In November of the same year (1653) in which the letter from Ireland aroused the churches in London, an Association of Particular Baptist Churches was formed in the West of England. There is little doubt that this union was the result of the circulation of that letter by the London Baptists. The first meeting of the Somerset churches, and "the churches of Wilts, Devon, Gloucester, and Dorset," was held at Wells "on the sixth and seventh days of the ninth month." At this meeting one of the subjects of debate was, "Whether laying on of hands on baptized believers was an ordinance of Christ?" The majority agreed that there was no warrant for it, in precept or precedent; that whether it were practised by the churches or not, it should not be made a condition of communion; and that any minister who so contended for it should not be permitted to preach in any of the associated churches. They yet unanimously decided, at the same meeting, that the ordination of both ministers and messengers should not only be preceded by prayer and fasting, but should be accompanied with the imposition of hands. "The circular letter" was signed by Thomas Collier, one of the many Baptist ministers singled out by Gangraena Edwards for abuse. "He is a master-secretary," says Edwards, "and a man of great power amongst them. He hath emissaries under him, whom he sends abroad and commands to several parts, as Syms, Rowe, &c., and supply his place in his absence. He hath done much hurt in Lymington, Hampton, Waltham, and all along this country." In other words, Collier was one of the most indefatigable Particular Baptist ministers in the west of England, and zealously fulfilled the office to which he was called -- the General Superintendent and Messenger of the Associated Churches.
This first Local Association, of which we have any account, must have regarded its meetings as profitable to the churches generally, since it met again two months afterwards. Collier a second time signs "the circular letter." The next meeting was held at Bridgewater, "on the eighteenth day of the second month," in 1655. This Association was chiefly remarkable for its outspoken letter to the Baptist churches in Ireland, who were then receiving State aid, very much to the astonishment of the Baptists in the West of England. "Dear brethren," say they in their fraternal letter, "we desire the Lord to teach you to deny yourselves in this case; and truly we have heard likewise of the great vanity and pride in apparel of some of the brethren in the ministry with you; and whereas, they should be patterns in humility, meekness, and a good conversation, they are too much patterns of the contrary. These things, dear brethren, have often sounded in our ears (and indeed hath pierced our hearts), not only from enemies, but friends. And indeed we cannot doubt that the large allowance from the State in Ireland hath drawn over many brethren to be preachers there; not but we rejoice in the flourishing of the Gospel in that nation, and could desire that there were more publishers of it; but it would have added to our joy had they come there upon better principles. We desire not to mention particulars in this case; but that we hope is reformation, which will be our joy in the Lord, being that which indeed hath ministered matter of grief and sorrow to our souls." To these rebukes of their friends, the Irish ministers do not appear to have taken much heed. "Our brethren in Ireland," says an entry which follows a copy of the letter in the records of the Association, "did never to this epistle return us any answer; which was our trouble." It is, perhaps, difficult to determine how far the charges of the Somerset Association were correct; but one is disposed to regard some of their strictures as founded on reports too hastily accepted, since in the following year the same Irish brethren wrote to some Welsh churches, warning them "to take heed of the sin of earthly-mindedness," and "to labour after a just, blameless, and shining life."
They also advised them, as they were "now in prosperous times, to prepare for a storm." "Let those that are rich among you strive," they further say, "to be large-hearted to the poor; and so much the more because of the present distress, and because of the great hatred of the world, which saints of our judgment endure. . . . We desire you to follow after enlargement of heart, both in contributions towards the poor and other church uses, and in the maintenance of them who dispense the Word unto you, that such dispensers may give themselves wholly to the work, in which duty some of us have observed, on your side of the water, sundry persons, yea, we fear churches, have come short." It seems scarcely probable that churches who were fairly open to all the rebukes of the Somerset letter would write in this strain to others.
There is one other counsel in this epistle of the Irish ministers to the two Welsh churches in Glamorganshire which is worth noticing. It is a bit of advice about books. "Besides ministerial teaching," says the letter, "we would commend unto you the use of good books;" "and," as if in some doubt as to whether these simple Welsh people would know what "good books" they should "use," they add: "take advice of some goodly preacher what are fit to buy."
The Somerset Particular Baptist Association published a Confession in 1656, to which we have referred in a previous chapter. This was first designed, so they tell us, "rather for a trial of their unity in the faith, and for closer fellowship one with another:" but fearing to be confounded with men who held "free-will, and falling from grace" in their neighbourhood (the General Baptists); and wishing to utter their protest against "such as pretend to a light and voice within them, without any relation to Christ and the Scriptures" (the Quakers); they considered that there was "more than ordinary necessity" why they should give publicity to their Confession. It substantially agrees with the Confession of the Seven Churches or London Confession.
This Association was held half-yearly, and continued to meet until 1657, after which time its records cease. But there was no fixed rule as to the intervals at which Local or county Associations are held. Among the General Baptists they met either quarterly, half-yearly, or annually, according to the convenience of the churches associated, the principal town in the district being generally selected as the place of meeting. Almost every part of the country had its General Baptist Association, since this was one of the first steps taken on the formation of even a small number of churches; and where the churches were few and far between, two or three counties held a common meeting, like the Western Particular Baptist Association just mentioned. The persons entitled to attend were messengers, elders, and brethren.
[From J. J. Goadby, Bye-Paths in Baptist History, London, 1871; rpt. 1987, pp. 182-186. The title is changed. jrd]