observing the Lord's Day, as opposed to
the 7th day, each week. By the 12th of September all of the business had
been accomplished, and the Assembly was dismissed, with the intention
of reconvening the next June.
The 2nd General Assembly began on Monday June 9th and continued until
the 16th of that month. This meeting was taken up with the outworking
of the plans determined 9 months earlier. Several requests for assistance
with ordinations or help in churches were answered, 3 more "treasurers"
were added to the Fund Board, and it was determined that any 5 of the
12 now appointed could serve as a quorum to transact business. In addition,
a lengthy recommendation for re-alignment of the regional associations
was proposed. They urged all of the churches to meet in their regional
associations at least once a year, and that each regional association
appoint two men who could act as representatives of the associations.
These two representatives were to visit the churches in order to urge
them to ordain officers and provide sufficient financial support for their
pastors, and to encourage their active participation in the Fund.
The 3rd General Assembly was held one year later, beginning on Tuesday,
June 2, 1691 and continuing until the 8th. It was also, to a large degree,
taken up with the Fund, and they could point to some good accomplishments
several Labourers in the Lord’s Vineyard have been already relieved;
several pious, studious, and hopeful young Men have been assisted in the
aquirement of Learning; and some have been sent forth to visit the Churches,
and to give their helping Hand in order to their Settlement, according
to the Rule of the Gospel.
But there were ominous signs that not all was right. The Narrative states,
We would desire you that live in the Country, to send up your particular
Messengers to this General Meeting, that we may have the more abundant
evidence of your Approbation of that good Work intended and carried on
therein; and let not the incident Charges you are thereby exposed unto,
be a discouragement to you, we being perswaded that our Friends here in
the City, who are not liable to such Charges, will make a Compensation
by a more liberal Contribution unto the Publick Stock.
Apparently, some of the country churches were showing disinterest in the
London Assembly. In addition, the only theological questions debated in
the Assembly and recorded in the Narrative concerned a very difficult
inter-church issue. What recourse did a person who had been excommunicated
from one church have, especially when he believed that he had been wronged
in that action? This was almost certainly not a theoretical issue. There
were deeply troubling problems brewing among some of the churches, and
they were beginning to surface at the General Assembly. Nevertheless,
another meeting was called for the next May.
When they met in London in 1692, it was determined:
In order to the more comfortable Communion of those Churches that are
in a Union, it hath been thought expedient,
I. That whereas, for some Years last past, the Churches have had,
in several Counties, particular Associate Meetings, and one General
at London, annually:
It is now proposed, to divide this one General into Two, and to keep
one in the West, and one here for the East: That in the West to be at
Bristol, and the other in London; desiring, That all Churches will send
Messengers to one or the other, once a Year, as may be most for their
II. That the meeting at Bristol be kept Annually at the Time called
Easter, and that at London at the Time called Whitsontide.
III. That two Messengers be sent down from London every time to that
at Bristol, and also two sent up from that at Bristol to that at London,
for the maintaining of General Communion.
This would be the last national General Assembly in London. Beginning
in 1693, there would be two associations, not one.
The proposal for two meetings was well intentioned, but it points up some
of the difficult issues that were facing the Particular Baptists, issues
that quickly destroyed the unity of the London churches and brought the
London Association meetings to an abrupt halt. The troubles which had
been below the surface in 1691 emerged with disastrous consequences.
The direct cause of the difficulties of the London Association is the
singing controversy carried on by Benjamin Keach, Isaac Marlow, Robert
Steed and others. In 1689, Keach had introduced the practice of congregational
hymn singing into the worship at his Horselydown church. Generally, the
hymns were Keach's compositions written as a response to the sermon of
the morning. A small minority rebelled against this (as they thought)
man-made intrusion into the purity of worship, and split off from the
Church, eventually forming the Maze Pond Particular Baptist church. Several
pastors, and one very prominent layman (Isaac Marlow, a delegate at the
General Assemblies and a treasurer of the Fund) took up the cause for
the dissidents and went into print against Keach and those who approved
of his new practice (among whom were Thomas Whinnel and Hercules Collins).
The battle lines were drawn, and a pamphlet war ensued. The question about
the recourse available to excommunicated members which had been discussed
in 1691 may have been directly related to this controversy. Some pastors
believed that Keach's introduction of singing was a gross violation of
the regulative principle, while those on the other side thought that the
response of the dissident group and its encouragers was highly out of
order and deserved swift action. Men who had three years before been united
in the great work of the Gospel were now at each other's throats. Many
of their actions are nothing short of reprehensible. Some of the accusations
that were printed were severe and utterly unchristian: "A person
not fit to meddle with divine things." "A man that plays the
part of a sophister." "Little better than an enthusiast."
"A mischievous person who fire's his neighbors house, and burns down
his own." "A ridiculous scribbler." "A brazen forehead."
"An ignoramus." "A gross forger." These were some
of the printed statements in books related to this controversy.
So serious was the dispute that it was brought before the 1692 Assembly.
It was agreed that 7 men would be appointed to review the literature and
determine what ought to be done in order to restore peace to the churches.
On the final day of the Assembly, they announced their conclusions: they
rebuked the parties involved for their uncharitable and abusive language,
and called upon them to repent. They induced Keach to print an acknowledgment
of his own errors in the controversy, and did the same for several of
his opponents, namely William Kiffin, George Barrett, Robert Steed &
Edward Man. In addition, they named 4 of the most offensive books and
urged that they not be sold or given away, but rather brought to Richard
Adams who would be responsible for disposing of them. So ended the last
national General Assembly.
II. The Emergence of the Western Association
In 1693, the Western Association (as it came to be known) began meeting
as appointed at Easter time. Their account of the meeting expresses gratitude
to God for the unity and peace present among them, but also laments the
fact that some who could be present among them were not. The London Association
also met six weeks later, and its narrative is a frank acknowledgment
of the divisions that had come between the churches. It laments the lack
of interest on the part of many, and pleads with the churches to settle
matters between themselves and take up the great works that could be accomplished
through united effort. The appeal was made in vain. An attempt was made
to hold another meeting in 1694, but it was poorly attended, and the London
meetings came to an end.
This was not the case with Bristol and the Western Association. In fact,
this group, meeting in Britain's second largest city, continued its existence
throughout the 18th century, and was the means used by God to encourage
much good during the dark days of declension. In 1694, they sent a letter
of rebuke to the London men:
THE assembly held in Bristol at the time called Easter desired us to acquaint
you, that they were grieved because you, who some years ago did zealously
promote such associations for the general good of the churches and the
glory of Christ, have declined it. They willingly joined with you, and
would still, were you willing. You know how often the country sent to
London, whilst you have sent but once to the country, and are weary.
The zeal of the Western men did not flag, though they did have some bumps
along the way. Their circular letter of 1694 rejoices in the "hearty
and cordial love and goodwill" many of the churches had "to
our Association," and in the unity among the churches with regard
to the training of men for the ministry. There had been some western churches
which were concerned that an overemphasis on education would produce a
devaluing of gifts, but these concerns had been assuaged. It was in Bristol
that the first Baptist school for training ministers was organized, helped
along by a generous endowment from the will of Edward Terrill, a 17th
century elder in the Broadmead church. The reports from the next decade
are generally very positive, though in 1707, they lament a creeping "degeneracy
and decay in the spirit and power of religion" a malady that was
afflicting religion in England in general. In 1719, when the great controversy
over subscription to a Trinitarian creed rocked Exeter and later Salter's
Hall in London, the Western Association asserted the importance of subscription.
In 1733, they renewed their commitment to the 1689 Confession, and kept
up their fellowship with one another through the yearly printing of association
letters. In 1752, they began printing the annual sermons delivered at
the meetings, a practice taken up quickly by others.
The Western Association became the model for other associations around
the country. Some of them had been in existence from the 17th century,
others were reanimations of moribund groups, and still others were new
alliances. But in many places, it was men who had been involved in the
Western Association who were in the lead. The roll of alumni from churches
in this association, or from Bristol Baptist College is impressive: Andrew
Gifford, son and grandson of two Bristol pastors, was one of the few London
PB men to support and endorse George Whitefield. Bernard Foskett, Hugh
Evans, and Caleb Evans, were pastors at Broadmead or tutors at the college,
and they sent their students out into the churches of the Association
to preach and minister. Among those trained there were Benjamin Beddome,
John Collett Ryland, John Ash, Robert Hall, Jr., Joseph Stennett III,
John Sutcliff, Samuel Pearce, and Joseph Kinghorn, as well as Morgan Edwards
and William Staughton of the Philadelphia Association. These men, and
many others, had tremendous impact in the revival of the Particular Baptist
cause. They learned of the value of ecclesiological cooperation from the
men leading the Western Association. Though many of the circular letters
from the Association in the middle of the 18th century lament the decay
of godliness in the churches, God was at work. The churches continued
to meet together, to work together, to pray together, and slowly light
began to dawn on the cause.
Of course the Association that contributed most to the cause of revival
among the Particular Baptists was the Northamptonshire Association, but
it is sometimes not remembered that many of those men had close connections
with Bristol and the churches there. For example, of the fourteen men
present at the formation of the Particular Baptist Missionary Society
on October 2, 1792, five, Ryland, Sutcliff, Pearce, Thomas Blundel &
William Staughton had direct ties to Bristol, and several others like
Carey had indirect ties. The on-going work of the Western Association
provided a fellowship of churches which acted as a model for other associations
to follow. Evangelical Calvinism, wedded with genuine piety was reproduced
at a distance, as men took the lessons they learned in Bristol and carried
them elsewhere. Now I am not saying that the Western Association was directly
responsible for these men and their actions. But it is interesting that
their Associational experience had been influenced by what went on in
Bristol and its environs. It is intriguing to note that the Particular
Baptist Missionary Society was formed exactly 100 years after the decline
of the national assembly in London. That setback in unity cost the Particular
Baptists, on a national scale, a century of cooperation and activity.
III. Practical Implications/Applications
At this point we need to ask a pressing question: Why did the London Association
fail, and the Bristol Association succeed? Here are three very practical
1. The London Association failed to allow the Confession of Faith to
function as it ought to have functioned among them, while the Western
Association sought to live within the boundaries of the Confession. The
Assembly in the metropolis very quickly lost its confessional moorings.
How should the Confession have functioned in the Association? In 1706,
looking back on the organization of the 1689 Assembly, its host, the Cripplegate,
London church recorded in their church book the following note:
the solemn owning & ratifying of our so well attested & generall
approved Confession of faith, as transmitted to us in ye full evidence
of yt word by our late pastors &c in ye general assembly seems to
us as it did to them a thing absolutely nessesary to ye just & regular
constitution of all associations.
Subscription was not a minor matter. It was "solemn owning &
ratifying": a definitive commitment to a theological system, so that
each church might be assured of the common convictions held by the others.
Such a commitment ought to have done two things: 1. It should have defined
the theological issues upon which there was unanimity among the churches,
and 2. It ought to have limited the areas of potential disunity. If something
was important enough to be included in the Confession it deserved attention,
but if it was not, then it probably ought not become a matter of controversy.
Notice how this worked in one instance, and failed in another. When the
Assembly first met in 1689, and adopted the Confession as the system of
doctrine "owned" by the churches, there was an agreement to
place extra-confessional differences to the side. Ten or fifteen years
earlier, in the 1670s and early 1680s, there had been a very active and
aggressive dispute in print over the relationship between baptism and
church membership (what they called church communion). The London leaders,
Kiffin, Knollys & Keach, and those in formal relationships with them,
held that only baptized believers should be members of Gospel churches.
There were others, most notably John Bunyan, who argued that baptism was
a very personal matter and had no relation to church membership. The gospel
forms the church, not baptism. The disagreement was very strong, and there
was little fellowship between churches on either side of the issue. Bunyan
would have nothing to do with the London Baptists, and they were very
unhappy with him. But by 1689, the matter was resolved and considered
to be extra-confessional. A careful reading of the 2nd London Confession
will show that there is no clear statement tying baptism with church membership.
The Confession is almost certainly intentionally ambiguous on this point,
and this permitted churches of both kinds to be members in good standing
at the Assemblies. While the majority were closed membership, several,
e.g. Broadmead, Plymouth & Stevington were open-membership churches.
Embedded in the 7 founding principles of the 1689 Assembly are these words:
That in those things wherein one Church differs from another
Church in their Principles or Practices, in point of Communion, that we
cannot, shall not, impose upon any particular Church therein, but leave
every Church to their own liberty, to walk together as they have received
from the Lord.
These are honorable words, and reflect a laudable catholicity. Matters
which had been in recent dispute were put aside for the good of the work
as a whole.
But by the time that 1692 came along, the London ministers were at one
another's throats over an extra-confessional issue: hymn-singing. The
2nd London Confession says nothing pro or con about the practice of singing
hymns, yet when the controversy arose, they allowed the disagreement to
shatter their unity. Both proponents like Keach and opponents like Marlow
argued that the issue had to do with the application of the regulative
principle. Does the Scripture permit congregational singing in public
worship? Of course most, if not all of us would have been even further
to the left of Keach, because we allow for musical instruments, which
even he would not do. If we had been there in 1692, maybe none of us would
have been welcome! But you see the point. In 1689, they could agree to
disagree over significant issues that were not addressed in the Confession.
In 1692, a different issue tore them apart.
There is an important lesson here for us. We have committed ourselves
to the Second London Confession as our subordinate standard. We all know
and understand what it teaches, and we have declared ourselves, like the
1689 Assembly, to be a strict subscriptionist organization. But we must
not allow ourselves to become an extra-confessional organization. We must
seek to maintain the balance of adherence to the Confession, allowing
liberty of judgment on those issues to which it does not speak. Now there
may be some topics which are pressing upon us here at the end of the 20th
century that were utterly outside of the knowledge of our 17th century
brethren: the charismatic movement comes to mind. It would not be wrong
for us to adopt positions that speak to some of these great contemporary
issues. But if we devolve into subjects like that exemplified in the singing
controversy, we will fall to pieces.
It is especially amazing that when an attempt was made to revive the
London Association in 1704, subscription to the Confession was neglected,
and this caused the withdrawal of several congregations. At least two
churches that could not subscribe the Confession, the theologically mixed,
self-consciously non-Calvinist, non-Arminian church which met at the Barbican,
and the Seventh-day church that met at Pinner's Hall were included, while
several churches committed to the Confession were overlooked. The Cripplegate
church, which Knollys had formerly pastored, vigorously protested and
appealed for confirmation to other Associations. Among those responding
to their appeal was the Bristol, or Western Association, which in a letter
signed by 14 men advised them not to join the revived association, because
it did not require strict subscription to the Confession. The foundation
for the ongoing life of the Western Association was to be located in their
careful adherence to the Confession. The attempted revival of the London
Association on a watered-down theological basis did not last more than
two or three years.
No one would deny that the road we choose to walk is a difficult one
to maneuver. It is not unlike the path Christian walked on alone in The
Pilgrim's Progress. On the right was a very deep ditch, and on the left
a very dangerous quagmire. For us, the deep ditch is doctrinal indifference.
If we neglect to hold closely to our Confession, we will fall into the
pit and be swallowed up. The dangerous quagmire is extra-confessional
precisionism. If we allow ourselves no liberty in matters not addressed
by our Confession, we will be mired in unending debate. May the Lord keep
us from both dangers.
2. The second answer that I would propose to the question "Why
did the one succeed, while the other failed," is this: The London
Association, though it started well, did not cultivate and maintain the
graces of brotherly love, kindness, mutual forbearance, deference, and
the refusal to take up another's offense. We must remember the words written
in the first Narrative:
Brethren, in the first place, with no little Joy we declare unto you
how good and gracious the Lord hath been to us, in uniting our Hearts
together in the Spirit of Love, and sweet Concord, in our Debates, Consultations,
and Resolves, which are sent unto you, there being scarcely one Brother
who dissented from the Assembly in the Sentiments of his Mind, in any
one thing we have proposed to your serious Considerations, either in respect
of the cause of our Witherings, nor what we have fixt on as a means of
Recovery to a better state, if the Lord will.
This is a very honorable statement, and we have no reason to believe
that it is untrue. But we also know that there were sad things to come.
Imagine that you are one of the pastors, returning home to report to your
church after the 1689 meeting. Your heart would be filled with joy and
expectation. You would have fond memories of the times of fellowship,
prayer, and the ministry of the Word. The memories of the theological
discussions would have been vivid, and the unanimity of the brethren refreshing.
You would be excited about the plans to start a fund, and you would think
that the churches were poised to expand the kingdom of Christ. . . . Now
imagine yourself as one of the men appointed to evaluate the literature
from the singing controversy. You read the harsh words aimed at brothers
in the ministry. You have to report to the Assembly that some books are
so scurrilous that they ought to be collected and destroyed. What would
you think? What emotions would be ruling your heart at that moment?
What had changed over these years? These were good and spiritual men,
who had been used of God for decades. They were pastors of sound and solid
churches, regularly seeing converts and baptisms. Yet they descended to
the worst kind of name calling and character assassination imaginable.
It all can be traced to a lack of cultivation of the graces mentioned
above. When they ought to have been seeking to maintain, above all things,
kindness and peace and unity and love, they allowed themselves to sin.
Is truth unimportant? Were they wrong to print books and pamphlets upon
issues in which there were differences? No. But they were terribly wrong
to allow their concern for certain matters to come before their obedience
to the second great commandment: to love their neighbors as themselves.
With all of the great needs before them, the fund, struggling churches,
aging ministers, not to mention the unity of the churches, they sinned
and it all fell apart. It took 100 years for the Particular Baptists to
recover, at least on a national scale, from this disaster.
It is especially interesting to note that the Western Association recognized
this deficiency, and did two things to try to handle it:
1). They rebuked the London leaders, in a letter, for their lack of Christian
love and all of the attendant graces;
2). They encouraged their own men and churches to labor to maintain love.
Their continued existence is the proof of God's blessing on their efforts.
Let us take a warning from this: there will be differences among us over
some issues. We ought not to hide our heads in the sand and pretend that
they will not exist. We will need to wrestle with difficult questions
in the years ahead. But let us make it our aim always to cultivate, first
and foremost, a climate of meekness, humility, kindness, forgiveness and
love. Let us not take offense against one another. Let us not take up
someone else's offense. Let us be characterized by an overflow of the
fruit of the Spirit. In this way, the Lord will bless our labors.
3. The third answer to our question is: Though it may not be apparent
at first glance, the London association was benevolently dominated by
the London pastors, while the Western Association spread out leadership
and involvement. This difference in philosophy of involvement had serious
consequences for the London Association, but helped the Bristol Association
to remain vitally active for over a century.
Beginning in 1689, the General Assemblies were called by London pastors,
and hosted by London churches. All of the Trustees of the Fund were chosen
from London churches, and the men sent out on associational business were
London pastors. When one reads the Narratives as the years pass, there
are occasional hints at the reluctance of the "country" men
to give way to the London leaders. When they complained that the country
brothers were slow in coming to the city, or when the proposal was made
to split the Assembly into two, there is a hint of the tension hiding
just below the surface.
Raymond Brown, in his book The English Baptists of the 18th Century
comments on the issue:
It may have been an administrative necessity for the ministerial
fund collections to be sent to London, just as it may have been expedient
for the appointed London ministers to interview ministerial candidates,
but this may well have served to create the impression of dominance by
a metropolitan elite.
In practice, the decisions of the General Assembly may have given the
perception, however much unintentionally, of paternalism. London, as the
great metropolis, naturally dominated the rest of the nation. It was the
political, commercial, cultural and religious center of the land. It may
be that the London pastors failed to realize that they were creating the
appearance of elitism by concentrating much of the activity of the Assembly
on London. In any case, when the fellowship in London disintegrated, so
did the fellowship of the churches that looked to London.
The Bristol Assembly seems to have made a concerted effort to avoid
any hint at such elitism. Their meetings were moved from place to place:
Bristol; Taunton, Som., Exeter; Trowbridge, Wilts. A variety of men were
called on to carry on the association's activities. They encouraged the
Welsh brethren to participate, and sought to nurture mutual recognition
and true fellowship.
There is an important lesson here for us to learn. If we truly believe
that our churches are equal in standing before the Lord, then we need
to treat one another as equals. We need to involve everyone in the work
of the Association. It would be a mistake regularly to delegate most of
the work to a few. Likewise, we ought to be able to expect that everyone
will take his part in the work. In our churches, we have certain expectations
of our members. They should attend worship, and contribute to the support
of the ministry, and participate in the activities of the church. We ought
to be able to have these expectations of one another. Under normal circumstances,
we should see one another at all of our meetings. Our churches should
all contribute, each according to its ability, to the work of the association.
When a project is announced, so far as we are able, we ought to take it
up as our own and see it to completion. I do not mean that everyone should
be involved in everything. That would be chaotic. I simply mean that we
must each do our part. I realize that we all are very busy. We have growing
churches, and must not neglect the needs of the people of God. Our first
priorities are defined in Scripture: prayer and the ministry of the Word.
I do not deny these things. But the act of joining this Association acknowledges
our commitment to be more than observers. Every church needs to be active
in this partnership, and we ought to encourage structures that will permit
widespread participation. The more that we can do, the better. And we
can do more as more share the load. When each member is regarded as a
vital part in the whole, the whole is strengthened. To use Paul's language
in 1 Cor. 12, every member in the body has its function. Some are more
visible, some less so, but they are all important. Let us all labor to
encourage active participation on the part of all our members. Let us
emulate the brothers in Bristol, and learn from the mistakes of London.
For these two associations, 1693 was the best of times and the worst of
times. In Bristol, it was the best of times. With unity and peace, the
Western Association was poised for long and useful service to the churches.
In London, it was the worst of times, as the association was hemorrhaging
at the point of death, with no one to heal the deep wounds. Only God knows
what is in our future. There are tremendous challenges and opportunities
ahead of us. There is so much that we can do, and that we need to do.
In 6 decades, starting in the 1640s, the English Particular Baptists advanced
from 7 churches in London to 220 scattered throughout the country. How
many churches do we have today? How many large cities are there without
any kind of Reformed Baptist witness? How many states and provinces are
there without any Reformed Baptist witness? What will the next decades
bring as a result of our efforts?
We believe that our Confession is a faithful summary of the truths of
Scripture. It is our task to take these doctrines and bring them to others.
This is sure: no one else will do it for us. If we have the truth, let
us take up the standard and bring it to lost men, and to the church. We
should do so humbly, and yet boldly. We should do so in the strength of
the great God that we serve. We ought not despise the day of small things,
knowing that the Lord is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that
we can ask or imagine. Will the battle be won? By God's grace and one
another's encouragement, it may be so. Let us keep these things in mind:
doctrinal integrity, deep and abiding love, mutual participation. Together,
as we seek God's blessings, we will rejoice in His work. Let us pray that
for us, this day marks the beginning of the best of times. There is no
good reason for it to be anything else.
To God be the Glory. AMEN.