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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
ON CUSTOMS NOW GENERALLY ABOLISHED, WHICH PREVAILED MORE OR LESS AMONG THE BAPTISTS IN FORMER TIMES; AS LAYING ON OF HANDS. — WASHING FEET. — DEVOTING CHILDREN. — RULING ELDERS. — DECLINE IN THE USE OF BROTHER AND SISTER, AND ELDER. — SEVEN DEACONS THE GOSPEL NUMBER FOR A FULL GROWN CHURCH.
The Laying on of Hands
THIS was a practice of high antiquity in our denomination in other countries, and in this country it formerly prevailed much more extensively than at the present time. I find traces of it in the history of many of our oldest communities. In the old church in Providence, R.I., I conclude it was always in use until about the middle of the ministry of the late Dr. Gano, when it was gradually laid aside.
This practice, I infer, came to us with our ancestors from the old world, where, by some of our oldest churches, it was tenaciously adhered to as far back as their history is recorded.
The laying on of hands, as a religious rite, as far as I can learn, has always been practiced in the same manner. The candidates for church membership, after being baptized, as a final act of admission come forward to the minister, the same as those do who receive
the right hand of fellowship; and the minister, instead of taking them by the hand, puts his hands on their heads and prays, and then their initiation is completed.
This rite, by Episcopalians has been denominated, familiarly, a Baptist confirmation.
Dr. Gano did not object to the thing itself, which he admitted was a proper way of receiving church members, but he disliked the idea of its being considered a church ordinance, which he found was the sense of a portion of his members; and as its relinquishment all at once would have been grievous to some of the aged members, who were most attached to an order in this primitive body, to all appearance from time immemorial, it was left optional for new members to come into it under hands, or by the hand of fellowship, as they might choose. After continuing the two forms of admission for a few years, the practice of laying on of hands was wholly discontinued.
The church of Pawtucket, which was a branch of the old Providence community, arose about the time of the discontinuance of this ancient custom in the mother body. In this new interest the practice in question was not introduced, nor was there ever any discussion on the subject, either at its origin, or at any other time; my own impressions, however, were rather favorable than otherwise towards a practice so significant,
and of such high antiquity, as the one under consideration.
The people called Six Principle Baptists, most of whom are in Rhode Island and vicinity, are the decided advocates for the practice of the laying on of hands. Their name is derived from <580601>Hebrews 6:1, 2, where, as they maintain, this number of Christian principles are laid down, and among them, the laying on of hands holds a conspicuous place.
The Washing of Feet
From time immemorial this oriental custom, so often referred to in the history of the early Christians, has been observed by small groups of Baptists, in a religious manner, in different parts of this country. In early life, I was acquainted with such a company, who, being Bible Christians to the letter, felt themselves bound literally to comply with the following direction of Christ, namely: "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you."
The general exposition of this passage, or the sense in which most of our divines understand it, namely, that the Saviour here meant to teach his disciples humility and hospitality, did not satisfy the old-fashioned Baptists to whom I have alluded, and many others of
their class. In their opinion, it was in some sense a divine institution.
Among the Mennonites, as I understand the matter, the practice of feet washing is still uniformly maintained, and is performed at the close of their communion service; while with our people it has generally been discontinued. While this ancient custom was kept up, the observance of it was not confined to communion seasons, but it was performed at the close of conference meetings and social gatherings of Christian friends.
Devoting Children, or Dry Christening, Love Feasts, etc.
John Leland, in his Virginia Chronicle, in 1790, informs us that the dry christening ceremony prevailed to some extent in the Old Dominion at that time. This unusual rite among the Baptists, which long since went out of use, was founded on the incident of parents bringing little children to Christ to bless them, and was thus performed: as soon as circumstances would permit, after the birth of a child, the mother carried it to meeting, when the minister either took it in his arms, or laid his hands on it, thanked God for his mercy, and invoked a blessing on the little one, in a public manner. At the same time the child received its name. This rite, by those who practiced it, was called devoting children to God, while outsiders, as they
saw no water connected with it, called it a dry christening. It prevailed in easy times in many parts of Virginia, but mostly within the bounds of the Sandy Creek Association in North Carolina, and in the wide-spread branches of that ancient and extensive community. This association was founded by the New Lights from New England, to whom I have often alluded, and the ceremony under consideration, I am inclined to think, originated with this people. Although they were thorough-going Baptists, so far as the baptismal service was concerned, yet in their easy operations, they adopted a number of rules of discipline which were not common with the denomination then, nor before, nor since. Besides Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which usually constitute the whole of the Baptist ritual, these people held to a long list of religious rites, namely, love feasts, laying on of hands, washing feet, anointing the sick, the right hand of fellowship, kiss of charily, and devoting children, or the dry christening. They also held to ruling elders, elderesses, deaconesses, and weekly communion.
This portion of our brethren, it will be seen, labored to conform to all the suggestions of the Scriptures in their fullest extent, in the rites and rules above enumerated; but if any of their churches omitted any of them, this omission was freely tolerated by the more rigid party. By degrees, however, these
numerous observances of an unusual character, for Baptists, fell into disuse, so that when I was on the ground, more than forty years ago, the descendants of the old New Lights in their modus operandi were much like other Baptists.
A Decline in the Use of the Terms "Brother" and "Sister" among the "Laity, and of "Elder" as applied to Ministers.
In my early day, among by far the largest portion of the Baptists, the terms "brother" and "sister" were in common use in the every-day conversation of this people, when speaking to or of each other. This language was so familiar with them that they employed it in all places and before all people, in the market places, in public conveyances, on the highways, and wherever they had occasion to speak to, or of each other. In this respect the Baptists and Methodists were much alike in their fraternal language with reference to each other. And what is said of former times may also be affirmed of this time, among a very large portion of the great Baptist family. A great change has, indeed, taken place in this business in some locations, where much less of this old-fashioned familiarity of speech is heard than formerly; and this change is the most apparent in the older and more populous parts of the country, where forms and fashions have produced
such a worldly conformity on the part of the Baptists, that their language relative to church associates is as cold and formal as that of worldly people. I once heard an aged minister of our order, of the popular class, whose notions were somewhat precise in matters of this kind, complain of his country brethren, who came to the city on business affairs, for using the brotherly language too freely in the streets, and everywhere, before all people, on all occasions, and of calling loudly on "brother A., B.," etc., in their worldly transactions. This language, he thought, should only be employed in church meetings and religious doings, where it would not be desecrated by being made too common. Of multitudes of Baptists, of modern times, this venerable and very worthy doctor would have no occasion to complain of their being too free and unguarded, too familiar and too methodistical in their use of the old-fashioned terms, "brother" and "sister."
The term "elder," as a proper distinction for our ministers of all grades, old or young, in my early day, was, and indeed from time immemorial it has been, the usual title for them. Office instead of age has always been intended by it. But there has been a great change in this respect among the more fashionable class of Baptists in many parts of the country, where the term reverend has taken the place of the old and
favorite cognomen above referred to. Still, in the country parts of the older States, and in nearly all the newer regions, the people still distinguish as formerly their spiritual guides. And not only so, but they often thus distinguish the ministers of other creeds. I have often been amused in our region of country, where the Baptists were the first settlers, and where they always have been numerous, to hear our old-fashioned people, especially among the sisterhood, apply the term "elder" to ministers of other denominations as freely as they do to their own order.
Ruling elders, in addition to deacons, in former times, in a few instances, were found among the Baptists; but at present I know of no church of our persuasion where this office is maintained. The people where they once were found, may have copied the rule from the Presbyterians, or else have taken it from the words, the elders that rule well, etc.
Ruling elders were almost everywhere met with among the Puritans of this country in early times, but we do not find them anywhere among the old Baptists, who came out from them, till we come down to those which arose in the New Light stir. The few churches in which these officers were found were mostly in the middle States.
In the chapter on the Deaconship, yet to come in, I shall advocate the primitive practice of having seven
men of good report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, for every full grown church of our order, to cooperate with the pastorin the management of church affairs, then there will be no need of ruling elders, nor of executive committees for this business. I shall also recommend that deacons be appointed for a limited time, instead of for life, as is now done; and this rule I would apply to the officers of all our benevolent institutions. Four years is the term I propose.
A full exhibition of my views of the present evils of our deaconship, and of the proper remedies for these evils, will be given in the chapter referred to.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 160-168. -- jrd]
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