The Reforming Synod of 1679-80 attempted to address the spiritual downgrade that occurred in the churches following the Half-Way Covenant debacle. Pastors and people began to believe that they were undergoing divine judgment as a result of the increasing faithlessness in the churches. “The sense of alarm regarding the state of New England engendered by the decline of visible piety, was greatly intensified by a series of disastrous events which seemed to the men of that age divine judgments” (Walker, 411). Indian wars broke out anew, fires burned many homes, an increase in shipwrecks was experienced which in turn reduced supplies, an epidemic of small-pox ravished the pilgrims, the Stuart government increased its acts of aggression against the colonies, which included a concerted effort to bring Episcopacy to the Puritan commonwealths. These disasters and others convinced the clergy that America was under God’s judgment.
Increase Mather led the charge to call “a synod as the best means for securing the spiritual improvement of New England” (Walker, 413). The clergy were convinced that these things were the expression of God’s judgment against New England. As they looked to the Reformation as a model for spiritual renewal they came to believe that they were required to repent publicly, to both confess wrongs committed and to renew their covenant with God. Furthermore, they believed that such renewal would not be effective until “Magistracy, Ministry, Churches and people rise up together, in their proper places and order, unto the work” (Walker, 415).
A petition was drawn up and submitted to the Massachusetts General Court, May 28, 1679. The petition made no effort to change the Cambridge Platform or the Savoy Declaration, yet Walker suggests that the legislature itself may have been critical of the implied failure of those documents to bring about their intended results. The petition itself sought to inquire into the nature of the evils that had provoked God’s judgment so that necessary reforms could be made. At this point in history, it should be noted, the Congregational churches stood in the same situation as the Church of England had in that Congregational churches were the only established churches recognized by the Massachusetts government.
The Savoy Declaration was the uncontested statement of doctrinal conformity, and the Cambridge Platform served as the statement of church polity. “The New England churches still stood, as a body, with uncriticising loyalty on the basis of the Puritan theology of England as it had been in the first half of the seventeenth century” (Walker, 421). The Massachusetts court heartily sympathized with the prevailing doctrine and thought present at the Reforming Synod, and approved all that was said and done. However, “the Court wisely refrained from commanding its use by the churches” (Walker, 422).
Consequently, the churches were free to renew or not renew their covenant. The fact that Walker would consider this action wise reveals either his lack of understanding or lack of commitment to classic, Reformed doctrine. For without court imposed action, lethargic churches were allowed to remain lethargic. Churches that were drifting into Unitarianism and Arminianism were allowed to ignore the orthodox statements of doctrine and policy that were the heritage of the Reformation. These churches were often involved legal trusts that committed them to this position.
By refusing to hold churches to their established trusts, this action (or lack of action) brought many churches to openly oppose Reformation theology. In addition, they opposed Unitarian and Arminian theology as well. No clear theology could be maintained where opposing theologies were allowed coexistence. It is not possible to be both Trinitarian and Unitarian, nor is it possible to believe in the sovereignty of God and the sovereignty of man at the same time. Theological confusion is the natural result of such a position (or non-position).
The Reforming Synod of 1679-80 had a political understanding that is much divorced from our contemporary understanding. The Massachusetts reformers stated that they did not read in the Scriptures or in history that any significant religious reformation had ever taken place “except the Magistrate did help forward the work” (Walker, 426). In other words, they believed that it was necessary to have the support of those in political power, or at least to have a significant political element of such support. Thus, genuine reformation success in our own day must buck this biblical and historical trend of governmental support, or the political tide in our own day must turn.
The Synod drew up several questions that their reforming efforts would seek to answer. To help us understand that the battles we fight today are not new but ancient, we will briefly examine these questions.
“What are the Evils that have provoked the Lord to bring his Judgments on New-England?” (Walker, 426). There is no doubt that they believed that the circumstances they suffered were the result of God’s judgment. The answers to this question speak for themselves. “There is a great and visible decay of the power of Godliness amongst many Professors in these Churches” (Walker, 427). In particular they cited “secret worship,” what we call private, personal prayer and devotion. Secondly, “The Pride that doth abound in New-England testifies against us” (i.e., against the churches-Walker, 427). That pride manifested as “a refusing to be subject to Order according to divine appointment” (ibid.). The Scripture reference cited in support here was Numbers 16:3, alluding to Korah’s rebellion against the authority of Moses. The implication points to the diminishing authority and respect of clergy, another phenomena present today. In addition, the pride that they saw manifested as “contention,” haughty dress, and a lack of pursuing Christianity seriously (ibid.).
Other causes of God’s judgment were that “church fellowship and other divine Institutions (were) greatly neglected,” a lack of discipline “extended toward the Children of the Covenant,” and improper worship-described as “humane inventions” and “Will-worship” (Walker, 428). The list reads as if it were our own modern litany of concerns-irreverent behavior during worship, Sabbath breaking, a lack of family prayer and Scripture reading, etc.
What was the source of these difficulties? “Most of the Evils that abound amongst us, proceed from defects as to Family Government” (Walker, 429). In other words, the burden of responsibility was placed upon the parents for failing to pass on the faith to their children, and in particular upon fathers who are biblically charged with that responsibility. In some respects, the reformers said that the sins of the fathers were being visited upon the children. What sins? “Intemperance”-alcoholic consumption, “company keeping with light and vain persons,” gambling, idleness, promise breaking, “inordinate affection to the world” making religion subservient to worldly interests, and a general unwillingness to engage in genuine, personal, religious reform.
Next the reformers asked what could be done “so these Evils may be Reformed” (Walker, 433). The first answer given insisted that those who were concerned with reform should set an example for others regarding the previously mentioned sins. Fathers, mothers, pastors, and reformation leaders must be above reproach in their own personal faithfulness.
Secondly, they believed that churches and individuals needed to resubscribe or renew their commitment, “to declare our adherence unto the Faith and order of the Gospel, according to what is from the Scripture expressed in the Platform of Discipline” (Walker, 433). The Platform of Discipline was an allusion to The Cambridge Platform. They believed that they should hold fast to the theology of the Protestant Reformation, and in particular to the Savoy Declaration.
Thirdly, the Reformers took aim at the laxity that had infected the local church membership process. People that sought to join a church should “be not admitted unto Communion in the Lord’s Supper without making a personal and publick profession of their Faith and Repentance” (Walker, 433). Note the several elements of the process. Confession must be both personal and public. By “personal” they meant that each prospective member must have personal understanding of Reformed doctrine (biblical teaching). In addition, each prospective member must pledge himself to it publicly. However, they were not simply interested in an abstract knowledge of doctrine, for they also insisted that there be public profession of faith (doctrine) and of repentance (or what we sometimes call spiritual experience). Again, they were not speaking of religious experience generally, but specifically of the experience of the prospective member regarding his own repentance of sin. This position regarding church membership provided a simple reiteration of The Cambridge Platform, Chapter Twelve, Admission of Members into the Church.
Fourthly, in order for reformation to be effective “it is necessary that the Discipline of Christ in the power of it should be upheld in the Churches” (Walker, 433). By “discipline” they meant not only excommunication and other censures of members, but the self-imposed exercise of Christian behavior based upon a classic, Reformed understanding of theology. “It is a known and true observation, that remissness in the exercise of Discipline, was attended with corruption of manners (morals), and that did provoke the Lord to give men up to strong delusions in matters of Faith” (Walker, 433). To be deluded in matters of faith required a false understanding of theology-an understanding that opposed the basic tenets of the Savoy Declaration, that being their standard.
Next, they required that every local church have a “full supply of officers, according to Christ’s Institution. The Lord Christ would not have instituted Pastors, Teachers, Ruling Elders (nor the Apostles have ordained Elders in every Church (Acts 2:14, 23; Titus 1:5) if he had not seen there was need of them for the good of his People; and therefore for men to think they can do well enough without them, is both to break the second Commandment, and to reflect upon the wisdome of Christ, as if he did appoint unnecessary Officers in his Church” (Walker, 434). The reformers lamented the loss of teaching elders in the churches, such persons being responsible for the teaching of Reformed theology and doctrine which served as the foundation of healthy church life. Today we further lament the loss of ruling elders in many Congregational churches as well. Even those churches that still maintain ruling elders have seriously diminished the qualifications and expectations for office.
The Massachusetts reformers further recommended that no laws be passed by the Commonwealth “but that there is Scriptural warrant for” (Walker, 435). For them, all laws-church or state-must have biblical warrant. Remember that Massachusetts was a biblically covenanted community. The role that education played in the propagation of the faith was also addressed. They insisted that all schools be founded upon and teach biblical principles in order to maintain and support their common covenant. “The interest of Religion and good Literature have been wont to rise and fall together” (Walker, 435). How far we have departed from these reforming efforts! Remember also that modern government is no longer biblically covenanted.
In spite of all the reforming work proposed they were well aware that there could be no success in their efforts unless the Lord blessed them. Without God Himself leading and guiding their every step, they were bound to fail in their own efforts to bring reform to the Colonies. Thus they prayed and pled that God “would be pleased to rain down righteousness” upon them, in “both ordinary and extraordinary manner(s)” (Walker, 435). The Confession of 1680 produced in Massachusetts was “so nearly identical with the doctrinal part of that adopted at the Savoy Synod in 1658” (Walker, 439) that Walker omitted printing it. Rather, he simply referred readers to the Savoy Declaration. The differences were thought to have been merely matters of organization and administration, not doctrine. What has not been clearly understood is the relationship between doctrine and organization, or philosophy and administration. Indeed, differences in administrative and organizational structures are rooted in doctrine or philosophy.
The next significant effort to renew the churches came about as the result of the doctrinal shift occurring throughout New England, a shift from the Calvinism of the Reformers to both an Arminian and Universal (or Unitarian) understanding of Scripture growing in popularity among many. While both Arminian and Unitarian theologians existed-and indeed were in the process of capturing crucial positions in higher education and seminaries, both positions represented a common or uneducated and unregenerate revolt against the biblical principles of the Reformation.2 But these insights get ahead of the story.
Heads of Agreement
The Heads of Agreement resulted from the effort to unify the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in the midst of their decline. They believed that the two denominations agreed doctrinally, but differed organizationally. “Their great point of divergence was in regard to the existence or non-existence of a national church” (Walker, 441). Following the Act of Uniformity of 1662 some two thousand Puritan pastors were driven out of their churches. The Act of course was issued by England’s Parliament, yet we must not forget that at that time New England was an English Colony. That Act forbade the organization of Presbyterianism, which had presented itself as an alternative to the Episcopacy of the Church of England. Congregationalism or Independency had always been an unrecognized and illegal form of church organization, though at times it was more or less tolerated. However, with the Act of 1662 it became “evident that, hunted as they were, the most strenuous Presbyterians were in a position practically similar to that of Congregationalists” (Walker, 443).
Because Puritan pastors were on the run, the movement to unite the two denominations “was purely ministerial, and one in which the churches, as distinguished from their pastors, had no share” (Walker, 444). Thus the effort to establish independent Congregational churches was not a movement of the laity to create democratically governed churches, but was a movement by the clergy to establish biblically governed churches against the encroachment of the state into church affairs.
In the Presbyterian system the hierarchical government of the church extended beyond the local church and was anchored in the regional Presbytery. Whereas in the Congregational system the government of the church did not extend beyond the local church. Any attempted union of these two systems must downplay the significance of this important difference. Those who were critical of the unification effort charged the Heads of Agreement with “great Ambiguity” (Walker, 446). The Heads were obscure at important points because they were open to more than one interpretation. Union would require a certain amount of ambiguity because the differences involved doctrinal and philosophical positions that could not be (and have not been) reconciled.
The resulting Heads of Agreement were generally supported by Congregationalists because an ambiguity of interpretation was possible that allowed a kind of non-binding authority to be given to Presbyteries or regional associations of churches. The Presbyterians, however, required more. Thus, they were deprived of the kind of effective authority upon which their system depended. Walker confirms that “the leading features of the Heads of Agreement are thus essentially Congregational” (Walker, 448). This fact deserves more careful consideration among many current independent churches, in that it establishes a loose form of cooperation and connectedness among churches.
Curiously, a disagreement ensued between Congregationalists and Presbyterians, not about church authority or structure, but about the Reformed doctrine of imputation and redemption. This disagreement, a central tenet of Scripture, dealt with the procedure and effect of the application of Christ’s righteousness to the salvation of the sinner. The disagreement appeared to divide the clergy on other than denominational lines. “The Congregationalists seem to have been no more pleased with the supposed Antinomianism of Dr. Crisp3 than the Presbyterians; but Dr. Williams was one of the Presbyterians who had seemed to them most filled, as the historian of the quarrel puts it, with ‘a prejudiced Spirit against the Government of the Congregational Churches, and the Order wherein they walk'” (Walker, 451-emphasis original). Thus, the English efforts toward union were aborted earlier than the American efforts.
The Heads of Agreement, written in London, reiterated the importance of doctrine and experience regarding church membership, insisting “that none shall be admitted as Members, in order to Communion in all the special Ordinances of the Gospel, but such persons as are knowing and sound in the fundamental Doctrines of the Christian Religion, without Scandal in their lives; and to a Judgment regarded by the Word of God, are persons of visible Godliness and Honesty; credibly professing cordial subjection to Jesus Christ” (Walker, 457). Church members must evidence knowledge and experience of what was considered to be classic Reformed doctrine, with apparent and obvious Godliness and personal integrity. To whom must these evidences be given? To the leaders-pastor, elders, deacons-and to the congregation. The Heads also insisted on duly qualified and ordained church officers. Balancing the administrative power of churches the Heads supported the Cambridge Platform division of power between the governors and the governed. “In the administration of Church Power, it belongs to the Pastors and other Elders of every particular Church (if such there be) to Rule and Govern; and to the Brotherhood to Consent, according to the Rule of Christ” (Walker, 458).
Two other points of interest can be mentioned. The Heads insisted that all who professed Christ “join themselves as fixed members of some particular church” (Walker, 458). Such fixed church members were not free to church hop or church shop, but “ought to continue steadfastly with the said Church” (ibid.). Any transferring or changing of churches required that the sending church issue a “recommendation” to the receiving church regarding the individuals involved. Churches do this today, but it is haphazard and sloppy in that individuals under censure from one church are often received into membership in another without consultation regarding the nature of the censure.
Finally, the Heads of Agreement, were in accord with Reformed doctrine, insisting not on the organizational or administrative concerns, but with the “Doctrinal part of the [Thirty-Nine] Articles of the Church of England, or the Confession, or Catechisms, Shorter or Larger, compiled by the Assembly at Westminster, or the Confession agreed on at the Savoy, to be agreeable to the said Rule” (Walker, 462).
The Saybrook Synod, meeting in Connecticut in 1708, produced the most important confessional document in New England. It amounted to a fifteen-point statement of ecclesiastical polity that reaffirmed the Savoy Declaration and the Heads of Agreement. The articles provided for regional “Consociations” of churches with powers of oversight of the local congregations. It also created ministerial associations in each region, with powers to examine ministerial candidates on doctrine and morals. Thus, it marked a significant step toward Presbyterianism. But we must note that the congregational churches felt the need for additional help and power beyond the local church to keep churches from diverging in matters of doctrine. Consociations were intended to help stem the doctrinal drift experienced everywhere.
Walker suggests that the Halfway Covenant was the fruit of Arminian influence among the churches, and that Unitarianism was the fruit of the Halfway Covenant (Walker, 284). It is an interesting and insightful observation because the decline of Congregationalism appears to have been the result of doctrinal attacks by both Arminianism and Unitarianism. However, the issues of concern were presented as church membership and administrative issues not doctrinal issues. Consequently, Walker (and to some extent Congregationalism itself) bypassed discussion of the doctrinal issues by framing the concerns as administrative issues regarding church membership.
For instance, the Halfway Covenant dealt with the baptism of infant children of people who were not church members, and the Unitarian Controversy, in addition to issues regarding the Trinity and divinity of Christ, proclaimed that the atonement was universally efficacious and applied to all people. Both issues attacked and undermined the traditional doctrinal positions of “Unconditional Election” and “Limited or Particular Atonement.” What is missing in Walker and other literature is a discussion of these particular doctrinal issues and their relationship to the situation. Walker alludes to the doctrinal conflict, but says nothing of substance about it.
On February 5, 1799, the Hartford North Association issued a statement identifying the Saybrook Platform as “not Congregational, but contains the essentials of the church of Scotland, or Presbyterian Church in America, particularly as it gives decisive power to Ecclesiastical Councils; and a Consociation consisting of Ministers and Messengers or a lay representation from the churches (and) is possessed of substantially the same authority as a Presbytery” (Walker, 514). The identification of the Saybrook as Presbyterian appears to have resulted in the wholesale rejection of its doctrinal basis as well as its polity.
In other words, the baby was thrown out with the bath water. Thus, Walker goes on to say that “even before the adoption of this (Hartford North Association) declaration the Saybrook system had ceased to have the special sanction of the law. (Thus) the revision of the statutes which followed the Revolution, in 1784, silently repealed the legal authority of the Saybrook establishment by omitting all reference to it” (Walker, 514-15). The protection of Congregational polity appears to have resulted in the demise of its Reformed doctrine, inasmuch as Arminianism and Unitarianism gained increasing momentum in traditional Congregational churches over the following decades.
The effort to shore up doctrinal concerns by establishing a system of strong ecclesiastical regional government that was a main feature of the Saybrook Platform “essentially modified the Congregationalism of America” (Walker, 516). The modification that followed Saybrook allowed Congregational churches increasing freedom to repudiate Reformed doctrine without objection as a matter of independent polity. The doctrinal unity of Congregationalism was dealt a mortal blow as churches became completely free to pick and choose to believe whatever doctrine they liked, without regard for the prevailing views of other Congregational churches or their own historic theology, and in the wake of fewer and fewer Reformed church leaders.
By the time this historical movement produced the Constitution of the National Council of Congregational Churches and the Oberlin Declaration (1871) the concern to maintain Reformed doctrine had been eclipsed by the concerns for church unity. Thus, said Walker, the National Council’s “statement of faith, adopted at Oberlin (where Charles Finney served as President from 1851-66), are valuable as illustrating the catholicity of spirit which has accompanied this growth of denominational consciousness. In matters of doctrine the constitution is more important for what it does not affirm than for that which it declares. Though nowhere expressly stated, the understanding at Oberlin at its adoption, and the interpretation since usually put upon it, is that it holds out the olive branch of denominational fellowship to brethren of Arminian sympathies, and is but a further illustration of that desire not to limit Congregational brotherhood to those who hold exclusively to the system known as ‘Calvinism.'”
Thus, in the Congregationalism of the National Council two theological systems, antithetical at every point, were brought into a kind of administrative unity. James Arminius opposed Calvinism at five points. Unlike Calvin he believed that men were not totally depraved; he believed that election to salvation was conditional upon men’s reception of God’s decree; he believed that Christ’s atonement was universally effective and potentially applied to all men everywhere; he believed that men could resist God’s call and lose their salvation; and he believed that men could not be sure of their own salvation until they actually arrived in heaven. At each of these foundational points of biblical understanding Arminius took exception to Calvin’s teaching. And now these two systems of interpretation and belief would become bed-fellows under the umbrella of Congregationalism in an effort to maintain denominational unity. However, the proposed unity could not possibly have been doctrinal unity or a unity engendered by a common understanding of Scripture, but could only have been a man-made administrative unity that valued denominationalism over doctrine.
At the same time it appears that Walker either did not perceive this situation or chose to ignore it in his comprehensive history of Congregationalism. For he concludes his work with these words. “The Gospel (that the National Council) presents is essentially the same that the fathers set forth as the basis of their faith, but it holds that Gospel to be intended for all men and to be wide enough in its provisions of redemption for the needs of the whole human race” (Walker, 584). However, such a statement, such a belief amounts to the wholesale repudiation of Reformed theology and historic Congregationalism.
The reformation and renewal efforts that began with the Synod of 1679-80 identified the need for doctrinal renewal, but were unable to establish that renewal among the churches in any effective way. They knew that the inherited doctrines of the Protestant Reformation were being undermined and obviated. They identified the source of this disintegration to be an increase of sin and apathy on the part of succeeding generations. The children of those who had established the Puritan theocracy in the wilderness were not as enthusiastic or committed to the vision as the founders had been. Their grandchildren were even less concerned.
The rise of Arminianism and Unitarianism occurring throughout New England over the same period also played a significant role. Both of these aberrant theologies had established themselves within the Congregational churches, and others. Factions and sects multiplied as churches struggled with theological disparities. The effort to allow these theological differences to coexist within Congregationalism-the perspective that Walker appears to have supported, surely effected the rise of Christian apathy. How do vying theologies produce apathy? People grow tired of arguing, tired of trying to bridge an unbridgeable gap. Efforts to harmonize these systems have not produced satisfactory results. The best that can be said is that this chapter of Congregationalism resulted in a lack of theological concern upon the part of most church members. Explain it however you please, but the result has been widespread apathy among Congregational churches, and others.
Unable to harmonize these vying systems, and unwilling to choose between them, church members have simply abandoned the effort to do either. The early part of the Twentieth Century produced the Social Gospel, in part no doubt because the waning energies and concerns of the church needed to be focused somewhere, and they could not endure the tensions of irresolvable theological conflict. Thus, all subsequent efforts toward unity have shied away from the major tenants of these theological systems because they could not be reconciled.
It would appear then that a more faithful effort toward reformation and renewal must take this history into account. Genuine reformation has always been a function of theology, not administration. If the Congregational efforts erred anywhere, they erred by trying to create an administrative solution to a theological problem. They endeavored to hold together administratively what they could not hold together theologically.
Thus, contemporary efforts will no doubt be more fruitful as they endeavor to wade into these theological disparities and like Elijah of old bring God’s people to the ancient issue of faltering between two opinions. “If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21). The Lord has always insisted that certain choices are required by those who would remain faithful to His Word.
May the Lord Himself show us the way. And may we more and more depend upon Him to do exactly that.