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ARTICLE V.-THOUGHTS ON CONGREGATIONALISM-ITS PAST AND ITS FUTURE.
SOME thirteen years ago, the writer was conducted through the grounds and buildings of the University of Oxford by a courteous Christian gentleman, who was at once a fellow, a professor, and the incumbent of a parish;-of course of the Church of England. Just as we were parting, after several hours of free and pleasant intercourse, he turned to me with the suggestive remark, "I have not yet learned to which branch of the Church of Christ you belong." The phraseology sounded very strangely amid the cloisters of Oxford. In an American ecclesiastic of a certain type it would have excited a shudder of more than surprise. In the writer the question awakened the desire to utter a gracious response. The response came to his lips and was uttered almost without reflection, although it was suggested by the associations of the place: "To the Congregationalist, which you know is the mother church of New England." He need not explain why he was led thus to qualify the simple information which was sought. Doubtless he meant to claim that a church which was the mother church of such a country as New England, deserved some of the respect and honor which as an Englishman and a Fellow and Professor in Oxford he naturally felt for his own mother church at home.
The thought which so suddenly found expression on the lips has often returned to the memory and suggested ample material for reflection. We have not cared to ask or to answer the question whether a Congregational Church can in verbal consistency be the mother church of any other than the local or separate churches which grow up by its side; nor whether Congregationalism can be called a church at all in the strictest propriety of speech, nor whether Congregationalism is or is not a denomination or a sect. It is enough for us to know that it is now 250 years since the first Congregational Church was organized in Massachusetts and Connecticut, that this was the first Christian Church established within these limits, that for
more than a century, no other churches existed than Congregational churches, that these churches have covered all this territory and still possess it in weakness and strength, living in a good degree of confidence and sympathy with one another, and what is perhaps more remarkable in the history of Christendom, in Christian charity and friendliness towards all the churches called by other names, which have been planted on the same soil. For a century at least, these churches were responsible for the faith and morals, for the manners and the culture, for the legislation and the spirit of these commonwealths, and they are still active and potent in maintaining and moulding the same. They are conspicuous in their history because they took possession of their population at the beginning, and held exclusive possession here so long, and during the early and formative period of their life, and because their hold of so large a portion of its inhabitants is rooted in the traditions of seven or eight generations.
It has seemed to us that a brief review of the influence of Congregationalism as the mother church of New England under a few heads of inquiry might suggest some lessons of admonition and encouragement. It is in no spirit of indiscriminate eulogy that we write. We have had enough of laudation of the good old times, if this laudation is used, as is most commonly the case, to set forth in indiscriminate and unjust depreciation the defects of the times in which we live. It is far wiser for us, and we shall be far more likely intelligently to appreciate the blessings of the present which we have inherited from the past, if we are willing to be admonished by the errors and defects of the past in such a way as to provide for a better church and a better Christian life in the future. These errors and defects may appear to be more numerous than the indiscriminate admirers of the past, and the critical maligners of the present will be pleased to acknowledge, and yet for this very reason this review may be the more needful. Should the review be critical it will not be discouraging for the future. The discussion may be of use if it shall deepen the conviction that the same formative influences which Congregationalism has exercised in the past are needed at the present, and that Congregationalism as a system and spirit of church and Christian belief and life, is as capable of usefulness in the future as it has proved itself in the past.
The first peculiarity in Congregationalism which we notice in its theory of the origination of the visible church. This is briefly that any number of Christian believers can become a church by uniting themselves as an organized community in a common. profession of faith to a common Christian life. It was a new and unheard of thing when in the days of Elizabeth this was broached as the true theory of the possible origination of a Christain Church, and when it was put into practice by a few fearless men at the hazard of their lives. They were regarded by the courts of law as offenders against the Queen's Supremacy, and the majesty of the State, and in the tribunals of the church, as offenders against Christ in the person of his priestly representatives. It never had been thought or heard of that a company of laymen could by any possible method originate a church. Such a society could never in the opinion of all the centuries since the first, be no more than a secular association, profane and abhorrent in the eyes of all good Christians, for the audacious pretensions which it asserted, its officers being guilty of the sin of Korah and Abiah and its sacraments being strange fire before the Lord.
Not only was the society with its officers and sacraments counted profane, but the solemn ties which attended its organization incurred the hazard of being despised as trivial and ludicrous. Even at the present time, with our corrected associations, when we read in the beginning of some old church book in Connecticut or Massachusetts-how six or eight hard-headed men and a few plain women-after fasting and prayer, first satisfied one another of their soundness in the faith and their inward experience of a work of grace, and then covenanted with one another to live a Christian life, we are almost tempted to smile at their narrow self-conceit. Perhaps we are repelled by what seems a contemptuous forgetfulness of the fellowship of believing souls with whom they had worshiped in the parish church at home, and walked to the house of God in company, and of the baptism with which they had been baptized, and the table of the Lord at which they had supped, and the minister who had united them in marriage. But when we call to mind, on the other hand, that many of these men had suffered in their own persons the logical consequents of the theory that
the visible church can originate only with Bishop or Presbytery, their careful and precise punctiliousness rises to the sublimity which pertains to the assertion of any new and living principle in the kingdom of God. The territory of Massachusetts and Connecticut is forever memorable as the scene where this principle was first extensively applied in the formation of those few feeble churches, which with the growth of the population were planted in every town till they filled the whole land.
We hardly need add that the churches formed on this theory were competent to provide themselves with their needful officers. A society can scarcely be said to exist till it is furnished with organs, and if a company of faithful men could constitute themselves into a church, they must logically be competent to give official authority to teachers or rulers. Here again we regard as almost trivial the pertinacity with which the founders of the first churches insisted on setting apart their own Pastors and Elders, and, perhaps, read the humble story with feelings of unfeigned ecclesiastical contempt. But it signified very much. to those who had been taught by the branding iron and the pillory, by the axe and the faggott, to what strange abuses priestly prerogative could be applied, and who had learned in the New Testament how modestly even inspired apostles asserted official authority. We cannot but recall the significant words of the greatest of these Apostles, "Not for that we have dominion over your faith but are helpers of your joy, for by faith ye stand." We remember that in the transactions of this kind the memorable prophecy began emphatically to be fulfilled, the prophecy so long delayed and so hard to be understood, "The hour cometh and now is when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth." Surely these daring yet humble men did not claim too high a place for their church or claim too lofty positions for themselves, when, as they solemnly laid the foundations of these mother churches, they remembered the words: "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people."
Churches formed after this fashion and organized out of their own inner life, must of necessity be independent of one another's authority; not independent of sympathy or counsel, or reproof or final protest of non-communion, but holding within
themselves the power to fall back on their own intrinsic right to be, and, if need be, to exercise from and within themselves all the functions of organic life. How much this principle has been worth in cases of extreme necessity, the reader of the history of priestly domination and organized ecclesiasticism is only too well aware. When the doctrine was new it was strange; now it has been made living and real by being translated into action, and been exemplified by the hundreds of churches which have made New England bloom as the garden of God, it has been accepted by other churches that hardly dream of the source from which it came or the process by which it became their own. The thirty-nine articles spake more wisely than its writers knew when they declared "that the visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same."
Were parochial Episcopacy to be a realized dream, and with its trinal ministry of Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons to take the place of the Diocesan, then would Bishops acknowledge Fellow Bishops only in the way of courtesy and Christian deference, and claim for their organized flocks the complete Independency which the New England churches first exemplified on a large scale-and none the less but the more should they assume to be the lineal recipients of Apostolic authority. A Congregational Association of Pastors on a Home Missionary field, is a very loosely compacted society when viewed from the high standpoint of an interlocked and interlaced Presbyterial or Synodal organization, but ecclesiastically regarded, it is knit by precisely the same bonds which unites any confederacy of Diocesan Bishops. A Diocese is simply larger in territory than a Congregational parish. It is in theory as independent, and in cases of necessity might assert its right to act for itself. A House of Bishops is for many reasons a very stately and imposing spiritual edifice, but ecclesiastically regarded it has no other bonds than those which unite an Association of Pastors of neighboring Congregational churches. The confederate strength of both churches and Bishops in each case is derived from the capacity of each to act by itself. This theoretic Independence of