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Circular Letter
The Georgia Association of Baptist Churches
Rev. James Armstrong, 1815

On Conformity to the World

     Beloved Brethren: -- We have ever studiously endeavored to select as the subject of our Circular addresses to you, such doctrinal and practical subjects as we thought best calculated to confirm, comfort, and encourage you in the discharge of those social and religious duties incumbent on you as professors of Godliness, that your light might shine before men -- proving what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God -- exhibiting to all, that the motives of your conduct in life, did not arise from a mere speculative belief, but from an experimental, saving knowledge that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a land without blemish and without spot. Now, having the same end in view, and being influenced by the same motives that have hitherto governed us; we present you with a few reflections, on Conformity to the World, "be not conformed to this world," saith the Scriptures of eternal truth. Romans 12:2.

     It is obvious that if a radical change in the nature of man as a creature, were produced at conversion, there would have been no need of this injunction; nor is it reasonable to suppose that if this had been the case, it would ever have come from the pen of an inspired Apostle, who had been himself, the happy subject, in a special manner, of the gracious influence of the spirit of God, and thereby made a true convert; but that, nature is an abiding principle, is deducible from Scripture, and abundantly confirmed by the experience of God's people in every age of the Church; and if an abiding principle, vain, and delusory must be all notions entertained by mortals, of attaining perfection, and infallibility in this life; whilst, therefore, imperfection and fallibility are the sure heritage of all the descendants of Adam; the dire evidence of our disobedience, the fruitful source whence all our miseries flow; the sacred injunction "be not conformed to this world," claims our highest regard; by it we are cautioned against joining in the sentiments and participating in the customs of this vain and sinful world, knowing those sentiments to be contrary to the form of sound words, and these customs, contrary to the simplicity of the Gospel of Christ. Many customs exist among men that are expressly prohibited in God's word, and therefore, not to be participated in by us; these customs differ, in different countries; sometimes differ, in different sections of the same country. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, is of universal import, as much so, as any other precept in the decalogue; yet this divine command is not universally obeyed by the civilized world, and it is to be feared, not observed by some of the professed followers of Christ as it ought -- in some, portions of our own country, to the praise of the glory of God's grace, it is observed with religious scrupulosity, in others; the only apparent signs of any obedience at all, is the cessation of labor in the field, and of work in the shop; being by men of the world, too generally viewed merely as a day of recreation, of visiting, receiving visits, and sumptuous feasting. That the Lord's day is thus spent by men, worldly men, and consequently a favorite worldly custom, prevailing in the circle of our observation, to a degree that portends no good to the cause, or to the followers of Christ, few or none can deny; and all, especially real Christians; sensible of their duty, and alive to their privileges, must acknowledge that, their profession, their love, to the Redeemer and his cause, call on them to resist this idle, sinful, worldly custom, with Christian firmness and holy zeal, for it is clear to demonstration, that in whatever proportion a Christian yields to this, or any other custom of the kind, claiming no higher authority than that of the world; will the evidence diminish that, his heart is right with God; for whosoever is born of God overcometh the world, and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Again: Who is he that overcometh the world; but he that believeth that Jesus is the son of God? Although this custom may be justly and sincerely deplored, by the humble followers of Jesus, who go to the sanctuary and keep Holy-day, on this, first day of the week; yet, it is not, in our opinion, the only reprehensible, worldly custom, nor the only one, that has entailed many evils on the human family, but others, equally destructive to correct moral principles, and which appear to have arisen in the dark ages of bigotry and superstition; have for centuries, loaned an officious regulating hand, not only to the moral, but to the religious world, thus constituting in a measure, them habit and marking the character of thousands, binding them down to the observance of days and of color in dress; and now countenanced and cherished in this enlightened age of the Church, by many professing christians under the clearest convictions of mind, that the authority to observe those days and this, color in dress on particular occasions, rests solely on primitive usage, and public suffrage; and not on the word of God; such, out, of many, we conceive the custom, and such, the native tendency resulting from the practice, of observing Christmas holydays, and the holydays of Easter, and Whit Sundays. Were those holydays and these Sundays, which are by worldlings confessedly kept, on the ground of its being a religious custom, only morally observed; they would have a greater claim on Christian charity, for a quiet passage to the religious ones of future generations, leaving it to them, to inquire into the origin, nature, and design; but the fact is otherwise, these days are not morally observed, in our section of country, and should the redeemed of the Lord, unmindful of the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free from Pagan idolatry and Jewish ceremonies, yield to their despotic sway, and suffer them to pass -- the religious ones of future generations would be as destitute of correct information on those points, as we -- they, like us, must resort to the traditions of men, or forever remain ignorant of their origin, &c. Availing ourselves of this source or information, we find that Christmas day, was celebrated at an early period in the Christian church, as the day of our Redeemer's nativity -- this we learn from tradition; and of course, as it relates to the day, renders it doubtful in fact -- none it appears, have been able to ascertain, or fix it with any degree of certainty; perhaps beyond conjecture none has attained, and if left to conjecture, it must then rest, or be fixed on, according to the probability of that conjecture. From the circumstance of the shepherds being out with their flocks on the night of his birth, 'tis as likely to have been in a fall, as a winter month -- as likely, perhaps more so, to have been in September than the 25th of December. Easter and Whit Sunday resting on the same slender foundation, and equally undetermined with that of Christmas, as to the time, when the events took place, which they are said to commemorate, appear to be kept with a view, the former, to perpetuate the recollection of that day on which the blessed Redeemer burst the bands of death, and came forth out of the grave, the first born from the dead, leading captivity captive; and the latter, as the day on which he gave extraordinary and special gifts, for glorious purposes unto men -- being the fiftieth day after Easter, commemorative then, of the descent of the "Holy Ghost upon the Apostles in the visible appearance of fiery cloven tongues, and of those miraculous powers which were then conferred upon them." -- That the events or facts took place, of which it is said these days are commemorative we have no doubt, and admitting them to have taken place on those very days, it will not follow that we are bound to observe them any more than we are bound to observe the day of his miraculous conception -- the word of God must be our guide in all matters of Christian practice, and not the traditions of men -- it is in vain we search the scriptures to find a divine warrant, either direct or implied, authorizing us to observe any of those days, whether we search in regard to the days themselves, or their respective holydays -- if any thing else can be wanting, to confirm any humble follower of Christ in the opinion that this is wholly a worldly custom, let such a one seek its identity and learn its character from the conduct of its numerous advocates -- to recite the acts of violence and of cruelty, practised on the creatures of God, for amusement and for gain -- the vices and follies of men committed on those holydays, would be to incur the charge of indecorum, and to wound the feelings of the truly pious and humble follower of Jesus -- when, where, or with whom the practice of observing these holydays as such, originated, to us, is of little consequence, since we know 'tis not founded upon the word of God, and perceive clearly that after the manner in which they are observed by many, it tends to confirm people in their sins, rather than to save them from their sins, and without this, in a moral sense, no man has any credible evidence that he is fitted for another world, and but little evidence that he is fit for this; but beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak, yet it is possible that some who have been transformed by the renewing of their minds, rather than to be thought singular, may be justly chargeable with conformity to the world in this respect, if not directly, indirectly, by suffering their servants, apprentices, children, or others under their immediate charge to be prowling the roads, and uniting with the giddy throng at houses of public entertainment, making willing sacrifice to Bacchus of their morals and their health, and as a just consequence of their idolatrous offering, return, not unfrequently with aching heads, maimed and diseased bodies. Brethren, though you should incur the charge of singularity by not conforming to this custom of the world, in not suffering those under your charge to visit these places of public resort on those days, yet nobly dare to be thought singular, in whatsoever things are lovely and of good report.

     Conformity to the world does not, in all cases, in all instances, consist in the observance of days, in meats or in drinks, or in gambling, according to modern refinement; purchasing, aiding or effecting sale of lottery tickets, living on the fortunes of the wheel, but may consist in superfluous, or indecorous apparel; either of these in dress are repugnant to the word of God, it calls us to lay aside all superfluity of dress, to adorn ourselves in modest apparel, &c. 1 Timothy 2:9. Yet notwithstanding this plain passage of scripture, the people of God have suffered, themselves to be dictated to, and in many instances governed by the world in this respect -- and what for? Is it because men have been accustomed to attach ideas of office, of greatness, and of sanctity to dress? However, ludicrous it might appear to us at the present day, to see men wearing Phylacteries, and the size of these proportioned to the supposed attainments of the individual in the Divine life; yet we find the same notions, the same pride, and the same love of greetings cherished; but in another way -- 'tis not dress, nor its color, nor its shape, that sanctifies the heart and perfects the believer in Christ -- the world has been officious enough to prescribe a dress for mourning, and none appears to tyrannize more over the tenderest feelings of the human heart, than this; and none holds the people of God in greater apparent bondage -- in how many instances do we find that a brother, or a sister, on loosing a friend or near connexion, forego the privileges of the church, perhaps for several clays, merely because circumstances have rendered it so, that they cannot appear in a full mourning dress -- Brethen, do not barter your privileges in the church for the sake of saving appearances with the world -- suffice it, for us to know that this custom did not originate with the religion of Jesus, but is repugnant to its simplicity -- the language of scripture is, "let the dead bury their dead," for 'tis to he presumed that the living, those who have been made alive cannot be ignorant how to bury theirs - suffer not yourselves to be held in bondage by this custom of the world, 'tis likely, it cherishes as much pride, and more hypocrisy than any other of the kind, because more universal -- let us always bear in mind that when we made a profession of the religion of Jesus, we did by this act, profess to all, that we had it in our own souls, that we were the happy subjects of its gracious influences; now, if we conform to the customs of the world, how shall we prove to others, the sincerity of our profession? -- It is the fruit of the tree, that is the proper evidence of its nature -- as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also -- conforming to the world tends to bury all distinction between believer and unbeliever -- tends to confirm unbelievers in their rejection of the truth, and to retard the progress of the gospel, rather than promote it. To treat particularly at this time, were we fully competent, of alt the days and customs which the united labor of superstitious ages have brought to view, as fit days and customs to be observed by all men indiscriminately, and have succeeded too well in imposing upon the civilized world -- the tacit assent yielded thereto, with little or no regard to the end in view whether the promoting of the kingdom of God, or of Baal, or of any other favorite idol, and to say nothing of the imposing influence such customs have on the human mind, claiming primitive antiquity and supported by public suffrage, would far exceed our limits -- we therefore, brethren, would only put you in remembrance of what the Apostle wrote to the Romans: "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind, he that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it; but on the other hand, let us recollect the fear the same Apostle expressed to the Galatians, when he saw they had given themselves up to observe days and months, and times, and years.

A. MARSHALL, Moderator.

[From Jesse Mercer, A History of the Georgia Baptist Association, Washington, GA., 1838. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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