The Ministers and Delegates composing the Philadelphia Baptist Association to the Churches which they represent, send Christian Salutation.
At the last session of this body the question was proposed, (and it is believed that the suggestion was made that it should be appointed as the subject of the next Circular Letter), “What are the causes of the very numerous exclusions from our churches.”
The question is certainly an important one, and the writer of the present letter to the churches might, with propriety, have been directed by the Association to attempt a reply to it. It was thought best, however, in accordance with our usual custom, to give no direction in the case, but to leave the writer at liberty to adopt or not, as might be most agreeable to him, the suggestion which had been made; and he has chosen the suggested inquiry for his subject.
That we may give to the subject a just measure of our attention, it will be necessary to divide the question into two: First - What are the facts in the case? and secondly: How are they to be accounted for?:
First. - What are the facts in this case? Is it true that the exclusions from our churches were remarkably numerous at the period referred to? To answer this inquiry, we need but refer to the Minutes of 1844, during which associational year, ending October 1st, we shall find the surprising number of four hundred and eighty-nine excluded from the churches connected with this body. And though it may be true, that at no former period, there were so many churches connected with this Association as there are at present, and that consequently, we might naturally expect a greater number of exclusions
than formerly; it is also believed to be true, that the history of the Association presents no case in which the proportion of exclusions was so great in a single year, as in that which completed the 137th of its existence. Such then are the melancholy and alarming facts before us. The next question to be considered is, How are these facts to be accounted for? In replying to this question, it will not be necessary to refer to the records of the several churches, and acquaint ourselves with the minute history of each for the period in question: neither would such a reference be satisfactory: it would, probably, only inform us, at most, of the occasions under which the exclusions occurred, and not the causes of them. These lie farther back; and it is doubtful whether the records of the churches contain any entries of what those causes really are. Let it therefore be clearly stated, That one principal cause of the large and numerous exclusions from the churches, is to be found in the too hasty and indiscriminate reception of persons in the fold of Christ during seasons of religious revivals. This we shall attempt to prove.
The recent history of the greater part of the churches, which have thus been compelled to make large exclusions, is not at present before us; but that of some of them has been too remarkable, and it is too well known to render documents necessary in order to enable us to advert to them. Indeed, with only one or two exceptions, (perhaps with only one,) these churches are the identical bodies which, in former years, have delighted the Association with the reports of extensive revivals, and numerous additions, the results, in many cases, if not in all, of special efforts, protracted meetings - the labors of so-called Evangelists, and all the variety of new measures. Here then we pause, and propose to the prayerful consideration of every member of our churches the question, How far these meetings, men and measures have been the causes of the numerous exclusions which we deplore, and over which an ungodly world exult and triumph! Have we not, in our anxiety, for immediate visible results of the
truth preached, forgotten that the husbandman who laboreth hath long patience? Have we not erroneously considered those ministrations unfruitful, which have not resulted in conversions, forgetting that the instruction of the ignorant, the confirmation of the wavering, the succor of the tempted, the comfort of the dejected, the restoration of the wandering, and the reproof of the wayward, are as really and properly the objects of the christian ministry, as the turning of the sinner from the ways of death? Have the churches not felt an unholy ambition to become numercially [sic] large, and by manifestation of this ambition have they not sometimes induced their pastors to appoint meetings of the kind referred to, contrary, perhaps, to the dictates of their better judgment? Have not pastors, also, under the influence of something very like vanity, panting after the reputation of successful preachers, directed an undue measure of their efforts to the mere enlargement of the churches, and failed to scrutinize the materials which offered, of which to enlarge them? We say not that these things are so: this it is His prerogative to decide, who walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks; we would only, by these inquiries, arouse ourselves and you to self examination. We do believe, brethren, that it would be a very useful, though painful disclosure that would be made, were the records of the several churches to be examined, in order to ascertain what proportion of the persons excluded during the associational year ending in October, 1844, were the same individuals over whom we had rejoiced, in previous years, as the fruits of the revivals reported. It is even possible, that in some cases, the numerical majorities who have performed the act of excision, may have been persons themselves destitute of spiritual life, but received as partakers of it, by a too comprehensive and unsuspecting charity, while, in reality they only performed certain acts of the holy living under the influence of a sort of moral galvanic battery.
The question proposed to this body at its last session by one of the churches, "Whether periodical or long protracted meetings are the means best adapted to promote true religion?"
we consider extremely important, and one which not only every church, but every minister and member should endeavour once and finally to settle. The full discussion of it would occupy considerable time, and a larger portion of space than can be devoted to it here. . . We will not dismiss it, however, without a passing remark. It will not be questioned but that the promotion of true religion in this fallen world is an object of paramount importance, in the estimation of the great Head of the Church; for it was to accomplish it, that He was manifested in the flesh. (1 John, iii. 8.). Neither will it be questioned that his wisdom distinctly saw what means were the best adapted to promote it, and that His wisdom and goodness united made choice of those means, and instituted and enjoined their use on his people till He should come again. The question then is reduced to a question of fact: Has the Head of the Church appointed these meetings? Do they constitute part of the institutions of his house? If they do, the record of their appointment must be found in the book of the law of the Lord: and where in that book is the law of institution. If it is not to be found there, without doubt these meetings are not among the best means for promoting religion.
If it be said that though there is no explicit law of institution for these meetings, yet as they are essentially the same, in nature, as our ordinary Sabbath exercises, and differ principally in the period of their continuance, the same law which enjoins the latter will sanction the former, whenever circumstances require them, - we have only this reply to make: When circumstances require them, they are certainly lawful: i.e. when the appetite for the bread of life is so keen that the ordinary Sabbath and week evening services cannot satisfy its cravings, extra meetings may and should be appointed, and they may be multiplied till the demand is met and supplied. But is this the history of one in ten or twenty of these meetings? Are they caused by an already existing attention to religion? or are they appointed when there exists little or no religious interest in a community? Are they not,
in almost all cases, appointed and designed to produce such an attention and interest? If so, circumstances do not require them; but they require more humiliation, and prayerfulness in the individual members of the church, accompanied, perhaps, by the appointment of days of fasting, the Bridegroom is taken from a church in such a state, and circumstances call for the adoption of measures which may induce his return.
We are far from denying the utility of protracted meetings when circumstances truly call for them. When thus called for, they are both a consequence and a cause of deep felt interest in religion. We have shown in what manner they may result as a consequence; and we may add that as a cause they operate by retaining divine truth continuously before the mind, and thus the probability is increased that it will produce an impression on the minds of those previously unaffected by it. But this supposes the presentation of scripture truth, and not the relation of anecdotes, and the telling of stories in these meetings. Moreover, it supposes the exhibition of truth in its entireness, and in its proportions, and not the exclusive presentation of isolated portions of it. The latter course can no more impart to the mind a true idea of the system of religion, than the presentation of a single prismatic color to the eye, could give the true idea of the nature of light, although that color enters into its composition. It is true such a course is calculated to excite emotion - perhaps deep emotion - but such emotion is proportioned in its strength, not to the clearness, but to the obscurity and indistinctness, and imperfection of the mental vision. Such is the case with fear, which is often called into exercise by an exclusive exhibition of the terrible and alarming features of divine truth - by the gloom and darkness of the pit of despair. But this alarm is not true religion: no, it is not even any part of true religion. Neither is that state of calm which succeeds this terror, and which the constitution of our nature renders, a necessary alternation of all violent emotion - neither we say is this calm true religion. It is often mistaken for it; but does not necessarily even enter into its composition. These
meetings, then, may promote feeling in connection with religious truth, both painful and joyful feeling, and yet not promote true religion. Now by some persons, religion is considered to be comprised in these emotions succeeding each other in this order, and it is not surprising, that such persons should welcome to the churches as converts to religion those who have experienced them. But such converts are improperly admitted to the churches: they are still unregenerate; and their admission will result in troubles, which render it necessary for the church to retrace, her steps, with regard to them, and to declare to the world that she was mistaken in supposing them Christians, and now corrects her error, by excluding them.
Such will be the result when the members thus admitted are less than those of the living members of Christ in the churches: and if they are admitted in greater numbers, the consequences may be even more disastrous. The constitution of our churches giving to all visible members an equal right to vote, the spurious converts may eject the true believers from membership, and declare themselves the true body of Christ. In either case it must be plain that one true cause of such large exclusions is the want of proper care in the admission of members. Let the door of entrance, then, be well guarded: let the Porter's (i.e. the Pastor's) name, as in good John Bunyan's time, be WATCHFUL; and let him beware of the weakness of seeking to be reputed a successful preacher, and thus gathering into the church members of every sort, or of any sort except the truly converted, - the subjects of a genuine work of grace. And should he ever feel the temptation to seek such a reputation by such means, before he yields to it, let him ponder over the minutes of this Association for the last few years, and then take his Bible and prepare a sermon on these words, "Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy." Isaiah [9:3].
[From the Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, 1845, pp. 31-36. University of Chicago digital edition. H/T to Terry Wolever. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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