1. OUT of the twenty-three churches in this county, nineteen are in villages, and four in market towns. Eleven are in connexion with the Northamptonshire and Leicestershire association; the other twelve are in no association. The average number of members in each church is about seventy, and of hearers about three hundred.
2. There are no two of them which meet for worship in the same village or town in consequence of any division among themselves. Such things may be borne with in some instances rather than worse; but they are not among the things which are lovely and of good report. Such things have existed among these churches, but they exist no longer.
3. There are only three which meet for worship in towns where there are Independent congregations, or any other preaching which is ordinarily considered as evangelical; and those are places so populous as to furnish no just ground of complaint on the score of opposition. If our object therefore had been to increase our number from other evangelical connexions, rather than by conversions from the world, we have acted very unwisely in fixing on the places where we should take our stand. It is acknowledged that many members of pedobaptist churches have joined us in consequence of their being convinced of believers' baptism being the only baptism taught and exemplified in the Scriptures; and that many of our members owe their first religious impressions to the labours of a Hervey, a Maddox, and other evangelical clergymen, whose names are dear to them and to us all. But the number of persons of both these descriptions fall short of that of persons who have been in the habit of attending our worship, or have come over to us from the ranks of the irreligious.
4. Of those who are not in the association, three or four are what are called high Calvinists, holding the doctrines of election and predestination
in such a way as to exclude exhortations and invitations to the ungodly to believe in Christ for salvation. The rest, whether in or out of the association, consider these doctrines as consistent with exhortations and invitations, as the means by which the predestined ends are accomplished. There are individuals of a different mind in the other churches; for we distinguish between high Calvinists and Antinomians: with the former we do not refuse communion, but with the latter we do.
5. The greater part of these churches are not of very long standing. In 1689, when a meeting of the elders and messengers of more than one hundred Baptist churches was held in London, there were no messengers from this county. It does not follow that there were no Baptist churches in the county, but they certainly were very few and small. Half the present number at least have been raised within the last fifty years, and many of those which were raised before have much more than doubled their number since that period. The average clear increase of those churches in the county which are in the association during the above period is about seventy-five; and probably the clear increase of the churches not associated would be much the same. Several of those which are now flourishing churches were formerly small societies; some of them branches of other churches, supplied principally by gifted brethren not wholly devoted to the ministry, but labouring with their hands for their own maintenance, and that of their families.
6. If such has been the progress of things during the last fifty years, what may we not hope for in fifty years to come? Were the number of these churches even to continue stationary during that period - and were nothing reckoned on but a diligent perseverance in the stated means of grace, only including occasional labours in adjacent villages, reckoning three generations to a century - a testimony will have been borne in each of them to a thousand, and in all of them to three-and-twenty thousand souls. And if on an average they may be supposed to contain fifty truly Christian people - for though we admit none but those who profess and appear to be such, yet it cannot be expected that all are what they profess to be each church will have reared seventy-five, and altogether seventeen hundred and twenty-five plants for the heavenly paradise.
But surely we need not calculate on their remaining stationary. If genuine Christianity does but live among them, it will both "grow and multiply." If it multiply only in the same proportion as it has done in the last half century, in respect to the number of churches, and of members in each church, it will increase considerably more than fourfold; and if from each of these churches should proceed only three or four faithful and useful ministers of the gospel - if especially there should arise among them only now and then "a fruitful bough" say a Thomas, a Carey, a Marshman, a Ward, a Chamberlain, or a Chater - "whose branches run over the wall" of Christendom itself: who can calculate the fruits? From a part of these churches, connected in association with others in the adjacent counties, within the last twenty years, has "sounded forth the word of the Lord." into the very heart of heathen and Mahomedan Asia; and as the times foretold in prophecy, when "a little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation," appear to be fast approaching, it behoves us not only to "attempt," but also to "expect great things."
Our chief concern should be that we may not disqualify ourselves for possessing these lively hopes by a relinquishment of the doctrine, the worship, the discipline, the spirit, or the practice of vital Christianity. That God's "way may be known upon earth, and his saving health among all nations," our prayer should be, "God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause thy face to shine upon us." We cannot impart that which we do not possess.
I have seen, in those churches with which I have been most intimately connected, many things which have endeared them to me. Particularly, a lively interest in evangelical, faithful, practical, and pungent preaching; an attention to things more than to words; a taste for the affectionate more than for the curious; a disposition to read and think rather than dispute; a spirit to promote the kingdom of Christ; in fine, a modesty, gentleness, and kindness of behaviour. I have been thirty years pastor of one of them; and if there has ever been an instance of unkind or unchristian behaviour towards me, I have forgotten it.
These things I have seen in some of our churches, and would fain consider them as the general feature. But truth obliges me to add, I have also seen things of another description. I have seen discipline neglected, apparently lest it should injure the subscription; and if exercised, it has seemed to be more from regard to reputation in the eyes of men than from the fear of God. I have seen an evil in the choice of ministers; too much attention has been paid to the superficial qualification of a ready, of hand address, calculated to fill the place, and too little to those solid qualities that constitute the man of God, and the serious, faithful, and affectionate pastor. I have also seen, or thought I have seen, in the choice of deacons, more regard paid to opulence than to those qualifications required by the New Testament. I have seen too much of a worldly spirit, and a conformity to the maxims by which worldly men are wont to regulate their conduct.
I do not know that such things are more prevalent in these than in other churches; but, wherever they prevail, they will be a worm at the root of the gourd. It becomes us as ministers to inquire whether a large portion of these evils may not originate amongst us. If we were more spiritual, evangelical, and zealous in the work of God, things would be different with the people. We are apt to think, that if we have but made up our minds on the leading points of controversy afloat in the world, and taken the side of truth, we are safe; but it is not so. If we walk not with God, we shall almost be certain in some way to get aside from the gospel, and then the work of God will not prosper in our hands. Ingenious discourses may be delivered, and nothing advanced inconsistent with the gospel, while yet the gospel itself is not preached. We may preach about Christ himself, and yet not "preach Christ." We may pride ourselves in our orthodoxy, and yet be far from the doctrine of the New Testament; may hold with exhortations and invitations to the unconverted, and yet not "persuade men;" may plead for sound doctrine, and yet overlook the things that "become sound doctrine." Finally, we may advocate the cause of holiness, while we ourselves are unholy.
[From Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Volume III, 1845; rpt. 1988, pp. 481-483. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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