THE Baptists of America at the beginning of the twentieth century number nearly five million communicants. They are found in every State and Territory of the Union, with schools, colleges, and theological seminaries, equal in numbers and in efficiency to those of any denomination in the country, and added to these a great Publishing Society with branches in various States. That this mighty and aggressive people should know themselves -- their antecedents, their principles, and their usages -- is beyond all question. Others should also have the means of knowing them.
The questions to be answered in these pages are, what are the principles, and what are the church usages of these people -- the Baptists of America?
There are vaious treatises, manuals, handbooks, and the like, on church discipline. Most of these are the result of laborious thought and research. Many of them are almost unexceptionable in their teachings and practical character.
But there is one field as yet unoccupied. There is a want still unsupplied in our denominational literature. There is no work which embodies the acts of churches or Associations in prominent or remarkable cases, and which would serve as precedents or guides in time of trouble.
Buoys and lighthouses are placed along the rugged shore, where dangers have been met or where wrecks have occurred. The rocks and shoals may thus be shunned and the safe channel be pursued. The experience of early mariners becomes the teacher of those who come after. This is, in fact, the basis of all progression. The voices of the past speaking to us in its acts, the wisdom of the past seen and tested in the results of those acts, become guides to us in our still onward struggles toward perfection. The triumphs or defeats of others should be marked down for our guidance; their mistakes or imprudence for our future avoidance. They will form a chart, to be consulted on unknown or dangerous seas.
Precedents or examples are appealed to as common law. "Common law is immemorial usage." Renderings, decisions, and verdicts, are appealed to as precedents; and, when established as such, have an intrinsic authority. When they have become common usage, they stand forth as the result of the wisdom and experience of ages. They have been tried and tested; have challenged and
obtained the common consent and assent. Hence their authority or influence. The Book of God is the only law of his churches. To make or unmake its laws or ordinances is treason against heaven. To claim the right to abolish, amend, or suspend its discipline, is the highest presumption. It is a sign of Antichrist. Yet, how, or in what method, these laws and discipline shall be enforced or applied, are questions which the honest Christian or prayerful church may find it difficult to answer, and, in matters of church polity, may undesignedly err. Cases of discipline will frequently occur in which mismanagement, or haste, or inexperience, will involve a church, or a number of churches, in almost interminable difficulty.
The artful and guilty will shun the simple and long-established modes of discipline or adjustment, and an inexperienced church will have no examples to guide it, and anarchy or division will result. "There is nothing new under the sun." It is hardly possible that any case of discipline can occur, either in a church or an Association, but that some case analogous has occurred before. Now, if this analogous case were before us, together with the way in which it was managed and disposed of, and the wisdom and justness of that decision tested by time, what a guide would that case be in settling a similar one.
To arrange systematically the acts of churches
and Associations in important matters of discipline with members, ministers, or churches; to report cases and review them, so as to present the usages of Baptists, past and present; report the actual code of practices among us - would be a laborious undertaking, but certainly a useful one. Be this as it may, we have determined to attempt its partial accomplishment.
From the minutes of the Philadelphia Association, from Semple's "History of the Virginia Baptists," from the "History of the Kentocton Association," Benedict's History, and that of the Alabama Baptists, and also from records and minutes of Associations and churches, may be gathered the acts and usages of our denomination in the Southwest -- classified so as to serve as a book of reference, not authoritative, but as a guide, or monitor, which will aid in producing uniformity in our operations. The constitution of a church, the steps to be taken, and the manner of constituting it, and the attending services, ought to some extent, at least, to be governed by settled usage. An example of how this is usually done, will be a guide. The call of a pastor, the ordination of a minister, or the election of a deacon; the arraignment of a member or a minister, the proper mode of trial, what witnesses should be received, and what penalties adjudged; when a council of helps should be called, and its duty when called; the relation
of one church to another, and of churches to an Association; of ministers to each other, and of chuches to the ministry; all these may be illustrated by cases which have undergone rigid investigation, and in which decisions have been rendered, and received as correct.
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