John Newton's Letters
Four letters on 'denominations' and forms of 'church government'
My dear friend and brother,
You have more than once gently called upon me for the reasons which induced me to exercise my ministry as a Clergyman of the Church of England, rather than among the Dissenters, where my first religious connections were formed, and with many of whom I still maintain a cordial friendship. Hitherto I have usually waived the subject, and contented myself with assuring you, in general terms, that, as the preference I gave to the Establishment was the result of serious and, I trust, impartial inquiry, so that I had never seen reason to repent of it, no, not for a minute, since the day of my ordination. I now purpose to give you a more particular answer: and, as you are not the only person who has expressed a friendly surprise at my choice, I shall communicate my reasons from the press, that all my fiends who have been at a loss to account for my conduct, may have such satisfaction as it is in my power to give them. I shall, however, keep you particularly in my eye while I write, that a just sense of the candor and affection with which you have always treated me, may regulate my pen, and preserve me (if possible) from that harsh and angry spirit, into which writers upon controversial points are too often betrayed.
I confess, that, as in this business my conscience is clear in the sight of Him to whom alone I am properly accountable, I would wish still to continue silent, and submit to be a little misunderstood by some people whose good opinion I prize—rather than trouble the public with what more immediately relates to myself. But something upon this subject seems expedient in the present day; not so much by way of apology for one or a few individuals, as with a view of obviating prejudices, and preventing, or at least abating, the unhappy effects of a party-spirit.
There was a time when the non-conformists groaned under the iron rod of oppression and were exposed to fines, penalties, and imprisonment, as well as to cruel mocking, and the lawless rage of a rabble—for worshiping God according to the light of their consciences! The greater part of the non-conformist ministers of that day were the light and glory of the land. They were men full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, penetrated with a deep sense of the Redeemer's glory and love, and of the worth of souls. Their ministrations were accompanied with unction and power, and they were instrumental in turning many sinners from their evil ways. It is no wonder that the world hated such men; that snares were spread for their feet, their liberty abridged, and that many said, "Away with them, they are not worthy to live!"
It is probable, that, if these servants of the Most High could have enjoyed that freedom for their persons and assemblies, which, in answer to their prayers, is now possessed by those who bear the same name, they would have been well satisfied that the established church should have remained in peaceful possession of its own order and ritual. And several among them, not the lowest in repute for wisdom and piety, continued long to worship occasionally in the parish churches, after the non-conformist preachers had been ejected from them. But things were studiously carried against them with a high hand. The exaction of re-ordination, and the little time allowed for subscribing the Book of Common Prayer, which many of the ministers had not been able to procure when the law called for their assent to it, were two circumstances which greatly contributed to swell the Bartholomew list. It was well known to some of the leaders in that unhappy business, that there were among the non-conformists, wise and moderate men, who were not disposed to leave their parochial churches, unless they were constrained by the harshest and most violent measures; such, therefore, were the measures they adopted.
It is our mercy to live in more quiet times. We are on all sides freed from restraints in religious concerns; and every person is at liberty to profess, preach, worship, or print—as he thinks proper. But it is still to be lamented, that those who are united upon the same foundational truths, and agree in the same important leading principles, should lay so much stress upon their secondary differences in sentiment, as to prevent the exercise of mutual love and forbearance; and that, instead of laboring in concert, within their respective departments, to promote the common cause, they should strive to vex and worry each other with needless disputation, and uncharitable censures!
I hope, among us, the High Church principles, which formerly produced unjustifiable and oppressive effects, are now generally exploded. But may we not lay a claim, in our turn, to that moderation, candor, and tenderness, from our dissenting brethren, which we cheerfully exercise towards them? But, as we (I think) are no longer the aggressors, so they seem no longer content to stand upon the defensive. We wish to join them with heart and hand, in supporting and spreading the great truths of the gospel; and such as you, my friend, approve our aims, and rejoice with us, if God is pleased to give us success.
But there are those among you, whose persons and general conduct we respect, from whom we do not find equal returns of good-will, because we cannot join with them in the support of a group which bears the name of the Dissenting Interest. I know not whether this phrase was in use a hundred years ago; but, were I to meet with it as referring to that period, I would understand by it little more or less than the interest of the Redeemer's kingdom. At present, when I consider the various names, views, and sentiments, which obtain among those who form this aggregate, styled the Dissenting Interest, I am at a loss what sense to put upon the term. May I not say, without offence, that it is at least a very heterogeneous body? May I not hope, without presumption, that though you and I are not agreed on the subject of church government, yet I am related to you by a much nearer and stronger tie than that which binds you to the Dissenting Interest?
I confess, that so far as it is the interest of those who depreciate the person and blood of the Savior, and deny the agency and influence of the Holy Spirit, or the total depravity of fallen man, so far I cannot (in a Christian view) be a friend to it. On the other hand, so far as it regards those who love, avow, and preach the doctrines, experience, and practice, which both you and I include in our idea of the Gospel, so far I can truly say, though not a Dissenter myself, the Dissenting Interest is dear to my heart, and has a share in my daily prayers. And in this, I am persuaded, I speak the sentiments of many, both ministers and laymen, in the establishment.
We are sorry, therefore, (at least I am sorry,) though not angry, when books are written, or declarations (perhaps in the most solemn occasions of worship) [some of the Letters were written in the year 1777.] unseasonably made, which seem not so much designed to confirm Dissenters in their own principles, as to place those who cannot accede to them in an unfavorable light; the ministers, especially, who, according to some representations, must be supposed to be almost destitute of common sense, or else of common honesty!
When I write a letter, especially to a friend, I think myself released from that attention to method which I might observe if I was composing a treatise. As my heart dictates—my pen moves. I therefore hope you will bear with me if I do not come directly to what I proposed; which was to give you some account of the motives of my own conduct. It may not be improper to premise a few preliminary observations. I shall not weary you by attempting to justify everything that obtains in our way, nor call your attention to all the minutiae which might furnish subject for debate to those who know not how to employ their time better. It would be mere trifling to dispute for or against a surplice or a band, a gown or a cloak; or to inquire whether it is the size, or the shape, which renders some of these habiliments more or less suitable for a minister, than the others. But, perhaps, a few strictures upon establishments and liturgies may not be wholly impertinent to my design.
That national religious establishments, under the New Testament dispensation, are neither of express divine appointment, nor formed in all points upon a Scriptural plan, I readily admit. Whether upon this account they cannot be submitted to without violating the obedience we owe to the Lord Jesus, as Head and Lawgiver of his church, I shall consider hereafter. At present, permit me only to hope, (for my own sake,) that such submission is not absolutely sinful; and in that view, to offer a word in favor of their expedience.
I plead not for this or that establishment, or the administration of one preferably to another; but chiefly for that circumstance which I suppose is common to them all, I mean, the parceling out a country, the government of which is professedly Christian, into certain districts, analogous to what we call parishes, and fixing in each of those districts, a person with a ministerial character, who by his office is engaged to promote the good of souls within the limits of his own boundary. I think the number of parishes in England and Wales is computed to be not much fewer than ten thousand.
The number of dissenting churches and congregations in England and Wales, (if those whom I have consulted as the most competent judges are not mistaken,) will not be found greatly to exceed one thousand. In how many, or in how few of these, the old puritan gospel (if I may so call it) is preached or prized—I deem you a better judge than myself. It is certain, that the number of dissenting ministers who are very willing that it should be publicly known that they differ widely from the sentiments of their forefathers, is not small. However, we will take them all into the estimate.
Now let us for a moment suppose the establishment, with all its provisions, removed and annihilated. In this case some of the dissenting ministers might indeed change their situations, and fix in places where they might hope for more extensive influence; but, as none of them could be in two places at once, about nine-tenths of the kingdom would be deprived, at a single stroke, of the very form of public religion, and reduced, in a short time, (for any relief the Dissenting Interest could afford,) to a state little better than Heathenism. That there is any regard paid to the Lord's day through the greater part of the land, that the holy Scriptures are publicly read to thousands, who, probably, would otherwise know no more of the Bible than they do of the Koran—are good effects of the national establishment, which, I think, can hardly be denied, even by those who are most displeased with it.
For this reason, if I could not conform to the Establishment myself, I think I would speak respectfully of it, and bless God for it. Some established form of religious profession, with a full and free toleration for all who think they can serve God more acceptably upon a different plan—appears to me the most desirable and promising constitution, for preserving the rights of conscience, and for promoting the welfare of souls. I believe, therefore, that the Church of England, as by law established, (for it claims no higher title,) though it be not a perfect institution, and notwithstanding its real or supposed defects, and the faults of individuals within its community, has been, upon the whole, and will be, a blessing to the nation; and that its preservation is an effect of the wise and gracious providence of the Great Head of the Church Universal.
From the expediency of parochial order, I would farther deduce the expediency of a rubric and liturgy. For I cannot conceive of an established church, without including in my idea some determinate rule or line respecting doctrine and worship, by which it is discriminated from other churches which are not so established. As to our liturgy, I am far from thinking it incapable of amendment; though, when I consider the temper and spirit of the present times, I dare not wish that the improvement of it should be attempted, lest the intended remedy might prove worse than the disease! As I am not called to defend it, I shall only say, what I believe will be allowed by many candid people on your side, that that the general strain of it is Scriptural, evangelical, and experimental. It recognizes with precision, the One Great Object of Worship, in his personal distinctions and glorious attributes, the honors and offices of the Redeemer, the power and agency of the Holy Spirit, the evil of sin, the depravity of man, and all the distinguishing doctrines of the Gospel. As to the composition, I question if anything in the English language (the Bible excepted) is worthy of being compared with it for simplicity, perspicuity, energy, and comprehensive fullness of expression.
But I suppose the objection does not lie so much against our liturgy, in particular, as in general against the use of liturgies of any kind. And, for ought I know, if the compilers of our liturgy could have expected, that all the parishes in the kingdom, and from age to age, would be supplied with ministers competently acquainted with the mysteries of the Gospel, and possessed of the spirit of grace and supplication, they might have left them under less restraint in conducting public worship. I believe many of the Dissenters take it for granted, that a considerable part of our clergy are not only unable to pray in public, to the edification of their hearers, without a form—but are unfit for the ministerial office in every view. Should this be true, it is a truth which, I hope, would excite lamentation, rather than ridicule or invective, in all who profess a regard for the glory of God, or love to the souls of men.
But, upon this supposition, I would think an evangelical liturgy a great blessing; as it must secure the people (that is, the bulk of the nation) from being exposed to the same uncertainty and disappointment from our reading desks, as they are liable to from the pulpit. For they who cannot, or do not, preach the Gospel, are not likely to pray agreeably to the spirit of the Gospel, if that part of the public service was likewise left to their own management. Or shall we say, it is an advantage to some dissenting congregations that, their ministers not being confined to a form of sound words, there is little more of Christ or of grace to be found in their prayers than in their sermons?
Is it not too hastily taken for granted by many, that God cannot be worshiped in spirit and in truth by those who use a form of prayer? or that he will not afford those who so approach him, any testimony of his acceptance? If the words of a form suit and express the desires and feelings of my mind, the prayer is as much my own as if I had conceived it upon the spot. On the other hand, if I have the greatest readiness and fluency in diversifying expressions, so that my prayer should always appear unstudied and new; yet, if my spirit, or the spirit of those who join with me, are not engaged in it, though I may admire my own performance, and be applauded by others—it is no better than a mere lifeless form in the sight of Him who searches the heart. Not to say, that many who profess to pray extempore, that is, without either a printed or a written form—go so much in a beaten path, that they who hear them frequently can tell, with tolerable certainty, how they will begin, when they are about the middle, and when they are drawing towards the close of their prayer.
It is said, that a prescribed form precludes the exercise of a gift in prayer; which is true: but then, as I hinted before, it in some good measure supplies the lack of such a gift; and, blessed be the Lord, there are many living witnesses who can declare, to his praise, that a form does not restrain, much less preclude, the exercise of grace. They know, and are sure, that their Lord and Master owns and comforts them in what their brethren hastily condemn them for. It is well for us, that God sees not as man sees, and is no more a respecter of parties than of persons.
It cannot be denied that the Lord himself appointed forms of prayer and praise to be used in the Old Testament church. When the ark set forward, and when it rested, Moses addressed the Lord, not according to the varied emotions of his own spirit—but statedly in the same determinate expressions, Num. 10:35-36. So likewise in the solemn benediction which the high-priest was to pronounce upon the people, Num. 6:23-27. Again, at the presenting of the first fruits, though the heart of the officer might be filled with gratitude, He was not to express it in his own way—but the Lord himself prescribed the form of his acknowledgment, confession, and prayer. Deu. 26:12-15. But it may be said, these were enjoined under the Levitical institution, which is now abrogated, and that we live under a dispensation of greater light and liberty. I wish, however, with all our light and liberty, we could more fully come up to the spirit of some of the devotional parts of the Old Testament, which were recorded for our instruction, and most certainly are not abrogated.
The Book of Psalms, especially, contains a rich variety of patterns for prayer, if we may not call them forms, adapted to all the various exercises of the life of faith. And if, when I read or repeat such Psalms as the sixty-third, eighty-fourth, or eighty-sixth, I could feel, in the manner I wish, the force of every expression, I should think I prayed to good purpose, though I were not to intermingle a single word of my own.
So likewise with respect to that summary which our Lord condescended to teach his disciples; though, I believe, it had a peculiar reference to the state in which they were before his passion, and while he was still with them; yet, agreeably to the fullness of his wisdom, it is so comprehensive, that, I apprehend, every part of a believer's fellowship with God in prayer, may be reduced, without forcing, to one or the other of the heads of this prayer. And I should esteem it a golden hour indeed, one of the happiest seasons I ever enjoyed in prayer, if I could repeat it with a just impression of the meaning of every clause! But, alas! such are the effects of our unhappy differences, or rather of a wrongness of spirit in maintaining them; and so prone are we to think we cannot be too unlike those whom we are not pleased with, that even the words which our Lord himself has taught us are depreciated and disused by many, I fear, upon no better ground than because they are retained in the usage of the Church of England! Though, besides, giving us a pattern to pray after that manner, He has, at least, permitted us to use it as a form, directing us, when we pray, to say, "Our Father who are in heaven," etc. If Scriptural warrant be required, I think we have one more clear and express for the use of this prayer than can be found for some things upon which no small stress is laid by our dissenting brethren.
Some people might possibly allege, that, if the use of Scriptural forms of prayer were admitted, it would plead nothing in favor of such forms as are of human composition. But, as I believe the more judicious part of the Dissenters would not make this distinction, a few words may suffice for an answer. Most of us, when we preach, profess to preach the Word of God; and, I think, we are sufficiently authorized to use the expression, so far as our sermons are explanatory of Scriptural truths, and agreeable to them. For, though the system of truth contained in the holy Scriptures has a peculiar authority, as the fountain from whence we are to derive our public discourses, and the standard by which they are to be tried—yet truth, as to its nature, does not admit of degrees; but all propositions, if they are true, must be equally true; and every conclusion which is rightly inferred from Scriptural premises, must be, in whatever words it is expressed, (if they are precise and clear,) as true as the premises from which it is drawn. If I give a just definition or explication of a doctrine of the Bible in my own words, the truth or importance of that doctrine are not affected or weakened by the vehicle in which I convey it; nor would a hearer have a right to withhold his attention or assent, from a pretense that, though the proposition itself was true, he was not concerned in it, because I had not expressed it in Scriptural phrases. It is only upon this ground that the propriety and authority of preaching can be maintained; and the like reasoning may be applied to prayer. A prayer is Scriptural, if conformable to the promises, patterns, and truths of Scripture, though it should not contain one phrase taken verbatim from the Bible!
May I not here appeal to the practice of the Dissenters themselves? I suppose, Dr. Watts's Hymns, and his imitation of David's Psalms, especially the latter, are used by a large majority of dissenting congregations in their public worship. Many of these pieces are devotional; that is, they are in the strain of prayer, or praise. They are, therefore, forms of prayer or praise; and when the first line is given out, it is probable that several people in the assembly know before-hand every word they are to sing. In some congregations the psalm or hymn is delivered line by line; and in most, the bulk of the people are provided with books. Now, it appears to me, that, when a worshiper, who attends to what is going forward, and is not content with a mere lip-service, joins in singing verses, which express the desires and petitions of his heart to the Lord, he prays; and, if he uses verses with which he was before acquainted, he prays by a form; he does the very thing for which we are condemned! Unless it can be proved that the fault and evil, which is essential to a form in prose, is entirely removed, if the substance of the obnoxious form be expressed in metre and chime.
I have heard of a minister who used to compose hymns in the pulpit. It was his custom to give out one line; and by the time the congregation had sung the first, he had a second ready for them, and so on, as long as he thought proper to sing. These were not forms; they were composed on the spot. Before he had finished a second stanza, the former (as to the verse and cadence) was in a manner forgotten, and the same hymn was never heard twice. I know not what these unpremeditated pieces were in point of composition; but, were I persuaded of the unlawfulness of forms of prayer, and at the same time approved of the practice of singing in public worship, I would extremely covet the talent of extempore hymn-making, as one of the most necessary gifts a minister could possess, in order to maintain a consistency in his whole service.
I here close what I intended by way of introduction. In my subsequent letters, I purpose to acquaint you more directly with the reasons which determined my own choice, and which still satisfy me, that in receiving Episcopal ordination, and exercising my ministry in the established church, I have not acted wrong. At present, I shall relieve your attention, by subscribing myself,
Your affectionate friend and brother,
My dear friend and brother,
As such I address you as such, notwithstanding our different views of church-government, you have acknowledged me as your Christian brother. You have confirmed your love to me by many repeated proofs; and it is the desire of my heart, that nothing may take place on either side to weaken the exercise of that friendship, which, having the faith and hope of the Gospel for its basis, is calculated to exist and flourish in the heavenly world. With this thought upon my mind, it is impossible that I should write a single line with an intention of grieving or offending you; and I am persuaded the same consideration on your part will dispose you to a candid perusal of what I offer. I had rather be silent than plead, even for truth, in an angry, contentious spirit; for every year of my life strengthens my conviction of the importance of that divine aphorism, "Man's anger does not accomplish God's righteousness." James 1:20
How far what I have suggested in favor of establishments and liturgies may appear conclusive to you, I know not. I depend much upon your sincerity; but I make allowances for the unavoidable influence of education, friends, and habit—both in you and in myself. We generally ascribe the dissent of those who differ from us, in part at least, to prejudices of this kind; but, as it is very natural to think favorably of ourselves, we almost take it for granted that we have either escaped or outgrown every bias! Though some of the principles we maintain have been instilled into us from our childhood, and we have been confirmed in what we say is right, by the instruction, advice, and example of friends—exactly as others have been confirmed in what we call wrong. Yet we think that that possessiveness, which we see in them as the effect of ignorant prejudice, is in us a very different thing—a just attachment to truth, and the result of impartial examination and full conviction. For my own part, I dare not say that I am free from all bias and presuppositions; but I desire and endeavor to guard against their influence.
But, though I have ventured to defend the propriety of a national established church, and, upon that ground, the expediency of a liturgy, I need not tell you that I had no hand in forming either the one or the other. By the allotment of Divine Providence, I was born in a nation where these things had taken place long before I came into the world; therefore, when the Lord gave me a desire to preach his Gospel, and it became necessary to determine under what character I should exercise my ministry, the question before me was not— What form of church-government I might propose as the most Scriptural, if all parties among us were willing to refer themselves to my decision? But my inquiry was rather directed to this point, What would be my path of duty—living, as I did, in the Island of Great Britain, and in that part of it named England?
At first, indeed, I saw but little room for deliberation. For about six years after I was awakened to some concern for my soul, my situation in life had secluded me equally from every religious party. During this period, in which I walked alone, the Lord was pleased to show me the way to the throne of grace, and to lead me to study and prize his holy Word. By his blessing, I made some advances in knowledge, though slowly, under such discouragements and disadvantages, as they, who, from the beginning of their inquiries, are favored with public ordinances and the help of Christian fellowship, can have no proper conception of. At length I became acquainted with some of his people, and had frequent opportunities of hearing the Gospel. My first connections of this sort were chiefly with Dissenters, and brought me, as it were, into a new world; for, until then, I had hardly an idea of the different names and modes by which professing Christians were distinguished and subdivided, nor of the animosity with which their various disputes were carried on! But, as I received benefit and pleasure from my fellowship with my new friends, it is no wonder that, while my heart was warm, and my experience and judgment unformed —that I should enter with readiness into all their views. Thus, together with the real advantages I obtained among them, I imbibed, at the same time, a strong prejudice against the established church, and hastily concluded, that, though I might occasionally communicate with it as a private person, it would be impossible to officiate in it as a minister, without violating my conscience. Accordingly, my first overtures were to the Dissenters; and, had not the providence of God remarkably interposed to prevent it, I would probably have been a brother with you in every sense.
But my designs were overruled. A variety of doors by which I sought entrance, (for I did not give up upon the first disappointment,) were successively shut against me. These repeated delays afforded me more time to think and judge for myself; and the more I considered the point, the more my scruples against the Episcopal church gave way. Reasons increased upon me, which not only satisfied me that I might conform without sin—but that the preference (as to my own concern) was plainly on that side. Accordingly, in the Lord's due time, after several years waiting to know his will, I sought and obtained Episcopal ordination; and I seriously assure you, that, though I took this step with a firm persuasion that it was right, I did not, at that time, see so many reasons to justify my choice, nor perhaps any one reason in so strong a light, as I have since. Far from having regretted this interesting part of my conduct for a single hour, I have been more satisfied with it from year to year.
You will please, therefore, accept what I am about to offer, not merely as an account of the motives which influenced me twenty years ago—but rather as the considerations which, at this minute, call upon me to be heartily thankful to the Lord, for leading me by a way which I knew not, to labor in that part of his vineyard, which experience has proved to be most suitable for maintaining my personal peace and comfort, and (I truly believe likewise) for promoting my usefulness as a minister.
Some of our dissenting brethren, who, I hope, are willing to think as well of the awakened clergy in the Church of England, as they can, kindly allow us to be well-meaning people. They believe we desire to be useful, and think it not impossible but that, in some instances, we may be so; but they pity us, either for not having more light, or for not having courage to follow that light, which, they suppose, must force itself upon us—if we did not willfully shut it out. From what they hear of us, they are staggered. They are reluctant to deny that the Lord is with us at all; but then, if the Lord is with us indeed, why are we thus? It is almost unaccountable to them, upon this supposition, how we can remain where we are. They are expecting from day to day, that, if we are enlightened, as we profess, and are honest men, as they wish to find us, we shall surely come out from 'Babylon', renounce our slavery, and will-worship, and openly attach ourselves to the Dissenting Interest. Could we do this, and persuade our people to follow us, they would, probably, no longer doubt whether the Lord had wrought by our ministry or not.
I could wish you not to think of me while you read the paragraph I am now beginning. You know many of our ministers, and you know that there are among them men of sound sense, solid judgment, and extensive Christian reading—men whom the Lord has been pleased to favor with an eminency in gifts and spiritual knowledge; in a word, able ministers of the New Testament. Men, who, though in the sight of the Lord they lie low in the dust, conscious of inherent defilement, and that their best services need forgiveness; yet, with regard to their fellow-creatures, can, in the integrity of their hearts, appeal to all around them, that their life is not befitting of the Gospel which they preach. Some of these men, at least, have carefully studied the subject-matter of debate between us and the Dissenters, have read the books, and considered the arguments which are supposed sufficient to convert and reform us; but, after all their endeavors to obtain information, though they agree with the evangelical Dissenters in their views of the Gospel, (which yet they received not from them—but from the holy Scripture,) they are still constrained to differ on the question of church form and order.
Now, why should this be imputed to their ignorance and blindness? Why should their not acceding to you—be imputed to selfish motives? There are with us men whose integrity and sincerity are, in every other respect, unimpeachable; and it is hard that, without sufficient evidence, they should be charged with blatant hypocrisy in a business which concerns the honor of their Savior, and the uprightness of their consciences in his sight. Besides, what can be the powerful motives for such hypocrisy? Do they, by remaining in the establishment, avoid the offence of the cross, and find a shelter from that opprobrium and opposition which must be their lot if they had the fortitude to unite with the Dissenters?
Here, at least, however, we may be mistaken. I apprehend the Lord has assigned to us the post of honor; and that in the treatment we meet with from an unbelieving world, our lot rather resembles that of the Dissenters in the last century, than of the present. It is true, we are no more exposed to fines and imprisonment than you are; but, if it be an honor to suffer shame for his name's sake, I think we have the pre-eminence.
As to "money-matters", I could name several of our clergy who are not so plentifully provided for in the establishment—but that, if they were to leave us, and go over to your side, it is very probable the manner in which converts of such characters and abilities would be received among you, might considerably increase their income.
Nor can it upon better grounds be ascribed to obstinate prejudice and incurable bigotry, that your arguments do not prevail. For it is well known that many of our ministers show a cordial and liberal spirit to the Dissenters, receive them gladly into their houses, attend occasionally upon their preaching, recommend and encourage applications for the support of their ministers or places of worship, and are ready to concur with them in every plan for usefulness. And I believe this disposition would be more general, had not experience shown that the candor of some of your clergymen, in these respects, has been too often improperly requited by ungenerous attempts to prejudice and perplex our people, and to weaken our hands.
Yet one or other, or all these charges, must be insinuated against us, rather than fallible men will suppose themselves anything else than infallible, even in points of a secondary nature; and though others, whom they have no reason to think inferior to themselves either in judgment or integrity, are compelled to differ from them.
Be assured, dear sir, that, in thus apologizing for my brethren, I write, not only without their desire—but without their knowledge. I think I have now finished all my preambles, and I proceed immediately to acquaint you with my reasons for conforming to the established church of England, and continuing in it.
My first and principal reason is, the regard I owe to the honor and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, as head and lawgiver of his church.I do not mean that this consideration obliges me absolutely to prefer the form of the Church of England to any other form—but only that it will not permit me to join with those who make dissenting from it necessary in point of conscience.
I cannot suppose that any true Christian in our land of light and liberty, will hesitate a moment to acknowledge that Christ is the one infallible, authoritative Legislator and Governor of his church; that he is the Lord, and the only Lord of conscience; that nothing inconsistent with his revealed will should be practiced, nothing that he has enjoined be omitted, by those who profess allegiance to him.
But, however generally acknowledged these principles are, I believe the misconstruction and misapplication of them have contributed more to divide the people of God, and to alienate their affections from each other, than any other cause that can be assigned. It seems reasonable to expect that those whose hopes are built upon the same foundation, who are led by the same Spirit, who are opposed by the same enemies, and interested by the same promises—would look upon each other with mutual delight, would love as brethren, would bear each other's burdens—and so fulfill their Master's law, and copy his example. But, alas! a mistaken zeal for his honor fills them on all sides, with animosity against their fellow disciples, splits them into a thousand parties, gives rise to fierce and endless contentions, and makes them so earnest for and against their respective distinctives, that the love, which is the discriminating characteristic of his religion, is scarcely to be found among them in such a degree of exercise, as to satisfy even candid observers whether they bear his mark or not.
The visible church of Christ comprises all who call themselves by his name, and who profess to receive his Gospel as a divine revelation. It is a floor on which the grain and the chaff are mingled, a field in which the wheat and the tares grow together, a net enclosing a multitude of fish both good and bad. But the visible church of Christ, taken in this large extent, is not the proper subject of his government, as He is the King of the saints alone. For his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, which none can understand, and his rule a spiritual rule, which none can receive or obey—until born from above, and made new creatures by the power of the Holy Spirit. If these regenerated people, who, it is to be feared, are seldom the largest number in any denomination, are considered as detached from the visible church, the remainder is a merely differenced from the world, which lies in wickedness, in nothing but a name, and in the privilege of having the oracles of God committed to it. But nominal professors, though they have, or may have, in their hands the Scriptures, which are able to make sinners wise unto salvation, are no less distant and alienated from the life of God, (until he is pleased to reveal his power in their hearts,) than Mahommedans or Heathen! And, with respect to these, the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ is but little concerned with the different ways in which they may think proper to constitute themselves into national or particular churches, and please themselves with a lifeless form of worship, while their hearts are in a state of enmity to his grace!
Admitting that the plan of a Gospel-church was described with the same precision in the New Testament, as the institutions of the Levitical worship in the Old, and punctually complied with to the minutest circumstance; though the worshipers might applaud and admire their own exactness, and censure and despise all who differed a hair's breadth from them; yet, if they did not serve God in spirit and in truth, their boasted church order would avail them nothing. All that related to the worship of God under the law was confessedly of divine appointment; and the people in the time of the prophets, were not so much charged with neglecting the prescribed forms—as with resting in them! When this evil became general, and they thought to compensate for their lack of spirituality, by their feasts, fasts, and sacrifices, the Lord expresses himself as displeased with his own institutions! Isaiah 1:11-15; Isaiah 66:3-4; Jer. 7:8-14, Jer. 7:22-23. They could plead his prescription for their observances; but in vain they trusted to the temple, and said, "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are we!" when the Lord of the temple was departed from them. And certainly he will be no more pleased with a form without the heart now—than he was then!
I must, therefore, confine my inquiry to the church of Christ in a more limited and proper sense; as expressive of his mystical body, composed of all who by faith are united to him as their foundation and root, of all to whom he is the head of vital influence, who have fellowship with him in his death, and are partakers of the power of his resurrection. These are infallibly known only to himself. They are scattered far and wide, separated from each other by seas and mountains; they are a people of many nations and languages. But, wherever their lot is cast, they hear his voice, are under his gracious eye, and the life which they live in the flesh, is by faith in his name. They have not all equal degrees of light, or measures of grace, nor are they all favored with equal advantages for knowing or enjoying the full extent of the liberty of the Gospel; but they are all accepted in the Beloved, and approved of God. They are all spiritual worshipers, joint partakers of grace, and will hereafter appear together at their Savior's right hand in glory.
At present they are in an imperfect state. Though they are new creations—they are not freed from the 'principle of indwelling sin'. Their knowledge is clouded by much remaining ignorance; and their zeal, though right in its aim, is often warped and misguided by the corrupt influence of SELF. For they still have many corruptions. They live in a world which furnishes frequent occasions of enticing them. And Satan, their subtle and powerful enemy, is always upon his watch to mislead and ensnare them!
Besides all this—they are born, educated, and effectually called, under a great variety of circumstances. Habits of life, local customs, early relationships of families and friends, and even bodily constitution, have more or less influence in forming their characters, and in giving a tincture and turn to their manner of thinking; so that, in matters of a secondary nature—their sentiments may, and often do—differ as much as the features of their faces! A uniformity of judgment among them on these secondary matters, is not to be expected, while the wisest are defective in knowledge, the holiest are defiled with sin, and while the weaknesses of human nature, which are common to them all—are so differently affected by a thousand impressions which arise from their various situations.
They might, however, maintain a unity of spirit, and live in the exercise of mutual love, were it not that almost every individual, unhappily conceives that they are bound in conscience, to prescribe their own line of conduct—as a standard to which all their brethren ought to conform! They are but few, who consider this "narrow mind-set" to be as unnecessary, unreasonable, and impracticable, as it would be to insist, or expect, that every man's shoes should be exactly of one size!
Thus, though all agree in asserting the authority and right of the Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his church—yet the various ideas they frame of the rule or standard to which He requires them to conform, and their pertinacious attachment to their own conceptions of it—separate them almost as much from each other, as if they were not united to Him by a principle of living faith! Their little differences form them into so many separate churches; and the fury with which they defend their own ideas, and oppose all who cannot agree with them in every minute point, makes them forget that they are children in the same family, and servants of the same Master! And, while they vex and worry each other with disputations and censures—the world is bewildered by all this, and laughs at them all! The spirit of love is restrained, offences are multiplied, and Satan is gratified by beholding the extensive effects of his pernicious and long-practiced maxim, Divide and conquer!
I am far from supposing that all the various modes of church-government under which spiritual worshipers are cast, are equally agreeable to the spirit and genius of the Gospel, or equally suited to the purposes of edification. Perhaps there is no considerable body of people who profess themselves Christians, however erroneous in their plans of doctrine or worship, among whom the Savior has not some hidden ones, known to himself, though lost to human observation in the crowd of pretenders which surround them. The power of his grace can break through all disadvantages, and make a few individuals wiser than their teachers—by revealing his truth to their heart, sooner or later, so far as is necessary to salvation. But it must be owned that some communities which bear the name of Christian, have departed so very far from the simplicity of the Gospel, that we may reason and conclude, that it is almost impossible for a converted person to continue a single day in such a church! But such reasoning cannot be maintained against plain facts.
Thus the Church of Rome, not merely by adopting an unmeaning burdensome train of ceremonies—but by her doctrines of papal infallibility, praying to saints and angels, purgatory, absolution, the mass, and other doctrines of the like stamp, has become so exceedingly adulterated, that possibly some people who may read this treatise, will form an unfavorable opinion of me, for declaring that I have not the least doubt but the Lord Jesus has had, from age to age, a succession of chosen and faithful witnesses within the pale of that corrupt church! Yet, I would hope, that they, who, having themselves tasted that the Lord is gracious, know the language of a heart under the influence of his Spirit, would, in defiance of Protestant prejudices, be of my mind, if they had opportunity of perusing the writings of some Papists. If such people as Fenelon, Pascal, Quesnel, and Nicole, (to mention no more,) were not true Christians, where shall we find any who deserve the name? In the writings of these great men, not withstanding incidental errors, I meet with such strains of experimental godliness, such deep knowledge of the workings of the Spirit of God and of the heart of man, and such masterly explications of many important passages of Scripture, as might do honor to the most enlightened Protestant! And yet these men lived and died in the Popish church, and, to their last hours! And, though I have not equal means of information, I can as little doubt that the Lord has a people likewise in the Greek Church, which, as to its external frame, seems to be little less unscriptural than the Church of Rome itself!
However, I desire to be thankful that I am not a Papist! I am at least one step nearer to the true and acceptable worship of God. For I believe the most rigid of our dissenting brethren will allow, that the Church of England, if almost, yet is not altogether so depraved and corrupt in its constitution as the Church of Rome. I am now in my track, and shall trouble you with fewer digressions in the sequel. My next point will be to examine the different claims of Protestant churches to the honor they all assume—that their respective institutions are most conformable to the rules the apostles have laid down on the subject of church-government, and express the greatest regard to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the undoubted Head and Lawgiver of his church. And to avoid, as much as I can, encumbering what I write in an epistolary way to a friend, with the stiffness of argumentation, I shall content myself with giving you a simple account of what occurred to me upon this head, when I made the inquiry for my own direction. But it is time to conclude this letter, by assuring you, that I am your affectionate friend,
My dear friend and brother,
If the authority of men truly respectable for learning, judgment, and grace were sufficient to determine the question: which of the various forms of church-government now current among Christians, is most agreeable to the letter and spirit of the New Testament, a modest inquirer, who wishes for the sanction of those whom he esteems wiser and better than himself, would, probably, without hesitation, join himself to that party to which he might be first led to apply for direction. For, whatever difference there may be in the merit of their several claims for pre-eminence, the claim itself is made with an equal degree of confidence by them all. At a time when I was very sensible of my own incompetence to decide this point for myself, I received (as I hope) much benefit from the writings of Bishop Hall, Reynolds, Davenant, Mr. Hooker, and other divines of the Church of England. I perceived they were people of strong sense, extensive literature, sound in the faith; and, from such accounts of their lives as I could collect, I judged they had been zealous and diligent in their callings, and burning and shining lights in the world. I could not perceive that any of them were dissatisfied with the established church, in which they lived and died; and some of them I found were very strenuous in its defense, not only pleading that it was lawful to maintain communion with it—but offering many arguments to prove that it was even sinful to separate from it, and that it was the only resemblance of the primitive apostolical church.
I own to you, that I thought some of their assertions upon this head were too strong, and some of their arguments not fully conclusive. Yet I was a little staggered, and it gave me pain to be forced to differ, in any point, from men whom I believed to have been full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. However, some general idea I possessed of the liberty of the Gospel, a conviction that the Lord had a people and a work in other countries where the form of the Church of England could not take place, and the previous attachment I had to the Dissenters with whom, as I have said, I was first acquainted, prevented me from becoming what is called a High Churchman. But, as for these reasons, I could not give the Church of England an exclusive preference, or think myself authorized to brand those who dissented from it with the hard names of schismatics and fanatics; so, on the other hand, I could not go into the opposite extreme, or suppose that a church in which the Lord employed and owned such valuable men, and had a numerous spiritual people was no better than a Babylon, from whence all who loved his name and salvation were in duty and conscience bound to withdraw.
Many books, likewise, came in my way, written by divines of the church of Scotland. In the writings of Durham, Fleming, Halyburton, and others, I found proofs that they were not inferior in light, holiness, and a sound spiritual judgment, to the most eminent luminaries of our own church. In what concerned the life and power of religion, I could perceive no considerable difference between them. As they were all taught by the same Spirit—so they were all teachers of the same truths. But in their sentiments upon church-government they differed very widely. Wherein they agreed, I could fully agree with them; wherein they differed, I was left in the uncertainty of a traveler, who, inquiring his way of two people, is told by one to turn to the right, and by the other, directly opposite, to the left!
My Anglican guides would persuade me that the form of the church from the apostles' days was Episcopal. But my Scotch guides were positive that our prelacy was, almost equally with the papacy, a branch and a mark of antichrist! If I compared the sufficiency of each to decide for me—I knew not which to prefer! On both sides were men of wisdom and grace, and who I believed would not willfully mislead me; on both sides they confessed themselves, in general, to be, like myself, fallible, and liable to mistake. Only in this one point, both sides appeared confident that they could not be mistaken; and yet their opinions were not only diverse—but contradictory!
The suspense in which I was held by these incompatible claimants, sent me more readily and attentively to renew my inquiries among my former friends of your denomination. By these I was instructed, that I need not trouble myself with weighing and comparing the arguments which the English and Scotch churches had to offer in favor of their respective constitutions, for they were both equally destitute of any foundation in truth or Scripture: that I had only to read the New Testament for myself, and it must appear very plain, that the Lord Christ had not left a concern of this importance undetermined; but had directed his apostles to leave in their writings a pattern, according to which it was his pleasure all his churches in future ages should be formed: that the first churches were Congregational or Independent; and that every other plan was unscriptural, and a presumptuous deviation from the declared will of the Lord. As I had been a debtor to some of their writers likewise, and was personally acquainted with several of their ministers, their representations had so much weight with me, as to increase my confusion!
My difficulties grew upon me, when I found, by consulting different Independent writers, who had professedly treated this subject, that, though they were of one mind, in asserting that a plain and satisfactory pattern for this congregational order might be easily collected, and stated from a perusal of the New Testament; yet, when they came to delineate and describe it according to their own idea, they were far from being agreed among themselves, as to the nature and number of the officers, powers, and acts, which are requisite to the constitution and administration of a regularly organized gospel church. I formerly employed much time and attention in this disquisition; but, not having for many years past reviewed a controversy which I think rather dry and uninteresting, I cannot, from memory, enter into a detail of particulars; nor is it needful.
Of the fact, I think I may be confident—that there is not such an agreement among them as might be expected, if the plan from which they all profess to copy was clearly and expressly revealed in the New Testament, as obligatory upon all Christians. Here I was at a loss again; for, if I could have admitted their principle, that every circumstance of worship and government in a church ought to have the warrant of a precept or a precedent from the Scripture; still I needed help to digest and put together the several regulations which were dispersed in so many different parts of the Gospels and Epistles; for I found myself unable to frame the detached materials into one orderly structure by my own skill. But, when they, who professed to have the light which I wanted, were themselves divided upon the point, I was precluded from the hope of any certain assistance; for, as to probabilities and conjectures, I might as well depend upon my own, as upon those of another.
Nor was this the whole of my difficulty. I was honestly advised to read and examine for myself. I did so; and it appeared to me, by comparing what I read with what I saw, that the Independents could not, at least did not, keep closely to their own principles. I thought I met with usages in the churches planted by the apostles, which were not practiced in any of the congregational churches I was acquainted with. And, on the other hand, I noticed some practices among them—of which I could find no traces in the inspired account we have of the primitive churches! Permit me, by way of specimen, to mention one instance in each kind. If it was necessary, I could mention several; but I wish not to be tedious.
The apostle Paul addresses the Corinthians as a church of Christ; and we have from him a larger and more particular account of the practices of their church than of any other. After censuring and correcting some improprieties which had been practiced in their public assemblies, he give them this direction: "Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged." 1 Corinthians 14:29-31. The general practice of congregational churches in our time seems not at all to comply with this apostolic injunction. I think, my friend, in your assemblies, especially in your solemn stated worship on the Lord's day, there is seldom more than one speaker. The same minister who preaches, usually begins and ends the service. Should it be pleaded that the apostle speaks of prophesying, and evidently supposes that the church of Corinth was favored with extraordinary gifts and revelations which are now ceased, and that therefore the rule cannot, in that respect, extend to us; I have two answers to make:
In the first place, though we do not expect extraordinary revelations, we have encouragement to hope for the presence of our Savior, and the gracious influences of his Spirit, when we meet in his name, sufficient to enable us to speak to his praise, and to the edification and comfort of our brethren. And it is probable that you have more than once been a hearer in a public assembly, when your heart has been so warmed and impressed with the truths of the gospel, that you would have been willing to have ascended the pulpit yourself, either to confirm or correct what you have been hearing, or to indulge the liberty you found in your mind upon some other important subject. Perhaps something was then revealed to you, which might have been very suitable to the occasion, and to the state of the congregation. Why did you not then declare it? Why did you neglect to stir up the gift of God that was in you? Would it have been contrary to the custom of your churches? But would you not, upon your principles, have been justified by the custom of a New Testament church, and the injunction of an apostle?
But, secondly, and chiefly, I answer, if it is admitted that, because the primitive churches had extraordinary gifts, there are some things in their practice which are not proper for our imitation, who have not the same gifts: then I quite give up the hope of being able to determine the exact and invariable form of a church, by such lights as the Acts of the Apostles and their Epistles afford me; unless some man, or set of men, are qualified and commissioned to draw the line for me, and to show me distinctly how far, and in what instances—the state of the first Christians is limited from being a pattern to us, by the extraordinary dispensations of that age; and how far, and in what cases, their pattern is binding upon us still, notwithstanding those dispensations have long since ceased.
To be directed to study these churches as a model and pattern—and to be told, at the same time, that only some parts of their practice were not designed for the imitation of future ages, without distinctly specifying which were, and which were not—is rather the way to perplex and bewilder an inquirer, than to help him to comprehend the issue! Upon this ground, though I might refuse to trust the assumed infallibility of the Pope, I must feel the need of an infallible visible guide to reside somewhere in the church; for without such assistance I could not take a single step with certainty—but must be liable to stumble at the very threshold of my inquiry.
I think it is the usual practice, in your churches, to require from all people who wish to be admitted into your communion, an account, either verbal or written, of what is called their experience; in which, not only a declaration of their faith in the Lord Jesus, and their purpose, by grace, to devote themselves to him, is expected—but likewise a recital of the steps by which they were led to a knowledge and profession of the gospel. I select this as one instance in which, I conceive, you have neither precept nor precedent in the Scripture for your warrant!
A profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, of acceptance of him, and submission to him in his offices and characters, supported by the evidence of a gospel life-style should, I apprehend, be deemed sufficient to entitle a person to church-membership; and especially by those who so loudly insist upon the evil of superadding any regulations to those which are already provided by our Lord and his apostles. The authority which makes it a pre-requisite for admission, that a person shall relate how and when he was awakened, what exercises of mind he has passed through, and other particulars of a like nature, appears to me to be as merely human—as the authority which prescribes the canons of an established church! If the practice is defensible, it must be on the plea of expediency.
It is not my present business, to inquire how far it may be expedient for young converts, for young people, especially for young women, to be compelled to speak before a public assembly; or, if that is dispensed with, for the sake of other interfering expediencies, how far it is expedient to trust to a written experience; otherwise I could say a good deal upon this head.
But it is sufficient for my purpose, that no hint of this practice can be found in the New Testament. On the contrary, I read, that, when Saul, after he escaped from Damascus, attempted to join himself to the disciples, it was Barnabas, and not Saul himself, who informed them both of his conversion, and of the extraordinary manner in which it was effected, giving a testimony of his conduct from the time he had professed a change. But, if expediency may warrant a measure or standard in your churches not expressly commanded in Scripture, why not, likewise, in ours? Be it either right or wrong in one case—it must be so in both!
I am afraid I shall weary you, by only giving a brief account of the long and intricate road which I traveled, to discover, if I could, the best constituted church. But I must entreat your patience a little longer, until I bring you to the end of my journey.
It may be necessary to inform some of my readers, though not you, that a considerable part of the independent congregational churches differ from the rest, with respect to the mode and subjects of baptism. At the time when my thoughts were most engaged about church-order, I lived in intimate habits of friendship with several Baptists, who were very willing to assist me in settling my judgment. These, though they would have been pleased to see me yield to the arguments of their Paedobaptist congregational churches, would not be satisfied that I should stop were they stopped. They urged Scripture precepts and precedents to lead me farther; and said, that none of the congregational churches—but their own, were agreeable to the mind of Christ. They told me, that, though I should acknowledge and embrace the congregational order, which, undoubtedly, was the only one countenanced by Scripture, still I could not be right until I had renounced what I called the baptism I had received in my infancy, and submitted (as they termed it) to baptism by immersion, to which I was bound, not only by the practice of the primitive church—but by the example of our Lord himself, who, when he was baptized, said, for our instruction, "Thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness."
I own, sir, that, if I had seen it my duty to accede to the church-order of the Independents, I know not but their principles would have led me away from them—to join with the Baptists. How they, who, maintaining infant baptism, press Scripture precedent so strongly upon me, answer the Baptists, who in this point press it as strongly upon themselves, is not my concern. I did not stand upon the same ground, and therefore the arguments of the Baptists did not much affect me. I thought the example of our Lord pleaded as much for circumcision as for baptism. I questioned whether I, a poor sinner, had any call to imitate him in those things which it befit him, as our Surety, to perform, in order "to fulfill all righteousness." It appeared to me, that John's baptism and the Christian baptism were different; and, though the Baptists assured me that they were the same, I was not convinced. I thought they were plainly distinguished in Acts 19:2-5; and I was grieved by the attempts of some wise and good men to wrest a sense from that passage, so contrary to its plain and obvious meaning, merely to support a favorite scheme. And, as the form of Christian baptism is laid down in express words, Mat. 28:19, I must continue to think it different from the baptism of John, until I can have sufficient proof that John baptized our Savior in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I found, likewise, that the Baptists, though unanimous against us, and even against those who in every point but one agree with them, were divided among themselves. Some of them, while they practice what they think a duty, do not so peremptorily prescribe it to others, as to make it an indispensable term of communion; but they will receive a person as a church-member whom they judge to be sound in the faith, and of a holy life, though they consider him, in strictness of speech, as unbaptized. But others are much offended by this concession, and bear testimony against it as unscriptural and wrong. Their views are so strict, that if they certainly knew that a person who wished to communicate with them was the most eminent Christian in the land, unless he was likewise baptized in their manner, they could not, they dared not, admit him to the Lord's table, to eat of that bread, and to drink of that cup, which is, by his command and appointment, the privilege and portion of all believers. This difference of judgment between them has been thought so important, that the reasons for and against, and their mutual censures of each other, have been laid before the public, by good men on each side of the question.
Now, my dear friend, this state of the case, what could I do? I had reviewed and compared the sentiments of a number of respectable writers and ministers of different names. In essentials, I agreed with them all; and, in secondary matters, I differed no more from any of them, than they differed among themselves! They all confessed they were fallible, yet they all decided with an air of infallibility; for they all, in their turns, expected me to unite with them, if I had any regard to the authority and honor of the Lord Jesus as head and lawgiver of the church! But the very consideration they proposed, restrained me from uniting with any of them. For I cannot think that I would honor the headship and kingly office of Christ, by acknowledging him as the head of a certain denomination and subdivision of his people, to the exclusion of the rest. Every party uses fair-sounding words of liberty; but, when an explanation is made, it amounts to little more than this—that they will give me liberty to think only as they think, and to act only as they act; which, to me, who claims the same right of thinking for myself, and of acting according to the dictates of my own conscience, is no liberty at all.
I therefore came to such conclusions as these—that I would love them all—that I would hold a friendly fellowship with them all, so far as they should providentially come in my way; but that I would stand fast in the liberty with which Christ had made me free, and call none of them 'master'! In fine, that if others sought to honor him, by laying a great stress on matters of doubtful disputation; that it would be my way of honoring him, by endeavoring to show that his kingdom is not of this world, nor consists in foods and drinks, in pleading for forms and parties—but in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit; and that neither circumcision is anything, nor uncircumcision—but a new creature, and the faith which works by love.
There was a time when I could have joined with the Dissenters, if the providence of God had opened my way to them; but farther experience and observation have so far altered my judgment, that, had I my choice to make again, it seems to me, that I could no more officiate as a minister among any people who insist upon other terms of communion than those which our Lord has appointed, faith and holiness—than I could subscribe to the dogmas of the Council of Trent! My regard to his honor will not allow me to exclude any whom I believe he has been pleased to receive.
Thus much for the first reason of my joining to the Church of England. Yet, in justice to the non-conformists, I must add, that, if I wished to avail myself of the sanction of great names, I could mention some among them, who, if they were now living, I am persuaded, would not blame me for my choice, though they could not, in conscience, do it themselves. Particularly I judge this (from many of his writings) of the truly great Mr. Howe, whose praise is in all the churches.
I am sincerely yours,
My dear friend and brother,
I have given you the chief reason why I am not a Dissenter; and it appears to me a sufficient one, though I could assign no other. I have, however, two or three more to offer you; but I hope to comprise them all within the compass of this letter; for, indeed, I begin to be weary of a subject which is not quite suitable to my taste and inclination. But it seems not unseasonable, and, I hope, may not be unuseful, to show you that the preference I have given to the Church of England is not the effect either of ignorance or prejudice.
My second reason for not being a Dissenter, is, BECAUSE I HIGHLY VALUE THE RIGHT OF PRIVATE JUDGMENT, AND MY LIBERTY AS A MAN AND AS A CHRISTIAN. Here again I think we are agreed in principle. You rejoice in the name of a Protestant Dissenter, as setting you free from the shackles and impositions of men; and, probably, think of me and my brethren in the Establishment, with a degree of friendly pity; taking it for granted that the engagements we are under, hold us in a painful state of subjection and bondage, from which you charitably wish to see us released. We are obliged to people of your candid disposition, for your sympathy and good wishes; and we repay you in kind. As we cannot think exactly alike—this seems the best method we can take. Harsh censures and angry disputations would be unfitting our profession, and hurtful to our spirits; but it can do us no harm to pity and pray for each other.
Perhaps you are ready to say, "You would surely pity me if you knew all my inward and outward trials; but you need not pity me for being a Dissenter, because I account it my great privilege." I may say the same, with the alteration of one word. If you knew the evils which I feel within, and the snares and difficulties which beset me from without, you would pity me indeed! But that I exercise my ministry in the Church of England, appears to me, as things stand, to be rather a subject of congratulation than compassion. I cannot become a Dissenter, until I am weary of my liberty. If you please, we will compare notes upon this head.
Let me first speak of the restraints we are under. I am bound, by my subscription, to the forms and rubric of the Common Prayer Book; but I approve the service, and therefore it is no burden to me to use it. I do not consider it as faultless, nor can I subscribe to any book of human composition in the same absolute manner as I would to the Bible. But, by assenting to our church ritual, I give up less of my own private judgment, for the sake of peace, than I should by espousing the rules and practices of any dissenting churches which I am acquainted with.
Again, having accepted a designation to the cure of souls, my public ministry is thereby confined to parish churches; and I cannot, consistently with what I conceive to be the import of my voluntary engagements, preach at random, and in all places, without reserve. But this is no restraint upon my conscience. While I have the examples of our Lord and his apostles in my view, I cannot doubt the lawfulness of preaching on mountains or plains, in market-places, or on the seashore. But things in themselves lawful, are not always, or to all people, expedient. I approve of parochial order. I do not interfere with the conduct of others; but believe it is, upon the whole, best for me to confine myself to the duties of my own parish, and to such opportunities of preaching in parochial pulpits as may occasionally offer. Between the one and the other, I have sufficient employment.
And, though the bishop who ordained me, laid me under no restrictions, I would not have applied to him for ordination, if I had not been previously determined to submit to his authority, and to the rules of the church. I thought, and still think, it my duty to preserve a consistency of character; for I was not ordained to be an apostle or evangelist, to spread the gospel throughout a kingdom—but to take care of the particular flock committed to my charge. But I need not enlarge upon this point, as I think the Dissenters do not in general, by their practice, countenance what we call irregularity—but are almost as seldom seen preaching in the fields or by the way-sides as the most regular of our clergy; though they cannot plead our reasons for not doing it, and are certainly not restrained either by the precepts or precedents of the New Testament.
Nor am I under any disagreeable constraint from my superiors in the church. The archdeacon in his district, and the bishop in his diocese, hold their respective visitations; the former annually, the latter once in three years. At these visitations, the clergy (especially in the country) are expected to attend. On these occasions, we hear a sermon, or a charge, and usually dine together. There is nothing painful to me in paying these tokens of respect to my acknowledged superiors, and receiving marks of civility from them. At all other times, while we keep within the limits which I have already told you I subscribed and consented to—we scarcely know, at least we do not feel, that we have any superiors.
So far as I am concerned, I have reason to acknowledge that the administration of our church-government is gentle and liberal. I have from the first, preached my sentiments with the greatest freedom. I always acted in the parishes which I have served according to my own judgment; and I have done some things which have not the sanction of general custom; but I never met with the smallest check, interference, or mark of displeasure from any of my superiors in the church, to this hour. Such are my restraints, and such is my liberty. I am bound by no regulations but, what I myself approve; and within these boundaries I do as I please—no man forbidding or controlling me.
Indeed I have often thought that I have as good a right to the name of Independent as yourself. Neither you nor I would assume it to the prejudice of our dependence upon our Lord and Savior; and, with respect to the influence of men, perhaps, we have the advantage of you. I think we are more independent of our other ministers and churches.
Though, according to your plan, every particular church is called Independent, as possessing and exercising every kind of church power within itself, and not subject to the control of any other Christian society; yet, considering you as a body, or (according to the modern phrase) an interest, there is a kind of union and association among your ministers, which has a greater effect than some people are aware of, and which, I apprehend, may in some instances be rather unfriendly to the liberty which you so highly prize. Some of your ministers, from their situation or connection, have more influence than others. They have opportunities of assisting poorer ministers; and are, I suppose, in many eases, the judges whether they shall be assisted or not, and how far. They who best know human nature, are best qualified to judge how far the professed independence of your churches may be abated by this influence of connection; and whether the weight of your board of ministers may not be occasionally felt by those who pity us for being subordinate to our bench of bishops.
I have, upon some occasions, been led to compare your ministers to a company of soldiers in their exercise; where every one must move in a prescribed line, keep the same pace, and make the like motions, with the rest—on pain of being treated as refractory! Ministers in the establishment know nothing of these restraints. We are connected in love—but not upon system. We profess the same leading principles and aims—but each one acts singly and individually for himself.
I think we are likewise more independent of our people. The constitution of your churches, which you suppose the only one agreeable to the Scripture, appears to me faulty, in giving a greater power to the people than the Scripture authorizes. There is, doubtless, a sense in which ministers are not only the servants of the Lord—but, for his sake, the servants of the churches; but it is a service which implies rule, and is entitled to respect. Thus the apostle says, "Obey those who have the rule over you." Their office is that of a steward, who is neither to lord it over the household, nor to be entirely under subjection to it—but to superintend, direct and provide for the family.
Scriptural regulations are wisely and graciously adapted to our state of infirmity; but I think the power which the people with you claim, and attempt to exercise, is not so. Many of them, though truly gracious people, may, notwithstanding, from their situation in life, their lack of education, and the narrowness of their views, be very incapable of government; yet, when a number of such are associated according to your plan, under the honorable title of a church of Christ, they acquire a great importance. Almost every individual conceives himself as qualified to judge and to guide the minister; to sift and scrutinize his expressions, and to tell him how and what he ought to preach. But the poorer part of your flocks are not always the most troublesome.
The rich can contribute most to the minister's support, who is often entirely dependent upon his people for a maintenance; their riches likewise give them some additional weight and influence in the church; and the officers, whom you call the deacons, are usually chosen from among the more wealthy. But it is not always found that the most wealthy church members are the most eminent either for grace or wisdom. We may be rather sure, that riches, if the possessors are not proportionately humble and spiritual, have a direct tendency to nourish the worms of self-conceit and self-will. Such people expect to be consulted, and that their judgment shall be followed. The preaching must be suited to their taste and sentiment; and, if anything is either enforced or censured which bears hard upon their conduct, they think themselves ill-treated!
Although a faithful minister, in his better hours, disdains the thought of complying with the caprice of his hearers, or overlooking their faults; yet human nature is weak, and it must be allowed, that, in such circumstances, he stands in a state of temptation. And if he has grace to maintain his integrity; yet it is painful and difficult to be obliged frequently to displease those on whom we depend, and who, in some other respects, may be our best friends and benefactors!
I can truly say, that my heart has been grieved for the opposition, neglect, and unkindness, which some valuable men among you have, to my knowledge, met with, from those who ought to have esteemed them very highly for their work's sake. The effects of this supreme power lodged in the people, and of the unsanctified spirit in which it has been exercised, have been often visible in the divisions and subdivisions which have crumbled large churches into separate handfuls, if I may so speak. And to this, I am afraid, rather than to the spread of a work of grace, may be ascribed, in many instances, the great increase of the number of your churches of late years.
Now, in the Established Church, we know but little of these difficulties; we are not so much at the mercy of our hearers for our subsistence; and, though we probably preach to some who are wiser and better, as well as richer, than ourselves—we have no hearers who assume a right to direct us, or whom we should stand in fear of if they did. For my own part, I wish to have a spirit willing to profit, by a hint even from a child, and to pay attention to the advice of any person who speaks to me in love, and in a right temper. But humble, loving Christians are more disposed to find fault with themselves—than with their minister; and to receive instruction than to offer it. But should a worldly professor, or a zealot for a party, expect me to accommodate my preaching to his practice, or to preach his Shibboleth, I could give him an answer—without being afraid of any consequences!
I may add, that I apprehend we have more liberty with respect to our pulpits. At least I remember to have heard sermons from some of your pulpits, the strain of which has been so very different from the professed sentiments of the proper pastor of the church, that I have thought to myself, "How did this person come preach in this church?" Upon inquiry I found, at one time, that the man was asked to preach at the request of a principal person in the church or congregation, who it seems approved him—though, I was persuaded, the pastor did not!
I esteem it likewise a branch of my Christian liberty, that I can hear whom I please, and have the friends whom I please, among the various denominations of Christians, without being called to account for it. I hope the Dissenters are likewise growing more into this liberty. However, as I know some among your people who would willingly hear me preach occasionally, were they not afraid of their ministers; so I know some of your ministers who would be willing to hear me preach—but do not, because they are afraid of their people!
Thus much (though more might be said) by way of comparing our advantages in point of liberty.
I am well pleased with my lot and liberty. If you are equally pleased with yours—I am glad for it. I write only on the defensive; I neither expect nor wish to alter your views. Enjoy your liberty; only allow me to enjoy and be thankful for mine!
I have now acquainted you with my two principal reasons for not being a Dissenter. The first concerned my conscience. For, though my regard to the authority of the great Lord and Lawgiver of the church, did not directly oblige me to unite with the establishment, it discouraged me from uniting with any of the parties who pretended an exclusive right from Him to enforce their own particular church forms.
As my conscience did not interfere, my second reason, though rather of a prudential kind, was of considerable weight with me. I loved liberty, and therefore gave a preference to the Church of England, believing I might in that situation exercise my ministry with the most freedom. I have made the experiment, and have no reason to repent of it.
These points being cleared, my way was open to attend to another consideration, which had a farther influence in determining my mind. This I am about to offer to you as a third reason for by being where I am—the probability of greater usefulness. This probability, as to myself and to others who can conform with a good conscience, seemed to lie on the side of the established church, upon several accounts.
1. Great multitudes in this 'so called' Christian nation, are grossly ignorant of the first principles of religion, inattentive to the worth and welfare of their souls, and lamentably destitute of the proper means of instruction. I hoped for opportunities in the established church, of preaching to many who could not hear the Dissenters. The children of God, known to himself, are scattered abroad far and wide; and, as faith more usually comes by hearing, I admire his condescension and goodness in permitting his ministers to think differently on some external points, that they may, with an upright heart, serve him in the different fields of his vineyard.
They who are Dissenters upon principle, would act against their judgments and consciences, were they to join the Church of England for the sake of usefulness. I am well content that they should remain as they are; but it has been proved a mercy to thousands, that all who are called and qualified to preach the Gospel, are not like-minded in this respect.
2. The spirit of bigotry and prejudice is too prevalent on all sides. As there are Dissenters who would think it sinful to be seen within the walls of an Anglican church; so there are other people who place a principal part of their religion in an ignorant attachment to our forms, and could not easily be prevailed upon to enter within the doors of an independent meeting-house. But their prepossession in favor of our Anglican churches gives the minister who can conscientiously meet them there, a great advantage, humanly speaking, by confirming the truths of the Gospel, (which, when first declared, are generally disliked and opposed,) from the tenor of our Liturgy and Articles, to which they profess some regard.
A large part of our auditories, especially in places where the Gospel is considered as a novelty, consists of people of this description. But the Lord has been pleased, in very many instances, to honor our service among them with his blessing. By the power of his Spirit, the truth is made manifest to their hearts; they are turned from darkness to light, and from the bondage of sin to serve the living God. Then their former prejudices subside; insomuch that many, who once despised and hated the Dissenters, have been afterwards persuaded to join with them. The Dissenting Interest would probably have been much weaker than it is at present, if it had not been strengthened by the accession of many Anglican church members; and many of your teachers and pastors, who had no inclination at first to hear your ministers, until they were first awakened under ours. The words of our Lord may in this sense be applied to many of your churches, "Other men labored—and you have entered into the fruits of their labors."
The aim of my ministry, I trust, is not to promote the interests of a certain sect or denomination, but to win souls for Christ. We have, however, the comfort to find, that a number are not only called—but edified and established, by the blessing of God on our preaching; and that many of the most judicious and spiritual of our people are armor against the insinuations which prevail on some to forsake the Church of England, in hopes of enjoying a purer and more acceptable worship among the Dissenters. As to those who do actually leave us, if they are truly benefited, if they really grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord, in humility, meekness, benevolence, and deadness to the world—more among you than they would have done among us—I can sincerely rejoice! But I think your brethren have no just reason to be either displeased, or sorry, that God has raised up ministers to preach to thousands—to whom they would never have had access.
3. I saw, likewise, that the Lord had been pleased, of late years, to return, by the power of his Spirit, to the Church of England; which, I believe, many Dissenters thought he had so utterly forsaken, that he would return no more. This leads me to a tender point; and I wish to touch upon it with great tenderness. None of us have anything to boast of. Our warmest exertions in the service of such a Master are far too cold; and our greatest success falls very short of what we ought to pray for. We preach no other gospel than you do; we love and respect many of your ministers for their knowledge, piety, and exemplary holy lives. But I believe that you will allow that the general state of your churches at present, is not so spiritually lively and flourishing as it was in the days of the old non-conformists. I believe the best of your people were long ago sensible of a decline; that they sincerely lamented it, and earnestly prayed for a revival. Their prayers were at length answered—but not in the way they expected.
A great and spreading revival of religion took place—but the instruments were not Dissenters. At the time when I was ordained, there was a considerable number of regular parochial ministers who preached the doctrines of the Reformation. The number has been greatly increased since, and is still increasing. I could not but judge, that the Lord's presence with his Word in awakening sinners, and in applying it with power to the heart—was more evident and striking on our side—than on yours. Not because we are better than you; but because the work with us is rather new, whereas, among you, it is of an older date.
The history of the church of God and of human nature, in past ages, teaches us to expect that revivals of true religion will seldom stand long in their primitive height—but will gradually subside and degenerate, until things return, in a course of time, nearly to their former state; though a name, perhaps first imposed as a stigma by the world, and a form, which owed all its value to the Spirit that once enlivened it, may still remain. I wish I could affirm, that none, who were otherwise competent judges of a revival, have been prevented by their prejudices, from rejoicing in what God has wrought among us. But I fear it has been otherwise, and that a spirit of prejudice and party-spirit revealed itself upon the occasion, which proved hurtful to some good men.
When I think of the abilities and characters of some dissenting ministers, I cannot but ascribe the little visible success they meet with, in some measure, to their unwillingness to acknowledge a work of God in which they themselves were not employed. Their reasons were not wholly groundless. A lively zeal for the glory of God, and the good of souls, in people whose judgments were not fully ripened by observation and experience, did not secure them from incidental mistakes and blemishes. These were easily seen, and eagerly noticed. A desire of being free from the least suspicion of giving countenance to the unguarded, though well-meant, sallies of active spirits, seems to have led some of your ministers into a contrary extreme; and their public discourses, though solid and judicious compositions, lost that animation in delivery, which is, in some degree, necessary to engage attention, and to keep up an auditory. Thus, while preachers, much inferior to them for learning and general knowledge in divinity, have had crowded assemblies, the pleasure with which I have heard some of your most eminent ministers, has been often abated by observing that the number of hearers has been much smaller than the number of pews in the place!
I must therefore confess, that one consideration which deterred me from joining the Dissenters, was, a fear lest the love of peace, and a temper rather compliant, might insensibly betray me into an over-cautious spirit, dampen my zeal, or divert it into a wrong channel, and thereby prevent the success at which I aimed. I rather chose to unite with those people whom I thought the most likely to maintain and encourage what little fervor I possessed; and where I saw the most evident tokens of a power from on high accompanying the public ministrations. And, as I had my reasons likewise for not being an itinerant minister—a regular and stated charge in the established church engaged my preference.
My fourth reason, (the last I think it necessary to mention,) being rather a point of experience, must depend chiefly upon my own testimony, and therefore I need not enlarge much upon it. Superadded, however, to those which I have already stated, it greatly contributed to give full satisfaction to my mind: I mean, the proofs I had that the Lord—by the openings and leadings of his providence, pointed out to me the situation in which I was to serve him.
The first explicit notice I gave of my desire to enter the ministry, was to an intimate friend in your denomination, nearly six years before I was ordained. In the course of this interval, I made, and I received, a variety of applications and proposals; but everything failed, and every door by which I sought admission remained shut against me. I have already observed that this state of suspense gave me time to examine the subject of church-government more closely, and that the result of my studies was the gradual, and, at length, the complete removal of the difficulties and exceptions I had at first hastily imbibed against the established church.
At length, the Lord's time came—then obstacles, apparently insurmountable, suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared! Then I learned the reason of former disappointments. My way had been mercifully hedged lip with thorns—to prevent me taking a wrong course, and to keep me waiting until the place and service of his own appointment were prepared and ready for me. The coincidence of many circumstances, which I cannot explain to another, gave me a very comfortable sense of the Lord's guidance. I received ordination in the Church of England with with wind and tide (if I may so speak) in my favor, with the most pleasing disposition of outward events, and the most assured persuasion, in my own mind, that I was following the call of God, and doing the will of God; of which I had at that time, little more doubt than if an angel had been sent from heaven to tell me so! Nor have I hesitated upon the point a single hour, from that day to this!
I think you will not be sorry to find I am drawing towards a close. Indeed, I would be ashamed to have written so much merely on my own account. I began this correspondence with you about seven years ago. More than one half of it was then written in a few weeks; but I felt a reluctance to proceed, because it seemed to be so much my own affair. But I have frequently thought since, that something upon the subject, written in a moderate and friendly spirit, (which it has been my prayer and endeavor to preserve,) might, by the Lord's blessing, be a means of promoting candor and benevolence among those who, in whatever else they differ in, have one Lord, one faith, one hope.
A desire of being instrumental in so good a work, has at length prevailed on me to revise what I had begun, to add what I thought farther necessary for completing my design, and to send it abroad. I cannot give you particular reasons why I have not done it sooner, or why I do it now. Our times, plans, and purposes, are under God's superior guidance and direction, which it is our duty and our privilege always to acknowledge, though we cannot always distinctly discern it. I shall be happy, if the outcome shall prove that I have been led to choose the fittest time, and to offer a word in season.
Those who love and preach the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, whatever name they bear among men, and whatever body of people they are united to—are engaged in one common cause. They are opposed by the same enemies. Their severest conflicts and their sweetest comforts are derived from the same sources. And they will, before long, meet in the same kingdom of glory, and join in the same songs of eternal praise—to Him who sits upon the throne, and to Him who redeemed us to God by his blood. How desirable then is it, that, while we live here—we should be at peace among ourselves, and live in the spirit of that love, (the only infallible mark of our being truly the servants of Christ,) which seeks not its own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil—but bears, hopes, and believes all things!
As what I write to you is to appear in print, I think it proper to add, for my own sake, that my whole intention will be fulfilled by its publication. I do not mean to enter into controversy; and, therefore, if these letters, contrary to my wish, should raise an opponent, and give occasion to an answer, I shall not think myself bound to reply—unless I could be convicted of such willful misrepresentation on my part—as would render it my duty to ask pardon of God, and of the public.
I commend you and yours to the blessing of our Lord, and remain, your affectionate friend,