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Customs of Primitive Churches, Of materials and constitution of a church
By Morgan Edwards, 1768
Earliest American Baptist Historian
[The essay is in two parts.]
IV. The manner in which persons may be constituted a particular church is by special confederation respecting one another, the Lord, his commandments, and officers; requisite to which is a set time and place; a meeting of the candidates, and one minister (at least), fasting; when met, the minister begins the solemnity with a prayer suitably prefaced; requires the candidates to give their names; examines into their qualifications which are, a desire to become a church; satisfaction in one another; dwelling sufficiently near; their effectual calling; soundness in the faith; a purpose of heart to do whatsoever Christ hath commanded; being duly baptized; and having had hands laid on them: a sufficient number of such being found, the minister shall interrogate them in such a manner that the answers shall amount to a covenant or instrument of confederation; they sign the covenant; are (with a recital of their names) pronounced a church; prayer follows; they give each other the right hand of fellowship and kiss of charity, with words expressive of the actions; praises, and a benediction close the solemnity.

1. A covenant is the formal cause of a church: so that without a covenant, expressed or implied, a visible church there cannot be. Nor is there any other way in which a number of persons who are not a church may become such, but by entering into covenant one with the other to the Lord. The first christian church was formed out of the house of Judah in Jerusalem; the next was out of the house of Israel in Samaria. And all the gentile churches were built on the same plan, 1 Thessalonians ii. 14. And the constitutive cause was a new covenant. Behold the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah: - I will be to them a God and they shall be to me a people. Hebrews viii. 8-12.

2. This covenant or confederation bears a four-fold aspect. First, it hath respect to the Lord Christ; and then the meaning is, "We do engage henceforth to be the Lords people," which is fulfilling this branch of the new covenant in Hebrews viii. 10. They shall be to me a people; and an assumption of this overture, on Gods part, “Be ye separate and I will receive you, and will be to you a God.” They gave their own selves to the Lord. 2 Corinthians viii. 5. Know ye not that ye are not your own, but God’s? 1 Corinthians vi. 19, 20. That with purpose of heart they would cleave to the Lord, Acts xi. 23. Come out from among them and be ye separate — and I will receive you and will be to you a God and ye shall be to me a people, 2 Corinthians vi. 16, 17. Hebrews viii. 8-12

3. Next, it has a mutual respect to all the particular persons concerned in it. And then the meaning is, "We agree to be a church, viz. to coalesce into one body and cleave together, so at to be no longer our own, but the property one of another, and subject one to another, in the Lord.” Receive ye one another, Romans xv. 7. Yea all of you be subject one to another, 1 Peter v. 5. Onesimus — who is one of you — Epaphras, who is one of you, Colossians iv. 9, 12. We being many are one body and everyone members one of another, Rom. xii. 5. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular, 1 Corinthians xii. 12, 27. The whole body fitly joined together and compacted, Colossians ii. 19. Ephesians ii. 20, 21.

4. It hath respect to all the commandments of Christ; and then the meaning is, "all that the Lord hath said that will we do and be obedient;" which is a closure with an overture. If ye do all things whatsoever I have commanded you lo I am with you always. Matthew xxviii. 20.

5. It hath respect to the officers of the church; then the meaning is, "we will know, obey, and submit to them that have the rule over us, and speak to us the word of God," Hebrews xiii 7, 17. They gave their own selves to us according to the will of God. 2 Corinthians viii. 5. These people are as they that strive with the priest. Hosea iv. 4.

6. Requisite to constituting of a church is, first, a sufficient number of persons. Some will have the lowest number to be thirteen, because Jesus and the twelve apostles were together at the first celebration of the supper. Mr. Cotton descends as low as seven. Tertullian to three, ubi tres ecclesia est, Exh. de cast. Ch. 7. I know of no reason why Tertullian may not be right, at least, in cases of necessity. The church at Opekon begun with three in 1752, and is now 64. The church of Roxbury with five in 1753. The church of Piscataqua with six in 1689, and continued so to 1709. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Matthew xviii. 20.

7. A set time and place are requisite; the reason is, that the parties may make it a day of fasting and solemn assembly. As they ministered [or performed the public work] to the Lord and fasted. Acts xiii. 2.

8. A meeting of the candidates and one minister, at least. There is no example of set of lay men forming themselves into a church. One minister may do, as appears in the case of Barnabas at Antioch and Titus in Crete, Acts xi. 22-24. Titus i. 5. But two or more will do better, for the sake of the promise of Matthew xviii. 20, and because Peter and John were at the constitution of the church of Samaria, Acts viii: and Paul and Silas and others at the constitution of the churches of Macedonia, 2 Corinthians vii. 5, etc. He gave some pastors and teachers for the building of the body of Christ, Ephesians iv. 11, 12. Ye are God's building — we are labourers together with him, 1 Corinthians iii. 9. Paul planted, as a wise master builder, vers. 6, 10. Let a man so account of us as ministers and stewards, &c. 1 Corinthians iv. 1. When the apostles had heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John, Acts viii. 14. Great number believed [at Antioch] and turned to the Lord, and when tidings of these things came to the ears of the church of Jerusalem they sent forth Barnabas—who when he was come exhorted them all to cleave to the Lord, Acts xi. 22, 23. They gave their own selves to us, 2 Corinthians viii. 5. Titus i. 5.

9. When met, the minister shall open the solemnity with a prayer suitably prefaced. The occasion both requires a preliminary address, and suggesteth proper sentiments. See ver. 26. Previous prayer is necessary. I exhort that first of all prayers be made, 1 Timothy ii. 1. In everything by prayer let your request be made known, Philippians iv. 6.

10. Then he shall require the candidates to give their names, that he may know who they are, and what their number, and be able to recite their names when he come to pronounce them a church. See ver. 16. The good Shepherd calleth the sheep by name, John x. 3. The number of names together, &c. Acts i. 15.

11. Next, he shall examine into their qualifications. The old covenant by which Israel became “a church in the wilderness” took in all sorts of persons; but the covenant that was to commence after those days differs in this. Such as know not the Lord, whether children, infidels, or unregenerate persons are not to be admitted; but only such as repent and are forgiven; such as are regenerate or have the law in their minds; such as believe, and, in a words, such as savingly know the Lord. Hebrews viii. 8-13. John i. 12. Wherefore the minister should examine into their qualifications. So Barnabas exhorted the disciples at Antioch to cleave [or marry, as the word signifies, Matthew xix. 5.] to the Lord; but not till he had first seen the grace of God, which implies that he had made so much inquisition into their state as to discover they were gracious persons, Acts xi. 23. Let every man take heed how he build on the foundation — for if the build wood, hay, and stubble his works shall be burned, 1 Corinthians iii. 10-15.

12. The qualifications are these following: first, a desire to become a church, for though this is implied in coming together and sending for ministerial help, yet it is proper that it should be professed; for a church is a voluntary society, though no believers are at liberty to be, or not to be of a church. They gave their own selves to the Lord [according to the will of God], 2 Corinthians viii. 5. Your professed subjection to the gospel, 2 Corinthians ix. 13.

13. Satisfaction with one another in the Lord, I am a companion of all them that fear thee, Psalm cxix. 63. Be not unequally yoked, 2 Corinthians vi. 14. How can two walk together except they be agreed, Amos iii. 3. What part hath a believer with an infidel? 2 Corinthians vi. 15.

14. Nearness of habitations, for if the dwellings of some should be so far off that they can not meet the rest statedly, the end of a church would in part be defeated. Nearness of habitations determines the bounds of churches. Hence the agreement "Not to receive into one church a person whose habitation is nearer to another church of the same faith and order." Treat. of Discip., p. 30.[1] And they that believed were together, Acts ii. 44. On the first day of the week the disciples came together, Acts xx. 7.

15. Effectual calling: and so essential is a qualification this is that it gives name to the society; for if the word {ekklesia} were turned to plain English it must be so done by the word outcalled. Besides, the church covenant requires a knowledge of God, a new heart, repentance, and faith. Hebrews viii. 8-13.

16. A soundness in the faith; for if heretics are to be put out of the church, reason would that they should be refused admittance into it. Fundamentals articles of faith there are. Peter professes the chief of them, and then Christ speaks of building a church upon it, Matthew xvi. 18. Ye are fellow citizens of the household of God – built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus himself being the chief corner stone, Ephesians ii. 20. One faith, ch. iv. 5. Building up yourselves on the most holy faith, Jude 20. A heretic reject — but he that is weak in the faith, receive, Titus iii. 10. Romans xiv. 1.

17. Vows to do all that Christ hath commanded. Your professed subjection to the gospel of Christ, 2 Corinthians ix. 13.

18. Being duly baptized; right baptism is prerequisite to a church state: if any essential defect appears in the baptism of the candidates, it is to be considered as a nullity, and true baptism given them, as in Acts xix. 1-5. Go teach all nations baptizing them, Matthew xxviii. 19. They that gladly received the word were baptized and added to the church, Acts ii. 41, 27. v. 14. The foundation — the doctrine of baptism, Hebrews vi. 1, 2. One faith, one baptism, Ephesians iv. 5.

19. Having had hands laid on them. The business of Peter and John in Samaria was to form into a church the baptized believers in that city. And they first laid their hand on them, Acts viii. 17. The Ephesians also underwent the same rite before they were received into a church state, Acts xix. 6. Laying on of hands is one of the first principles, as well as baptism, Hebrews vi. 2.

20. A sufficient number being found the minister shall interrogate them in such a manner that their answers amount to a covenant, or the instrument of their confederation. See this exemplified in ver. 28, &c.

21. They sign the covenant. One shall say I am the Lords and subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, Is. iliv. 5.

22. Then they (with a recital of their names) are pronounced a church. See an example ver. 36.

23. Prayer follows. So Solomon prayed, when the temple was finished, 1 King viii.

24. They give each other the right hand of fellowship with the kiss of charity; and at the same time express the intention of the rites, They gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, Galatians ii. 9. Salute one another with the kiss of charity, Romans xvi. 16.

25. Praise, and benedictions close the solemnity. See Acts xiv. 23.

Here follows a narrative of proceeding at the constitution of one baptist church.....

[1] Possibly the Treatise of Church Discipline, by Samuel Jones. If so, it might be the former treatise the Philadelphia Association judged “materially defective,” which he revised in 1797. It is similar to Jones's "general rule" in that work, found in 9:16: ". . . persons ought to be members of such churches as are nearest to them; for they cannot otherwise so well enjoy the benefit of membership, nor perform the duties, that arise out of church relation." See Treatise of Church Discipline.


[Morgan Edwards, Customs of Primitive Churches, pages 5-7. Document from R. L. Vaughn website; used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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