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      Editor's note: This essay was written during the time of the Anti-mission and Campbellite controversies.

The Design of Baptist Associations
The Baptist Magazine, 1838

     We propose to inquire briefly, into the nature and design of an Association, as being a part of the ecclesiastical

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organization of the Baptist denomination. We make the inquiry for the purpose of ascertaining what are and what are not the appropriate objects of pursuit by an Association.

     An Association is composed of delegates from a number of churches, more or less, who have entered, voluntarily, into an agreement thus to associate together. A church chooses annually its pastor and one or more brethren, to meet in Convention, at a given time and place, delegations, similarly chosen, by each of the other churches associated. Now, it is obvious, from the nature of the case, that an Association possesses no powers which a Church does not itself possess. Hence, the objects to be pursued by an Association must be limited to the appropriate objects of a Christian church. The utility of an Association arises from its ability to pursue some of the appropriate labors of a Christian church more advantageously than they could be by itself, and by a combination of moral strength to pursue them farther. The objects of a Christian Church we have supposed to be the more complete sanctification of its members, and the bringing of others into the same happy relation of discipleship. From the nature, of the case, therefore, all the labors of an Association must be limited to a scriptural use of means for the attainment of one of these ends. Again, inasmuch as the churches cannot be supposed to have delegated to the Association all their powers, and inasmuch as an Association possesses no powers which were not delegated, it is but reasonable to expect that it will exercise a becoming caution, lest it transcend its proper limits. It may be expected, especially, that it will refrain from pushing measures of doubtful expediency, concerning which there is known to be in the Churches a difference of opinion.

     There is another method of inquiry which, though less philosophical, is, nevertheless, too important to be overlooked in the investigation of this subject. We allude to the testimony of history - the determining of what an Association ought to be, by ascertaining what they have been. Our Associations are of ancient origin, and in their organization and routine of business, it must be confessed that they partake not a little of the nature of a tradition. Our churches, it is to be feared, send their delegates

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more from the influence of habit, than from a conviction that by so doing some important and desirable object is to be accomplished. What, then, were the objects contemplated by these institutions in their origin? What have their founders said of their nature and design? What has been their uniform or general character?

     The Philadelphia Association was formed in 1707, the Charleston in 1751, and the Warren in 1767; these are the three oldest Associations, and from them have sprung all the rest. Records of the sentiments and doings of the early founders of our associations are exceedingly scarce, and yet we have some records. Rev. Oliver Hart, pastor of the church in Charleston, having seen in the Philadelphia Association, says Mr. Wood Furman, in his History of the Charleston Association, the happy affects of union, and stated intercourse among churches maintaining the same faith and order, was instrumental in the formation of the Charleston Association, consisting then of four churches. "The object of the Union," continues Mr. Furman, "was declared to be, the promotion of the Redeemer's kingdom, by the maintenance of love and fellowship, and by mutual consultations for the peace and welfare of the churches. The independency of the churches was asserted, and the powers of the Association restricted to a council of advice."

     Mr. Backus, in treating of the nature of an Association, having described the routine of business in the Warren Association, with which he had now been familiar for near half a century, adds: "By these means, mutual acquaintance and communion hath been begotten and promoted; errors in doctrine or conduct have been exposed and guarded against; false teachers have been detected, and warnings published against them; destitute flocks have been occasionally supplied; the weak and oppressed have been relieved, and many have been animated and encouraged in preaching the gospel through the land, and in new plantations in the wilderness.

     "A collection is made at our annual meetings for the widows and children of poor ministers. A society has also been incorporated, to collect money to assist pious youths in obtaining learning, with a view to the ministry. And a Missionary Society is formed to collect money for the support of traveling ministers, and to instruct and direct them therein,

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according to their best discretion. And several of them have visited many destitute flocks, and some have gone into Upper Canada with great acceptance."

     It is well known that the Philadelphia and the Charleston Associations also incorporated at an early period into their doings, efforts for the education of their ministry, for the supply of feeble and destitute churches, and for preaching the gospel in destitute regions. The union, peace and fellowship of the churches, therefore, the education of the ministry, the supply of feeble and destitute churches, and the preaching of the gospel in destitute regions, were the only objects contemplated by our Associations up, certainly, to the beginning of the present century. And all these objects, be it remembered, lie fairly within what we have supposed to be the province of an Association; they aim directly, either at the sanctification of believers, or the conversion of sinners. To these might be added several other modes of usefulness which are now engrossing the attention of the churches; such as efforts for foreign missions; for a more general circulation of the word of God; efforts to promote Sabbath Schools; and efforts for a universal diffusion of religious truth in the form of tracts, books, etc. All these are homogeneous objects, and might with propriety claim the attention of our Associations.

     The times have greatly changed since the formation of the Associations alluded to. Our churches were then few and feeble and much perplexed by persecution. They are now numerous and they not only enjoy full and equal liberty of conscience with other religious sects, but possess, also, the most ample means for usefulness. Their field of vision has been greatly enlarged. Being no longer shut up to the necessity of spending all their energies in self-defence, they have been accustomed to look abroad, and have already entered numerous and various inviting fields of usefulness; some ef which, are in the extreme ends of the earth. These undertakings have led to the formation of State Conventions, the Baptist General Convention, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, &c. because, the objects to be accomplished required combination, greater than that of an Association. But it will appear on a philosophical examination of the subject, that the object contemplated originally, by our brethren in the formation

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of Associations, contained the germ of all those objects which are now rightfully engrossing the attention of our churches. Hence, there would be a fitness, if the churches chose so to do, in making an Association a missionary society, an education society, a Bible society, a Sabbath-school society, a tract society, that is to say, there would be a fitness in employing an Association as an organization for raising and transmitting funds for these various objects, or for promoting their interests in any form, or indeed for promoting the interests of any similar object - any object embraced in the original idea as expressed in the last command of the Saviour, "go ye, therefore, and disciple all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." Or should the churches so direct, or should the delegates be left uninstructed, an Association when convened might resolve to confine itself strictly to devotional exercises.

     Thus we have endeavored to describe the circle which bounds the proper limits of an Association; and though it embraces many things, it does not embrace every thing. - It does not embrace some things, certainly, which of late years have engrossed the attention of some of our Associations. Such, however, is our view of the subject. The religion of Christ is not contentious, but peaceful, and a church of Christ should be peaceful, nor can it be otherwise, if it attend to its appropriate duties in a right spirit.


From the Christian Watchman via the The Baptist Magazine, March 1838, Volume 4, pp. 73-77; edited by Robert Boyte Crawford Howell. Document from Google Books. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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