By Rev. Henry C. Fish, 1855.
THIS church was organized in 1801. The number of constituent members was seven. It originated in the Baptist Church at Lyons' Farm, which sprang from the Scotch Plains Baptist Church, a body that had its origin in the church at Piscataway, which is the second in point of seniority in the state; that at Middletown being the first. It has had fourteen different pastors, viz; Charles Lahatt, Peter Thurston, Daniel Sharp, John Lamb, David Jones, Daniel Putnam, Ebenezer Loomis, C. F. Frey, P. L. Platt, Daniel Dodge, Wm. Sym, Henry V. Jones, E. E. Cummings, and Henry C. Fish, who has now been the pastor for four years. At the close of thirty years from the time of its organization, it numbered but one hundred and eleven members. This small increse was doubtless owing to a variety of causes; but the main source of evil is detected in the following resolution found upon the records as early as 1803.
"Resolved, as a standing rule to be observed until otherwise ordered, that our public worship on Lord's-days, (morning or afternoon, but not both,) be conducted after tbe following order, -- viz: The pastor, after the opening of the meeting, shall address to the congregation, a brief exhortation or exposition, after which he shall proceed to call upon such persons as the church shall appoint, who may speak to the congregation by two or three, if they feel at liberty, in exercise of such gifts as the church judge they possess, and they shall stand while speaking, where the minister usually stands; provided the above order be not exacted when any strange minister be among them."
This arrangement was afterwards modified in some particulars, but the main features here contemplated, obtained, until within, at least, the last third of the past fifty years.
To comprehend the spirit and tendency of this movement, it must be viewed as connected with the doctrines of Mr. Haldane, of Scotland, which about this time were highly popular in some parts of Great Britain, and were spreading, to some extent, especially among the Baptists in America. Haldane, particularly during the earlier part of his public career, advocated many of the sentiments of Sandeman, whose errors are exposed with a master hand in the works of Andrew Fuller.
My main object in transcribing the above item from the records, is to indicate a peculiarity of the system of Sandeman, viz: a plurality of pastors, or bishops, or elders in each church.
Although this body never acknowledge[d] a plurality of pastors, the clause in the order of exercises, "he shall proceed to call upon such persons as the Church shall appoint who may speak to the congregation -- and in exercise of such gifts as the Church Judge they possess, and they shall stand while speaking in the place where the minister usually stands," sufficiently establishes the virtual existence of a belief in the propriety and scripturalness of having several ministers at the same time.
According to the originator and defender of this theory, the elders were expected to continue in their worldly professions and pursuits, and a want of literary attainments was to be no bar against their promotion to the office.
At the public meetings of the church, some one of them assumed the entire charge of the services; or, (which was the case in a majority of their meetings) in the room of a single discourse, the time was occupied in mutual exhortations, each taking part according to his respective inclination. By thus introducing into their public assemblies a class of religious exercises that befitted the social meeting, the former ceased to become attractive to the multitude, and were visited almost as a natural consequence, by only such as sympathized with the peculiar plan of operations.
But the results of this system terminated, most disastrously upon the ministerial relation.
A church adopting these measures, if they called to their service a man of adequate endowments, could scarcely expect to retain him, while several others among its members, of no commensurate attainments, claimed the same prerogatives, and assumed the performance of the same duties. The result would almost inevitably be his withdrawal, and the consequent degradation of the office of the ministry.
For a small church to have more pastors than one, must, as Fuller observes, "favor idleness, and confine useful ministers from extending their labors." And he adds, "to place two or three in a post which might be filled by one, must leave many others unoccupied. Such a system is more adapted for show than for promoting the kingdom of Christ."
Beyond this, it should be added, that the history of this opinion in its ripening and developments, proves that, designedly or undesignedly, it was a slight put upon God's holy ministry -- an instrumentality that towers mountain-high above every other, in the Divine plan of saving mankind. Even in Fuller's time, as he avers, the office of elder in churches favorable to those sentiments, "was little more than nominal." And yet it was stoutly insisted that "Elder" was a term of office, not only, but of the pastoral office exclusively. Was it strange, then, that the frown of Heaven rested on this movement from its origin? To render it more apparent that this leaven was a most mischievous element in the earlier experience of the church whose history we are passing under review, I will state that I have certain knowledge that its existence was a serious impediment in at least the ministry of Dr. Sharp, and finally compelled him to resign his charge. And his prediction proved but too true, which he announced in his letter of resignation: "If you adopt Haldanian plans, ignorance, folly, and impudence will become your teachers, and men of enlarged views will entirely forsake your place of worship,"
The brethren then composing the church were doubtless good men, and, in adopting these plans, beyond question, acted from honest and conscientious convictions. But the comparative desertion of the sanctuary, especially by the more refined and intelligent of the community; the ill odor in which the church, and to some extent, the denomination was held; the frequent changes in the ministry, and the slow progress of the enterprise for half of its existence, all declare to us that the sentiments and measures they adopted, in this particular, were exceedingly injurious and unwise.
There long existed another element in this church, which was a constant source of irritation, and a serious impediment. I refer to the disposition of some of its members to insist upon the adoption of. their own notions and favorite measures. In its earlier, as well as in its latter history, this body has represented in itself not a few of the nations of the earth. Its constituent members were probably from four distinct countries, though the larger proportion came from England; and soon the diversity was still greater. Now nothing could have been more evident than that, if peace and harmony were to be enjoyed, there must be mutual concessions, and a willingness to be governed in all their actions by the voice of the majority. Unfortunately, however, this principle was either over-looked or disregarded. Good brethren embraced different opinions as to the proper policy to be pursued in the various matters presenting themselves, and each one felt bound to carry his point, and have everything in his own way. He was conscientious in it, and not less so was the brother differing in opinion; and hence each tenaciously clung to what he considered right and duty. As a consequence, the church meetings for business became too often the arena of strife; and matters of trifling importance were, like a grain of sand in the eye, the cause of irritation and disquiet to the whole body.
Besides this, the affections of brethren became alienated, and those of less influence, not willing to be denied their respective rights, at length withdrew from the church; while from the same reason others refused to join it. Mr. Sharp's allusion to this feature in his letter above referred to, is worthy of being repeated here, not only as establishing the justness of the opinion as to the fact of its existence, but as a fitting rebuke of its folly: "Cultivate, my brethren, a peaceful temper. Never be so bent on having your own way on the most trifling subjects, that you will sooner see a church torn to pieces than yield to others. Alas! there are too many who make religion to consist in circumstantials, while to the exercise of faith, piety and charity, they are as cold as death."
But the historic page of this church for the last twenty years, especially for the last five or ten years, presents a pleasing and encouraging aspect. During that period it has sent out two flourishing colonies, and still numbers about five hundred members. 234 have been baptized during the past four years; and besides sustaining its own operations, and, with the South church, supporting a city mission enterprise, it has contributed for benevolent objects not less than $12,000.
This advance in numbers and strength is doubtless attributable, to a great extent, under God, to a spirit of enterprise and activity in Christ's cause, which the church has manifested for a few years past. It is the natural result of diffusive benevolence. In 1830 the church gave its first recorded contribution (of $15) for charitable purposes. In 1834 it gave $167; in 1836 $675; in 1846 $1100. In this increased ratio it has scattered abroad its bounties, and in return, received four-fold of the Lord. Though, at the first, less enterprising, and less prompt to respond to God's call, and send forth her benefactions to the destitute, she has at length earned for herself a good report for enlarged liberality, in the practice of which she is gathering to herself rich fruits.
[Taken from American Baptist Memorial, 1855, pp. 46-48. jrd]