THE CIRCULAR LETTER, 1836
by Brother Payne
THE subject of our Letter, dear brethren, is, THE DUTY OF CHRISTIANS TOWARDS ENQUIRERS, AND THE JUNIOR MEMBERS OF OUR CHURCHES. We trust our remarks on so important a subject will be received in the spirit of affection, and that our friends will endeavour to act upon tbe suggestions which may be offered.
The solicitude which the Saviour manifested for these characters, the conduct he exhibited towards them, the clear injunctions of Scripture, and the nature and design of a Christian church, present to us the high and imperishable claims of this duty. How strikingly was the prediction with respect to our Saviour's ministry fulfilled, - "A bruised reed shall he not break; and the smoking flax shall he not quench." Let the conduct of the Saviour pass in review before you; and do you not discover a tenderness of affection, a mildness of expostulation, and a depth of sympathy towards the weak and feeble, calculated to allay their suspicions, and excite their confidence? No harsh expressions or unkind insinuations proceed from his lips; but all his demeanour has a tendency to convince them that they may, without the least reserve, or fear of betrayal, entrust to him the secrets of their hearts. Brethren, in this respect, he has "left us an example that we should follow his steps." Nor is it optional whether we will thus imitate our Lord. For it is as much the duty of the Christian to follow the example of Christ as to believe in his atonement; and as much his duty to copy his example on one point as another. It
should be remembered also, that whatever be our knowledge, our talents, or our piety, we have received them from God. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights." We have received them moreover for some specific purpose. "Ye are not your own: ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's." If therefore our gifts are not employed for the glory of the Divine Being, and the promotion of his cause, the design of their bestowment is frustrated, and we stand charged with unfaithfulness before the tribunal of God.
We have proceeded thus far upon the supposition that every church contains individuals more or less qualified, by the variety of their experience, their position in the church, their knowledge of the world and of Satan's devices, to instruct others, who, through their ignorance, youth, and inexperience, need instruction. For let it be remembered, that such characters frequently require advice of so personal and delicate a nature that the minister himself is precluded from giving it. In the present state we should be unwise to expect the disciple of Christ to rise at once to all the vigour of manhood. God deals with us as rational beings; and growth in grace is promoted by the exercise of those powers with which we are endowed. The church indeed is so constituted, that whilst it admits of different orders of talent, and degrees of religious advancement, "the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again, the head to the feet, I have no need of you." As in the branches of the tree those which are nearest and those which are most remote derive their sap from the same source, so we, whatever be the position we occupy in the church, derive our vitality from the Living Vine. There is therefore no ground for exultation. "What have we that we have not received?" Infinite wisdom bas also designed that the church should be the place where the ignorant and weak should "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." It is a family; and as in the domestic circle the senior members witness with interest the growth of the younger, and encourage as well as approve the gradual developement of their powers, so we are especially expected by our adorable Father to seek
the growth and advancement in knowledge of those who are but just introduced into the divine life. And one would imagine, were other principles wanting, that of self-interest would excite as to this duty. For in whatever light you regard the church, whether as the depository of truth, or the medium by which the world is to be converted, it is evident that our influence upon the world can only be effective as our strength is promoted, our purity maintained, and our energies are concentrated.
We shall surely be prompted to discharge our duty, if we consider, further, the interesting yet dangerous circumstances in which both descriptions of character are placed for whom our sympathies are claimed.
Some of those who require our solicitude are those who have lately put on Christ by a public avowal of their attachment to him. We have heard them, and our hearts exulted as they said it, "Other lords have bad dominion over us: henceforth we will serve the Lord." We have with joy unspeakable seen them approach the altar of their God, and there aver their allegiance to the Saviour. We have said to them in the spirit of the patriarch, "We are journeying to the place of the which the Lord said I will give it you: come ye with us, and we will do you good; for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel;" and they have responded, "We will go with you, for we perceive that God is with you." And considering these things, who of us can refuse them all the aid we can command? It must be remembered, that decision, although sincere, is frequently accompanied with some degree of ignorance respecting the conflicts in which the Christian is engaged, and the duties incumbent on him. It is necessary then that the young Christian should be guarded against self-confidence; the evidence of his change being progressive: - that he should also be reminded that he has entered upon a course of conflict and labour; and in striving to persevere there must be a diligent attendance on the public and private means of grace: - and if he would avoid the fatal quicksand of indifference, on which so many have been wrecked, he must steer his course by the Word of God alone. Let him be encouraged by the more advanced Christian, to bear a part in carrying on religious exercises in
private, that thus his prayers may benefit the congregation. And when there may appear anything in his conduct inconsistent with the genius of the Gospel, affectionately tell him of it. The writer was acquainted with a deacon of a church who was accustomed at certain seasons to invite the young men to his own house for the purpose of religious conversation and prayer, that they might be the better qualified for assisting in the devotions of the sanctuary; and the experiment was eminently successful. Would it not be advantageous for the individuals themselves, and for the church, were such treatment general?
Another class of character which needs our sympathy consists of enquirers. We include under this title, those who "ask the way to Zion with their faces thitherward;" and such as are "halting between two opinions." The former have just emerged from the darkness of ignorance, and the insensibility of death. Their spirit is the temple in which Deity enshrines himself. The pure and sinless intelligences of heaven witnessed the spectacle with admiration, as they saw light struggling successfully with darkness - truth with error - and holiness with sin: and as they subsequently watch the several and distinct processes by which the soul is "made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light" they rejoice; - "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God." And shall we, who know experimentally the influences by which such individuals are opposed, the character of the world which is to be their probationary state, and who are more closely connected with them than even the angelic world, shall we be uninterested at this spectacle? or can we be unmoved without a dereliction of duty? O no! And the undecided brethren are scarcely less interesting. The present seems a crisis in their life. Their future destiny appears to hang suspended on the smallest possible incident. They seem as if hesitating whether they should choose darkness or light - climb the ascent that leads to everlasting joy, or turn to the flowery path which ends in irrecoverable ruin. O! this is a fearful crisis. How are the powers of darkness hastening to decide the soul for despair and death! It seems as if the spirit were now about to make its last, its irretrievable choice; - a choice pregnant with results more momentous than the creation of the material universe. There are many such in all our congregations. The Spirit deals with them as moral agents. Human
instrumentality is the means by which such are frequently brought to decision. Say, brethren, whether they need not your sympathies, your advice, your prayers. We fear that these are a neglected part of our congregations. How frequently have we seen such characters evidently affected by the preaching of the cross. Their eyes have been suffused with tears, their countenances have been blanched with fear, and trembling has invaded their frame; yea, they have writhed under the terror of deep and bitter convictions. Such scenes now rise before the imagination of our readers with all their original freshness. But what was your conduct then? Were there any efforts to deepen and perpetuate those impressions, and to direct the soul to Christ? Say not, "Am I my brother's keeper?" lest your God should say, "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth to me from the ground." O! how will ye meet such at the bar of God? Beloved brethren, you cannot justify such neglect; your voice even falters in attempting to frame excuses. And should any of you have embraced such a system as stills the remonstrances of conscience, and renders you callous to the calls of duty, it cannot be that religion of love which the Saviour came to establish.
We are persuaded then that you will allow that your duty has been clearly and fully established. It remains for us simply to state how it may be discharged. It is difficult to specify the precise modes by which different Christians may fulfil what is required of them towards these characters. It is, nevertheless, cause for gratitude, that if we feel these high and imperishable claims we can be at no loss for opportunities of usefulness. Let us but once be disposed to act, and we shall soon find both the occasion and the ability.
The direction of Scripture shews, however, that the elder member is bound by the very nature of his profession to manifest sympathy and afford instruction to the younger. "We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak." The florist is not only anxious that the choice plant should be in his garden; but when there with the greatest assiduity he watches its progress, and seeks that it may arrive at perfection. So we are called upon to seek, not only to be instrumental in
introducing others into the garden of the Lord, but that they may resemble "trees planted by the rivers of water, which bring forth their fruit in their season." The following remarks, from a work lately published by Dr. Cox, as to the methods pursued by American churches, deserve our serious attention. He says, "I have witnessed in the United States the assiduity of women of sound sense, and deep Christian sentiment, in cherishing the infant piety of persons of their own sex. They will take the young convert, foster the salutary impression, and give a wise and holy direction to the new-born affections. The members of churches keep a very vigilant eye upon general or casual visitors to the house of God. When such persons begin to manifest attention to pulpit instructions, or even though they are merely observed to be present at the services of religion for a few times, they are spoken with, and encouraged. This friendly notice, renewed at short intervals, whenever an opportunity offers, has often been the means of introducing a stranger into the fellowship of the church." Are there not in most of our churches females to whom the pastor could mention the character and peculiarities of the serious enquirer of their own sex, who would be able, from their knowledge of the world, to warn of its dangers, as well as to encourage the gradual developement of Christian experience? Besides, from our brethren, at least in some of the churches, persons might be chosen, who would, in conjunction with the pastor, form classes, and instruct in the first principles of religion. Many who are not qualified to preach, might thus aid their minister in his important work, preparing the soil for the reception of the seed. But, as has been intimated, it is difficult to lay down any particular rules: we will therefore only make one or two general observations.
And let it be well considered, that we are called upon to avoid every thing like an air of repulsiveness, and the appearance of acting in the spirit of suspicion. It is to be regretted that any professing Christian by the attitude he assumes should even appear to say, "Stand by, I am holier than thou;" or by his inuendos inspire doubts respecting the sincerity of others. Instead of rejoicing at success, there seems in some a disposition to call the success in question; thus embittering their own
peace, distracting the minds of others, and presenting a very unlovely aspect to the world and to the church. We know of nothing more calculated to wound the feelings of the modest and timid enquirer than this demeanour; and we are fully persuaded, if our friends themselves knew its baneful influence, they would shudder at their own conduct, and at once retrace their steps. Never then frown upon any who seem desirous to pluck "the leaves of the tree of life which are for the healing of the nations;" rather by your kindness invite them to approach.
But the duties we have to discharge are not merely of a negative kind: we are called upon to seek opportunities of conversation for the purpose of instruction. And as the shrewd mariner who has made some perilous voyages, even if he had not previously been acquainted with navigation, is fitted, by the observations he has made, to impart information, so the Christian has lived but to little purpose if he be not able, however humble his station, to advise, reprove, or exhort, as occasion may require.
We know, dear brethren, a period of excitement is succeeded by relapse. It is so necessarily in the animal frame. So it sometimes happens, after the excitement attendant upon the first introduction into a religious society has subsided, the individual sinks down into a state of morbid insensibility. Against this we are imperatively called upon to warn the young Christian. Much too of the disquietude which in after years preys upon the spirit is produced, either by ignorance of the Gospel, or of the mental constitution. Seek then to impress upon him the importance of securing an extensive acquaintance with truth, and ascertaining the peculiarities of his own mind. Again; young Christians are in danger of making other professing Christians the standard of excellence, rather than the Word of God. Hence they excuse in themselves the absence of devotedness and activity, by referring to others whom they imagine better qualified for the discharge of such duties. Against this pernicious conduct we are called upon to guard them. Shew that the example of Christ, and the precepts of God's Word alone, must be the rule of our conduct. The limits of a circular
letter forbid us here to enlarge. We would only further say, affectionately warn them against indolence, self-confidence, distrust, ostentation, and worldliness.
With regard to enquirers. These at the commencement of their religious life entertain fears the most groundless, are subject to anxieties as unnecessary as they are prejudicial, and are constantly liable to those bitter feelings which are originated and strengthened by the misconception of religious truths. How much gloom and depression of spirit might be prevented - how many difficulties which are so only in imagination might be removed - how many mistakes might be avoided, were the Christian more frequently to shew them, that it is not the poignancy or extent of our sorrow that constitutes our warrant to come to Christ, but that warrant arises from the gracious invitations of Scripture, which are free and unrestricted. We are nowhere told in the Word of God that a certain amount of feeling, or a certain duration of grief, must be experienced ere we can come; but we are at once invited to approach the "Fountain opened for sin and uncleanness," wash, and be clean: and whatever may have been the enormity of our guilt, it is a fact, a delightful fact, that "the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." "Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them." How much more speedily might the soul realize "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, which keepeth the heart and mind through Christ Jesus," were this line of conduct adopted. Now, Christian friends, the facts to which we have referred form the basis of your hope, the source of your joy; but not realizing them, many pious persons pine in sadness, and spend days and months and years in grief. As you would feci no difficulty in recommending to your neighbours a physician by whose skill you had been restored to health from a disease by which they were afflicted, so recommend the great Physician of souls to the enquirer, and say, "There is balm in Gilead."
And lastly, we would ask you to pray with and for them. Ye know the dangers to which they are exposed. Ye know the obstacles they will have to surmount - the duties they
have to discharge. Ye know the opposition against which they have to struggle; for "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." Ye know the tribulations they have a right to expect. Pray then for them, that "as their day so their strength may be" - that "the grace of God may be sufficient for them" - that they may not "faint in the day of adversity;" but that under the influence of Christian principle, they may brave every danger, and overcome every difficulty; in a word that they "may be rooted and grounded in love, and be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, and know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that they may be filled with all the fulness of God." In your families, and especially in your closets, and in the social circle, pray for them. Let your prayer be enlarged and comprehensive. Thus you will shew them that you are not strangers to sympathy; and this will awaken their courage, gratitude, and love.
We will only say in conclusion, We long, dear brethren, to see the dawn of those happy days, when the church simultaneously shall feel its responsibility and obligations - when little bickerings, and pitiful jealousies shall be laid aside, and laid aside for ever - when evil surmisings, uncharitableness, and evil speaking shall be consigned to their inglorious and deserved oblivion - when all impressed with the value of the soul, and their own individual accountability to seek its salvation, shall, by their well directed efforts, strive to "convert the sinner from the error of his way, to save a soul from death and hide a multitude of sins."
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MAY 10th. The Circular Letter, written by Brother Payne, was approved and ordered to be printed.
11th. Seven o'clock. - Met for prayer and praise. Brethren Clarke, Butcher, Pope, Burnham, Diprose, and Ives engaged.
Ten o'clock. - Public service commenced with reading and prayer by Brother Tomlin. Brother Payne preached from 1 Thess. v. 25; and Brother Dobney from Haggai i. 9. Brother Dobney, from Oxford, concluded.
Two o'clock. - Met for business. Brother Dobney was chosen Chairman, and Brother Day prayed.
Resolved, - That the thanks of the Association be given to Brother Tyler for his services as Secretary during the past year, and that he be affectionately requested to continue the same.
Brother J. Davis was chosen Assistant Secretary.
Agreed to hold FOUR Special Prayer Meetings; on the last Wednesdays in July, October, and December, and on Good Friday.
It was unanimously agreed to give up the Autumnal Meeting. New Rules for the Association, were read and approved, and ordered for printing.
The following Brethren were appointed our Messengers to the Baptist Union: J. and T. Davis, Dobney, Payne, Ives, and Dossett.
Resolved, - That this Meeting earnestly recommend to the respective Churches connected with the Association, the attentive consideration of the suggestions contained in the Letter addressed to them by the Committee of the Baptist Building Fund, in order to ascertain the practicability and expediency of acting upon them.
Resolved, - That this Meeting deeply deplores the continued existence of Slavery, with all its fearful enormities, in the United States of America; and particularly the extensive connection of many of the Pastors and Members of Baptist Churches with so great an evil.
Resolved also, That, although this Meeting is quite ready to admit the numerous and complicated difficulties by which our Brethren are fettered in regard to emancipation, yet, considering as well the flagrant evils of Slavery itself, as the impediments it creates to the spread of Christian truth, it desires most affectionately, and yet most strongly, to urge upon them, the duty of using all their influence and prayers to break the bands of the oppressor, and "let the oppressed go free."
Resolved, - That the Members of this Association have awaited with considerable anxiety the announcement of the Ministerial Measure on the subject of Church-rate>; and from all that has transpired, they greatly fear, either that no immediate change is contemplated, or if any, a change for the worse. They therefore would now express their first and most earnest wish, that Church-rates should be abolished immediately and without reserve; or that, till this can be effected, they should be left in their present state.
The Letters from the Churches having been read, the Ministers and Messengers resolved, -1852 That the Association meet next year at Chenies, on Wednesday and Thursday the 9th and 10th of May. Brethren Jeffery and J. Davis to preach. Brother Day to be substitute for the former, and Brother Ives for the latter. Put up at the Red Lion.
Resolved, - That the subject for the Circular Letter next year be, "On Human Depravity; considered particularly in reference to our connection with Adam.'' Brother Dobney to write it, or in case of failure, Brother J. Davis.
Six o'Clock. - Brother Hopcraft commenced with prayer. Brother J. Davis preached from Isa. lxvi. 24; and concluded a unanimous and highly interesting Meeting.
The last Autumnal Meeting was held at Chesham October 8th, 1835. Brother West read and prayed; Brother Jeffery preached from Psalm ii. 6; Brother Hopcraft concluded.
The Association Fund was distributed.
* By the new regulations of the Association, the Circular Letter will in future be enriched with a few extracts from the letters sent in due time to the yearly meeting, illustrating the state of the various churches. Instead of inserting any extracts in the present Circular, the Secretary begs leave to remark, that the letters from the churches were mostly of a very pleasing and encouraging cast. The spirit of peace and love, accompanied with some tolerable degree of activity, call for gratitude, and encourage the hope of future prosperity.
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