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The history of Congregationalism in New England reads us a serious and instructive lesson. Not resting satisfied with her simple church-polity, framed out of the word of God by the fathers, as distrustful Israel of old sought help from Egypt on one side and from Assyria on the other, so she has leaned on extraneous supports to remedy supposed defects in this polity. She at first courted connection with the State in foolish imitation of the Church from which she came out. She then set up over the financial affairs of her churches “ Ecclesiastical Societies,” which not seldom abused their trusts, and, in many cases, foisted heterodoxy into her pulpits, corrupted her doctrines, and drove her children out from their sanctuaries and their livings. She dallied with a half-fledged Presbyterianism, under the name of “Consociation," which established stated and authoritative courts of judicature over her churches. She gave her adherence to a “Plan of Union” with a strong National Church, through which she lost the most valuable portion of her rightful western domain ; and having on her side all the advantages of early occupation, a godly ancestry, superior intelligence, and large wealth, she has shrunk to the dimensions of one of the smaller tribes of Israel. And now,
And now, notwithstanding all this disastrous experience, she wakes up to two amazing facts, that almost unwittingly she has committed her great benevolent work, for the doing of which her church organizations were in large part designed, into the hands of independent and irresponsible outside bodies, and, that she herself is declared utterly incompetent for its management.
It must however be acknowledged, that, though she has been a dull scholar, Congregationalism is wiser than she once was in respect to the several points just named, except the last,—a point which it is to be hoped will not long remain an exception. She has learned, that the being ousted from her old position, as the
Standing Order” in the State, has been an untold blessing instead of a calamity. She has learned that the churches can manage their own temporalities, quite as well, and perhaps a little better, without the appendage of Ecclesiastical Societies. And time has taught her that Consociationism is a foreign excrescence happily sloughed off.
She used to accept it as a maxim, that New England was her
proper heritage and home, and that, in communities west of Byram river, she was an impertinent intruder, and could never flourish. But already she has discovered, that her western possessions are promising to become, in extent and worth, the rivals of those at the East. And further, when, within twenty or twenty-five years, State Conferences and Associations representing the churches, began, in the older States, generally to supersede the old ministerial bodies, and especially when the National Council was organized, there was aroused a feeling of jealousy lest the autonomy of her churches would be interfered with, and the alarm cry of “centralization” was heard. But she has found that this change has contributed rather to her strength, and it is seen that, with the proper safeguards, associated action on a large scale, through representatives of the churches, is as germane to her polity, and as safe, as under other systems of church order.
But perhaps it will be said, that Boards, appointed by the churches or their representatives, to do the benevolent work of the churches, would, in order to their efficiency, require a larger liberty of action than is allowed to our State Ecclesiastical bodies or to our National Council, and therefore, that they would be more likely to become a source of mischief in our denomination, through their necessary assumption of authority, than in National Churches. But their discretionary power may be so clearly defined and limited as to constitute no ground of apprehension, especially so, as their doings would statedly come under review by the representatives of the churches. And it would certainly seem, that on the score of the assumption of authority, there is more security for the rights of the churches in a body responsible to the churches, than in one which is independent and irresponsible.
If anything further needs to be said to prove the feasibility and safety of bringing our Benevolent Societies under the control of the churches, I point with confidence to the methods of our Baptist brethren, who constitute “the straitest sect” of Congregationalists. Their “Missionary Union” is now in its seventy-fourth year, and is steadily growing stronger. It elects a Board of seventy-five managers,—to hold office for three years,-one-third of the number annually, which in turn chooses the Executive officers. While I do not, in all respects, regard its Constitution as a model, thus much can be said of it, that it is a body strictly representative of the Baptist Churches and denomination. And if any serious difficulties have attended its workings, or any dangers have accrued therefrom to the churches, the fact has not yet come to light. It has proved itself a mighty power for evangelization, and has done its work grandly and successfully.
The truth is, that as Congregationalists, we have very little of what may be called a church-consciousness, and therefore very little esprit-de-corps. For reasons which are patent, large numbers of our leading men can hardly tell why they are Congregationalists rather than Methodists or Episcopalians, except that it is a matter of taste. For the want of the requisite positive teaching, our young people grow up with the idea, received almost as a Scriptural maxim from their elders, that it is a matter of indifference what church they belong to, provided only that they make a public profession of their faith, and live up to it. The result has been and is now, that our Eastern Congregational parishes are foraging and recruiting grounds for proselyters of every name. In marriage connections between our church members and those of churches of other denominations, it is accepted as a matter of course that the Congregationalist must yield to the choice of the other party, whether husband or wife, whose plea is deemed conclusive, “Oh, you know I can not leave my own church.” I have been told that Pastors of these other churches have sometimes advised their young people to seek matrimonial alliances with Congregationalists for the end of denominational enlargement. The compliment thus paid us is rather too dearly bought.
But to return more directly to our subject: There is no pretence that our National Benevolent Societies are the creations of the churches. The American Missionary Association gives delegates of churches the rights of membership at its meetings. But this concession amounts to little or nothing, as touching the management of the Association. It is a pleasant compliment. With this seeming exception, the Societies acknowledge no direct responsibility to the churches and are as entirely independent of their control as is Harvard University; while at the same time, they are dependent on the churches for supplies, as the University is not. The churches, as the divinely established agencies for associated benevolence, are ignored, unless it be under the stress of appeal for pecuniary contributions.
Take as an example of a class, The American Home Missionary Society. It is an exceedingly unpleasant service which the cause of truth seems to demand, to criticise, even as to its outward form, a Society so dear to the friends of Christ as this. But on examination, we find it so loosely jointed that it is a wonder how it holds together. We cannot but think that some constitutional change is needed. Its Constitution does not recognize any such entity as a Christian church. It is constructed, in one respect, on the principle of a secular joint stock company. You subscribe or give so much money to our treasury and you are a member of the firm, and have a right to vote,no matter who you are,-man, woman, child,-Universalist, Catholic, Jew, Infidel. It is a providential marvel that it has not long ago been captured by designing men for a sinister purpose. A meeting of the Society, as such, composed as it is of tens of thousands of members, is an impracticability. If gathered together in New York Central Park, it would be only à saintly mob, incapable of doing business. Membership is practically a farce. The consequence has been, that its management has undesignedly, and indeed necessarily, fallen into the hands of its officials, and a small fraction of other members, who have happened to come together at the annual meetings to pass upon its doings, and elect the President and VicePresidents, and the Executive officers. Good and faithful men in the administration of their trusts have they proved themselves to be,-not self-assertive, but wisely careful to avoid conflict with the rights of the churches. Still, there is serious cause for anxiety. Immunity from peril in the past gives no promise of security in the future. This honored and beloved Society belongs to the churches, and they ought to have it in possession, that they may breathe into it their own church-life. Its position, in respect to polity, should not be simply negative. It should be brought into symmetrical relations to our churches, and thus become Congregational, both in its structure and its moral influence.
Contrast now with this Society, “ The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.” If one is a good model for a Missionary Society, the other must be a bad one; for they are antipodal in structure. If the former is loosely jointed, this latter is compactly stiff and strong, a self-perpetuating close corporation. If the one is deficient in centralized power, the other bristles with authority, claiming and exercising ecclesiastical functions in a way that trenches upon the prerogatives of the churches. The full rights of membership are, in the one case, put upon the market for sale at a given price. In the other, these rights are granted only to a select few, who are chosen, not upon nomination by the churches, whose work, as proxies, they are doing, but by those who at the time happen to belong to the privileged circle. In our impatience, we sometimes visit upon the heads of the members and officers of the Board, our resentment at the friction occasioned by their acts. But so far as these brethren are concerned, no better men can be found. They are the elect of our churches. It is the system which is mainly at fault, and for which these brethren are not responsible. The relation which they sustain to Christ's churches, as being above them, is what violates our sense of Christian propriety. Let the Board be brought into organic and responsible relations to the churches, and the disturbing and chafing element will be in large part eliminated. A bicyclist, to whom was given the privilege of the inside track on a city sidewalk, would quite certainly collide with and hurt somebody, notwithstanding the excellence of his character. He is out of his place. So a missionary board which is out of its proper relations to the churches, whose organ it proposes to be, can hardly avoid collision with them.
So far as the Prudential Committee of the Board have been subjected to criticism for asserting their authority, independently of the churches, though they may not always have been wise in their manner of doing it, they have not, so far as I can see, exceeded their chartered and constitutional prerogatives. If now the Board, without a resort to abrupt revolutionary measures, can become organically connected with the churches, as already suggested, representing them in its membership and owning its responsibility to them, we see not why there should