Chapter IX

The New England Churches

Among the members of the Westminster Assembly, there were a few individuals, who harmonized in their doctrinal sentiments with the other members, but rejected the Presbyterian system of church organization and government, and advocated the principles of Independency. Some time after the dissolution of the Assembly, a conference of Independent, ministers and lay messengers from their churches met at the Savoy, London, for the purpose of adopting standards of faith and order for their churches. The document framed and published by this assembly thence received the name of the Savoy Confession. This formulary, was merely the Westminster Confession, slightly altered, in some places, so as to express, more distinctly, the truth, on points on which later errors seemed to indicate the propriety of more specific statements. Those chapters, also, were omitted which relate to church order and discipline, instead of which one was inserted in accordance with their own system. Of the doctrinal amendments, that on justification will illustrate the character and tendency. Chapter eleven, section one, was made to read as follows:

“Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them; but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor, by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience, in his sufferings and death, for their whole and sole righteousness, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.”

In this Savoy article, the clause, “by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole laws and passive obedience in his sufferings and death, for their whole and sole righteousness,” comes in the place of the following clause in the Westminster Confession: “by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them.” This alteration has evident reference to the Neonomian error, of which we have already given account; and was, therefore, very offensive to Baxter, the great patron of that error. It illustrates the extent of the difference between the Westminster and Savoy Confessions.

The Westminster Confession had been adopted by a synod of the New England churches, at Cambridge, in 1648. ” We do judge it,” said this Synod, ” to be very holy, orthodox, and judicious, in all matters of faith, and do, therefore, freely and fully, consent thereunto, for the substance thereof; only, in those things which have respect to church government, and discipline, we refer ourselves to the platform of church discipline agreed upon by this present assembly,” the Cambridge Platform.

After the publication of the Savoy Confession, “it was twice publicly read, examined, and approved;” at a Synod held in Boston, in 1680, “and some small variations made from that of Savoy, in compliance with that at Westminster; and so, after such collations, but no contentions, voted and printed, as the faith of New England.

We have already mentioned, that many of the early colonists of New England were Presbyterians; amounting, in 1680, in Connecticut, to nearly one-half of the entire population. Early efforts were made by them to organize themselves according to their Presbyterian principles. But the government was against them; and its power was used, without scruple, to suppress such attempts; so that they were never permitted to develop the Presbyterian system of order.

Their influence, however, was powerfully felt in the form early given to the constitution of the New England churches. Cotton’s book “Of the Keys,” is stated by Mather to have been, next to the Bible, the early platform of the New England churches; and he quotes Rutherford, speaking of that treatise as “well sound in our way, if he had given some more power to Assemblies, and in some lesser points.”

In the Cambridge Platform, itself, of 1648, a system is described to which the same language may justly be applied. ” Of elders, (who are also in Scripture called bishops,)” it states that “some attend chiefly to the ministry of the Word, as the pastors and teachers; others attend especially unto rule, who are, therefore, called ruling elders.” “The office of the deacon is instituted in the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ…The office and work of the deacon is, to receive the offerings of the church, gifts given to the church, and to keep the treasury of the church, and therewith to serve the tables, which the church is to provide; as, the Lord’s table, the table of the ministers, and of such as are in necessity; to whom the deacons are to distribute with simplicity.”

“Church government or rule is placed by Christ in the officers of the Church.” “Synods, orderly assembled, and rightly proceeding according to the pattern, Acts xv., we acknowledge as the ordinance of Christ; and, though not. absolutely necessary to the being, yet many times, through the iniquity of men and perverseness of the times, necessary to the well‑being of churches, for the establishment of truth and peace therein.” “The Synods’ directions, so far as consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement therewith, (which is the principal ground thereof, and without which they bind not at all,) but also, secondarily, for the power, whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word.”

Mather, in his Magnalia, written about the close of the seventeenth century, states the following, among other points, determined “by a late assembly of our ministers at Cambridge.”

“Synods duly composed of messengers, chosen by them whom they are to represent, and proceeding with due regard unto the will of God in his Word, are to be reverenced, as determining the mind of the Holy Spirit, concerning things necessary to be received and practiced, in order to the edification of the churches therein represented.”

“The power of church government belongs only to the elders of the church.”

“There are yet certain cases wherein the elders, in the management of their church government, are to take the concurrence of the fraternity.”

The Heads of Agreement of 1690, do not seem ever to have been formally adopted by the New England churches at large. They have been recognized, however, from their first publication, as true exhibitions of Congregational principles. The Saybrook m. was formed, in 1708, by a Synod of the Connecticut ministers; who, at the same time, owned and consented to the Savoy Confession and the Heads of Agreement. These three documents, thenceforth, became the standards of the Connecticut churches.

The Saybrook Platform provided that the elders of a particular church, with the consent of the brethren, have power and ought to exercise discipline, in all cases within that church. The churches, in each county, form a Consociation. The council of this body consists of all the teaching and ruling elders of the churches; which are, also, at liberty to delegate lay messengers, who are entitled to deliberate and vote, as members; provided, however, that no matter shall be determined without a majority of the elders. This court is empowered to try and decide all questions of scandal coming up from any of the churches.

The Platform also appointed that all the teaching elders in each several county, shall form a county Association, with power to consult respecting the duties of their office, to resolve questions submitted to them; to examine and recommend candidates for the ministry, to enter proceeding, before the appropriate council, against any of their number, for scandal or heresy; and to look after vacant churches, and take measures to have them supplied. The Platform also provided for a General Association, composed of one or two delegates from each county Association in the State, to meet once a year. In the Associations, lay delegates were not admitted.

In 799 the Old Hartford North Association, in reply to certain inquiries, made the following statement, as to the constitution of the Connecticut churches.

“This Association gives information to all whom it may concern, that the constitution of the churches in the State of Connecticut, founded on the common usages, and the Confession of Faith, Heads of Agreement, and Articles of Church Discipline, adopted at the earliest period of the settlement of the State, is not Congregational, but contains the essentials of the government of the Church of Scotland, or Presbyterian Church in America, particularly, as it gives a decisive power to ecclesiastical councils; and a Consociation, consisting of ministers and messengers, or a lay representation from the churches, is possessed of substantially the same authority as a Presbytery. The judgments, decisions, and censures in our churches and in the Presbyterian are mutually deemed valid. The churches, therefore, in Connecticut, at large, and in our district, in particular, are not now, and never were, from the earliest period of our settlement, Congregational churches, according to the ideas and forms of church order contained in the Book of Discipline, called the Cambridge Platform. There are, however, scattered over the State, perhaps ten or twelve churches (unconsociated) who are properly called Congregational, agreeably to the rules of Church Discipline in the book above mentioned. Sometimes, indeed, the Associated churches of Connecticut are loosely and vaguely, though improperly, termed Congregational. While our churches, in the State at large, are, in the most essential and important respects, the same as the Presbyterian, still, in minute and unimportant points of church order and discipline, both we and the Presbyterian Church in America acknowledge a difference.”

In these facts, we have the key to the circumstance that many of the churches of New England, are, to this day, known by the name of “Presbyterian.” And, of the many ministers who, formerly, from New England, entered our church, Edwards was not, the only one who could have written, as did he,” I have long been perfectly out of conceit of our unsettled, confused way of church government in this land; and the Presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the Word of God, and the reason and nature of things.”

The identity of the theology of the two denominations, and the comparative agreement on the subject of order and government, early induced intimate and confidential relations between the New England churches, and those of the General Synod. In Connecticut, so strong were the tendencies toward a thorough adoption of Presbyterianism, as to encourage the hope of actual union. In 1723, occasion of correspondence with the Connecticut ministers having arisen out of difficulties in the church in New York, the Synod appointed a committee to confer with them on that subject; “and if the good ends proposed, relating to New York, be at the conference happily accomplished, the Synod recommends it to those of their members afore appointed to said conference, to treat with said ministers of Connecticut about a union with us; and empower them to concert and conclude upon any methods that may conduce to that end.” The condition precedent failed, and the overture for union does not seem to have been communicated. The middle of the eighteenth century witnessed a time of much controversy and trouble in Connecticut, arising out. of the Presbyterian tendencies which prevailed, and the anxious exertions which were employed to prevent their acquiring general control.

The first stated intercourse between the Synod and the New England churches, arose out of the question of the American Episcopate, and the parties to it were, the General Synod and the General Association of Connecticut.

Among the measures devised, by the patrons of British supremacy in the colonies, with a view to secure uniformity in religion, the general establishment of the Church of England, and the entire subordination of the colonies to the British Government, one of the most cherished was that of establishing, by act of Parliament, an American Episcopate.

It was impossible that the people of New England and the Presbyterian Church should regard such a project with indifference. They had fled to this country, expressly, to find refuge from the oppressions and persecutions which they had suffered in Great Britain, for refusal to conform to that Church. They had realized, in the land of their exile, enough of the same policy from that Church, to satisfy them, that only the power was wanting to enact the English St. Bartholomew, and the oppressions by which the Presbyterians of Ireland and Scotland had been trodden and peeled. The objection was not to the enjoyment, by those who preferred them, of the rites of religion according to the order of the Episcopal Church. But it was, to the power of Parliament to assume jurisdiction over the ecclesiastical affairs of the colonies. That this was the point where the whole question hinged, is not only apparent, on the entire face of the discussions on the subject, but is demonstrated by two facts; first, that the great body of Episcopalians, themselves, were as active in opposition to the scheme as any others, and second, that as soon as the Revolution had obviated any apprehensions from Parliament, all opposition was withdrawn, and the consecration of the first American bishops was hailed, with general congratulations, by the other denominations in America.

Of the controversy on this subject, John Adams, writing to Dr. Morse, Dec. 2, 1815, says, that “the apprehension of Episcopacy contributed, fifty years ago, as much as any other cause, to arouse the attention, not only of the inquiring minds, but of the common people, and urge them to close thinking on the constitutional authority of Parliament over the colonies.”

“The objection was not merely to the office of bishop, though even that was dreaded; as, to the authority of Parliament, on which it must be founded. The reasoning was this: The archbishops and bishops, in England, can neither locate and limit dioceses in America, nor ordain bishops, in any part. of the dominions of Great Britain, out of the realm, by any law of the kingdom, or any law of the colonies, nor by any canon law acknowledged by either. The king cannot grant his conge d’elire (permission to elect) to any people out of the realm. There is no power, or pretended power, less than Parliament, that can create bishops in America. But, if Parliament can erect dioceses, and appoint bishops, they may introduce the whole hierarchy, establish tithes, forbid marriages and funerals, establish religion, forbid dissent make schism heresy, impose penalties extending to life and limb, as well as to liberty and property.”

Such considerations excited universal apprehension, when it was known that Archbishop Seeker had been zealously laboring to secure the obnoxious measure.

In Virginia, a convention of the clergy was called, to consider the propriety of petitioning for a bishop. But twelve out of one hundred attended; and, of these, four protested against the petition; whereupon the house of burgesses tendered the protesters their unanimous thanks, “for the wise and well‑timed opposition they had made to the pernicious project of a few mistaken clergymen, for introducing an American bishop.”

It was with a view to the exertions, at this time, making on this subject, that the General Synod, in 1766, addressed a letter to the brethren in Connecticut, proposing a convention of delegates from the two churches. The Synod, at the same time, appointed eight commissioners to act on its behalf, in such convention.

Mr. Rodgers, one of these commissioners was pastor of the church in New York, which at this very time, was making a renewed but unavailing effort to secure a charter. The opposition of the Episcopal clergy had prevented its obtaining this privilege; which had been pursued by repeated applications, beginning as early as 1719. The last petition was now pending, before the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations, in London. Before them the Bishop of London appeared, personally, in opposition, and defeated the petition, which, after long delay, was rejected, in August, 1767. Such facts stimulated the zeal of the colonists against the increase of Episcopal power. It was not until after the Revolution that a charter was obtained by that Church.

The proposal for a convention was accepted by the General Association of Connecticut. At the first meeting, a plan of intercourse between the two churches, was agreed upon, which was adopted by both. It provided for an annual convention of delegates from the two bodies; which should, however, have no power over pastors, churches, or any of the internal affairs of the churches. They were to remain entire and independent of each other. The objects prescribed to the convention were, “to gain information of the public state of this united cause and interest; to collect accounts relating. thereto; to unite our endeavors for spreading the gospel and preserving the religious liberties of our churches; to diffuse harmony and keep up a correspondence throughout the united body, and with our friends abroad; to recommend, cultivate and preserve, loyalty and allegiance to the king’s majesty; and, also, to address the king or the king’s ministers, from time to time, with assurances of the unshaken loyalty of the pastors comprehended in this union, and the churches under their care; and to vindicate them, if unjustly aspersed.”

Aspersions of their loyalty were, at that time, rife; and were employed in resisting such applications as that of the New York church.

The plan provided for inviting the other New England churches, and the Reformed Dutch brethren to join the convention. They do not; however, seem to have acceded to it. The convention, at once, opened correspondence with influential parties in Britain, and maintained a vigilant watchfulness over the interests of the churches, as involved in the policy of the British government, the Society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts, and the advocates of the American Episcopate. The last meeting was held in 1776, when the independence of the United States precluded the apprehensions out of which they had originated, and they ceased to meet.

After the Revolution, stated intercourse with New England was not resumed until 1791. In that year, the General Assembly made overtures, for correspondence, to the Congregational churches. They were immediately accepted, by the General Association of Connecticut; and, ultimately, by all the New England churches. The plan, first adopted with the Connecticut Association, provided that the two parties should, each, annually appoint three delegates to attend the sessions of the other, with a right to deliberate on all questions coming before the body, but not to vote. In 1794, the Assembly proposed, and the Association agreed, that the delegates be allowed to vote; and the plan, thus amended, was adopted in the subsequent treaties with the other New England churches.

Next Chapter